The Beautiful Things

P1040812.JPGI have to apologize because it has now been two months since I’ve written a blog post, and my goal is always to write every two weeks. This will be a longer post because there is a lot to catch up on, but hopefully in the future I can write more frequently and cut down my word count for those of you who don’t want to sit through a novel (Hi Mom!)

June knocked me flat on my ass. It was like I was crawling, adjusting to life in my village, and I finally stood up, and someone pulled a rug out from under me, then kicked me in the back every time I tried to get back up. For a month. Peace Corps does a great job at preparing us for the “Resiliency cycle” or the bouts of depression most volunteers will face. I also came into this experience being told it will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But to be honest, if I had known how I personally would react to the feelings of isolation, loneliness, frustration, and guilt that are inevitable when placed by one’s self in a rural African village, I’m not sure I would’ve gotten on the plane. I also struggled with the beginning of summer at home, knowing my friends are all at the beach and doing fun summer activities, while it’s winter here in Tanzania and my village dips down into the 30s at night. The day I found frost under some trees during one of my morning runs, my friends then posted pictures of lying on the beach at home, and I pathetically crawled back into my bed to sulk.

I had thought about my coping mechanisms beforehand. Running, working out, hiking, writing in my journal, reading, and painting were all on my list. Although I’ve used all of these coping mechanisms, they were not sufficient to keep me from experiencing depression. I also discovered a new coping mechanism: Snuggling with my kitten and binging on Game of Thrones episodes. Probably not the healthiest decision. I would like to give a shoutout to those that were my lifeline in June, helping me through my saddest moments and encouraging me: First & foremost Jay and my mom, and my closest volunteers here- Cori, David (Hi Janet!), and Dennis.

Peace Corps expects that during months 4-6 volunteers will struggle with “lows” or depression, but that by month 8 we will find our stride and cultural appropriation will be complete. By this point we will be more comfortable in our villages, beginning projects, and feeling more confident in the language. Not everyone fits this model, but I certainly seem to be and I know many of my friends are as well. There is no structure for Health & Agriculture volunteers here in Tanzania unless we create one for ourselves. For three months, we’re dropped off at our villages and told that our only job is to build relationships and learn about our community. As someone who is a doer, I struggled with this. My wonderful boyfriend created an incredible workout schedule for me, so I have workouts to follow 2 times per day, 6 days per week. The rest of the time I have to really search for something to do in the village. The happiest news is that my Early Service Training begins in two weeks, and after this training I can finally begin projects! I feel blessed to have an extremely motivated village. The villagers have provided me with many project ideas and they seem very eager to work with me. No one has asked me for money, and generally people are very accepting of me. So for this I feel fortunate.

Despite these lows, I have experienced some really beautiful moments in the village. Some of these moments were big, and some small, but surprisingly it was the small moments that were the most meaningful.

 

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Neema working in the field.

A Beautiful Thing #1

My best friend in the village, Neema, and also my future counterpart, came over to visit me. I welcomed her into my house and she sat in a chair next to me at the kitchen table. I had been reading a National Geographic that my mom had recently mailed me. I handed it to Neema and she began flipping through the pages. We spent about two hours looking through together, her asking questions about pictures and various countries shown, and me answering as best as I could in Swahili. She saw the island of Seychelles, which is off the coast of Tanzania, but she had no idea what the ocean looked like. She saw pictures of giant crabs that roam the shores of Zanzibar, yet she had no idea those existed in her own country. We looked through pictures of Iranians, both of soldiers and civilians. We talked about how some women cover their heads but not all, and that it is personal preference, just like in Tanzania. She saw a picture of a young black boy sitting at a school desk in Washington, DC, and we had a long discussion about the diversity of Americans, and that they don’t all look like me. In short, we learned about the world around us together. We looked at maps, we learned about new cultures, and we expanded our minds beyond the parameters of Mambegu, Tanzania. This was an especially special bonding moment for us, and a very special moment for me.

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A Beautiful Thing #2

One day I had made plans with Neema to go harvest food from her “chamba” or farm at 10 AM. When I returned from my run, I had a text message from her with many words I didn’t recognize. Upon opening my dictionary, I realized that there had been a death in my village and that there was a funeral. In Tanzania, the culture is extremely community-based. Even though I did not know the man who passed away, I was expected to attend because I’m a part of my village and therefore I’m a part of a huge family. Neema helped me dress in white and purple kanga and wrap my head. We discussed the differences in dressing for a funeral in Tanzania versus the United States. I told her that in the US, we wear black because we are mourning. Here in Tanzania, they wear bright colors. She said they are sad, but they are also celebrating his life and showing happiness to God for allowing him into Heaven. As we walked up to where the funeral was held, I was shocked to see that there were at least 700 people in attendance. It is customary to greet everyone, so I spent well over an hour shaking everyone’s hand, bending my knees into a curtsy, and saying the local Kibena greeting “Komwene.” The funeral lasted over seven hours and included the burial. There were no speeches, but people just sat together on the ground and talked. Before the burial, there was a procession line where we walked one by one past the open casket to say our goodbyes. It is not viewed as appropriate in Tanzanian culture to cry, but there were several Mamas wailing near the open casket, and I felt their grief. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, what language you’re speaking, the color of your skin, your education level, or your religion: love is love and family is family. A death is always a tragedy. My heart hurt for my mamas and my community. After the burial, we all ate ugali, rice, beans, potatoes, and beef together. How five mamas cooked for over seven hundred people I have no idea. I was grateful for the food because I was very hungry and dehydrated at that point. After the funeral, I went home with a greater understanding of the people in my village, and for a new appreciation for the health of all my loved ones back home.

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Neema’s son, Harry, keep me laughing on my hardest days.

