I’m currently sitting in a hotel room, in town listening to some awesome Tanzanian music that a friend of mine from Lushoto copied for me before I left. The song is called Tattoo Bila and, though I can’t always understand all of the lyrics to the music here, I’m a huge fan. There’s a huge wave of reggae music hitting the Tanzanian scene and, obviously, the Kiswahili hip-hop. He also gave me a lot of what he calls “old Tanzanian music.” I imagine it’s somewhat like oldies in America. Either way, I really love the music here and am happy to have a piece of the Tanzanian culture that satisfies my tastes so well (after the huge disappointment in most of the food).
I’ve been at my new site for a month now. How do I feel? Things are up and down but lately I’ve been excited and feeling like things are really starting to fall into place. Allow me to expound.
I was dropped off at my site, after seeing a lot of my friends in Njombe town for the first time since training. I was only going to be there for about 4 days until I was supposed to go back to town to meet some friends and get some banking stuff done, etc. I spent those few days just setting up my house and trying to get settled. I was not going to get a “house girl,” something that a lot of volunteers have. However, when I showed up at my house, there was a girl there with the Village Executive Officer who was helping the last volunteer who lived there and so, I ended up with one by default. Her name is Nuru. And now, I wonder what I’d do without her! Those first few days at site left me feeling discouraged. I know, now, that it was probably all in my head. I had really good expectations about my site from what Peace Corps had told me and, when I arrived, I realized that I’d let those expectations far outstretch reality. People were not knocking down my door telling me how excited they were and throwing lots of amazing project ideas and offers to help at me. I quickly allowed myself to believe that the villagers there were feeling jaded because they’d lost their last two volunteers and that they were not going to allow themselves to like me for fear that I would just be leaving again soon, myself. I told myself that I had more of an uphill climb than others and I allowed self-misery to infiltrate. What a jerk move of mine.
So, when I went to Njombe that weekend, there were a lot of volunteers here, as well as their “shadows.” Shadows are trainees who go to live with an active volunteer for a week to get an idea of what it’s like to live as a volunteer. I, myself, shadowed in the Tanga region with an education volunteer who was actually a Kenya volunteer but, during the recent and not so civil elections there, was evacuated and was one of the lucky ones who got to continue their service, just in another country. I had a great time that weekend. There are a lot of volunteers in this region and numerous opportunities to get together and see one another. So, I then began to feel even worse. I did not want to be a volunteer who goes through the motions at site and really just lives for the weekends when she gets to go to town and be with other Americans. This experience is, obviously, supposed to be about a lot more than that.
So, when it came time to get back on my bus and go to my village, I stopped on the way to buy credit for my phone and, when I reached into my bag for my money, realized that it was gone. I have absolutely no idea when or how, but I am sure that it was stolen because I was positive of where it was at all times. I had left my bag in the hotel room when I’d gone out the day before and that was the only possible time that it could have been taken. So, I found myself dead broke and not even able to board my bus. My friend, Tara, whose bus didn’t leave for another hour, suggested that I just come with her to her site rather than staying in town for another night alone and that I could just ride back in the morning and catch my bus after I’d had an opportunity to go to the bank. She assured me that she was very “in” with her bus drivers and that, if we explained our problem, that they wouldn’t even make me pay for the rides there and back. They didn’t. When I went back to my site before the Thanksgiving festivities that we’d planned were to come into effect, Tara offered to come with me. I was, obviously, ecstatic about the idea for I, in so many ways, dreaded going back there to the lonely pit that I’d built for myself. Tara encouraged me to get out into the village and work hard at meeting people and building relationships with them, something that had come so easily to me at my first site, but that I’d allowed the prospect of doing so once again to get lost in my self-pity. It’s so difficult to initially integrate into a community when you stand out like a sore thumb, are usually disillusioned or completely unaware of what is going on and why, and you are just barely beginning to be able to speak the language and completely unable to speak the tribal language, something much more common in the smaller villages. Did I really have to do all of that all over again? With Tara’s help, I began. But, not before I managed to lose my bags in a town where we had to change buses on our way. I’d put them on my bus and went into town to buy some vegetables (you can only buy onions, tomatoes and potatoes in my village). When I returned, the bus was gone, my bags inside. The first and only time a bus in Tanzania has ever left earlier than they’ve said (they are usually about an hour late at the least). The bus conductor assured me that we’d meet up with that same bus in our junction town and, with any luck, I’d be able to retrieve my bags. I did, though my expectations were extremely low.
