Life Changing Experiences

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Wow, it’s 2018! This is the year I finish my Peace Corps service and move home, onto exciting unknowns. It seems I’ve waited for this year forever and now I’m not really sure how it snuck up on me. Two years ago, in between snowboarding, going to the gym, waitressing, and saying goodbye to friends and family, I spent a lot of time pouring through the blogs of people who were serving in Tanzania, trying to catch a glimpse into their lives to gain some sort of understanding of what the near future held for me. I don’t know if anyone who is arriving here next month in the new cohort of volunteers has stumbled across my blog, but just in case there’s a few, I’m really writing this post for you.

I know you’re feeling a wide range of emotions about beginning Peace Corps and those emotions probably change fairly frequently. (On the hour for me!) First I’d like to say that there’s a big Peace Corps family here, waiting for you, preparing for you, and they will support you. It will be hard. Tanzanian culture is not an easy one to live in. Your days will be long and frustrating and you’ll cry and you’ll feel down and your projects will fail and you’ll pick yourself back up again in order to serve the people of your village because that’s what Peace Corps volunteers do. But you’ll also make friends that become family, experience beauty on the other side of the world, grow, learn, and be changed by this experience. It’s beautiful. Let it be all that it will be. But that’s not really the point of this post. I recently went on my favorite vacation in Tanzania, and it was amazing. I realized that this blog has focused solely on life in my village, but that there’s also so many other amazing parts to my experience here, and exploring this diverse country is one of them! So, if you’re coming in February, or thinking of applying to serve in Tanzania, let this post excite you. If you’re reading but you’re not coming to Tanzania, I’d love to share my recent vacation with you anyways.

I WENT CHIMP TRACKING IN GOMBE!!!

It was so amazing and words and pictures won’t do it justice but I can try. To get to Gombe, you have to travel to Kigoma, a little town on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The lake itself is gorgeous. Crystal clear waters can have you fooled that you’re in the Caribbean. It is the second deepest lake in the world, as well as the second oldest, and second largest by volume. As I swam in the gorgeous water, looking out across I could faintly see the mountains of the DR Congo, and every now and then a Congolese pirate ship (I am NOT joking). There’s also zebras roaming free, it was such a dream. To get to Gombe Park, you have to then take a private boat, which is about a two hour ride up the coast. There are no roads leading to the park, it is very secluded.

So why go to Gombe? For those of you who don’t know, this is where Dr. Jane Goodall did her groundbreaking research on chimpanzees, which not only changed our knowledge of chimps but also our understanding of human beings. Jane is a total badass. If you haven’t watched any of her documentaries or read about her, get out there now and do that. A few months ago National Geographic featured her on their cover and wrote an amazing article of her. Of course I brought it to the park in the hopes that she would be there to sign it (some volunteers have gotten to meet her before) but no such luck. What impresses me so much about Dr. Goodall is that she had just a secretary degree and a dream to be a scientist in a time when women were discouraged, and laughed at, for working in the sciences. She saved up money to go to Nairobi from England and marched into a scientists’ office and boldly stated she wanted to work for him. She impressed him enough to finally secure funding to study the chimps in Gombe, where she lived in solitude for some time. At one point the chimps accepted her into their family as the lowest ranking member.

As we tracked the chimps in the rainy jungle forest, I couldn’t help but imagine what her life was like in those early days. Wasn’t she scared studying animals alone that were wild and, as wild animals are, unpredictable? There were other wild animals in the forest as well, and our guide told us she once had to run from her life as she was attacked by a herd of buffaloes! She is so inspirational and bold…chimps

Ok fan rant over. The chimps were amazing. Upon our first siting, I teared up a little (only a little!) but it was so incredible to be only feet away from wild chimps. The babies were so cute, and it was amazing to watch the families interact with each other. I could’ve spent days in the park (although my wallet wouldn’t agree). I wont say anymore other than if you ever find yourself in Tanzania, make the effort to go here. So many people climb Kilimanjaro, go on safari in the Serengeti, or vacation on Zanzibar. But to walk with these chimps, to spend time with them under the canopy of the lush forest, is an experience unlike any other, and certainly one that I will remember for all of my life.

