Packing and Processing

This morning I had a fight with my backpack. I’ve told myself I’m only allowed to take one backpack home, nothing else. I found myself wrestling with the damn thing, tugging zippers, forcing the fabric to stretch, just so I could squeeze my favorite basket, which someone bought me at the church auction during my first week in the village, into the bottom. It took half an hour and a lot of muscle and willpower, but I got the basket into the pack, and then I sat on my bed and cried. It was partly a stress dream I had just woken up from, one of several I’ve been having for the past week, it was partly out of frustration that my bedroom looks like it’s exploding and I have less than a week to clean it for the new volunteer, it’s partly that I feel this last week is rushing and time is not my own, and it’s mostly that I’m not prepared for the transition ahead of me.

During this past week I’ve been carrying so much anger inside of me. I confided in a good friend today that I feel so guilty about it, but every little thing truly sets me off. I feel annoyed at the people around me, I have anger towards things that they do and say, and I am angry at myself for feeling this way. She explained to me that these feelings are normal, because for two years we have lived in a culture so vastly different from our own, had to learn a new language, had to hide parts of ourselves (from our knees and shoulders to our emotions and identities), had to fake a smile in uncomfortable situations when what we’re truly wanting is to go home and be treated like a human being while eating some freakin’ ice cream for crying out loud! Now, we see the end in sight (in a mere 6 days!), and we’re beginning to want to return to ourselves, and that disconnect makes us feel strange and confused.

Over the past two years I have let this experience change me, and it hasn’t always changed me for the better. I have hurt people, spent too much time dwelling on my own faults, pushed people away, and at times lost sight of who I am. But I have to believe that I will see how it also changed me for the better once I return home and process the past two years of my life. I have to believe that there’s some good left within me, and that I still possess the ability to love life and the people around me with a fierce passion. That’s the Mikaela I once was, and I was able to drop my angry attitude enough to experience it again tonight.

Someone recently asked what part of Tanzanian culture I will take home with me and the question honestly left me speechless. I did not fall in love with Tanzanian culture, as much as I wanted to. I love the people, but there’s not much about the culture that would make me want to return. I’m not connected to the food, the customs, and especially not the gospel music that plays nonstop on my 6 AM bus at full volume. I decided the answer would best be answered when I have been home for a while, had space to process, and can give the beautiful answer this country, my village, and the Peace Corps experience deserve. But then I got a phone call.

My counterpart and friend, Neema, invited me to dinner tonight. I have a crazy to-do list this week so I wasn’t very excited, but I know this is my last chance to have these beautiful experiences, so I got dressed up and wrapped myself in a kanga and headed out my door. I assumed this was a normal dinner of rice and beans with Neema’s family. When I arrived, waiting for me were three families who I have been close with over the past two years, and others in the room who were just acquaintances. They welcomed me into the room and told me to sit. They explained to me that they had spent all day cooking a meal for me, and that this was a little party (the big village party will be Monday) to say thank you for all that I’ve done for them and the village.

As each person stood up and gave a speech to me about how thankful they are I lived with them and the way in which I’ve touched their lives, I was incredibly humbled. I don’t know if I can ever be so humbled again. My jaw dropped as every single person in the room spoke, even the people who were just acquaintances. I was overwhelmed with love. After the speeches, photos of my time in Mambegu were passed around the room, and memories swapped. Then the meal was served; huge pots of rice, tomato sauces, French fries, pork, and bananas were served. As the guest, they insisted I was served first, and that no one could eat until I took my first bite. We ate, we laughed, I even drank a soda, and all my anger and stress and worries were completely gone. It is laughable even that I have been feeling so stressed. I am overwhelmed with the transition ahead of me, and I am scared and have questions and doubts about what American life will bring, but everything will be okay. And it’s best to just relax and enjoy the love which surrounds me.

So to answer the question, what part of Tanzanian culture will I bring back with me, I say this: I want to bring back the love. In Mambegu, every person matters. Every life is celebrated. People with disabilities are given homes. People from all socioeconomic backgrounds are included to participate in various community groups. Even when someone shows up to a village meeting midday completely drunk, they are quietly escorted out with love and understanding. It is a culture of respect. Tonight, I was made to feel completely special. There was a dinner to celebrate my two short years here. These people are not my family, I was born on the other side of the world and have a completely different background, and truthfully they have done more for me than I have done for them, yet they made me feel as if I will always belong sitting in their house with them, eating rice, and laughing together. I live in a village where as I walk down the road, people stop me to ask when I’m leaving, and tell me to my face that they love me. I live in a village where, when I gave my neighbor pictures from the past two years, she cried (rare in this culture) and told me I’ve been like a daughter to her. I live in a village of love.