A Beautiful Thing #3

I finally experienced a Tanzanian wedding! Tanzania is now the fourth country I’ve experienced a wedding at and I can say it was completely different than any I’ve ever been to. I (embarrassingly) was asked to sit up front next to the bridal party. This did allow for a front-row view of the festivities. Affection is not outwardly shown in Tanzania, it is rare even to see two Tanzanians of the same gender hug. So, the bride and groom did not smile or look at each other the entire time. There was presenting of cakes to both the parents of the bride and the parents of the groom, and finally to the bride and groom. Then the gift giving lasted for over an hour, beginning with gifts for each family, then gifts for the bride and groom. Common gifts included dishes, kitenge (Tanzanian fabric), and money. I gave some sand colored kitenge with a seashell design, and I had to hold one corner and dance while three other mamas held corners and danced with me. There was a speech given in English thanking me for attending. The man who gave the speech had gone to University in Japan and felt the need to express his love for the USA and Obama to me, which of course made me laugh. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed knowing that in the eyes of these villagers, I represent the US as a whole, and so I do my best to not only give our country a good image to promote peace and understanding between the two cultures, but also to educate about the diversity and complexities of the US. There was also lots of singing and dancing at the wedding. After, there was some amazing food, and I was so grateful because I was very hungry. They served my favorite Tanzanian dish of pilau (spiced rice), potatoes, beef, chicken, and beans. I was also the only person given a spoon to eat with, while everyone else ate with their hands, which embarrassed me as well but I felt grateful.

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When you’re too fly for the rest of the wedding guests.
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My ginormous and amazing plate of food: Pilau, spaghetti, beef, chicken (including neck), and potatoes.
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The bride cutting her cake.

A Beautiful Thing #4

During a beautiful sunset on a Thursday night, I was visiting with some mamas near the village office. They told me to come to their house at 9 AM the following day to cook some sweet potatoes. It is not uncommon in Tanzania to eat potatoes for breakfast, so I was excited to think of spending the morning just getting to know these women better over cooking chai. The next morning I woke up, got dressed for the bone-chilling first step out of my courtyard door, and walked to their house. Not all of the mamas were there yet, so I sat down with one older mama in the grass and interviewed her for my “Community Entry Passport” assignment Peace Corps has given us. Halfway through the interview some men approached us and began speaking to me in very good English. Knowing that people do not know English in my village well enough to carry a conversation, I felt an overwhelming feeling of joy, and I also recognized that these men were from another part of Tanzania. It was the first time in a long time I could express myself, especially in terms of humor and emotions, which I cannot express in Swahili, to a Tanzanian. They understood how difficult it was to be away from home, from my family, and to be 8000 miles away from everything I love and hold dear. People in my village cannot grasp this because they haven’t traveled very much outside of the village, so to be on another continent is almost incomprehensible. I soon found out what the Mamas had meant by “cooking sweet potatoes.”

The English speaking men were hired by USAID to conduct a project through an agricultural institute in Mbeya. Several villages, chosen by their fertile soil and motivated villagers (two definite strengths of Mambegu), were asked to grow fifteen different sweet potato varieties to cook and test for taste, vitamin A levels, texture, fiber, starch, and overall deliciousness. I first went with Neema and a couple mamas to different plots to harvest the potatoes. The men watched the women do all of the hard labor, while they talked in English so that the people from my village wouldn’t understand them. This really bothered me, and it was the first time I realized how in love with my villagers I am, how defensive I feel for them, how I want to protect them because they protect and take care of me, and how they have become my family. It was profound. I worked side by side with the mamas in the hot sun. Finally, we had harvested the potatoes, and I got to hang out with about fifteen mamas and do taste tests of all fifteen varieties. They were very scientific about it. We each had charts to fill out rating each potato based on different categories, and after each testing we were instructed to drink water to cleanse our palettes. These mamas knew what they were doing. I was shocked to find that each potato really did have a different taste and some were significantly better than others. I had the best afternoon laughing and learning with the mamas, and I really felt a part of my village. It was an amazing day of bonding and relationship building, and I was also gifted a huge rice sack of sweet potatoes that I’m still working on.

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 A Beautiful Thing #5

Getting myself out for my morning runs has become increasingly difficult. People stare at me less and laugh less, but I still feel odd running past the villagers as they begin their morning farm work. In this culture, you don’t run unless you need to, or unless you’re a young man playing soccer. It’s very odd for a woman to run. Usually women are up at 5 AM to begin household chores, and by 8 AM they are headed to their chambas to begin their daily harvest. Why would they expend their energy on a run? For this reason, I am constantly having to acknowledge my privilege whenever I step out in my running shoes, and acknowledging my privilege is good, but it can also easily lead to feelings of guilt.

However this run was different. During my second mile, a mama ran up beside me. We greeted each other, and then she said “Are you doing exercise?” and I responded “Ndiyo.” She ran by my side for almost a mile. As we parted ways she looked at me and said “Asante. Nimefurahi sana. Sasa najua wanawake wanaweza kufanya mazoezi.”

“Thank you. I am so happy. Now I know women can do exercise.”

My heart swelled as I thanked her.

A Beautiful Thing #6

I purposefully got lost on miles and miles of cow paths headed towards the mountains in my village. The sun was shining, the mountains were standing tall and bold and turning all hues of blue and purple, while the sun was outlining their ridges in gold. I was walking down sand paths following cow hoof prints and marveling at the magnificent twists in the trees. I was completely alone and it was amazing. In the distance I could hear cowbells coming toward me. I always feel so happy at the sound of the cowbells. A herd of about fifteen cows and one lone donkey rounded the corner and trotted toward me, with their cowboy and a dog herding them from behind, taking them out to graze. I stood aside and let them pass, letting myself feel the happiness that I always feel when I’m in the presence of animals. What a simple and beautiful farming community I’ve found myself in, not too different from the one I left behind in Vermont.

