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…

1 comment:

The Rev Jester said...

When're we going to *see* you again?