Thursday, May 6, 2010

It's been/gonna be good...

This is sort of a hodge-podge of posts – often lengthy, possible nonsensical. Apologies again for not posting in such a long time. I feel more and more that I can’t express how I live here – maybe because the oddities and absurdities seem like normalities to me now and perhaps because I can’t remember feeling any differently… how do I respond, how do I explain, how do I share? So bear through my mutterings, ramblings if you wish/dare. I might not write again for a bit. I leave Peace Corps service in a mere 20 days and that’s, well,… seemingly as overwhelming as arriving in the first place. I’m trying to prepare myself, but I don’t know how or simply just can’t.

Here’s the quick catch-up of the last few months:

In February, I did end of making a trip to the US for graduate school interviews. It was a whirlwind, but something I am very glad I got the opportunity to do. While I had some great visits and some excellent choices, I finally decided that I will be starting at the University of Michigan in the fall. Their paleonotology program is one of the largest and strongest in the States and during my visit felt like a great fit, both advisor-wise, research-wise and community-wise. I’m very excited about my choice and having the ‘next step’ determined.

March to today have been another whirlwind – of projects and soaking in my Tanzania village before I finish up my service at the end of this month. We’ve been building chicken coops, taking care of baby chickens, making fuel-efficient cookstoves, holding women’s empowerment seminars (climbed Mt Hanang for the fourth/last time with 16 teenage girls), joined a women’s dance group, cooking and eating with neighbors and friends, visiting the ‘bush’ and the ‘city’ to meet Mama Mdogo’s family and harvesting beans and corn from our garden (peanuts to come!). It has been truly wonderful. A real highlight was my 26th birthday party – we did it up big, Tanzania style! Set up tarps, tables and decorations outside, killed a goat and with 6 mama’s cooked up 25 kilos of rice for the 70ish guests, got a generator, keyboard, CD player and DJ, Baba Mdogo was the MC – we danced, the choir sang, I was fed cake, too many speeches were made. It was so fantastic to see all my Endagaw friends, dressed in their finest, against the backdrop of my home and garden, and sharing the celebration with such an amazing collection of people. I was overflowing with happiness throughout the whole day.

Now, I’ve just finished my ‘Close of Service’ conference in Dar es Salaam. Fun to hang out with fellow PCV’s, but I am anxious to get back to Endagaw for my last two weeks in the village. I am officially done on May 25, after which I’ll begin my Africa travels! Exciting, but bittersweet. I’ll let you know how it goes! Sending much much love and really looking forward to seeing friends and family back in the States when we return mid-July!

February 11, 2010

So, that’s all it takes, a 9 hour flight and I’m back in the Northern Hemisphere staring out the window at snow. I’ve landed in Amsterdam about 2 hours ago. Deplaning then walking through the terminal I keep reminding myself that this isn’t in fact weird – I mean this was my life for the first 24 years before Africa, right? But I can’t help but feel completely overwhelmed. I sort of feel like crying but can’t pinpoint exactly why I feel this way. Absolutely everyone is passing me at lightning speed and I have no idea what side of to walk on (usually the shadiest side in how I decide but that doesn’t really apply here). Finally, clumsily dodging my way through the pack, I figure out my gate – its not too far and there’s a coffee shop near by, so I decide breakfast is a good idea.

Even though its all going to be in English, mentally I still carefully prepare my order in Swahili, scratch that, retranslate my order back into English before reaching the counter. I order without a hitch – the cashier would never know how nervous I am! Then she tells me the price and seeing the readied debit card in my hand, she motions to the card reader. All the sudden I freeze as I go into panic mode. I have no idea how to use the card reader. To be fair it has two slots and is in Dutch, but still… The line behind immediately feels like an infinite expanse of staring eyes all aimed directly at me, judging. Feeling the tears I’ve so carefully guarded start to well up, I hand my card to the cashier. She rolls her eyes, swipes it for me and in a matter of seconds I’m walking off to a table with tea and cinnamon roll in hand (a 6 euro purchase that I can’t help but compare to the 30 cents I’d usually spend in Tanzania).

Sitting with the warm mug of tea cradled in my hands calms me as I people watch. Honestly, everyone looks pretty much the same as when I left. But what shocks me is that no one can tell how different I am. I mean, for crying out loud, absolutely no one has greeted me since the airport security guards in Tanzania (granted they followed that greeting up with a proposal to be my boyfriend, but still…). My eyes are instinctively searching for a scrap of comfort – an obvious Tanzanian – I desperately want to speak Kiswahili, but there are no brightly patterned head wraps, elongated earlobes or intricate facial scarring in sight.

And then it strikes me as absurd and, how do I say – Peace Corps ‘elitist’ maybe – searching for that as my comfort is… I’m not African. This airport with its clean floors, bright electric lights, moving walkways, and potted plants is closer to my ‘real life’ than anything in my little Endagaw village.

