Last week, I finished my very first project in the village, of the projects that can be finished (agriculture and health projects tend to be an ongoing thing, hence the sustainability portion of Peace Corps). Maua Mazuri, which I’ve blogged about before, came to a close. 11 of the 15 girls who originally began the program, ages 12-13, graduated.
In our village, there is little to no art, and this entire program was a roller coaster for me. The program is designed to teach life skills through various art forms such as music, dance, watercolor, drawing, acting, and poetry. It touches on topics including HIV/AIDS education, self-awareness, creativity, confidence, gender roles, and individuality. For many of the classes, I left after the two hour sessions feeling happy that the girls had a great time, yet frustrated because I was trying to teach a program that relied on Western-teaching styles and required critical thinking and creativity, which are just not taught or used here in the village, and as I found out, cannot be taught in a 12 week time period. Eventually, I accepted that the life skills that I was trying to teach would probably not be absorbed by the girls, but that introducing them to art would be a success in itself. Their smiles always made the classes worth it, anyways. So I continued on.
In April I visited Zanzibar, probably the most well-known part of Tanzania aside from Kilimanjaro. There were tourists all throughout Stonetown, and because of this, there were many artists selling their art. I couldn’t believe that there was so much art to be found on this island, yet the farther inland you go on mainland Tanzania, art becomes a rare find. I decided to duck into a random art shop and chat with the artist about his background. I met Ramadhan Awesu Saleh, who told me he began learning art in primary school and fell in love. He eventually went on to study at an art college in Dar es Salaam. His walls were lined with oil, acrylic, and watercolor paintings of various sizes, all depicting life on Zanzibar, and of course Tanzania’s wildlife which many tourists come to see on safari. As we were chatting, he was working carefully on a watercolor showing the small Arab Medina style streets of Zanzibar. I told him that I was teaching art in a village in Njombe to young girls, and he continually emphasized how important this work is. He told me that young Tanzanians have little opportunity for self-expression in the way that art allows. His words jazzed me up to finish the Maua Mazuri program. As I was leaving, he called me back and handed me one of his matted watercolors, a gift for our village. On the back, he wrote his name and a note to the girls. “Art is a privilege but also a way to a good life. Keep creating.”
I left not only refreshed to continue the last few weeks of Maua, but also reflecting on the privilege of art. All forms of art are a privilege, but they are also so powerful. As a child, I was very lucky to go to a public elementary school that valued art and gave every student art classes once per week as well as music classes. Not every child in the US is afforded this privilege, let alone the world. Beginning in the fourth grade, my parents invested in a flute for me, and later a slide trombone, allowing me to grow up with music and learning to read both clefs, and I was able to continue playing into college. My parents also encouraged my drawing, buying me books on how to draw horses. My artwork could be found hanging on the fridge, portraits of our horses hanging in frames in the barn, and they would drive me to and from poetry slams in high school. I am incredibly lucky to have had my creativity supported in this way. And now that I’ve discovered how important of an outlet art can be, especially through the difficult preteen and teenage years, I am happy to share any knowledge and art supplies I can with any child, no matter their background. I truly believe every child who wants to explore the arts should have that opportunity.
After this reflection, I realized that Maua Mazuri, even if life skills were not being picked up as they were intended, could only be a positive experience for me and for the girls I was working with. So we continued with classes and eventually reached graduation day. Before the girls received their certificates, we did a post-test which assessed all the life skills taught throughout the course. The girls had taken the exact same test twelve weeks before, scoring fairly low in areas such as HIV knowledge and comfort in interacting with people who have HIV, ideas of challenging gender roles, confidence in speaking in front of others, and ease in expressing emotions. After the post-test, I gave out the certificates, we had a little celebration, we danced, and the girls raced back to their dorms to chat before dinner. I returned to my house, sat down with their post-tests, and started reading their responses and comparing them to the pre-test.
