Monday, 2 September 2013

lil BIG Update

For to stay, though the hours burn in the night, is to freeze and crystallize and be bound in a mould.”–The Prophet

It's been all too long since I've updated this blog but I wanted to squeeze in one more before I COS (close-of-service) from Peace Corps in 2 weeks.  The name of this blog, although I chose it way before I'd even started learning real Swahili, has rang true through all of my service.  Umoja means one-ness and, more distinctly, self actualization.  My whole PC service has been about finding within myself the strength to carry out each day and persist despite obstacles or people around me.  Funny how things, like choosing a name, have way of fitting perfectly into the scheme of things.

Looking back on the breadth of experiences, I can’t even begin to sort through them.  Of course, some of my favourites are the times when my Tanzanian neighbors helped me through things that I could’ve never navigated on my own.  For example, when Radi (my cat) locked me inside my bedroom.  He was playing with the dead bolt lock on the outside of my door and slid it into the latch – making it impossible for me to leave my room.  I had to call Mama TT next door at 7 am and have her send over a kid to climb through a partially open window and unlock my door from the inside of my house.  Then there was the time that I got really sick with a fever and night sweats and couldn’t leave my bed.  That same mama brought me over porridge every morning and dinner each night so that I could just rest and recover (and considering that cooking even one meal in this country – with your kerosene stove top and lack of refrigerator – is a hour or two long ordeal, that really meant a lot).  Then there was the time that the doctor told me to go get my stool tested at the hospital because I hadn’t been feeling well for 2 weeks and my other neighbor, Shaffi, gave me a ride (it was 2 hours away) and then, because the results were taking so long, brought me a cold soda and sat and waited with me until lab test was finished.  Turned out I had a parasite.  And without Shaffi’s lift to the hospital, I would’ve had to stay the night in that town alone because the results didn’t come out until an hour after the last bus home had left.  Who does that?  Well, people that have now become like a second family here do.  Every single time something like this happens, all I can feel is how lucky and blessed I am.


                Granted there’ve been plenty of times that people have also, to put it bluntly, screwed me over and those experiences are hard to forget as well, no matter how much you want to.  It almost always involves money and charging you too much or tricking you into paying for something that shouldn’t be paid for.  Sometimes it’s tempting to just let it go and pay the extra.  The hassle can be so exhausting.  But it’s so frustrating and wrong because you know that you aren’t paying the actual fair, and to me, that’s stealing. 

I made a promise to myself when coming to this country to not give monetary handouts, no matter how much I feel bad and may want to.  So far I’ve kept really true on that although I know that my neighbors and other teachers see me as selfish and ungenerous at times.  However, I joined PC to give of my time and effort, not money, and being here has only reinforced my belief that that’s actually what Tanzanian’s need from PCVs.  My reasoning was that, not only am I poor and can’t really afford it, giving handouts doesn’t lead to anything positive in the future, only a perpetuation of a “begging” culture dependent on outside help.  One of the most annoying things that PCV’s hear (aside from the word for “tourist” in Swahili repeated incessantly) is the phrase “Give me money.”  Sometimes it’s in Swahili, sometimes English, but either way it is so frustrating because it only continues the stereotype that most Tanzanians have, which is that Americans and Europeans are only here to give Africans money.  So, to come and hand out, even candy to passing children, isn’t “bringing happiness,” it’s perpetuating the greed that can be found in daily life.

To elaborate a bit more bluntly, this idea that many Tanzanians have (not all…and I want to clarify that) in which they would rather be dependent on others than work themselves for something in order to earn and deserve it, is rampant.  It’s unpleasant, and not applicable to every single person, but definitely the majority.  And to fully understand this, you need to know that they don’t see it as stealing, or greed, or selfishness…they see it as a means to an end.  And since the end is something that they believe they are entitled to, they will justify any means in order to reach that end, no matter the cost.  While they screw over foreigners more, they still lie and cheat from other Tanzanians as well.  ANYTHING justifies this ends…and that’s where the line between earning and stealing becomes blurry fast.  Really really fast.  That may sounds a bit too honest or unbecoming, but it is a basic truth that only gets revealed in its entirety once two years have passed.  Even these last weeks, I’ve seen some unseemly sides of people that I’ve worked beside and known my entire service…people that I know others trust. It has and always will irk me into disgust but now I simply approach it with indifference because, well, what can you ACTUALLY do?  This is THEIR culture, THEIR country…not mine.  While living in Tanzania long term has shown me wonderful things, from the intricacies of community to the beauty of the land, it makes staunchly apparent the fact that I am still not Tanzanian, and will never be.  Which is usually for the best.