And I guess that’s what I’m the most afraid of… it slipping away… forgetting too easy. It no longer being mine. The next time I use a debit card I won’t mess up. The readily available toilet paper and automatic flush in the public (!) toilets didn’t surprise at all the second time. And though I desperately want it, I’m not actually expecting anyone to come up and talk to me. Will the uniqueness of my Africa life be swallowed up by these currently more distant but ultimately more ‘real’ tendencies of ours? When I return to Tanzania one day will I remember how to instantly start laughing with someone as we ball up handfuls of ugali dining in the shade of a tree and shooing away chickens that try to peck at our cooked leaves side dish?

Sometimes the possibilities of life experiences overwhelm me – and its impossible to remember them all – even the ones that seem to soak all the way through your skin, run through your veins and eventually wind up dwelling in your heart. But I guess even if your can’t remember it all, you still have that swelling in your chest that links you to people and places near and far.

At this point though, I’m just so glad that this is only a temporary 2-week departure from my Africa life. If I had just truly said good-bye to my community in Tanzania that swelling would be too much to bear and my heart would be chipping away to pieces right now. But it’s not – I’ll see my mama’s again before I know it and in the meantime I’ll quickly re-learn how to not be freaked out by touch screens or trip on the escalator, walk faster, talk faster, and enjoy this premature window into the excitement of my next lift experience. And I’ll eat cheese – lots of it, ignore every McDonalds and Wal-Mart I see, rock my interviews and be happy.

April 3, 2010

This is me 2 hours ago…

Its dusk and I’m practically running to keep up with my long legged Maasai chicken expert, Mlavi, while dodging muddy ditches, crazed taxi drivers, and Tanzania’s who want to ‘greet’ (touch) me. I’ve completely lost Mama Ashura, which is amazing considering the giant cardboard box she’s carrying on her head. But at this point its more important to keep my eyes on the ‘driver’ of a hand push cart carrying my 100 freshly purchased baby chickens.

We finally reach our motel and nearing the end of a day running around Arusha like, well, chickens with our heads cut off, Mlavi, Mama Ashura and I stare at our 3 boxes of squawking 3 week old chicks. They’re beautiful black and while speckled improved breed chicks. After months of preparation – seminars, chicken coop construction – and now I’m finally a chicken farmer. Or at least I’m an ‘involved spectator’ while the group takes over care of these additions to the village animal population meant to increase protein consumption in the community and improve family diet. And hopefully generate income for the sustainability of the project and further goals of the group.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First things first… getting them back to my village (then administering the plethora of vaccines we bought today to successfully raise the chicks to adulthood). We arrived in town last night after a 13-hour bus journey that should only take 5 hours – that is until the rains turn the road into a series of ruts, mudslicks and impassable marshes. We were planning on returning tomorrow, but because it rained even more today, the MAIN road to the ENTIRE NW of the country and to my village is currently in ‘bad condition’ according to the somewhat apathetic conductor, leaving them to chance only 1 bus voyage. Needless to say, us, our 100 chicks, 400 pounds of chicken feed and assortment of feeding and watering troughs and other supplies are not going to fit on that 1 bus.

So, that’s life. Nothing to do but laugh, try to keep our motel room as free of flying escapees and chicken shit as possible, concede to an unexpected Easter in the city and write up a blog post while relaxing over a cold Kilimanjaro beer.
And after 25 months on this continent, I have to admit while today was a considerable busier day than usual, it wasn’t all that weird, though slightly absurd (picture a white girl in the midst of the chaos of an African bus stand, patiently guarding boxes of baby chickens trying their hardest to run away – But then again the only absurd part of that picture is that it’s me) and no matter all the things that went wrong, I wasn’t stressed once. In fact, it was a success.

And so the month has gone – projects in full swing. Over the span of 3 days of seminars we’ve built 24 fuel-efficient cookstoves (not only do they use considerably less firewood, but they help tremendously with smoke – respiratory illnesses are a common problem here – I myself can’t sit in a ‘kitchen’ for more than a minute before blindly exiting, teary-eyed and runny-nosed). The goals of the women’s group project are to reduce pressure on the last of the local remaining wood sources, lessen the daily workload of women, and as they have enough supplies, for group members to build a second round of stoves for income generation.

I’m incredibly proud of both my groups. They have tremendous determination, foresight and a sense of ‘development’ that can be hard to find here (in my opinion and experience).

And now that I’ve said the ‘D’ word, do I dare go into more depth? But how can one without over generalizing or simplifying an astoundingly complex situation? And are blog perusers even interested in one PCV’s confused, far from cohesive and completely inconclusive view of development? All I can say with certainty is that after 25 months at this ‘job’, I may know/see a great deal more, but with that window into ‘ground operations’ understand even less. When I started I didn’t know what the questions where (thought I did though) and now I know how far off I actually was and am left with trunks load full of questions that I must accept will never have clear, concise answers.