Almost every girl scored significantly higher than her pre-test, and reported higher self-esteem, self-confidence, feeling that it’s ok to express individuality, and an increase in feeling it’s ok to show emotion. They now have learned that men can also care for and raise babies, that women can affect change in Tanzania, and that art can help them in expressing their emotions and dealing with life struggles. I couldn’t believe the results I was reading. Through art, they actually learned all of the intended life skills. With that, I am so proud to say my first project was a success, not because of me, but because of the girls’ eagerness to try new things and participate in a new style of education. I am so grateful to have observed the change that art can make, and to have worked with the girls that I did. They are young, bright agents for change in rural Tanzania, and now, they are artists.
After six weeks of travel, I climbed onto my village bus “Masia” with my huge backpack and two duffels in tow. As I climbed down the aisle, carefully navigating the huge sacks of corn, rice, and ugali flour that lay on the floor, I heard someone yell “Mikaela, umerudi!” (You have returned!). All of the anxiety I had been feeling about returning back to my village, about feeling alone, and the anticipation of loneliness and isolation I would feel, dissipated. I was caught off guard by my feelings of happiness and relief. After weeks of living out of bags, experiencing 30+ hours of bus time, and sharing hostel showers, I was finally going back to my own house. I was coming home.
I have officially been at my site for over a year, and I have under a year left of Peace Corps. That’s a weird feeling. All of a sudden, I have a deadline for my projects. I have to get them up and running. It’s now sinking in that, whereas before everything was new and I would experience it again, everything I experience for the next year will be the last time. One more sunflower harvest, one more corn harvest, one more dry season, one more rainy season, one more chance to watch the entire village turn into a quaint oxen-powered farming community, one more school year, etc. But this second year has brought a new and incredible feeling of home that I never expected to have here.
Exactly a year ago in my journal, I listed all of the things I missed about my home in the U.S. I remember writing the entry, sitting alone in my courtyard, the sun shining down, and tears pouring out of my eyes. Home couldn’t have felt more far away. I wrote that I missed “clean running water, showers, stoves and ovens, dish washers, washing machines, and most of all reliable electricity…” but it didn’t stop there. “I miss dressing however I want, the feeling of carpet under my feet, sleeping without a mosquito net and not worrying about strange bugs, lizards, rats, and bats…I especially miss my family and friends…I miss the gym…” Somewhere along the way, I stopped focusing on what I missed so much about home, and I focused on building my life here in Mambegu. It was then that I realized how much I have here, and reevaluated everything I once thought was a necessity in my life. That’s when happiness came.
My first night back in my village after six weeks of travel, I slept soundly in my own bed with my cat curled up beside me. When I woke up, I was overwhelmed with happiness. The following day, I walked through my village, past all of the brick houses, surrounded by corn, smoke curling out of the fires where people were cooking. People seemed genuinely happy to see me, and that was an incredible feeling. One mama, who is a member of the HIV group I work with, stopped her work in the cornfield and came out to hug me, which is usually unheard of in this culture. As I continued down the winding dirt paths, lined with sisal, sunflowers, and grazing goats, people invited me into their homes and said they were afraid I left. I sat and helped one woman who is about to give birth write a list of possible names for her baby. I was gifted a lot of corn from another woman as a welcome home.
Sometimes I get really stressed out that I’m not doing enough projects, or that I’m not making enough effort to get them going. Any volunteer here knows how hard it can be to get a project started, let alone finished. Things come up, meetings get cancelled, and people show up three hours late or not at all. A great friend recently reminded me that a huge part of the Peace Corps experience is simply living here, in this community, talking with people, learning about them, and sharing my own culture with them. It is enough to be friends with the people in this wonderful community. It is a success to call this home, and to truly feel that it is my home. Coming home is enough.
Pictured Above: A year ago I moved into my house and it had nothing in it: no furniture, not even a stove. Now it is totally my own space!
A couple of weeks ago I invited my friend Dennis hiking. He replied, “Maybe,” and explained that his weekly bee meeting will be on Sunday morning, and he could only skip it to come hiking if his counterpart would be able to lead the meeting.
Most of us have met each other’s counterparts. Dennis’s counterpart is named Aulelio Kalili, and is one of my favorite Tanzanians I’ve met. He has a big Cheshire cat grin and is always happy to see me. When I first met Kalili, I thought he was insane or that something was just a little off. I soon realized that his big smile simply never leaves his face, even if something is wrong. This is one of his charms.
