Friday, August 30, 2013

July 24, Pommern: What about the rose?

So that was the thorn of the day (see post below). But what about the rose?

First, let me say that when I get scared or vulnerable, as you might have, ahem, noticed... I get angry.

When Meggie gets scared or vulnerable, she cries.

We left the long 100-minute class and I stomped home ranting, with an arm around her, as she sobbed. "That isn't how you teach! They're failing those kids!" As an educator, as a Master's degree holding teacher with a lifelong passion for the spirit of learning and connecting with students, that day broke her.

And yet, at lunch, we got our afternoon assignments. I was to work on the septic tank. And Meggie was back to the secondary school - to teach Zumba for afternoon PE Class. They've never taken it, much less heard of it, before - but Edward has a desire for his people to learn about physical exercise and the benefit of using your body well, and often, in pursuit of health and heart conditioning.

The plan was to teach girls first for 30 minutes, then boys. But really, friends, don't plan things in Africa. Consider everything a loose suggestion.

It ended up being 45 minutes with the girls, and then a slapdash basketball/soccer/kickball session with the boys. And those 45 minutes started almost 30 minutes late because we needed a generator. Then an adapter. Then a second one for the iPod. Then petrol for the generator. Then a cord from a closet. Then, and then, and then.

But with pain in her heart from earlier, and fear in her eyes, I plunked myself down in front of Teacher Meggie - in my clodhopper hiking boots and stretchy gray skirt - in the middle of her Zumba class in the reading room. (The reading room is attached to the library; neither has seats or desks.) The reading room is a cement room, labeled that way. I helped scrawl on the chalkboard:

And with absolutely no idea how this was going to go, or if she'd be laughed out of the room, she began.

The videos we have are NOT from that first, amazing, magical class. The girls begged Meggie to come back every day - so she did, almost every single afternoon we remained in Pommern. We eventually felt comfortable, as did the girls, with a bit of filming...

And every day we had class, someone part of Global Volunteers would claim Meggie's Zumba as their rose of the day.

The only video I am in is found here; Blogger has kept me foiled for an hour trying to upload the one I'm in - it just won't have it. So click here for that one; the other three are below!

And then the only girl who agreed to wear track pants rather than her school skirt begged to dance to Shakira's "This Time For Africa" - AGAIN.

Meggie said she could teach it, instead. And how my heart soared to run the iPhone camera here and watch her teach it - and there's Meggie in the background, dancing in her own place, now a student of these girls.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

July 24, Pommern - Real Post.

(As written in my journal that day; grammar and minor edits only. Italicized portions are additions written after the trip.)

Picking up where I left off with yesterday...

Edward asked us for the day's rose and the day's thorn at dinner tonight.

Well, thorns first... so Meggie and I were assigned last night to our first real job: the secondary school. This morning, despite the pained glances last night and anxiety all through breakfast, we were delivered to Mr. Lemphoid Msugu (or at least that's what Edward thinks his name is; Edward is not great with names and I said to Meggie that if he struggles with pronouncing "Lemphoid" then I am perfectly fine calling him Mr. Msugu the whole time, which I can at least pronounce). 

He is an absolutely handsome young man in a sharply tailored narrow suit. The male teachers wear suits here - though they usually don't match coat to pants. And I saw more than one young man with the label still affixed to the outside cuff; I am guessing it looks cool, English writing, rather than incorrect, as it does to me.

With high cheek bones, almond eyes set wide, and a hefty dose of cologne (but hey, considering the alternative, it smells great), Mr. M is so eager to talk with us, to learn from us. We spend the prep hour or 75 minutes he has in the English Department office, talking. (The office is so small that we have to move the lone desk to sit in the two chairs. Then we pull the desk back over our laps, and Mr. M gets another chair to join us. There is now no room to walk in or out of the office, but perhaps the sign on the door is what keeps students away. "No English, No Service." The other English teacher is prepping - by reading a newspaper about futbol. He asks us if we know Thierry Henry and we try to describe America's MLS soccer and how there are few teams nationwide and we're watchers of the NFL (or I am at least), but on in our city, to have a popular team, is very rare... none of it lands. We clearly must live in a place where every city has professional futbol and everyone loves it; Americans are smart and it's a great game; you all love it, right?? Sure.) 

Mr. M asks me how people apply for jobs in America, and not being sure what he means, I stumble to explain that most jobs are posted on the internet, but that you would find one you liked and could do well, and then send in a resume and a cover letter. He doesn't know the word resume - but he does know curriculum vitae, of course, the British version! Then he shows me the lesson he designed on how to apply for a job, and it was excellent. Not only did it teach the proper steps of how to respond to a Help Wanted Ad and how to craft a CV, it was creative enough to teach persuasion (convince the business why you are a good fit), as well as some descriptive and instructional writing. He showed me his lesson on poetry, and a poem he wrote about love using a prompt in the syllabus (book) - and it's not Keats but it's not bad at all! Sprinkled through our time together, he says he is starting a unit on creative writing with his students today - who are about 9th/10th graders.

Since he first mentioned it, Meggie has been furiously writing ideas on how to talk about creative writing - what goes into it? How do you describe such a vast concept to students totally new to the idea? I'd rather ignore the ticking clock. But Meggie is making an outline. Character descriptions, motivations. The 5 Ws. Mr. M has never heard of the 5 Ws and really likes the idea. He asks if we will teach the lesson.


Edward told all of us - except those on the water tower base construction project - that today was observation day. We'd be in classrooms (everyone else is at the primary school or the kindergarten; only Meggie and I are at the secondary school) to watch the teachers, and get a sense of the pace, the lessons, the students, the process.