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Six days into the world.

All of the loneliness and isolation hurts, and it exists because there are people and hobbies and moments I left behind in the US to serve this community, and I miss those people and I miss my life. I think of it nostalgically and often. Sometimes I just want a green mountain special from Parker Pie and I just want to sit with my mom on the couch and watch bridesmaids and laugh. I want to go on a hike with my boyfriend and our beautiful, energetic dog. I want to drive my car with my brother in the passenger seat headed to Red Sky Trading Co to get red velvet cake and their amazing cookies. I want to build sheep fence with my dad and gallop through the fields on my horse Dandi.

But here I am and here these beautiful moments are happening. I am growing. I am learning to be happy. I am grateful. I am changing. I am at peace.

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In A Month’s Time

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It’s hard to believe that it has been a month since I moved to Mambegu. So much has happened yet the month seems to have flown by. The first two weeks felt like they were dragging, like the homesickness and loneliness would never dissipate. I threw myself into village life hoping to make connections and friends that would keep these feelings at bay.

When I first moved into my village, it was difficult for me mentally to leave my house because I consistently felt like a zoo animal. People would come outside just to see the “Mzungu.” Children wouldn’t greet me with the respectful “Shikamoo” greeting because they were terrified of me. I wondered if I looked like a horrifying ghost. Young women looked at me with suspicion. The “Vijana” beckoned me and laughed at me. But I pushed myself to leave my house everyday because I knew eventually they will get used to me. Though this was difficult at first, I tried to be understanding. Their understanding of someone with white skin is extremely limited. Most villagers only have a TV to watch Tanzanian gospel music videos. There’s not a lot of information coming across about other countries, other races, etc. This is why Peace Corps’ goal to educate Host-Country Nationals on behalf of the United States is so important. Although difficult, it is my job to show that I am a human being as well, with feelings, with a need for connection and relationships, and with passions and opinions.

By my second week at site, I was walking down a path with two mamas, and I heard a man behind me yelling “Mzungu! Eeehhhh, MZUNGU!!!” Before I could react, the mamas turned around  and simultaneously yelled “Anaitwa Mikaela!” That was one of the last times I’ve heard someone call me Mzungu.

I started off the third week at site in my local preschool. About fifty of the littlest, cutest, roundest faces peered at me shyly, with wonder, bashfulness playing at the corners of their mouths, tiny giggles rolling across the room. I didn’t know exactly what to do with them, but the teacher had sat me at the front of the room and then left to play on her phone. I decided to stand up and teach them “Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes.” The first go around was just my voice with them gaping at me open-mouthed. The second go-around I heard one or two brave but quiet voices join in for every other word. By the fifth or sixth time I sang, the kids were standing, screaming the song, pointing at each body part, laughing and smiling and playing. After this, I decided to return home for lunch. As I stepped out of the classroom and walked a few steps, I heard a noise behind me. I turned around, and saw all fifty children following me at a slow distance. Two little girls stepped forward and said “Mikaela…can we walk with you?” And all of a sudden I had the cutest little friends in the world.

During my fourth week I held several meetings to gather information about my village. The first meeting was with a woman who works with HIV patients at the local Ilembula hospital. She happily talked to me for over two hours and showed me many records and their filing system. I learned that Testing and ART treatments are free for the people in my village, and there’s even a car funded by the US government in cooperation with the Tanzanian government that doctors and health professionals use to come to my village and treat people in their own homes. This eliminates the transportation issue, and ensures everyone can get the treatment they need despite income. There is also a meeting once a month for those who are sick, and she invited me to come and be a part of them. After answering all of my questions happily, she gifted me an entire bag of potatoes from her farm and walked me home. I am so excited to begin educational projects focused on HIV Prevention.

I had another meeting with my Village Officer about potential projects. He told me that in my two years they really need a health clinic built so that people don’t have to drive to the closest clinic which is a twenty minute drive away, and most people do not have cars. This is a huge project, most likely one I will look into in my second year, as it would entail grants and making sure all infrastructure is in place. They also asked me for smaller projects such as a chicken group for the Mamas. As I mentioned this to other women in the village, they became so excited and thankful. Since we all really love chickens, I think this could be a great place to start.

On my way home I stopped at my friends house to visit her and her children and gift them bananas that I had harvested that day from my banana tree. She was so excited that I had came, and her daughter was singing the song she learned from me at Preschool. After the visit, she insisted on walking me home, talking about how much she wants a chicken group the entire way. We shared jokes, laughed, and enjoyed each other’s company as we strolled slowly through the cornfields.

At the end of the week I had to travel for a superregional conference for Peace Corps. On my way to catch my 6:30 AM bus to Ilembula, I stepped foot onto the mainroad. There were three children, but instead of looking scared like they had just one month prior, one of them perked up and said “Mikaela!!! Shikamoo” and the other two bowed on their knees and said “Shikamoo” to show respect. My heart felt so full. Pole Pole (slowly), I am becoming a part of this village. And I have so much love for the people here.

I’m a Volunteer!

The past few weeks have been a crazy whirlwind of emotions that I never could have anticipated. I’ve read so many Peace Corps blogs and have friends currently serving, but I never could have imagined the emotional exhaustion that accompanies the final weeks of training, swearing-in, and installation. During my final week at homestay in Dodoma, I felt so many emotions. I could feel myself getting short with my fellow trainees, angry and upset with small situations, and I knew I wasn’t getting nearly enough sleep. Little things that my family did were beginning to become unbearably annoying, but I endured knowing it was my final week. On the flip side, I spent great quality time with my friends, passed all of my Swahili language assessments, and the workload lessened every day so that I had more time to rest and enjoy my homestay life. It was a strange rollercoaster of emotions, where my mood could change in five minutes.