This is what I will take home. I want to love people this way. I want to celebrate my friends’ and family members’ transitions in life, their successes, and tell them often that they are loved. I want be so full of love from this experience that I can never forget how to truly love, appreciate, and celebrate those in our life on a daily basis. So often I think Americans are missing this. We get wrapped up in our own lives and our own worries that we forget to build up those around us. I think this is the greatest lesson the people of Mambegu have taught me.

After dinner, 8 people walked me home, a 30 minute walk, under the stars and the crescent moon. They asked me some questions about the U.S., we talked about the next volunteer and what he might be like, and they asked me to just build a house here and live with them. How blessed am I, to know that no matter what happens in my life, I’ll always have a home to return to?

I doubt I’ll be having stress dreams tonight, and I won’t be letting myself walk around in anger tomorrow. Instead, I choose to spend the next few days loving those around me, because they have given me nothing less. Ninawashukuru sana wamambegu

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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)!

Faces of Mambegu: Madame Mwanga Nuru

NuruI’ve never had need to use the phrase “Good things come in small Packages” until I met my good friend Nuru. Standing at about 5 feet tall, Nuru is a ball of fire and energy, commanding any room she walks into, never afraid to go after what she wants, and always getting things done. I first met Nuru during my first week in the village. I had gotten lost looking for my counterpart’s house (the houses all look the same!) and so continuously walked up and down the main road as people stared at me. Just as I finally admitted defeat and turned to go home, I heard someone say “Mikaela!” After four days in the village, I couldn’t believe someone knew my name, so I greeted the woman that boldly came up to me when no one else would, grabbed my hand, and assertively engaged me in the local handshake of two middle finger snaps.

She asked where I was going and I told her I was looking for Neema’s house. She said in slow and clear Swahili, purely for my benefit, that Neema was her neighbor but that she wasn’t home. If I wanted, I could go to her house and wait for Neema to return. Peace Corps had drilled into us to never turn down an invitation into someone’s house (a far cry from the “stranger danger” lesson we’re all taught as children), so I enthusiastically said yes and began following her down the street. As we were walking, panic started to set in that I was going to be with this woman with an indefinite period of time, and my Swahili was incredibly limited. That worry was quelled as she told me to grab a seat, and started teaching me words for everything in both Swahili and the local language Kibena. She also taught me how to cook ugali (stiff corn porridge), and fed it to me with boiled greens and beans. I knew I had found a good friend in Nuru, then 26, but because we lived so far apart and I became busy with work, I didn’t make an effort to continue the friendship.

In February I began to hear rumors that Nuru had started a chekechea, or a preschool. In June, the rumors were confirmed when I received a “Hodi!” (what people say when they show up at your house, rather than knocking.) I opened my courtyard door to find Nuru, all five feet of her. I greeted her and the first question she asked me was “Do you know who I am?” I said “yes, you’re Nuru, you taught me to cook ugali. You are Neema’s neighbor.” She smiled at the recognition and we began talking about the chekechea she opened in January. One thing led to another, and I was showing up to my first day of school in September with art supplies in tow. As I walked into her house (where she holds classes), I was greeted by her standing tall and proud in a perfectly tailored pant suit (it is really frowned upon for women to wear pants in the village). She asked the children if they knew who I was and in a chorus they all said “Mzungu!” meaning a foreigner. She quickly shut that down and told them I was “Mikaela.” Hilariously, they all think all foreigners are called “Mikaela” now, no matter the gender.

Every week I continue to go to the chekechea, and I get to know Nuru better. It is refreshing to have a friend around my own age (not a common opportunity for me in the village as most women my age are busy with at least two children), as well as someone who understands that women do not need to wear skirts and bear children to be valued; there is value in our intelligence and ability as well. Finding Nuru, as progressive as she is for a Tanzanian woman, has been like finding gold in my village. We can talk about anything from relationship issues to the best teaching strategies for children. She is a fabulous teacher, compassionate with children but also not afraid to teach them right from wrong. She teaches them in three languages: Swahili, English, and they already know Kibena. They are far ahead of their peers at other chekecheas, knowing more English and already able to read and write full sentences at 3-5 years old.

Nuru decided to open a school all on her own. She only has a high school education, but she went through all the necessary steps to open the school with the help of her younger sister, Grace. She currently has forty students attending and has big dreams to expand the school. I have no doubt that she will be able to accomplish all she wants to because of her drive. She truly is an exemplary person, and a fabulous friend. The name “Nuru” means light, and it is so fitting for her. Never have I met someone who truly resembles the sun as much as Nuru.