But we stumble. We don't communicate with each other. I answer quickly and suggest we observe for ten minutes, and then take over. I believe the class is 50 minutes long. It's not until we're in the middle of one of those anxiety attacks where everything feels simultaneously sped-up and slowed-down that I realize it's a double period, and class is 100 minutes long.

We go as a group of three to the Academic Office to pick up the books. This is a pink book: English for Tanzanian Classrooms, Standard 3. Madam Sbarra, second in charge behind the headmaster, glares at us from behind her walled-in Academic Office, covered in dust and stacked with messy papers, and checks out the books for two days, begrudgingly. We get eight books - they are beat-up paperbacks in a totally British style, plodding from one little lesson - title, objective, reading, conversation questions, homework - to the next. English in a box, from literal language to concept.

We go to the Standard 3 classroom with the ringing of the bell.

"Good morning, teachers!" greets us all, in a shout.

Mr. M introduces us. There is a bit of giggling and lots of staring. There is a world map painted on the abck wall. Meggie speaks in her teacher voice. "Hello and thank you for having us. We are from America. Here is where we live in America..." and she walks back, through the deep rows, and puts her finger on a green bit of land on the far side of the United States. Boisterous and hysterical laughter erupts. I'm not sure still why this was funny. Was it because it is even farther than the side of America close to Africa?

Mr. M recaps the previous lesson to blank stares (it was about how to identify and complete those various types of writing - descriptive, instructional, persuasive, expository) and then turns to us, sitting on the side, in the front. "Now, you want to teach creative writing?"

"Oh God." Explosively, but under my breath. Just to Meggie. And away we go.

So many things we did wrong, and so much was laid bare. We were fooled yesterday by the uniforms, the polite and well-behaved room of about 56 students (my count was a little shaky; 53? 56?). All, all, ALL the talk of education so far as the only savior from the greater minds around us.

We begin our lesson by reading the story out loud as a group - thank god for Meggie the teacher knowing how to at least start off a lesson; I stand there frozen - and it's like me reading Spanish. I can do it, all day long, reasonably well. But do I know what I'm saying? No, and neither do they. The reading has hit or miss inflection and zero comprehension.

We get to the questions (the best part of class so far was the every-other-paragraph that I read, in an overly animated theatrical style, making them laugh at my expression even if they don't know the words) and it rapidly becomes clear that this is rote memorization at best, and bureaucratic plowing through a fucking British style textbook at worst.

In the next day or two I learn that they say, "Good morning, teachers!" And we say, "Good morning." They reply, "How are you?" and we respond, "Good, and how are you?" and they say, "Fine, thanks for asking!" But if I were to say, "Good morning," and then they asked how I was, and I said, "Why don't you go shit a brick?" they'd say, "Fine, thanks for asking!"

45 kids don't what is going on at all. 10 are muddling through, at 30-40 %. 2, one boy and one girl, get it nearly all of it. 2 of 56. Sharing seven books because sadly, Meggie and I take one to share so we have something to cling to, to teach from. "Teach" from.

The structure of class, the homework and the marking (Brit for grading) - it's all a goddamn sham. At least in America we don't lie to kids. We straight up tell them that money, fame and athleticism equals success and happiness. These lies... that this English class and this joke of an education system is the path to safety, security, income and success? Please. It's just another imperial/colonial trick. Well done, us. Too bad for you.

We're supposed to teach creative writing based on a fable about Mr. Tortoise - and how his selfishness and trickery landed him the bumpy, cracked-looking shell he has today - but they don't understand the fable's actual words, much less their metaphorical meaning or lessons about being kind to others. I don't think they know what a tortoise is. During the vocabulary section - structured AFTER trying to teach metaphorical language!!!! - Mr. M asks me what "great orator" means. Jesus. We need to go back to fundamentals. But these are 9th and 10th graders. That ship sailed. They learn in English all day - WHY!? Teach them about similes, characteristics, and proverbs in fucking Kiswahili! Get the concept in your second language before your third.

And this is one class in one school on one day in all of Africa.

A good school! (They tell us.) A respected school! (They tell us.) But when I give it up as my thorn, even Edward first asks if we marked papers today, or will need to tomorrow.  Bureaucratic habits. They can't go to their next class, see, until marking is done. So you're telling me (I say this in my head, not out loud) that they do the reading, learning, homework AND wait for grading of 56 assignments to take place during class? Well that's a great use of class time. Great use of limited teaching resources. Glad the teachers have hours of prep time each week to pull some non-sensical shit out of a book handed to them by the government and not expand on it at all - but they'll be godddamned if they don't get a 30 minute teatime break with hot mandazi, yes sir. I come to realize all the teaching and learning happens in the classroom and not a minute happens outside of it. Think how hard your teachers worked, and work, outside of the classroom!? My brain hurts. 

But it's not their fault either, and I know it - but to see the entire show, the entire joke of a system in concert with each ridiculous moving part at once, and how generations of this crap got us here... in a single moment... is... overwhelming. Dejecting. Anger and guilt inducing. And then the blame sets in, elsewhere, off the kids and off the teachers and off the system.

I never should have said OK to leading the class after ten minutes (that was actually two). How did I not see the true level they were at? Was the wool pulled over my eyes - as I feel - or is that a cover to protect myself? Why didn't I listen to my intuition when he asked for ten minutes of observation, then teaching? I cry a lot tonight; I hate the lesson of the great pain that comes from ignoring my intuition - but this lesson comes again and again and again, so I have much to learn.

And I ignored it because I can't say no here.

Sure, I can say no to giving away all my money. I can say no to food or water I know will make me sick. I can say no to things I'm too afraid to try - walking outside at night. But I can't say no to an emotional ask - there are no boundaries when it comes to a rural African teacher with just a year and four months' tenure asking me to pick up a book, in English, and teach it, in English.  I don't get to say no to that. That's an entitled person's boundary to set.