Looking back, I know that I’ve been changed significantly yet the world still seems to be the same overwhelming place that it was before I left.  The key difference, I would venture to guess, is really that I feel more capable of handling anything that’s thrown my way.  I suppose that’ll happen to after you spend such long amounts of time here… and a few too many days when the students are sent home to go collect school fees and don’t come back until a week later, a few too many bus rides where the engine breaks down in the middle of a 8 hour dirt road because the radiator just fell out, a few too many neighbors covertly “borrowing” your things and returning them 3 months later broken, or not returning them or even admitting that they took them in the first place.  This country, as many other PC-ridden ones throughout the world, will make you learn to appreciate all the organization and trust that we have on a daily basis.  It makes you understand how large of a role our basic moral codes and social expectations can play in every aspect of life – from church, to school, to community meetings, to dinners, to walking down the street/path.  And, it makes you able to adapt at a second’s notice because you never really know what that day has in store for you but the only way to really make it through is just to roll with the punches amicably (and typically accompanied by several disgruntled texts to your best friend).


As the more time passes, the harder and harder it becomes to relate to people back home.  While my biggest daily frustrations ranged from cows getting in my way as I biked to school and to people selling me something for twice its actual price, Americans back home would talk about the traffic, too much snow, and annoying significant others.  When I toyed with the idea of extending my service (adding on between 6 and 12 months) in order to finish out another school year with my students and be there to support the sustainability of the library, I realized that if I stayed any longer, going back might just be a little too hard.  I’m already so different, what if I just couldn’t relate…ever?  I agreed to stay until the new volunteer arrived (September) which was already an extra two months but then I knew it’d be time to say goodbye.  I’ve always known that goodbyes would be hard but necessary.  I still remember vividly saying goodbye at for the first and then second time when leaving the States.  Always challenging, always sad, but always important.  You have to move on, to grow…idleness is the seed of unhappiness and for me that meant coming to Tanzania as well as eventually coming home.  Every single day that I’ve woken up in this country, there’s a piece of me that, upon realizing where I am, says “Crap.  Still here.”  But then you go on with your day and forget about all the things that you miss and get consumed by the present, momentarily enthralled time and time again by the things that are SO different and SO quirky…the tribal people wrapped in only a blanket with their walking sticks as they converse on their Chinese made cells phones, mothers carrying water on their head and a baby on their back simultaneously, children running in hoards just to scream “Good morning!!!!” at you (it’s 5pm) over and over…and then ask you for candy.  Some things never get old and others get old all too fast.

Living in the bush within a developing country as also brought to a realization how different one’s beliefs can be.  I live and teach within a community who thinks that wizards and witchdoctors exist (and practice their art…), girls can become possessed by evil spirits, albinos have magical bones, evolution is all a big hoax, America is over run by horrible freemasons (Does anyone even know what a freemason is???), and homosexuality is so much of a sin that it’s illegal.  While I don’t agree with a single one of these statements, it’s been eye-opening, and humbling in a way, to live amongst people who do believe in these things, and so completely that no credible evidence will actually change their minds.  Have you ever been surrounded by a community that thinks are you crazy for your lack of belief in something you’ve always been taught was crazy?  I’m sure that we’ve all been ostracized and felt like an outsider at points in our lives.  Well to feel that way here, and be the only one within a 30km radius who thinks so differently, has challenged my patience, open-mindedness, and, most importantly, skills of logical persuasion.  However much I disagree with my neighbor’s opinions and beliefs, I have to accept them as their own and be okay with that.  To make it even more challenging, Tanzanian culture predisposes them to ask questions that they think they already know the answer to. Therefore they hardly ever actually listen to your attempts to explain yourself no less believe you.  Each day tests me in some small yet substantial way and numerous times I’ve failed, simply snapping at my colleagues, neighbors, even students.  While I haven’t been perfect, I have grown.  And that, within itself, is a rewarding feeling.

                Peace Corps is often referred to as teaching us how to fail.  We are raised in a culture where we are taught that failure is bad and success is the only viable option if you want to feel good about what you’ve done. Tanzania is FULL of failure.   There are the NGO built-schools, libraries, and computer labs with no staff or resources which are becoming more decrepit with time.  There are students that fail their secondary school exams, composing half of the country despite the passing grade being a 21%...that’s not a typo.  There are the houses made from mud that only stand for a year, the water pumps that no one knows how to fix, the buses that constantly break down or swerve off roads and the overcrowded ferries that sink mid-journey.  More often than not, things are done half-assed here, and it shows.  Yet, Tanzanians don’t go about their days feeling mad or sorry for themselves (this is the part that usually shocks foreigners).  The majority of them are sufficiently happy in spite of all their country’s hurdles.  While the sustainability of any project here is nearly non-existent (it’s ALL about getting the money now), it’s from these failures that people learn, they grow.  And when they finally get so tired of the same failures over and over and over again, they change.  However, that’s for the Tanzanian people to decide, not you or me or the U.S. or the U.K.   This is still a DEVELOPING country.  Tanzanians are still developing the capacity to do things on their own.  And one of the most important things that Peace Corps has really taught (aside from accepting failure) is that for something to be sustainable you need the people in the community that you are working to WANT to continue that change.  Ultimately it may even come down to one person but that person needs to care enough to work at it otherwise any change that you attempt will decay along with all the abandoned buildings once you turn your back.  It’s taken me two years, a lot of upset and anger, but I’ve learned this lesson and forgiven myself for the times that I wasn’t a “success” by American standards.  Maisha yanaendelea…Life goes on.