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On the final night of my homestay, my mama threw me a going-away party. People who I had never met came to say thank you for coming into the family. My family was all there, even the members who lived away, and it made me so happy to see some of them, especially my friend and sister Rachel and her daughter, Emmy. That happiness made me realize just how close I had grown to my family. When my sister Dina stood to say a speech to me, I got more emotional than I expected. I really grew to love this family during my limited time with them. My mama even had a “photographer” there, who took bad pictures of people eating mid-bite with his finger in the corner, but they’re pictures I will cherish forever. There was lots of praying and bible reading, both in Swahili and English, and many people gave passionate speeches about the importance of me going to church once at my site. I am really grateful my family did this for me, as it was a loving gesture for my send-off. The next morning, I woke with my family at 3:30 AM to depart for Dar es Salaam.

The bus ride took all day. We boarded around 5 AM and didn’t reach Dar until about 7 PM. My ankles were so swollen from sitting. I couldn’t wait to shower. My time in Dar is a blur, and I didn’t get more than 4 hours of sleep each night. We had so much fun, though. Since it was all of the trainees’ last week together, we did paper plate awards (I was voted most likely to survive a zombie apocalypse!), we sat around and read off “remember when” moments, and we just enjoyed each other’s presence one last time until early service training in August. I will really miss my friends.

Wednesday was an incredible day, the day I had been waiting for for so long: the swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Embassy! We had to leave our center at 6:30 AM, even though the ceremony didn’t start until 11 AM, because Dar traffic is so bad and because it can take a while to pass through the U.S. customs security. I had a dress made specifically for the ceremony with fabric that matched everyone in my CBT group. We all looked so “safi” in our outfits, even our teacher was wearing a dress that matched ours! The ceremony included a tree planting, many speeches, a performance that we did where we sang songs and danced (and that made the local news and newspaper!), and the final oath to service. As we repeated the oath, I got chills. I can’t believe I’m finally a volunteer. I have been waiting for this for so long, and I have never been more ready to serve. I am excited to serve the people of Tanzania, friendly, gracious, welcoming people who are eager to learn and teach as well, and I can’t wait to find out what projects I will begin once installed in my community. I also feel scared. I don’t even have bed in my house. I feel so disorganized and unsure. But I know so many people have done this before me. I know they wouldn’t send me to live alone if they didn’t think I was capable. There’s just so much to do to make my house livable.

On Thursday, I boarded a bus at 3:45 AM and traveled to Njombe with more bags than I could carry by myself. We didn’t arrive to Njombe until 7 PM! It was the longest bus ride of my life and I am not looking forward to ever doing it again. However, we did have an amazing part of the ride where we drove through a national park and drove through fields and fields of grazing giraffes, zebras, baboons, monkeys, antelopes, and even elephants!!! I became so giddy. I never even thought to take out my camera because I was so excited about what I was seeing. When I screamed from seeing a huge herd of zebras, they all pricked their ears and turned towards the bus to look at me. They were just as close as horses in a pasture as you drive through Vermont. It was incredible. I couldn’t be more excited to serve in this beautiful and diverse country.

On my first day in Njombe, I traveled around to four district offices with my district supervisor. We met local officials and they welcomed us into the community as volunteers. This will help us become more integrated and also serve as a resource for us when we want to begin projects. Afterwards, exhaustion hit me, and I went back to the hotel, leaving the huge shopping I needed to do for the following day.

Today I shopped for seven hours. It was crazy, and I feel so exhausted but excited. I bought a small gas stove, hot pots, a frying pan, a pot, plates and bowls, a broom, spoons, a water thermos, I splurged on a handcrank juicer, and other necessities for the first few days. Hopefully this week I’ll be able to get small tables made and some small racks or shelves for storing food in my kitchen. I also bought buckets for my baths and for storing safe drinking water. It’s the rainy season now, so I will want to set up a water catchment system so that I don’t need to pay for water or lug it from a nearby well.

Now that I feel I have all of the necessities to live for a few days at my house, I’m feeling so excited. I can’t wait to set myself up and start exploring my village. I can’t wait to create a schedule for myself, get some quality sleep and recover from training, start exercising and eating well again, and especially meeting my community members and thinking about potential projects. I’m sure the next three months will be challenging, but I have been faced with many challenges over the past three months, and have overcome all of them. To date, the biggest challenge I’ve faced was stepping on the plane to come here, and leaving behind my friends and family whom I miss so much. I know if I could make it through that, I can make it through anything. Everyone from home keeps me going. Tomorrow I’ll travel to my site with my village executive officer. I couldn’t be more excited. More updates to come. As always, thanks for reading!

My Future Home

I’m finally back at my home-stay after a week of traveling. This will probably be a longer post as a lot happened this week, so for those of you who just want the highlights and don’t want to read the whole thing, here they are:

  • I stayed for most of the week with a volunteer named Lark who is an amazing volunteer. We ate amazing food, I observed her in her village, and she let me come watch her HURU event at a local secondary school, which provides girls with reusable sanitary pads as well as gives them some sex-ed and life skills information.
  • I explored Makambako, my future banking town.
  • I visited my site in Mambegu and saw my house and got a tour of the primary school that I live near. My village is interested in having me help with a dairy project, which I am so excited to talk more about, as that is something I had hoped to do. I also have a really mountainous view. I took pictures but unfortunately had my iphone stolen so I lost those and will have to take more next month after installation.
  • I explored and kind of fell in love with Iringa!