If you’d like to see more pictures and videos, please feel free to check out my instagram @mzungu_mikaekae

Now I’m on my way to my close-of-service conference (I really have made it to the end!) where I’ll celebrate the accomplishment of finishing Peace Corps and find out the date I leave Tanzania, so you can expect some reflection posts in the near future. Thank you to all of my readers for sticking with me this long (Mom, that’s you)!

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Let’s Make Like Tanzanians: Food Security

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“Twende shambani.” Neema said to me with a hopeful expression.

I had been sitting in my counterparts’ house for a couple of hours. I was ready to go home and take a nap, letting the bright African sun dim a bit before going about my day. But I knew better. I love invitations to her farm. It is about a 30 minute walk downhill towards the river. There, she grows huge fields of sugarcane, greens, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes. We began the walk down, chatting away in Swahili. On the way, we stopped at a neighbors’ house. The girl there was about my age. “Do you have any vegetables?” Neema asked. The girl replied “No.”  Neema invited her to come harvest greens with us so that she could eat well that night.

As we approached the many plots of full and lush greens, we all bent over and began harvesting. Neema told me to pick more, pick more. She could not possibly know how appreciative I was. I have been running every morning, and I know my iron is low, especially since I do not have access to meat in my village. This would be a great source of iron for me for the next few days, and it was free.

As the three of us started back up the hill to the village, I thought about how generous my village is with food. If you have food that you know you will not eat, you give it away as a gift to someone. If you grow food and you have some to spare, you give it away. If you think a friend is in need, you feed them. If someone comes to your house, you feed them, even if you only have one andaazi left and a bit of chai, it is theirs. Most of the food I eat at site has been gifted to me. I receive bags of rice, sweet potatoes, beans, onions, garlic, greens, tomatoes, and if I’m really lucky, eggs.

As Neema and I walked back, she began asking me what I will do once I return to America. I decided to take a shot at explaining my passion: food security.

In the US we have people who are hungry. We have people who are diabetic. We have people who are overweight. We have people who are underweight. We have people with body image issues. We have people who do not know where eggs come from. We have people who don’t know how to grow a carrot. And I feel sad knowing that if the apocalypse were to come today, most Americans would die. If all of the grocery stores crumbled, most Americans would not know where to turn for food.

How would you process your chicken? How would you cut your beef? How would you grow your veggies? Where would you plant fruit trees? How do you harvest honey? How would you make cheese? How would you sprout and grind wheat for bread? How would you cast a fishing line? How would you milk a cow?

The sad truth of our culture is that most of us do not know. And the part that really, really fires me up, is those who know do not teach others, and sell their produce at prices that the vast majority of Americans cannot afford. Why is good, organic produce, free of harmful pesticides, chemicals, and additives, accessible only to our elite? Why is it so cheap to eat a packet of pasta sides but a bunch of Organic kale is upwards of $5, more if you’re living around a city? Why do those of us who grow food rarely share it with our neighbors? How can those of us with money walk past a homeless man on the street and not even give him an apple, but we can spend $5 on an organic dark chocolate bar, because we think we need the antioxidants to lift our mood? When did our culture become so individualistic that we cannot share, provide for our neighbors, look out for those we call friends?

I explained this to Neema, and the more I talked, the more sure my Swahili became and the larger her eyes became. People don’t know how to milk a cow? They can’t plant a tomato? Not everyone grows food? But where do they get their food…?

That’s when we determined, maybe Peace Corps should also start a program where volunteers from other countries come to teach Americans. Because in the realm of food security, America needs help. We are currently importing chicken breast from China. It is loaded with a saline solution to keep it somewhat fresh. We don’t know how long this chicken has been dead. We don’t know how it was killed. We don’t know how it was raised, what it ate, if it was infused with hormones. We don’t know. We are removed.

That’s scary.

What’s even scarier is that those who have organic chicken breast, at $15/pound, can’t give some to their neighbors who can only afford a 5 piece nugget from Wendy’s for their children.

So I ask this of those reading: Think about sharing. We learned about it in kindergarten. But somewhere along the way we became too focused on money, profit, consumerism, making something of ourselves, that we left our neighbors and community behind to do so. If you are a food producer, even if you have a small garden, share. Share some extra produce. Cook a harvest dinner for someone who you think maybe has never had food that fresh. Show a child the difference in the taste of a cherry tomato fresh off the vine from one in a store. Teach them to put their hands in the soil, to love life, to appreciate growth, to feel gratitude for all that grows and nourishes us. Better yet, teach a neighbor a skill. If you have a cow, show someone how to milk it. Buy someone a book about cheese making. Share some basil seeds. Spread the knowledge. Share some food.  Be a part of a larger community.