We walked around the village, meeting and greeting in our matching Barack Obama kangas (a kanga is basically a piece of cloth that you wrap around your waste, shoulders, use as a blanket, whatever works). People’s reactions, once I accepted that I was going to have to come to them and not the other way around, were quite pleasant. I was finally starting to feel good. One thing that Tara noticed right away was my lack of furniture. By this time, most volunteers had their houses well furnished (I had to leave all of the new furniture that I’d bought behind in Lushoto) and, as we walked around my village, we noticed that there was an abundance of bamboo trees. She had a bright idea. Why don’t we just make a table out of bamboo? Brilliant. And sounded like fun. So, I bought a machete from a man in the village and we ventured off into, what we thought was, the woods. We began hacking at bamboo trees with my machete and, when we got to the third one, an old lady came running out of a house about 50 yards away screaming “mnaiba!” It means, “You all are stealing.” We were mortified. We began begging for forgiveness, asserting that we had no idea that these trees belonged to anyone. As she came closer and was finally in our immediate presence, we could see that she was laughing hysterically. She must have been quite amused at the sight of two white girls, in the middle of the woods, chopping away at trees with machetes, wearing matching kangas and video-taping the whole affair. I know I would have been if I were her. She allows us to take what we’ve chopped and be on our way. Tara and I load up the trees onto our shoulders and began making our way back to my house, suffering many stares and giggles on the way, something that we’ve become quite accustomed to anyway. We meet two kids playing “futbol” who tell us that their names are Frank and Doctor and that they attend the primary school that is just behind my house. We get home and begin chopping all of the small branches off of the stump and are passed by a group of mamas, one who assures us that there is no way that we will be able to make this table alone and that we should solicit the help of some local men. That sets us on fire. We promise one another that we will finish this table tomorrow
The next morning, Frank and Doctor visited my home during their chai break at school. I served them some tea and fruit and Tara went to chopping away at the bamboo. They look perplexed and ask us what we are doing. We tell them our plan and they are excited, asking if they could help. Long story short, these two 12-year-old boys took the project into their own hands, insisting that we stop our work and they’ll be back during lunch. They come again during their lunch break, finishing the tabletop and then assuring us that they’ll be back after school is over for the day to help us with the legs. We hadn’t even thought about legs yet. How will we make them, we wonder? We shouldn’t have ever doubted…
Frank and Doctor arrive again, having changed out of their school clothes and finishing their afternoon chores. They ask for the machete and, before Tara and I know it, they had shimmied their way up the trees in my front yard and were chopping down small branches. They climbed back down and cut the wood into even table legs, then nailing them to the top using a wrench as a hammer. Incredible. These two boys, 12 years old but appearing to be 8 years old had just fashioned me a sweet, homemade table. I was grateful and took lots of pictures, which sent them into a whirlwind of excitement and curiosity. They wanted to see every single picture that I took, at least 10 times each.
During Tara’s visit, we made banana pancakes, listened to Frank and Doctor sing us songs and tell us about their families. We found a scorpion in my house, one of the small ones…the fiercest and most poisonous, I’m told. We visited a local “mzee” (old man) who has a magnificent tree farm and we bought some trees from him and planted them at my house (one mango, one avocado, three passion fruit trees and two aloe vera plants). We were berated incoherently by an old drunk man with a stick and convinced to buy some weird fruits by some children that are about plum sized with a filling that is the consistency of jam and sort of make your tongue go numb. Tara fell down in my house, running from a bug and broke the newly made table and then hit her head on the open window. It was a magically hilarious chain of events and my table was later fixed by a different pair of 12 year olds. We watched a man on a mounted bicycle contraption sharpen my machete and we made chili. The time that she was there, somehow, made all of the difference to me in my integration into the village and I have her to thank for snapping me out of me despair and helping me to remember why I am here.
After the visit, it was almost Thanksgiving and we had plans. We were going to visit the house of a friend of ours, Cory, before all going together to a couple’s house in Mufindi where we would celebrate with a huge group of our friends. After all, being a uniquely American holiday, we could not expect any festivities in our village and thus, were very excited about getting together with other Americans for the occasion. On our way there, in the same junction town where I’d temporarily lost my bags the first time, I managed to get myself pick pocketed and lost my wallet. It had, as its contents, a copy of my passport, my American visa card, my Tanzanian bank account information, and very little money, thankfully. Luckily, in a series of unlikely and difficult to explain events, it was actually returned to me, nothing missing but the money. Another stroke of good luck following a careless loss on my part. So, we venture off to see my friend. The bus stop for his village is about a 2-½ hour walk to his house. Luckily, he’s very close to the “father” in his village and we were greeted at the stop with a ride to his home. The father was the Catholic priest in his village and the head of the mission. He made many stops along the way, loading things into his car that were being carried all the way into the village on the heads of mamas or young girls or greeting young children who came running towards his car at full speed just so that they could touch his head and tell him “Shikamoo,” a greeting of respect for elders. We reached Cory’s house and spent the evening there, eating dinner at the mission and spending time with the same priest. God bless that man; he is fabulous. The next day, we woke up with the sun and began cooking dishes to bring the Jenny’s and Geoff’s house for Thanksgiving. Cooking here is an all day affair no matter what you try to make and we had several dishes planned. We made mango bread, onion bread and a fruit crisp that ended up failing terribly but I salvaged most of it and ended up making it into a mango/pineapple pie instead. We reached Jenny and Geoff’s house and I found myself in heaven. They lived in the middle of a beautiful mountain range in Mufindi, surrounded by chai fields and on the property of a resort owned by a British man who has lived in Tanzania since the 1950’s. They lived about a two-minute walk down the hill from an orphanage that was a part of an NGO started by the same man and which they ran together. Jenny was a former Peace Corps volunteer who just finished her service and started this job. Geoff is her American boyfriend who she’d been with since before leaving for Peace Corps and who found a job in Tanzania less than halfway through her service so that they could be together. Now, they are living the dream. They are incredible people who were most welcoming and we spent the evening playing with the kids at the orphanage and gawking at their pet monkey who peed on everyone but was incredibly adorable. They had a friend there from the UK who had just graduated high school and was doing some work with the NGO in the interim before entering Briton University next year. They had a piano and lots of other instruments and we spent time there cooking, playing music, going to the resort for croquet, but not before crossing a river on a fallen tree. On our way back from the resort one night, in the complete darkness, we were without Jenny or Geoff and had lost our way. Walking up the hill, as if God just gave them specific instruction, we were greeted by about 6 of the children from the orphanage wielding lanterns and hand drums. We asked them what they were doing there. “We just came to help you find your way home,” says Moses. Jenny and Geoff never told them to come find us. We will never know how they knew. Either way, they walked us home while entertaining us with drums and dancing. It was a phenomenal time.