Knowing that Kalili is completely capable of leading the Sunday bee meeting, I asked Dennis why he had to check in with him. Dennis said that one of Kalili’s wives had to go to the hospital for surgery on her stomach. Before I get to the surgery part of that sentence, I’d like to talk about Kalili’s marriage situation. In Tanzania it is not uncommon for a man to have two wives. There are only two rules to this: both wives have to agree to the second marriage, and the man has to have enough money to provide for both families. In Tanzania you do not have to be Muslim to have more than one wife, in fact many Christians, such as Kalili, practice polygamy as well.
After hearing about Kalili’s wife’s stomach issues, I understood why Dennis was on the fence about hiking, and I asked him to keep me updated about her health.
In the end, Dennis came hiking. On our way back to site, we were walking through our banking town, about to get on our respective buses back to our villages. As we walked down the dusty dirt paths of Makambako under the gray sky, backs sore with the weight of our hiking packs, Dennis exclaimed “That looks like Kalili’s wife!” As we got closer, the woman had stopped walking and was smiling at Dennis.
We greeted her, and she pointed us in the direction of a woman sitting on the ground: Kalili’s younger wife. We all walked over together and greeted each other in the local language, Kibena. Standing next to the younger wife was another woman with a baby wrapped up in a kanga and suspended tightly at her chest. Kalili’s younger wife said to Dennis “We have a guest” and pointed at the infant. Dennis and I looked at the baby, then each other in confusion. Yes, the baby was indeed the younger wife’s newborn. After living in the village almost a year and working closely with Kalili and his family, Dennis had no idea that Kalili’s younger wife was pregnant. The mother explained that the baby did not yet have a name (another Tanzanian custom is to wait a couple of weeks before naming the baby), and that she would wait to talk with the baba (Kalili) to see what the name will be. Dennis and I later discussed what we usually come around to in our conversations: What a strange place we are living in.
Baffled, I was immediately brought back to September when I was working side-by-side with my counterpart, Neema, and she casually told me my close friend Evelina, who I had spent almost every day with for the past 5 months, had just had a baby. I had no idea that Evelina was pregnant, and Neema said she didn’t either. How could I miss it? Evelina had never stopped doing farm work, walking around like normal, doing all of the house chores. She even carried me out of church when I fainted in between the pews. How could that woman have a baby? How could I not notice she was 9 months pregnant?
I recently went to Neema’s house to tell her about Kalili’s wife and ask about pregnancy here in the Wabena tribe. She told me that people do not acknowledge pregnancies. It stays like a secret within the family. Even if others know, they do not say anything. The expectant mothers swaddle themselves in many layers of fabric, or “kitenge” to hide their swelling bellies. Neema said that the elders do not like the look of a pregnant belly, and that people are disturbed by the sight of the baby moving in the womb, so it is best to remain modest and it is crucial for a woman to cover up her body (one of the few things that I can’t come to terms with in this culture). Once the baby is born, they must wait for some time to be named. There is no celebration of pregnancy, no baby showers, no congratulations in order for the expectant parents until after delivery, and especially no photo shoots of mothers with big bellies.
As I told Neema about our customs for expectant mothers in America, she could not believe it. She couldn’t believe we would have parties just for expectant mothers where we shower them with gifts. Of course, there are fewer women getting pregnant in America than in my Tanzanian village, where the average family has 4 children and women begin giving birth around 20 years old. It was really fun to compare the two different cultures and how we welcome new life into the world. Each of us finds the others’ custom equally as strange and fascinating. But at least now I know, this isn’t a real-life Tanzanian episode of “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.”
Last Sunday I had the treat of being able to talk on the phone with my mom, my two cousins, and my aunt. As I settled into the one corner of my house that gets enough service to call America, my younger cousin Shayelagh answered the phone with a bright, “Tell us about your life!” My response was “I wake up and poop in a hole, boil my drinking water, sweep my concrete floors…” It’s hard for me to know what to say when I have my eyes closed, imagining myself in their cozy living room in front of a wood stove, laying on the comfortable couch, surrounded by the love of my family. In those moments when I’m on the phone with home, I struggle to remain positive because I miss the comforts of America so much.