As soon as we begin to share like the amazing, giving, wonderful Tanzanians I work with on a daily basis, the sooner our food security issues will diminish, and all the problems in health that are caused by these issues.

The irony is that I’m here to teach about food security. But all I’ve done is learn.

Maybe we all have something to learn from Tanzanians.

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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.

Where the Sugarcane Grows

P10404451On April 24, 2016, I was a jumble of nerves. I woke up at the Chani in Njombe and began packing up my belongings into eight (Yes, eight!), large bags. I couldn’t even comprehend how I was going to move this huge pile of things to my house out in rural Mambegu via public transportation. Luckily, my VEO (Village Executive Officer), was coming to help me move, and I had been assured that Tanzanians move all the time via buses, and that it wouldn’t be a problem. I frantically shopped for last minute fruits and vegetables at the local sokoni (market), and returned to the Chani. My VEO was waiting, ready to take me by taxi to the bus stand.

I just wanted it to be over. I had been traveling and hauling bags for far too long. I was ready to just have my own space, to unpack, to settle in. I knew I was so close, but I was also terrified to leave my American friends and to begin life in a village who had never had a Peace Corps volunteer before. I had so many questions and worries, but I dismissed them, knowing that every step of service so far has seemed too great of a challenge, and I’ve already come this far. Sometimes the only way out is not actually out, but through.

I waited on the bus for a couple of hours before we actually began moving. Plenty of people had helped me load all of my belongings onto the small bus, and I was seated and ready to go. As we rolled out of Njombe, I felt so anxious. It had been raining heavily the past few days, and so as we turned onto a dirt road and were greeted with what seemed to be miles of mud pits, we had to backtrack onto a smaller road through a cornfield. Of course, we became stuck. After two hours of waiting for another bus, we had to unload all of my stuff again, and reload it. Finally, as the sun was setting over the horizon of the Southern Highlands, I rolled into Mambegu. My VEO turned to me with a friendly and enthused toothless smile and said, “Mikaela, karibu Mambegu.”

Several people helped me carry all of my belongings to my house. It was easier than I had expected. We reached my house as the dark was setting in, and I could see a small solar light lighting up my small, concrete greeting room, and dinner on the table. They had prepared rice and chicken. Overwhelmed, I moved bags into my room, hung up my mosquito net, and not wanting to be left alone in the dark, looked frantically for my headlamp to no avail. They encouraged me to sit down and relax. I ate a small amount, telling them I was tired. Finally, they left my house and told me they would see me in the morning. I was happy to be alone, but also terrified. Since I couldn’t see anything, and I had no electricity, I just crawled under my mosquito net. There were no latches or locks on my doors, even the door to my courtyard gate, so all night I could hear the tin door slamming in the wind. Birds and leaves would land on my tin roof throughout the night and jolt me from my uneasy sleep. (I have since had locks put on my doors) I knew I just needed to make it until morning.

After an exhausting night, I rubbed my eyes at 6:00 AM, waking to the sounds of school children singing and drumming. Not knowing what time my neighbors would come over, as Tanzanians are up and at the day much earlier than Americans, I crawled out of bed and got dressed. I got to cleaning my house. I boiled my drinking water, swept and mopped my floors, washed my dishes, made some fresh juice, swept my courtyard, and tried to unpack some things. As promised, at 9 AM two mamas, Evelina and Neema, came over. Having them in my house was both wonderful and stressful. They wanted to cook for me, but I just wanted to juice to cleanse my body of all the things I had been eating for the past three months. They wanted to clean but I had already started cleaning, and wanted them to know I could do it myself. They were shocked to find out that I could mop and sweep and wash my own clothes. Finally, at 12, I was so exhausted from trying to converse in swahili and settle in, I told them I needed to rest. They asked, “What do you want us to do for you?” I said, “I can cook and clean, but I would like if tomorrow you can show me around the village and introduce me to my neighbors.” That was the best move I could have made. For the rest of the day I washed my clothes by hand, hung them in the sun to dry, tanned in my courtyard, napped, and went for a walk. Upon realizing I only had two hours of daylight left, I became sad and lonely. The day had felt so incredibly long. I couldn’t even comprehend how I would make it through two years of long days. I sat down and cried. But of course, the next morning came.