Someone that I’ve found who’s really helped me know that change IS possible and people DO care has been my counterpart on my library project, Mr. Yame Amnaay.  I’ve always known that he was kind-hearted and driven but I’d never seen it such an impressive degree until I really needed someone to step up and help me bring the project to fruition.  He’s been motivated non-stop since we elected Head Librarian and never once complained, acted tired or showed any ounce of frustration with my requests and demanding American standards.  This contrasts starkly with any other Tanzanian that I’ve worked with on projects.  I would not have been able to complete this library successfully without him.  It’s rare to find people in this country who are in something for a reason other than money (I’d imagine that’s a common trend among developing nations).  I rarely trust anyone here after being lied to and cheated so many times and initially I was so hesitant about him just like everyone else.  However, Yame and his family (he has a wife, a 4 year old girl and a one year old boy) have shown with that there is hope and truly good hearted people do exist.  God really blessed me when he put me at this school.

I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished…and tried to accomplish.  Peace Corps really does teach us high reaching Americans what it means to lower our standards, to not have tangible results.  It’s completely frustrating but pivotal since not all attempts can succeed.  It’s just statistically impossible.  Things that I’ve tried and failed at would be teaching Form 1 baseline English, starting an English club, tutoring various students (who’ve usually just stopped coming after about 2 sessions) and continuing a ZINDUKA (HIV/AIDS prevention) club.  Now I’m not saying that all failure is bad and completely unfruitful.  Some things were imparted, whether about English grammar, cultures outside Tanzania, and HIV/AIDS knowledge, but, since the long time sustainability was not achieved, I wouldn’t really consider these things a success.  That being said, I also don’t regret trying them.  Although it’s really defeating to look back and realize all of your hard work and effort were seemingly wasted, it’s in attempting that you find solace.  Hindsight is always 20/20.  The reasons for my failures range dramatically from a lack of student motivation to my unavailability.  However, most poignantly, this so called “failure” results from the from other teachers unwillingness to participate and stay motivated.  At every school the teachers are the ones with the power to initiate change and direct focus.  Especially here, a strong prevalent social hierarchy exists and is reinforced daily through sending students on errands in the middle of class to beating them when they misbehave.  Therefore, it’s the teachers that need the determination to keep any project, club or outlook sustained…and determination here is rare and often hindered.  This is another reason why Yame’s efforts are so impressive and appreciated.

The two things that I would quantify as successes are my time teaching Biology here (for Forms 3 and 4) and my library project.  Now, I’m going to try to be realistic and acknowledge that the library could depreciate over time and just because we have an awesome head librarian (Mr. Yame) doesn’t mean that the school and its politics will prevent him from doing his job, but for now, as I have 2 weeks remaining, the library is functioning and being used each day by the students.  All I wanted to do was give them reliable access to books, and that, currently, is happening.  So, for now, I’d consider it a success.  We’ve tried to make it as sustainable as possible, putting in measures to chose the most enthusiastic people to work in it, actually paying someone to watch over it each day and signing contract after contract agreeing to do yearly maintenance and add to the collection of books, so it’ll be interesting to see where it ends up in one, two, even ten years.  But, as my parents constantly remind me, all you can do is your best when you’re here and hope that someone in the community cares enough to keep things going.  It’s been really rewarding to see students come in everyday and wander through the shelves, request to use the coloured pencils and chalk that we’ve donated and staying until closing time writing notes.  The last few days of its first week open, it was so full that we had to bring in desks from outside to accommodate all the students.  I had a smile on my face the whole time.  And, again, to everyone that made this possible, THANK YOU! ***