 

So if you’d like more details:

My Week With Lark:

I was originally supposed to stay with another volunteer who ended up not being able to take me in due to unforeseen circumstances. This ended up being fine, though, because I felt really inspired by my week with Lark. She lives near a school and seems to have a really good relationship with her neighbors, the children, and the teachers. She also conducted a HURU event with her counterpart at the local secondary school. Because of my limited Swahili, I couldn’t understand a lot of it, but she tried to help me out where necessary. If you’d like to learn more about HURU, you can visit here.

Lark let her counterpart conduct pretty much all of the meeting so that it is sustainable after she is gone. Knowing she only has one more year in country, if she conducted all of the meeting, the information would disappear with her, but her counterpart, who is Tanzanian and lives in her village, will be the main resource for these girls, and can continue to educate others about conducting HURU sessions as well. Sustainability is so important in all of our Peace Corps projects, so this was really important. The village executive officer also came to address the girls. He spoke to them about the importance of staying in school, and not selling themselves for food, which Lark had just learned is a huge problem among girls who are hungry. This made me so sad, but happy that there was support in school from local role models to talk to the girls about these issues.

In short, I learned a lot from Lark about what makes a good volunteer, and I was also motivated by how good her Swahili is. Hongera, Lark 🙂

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The girls practicing putting on the HURU pads.
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Lark’s counterpart addressing the girls.

Makambako

Makambako is my “banking town” which means that’s where I’ll go to get my stipend as well as where I’ll use the post office. I really loved Mak. It has a nice safi duka (nice store) which even has ice cream, some American foods, and these amazing chocolate chunk cookies from the UK which are my newest not-so-guilty pleasure. They have a milk bar, which is literally a place where you stand at the bar and can get milk, yogurt, and cheese. They have a huge market where you can get spices, fruits and veggies, fish, and they also have a street filled with beautiful kitenges, kangas, fabrics, and dresses. There is also amazing street food at night. I ate sambusas filled with ground beef and onion, as well as chipsi mayai, which are like french fries in an egg omelette. They were amazing. Even though I wasn’t feeling so hot the next day. There is a nice view of the mountains as well. It is small and dusty, but it has everything I need, and I look forward to spending time there over the next couple of years. Again, I lost the pictures because my iphone got stolen, but I will take more once I go back.

Mambegu

Since I will be living here for two years, I won’t go into great detail now, but I did get to visit my future home. It doesn’t have any furniture or anything yet, but I’m sure it won’t take me long to make it into my home, and I’m so excited. I have a bedroom, an indoor bathroom!!! (practically unheard of here), a living room, and a kitchen in the main house. There is an enclosed courtyard outside, with an outdoor room for cooking, another bathroom, and a couple extra rooms for storage or they can become guest rooms. I also have a water spigot in my courtyard so I won’t need to collect water on most days, which is huge, and most volunteers do not get this luxury. I am right in the middle of the Southern Highlands, and I have a great view of the mountains. I also live in a sunflower field, and have banana trees!

It is too early to be thinking about projects, as I haven’t spoken to many people in my community yet, but there are some organized Peace Corps Tanzania projects I am really interested in doing. One is Zinduka, which uses soccer to teach youth about HIV/AIDS. I love being active, I love soccer, and I will be living in a region with one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in Tanzania, so this project could potentially be a good fit. Also, there is a newer project called “Maua Mazuri” which means Beautiful flowers, and it utilizes art to encourage empowerment, self expression, and teach about HIV/AIDS. I think art is so important, powerful, and healing, and would love to see something like this take shape in my village. Of course, these are just ideas and thoughts, and the projects I actually end up doing will be dependent on what my community requests of me, and what they see as most important for am. After all, I am here to serve the Tanzanian people, and specifically the people of Mambegu.

My site visit was great, but I only stayed for a couple of hours, and to be honest it was my first panicked moment in Peace Corps. I have been getting emails and letters from people who knew about my experience in the Dominican Republic, asking if I am just putting on a show of happiness or if I really am happy here. I am so happy here! Of course I miss my friends and family at home, but I haven’t had any moments that were so difficult that I felt unhappy to the point of wondering if I can do this. But upon seeing my house, I did feel the nervousness of knowing how real this is becoming, and that I’m really going to be alone in that house for two years. It was an intense feeling, and I know I have difficult nights ahead. That being said, the fear made me reflect on why I’m here and why I want to do Peace Corps, and I can confidently say, there is no doubt in my mind that I’m where I need to be and that I am so happy and proud of the life I’ve chosen to lead. I also fully appreciate the love and support behind me at home, especially from my family, boyfriend, and friends. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel this support, and I love you all so much. You are all amazing! In the car on the way back from visiting my site, Lark told me I seem really well prepared to start my life at site. I don’t think she knew how much it meant to me to hear that coming from a current volunteer. I’m so ready for this journey.

Iringa

Minus getting pick pocketed here, which is actually a common occurrence, I totally fell in love with this city. It is beautiful, it has a lot of really cool shops and neat finds (ghost busters wife beaters for example), cheap pile shopping, “Masai Alley” which has traditional Masai crafts and jewelry, and AMAZING food. Ok so I fell in love with it because of the food. It just felt really good not to eat rice and beans. I want to say I had an out-of-body experience as I sucked down a cold coffee milkshake with REAL frozen ice cream. Practically unheard of in this country. I also enjoyed some delicious yogurt and fresh fruit salads, and great italian food. I was a glutton for a day, I’ll admit. The pictures speak for themselves…

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Home Again

After all this traveling, I didn’t expect to miss my host family in Dodoma as much as I did. But I missed them so much!!! I came home to a big welcome. I even got a hug from one of my sisters, which is pretty rare in Tanzanian culture! My mamas and bibi (grandma) continued to say “karibu” which means welcome, and that they were happy I was home. Even the dog, pregnant as could be, couldn’t stop shaking her tail. Neither could I. I had planted a bag garden before I left and was so happy to come home to sprouted greens and watermelons. I sat down to do my laundry and then relax, and my family fed me a delicious meal of pilau (spiced rice) and my favorite cabbage. It feels good to be home!