But then here I am, having not let myself set it, sobbing to Meggie, and in so doing failed myself and failed Mr. Msugu.

We let him show the kids that he thinks we're superior - and what? After two weeks, we go, and the next white American volunteer is also superior? We all are? There's my imperial system. It was our job to empower him by observing, encouraging, and maybe later suggesting. Our job to build him up and assist and serve him. I failed at it, because I couldn't listen to my inner voice and because I couldn't set a boundary, and that first world issue results in me causing hard to the third world. And with the tiniest bit of time I get to spend here, using it to hurt?... that feels significant enough to make me want to run away right now.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

July 24, Pommern: Preview Post.

(As written in my journal that day; grammar and minor edits only. Italicized portions are additions written after the trip.)

Today is the day I don't want to write about. So before I start, a couple notes...
  • When Mamatony cooks us a chicken for dinner, it is a plucked, chopped-up and complete hen. Lungs? Still shriveled in a little duo, inside the tiny skeleton chicken ribcage, sitting in the pot, staring at the last person or two in line, too late to get decent meat. How happy I was tonight to be in the line a bit earlier and have a dark meat leg available! Unlike 11-year-old Michael, I could find the meat. And it was wonderful. Protein, my friend. 
  • In case you remember, and are wondering about, the solar repairman who rode all day with us from Dar... well, he fixed it! But no one knew that while he may be a solar expert, he is not also a plumber. So the heater part works - but it can't be hooked up to the house, and alas, no hot water will be flowing from our faucets any time soon. We're told it could be next week, but that's our last week, and I find the optimism amusing. It must be to keep us quiet?  
I realize I haven't filled you in on showers and water yet. We have a bathroom with two Western toilets behind stall doors, and two shower stalls beyond that. There is another little sink near the dining room table. That one gets a lot of use - hand washing whenever we enter the house, before we eat, before we make coffee or eat peanut butter from the tea table. The sinks all have pump soap - Tanzanian soap with English writing, something along the lines of DOUBLE EXTRA SUPER CLEAN XX SCRUB YOUR SKIN OFF IT IS SO TOUGH! Or similar. 

I started calling the toilets "magic toilets" after the first morning. The water comes from a gravity-flow system, so it works best when the big black tanks, high up on a tower outside the house, are very full. But I don't really know when this happens. All I know is: the magic toilets are thus named because a flush gets rid of the water, but nothing else. Everything in the bowl stays there, and the water just drains away slowly, and then refills. Magic! Right?! Replace the water but keep the contents! Within minutes of walking in the door on the first day, I had to put away my inner clean freak. The toilets have dried chunks of... stuff... on the outside, and each has a couple brutally strong developing-world mothballs behind them (probably made by the XX SOAP COMPANY). We're cryptically told these help "with the smell". What smell? I don't want to know. I only smell mothball. 

And if you've never used TP in the developing world, well, suffice to say the world's great paper processing IS great - and it is saved for the Western world, most especially for America. This stuff is far closer to cardboard and it flakes onto your pant leg and the ground around you just unwinding it off the roll. 

When it comes to the two slightly spongy-floored showers, with random nails for hanging your items, they do indeed turn on - with cold water. And here I would point out again how cold we've all been each night and well into the morning, just to say this isn't tropical "cold" water; this is truly cold! The lone male volunteer tried to shower the first morning, and he made us laugh with an imitation of trying to force his body under the water. He couldn't do it. He got a slight shampoo but that was it; no other body part would endure the discomfort. I'll spoil the shower surprise to say that our fantastic family of volunteers brought FIVE sun showers! (Six actually, but one broke.) 

We put them out on the cement block each morning and by about 4 PM, they are anywhere from 90 to 110 degrees - amazing. We end up sharing a bag with a friend about every other day - for example, I hang a bag in the shower stall (and by the end of next week, we've broken a few nails with the weight) and go first for about 3 minutes with a "navy shower" and then Meggie goes next, with the final 3 minutes of water. It's a weak spray, and it's navy style - and I have hands-down never been so refreshed by running, splashing water in my entire life as I am on the days I take one here. We take them in the afternoon and I feel like a new person. Meggie takes one in the morning one day - by adding cups of boiling tea water to the now-cool bag to get tepid water. And you guessed it. She runs out of water with a head full of shampoo! I, on the other hand, don't waste water on my hair, sheesh! So this is six days of no hair-washing, just before I get back to Dar and a real shower and wash it twice:

Pictured are the blessed sun shower bags in the backyard on the left side of the frame. Useless solar power machine is center/rear, behind the pole.

  • You know how you always think of a thing to say in response... too late? This time I got it in real time! The adult helping our teenage volunteers and young villagers on the brick project today (water tower base to add gravity flow and water storage tanks to the secondary school kitchen, pictured below, completed brickwork) said that the village young men were so slow - and our Global Volunteers kids were faster. "This is why things here take so long! This is why they don't get done, or done on time. I mean, we were working much harder than they were." I replied, "Well, you did have a warm shower and a hot meal, with more than enough to eat. I don't think those other guys did." And I'll say this - she took it with total grace and kindness. She was truly thoughtful and said back to me, "Huh, yeah. I hadn't thought of that," as she wandered away. 

And now, rather than go two days without posting to the blog, I'm leaving this as a cliffhanger. 

As I wrote in my journal in the first line - and it's there, you can ask John, he saw it - this really was the  first day I didn't want to write about. It was too hard, and I made too many mistakes. So I'm going to wait until tomorrow to post the real journal entry, and hope you enjoyed this Preview Post. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

July 23, Pommern Intro Day.