What Have I Even Been Doing?!

octoberI have been on a ridiculously long blog hiatus and I apologize! In August I took a trip back home to Vermont to visit friends and family and came back refreshed for the last stretch of my service. Here I sit with five months left and I have no idea where the time has gone! I feel that I just began Peace Corps, yet my class is the next to leave in March and April 2018. I look back at pictures from my training in early 2016 and it feels like yesterday. I think I must be the same exact person who walked into Tanzania, but then I realize two years has passed: I came in at 23 and will be leaving just before my 26th birthday with a life-changing experience packed into those two short years. It would be impossible to stay the same, yet I also have trouble pinpointing exactly how I have changed. All I know is so far, I feel that I have gained a deeper understanding of myself and international development, and that chances are I won’t know how this experience has changed me until months or even years after I have returned home.

But enough introspection! Why has it been months since I’ve written and what have I even been up to? Here’s a brief glance at that:

  • It’s wedding season, so I’ve been dancing it up at some sharehes (celebrations)! I feel even closer to my village when I celebrate with them. Dancing always brings people together, and I’m grateful to experience this piece of the Wabena culture. Weddings this year feel a lot different for me than last year for a couple of reasons: I now understand everything that is said and happening, whereas last year I was really limited in my Swahili skills, and people in my village know me on a deeper level now, so I feel included in the celebration, not just that “mzungu” who no one really knows.october3
  • There’s been a lot of funerals in my village lately. Mostly these have been for elders. When there’s a funeral, it is announced by someone who walks up the main road in the village and beats a drum at 6:30 AM. Everyone in the village is expected to attend, so no matter what I have planned that day, I wrap myself up in two pieces of kitenge and stay anywhere from 4-6 hours at the funeral. All projects and plans must always be cancelled if there is a funeral. About a week ago, my neighbor Kaliyakoo who I wrote an earlier blog post about, lost her grandchild due to some sort of issue with his head (based off of what she described in Swahili, possibly hydrocephalus or some issue with the skull, and based off of my observations in the village, possibly caused by malnutrition or dehydration). He was just over one year old. I was unable to attend the funeral due to traveling, but the news hit me hard, as she has really accepted me into her family. Please keep her in your thoughts as she and her family are grieving.
  • We’re in the process of building a girls’ bathroom at the primary school. The building is taking a lot longer than expected, but it looks like we just need the roof now. This has been a painstaking grant project that I will discuss in a later post, but for now the thought of it just makes my blood pressure rise, so onto happier things.
  • I’ve been teaching at the “chekechea” or preschool once per week! The kids are 3-5 years old and incredibly cute. I run an “art” class which is really just time spent coloring with them, but it is one of the only times they get to make decisions in their lives (children here are often told what is right and wrong in a school setting, so they’re still getting used to the idea of choosing colors for their pictures). The teachers have taken to leaving me alone with the 31 students which is exhausting and often frustrating, so I also stay busy teaching them songs and games as well as working on math and learning letters. My Wednesday routine is to teach from 8 AM-12 PM, eat lunch with the teacher and then return home where I pass out into dreamless sleep for about three hours. These kids are equal parts fun and exhausting!
  • Graduations! This is the end of the school year, and the students will be on break until January. I gave a speech at the primary school graduation and was the “megeni rasmi” or guest of honor at the chekechea graduation. Much like weddings, it has been so fun to celebrate the success of students alongside the village. Plus, I get to eat rice and meat with my hands, all for free!october2
  • Interior decorating: My Dad comes to visit soon! I’ve used this as motivation to paint my house as well as finally buy some furniture. I’m in love with my new couch, and having a place to sit and relax could possibly affect the productivity of the rest of my service (just kidding! Maybe…)
  • Project Planning: Many projects have gotten cancelled or had unforeseen circumstances affect them. I’ve spent time planning upcoming projects such as a baking group (income generating project) which begins in November and a world map mural painted at the school in November and a subsequent world geography club which will begin in January. I’ve also had to focus on rescheduling and redesigning projects such as a menstrual pad sewing project with a mama’s group, the HIV group’s garden, and continuing work with the dairy project we began in June. I am worried I will regret not doing enough in my service, and so really want to make these last five months count.

I will be much better about updating the blog regularly, so stay tuned! We are at the end of the dry season now, and once the rains come, I anticipate having much more time to sit on my new couch and write blog posts for you all. Until next time!october4

The Importance of Art: Maua Mazuri

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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.

 

 

Coming Home

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This is my house!

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.

IMG_5127Exactly 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.

IMG_5040Sometimes 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!

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Of course coming home also means snuggling with this adorable little lady!

I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant- TZ Edition

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.”