Happy Easter, everyone. Thanks for reading, as always ❤

Mzungu Mikaela Goes to Mambegu!

site announcementYesterday was one of the most memorable and exciting days of my life. The anticipation has been building throughout my Pre-Service Training to find out where my site is. This past week seemed so long as every day I counted down until Wednesday, March 16, the day I would finally find out which village would be my home for two years. On Wednesday morning, I was in such a great mood. I couldn’t wait to find out! It was consuming my thoughts. I was hoping to be placed in the Tanga or Kilimanjaro regions, but I didn’t want to say that out loud because there was a small chance I would get placed there.

After a long buildup, all of the trainees were finally led outside, where we set up our chairs in front of a huge board covered by a kanga. Under that kanga was a map which had all of our faces on our regions. I could barely sit still as I waited for the announcements to begin, which was of course prolonged. Special gifts started to appear: sodas, samosas, snickers bars, and then I nearly fell out of my seat when they brought out apples (This is only the second apple I have come in contact with since I was in the US). As these goodies were brought out, I heard faint drumming growing louder. Looking down the dirt road, I saw that there was a group of mamas marching towards us playing traditional drums and singing. My excitement level became SKY HIGH. I hadn’t felt the heartbeat of East Africa so clearly since I was in Burundi. Surrounded by all of my PCT friends, some current volunteers, and all of our language teachers and Peace Corps staff, I was one hundred percent on cloud 9.

 

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My love for this apple is so real…

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Then it happened. Our friend Dennis got to choose which region to uncover first because it was his birthday! (Happy birthday, Dennis!) He uncovered Denyse, who was the only person placed in Dodoma, where we’re currently training. She then decided to uncover the Njombe region. She uncovered Dennis’s face, so he went back up. As I sat back to wait, Dennis called my name! That was it. A wave of many different emotions hit me. I felt disappointed for a split second, because I didn’t think I would get placed in Njombe, even though the majority of volunteers are placed there. As I stood up, I became so excited. I grabbed my manila envelope from Vicky, my APCD, who then began talking about my new home, Mambegu. Here you can see my emotions changing from happiness:

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Then I found out that my site is new, meaning this village has never had a volunteer before, and I will totally be breaking this site in, so I need to set the precedence and show them what Peace Corps is all about. So then I panicked:

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But then she told me I was neighbors with Dennis, who is such a great friend! And then I decided, this was going to be a great region. Then I went to uncover the next person, my amazing friend, Taylor.

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I will be living in this region with many volunteers, which makes me happy knowing that I’ll have a support system not too far away. One of my closest friends, Cori, is also in my region, and so when her name was called I felt even more excited than when my own was called.

The projects that I might be involved in are very broad, and I really could go in any direction. I live near a primary school, so involvement with education is highly likely. I love working with kids, and I see education, agriculture, and health as three interdependent sectors, and would be happy to work on projects which bridge all three. I hope especially to be involved in nutrition projects, as nutrition and food security are topics I’m extremely passionate about. And I was so excited to find out that it is possible I can start a ZINDUKA group, which utilizes soccer to teach students about HIV/AIDS!

Njombe has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in all of Tanzania, so my work will inevitably be connected to this issue in some way. And of course, there is always room for agriculture, whether it’s as simple as planting my own garden, or working with farmers in my community. And you can’t have good nutrition without agriculture, so I’m happy to focus on the two together.

I also learned that I am near a lake, and a new beach just opened close to my site! I also am not far from Lake Nyasa, which borders Malawi. My region is extremely mountainous and cool. This is perfect for me, as I’m not doing so well with my morning runs in the dusty heat of Dodoma, and I absolutely love hiking, camping, and stunning mountainous views. From what I hear, Njombe is extremely beautiful, nestled right in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania. We also have a national park which protects a certain type of wildflower, as well as beautiful hidden waterfalls that are very worth the trek. I cannot wait to begin exploring, and I cannot wait to see my new house and meet my village. For sure, March 16, 2016 is a day I’ll remember for the rest of my life, and the heightened emotions I felt are unlike any other I’ve ever felt in my life.

Site announcement made my Peace Corps service seem so real. It’s all hitting me now. I’ve been dreaming about Peace Corps for so long, about what it could look like, what my village will look like, but never had a clear image because it is so variable. Now I finally have an idea of how my two years will look! On Saturday I will travel to my site and shadow a volunteer living nearby. I will see my house, meet my community, and plan what I will need to live there for the next two years. I will stay for a week and then return to Dodoma for the rest of my training. I am so excited, and will be blogging again from site to show where I’ll be living! Stay tuned!

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The Njombe Crew!

Choo-ing with Cockroaches

IMG_9911Night 1:

It was an 8 hour bus ride from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma, where our 9 week Peace Corps training would be held. As we left the lush green fields and endless, towering mountains behind us, we rolled into dusty Dodoma city. Already heavy with fatigue from the previous week, I could barely lift my eyelids to take in what would be my home for the next 9 weeks. Soon enough, nerves started to wake me; in only a matter of hours, I would be sitting alone with a completely new family, with only a few Kiswahili phrases to pass the time.

 

Would they like me? How many family members would there be? What if I forget to properly greet the elders and they think I’m disrespectful? What if they try to feed me something I don’t like? What if it’s awkward? It’s going to be awkward…How do I shower? Wash laundry? Do I help cook dinner?