Let’s take just one example, a somewhat abstract one that doesn’t ‘incriminate’ Peace Corps or any of my villagers. I recently read an article entitled ‘A Plan to Defeat Neglected Tropical Diseases’ (Hotez, Scientific American, Jan 2010). This plan is to attack the main parasitic and bacterial infections that, while might not kill, greatly influence everyday life in impoverished countries and lead to overall decreased health and production of a community.

The article states ‘The good news is that these NTDs can be treated simply and cheaply. In many cases a single pill is enough’ and proposes monetary donations in order to supply these pills through global help campaigns. The article states a number of reasons as to why this obviously laudable and relatively easy aim has yet to be tackled, but these are all reasons coming from the development agencies perspective (semantics, sources and severity of infections, etc) and not one from the community level perspective.

Funds, while they help, won’t solve the problems caused by roundworm, hookworm or schistos, nor will shelves full of readily available, cheap drugs. It doesn’t take long for one to live here before realizing that overall education, by quantity and quality, and more specifically appropriate and applicable education paired with community sensitization is the problem. Lack of basic health knowledge, devaluing of tradition remedies and reliance on modern medicine (or rather the conception of) has led a population to this assumption:

I feel sick and therefore I need medicine. If I go to the local hospital doctor and he tests my blood, tells me nothing is out of the ordinary then he must be wrong (if you’re lucky enough to be tested, and for what? And where government subsidized and development initiative supported drugs are cheap or even free). I will go to the pharmacy owner. He will look at me, maybe listen to my symptoms and prescribe me some expensive drug. I’ll believe him, pay the price, because medicine is medicine, right? I’ll go home, feeling happy that someone’s actually ‘doing’ their job, take my dose and feel better.

And so you get Mama Mdogo coming home with medication for typhoid fever after complaining of a stomach cramps. Or Mama Husseni, who sits at the hospital for 3 days just waiting for an initial blood test, meanwhile paying hospital fees and for food, then never gets tested but is still sent home with some ‘cure’. Or even worse, 3-year old Sara being brought home equally harmful medication if misdiagnosed (not to mention at adult doses for a child), without even being seen by the doctor because of a father’s insistence that medicine was necessary! But recommend hand-washing or equally easy hygiene…

So yes, there is a definite shortage of and need for more medications, but a plan that neglects the means for testing for these diseases and ignores the confidence-giving education of local individuals necessary for villagers to be aware and decisive of their own health will only end up with more misdiagnoses and ultimately drug resistance in the very thing we are trying to fight.

So, what am I trying to say? I’m not entirely sure and I certainly hate speaking negatively about a country I love. But, from what I’ve seen, development solutions lie not exclusively in funds, but more importantly in ‘capacity building’ at the local level. I didn’t know exactly was that term meant when I was initially trained, much less how to do it. Now, still unable to exactly define it, I at least understand why it was it is such common vernacular amongst PCV’s. I believe whole-heartedly that capacity building is what is necessary to move forward in improving the quality of life here in a sustainable manner. How to do it, I’m still not sure. Maybe I’ve been lucky enough to inadvertently hit on a few key points of capacity building in my PC experience, or more likely I’ve just had strong, already capable community members to work with.

Either way, this experience may be fun and crazy, but it is not easy. I’m not sure how all the different gears (PC, USAID, WHO, etc) of the development machine will work together with the available tools of progressing nations. But I sure hope it leads to somewhere where doctors are properly educated and equipped, medicines are readily available, and patients have the individual knowledge and confidence to insistent upon adequate healthcare. And receive a satisfactory education, improve farming practices, cook efficiently and healthily, drink clean water, find work, travel on safe roads, play with a real soccer ball…

Monday, January 11, 2010

My Piece of Home

Sunday, November 15, 2009

And so this is it, we’ve reached the edge of the world. As Brendan and I approach the village in the sky, the road drops away on either side into steep terraced mountain faces that dive into the far-off, vague expanse of dry valley floor. Hazy, blurry the distance is mystically omitted from our view. It is just me and him and this quaint village teetering on the last precipice of the earth.

And it’s a beautiful yet eerie physical manifestation of the feelings I’ve had so many times during this Africa Life. We’ve been hiking through the Usambara Mountains for three days, 60 kilometers, now, weaving in and out of lush terraced farmland tucked in between rocky mountain peaks and hidden forests of old growth. It’s been a long, hard, astonishingly gorgeous and culturally different (really, one country, one Swahili language, but very distinctly cut up along much more ancient tribal lines) trek and now we’re here, wondering how we got here, how do we absorb the moment to its fullest, how do we learn to appreciate our place in it and what is that place exactly?