(As written in my journal that day; grammar and minor edits only. Italicized portions are additions written after the trip.)

Breakfast: oatmeal (already sugared and margarined), toast, jam, peanut butter, bananas, a thin delicious omelette with green onions in it.

We start with a tour of the secondary school, introduction to the entire staff and greetings from the headmaster. That is followed by a tour of the primary school, and introduction to the principal there. Then we visit Edward's home, the kindergarten/pre-primary school, and have lunch.

Primary school-age kids... after classes in the first pic, and in uniforms in the second:

Inside the secondary school classroom: the smell is the kind that you'd describe as knocking you over. I'm one of the first volunteers to walk in, so I get to watch all the other faces when the smell hits. How do you teach in this? Hormonal 10th graders in dirty shirts, sweaters, wool skirts or pants, socks, shoes - with unbrushed teeth and unwashed bodies. All the cliches are here today - rows of well-behaved, eager looking students. Primary children with snotty noses, ugali-smeared mouths and flies flitting in their eyes. Classrooms with crumbling walls, stained and incomplete books, old and uneven desks. The vat of ugali is hissing and steaming in the late morning, in the school kitchen (the secondary school is a co-ed boarding school, as all in Tanzania are by law). The porridge for the primary school (non boarding) looks like a thinner, watered-down version of the ugali to me. This brings it home - the food. I am intensely struggling with the guilt of being taken care of so well - we have more than enough food, bottled water, beds, clothes.

At the secondary school, we meet all the teachers during their teatime - mandazi and hot tea. Mandazi is  like a fritter, like a lump of fry bread, a doughnut - it is what you make the world over when you have flour, fat, sugar and oil. The headmaster, Haran, used to have Edward's job with Global Volunteers and   we are told he rules the school with a tough approach. Many of the teachers are in their first job, and all board here with the students; few are from the village. 

At the primary school, we only peek into a classroom but meet with the principal. We find out the wells have been turned off here because the handles have been broken off, again and again, but the students playing with them, or pushing on them, causing them to leak. When a leak is spotted, the water is turned off, but then they can't wash their faces or get a cup of water after lunch. 

At school, breakfast is porridge (corn, sugar, water). Lunch is porridge (corn, sugar, water). Teachers have no breakfast but have mandazi at 10:30 AM teatime. Dinner, if available at home for primary school kids, is ugali (corn, water, salt) and greens, or ugali and beans. (Secondary school kids get the same, and a piece of banana, at school.) At the secondary school, they get rice rather than corn on Sundays, and an orange rather than bananas with dinner, for a treat. Meat gets a passing mention to me, but I can't really tell if it served every Sunday, or less often than that. 

The drinkers take out a bottle of wine at lunch today. I find it fascinating; this is a sort of drug against the intensity of what we just saw. I didn't partake, per the pact with Meggie (neither did she), because I don't want to be relieved of the experience intensity at all. But then again, my struggle seems likely to be about allowing myself any relaxation with, or enjoyment from, the billion Western conveniences in my little suitcase pile.

Here's a building in the village... and some tough chickens. How tough? Tough enough that our 11-year old fellow volunteer, at one point, holds his drumstick up to his dad and says, "I can't find the meat!" I guess these chickens work hard to stay alive too and are not slaughtered until they're probably a couple years old. They largely run wild, but some folks keep them fenced in (if they can afford to build and maintain a fence).

Another building; no one living in the crumbling part on the right, but living in the part on the left.

The carpenters, using hand tools. Each night we scoop up some shavings to get our fire started.

Earlier this morning, four of the other ladies continue telling us how they never wear skirts at home and how unusual it would be to even OWN one (we've been hearing this since our first night dinner, as we discuss what we've packed to wear, and how well we hewed to the directions - which asked us to wear knee-length or longer skirts/dresses in the village). I am overcome with anger. This community agrees to host Global Volunteers all the time and they are a people deeply uncomfortable with a woman in pants - and you can't relent on that one single fucking point? You like pants, so you can't give at all? When the imbalance is so enormous, how can you not feel ashamed for your unwillingness?

After lunch, we tour the clinic, then the orphan center (see brief description below), and meet the Roman Catholic priests. I'll save the clinic description and photos to go along with the journal entries from the days I worked there (next week). 

In the village there are two churches - Roman Catholic and Lutheran. The Catholics include real friars - men in long burlap-like brown robes who go barefoot. The Roman Catholic church is also a whole lot nicer than the Lutheran one - as are their schools and centers, when we walk up there to say hello and later to share donations. Both churches divide all volunteer supplies - clothes, medications, school supplies and entertainment - with each other. 

The Roman Catholic volunteers are all Italian (as are many of the friars and priests). This explains what the little children have been yelling to us since we arrived, whenever we walk through the village... either "Hi!" or "Ciao!". They don't know if the mzungu are Italian or American, but one of those words will work! In fact, I find it easier to hear "Ciao" than I do "Goot Even Eng" - which is "Good evening". 

On the walk back, we pop into a small shop selling skirts, purses, baby carriers, aprons and hairbands. They are made in the back room on sewing machines by young women; we find out that single motherhood is a "growing problem" in Pommern, and this was started to give them a job and income. I speak with Edward about this on another day; he asks what Americans do about the same "growing problem" in our country. The sewing is beautiful and while there are only brief tourist-volunteers like us to shop there, they are clearly modeling the shop and process on something like Neema Craft and are starting to, with the help of energetic Italian Roman Catholics, sell in other villages and towns, and take special orders.

Nighttime. I'm exhausted. I moved today to the unused single room; no one else wanted it and Meggie assured me she didn't feel hurt or abandoned by the move.