 

All of a sudden I found myself separated from my American friends, walking down a dusty dirt path with only a suitcase and a backpack. There was only one mama to greet me. She showed me to my room and then went outside. I didn’t know what to do. I went outside and greeted an elderly woman, who is my bibi (grandmother). Then I sat in silence with these two women.

 

I tried to get comfortable in this silence. There were two teenage girls cooking on a charcoal stove who were too shy to greet me. Children stared at the new mzungu (white person) who was sitting outside their house. There was a baby who cried when my mama told him to shikamoo (greeting of respect) me. He bawled his eyes out. He was scared of my whiteness. I can’t blame him…sometimes I am too.

 

We ate dinner in silence; it was long and awkward. After, I was brought out to the shower, which is an outdoor tin roofed stall. I was handed one bucket of warm water. As I stood there naked, running a small cup of water over my body, I had flashbacks of my daily long, hot showers in Vermont. What have I done? Can I really do this for two years? I don’t know if I can. Why did I want to do this again? I thought way too much about the fun stuff and didn’t understand how difficult daily life would be. I wonder what my friends and family are doing in America right now? What would I be doing? Probably taking a long hot shower…I just don’t know why I signed up for this.

 

I know that these feelings are normal and that this will likely be one of the hardest nights of my service. They prepped us for this in training. I know I can do it. I know I’ll be ok. I just have to make it to morning.

 

Night 2:

I can feel the homesickness setting in. After 9 hours of intensive Kiswahili classes, I feel the loneliness crush me like a thousand bricks on my chest. I know I’m going to cry. I know I have nothing but time before bed to think about my homesickness. There is nothing to distract me. I have no way of getting in touch with home. No phone, no internet, not even a post office. I stare up at the late afternoon sun and know it is hovering over my home in the US. I let myself go in my room and cry. After five minutes, I get up off my bed, and push myself to go sit under a mango tree with Bibi. Soon, my dada Joy (sister) hands me a hoe and we begin to weed the entire compound together in silence. I’m happy for the distraction, but totally exhausted. I try to pet my Mbuzi (baby goat) but even he doesn’t want to play. I go nap instead.

 

Feeling a little refreshed, I decide to bathe.

 

Stepping into the dark, damp wash stall, I hang my kanga (piece of fabric we wrap around our waists/bodies while in the house) in the doorway and spot a cream-colored lizard on the wall. Without thinking, I whip my kanga at it, causing it to scurry over the wall. Again, I daydream about a time in America when my showers didn’t include peeping lizards. Not wanting to lose myself in a cloud of negativity in focusing on what luxuries I left at home, I turn my attention towards the black African rainclouds rolling in across the mountains. Individual lightning bolts electrify each cloud in bright flashes. I’m happy to watch the storm approach.

 

After, I help my sisters with dinner. They are reluctant to let me help, either because I’m a guest in their home or they think I’m incapable because Americans are really bad at using charcoal stoves and doing all of the practical things of daily Tanzanian life. Eventually they hand me a bowl of tomatoes, onions, and peppers to chop. My sisters have their teenage friends over. Everyone has a working cell phone. I can’t stop thinking about calling home. The more I think about the feeling of isolation, the more I feel tears brimming on top of my lower lashes. I bite it back.

 

I remind myself that growth hurts when you’re in the middle of it, and that this pain and discomfort is temporary. Soon, I will be a much stronger person.

 

Before bed, I walk out into the darkness to use the toilet (choo) one last time. As I open the door, a cockroach scuttles across the foot placements and towards the hole of the choo. Disgust ripples down my spine. I take a cupful of water and flush the cockroach down the hole. As I turn and squat over the hole, I feel watched. I raise my head to find three more cockroaches staring back at me, their feelers twitching on their heads. I do nothing except the inevitable- choo with cockroaches.

 

Night 3:

I meet my host kaka’s (brother’s) wife and her little toddler, Emmy.

“Nipe Tano, Emmy!” (Give me 5!) I try.

Emmy giggles and pounds my fist, repeating “nipe tano!” She then invites me to sit next to her at the dinner table. As we both use our right hands to shovel ugali, beans, and cooked greens into our mouths, I am struck by what a child I am in this situation. I am literally relearning everything. I don’t even yet know how to eat properly without silverware, but this amazing family has taken me in for 9 weeks and offered to teach me everything. I’m feeling so grateful (and a little messy).

 

After, the family gathers to look at my photo album. It is passed around many times, and I use it as a chance to practice my Kiswahili. My dadas (sisters) think my brother is so cute, and my bibi and mama are very pleased with all of the pictures of my boyfriend. The whole family is blown away by how beautiful my mom is, the pictures of cows and horses, and they all absolutely love a picture of some alpacas I brought along.  After a great night of bonding, I crawl under my mosquito net into bed where I peacefully fall asleep so the sound of rain on the tin roof above me.

 

During the night, I awake to loud screeching noises. I lay silent, not even breathing, adrenaline coursing through my body. There are laughing-like utterances. I realize hyenas are outside my compound. I drift back to sleep, thinking that it feels the same as coyotes in America. As my American life drifts farther behind me, I am coming to find that everything is different, yet everything is the same. I am at peace.

 

Night 4:

I sit outside watching my dada shave fresh coconut. My mama is sharing blue grapes with me and we are lighting the charcoal stove. They are patient as I practice my Swahili and give them blank stares when I don’t understand them. I watch as Emmy’s father, my kaka, drives up on his motorcycle.

 

“Baba!!!” She screams, and runs towards him. He greets her with kisses, popcorn, and chocolate. As she runs to me to share her chocolate, he greets his wife and mother lovingly, and shakes my hand. I am surrounded by love. I am a part of this family. Everything is ok.