Two volunteers, gone through this ‘figuring out’ two separate times, in collectively three different countries, 20-odd months in, we don’t have to speak to share, to know, what the other person is thinking. This is never where we expected to see ourselves, sipping a beer on the edge of the world (well, maybe the beer was always there), but it’s breathtaking and it’s surreal and it’s the only place I want to be right now. And whatever lies beyond that drop will be there when I’m ready for it.

Sometime in December

It’s two in the afternoon. After not a particularly taxing day of clothes washing, bread baking and house sweeping, I’m pretty ready for a nap. By this point, I’ve decided to fully embrace the obligation-free, peaceful, easy-going nature of life here and I’m perfectly contend curling up my couch for a afternoon snooze… I mean when else will I have this lazy freedom again in my life? And just then, I hear a knock and a small voice requesting entry. I welcome Muku in under the agreement that its naptime. Muku, my about to be four-year neighbor and best friend, wanders in his too-small overalls, overalls worn, and worn hard, by so many kids before him that the butt no longer exists, but his underlayer of shorts and puffy winter coat save him from any embarrassment. He reaches into his pocket to show he his immensely treasured, daily-found piece of trash, or great toy, depending on how you look at. Today it’s an old film canister with a couple broken nut and bolt pieces. I admire his riches before we pull up a blanket and lie down on my couch. Muku’s almost four, but more the size of a two-three year old, so he fits well next to me and this isn’t the first time we’ve dozed off together. His mom often comes over in the evenings to chat or look at my magazines and Muku’s passed out between us on more than one occasion. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch Muku struggling to be still, willing his eyes to shut, but it’s not going to happen. The sleepless silence is broken by our giggles and I am deeply aware of how much I love him.

They say the first three months of our Peace Corps service should be devoted to becoming integrated into your community. And after doing this two separate times, I can tell you that is a load of bull. Or at least they have a different definition of integration than I’d always imagined… that is, before trying to live it.

Yep I’m integrated, some might even say, really well integrated. But it has become clear to me that I am not integrated as a villager, but I’m integrated as the white American living in this African village. And I may do it well – everyone knows my name, they’ve met my mom, a handful of my best friends and boy are they always ready for a conversation. I know a lot of their names, I know the family relationships, who’s kid is who’s, who does what in the village, how to greet in three of the six local languages. But even if the color of my skin didn’t shout out our differences, the way I think, the means by which I do things, my American habits, my freedom to say whatever I want and it be excusable, would all point to the inevitable truth at I am truly different from them, ‘un-integratably’ differently. Our humanity is no different, but there are, whether true or not, assumed ‘facts’ about me as a white American (and I’m sure assumed ‘facts’ on Africans on my part just as well). And these assumptions about me and where I come from will always color the lenses through which my neighbors, friends and villagers here see me with. (More on these assumptions, the idea of money, what is development, and so forth in upcoming posts.) And the moment I pull a camera out; or the conversation turns to home; or we talk about schools here versus home; or we debate the access to/lack of water in town; or the big one, money, comes up, my ‘integratived-ness’ is seen for what it is – in most cases superficial. Is this what Peace Corps had in mind? Is this what I had in mind?

But, there are a handful of people here, Mama and Baba Mdogo, Mama Hawa, Mama Sele, Mama Saidi, Mama Husseni, that see me not just as an American come to live in their village, but as a neighbor (imagine this word having exceedingly more weight here than it does in America) and as a friend, even endearingly different daughter of sorts. And although I understand true integration isn’t a possibility, the Peace Corps ‘Goal Number Two’ cultural exchange is there. I know that I have become an integral part of this community in my own way. And to some people in particular, our relationship transcends our differences, and I am family. Holding Muku’s hand as we giggle over nothing, I embrace and cherish my place in it all. I’ve found a home and people to love in it and maybe that’s what ‘integration’ is really supposed to mean.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

An Electric Christmas

I’ve been to lots of Tanzania parties by now, usually fun, always interesting, all completely, painfully filling and often hilarious, but not one has had quite the build-up as the Christmas Day Party.

Mama Mdogo has been talking about for months. What we’re going to eat, how we’re going to decorate, who’s going to come, how much singing and dancing there will be at church. And what we are going to wear. Mama Mdogo and Baba (dad) Mdogo are my closest family here. When I first arrived I ate nearly every meal with them, and though I’ve now pretty much figured out to start my charcoal stove, I still rely on them for any number of things. So, it only makes sense that the entire Christmas Day (coincidentally they are also some of my only Christian friends in the village) would be devoted to them and their niece, Happy, who also lives with them. This means a while back we decided to get matching outfits made. I let Mama Mdogo pick out the fabric and as a result it has been the most electric Christmas in memory (see picture below).