The just-before-dinner visit to the center for orphans and disabled kids pretty much broke me for the day. (It's a day-only drop-in care center for those being raised by aunts or grandparents who can't afford to feed them all three meals, and for disabled kids who need attendance while family works in the fields.) Stop having babies! Stop for ten years and imagine how we could solve some problems! But the visceral experience of poverty is even more overwhelming that I thought. That's not even a fair assessment because I didn't think I was so blind to it - the totally decrepit conditions in which is almost feels like a joke to try and learn in.

What can one old Acer laptop teach a child about thriving in today's work world? And the schools are more highly attended by girls than boys - good. The people here are happy about this! But this one primary school of two in the village, and the lone secondary school, in a village of 4,000.

There are a billion other people living this way on this continent and all day I felt it was superficial to want a warm shower and to have clean hands before dinner, but tonight I'm understanding the puritanical roots of the American cleanliness obsession, and the best intentions behind all the bizarre cleaning products, douches and personal hygiene products - heck - even Febreeze! You can build someone a house here but it'll still get tracked with red dust and filled with cooking smoke because it's not like NW Natural is coming in to hook up the gas stove, or like they'll suddenly know how to cook well over a modern stove.

Watching the sunset. Again tonight, I think that Africa's wild beauty - and it is so beautiful and expansive and vibrant in all the natural wonders - mocks me. The beauty isn't doing a damn thing to save any children or protect their health. It seems to have only drawn in money that never reaches the people, and has brought in jerks who want a piece for themselves and to put up a wall so no one can see in. I can't even appreciate the beauty. It feels like a theft - I have all the medicine, all the clothes, all the education, water, footwear, health, money and opportunity - and I greedily want to soak this up too???

The rural beauty of Pommern, in the late afternoon light:

But is that, I realize, an us versus them model of thinking, perpetuated? Is that saying the pie of natural beauty is only so big and can only serve so many, and that if I take some to enjoy, it will leave others without? Will it be stealing a moment of contentment and relaxation from a Pommerini?

That's crazy, I know - and yet knowing it's crazy still doesn't stop it. I can't write anymore, I know this negative thinking will spiral. Off to bed.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Picture Post!

A few from Meggie's camera that just came in...

More dried fish in the Iringa market:

On July 22 in Iringa, and two proud women NOT using the wireless hotspot, but just resting our feet. All around us? White tourists, checking Facebook. We resisted!

One of my numerous conversations, after firmly saying I wasn't going to buy anything, about living in America. I think I'm saying here, "Yes, yes, Barack Obama! We love him where I come from in America."

Women. With babies. Everywhere.

And if not babies, then carrying things - firewood, water, food, baskets. Sometimes TWO buckets of water. And usually a baby, too, but not this time.

The right side of the mission house, where we stayed in Pommern, and the big tree and bench out front:

Me in front of Neema Craft, where the disabled artisans live and work.

The peas! Someone is sitting there, shelling them, at the market. You can spend more and buy them shelled, or spend less and buy them in pods.

Spices at the market.

And on the drive from Dar to Iringa, about 30km of the road arcs through Mikumi National Park. If you stop the car, you have to pay $30 USD per person, as a park visitor.

But if you drive verrrry sloooowly, you don't have to pay - you're just transiting through. We saw herds of giraffe, elephant, impala - and so many baboons! With babies!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

July 22, Iringa to Pommern/Pommerini/Pommerine/Pommerin.

(As written in my journal that day; grammar and minor edits only. Italicized portions are additions written after the trip.)

The road out of Iringa is, at last, this "real Africa" we keep being told about by Edward. Within minutes of turning off the main paved road, the huts change. They are still stick-framed and mud-walled. But unlike the slums of Dar, they look built to last. Heavy walls and decent window openings. Thick thatched roofs. And children, everywhere children - so many I get overwhelmed. I wondered if I'd want to adopt when I saw all these kids, but I don't feel that at all. That would save one of, what?, four million? And effective 0% savior rate while taking a child of Tanzania away, maybe considered a net loss to the people living here. It might, however, be pushing me toward adopting in my own city or country, but interestingly pushes me away from international adoption thoughts.

The sky really opens up once we leave Iringa; maybe it is the anticipation of life in the village, but the air feels cleaner and thinner at the elevation. It is so dry, and the red dirt we've heard about makes its first appearance. 

The 1.5 to 2 hour drive on dirt roads from Iringa to Pommern looks like this...
Buildings that have more substance:

Stick frames, that will be filled with mud and topped with thatch:

An enormous sky, and room to breathe for the first time:

Red dirt... which will be ground into our heels, between our toes, in our beds, our eyes, our teeth, soon enough:

And dried corn fields - where corn only has one ear per stalk, and it sounds like a Halloween sound track in the breeze, all the time we're there...

Then we arrive in Pommern! The reason I gave it three names in the title post here is that there is no agreed-upon pronunciation of the village name. Pommern, like Pom-urn, is a German name from the German East Africa Lutheran missionary days. But the local people call it Pommerini, also the demonym for residents. They sometimes also call it Pommerine - rhymes with tangerine. Or, some call it Pom-er-in. The sign posts spell it "Pommern" but even many people over in Iringa were not sure where this village is. There are 4,000 residents - and the census a couple years ago showed roughly 53% of that 4,000 are ages 0 to 18. 

How John would laugh at our bedding! Twin beds with a thin sheet stretched over the "mattress" and wood frame mosquito nets... and each one with a lumpy pillow and a thick, warm, polyester animal print blanket. 

The EXACT type of blanket that John once had... called the tiger blanket because of the print... that I despised. It always felt damp, and even though it was ridiculously warm, it just grossed me out. Having these exact same disgusting-but-warm blankets makes me laugh.