The day after Thanksgiving, a large group of us piled into cars and made our way to the home of another friend. She had a typical Peace Corps house, completely unable to accommodate the 15 of us who came. Most of us slept on the concrete floor and awoke with cramps. But, it was worth it. We ate Alee’s homemade soup in the rain and my friend Justin took on a Tanzanian in a bilingual rap battle that was actually, quite impressive and the highlight of the night. This tiny little redheaded kid with a thick Boston accent might just be the next Eminem. The bad news is that my friend, Alee, didn’t feel good the whole time and, as it turns out, had come down with Malaria. Oh Africa….
When I arrived back home at my village, I was greeted by about 6 of the schoolchildren who had begun frequenting my house and they helped me carry all of my bags. I rewarded them with a soccer ball that I’d bought for them in town, that which they busted two days later. World AIDS Day was the next day and I knew that there was going to be a huge even in a neighboring village. That morning, Nuru met me at home and we went to wait for the car. The car turned out to be an enormous truck into which we would load about 75 people and be on our way. The rains have hit and it wasn’t long before the truck got stuck in the mud and, after about an hour of trying to push and maneuver, was found to be a lost cause for getting us to the event that morning. We took away on foot. About 22 kilometers later, and after scouring the forests beneath fruit trees, on the lookout for fallen fruit because we were so hungry, we’d reached the event. There were hundreds of people, performances, HIV testing lines that stretched the whole of the center of the village, speeches, donations, etc. It was a really encouraging event and I’m excited about setting up something for next year that we can do in our own village.
I spent the rest of the week playing with the children, meeting with my VEO (Village Executive Officer) to learn as much as I could about the village for a Peace Corps report that I will have to write (starting all over again). I went to a tailor and am having clothes made out of a beautiful kitenge (much like a kanga) that I found. I asked the wanafunzi (schoolchildren) if they would be interested in painting a mural on the wall of my courtyard and they were elated, having already begun now to practice by sketching their ideas onto paper. I made my way back into town for a surprise birthday party that my friend had planned for another volunteer (he turned 40!) and spent time with friends. Now, I am in my hotel alone, having to stay an extra day because the banks are closed for Tanzania’s Independence Day and I’m out of cash. I am actually looking forward to going back to my village tomorrow and spending some weeks there before Christmas time!
After I got over myself, I realized how beautiful my village is and how many treasures lit within it. It is settled on the outside of an incredible mountain range, which you can see from my house. The children are each like my very own personal gift. I can see the soccer field from my back window and very much enjoy attending the matches, though I usually end up playing with the kids on the sidelines and not seeing any of the game. The Mzee Mtega’s tree farm is a unique blessing from which I can get fruits and can possibly even start income-generating projects or help people start tree nurseries of their own. The Catholic mission is about 5 minutes from my house and they have a substantial farm and it is where young Doctor is living. There may be no electricity in the village but there are a few shops with generators at which I can charge my cell phone. We have the only dispensary of any village in our entire Ward, tiny as it might be. I don’t live
very far from the road where the bus comes so, when I do have to go into town, I don’t have to walk 2 or more hours like a few other volunteers have to. My VEO is extremely nice and accommodating and I even found a woman who sells wheat rolls! There have been previous volunteers at my site, some very successful yet others that have left prematurely. Either way, the villagers are somewhat aware of what I am here to do and what resources I do and do not have. It’s definitely a lot of work to start all over, but I’m beginning to feel like I’ve been blessed with a great place to do it!