Teaching, however, has been a whole different story.  While I’d classify it as a success in the sense that I did it, my passion was not as fervent as with my library.  Each day I woke up dreading what was to come just slightly and each day there was the unexpected.   Whether the school bell ringing in the middle of your period, half the students not even bothering to being a notebook and/or pen to class, the rain coming down too hard that you couldn’t even hear yourself speak or my students looking at me blankly as I ask them a question about something I just taught yesterday, there was always something preventing learning from actually occurring.  While I stuck it out and stayed here for two years despite feeling constantly disheartened, it wasn’t my favourite job and I wouldn’t sign up again.  I think that one of the reasons that I put my heart so ardently into the library was because I didn’t really feel like any of the students cared as much about learning as I did about teaching them.  I’d wager that’s a common feeling among teachers in the States as well.  There were the rare few who’d come and ask questions, answer the homework quite thoroughly or participate in class.  But, for the most part, I feel like I spent two years talking to a wall.  The language barrier is one thing but that compounded with the tribal attitudes to result in some rather defeating times.  On the days that I did teach a lot, I left feeling accomplished, whether or not the students really seemed to understand because, hey, at least I tried.   Most of my favourite memories are with my current Form 4 students.  I’ve been teaching them for over 2 years now and it’s really evident when they take my exams and answer my questions in class that they’ve become accustomed to me – my language/accent, my style, my expectations.  We did group projects last year and they had to present in front of everyone and it was really rewarding to see them stand up and teach each other about various topics we’d covered.  I was so proud.  J It’s the little moments and memories like that which make teaching feel like a success here.  Who knows how the NECTA (their final exam to continue into advanced level secondary school) will go.  Grading is never consistent, the exam writers never use proper English and they constantly try to trick the students (who are already taking this exam in their second, maybe third , language) but the students that care will do their best and hope for good results.  100-81 is an A, 80-61 is a B, 60-41 is a C, 40-21 is a D and 20 and below is an F.  Yep. That’s a little bit different from our system, huh?

In fact, just yesterday, as I was in our library watching students as they studied for their midterms, two of my Form 4’s came in and started talking.  We discussed the final projects I’d been planning for this coming week, the library and its potential and how they felt when it came to preparing for the NECTA in two months.  They were really positive and told me how great it was to have the resources here finally.  Then, they asked about having one final English club meeting.  I felt so great because I thought that they didn’t care about it anymore.  After we discussed what we should read at the meeting, they both stayed to study for a few hours.  At closing, one of the them came up to me and handed me a card that he’d made with my name on it, the Tanzanian flag and various verses saying “Thank you” and “We’ll miss you so much”.  I wanted to cry.  It’s so small but it means so much to me, especially considering the frustration that you feel on a daily basis.  Tanzanians are not very grateful by nature – they don’t really say “Thank you” after a transaction or when given something.  I have to remind my students all the time to be polite because they’ll translate Swhaili into English directly which, instead of saying “Can I please has this” will come out “Give me this.”  They are just not accustomed to saying things politely.  That’s why, when a student show their gratitude, it means SO much here.  It’s not the norm.

Many people have asked about my plans for afterwards, which have become more solidified now (albeit still a bit in the “winging-it” stage).  So far, here’s what I’ve got:  One of my awesome friends, Sarah, is coming to visit me in a week.  She’s been living in Thailand the last year teaching English and traveling…it’ll be interesting to compare stories.  After she sees my site for a few days, I’m going to say goodbye for good here and head to Dar to COS.  We might climb Mt. Hanang one last time before heading out as well…it’ll depend on if we can find the trail. Then, I’ll COS in Dar, which takes about a week.  I close my bank accounts, fill out all the paperwork, get lots of medical checkups and have a final exit interview where, I’m told, the country director convinces you that your two years were not for naught.  Then, we are heading to Moshi to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for a few days.  It’ll take about 5 days to go up and down (we are taking Rongai route for anyone who’s actually done it) and then I want to head to Arusha one last time to say goodbye to Shaffi’s family.  They live there and have become literally like a second family.  Their home feels like my home away from home (esp. last weekend when I stayed there while getting books and would run in for 5 minutes, grab food, and run back out to complete my errands…Mum and Dad, you understand : ) ).  Me and Sarah will spend a few days with them and then…well, I don’t know!   We are set on making it to South Africa by December.  That’ll give us two whole months to travel from Tanzania through Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, maybe Madagascar (if we can get some great deal).  We really want to see Victoria Falls along the way but other than that we’ll be just winging it.  I haven’t bought a plane ticket home but we are planning on flying from South Africa to somewhere else (if my Peace Corps stipend makes it that far).  Maybe Ethiopia, maybe India, maybe Greece.  Not yet decided.  Egypt was in the running (I wanted to see the pyramids) until all the riots and unrest so that’s off the drawing board.  This will put me home either late December or early January.  After that, I’m going to be studying for the MCAT for 6 months (Caribou Coffee and Cook Library here I come!!!) and apply to medical school in June.  Hopefully I’ll find a part time job to supplement my income during those months and then a temporary job for 6 months to a year before medical school starts (assuming I get in…fingers crossed!).  Obviously those updates will come per annum.

 This brings the updating to a close.  For those of you that made it to the bottom...thanks for reading.  :)  I've learned a lot from this whole experience, am grateful for everyday and appreciate all of the love and support that I've received along the way.  I put my heart into being here and, while it's been really heartbreaking at times, I wouldn't change a single moment. "Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination" (Mark Twain) and I don't know if I'd claim to be sane anymore but I'm definitely happy.