Living out of a suitcase, all my gear uber-neatly organized:

The dining room table; the only place to sit in the mission house other than our beds:

This gives a sense of the house; very worn, indeed. Cold cement floors that made us grateful each night for a fire in the fireplace, even if it made us smell like campground residents all the time! The yellow basket is the trash can (there are no plastic bags to be found, and nowhere to purchase any).

The beloved tea table... tea, instant coffee (Africafe), powdered milk, powdered hot cocoa, hot water, sugar (and hot sauce, margarine, peanut butter and jam)... out 24/7 for us to get a hot drink or little snack. And hot drinks we needed! We continue to be shocked how chilly it is when the sun goes down, and well into the morning, until 11 AM or noon.

The wall of water... bottled water for all drinking, tooth brushing, and it only took about three days before we busted out the little flavor packets (Crystal Light, Mio, etc.) that it was recommended we bring, to spice up the pathetic American palates that grow bored so quickly.

Dinner tonight is chunks of stewed beef or goat, with bone and tendon still attached, in a spicy sauce and served with white rice, toast, a few canned green beans, a few slices of watermelon and some boiled greens (much like frozen spinach). The greens are "local cabbage" we're later told; it looks like a kale growing in the backyard garden (the only thing in the garden), but with less flavor and less bulk - it even tastes thin and low in vitamins to me, though it's something green and that's warmly welcomed, even if we each only get about a quarter cup that first night. Later, more is cooked each night, as the cook realizes we all crave greens and pile our plates with them, all the drowning in cooking oil be damned!

Our cook is named Mamatony; Tony is her first born, and she's been known by this name for over 20 years. It's a little weird to know there will be a cook; but on the other hand, with no electricity or refrigeration in the village, cooking is done over open wood fires. Peeking into the kitchen, with just a couple pots and running water from a gravity-flow-tank system. I can't imagine ensuring everything gets boiled and sterilized and cooked safely, all while keeping the wood fire at the right heat - and making sure dinner for 14 is on the table at (roughly) the appointed time. The guilt of being cooked for is outweighed by the challenge it would present to any one of us (it would be our full time job). And, this is why there was a program fee, I think, and why our support network pitched in to help get us here. For us to be able to go out into the village, ok, yeah - we will need a cook. 

After a few days, I see that Mamatony has more variety of clothes than other people around us. She has earrings, she has a nice coat - so this is a lucrative gig, and it's interesting to know that her salary, which we pay, is probably supporting a family (and how odd here that a woman's salary supports others!).

Edward tells us what to expect tomorrow, our first full day in the village. It is touring and introduction day; no official work. Much like meeting the General Secretary today, we need to meet all the important people in the village tomorrow, to show respect and ask permission to begin working. We're reminded by Peg, the volunteer who was here last year, that no villagers are allowed in the house. 

Edward uses a pen on the table as an example to illustrate why. This pen, he says, is nothing to you. You'll set it down, and if it's not there when you come back, you might not even think about it. But that pen would mean so much to someone who has nothing, someone who works to save a few pennies, all month long, just to buy a small supply of salt. He extends this story, then, to iPods and phones and books and clothes - things we do value that someone who has nothing literally cannot resist taking, to use, or perhaps, to sell. By having the rule that villagers cannot enter the mission house when guests are residing there, we will be able to set anything down at any time, and expect it to be there when we return. On another day, Edward says that he and Mamatony and Mohammed only use their eyes, not their hands, in the house. This is true; no one ever loses a single item, nor do things even get moved more than a foot or two.

I feel for the first time today, a long emotional day with the ever-present poverty in my face, but now growing from urban filthy poverty to a drier, starker, thinner and more dangerous feeling rural poverty, that it is OK to be a wealthy Westerner who loves having baby wipes with me, my pretty pink hoodie, my headlamp, my earrings, my comforting gear. Edward's speech about the wide gulf between his people and us visitors makes me realize it's neither my fault nor theirs that this grinding poverty stands between us. That my unearned, unfair, imbalanced wealth exists, and that their desperate lack of any material items, much less wealth, exists. We're all in this system together - is it the system of reality? - and there may be ways we need to protect each other - but faulting each other (for wealth, for theft) is like faulting the dog for his spots. 

Tonight, my first Pommern sunset: 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

July 22: Iringa Town. Buying Supplies.

(As written in my journal that day; grammar and minor edits only. Italicized portions are additions written after the trip.)

How long until there's a hot shower again? I don't know - so I took another one this morning!

After a nice long bitch session with Meggie last night (and a few tears on my part) about the frailties and foibles of our fellow volunteers, and the patterns and issues they "help" bring up in each of us, I find breakfast delightful.

It was because last night and all day the classic middle-aged-women antics were too much to bear. Casually (admittedly unintentional) racist comments, rhetorical questions, questions that get answered but only needed a short moment of thought in order to not be asked at all, and things like, "The trees are so strange!"

To that one I replied with a drawl and a wink, "Only to us," and she nodded slowly with a new awareness.

It's this no-filters pattern of chatter, chatter, chatter (that many older women are afflicted with) that set my teeth on edge after a full day in the car, not to mention more at dinner last night. And I went right into the good ol' patterns of caretaking, question answering, hand holding and shunting any needs I might have in service of others' without thinking. So I get mad at myself, and Meggie is a safe person (one of the safest!) to cry in front of. Then the closing round, last night, of needing to get alcohol for the two weeks - that put me over the edge. It's only now I remember that this was a vacation for a lot of people; in the moment, I felt it degraded the journey, the quest.