I woke up Christmas morning to rain. The rainy season has officially started, but I’m still not used to it. I can probably count the number of times I’ve walked in rain in the last two years on my own two hands, and today we’re walking, far. I roll out of bed, trying not to disturb the mass of braids sticking out from the top of my head (the result of two very painful hours the day before and a hairstyle usually appropriately named ‘The Kilimanjaro’, but sadly on my head just droops down to a rather pathetic attempt at Africa’s highest mountain). I don my neon green dress, glowing head to toe, collect the date-cinnamon biscuits and yards of construction paper chains and ‘snowflakes’ I made yesterday with Happy, and head down the hill to the Mdogo’s house.

They’re running around like crazy of course, Mama Mdogo misplacing absolutely everything, simultaneously trying to serve me tea, mop the floor and deal with the goat that was just slaughtered. Baba Mdogo precariously stands on uneven tables and chairs to hang up the decorations. We thank the Muslim neighbors for killing the goat and for cooking (otherwise they wouldn’t be able to partake in the feasting) while we’re at church and we’re off.

It is a 40-minute walk to church, and I’m already slightly grumpy. I’m not sure if it’s the 4-hour church service looming ahead of me or the fact that somehow, for a girl from Seattle, I’ve become completely incompetent in the rain. I think ultimately though, it’s the mud. Africa mud is legendary and terrifying and everywhere. I have to concentrate with every step not to fall on my butt. It’s a confusing consistency, both sticky and slippery and surprising deep and all sorts of suction-cuppy.

But when I look at the four of us (just for a second, so I don’t fall), walking down the road, I can’t help but giggle. We are without the brightest things in the entire district, if not region on this dreary Christmas morning. Mama Mdogo is sporting some pretty fancy pointy toe heels that sink into the mud with every step. She is also carrying a awkwardly large and extremely heavy keyboard on her head (one of the many duties of being in the church choir). And she’s doing it all with style. I’m blown away.

We finally get to church, mud splattered but in good spirits. Before the service starts a guy finds me to tell me about his recent trip to Detroit, Michigan (What?!) for seminary training. He says it was beautiful (never been, but is this true?) and rich, but people were so busy, hardly anyone greeted him and it was cold. Sounded to me like he was trying to like something he’d been told his whole life is the place to be, but after experiencing it now wasn’t so sure.

Settled into hard benches, sandwiched in between Happy and some of the most wonderfully done-up Tanzanians I’ve ever seen, the service started. Mama Mdogo and the choir sing and dance. Guest performers come up and dance and lip-synch to their previously recorded tapes (why listen to beautiful voices when you can pump the music through a bad sound system at extraordinary high volume?). And everyone loves it. The ‘yodeling’ cheers that can only be done by an African consistently break the usual peaceful serenity of church.

The four hours pass quicker than I think they will and soon we’re shaking hands with the pastor, taking pictures and heading back down the hill and back to Endagaw Village and Mama Mdogo’s home.

The rest of the day, guests flow in and out of the house, each receiving a heaping plate of spiced rice, goat, beans and a soda upon entry and a Merry Christmas and Karibu Tena (welcome again) upon departure. The food is delicious and I keep sneaking in to the ‘kitchen’ (mud hut with a couple fires going on the other side of their property) for extras. And I don’t have to leave once, or attempt to swing by all the other Christmas day parties, because just like Mama Mdogo, this is partly my home. I’m the hostess too and some of our guests are coming because I’ve invited them. I’m in charge of handwashing, soda getting, and candy distributing. It’s great. As the guests trickle away and night twinkles in, the four of us, still a hot colored clan, sit back and smile. A few modest gifts are given, thanks are shared, and Christmas is complete.

This year’s Christmas celebration was a far cry from last year’s Katsepy Christmas and doesn’t even begin to compare to any of the holiday seasons I’ve experienced back home. But I think it’s those differences and who I get to share each year’s party with that make me appreciate each unique experience all the more. I don’t miss the hoopla of Christmas. What I miss the most is my family and friends and the highlight of my celebration was still hearing their voices on Christmas day. But, I was content in sharing this year with my Tanzania family. And what a beautiful one it was.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


Monday, December 28, 2009

Time Traveling and Mountain Climbing

Hello again from Tanzania Tara! If cyber shame could be expressed, consider this to be it for it has been far too long since I have posted about my going-ons and happenings here in Tanzania. Let it be said right away it has been an exciting, busy, unbelievable last few months and a blog time lapse that won’t happen again.