 

Kuwa huru. Be free.

I’m Moving to Africa

I thought about packing today. I really did. I was just giving a presentation to some high school students about my experiences in South Africa and got so pumped up about traveling in Africa again that I decided “Today is the day, Mikaela! Today, you will pack!” And then I made a cup of coffee and decided to blog instead. With only 19 days to go, I’m a chronic procrastinator. How do you fit everything you need for two years into two bags that weigh under 100 pounds? It’s hitting me that I’m moving to Africa.

In May 2015 I sat on my bed in Moorpark, California (where I was farming at the time) and finished what was my second PeaceCorps application. I had initially applied in 2014 while I was still at Middlebury College. After graduating, I moved to the Dominican Republic to serve with the Mariposa Foundation. My contract was from September-June. The PeaceCorps had asked me to serve in the health sector in Mozambique in April 2015, but because of my commitment to Mariposa (which ended up falling through unfortunately) I said no. So there I was again, filling out more PeaceCorps applications. I wasn’t even sure if I really wanted to do PeaceCorps anymore because I had experienced the volunteer life abroad already, and it was the most challenging experience of my life. After, I was living outside of Los Angeles in a cushy American life. Moving to a remote, dusty village far from home seemed less than ideal. But in my heart, I have known since high school that PeaceCorps is for me. And on July 27th, I was invited to serve as an agriculture volunteer in Tanzania, the perfect placement. It took me less than 24 hours to accept my decision and turn down another job offer in Northern California…I’m moving to Africa.

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My Flight Route: Burlington>Philadelphia>NYC>Johannesburg>Dar Es Salaam

I love that line. “I’m moving to Africa.” I’ve tested it out in almost every situation imaginable and I love the different reactions I get. Every now and then, I encounter someone who knows their African geography and is able to ask “where?” This makes my heart sing. But the majority of the time, I get a wide-eyed, gaping mouthed stare, followed by a question, which can range from intrigued, to humorous, to downright offensive. This is my favorite part. One of PeaceCorps’ missions is to educate fellow Americans about other cultures. I had no idea my job would start as soon as I accepted my invitation. So in response to all of these questions…here’s what I think about “moving to Africa.”

I first and foremost want to remind everyone that Africa is a continent. In fact, it is the second largest continent in the world! It is extremely diverse. There are thousands of languages, cultures, ethnicities, and religions. Remember the images in your mind that you got when you had to read “The Heart of Darkness” in high school? Throw those out the window! Africa is not one big dark jungle full of savages. It is a continent full of varied climates, including savannah, desert, snow, and yes, most of the countries in Africa have urban landscapes! Cities just like we know them in the US! I know it is hard to redefine your image of “Africa,” but the reality is that most countries are more “modern” and “developed” than the average American expects them to be. Just to show how large Africa actually is…

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Yes, it’s huge. So now that we have that covered…

Another common response I get when I say “I’m moving to Africa” is “Don’t get Ebola!” I cringe when I hear this because I know this is a direct response from Western media, who usually only focuses on the bad things that happen in Africa and ignores all of the amazing things that are happening across the continent. The Ebola epidemic occurred in 2014 and was a very serious outbreak; however, this occurred in West Africa, almost 5,000 miles from where I’ll be. In fact, those in Spain are closer to where the outbreak occurred than where I’ll be. I don’t anticipate encountering Ebola while there, or any other deadly diseases, in fact. I am more likely to encounter a typical flu virus or get food poisoning than I am of contracting a deadly disease.

“I’m moving to Africa.” “Oh, will you have to eat dog/chimpanzee/bugs/snake/etc. etc.?!” Probably not. I have never traveled to Tanzania, but I have been in South Africa, Burundi, and Morocco, and I have never had an African friend or host family let me leave their house without enjoying at least some tea or a very delicious meal. In Morocco I enjoyed couscous Fridays with roasted vegetables and chicken, in South Africa I was often treated to braai which featured amazing sausages and chakalaka (my favorite!), and in Burundi I was constantly treated with fresh fruits, fried plantains, delicious chicken, and amazing vegetables, topped off with beer at every meal. I know that I will be living on a volunteer stipend in Tanzania and will not be eating gourmet meals for my two year stay, but I also know that the food will probably be delicious.

“I’m moving to Africa.” “Are you scared of ISIS/Al-Shabab/Terrorists/Getting raped/Crime?” No. I’m not scared. In terms of ISIS, I feel safer going to Tanzania than I would if I was moving to a major American city. Bad things can happen anywhere in the world. Life can be taken from us at any instant. It is fragile. I am following my dream, and would rather know that than stay in the Northeast Kingdom out of fear of all the bad things occurring in the world. As a PeaceCorps volunteer, I know that my safety is a priority. I will work hard to be integrated into my community so that I will be even safer. Life is too short to worry about stuff like that. So what do I worry about? How many lizards I’ll be sharing my house with, what I will do if I get food poisoning and can’t make it to my outdoor pit latrine, if my clothes will be nice enough for the PeaceCorps dress code, whether my host family will like me, if I’ll still remember my Spanish after learning Swahili, if I’ll even pick up Swahili fast enough…the petty stuff. And I know in a couple months I’ll be laughing at these worries, and I’ll have different worries.

So…I’m moving to Africa! A place of sunshine, laughter, and love. I cannot wait. I am a bundle of mixed emotions, but I am certain this will be one of the best experiences of my life. I have never been so mentally or emotionally prepared for something. If only I was actually prepared…which reminds me, I should get packing. Karibu (welcome) to my blog. If you care to learn more about Tanzania, follow along. Asante Sana.

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With love, Mzungu Mikaela ❤