But my mantra begins now, July 22. (Thanks for it, Mom!) What's the reward for living a spiritual life?  Having led a spiritual life. It's not a life free of pain, boredom, accidents, disease, frustration, disappointment or self-centered jerks in your face.

So this morning, as if pushed hard enough for now, Meggie and I find ourselves really connecting with Leslie and Jane about their lives - one divorced, then widowed; the other divorced after her husband left her for an older women (by one year), which he let her know about by having the deed to the new home he bought with her delivered to their home. This deep and authentic conversation over fried eggs was what I dearly needed; it is going to fortify me for the day ahead.

We must get permission from the General Secretary of the Diocese before heading to Pommern and residing in their mission house there; he must be a big deal because everyone at the Lutheran Center seems a little nervous about it on our behalf.

We sit in the spare and battered chapel (I wouldn't know it was a chapel unless told) and wait, and Edward asks us to designate one person to express thanks from the group when he finishes addressing us. We don't choose, because he walks in. I'm struck with an intense desire to have a tape recorder; his voice is strange and high-pitched, his glasses yellowed and thick. He tells us the history of Global Volunteers and the Diocese, the AIDS work they've partnered on, and the recent Obama visit. (It was a 2 day party even here, a full day's drive away - no one worked, they all tuned to the nearest possible radio or TV and celebrated countrywide.) He is proud to highlight Tanzania's fight for human rights over the years, from Idi Amin to hosting refugees from Kenya - and prouder still that Obama wouldn't even go to Kenya, right next door.

He talked of how he used to see Dar Es Salaam as this enormous city, with very tall buildings - and then when he went to Minneapolis/St. Paul for the first time, he scoffed at his own memories of Dar as a metropolis! He laughed at, and envied, American timekeeping - or as he called it, time management. "My people are not good at time management; we have so many natural resources but why are we still so poor?" he asked us. He blames time management skills, and by the end of the trip, I'm inclined to believe him. 

His nervous high-pitched laugh mesmerizes me. It punctuates his good English so strangely, I don't think I know how to capture it in writing. We're given his blessing to do good work, but that's not what he highlights. He highlights cultural exchange. He highlights the importance of coming here and seeing how so much of the world lives, with our own eyes. He thanks us for taking the time from our busy American lives - and then tells us how shocked he was when someone in Minneapolis he was with called to profusely apologize for being ten minutes late, stuck in traffic, for a meeting. "We don't apologize for being two hours late in Africa!" This is followed by staccato high-pitched laughter. And then this is followed by, "But, there we are again, with time management skills."

The grounds of the Diocese are the nicest buildings and landscaping I've seen yet:

We walk into Iringa town; it feels like a tiny village, not a city of 200,000. But in a place with no tall buildings, how can you see beyond what is right in front of you? How can you see more than the small hillside you're on? That's a metaphor for Africa right there.

We shop first at Neema Craft, whose handicrafts we've seen in Dar. They claim to be made by disabled Tanzanians - and it appears to be wholly true! The buiding that holds the shop appears to also hold dorms, and we get to peek into a back room where deaf people are signing and sewing, where malformed hands are stringing beads and earrings. I want to buy these pillows but know I have nowhere to put them; I snap a pic instead:

This is a bike that I love outside Neema Craft. I will love a lot of bikes I see; in fact, I think I will love every single bike I see.

The school uniforms we see on the children ARE as cute as they appear in all the photos you've seen online, or in Nat Geo:

Nancy asks if Meggie and I will go to the farmer's market with her to take photos, and I go with the agreement we'll ask each person if we can take pictures first. At the first vendor, we ask, and he says it is OK to photograph the peas only. Nancy frames him into her shot and I think she's misunderstood so I say, "No, of the peas only," and she says, "I know, I am," lying to me, and him. Without a word to Meggie, I bail. If I can only be responsible for myself, the Next Right Thing I can do in this moment is walk away. 

Potatoes and onions at the market's edge: (We'll eat a lot of these.)

Market roof and sign:

Rice. The bigger the grain, the lower the price: 

Dried fish. It smells exactly like a tower of dried fish. Perhaps it was brought in from the Dar fish market? 

We have lunch at the Lutheran Center, a personal pan "pizza". It tastes and feels close to cheese; it's called a "beef" topping but I'm taking bets this is goat meat. Only Edward and our vegetarian volunteer have anything different. Her pizza is topped with bananas, pineapple and chunks of potato (plus "cheese" and tomato sauce). But Edward is eating a whole fried fish with some red sauce and ugali. I watch intensely. I realize I'm staring when he catches me. With apology in his voice he says, "You can only eat it with your hands." I say, "No, no. I'm watching because, I don't want to be rude, and maybe this is a terrible cultural insult, but could I try some?" "Ah, yes!" he says. I carve off a chunk of it, massage it into a ball, push my thumb in for the little dent/scoop, and fill it with Meggie's discarded "beef". There's almost no flavor in the ugali (it is just corn, after all) but - boy. THAT'LL fill your stomach. It's like cement. Oatmeal, only in your dreams!

OK, one obligatory finger-in-camera shot. Behind it is a shoe store in Iringa - note that used shoes are for sale. You get what happens to be in your size. I challenge you to find a personal clothing/goods shop in Iringa with anything new in it, other than bolts of cloth.

And to close... before I left, my pal Lemon, during a banter-filled conversation fueled by my nervousness close to the departure date, hatched the idea, and asked me to keep, a list of "First World Problems in the Third World". (If you're not familiar with the better lists online of first world problems, check a great one out here.) So far, we have (not all of these were thought or spoken by me; they are collected from the group):

  • It sure would be nice to have some ice cubes to cool down this safe, sanitized, bottled drinking water I'm enjoying. 
  • This watermelon is good, but why not offer a seedless one, eh, country that contains mostly subsistence farmers who need seeds to replant the next crop?

