Saturday, July 28, 2012

Iringa crew makes a video

Staying at our favorite guesthouse, waiting for our shadowers and replacements to arrive, Sarah, Glenn and I make a video!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


As always I was put on the decorating committee for Form VI graduation. Every time we choose up committees I joke I should be a bouncer, DJ or MC and once I made it as far as being put with the cooks but for some reason I usually seem to end up mapamboni no matter what I do. This makes very little sense. The Tanzanian tradition of decorating everything in sight line with as many ribbons, draped clothes and bows as they can lay their hands on is something I find slightly repugnant to my American senses of both style and efficiency. 

My intrepid team of form four girls ask “Madam should we use green or pink bows here?... Madam where can we find more lace cloth?... Madam do these ribbons look right?” But the answer is always the same: I really couldn't care less. 

I do make an effort though. Friday night we stayed until eleven o'clock in the staffroom turning it into somewhere I might have been delighted to have my fifth birthday. I realize of course that American traditions are just as arbitrary and held just as dear. Why can't we have graduations without those ridiculous robes and hats? Why isn't Christmas Christmas without a tree? Why does Thanksgiving necessarily mean a turkey? Still, as a dispassionate observer it all seems utterly ridiculous.

The staff room when I was finished with it.

Graduation itself was long (starting two hours late) and mostly much more interesting than the average Tanzanian function, at least for me. My students sang, danced, made speeches and put on a thirty minute farce (komedi) which addresses the themes of sex, drugs, drinking, love. It included cross-dressing and some slapstick so realistic the first time I saw it I literally gasped and thrust my fingers to my mouth and ended with a joke about incest and mistaken identity. Obviously, it brought the house down.

The singing was moving. I've always been a sucker for all-men choirs, call and response songs and songs that include hand clapping, all of which were featured heavily. The song that contained a thanks specifically to me made me tear up and hate myself for not having my camera with me.

After the ceremony the graduates and the students who paid for the food piled into classes where rice, pilau, beans, beef stew, cabbage, bananas and sodas (what a feast!) are waiting for them. The invited guests had almost the same, except served from much nicer dishes and in the staffroom. As event coordinators, we teachers dashed about making sure that everything was as it should be. Only when the music was beginning out in the parade ground and all the official guests had left did we settle down for our own plates of food and beer/soda. 

Since very few people have cameras every party has a band of roving photographers who line up participants in the shrubbery to take essentially the same pictures over and over again with different people in them. As something of an oddity in my community I am a big star of these photos and almost the only one who ever smiles. The day after the photos will be printed in town and then sold back to the people who requested them. As an American living my life in the post printed photos paradigm I am sometimes scolded for taking pictures I never bring back.

The music is all gospel and Bongo Flavor (East Africa's idea of pop) and Tanzanians are pretty terrible dancers by American standards when they are trying to be polite. At the sketchy discos in the big cities people have seen enough rap videos to know how to really shake their booties. But in a village where there is no electricity and anyway everyone knows you, your mother and your wife, its mostly a lot of elbow work and shifting of weight from one foot to another to the principle beat. My friends are unduly impressed with my ability to mimic this behavior and I am always congratulated several times at any party on my dancing. As with a lot of things, when it comes to my dancing I secretly suspect that a lot of Tanzanian interest comes down to a sort of 'look-at-what-the-monkey-can-do' fascination. I'm never entirely sure what they're actually impressed with and what they're only impressed with because I'm American. Whatever. I'll take what I can get.

The teachers and staff dance the Tanzanian version of the twist to resounding approval from the school.

As I said, I like showing off my stuff. But as I walked back to the staffroom with the other adults I couldn't help but feel strangely envious of the kids. They let the music play until eleven (though they only had permission until nine) and then they piled back into the dorms, rowdy and elated. The other teachers all went back to their families and kids. I'm the only one who went back to an empty house (except for the lizards). Being a teacher is fun, being the center of attention is exhilarating, having people interested in me and being respected is great. But being an outsider is hard.

Friday, January 20, 2012

An Education

I am asked more often than you would believe about the American system of education: almost as often as I am asked what exactly we are doing with all the corn we grow if we aren't pounding it into cornflower and then making a flavorless paste the texture of play-doh to eat twice a day (look up Ugali on the internet... it's the national food of Tanzania). So it's past time I explained to Americans the Tanzanian system. 