I have been writing about my experiences, but have yet to transfer them into shareable bits of stories, feelings and insight into this life in Tanzania. So, expect the next few *hopefully* frequent posts to be a modicum of offerings to give you a window into the time existing from August-December 2009.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

This morning, I experienced a tearful good-bye with Amy and David at the Arusha bus stand (while been assaulted by pushy, rude water and peanut sellers… Hey Mzungu! Looks like you’re crying, want to be overcharged for a bottle of water?!) followed by the long ride home and arrival back to the village, dust-choked, tire and sore. But despite this bit of loss I’m feeling at the departure of my best friend, I can only reflect on the last two weeks and feel an enormous smile creep and sweep across my face.
For not even two days ago, the three of us stood on the top of Africa, submitting the continent’s highest mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro at 5895 meters (that’s 19340ft!)*. Watching the sunrise over one of the peak’s remaining glaciers, turning the ice and shrouding clouds into deep and changing shades of pink, purple and blue that morning made me feel wonderfully loopy, altitude sickness or not.
It is incredible to me that we were able to walk somewhere on our own two feet where the air was so thin that despite being only degrees away from the equator, you’re wearing 5 layers and feeling the sweat on your face freeze into tiny ice crystals. And where you feel nauseous, drunk-like and as if you were wearing lead boots.
And its not just the 6:37am summit that followed 6 hours of straight uphill hiking on loose gravel in the dark. Or the spontaneously sprint down to the glacier wall, enormous and looming, smoothed and sculpted by the wind into icy pinnacles and staircases. Or the varied and beautiful landscapes we passed on the way up the mountain (lush mossy forests, open wildflower sprinkled sagebrush, barren volcanic vastness). Or the hilarity of our six porters (yes six people to get the three of us up the mtn) taking our expensive, hyper-designed backpacks, dumping them into gunny sacks and lugging them up the mtn on their heads with a case of fresh eggs strapped to their backs.
It was altogether something more. A feeling of accomplishment. A feeling of absolute joy to be in wilderness again. And a completeness in doing it with two of my best friends (and an awesome group of Tanzanias) from whom nothing but positive energy flowed and highlighted the experience. It was six days that reach a height far greater than the 5895m we summitted and an experience that will remain among the most extraordinary in my time here on Africa.

And now back to Monday December 28, 2009...

And so now, that time here is coming closer and closer to its end. I’ve been calling this continent home for over 22 months now and the close of my service just seems to be a blink of the eye away (Still 5 months, but time is a strange moving thing). For that I’m both sad and thankful.

But for those of you curious about that future, here are my plans and what has keep me so internet busy the last few months:
I officially close my Peace Corps service at the end of May. Then it’s traveling a bit here in East Africa… I’m not leaving without kayaking Lake Malawi. Then finishing up in Mali and possibly other West Africa destinations before heading home in mid-July/Early August. (If any of this sounds interesting to you, Karibu!). Then visiting friends and family before starting graduate school, hopefully, in the fall. I’m applying to six schools (UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, Michigan, Columbia, Chicago and Minnesota) for PhD programs in vertebrate paleontology.

And then I will have met the future and all this will seem as far away as home has felt to me here during the last two years. And I don’t know if I’m quite ready for that.

I miss you all terribly, but not so terribly as I know I’ll be seeing you soon. Think of you daily and especially strongly this past Christmas holiday. I love you and am looking forward to sharing more of the wonder and craziness with you in upcoming blog posts. Hope you are all well and bringing in 2010 with much happiness!

*After Brendan’s visit, he told me with astonishment that it took a dramatically long time for his Tanzania-departing, Ethopia-bound plane to reach an altitude level with Kili’s peak. And again, I look with astonishment at my own two feet. Thank you Amy, David and Mom for making it a possibility.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Seminars, Safaris, and Sweetness

My apologies for such a long hiatus on the blog front. Every chance to be online over the past two months has been spent pouring over graduate program and potential advisor websites in preparation for application time this fall. Exciting, but distance from TZ, yet fun to get buried in, and ultimately time consuming.

But, after three straight days of just that, I’m ready to relax a bit, have some fun and share some pieces of Tanzania. Per usual, I have no idea where to start.
It has been an awesome, busy, full last two months. Bullet points perhaps?

June was filled with…
-Recovery from May 30 summit of Mt. Hanang, our backyard volcano, fourth highest mtn in TZ (ft), and one wonderful hiking day with fellow PCV’s and about 30 seventh graders (who all practically sprinted up the mtn in flipflops while it totally kicked my ass).
-Preparation for and eventually completion of our Katesh Kid’s Environment and Health seminar. Myself and five other PCV’s put together a 4 day seminar for the top 6 sixth graders from our respective primary schools. Students learned about ecology and tree nurseries, gained HIV/AIDS awareness, played awesome team-building games, and painted billboards to share learned messages with others students back at school. Way too much fun.
-Visit from Jules! Neighbors henna-ed us and killed a chicken in her honor... it was tasty.
-Meeting with various community groups to discuss needs within the village, project ideas, available resources, etc…
-Corn, sunflower, and onion harvesting... by hand.
-Cooking, baking, and hanging out the neighbors... Swahili’s getting there!