Now, to Pommern in that giant van up there - finally! We've got a ton of bottled water, dried rice, bananas, watermelon, loaves of bread, eggs, coffee, tea, peanut butter... we're ready...

(Like I said earlier, it's chilly up at this elevation! Winter in Tanzania = hoodies. And sunglasses. Oh the gratitude for sunglasses. The African sun can shine.)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

July 21: One Last Thing From Last Night

(As written in my journal that day; grammar and minor edits only. Italicized portions are additions written after the trip.)

The further we get from Dar, the more we get stared at. Then Paul's famous shouts of "mzungu!" begin. In Iringa, this is a bit less - but in the small, dirty settlements by the roadside (how did they get there? why do they stay there?) the people gape at us. Frankly, it feels good. I feel so alien that it is a relief to be stared at like one.

July 21: Dar Es Salaam to Iringa, Part 2.

(As written in my journal that day; grammar and minor edits only. Italicized portions are additions written after the trip.)

On the radio, we learn a new phrase. "Drop it hot!" the DJ says. (Mom, that should be "drop it like it's hot".) Meggie and I giggle (she finally woke up!) and claim we're going to start saying, "Drop it hot" at home on the dance floor.

We stop for lunch at a nice but creepily empty tourist hotel and though it has changed so slowly, it hits me that we're in the mountains now, past Morogoro (not Ngorongoro, please, how could you confuse them?!), and when we comment that it looks like rain, Mohammed says, "No. No rain. No rain while you are here."

We drive. We get tired. People are nodding off. My dad told me an African sunset is so fast - from light to dark likethat - but our climb into hill country extends a long sunset that just gets better, and better, and better, and then - gone. (I didn't take any pictures.) It's so wide - it's a sunset that spans a horizon of two normal sunsets at home. I actually look all the way behind me to see if it meets on the dark side of the horizon.

The final 2 kilometers into Iringa Town are uphill and there's a vicious speed bump every 20 yards or so - that government again, keeping the cars slow but not thinking to put in stoplights or streetlights or sidewalks or crosswalks most of the time.

This is Iringa Town, but the photo was the next day; we arrive in the dark:

Iringa Town suburbs, headed down the hill out of town, over the speed bumps but again, taken the next day:

We arrive at the Lutheran Center of Iringa and when we step out of the car - brrrr! It is not just chilly, and we're not just road weary. It is downright COLD. We're at 5200 feet elevation and it's not more than 51 degrees with a big gusty wind. I almost didn't pack a coat, and boy I'm sure glad I did!

The Center is like a little hostel or dorm, run by the church, where each double or triple room has a private bathroom, and there's a little dining room/cafeteria. We're served the best chicken cashew curry I've ever had, over rice with a semi-crunchy slaw (ah! crunch! the satisfaction!). Cashews are one of Tanzania's main exports,  and the only street food we've eaten so far, purchased through the car window. Edward warned us last night. "I know my people, and they do not know how to cook scientifically like your people. Do not eat street food. You'll get sick. No street food." He will repeat this almost every day while we're here - no street food! And street food includes food cooked in peoples' homes. But the cashews, oh, the cashews. Roasted, totally plain, and still almost a little springy - this freshness not found in a super-roasted-to-a-crisp-for-the-trip-around-the-world-tkind at Trader Joe's.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania - ELCT - is the country host for Global Volunteers. So while GV is the 501 C 3 non-denominational program we've paid to be part of, GV works in many countries and in each one, they are hosted by a local organization who helps identify the needs of a given community, and run the daily schedule of volunteers. It's a serious attempt to avoid the dictatorial American approach, and in many countries, including in Tanzania, the local host is a church. Churches, after all, are used to desperate need and trying to do a lot for a lot with a little. None of our volunteers are Lutheran (I'll later find out the family is devout Roman Catholic and we so have one more Unitarian Universalist, along with Meggie and I, who dabble in UUism). But the host organization is Lutheran, and so we know we'll be asking for permission and a blessing tomorrow from the regional Bishop, and we agree to abide by the rules. From what I can tell, this is actually just one rule - if you drink alcohol, do so in the house or private fenced backyard of where we'll live in the village, but not on the front porch or in the front yard. Beyond that, blessings and prayers and gratitude to God exist and are expressed, but are far from in our face, and this little church center seems more focused on feeding us well and switching on the mini hot water heater in our bathroom than trying to convert anyone evangelically. Perhaps it's because they think we're already saved, since we're staying there?

We find out that the majority of our bags won't be coming down off the roof of the vans tonight - and tempers flare. People's politeness begins to fade, shit starts getting laid bare, the first snappy words are exchanged. I decide to not engage in one exchange when their exhaustion from 12+ hours in the car turns to pettiness, and of course my favorite co-volunteer, Leslie, has a good natured laugh at us all. She still has no bag, and no word from the airline or the Dar airport on when it might arrive. It could be, as far as we know, gone forever. And here we are, worried about one night!

That said... I keep my mouth shut and refuse to complain but, oh, on the inside, I'm incredibly grateful to have stuck a pair of underwear, a tee shirt and toothbrush into my backpack, sitting in the van with me, and not up on top! I am sad to not have my mouthguard (I never sleep without it) but the consolation is that Meggie's bag is one of the minority to come down, so I'm treated to the kinds of nice-smelling lotions and good hair goop that I often don't even have at home, and so after a hot shower, I begin journaling, under my mosquito net, but am ready to crash.

Breakfast will be at 7:30. We will buy most of the supplies and food we need for two weeks - and then we'll travel another two hours by dirt road to Pommern, our village home. The real Africa, Edward tells us. "My Africa."