I write all of this not to dwell on what I’m missing, but because today I’ve had a great day. Not that everyday isn’t great- I am thoroughly enjoying my Peace Corps experience, and after a year in country have figured out how to be happy with my new pace of life and content in my village. I am grateful for my situation. But today was a really great day, and so I would like to use it as an example of what my Peace Corps life is actually like.
7:00 AM- I wake up naturally to the sound of rain sprinkling on the tin roof. Through the crack in my curtain I can see it’s foggy and drizzling outside, so I decide to pull the blankets up over my shoulders and let myself sleep until 8.
7:30 AM- I can’t fall back asleep, so I get out of bed (carefully so as not to disturb the princess I sleep with every night…AKA my cat), walk into the main room of my house, grab my broom and give each of the 3 rooms a quick sweep. I then fill up my water bottle with some water that has been filtering overnight, and put on a pot of new water to boil for today’s supply of drinking water. I need to do laundry, but it doesn’t look like the sun is going to come out, so I won’t be able to. I check the tubs I’ve laid out to see how much water I have collected from the rain during the night, as my spigot is broken and the collected water will be all I have for the day. I see I have 3 full buckets, enough to wash dishes, boil drinking water, mop my floor (with my hands of course), and even take a bath later!
8 AM: Morning workout
9 AM: I boil water for tea and make some oats. I turn on my computer and sit down with the itemized budget my Village Executive Officer (similar to a mayor or town clerk) has written out for the grant I am writing to build girls’ bathrooms at the school. I fill out the excel sheets and organize the paper work.
11 AM: I wash dishes, sweep and mop my house, reorganize my bedroom, fold laundry, etc.
12 PM: I scrub some potatoes, cut them, and begin boiling them. Unfortunately you can’t buy a small amount of potatoes in my banking town, you have to buy them by huge bucketfuls. Consequently, I have been eating mashed potatoes for the past week at least two times per day. Today might have been the last day for a while.
12:45 PM: I lay down for a nap. It’s a rough life, I know.
1:30 PM: I wake up and get ready for my meeting with my counterpart, Neema, and the Village Executive Officer. As previously mentioned, I am writing a grant to build bathrooms for the girls at the primary school. Many girls are currently missing 4 days- 1 week of school because they have started their periods and the bathrooms have no doors, are next to the boys’ bathrooms, do not have water inside, and are unsanitary (literally a hole in the middle of a dirt floor). The girls skip school because they do not have privacy to keep themselves clean when menstruating, and are falling behind in their studies. Part of Peace Corps’ grant policy is that the village has to contribute at least 25% of the project cost, this way it makes them responsible for the project as well as shows that Peace Corps’ development approach isn’t to just hand over money; we work together to create change. So, today’s meeting is about what the village will be contributing in the construction of these bathrooms.
The walk to the village office takes me about 20 minutes. I walk on tiny dirt paths through cornfields, past mud and brick homes, I share the path with many children who are excited to talk with me, and I pass pigs and goats grazing on the sides of the path. When I arrive at the office, I am 10 minutes late (early by Tanzanian standards) but my counterpart had feared I wasn’t coming because “Americans are always on time.”
3 PM: I return back to my house. I eat some almonds and read a few pages of a book.
4 PM: I leave my house and meet my 2 counterparts at the primary school to begin “Maua Mazuri” class. We are currently working with 6th grade girls, aged 12 & 13, to teach them life skills through the use of art. Today we are focusing on dealing with emotions by practicing dance. The girls have never been exposed to dance forms aside from the line-type dance moves Tanzanians do at church. These dance moves are hilarious and don’t have too much variation, but Tanzanians do them well. If you ever want to experience second-hand awkwardness, you should watch a Tanzanian gospel music video.
We begin the class by doing a dance warm-up to a Beyonce song. Within seconds the girls are in giggles, all smiles as we dance together. This is the first time in class they are really coming out of their shells. We then gather around to watch videos of various dance forms around the world: ballet, latin, cheer, tap, East African, and even musical theater. The girls are wide-eyed. They cannot believe what they are seeing. They especially loved the tap dancing because it made them laugh, and they liked the ballet and cheer as well. They told me they had never seen dance like that before, and asked if I could get more dance videos.