And then July….
-Trip to Moshi... Kili wasn’t out, but got to meet some more cool PCV’s and eat pizza (twice)!
-LOTS more meetings and action planning! I love motivated people.
-More harvesting and village activities.
-Getting ready for my mom to visit but saying good-bye to two awesome PCV’s Stephanie and Amy... congrats on completing two years!
-MOM VISITING! Really too much to say about this. Perfect white sand and turquoise water of the Zanzibar beaches plus an unexpected banana tree beating new year’s festival. Unbelievable safari-ing in the Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire NP... my mammal and bird siting list goes on and on, but would you just be impressed if I said 18 lions (two almost catching a lost wildebeest about 20 ft from our vehicle), hundreds of elephants, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, buffalos, gazelles and impalas, a selection of hyenas, warthogs and jackals, a few sleeping owls and many impressively colored birds. And six days in the village where between all the visits and food/gifts been given in her honor we barely had a moment to ourselves or a less than completely full stomach (this time it was a very large rooster).

And throughout it all, I keep falling more and more completely in love with my neighbors and community members. I have never met such an instantly welcoming, including, thankful, delightful group of people. Endagaw has completely captured my heart. I laugh, giggle, see and hear something new everyday. And I can’t tell you how many times I welled up with tears of happiness at the kindness and immediate familial acceptation and respect they showed my mother. You know, I think they just might love me too. And for that simple love, I can’t wait to get back tomorrow to continue sharing life in Endagaw with them (even with the 6 hour bus on one of the worst roads ever... you rock Mom for hackling that ride... twice... and with style).

Alright, enjoy the pictures from May and June below. And as always, thinking of everyone back often and joyfully. Miss you and love you! Thank you for making me the happy person who can enjoy this adventure to the fullest!

Tara Magnolia

PS. Madagascar is reopening! Yipee! Congrats to all my friends who are able to return to that beautiful and hopefully peaceful island that first captured my heart.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Embracing the sunflowers with the changes

And so here we go again…

Some days I can’t believe I’ve started all over again. Some days I feel right at home. Some days I look around and think wow, I’m well into my second year living here in Africa, and just starting a year in Tanzania. It is said that every PC Volunteer’s experience is different and nothing could be more true, but this transfer has offered me a unquestionably unique experience and chance for comparison – how have I changed over the last year, how have my values and perspectives changed, how has my ability to interact with new people, new cultures changed, how has my view of development changed, how have the things I appreciate/take for granted/etc changed, how has my heart and its capacity to love simply and generously and also its ability to hurt changed.

Well, I’m not even sure where to start relating these changes or describing what I see and feel on a daily basis, but I suppose in the absence of pictures (sorry…soon), I could start with a general picture of my new village, Endagaw.

Tucked away in the hills of the Maldabaw Escarpment of the Rift Valley, Endagaw is a small yet sprawling village focused around farmland irrigated by a natural spring and surrounded by landscape pocketed by old volcanic craters and landforms. My backyard is shadowed by Mt Hanang, Tanzania's third tallest mtn and an extinct volcano itself, south side blown out in a past eruption and now softly carpeted by green vegetation and low misty clouds. It is harvest time, so my window view overlooks a valley of sunflowers and corn. It is ‘winter’ now, so mornings and evenings are usually quite chilly, often gray and cloudy despite being only a few degrees south of the equator. It is beautiful and completely different from Katsepy.

My neighbors are awesome…beyond…they help me is almost every single way. From starting my charcoal stove (challenging) to fetching water (a huge ordeal) to feeding me (every evening) to showing me around town (and meeting other awesome villagers) to patiently listening and letting me struggle through Kiswahili (getting there) to helping me become more ‘Tanzanian’ (I’ve got toes and fingers covered in traditional henna dye and two fancy and very bright dresses made by the local tailor). Endagaw has a population close to 5000 people, about half Christian, half Muslim, representatives from a variety of East African ethnic groups (at least six separate local languages are spoke in the village) and almost all subsistence farmers and pastoralists.