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At about 9 AM, Evelina met me at my house and led me to the school. I was able to charge my cell phone, meet the teachers, and introduce myself to all the students. We then went to the center of town where I met the seamstress who can make me dresses, met the local shop owners where I can buy things, and greeted various people who stared at me in shock. We met up with Neema, and walked to a house with many animals and gardens. I learned that this was the pastor’s house. The pastor is a woman with a big personality. She invited me in for chai, and I accepted. I know that just drinking chai with someone can forge a good relationship, so I wanted to make as good of an impression as possible. To escape any obligation to go to church, I said that I am Quaker and we worship in our home. Unfortunately for me, this only resulted in them trying to convince me to become Lutheran. We will see how that goes. We then met up with my VEO, who led me to his office to sign into the guest book. Finally, the three of us walked to Neema’s house, where she prepared chai and eggs. I sat and discussed, in my limited swahili, large scale dairy operations with Neema’s husband and my VEO. They thought that I had made a mistake when I told them some farms can have thousands of cows. They were in disbelief when I said that we use machines to milk the cows. Following this discussion, and many questions about farming in America, Neema’s husband showed me his cows, and asked how he can get them to produce more milk. This has been something commonly asked of me in my first week, so I think some dairy projects might be in order in my future here.

After eating, I bought some eggs from Neema, and told everyone that I love eggs. Neema disappeared for about five minutes, and then came back into the house holding an upside down chicken by the legs, legs bound together, wings splayed out to the side, head cocked. I didn’t know if it was dead or alive, I just knew I didn’t want it. She slapped it down on the chair next to me and I could see that it was alive, looking about wildly, struggling to free its legs. Neema smiled at me with her beautiful smile, and said “This is your chicken!” I named her Gracie, and carried her all the way back to my house. I guess this makes Mambegu my official home.

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On Wednesday, I woke up and did my usual chores. Boiling and filtering drinking water is my most important morning activity, followed by sweeping and mopping the house. I really don’t want to have to deal with pests, and since my house is made of concrete, brick, and tin, I need to be diligent about that. Around 10 AM, Evelina came to my house and brought me to hers. She made me chai, and then we walked to meet Neema. We were going to work on Neema’s farm. We hiked for over an hour down some large hills, through fields, across rivers. This was truly a day I was upset at myself for not bringing a camera, but a day that I’ll never forget. As we approached Neema’s “shamba,” Evelina and I sat under the shade of a passionfruit tree, conversing in Swahili, while Neema took a machete and cut down stalks of the largest sugarcane I had ever seen. She handed pieces to Evelina and I, and as I sat under the tree gnawing on raw sugar cane, the sweet juice running down my throat, and looking up at the fluffy white clouds rolling across the blue sky, no cell phone or camera in my possession, just passing time with these women I had just met, all I could think was “Life is wild.” Neema and I built two garden beds and transplanted leafy greens called “cabichi.” I had no idea how many hours had passed before we walked back to my house. Time was irrelevant. I’m really living in rural Tanzania, having an experience that most only dream about. I’m the luckiest girl in the world.

Thursday was a big day. I had to give a speech to the entire village at their village meeting. I walked myself to the village office, and greeted some elderly women who were excited that I could greet them in their local Kibena language. “Komwene.” After waiting and greeting many officials, I was led outside in front of the villagers, who were looking up at me expectantly. I was directed to sit between the VEO and the Headmaster of the local school. After two speeches introducing me were given, I stood up and delivered my speech as best as I could in Swahili, which ultimately had to be translated to Kibena. Unfortunately, my ten weeks of Swahili training are feeling more and more irrelevant. The villagers laughed at my jokes, smiled at me, and cheered so loud when I finished. I felt so happy. As I sat back down, and looked out into the faces of the sweet, wise bibis and the excited, intrigued vijana (youth), I couldn’t stop thinking, this is going to be an amazing two years. I feel welcomed by an extremely accommodating and hospitable village, and I think they are willing to work with me, just as I am willing to serve them. I anticipate that there will be many challenges ahead, but that if I work on building solid relationships, we can do many amazing things together. The days will be slow, but the weeks will go fast. I know that I am in the right place at the very right time.

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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 ❤