They then were instructed to choreograph their own dances based on an emotion they were given. The four emotions were happiness, anger, love, and sadness. They all did the same step dances you might see in church, but they changed their faces based on the emotions they were given, which I found incredibly hilarious and cute. Critical thinking and creativity are skills we are raised with in the United States. We are taught to be unique and creative as early as Pre-School, and even our toys (think: Linkin Logs, Legos, Puzzles, etc.) teach us how to construct, build, and think critically about things. These skills do not exist here. So Tanzanians are taught in school to copy what the teacher does, to memorize answers for a test, and to not necessarily ask why something is the way it is. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and has been frustrating to me. However, I am so happy to be doing a project utilizing the arts and teaching creativity, even if it is sometimes a painful process. I couldn’t be frustrated watching these dances, though, even though they were not creative to this culture, because the girls were just too cute. And they really did put all of their effort into turning the few dance moves they knew into dance moves showcasing their given emotion.
We had a dance circle to end class. As you might expect, the girls did whatever dance move I did. But, we had a lot of fun, and it means a lot to be silly with girls who rarely get to see adult teachers acting funny with them. I was so happy that they finally let loose. I foresee more fun and valuable moments in our class together.
6 PM: I return home, make dinner, heat some water for a bucket bath, and call some friends from home.
9 PM: I draw and write on some flip charts in preparation for Sunday’s Grassroot Soccer class. On Sunday we will be utilizing soccer to talk about the differences in sex and gender with grade 7 girls.
10 PM: I am finishing this blog post, and think I’m going to get into bed. Tomorrow I’ll travel to town where I can get internet and upload this blog. The bus comes at 6:30 AM, so I will have to be up a little earlier than normal. I’m so excited to be able to eat meat and yogurt, which I can’t get in my village, and replenish my diet for the next week or two.
This is one of my better days in Mambegu, a day in my Peace Corps life
When I first learned about rain dances I was just a young girl, but I remember marveling at how people could possibly think that dancing would make the rain come. I imagined many Africans in loin cloths dancing in a circle and chanting up towards the sky. I haven’t seen anyone in my village do any rain dances (nor have I seen anyone in a loin cloth) but this year, as we waited for the rains to come in the Southern Highlands, I was so desperate for rain I was ready to teach the villagers about rain dances.
I’ll never forget the first day the rains poured down over Mambegu in December. Our village had not seen any rain since I moved there in April, and things were bone dry. Usually the rain begins in November, and people can begin planting their crops in December. This year Mambegu saw only 2 days of heavy rain in December, and villagers were beginning to get worried. The soil was too hard and dry to work, but the villagers depend on their corn supply for both food (ugali is a Tanzanian staple at almost every meal, and made with corn flour) and to sell to the government for money in September. Everyone’s livelihoods are dependent on the rain.
With the onset of rain, the village awoke as if from a long hibernation. It approached the village slowly. Dark, ominous storm clouds gathered over the vast farm land between our village and the neighboring villages Korintho and Durham. Although taking their time, the clouds were surely headed in our direction. The sun faded away in the haze, and sheets of slate grey rain were moving visibly over the mountains. I heard the sprinkle on my tin roof for only minutes before the sky opened and a downpour let loose. I couldn’t hear anything above the deafening roar. Standing in my doorway, enjoying the fresh breeze of the storm, I watched as the rain pelted down and filled within only minutes huge tubs and buckets that I had laid out. I was so grateful for the water, as my spigot had run dry in the rain’s absence.
In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I realized it had been a week since my hair had been washed. I grabbed my shampoo and conditioner, stripped down, and stepped out under the roof gutter, where the rain was angrily spilling down into the dirt below my feet. I showered in the frigid water, teeth chattering, moving as quickly as possible, before feeling cleaner than I had in months and running back into the safety of my house for my towel and warm clothes. I was giddy. Everything felt different once the rain came, and that change was evident throughout the village in the following week.