Tanzania is more developed than Madagascar. More roads are paved here, schools are nicer, people have more in the way of furniture, electricity runs through my village (I don’t have it) to pump water to water taps throughout town, my banking town (what would be a large town in Madagascar, but not ‘stocked’ enough to be banking town) has internet, a bank, a post office, I readily have access to such wonders as butter (well really margarine, but at this point equally as amazing), brown rice, peanut butter, more that one option of beer. Yet, for people here life is strikingly different than anything we would experience in the States. Can you imagine fetching water for your family for up to three hours a day (carried in 20L buckets on your head across fields)? Cooking with a three stone ‘stove’ fed by firewood that you collected from the surrounding hills? Depending entirely on the land, the rains, your harvest for your year’s supply of food and income? Being acutely aware of how each of these resources is used for your family’s daily survival? Not to mention childcare, education, health concerns, family obligations and religious practices…

And I’m the third volunteer here. People know about Peace Corps. People know about development work in their country. Heifer International has done amazing work in my village providing trainings, dairy cows and goats, bee and fish farming. And there are groups up, running and ready to work with me. The school was very receptive to my presence and already has projects in mind (and the teachers speak English…I’m getting questions answered I wouldn’t even dream of asking with my current Kiswahili). And I only have a year, so I’m saying okay, let’s go. There is a sense of organization here that seems like it will be a great starting point for projects. My goal is to be more hands-off this time around…letting local professionals take charge of projects, letting the groups plan their own project implementation, and I not afraid this time of saying if you’ve got that piece figured out, yes, I can help you get money for it (many volunteers – I did at first – struggle with the idea of being valuable as a source of money, often only).

I’ve lost a bit my American sense of independence/self-reliance and now recognize that African culture embraces hospitality, dependence on friends and neighbors, openness with needs, a relaxed sense of boundaries, physical and personal, and awkwardness hardly exists (This is something I felt very acutely at the beginning of my service…now I’m confident that if I’m ‘awkwardly’ hanging out at a neighbor’s house for a few hours, letting them give me food, standing around staring at our feet when I’ve exhausted my limited Kiswahili, it is all perfectly okay...and expected). People showing up at my house anytime, kids wanting to play or just watch whatever I’m doing doesn’t bother me this time around. It someone wants to help me plant trees around my house or start my garden, I say go at’s my shovel. And I like it. I think it is one of the biggest changes I will bring home with me… I can be independent, I can be different and offer a new perspective and I can also appreciate the presence, freely given help and unbounded willingness to befriend and share of others – new friends, neighbors, children and even strangers. It is okay and part of human nature to rely on others and expect that reliance to be placed on you…we all have a shared responsibility for one another. And I’m thankful for the opportunity to recognize this change in myself through transferring to Tanzania and starting over again with my very own altered point of view and approach.

I still miss Madagascar and think about Katsepy, my friends and my life there daily. I received a call from a Malagasy PC staff member now working temporarily in Tanzania…hearing her accent, her news from the island, speaking Malagasy made me so happy and simultaneously sad…that lost is startlingly still so raw. She shared that no decision will be made to restart the program in Madagascar at least until December now (originally it was July). As that situation remains unresolved and detrimental, please keep the Malagasy people in your thoughts…their strength, the strength of Africans overall is inspirational. Thanks for reading, listening, reflecting and sharing. I think of home often, missing and loving friends and family every day of my changing Peace Corps experience. I’ve traded eating rice on straw mats for eating stiff corn porridge with my hands, but my friends and family are a constant and unwavering source of love and support, enhancing these changes as I, we, make our way through them.

Tara Magnolia

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Endagaw, Tanzania, East Africa = Home

Hello! After three intense 3 weeks of total immersion into the Swahili language, Tanzanian culture, and ugali (a sort of stiff corn porridge that is slowly replacing rice in my diet), I am now ready to head off to my new site here in East Africa. I will be placed in a village called Endagaw in north central Tanzania. You won't find it on a map (at least I haven't yet), but it is close to Mt. Hanang and Babati city in the Manyara Region. Neighbors include six other PCV's (one who I have already met and is awesome, incredibly helpful, and may even be cleaning my house as I type this), Mt. Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater, and East African Rift Valley, and the general amazing-ness that is northern Tanzania. I am replacing a PCV who had to leave the country early due to health reasons unrelated to the site and who has left me loads of information about the site and loads of furniture and other useful items (including a couch...sweet!). So, it is a whole new set of experiences for me to get excited about, adjust to, appreciate and hopefully make my own. I've already seen some beautiful pieces of Tanzania (Morogoro and the capitol Dodoma) and met many kind people, so I definately feel like this will be the right replacement home for me after Madagascar. I still think about Madagascar daily and miss it incredibly, my village, the people, the feel but am looking forward to PC goal #4...sharing Madagascar culture with Tanzanians. I had an awesome visit from Melanie, Katie and Dave (PCV's from M/car now traveling around Africa) just a few days ago to remind how amazing our shared experience was and how much support I will continue to have as my adventure moves forward here in Tanzania. Thank you all always for your thoughts (so many birthday wishes two weeks ago!) and love! My new address is posted...look right...or here:
P.O. Box 144
Katesh, Tanzania, East Africa

Can't wait for your letters and news from home!

Peace and love,
Tara Magnolia