Immediately following the rains, the soils were finally workable. As I walked through the village, I saw every field filled with teams of oxen trailed by plows and male teamsters. It was so quaint: mud brick homes with thatched roofs, oxen working the fields, and women following, pressing corn seeds into the soil with their bare feet, skirts and kitenge billowing in the wind, all in front of a gorgeous mountain backdrop. Everything in the village had come to a grinding halt, yet everything had come alive at the same time. All of the little “dukas” or stores were closed during the day, as every villager helped with the tilling and planting of corn and beans. It was impossible to not feel the energy the rain had brought on. Everywhere in the village, chatter and laughing echoed. People were uplifted. After spending so much time wondering when the rains would come, there was finally promise of another year of food.
For the first time in my life, I not only knew that water is life, but fully understood the extent of that statement. And rain is something to dance for.
I have a hazy memory from my childhood of sitting with my family in the living room of our old farmhouse watching TV. Nestled under my dad’s arm in my “spot” on the couch, we watched a PBS episode on the Masai culture. I don’t remember anything from this show except learning that the Masai would gauge their ears until the holes were big enough to put disks in and that they used rings to stretch their necks because they thought long necks were beautiful. I also thought all Africans did this. I was totally disturbed by the images I saw on the screen. I thought it was so weird to do that to your body, so bad, so different from anything I knew.
Fast forward almost twenty years and here I am calling Tanzania home. When I pass Masai people walking down the street or see them herding their cattle through the fields, I think nothing of it. I greet them the same as I do any person in Tanzania. It is normal now. It’s just life, and they’re just people. Their customs and adornment were never bad. I just had to learn it was different, accept that difference, and then fully appreciate it.
Today my counterpart came to my house. After months of her asking me to cook her “chakula cha Marekani” or American food, I invited her over and prepared to make banana and peanut butter stuffed French toast. What is American food anyways? I prepared all morning, walking around town to get all the necessary ingredients, lighting up my charcoal stove, and preparing some French press coffee. You can imagine her shock when I began mixing sugar, eggs, and milk together. When I dipped the bread in the mixture, her eyebrows shot up. “It’s not bad,” I said, and she had no fear that it would be. She was so excited, and had solid faith in my cooking abilities.
We chatted over the hot stove and she took extremely detailed notes on how to prepare this food that she was just learning to pronounce. Once finished, we said grace, poured a couple of cups of coffee, and I turned on the movie “Baraka.”
I chose Baraka for a reason, and if you haven’t seen it I urge you to go out and find it. The movie covers many countries from all over the world and shows people in all walks of life. The best part about it is that there are no words, so no matter what language you speak you can enjoy all of the beauty and chaos that makes up our incredibly large world. This was why it was perfect for Neema and I. Most people in my village have never had the chance to leave the surrounding villages, and this is the only life they know. A lot of people think I can drive to America and aren’t sure what makes me different from someone from China. This is why it’s so special to me when I get to share scenes from all over the world.
As the images on the screen unfolded, Neema kept widened eyes as she asked questions and guffawed in disbelief. We saw many different religions, ways to pray, landscapes, and rituals. There were many scenes where she would turn and say “this is bad.” “No.”I said. “It’s not bad, it’s different.” I shared my story about seeing the Masai as a young girl and thinking it was bad, yet the Masai culture is beautiful. She understood, and watched the rest of the movie with wonder. We learned about the Holocaust, about cremation, and about homeless people. She couldn’t believe how many cars are in New York, and she really couldn’t believe that people live “stacked” on top of each other in apartment buildings. “Where are their farms?” She asked. So then we learned about urban gardening.
We’re living in a time when there is so much hate. A lot of this hate is politically driven, or maybe the hate is driving the politics. I have come to see that we usually hate or think things are bad when we don’t understand them. I’ve had so many ignorant and rude comments made to me as I’ve travelled over the years by friends and family at home. These comments usually involve hatred towards Muslims, immigrants, and the “poor” people in Africa. I want to urge everyone to challenge this ignorance and see different cultures and customs for what they are: beauty. Without this diversity, the world would not be so complex and beautiful. Open your minds and hearts. We have so much we can learn from each other. It’s not bad, it’s just different.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.