When they are two years old Tanzanian's start nursery school which is called Chekechea. I like that because it sounds a lot like the word for laugh in Swahili and I always imagine them sitting around and laughing a lot as they learn to count. After nursery school, at about five, they go to Schule ya Msingi (literally “the important school”).

When they are twelve years old Tanzanians finish with Schule ya Msingi and mandatory education. Very few go any further in their education either because they didn't pass the national examination or because they cannot afford the school fees to continue on to Secondary School. School fees at Sadani (a relatively big government school) are 150,000 Tsh for the boarding students per term which is roughly 100 USD.

At Secondary School students do four years of O-level (ordinary level) education at the end of which there is another national exam to determine if they are fit to continue on to two years of A-level (advanced level).
In O-level, for the first time, English is the medium of teaching (at least in theory). If the teachers do speak English in the classroom often its would be almost intelligible to a native speaker. In college my friend Jackson once took a class on existentialism and taught us all what a simulacrum was (a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy...). Unless you really commit to watching foreign television (and have the resources to make that happen for yourself) your English is going to be an imperfect copy of your teacher's already imperfect copy.

In my opinion it's not fair to spring English on them in the secondary school. Swahili is a blessedly logical language. If you tell me the infinitive of a word I can (99.999% of the time) tell you every variation of it given enough time to mull it over. There are also only four possible tenses (the present, the future, the past and the recent past) and the last two are almost perfectly interchangeable. I suppose if you grow up speaking it, you must assume every other language is equally well constructed. The moment when you comprehend the devilry of irregular verbs and the pluperfect must be like a fall from the paradise of a straight-forward trade language.

In A-level Tanzanians choose a “combination” which determines which subjects they study. My school specializes in science and offers three: PCB (Physics, Chemistry, and Biology), PCM (Physics, Chemistry, and Math) and CBG (Chemistry, Biology, and Geography). And yes, the PCM students do look down on all the other combinations as being “soft.” My current favorite Tanzanian rap song contains the lyric “I studied PCM, not PCB!” as a cocky rapper boast. My current PCM students are forever slowing down my lessons by asking for derivations from first principles. Buncha geeks.

After A-level it's university if you pass your exam (and not many do even though the pass mark is 21%) and if not most people go to a two year teachers college and learn to be O-level teachers. Yet another depressing simulacrum.

Recently I was in my evening office hours and what started as a conversation about Logic Gates got sidetracked (evening office hours almost always do) into me explaining to Elia and Justin nursery school to college. When I said most Americans graduate university at twenty-two they both burst out laughing.
“But shouldn't you finish A-level by the time you're nineteen and college by the time you're maybe twenty-two or three?” I asked, pointing at the juxtaposed schedules of the two educational systems I'd drawn on the board in between a million truth tables.

This is the kind of naivete that I thought I'd left behind months ago. Nothing in Tanzania goes on schedule.

Every year the teachers at my school spend hours meticulously drawing up a schedule for all the classes and then spend the next year patently ignoring it. There are scheduled sports and games, scheduled times for maintenance and official people for electricity, plumbing and each dormitory. But life gets in the way.

This week we are preparing for the District Commissioner to visit the school. I asked who exactly that was for days before realizing that no one else on campus was a hundred percent sure what his job was. Despite this, it's a big deal. We've been almost literally painting the roses red for his arrival. Edging all the school's pathways bricks have been laid and then painted white.They won't last more than a week and a half since it's the rainy season. On Friday none of the O-level students went to a single class because they were all doing school maintenance work and all of the teachers were running around trying to supervise them.

“If you're very blessed; if you're very lucky you can graduate on time,” Elia said with a laugh. “Like my young brother. He is starting O-level this year and he's only twelve. I was twenty-four when I took my national examination for O-level.”

“How old are you?” I asked Justin, who I had log assumed was the youngest in my class.

“I'm twenty-three.”

I'm twenty-three too but I don't say so. We just go back to Logic Gates and hoping against hope, all of us, that they pass their national exams.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The most cheerful Christmas blog ever to begin with thoughts on Chinese water torture

A lot of the problems we Peace Corps volunteers find particularly troubling are in the Chinese-water-torture school of discomfort: anything done too many times becomes uncomfortable and then quickly unbearable. The same food, people, questions, clothes, problems with the phone network or spotty electricity or water (if you're lucky enough to have it). For example, I have recently become tired of every single article of clothing I have on this continent. My morning routine has become like dressing my own sullen five-year-old. I stare into my clothes cabinet and pout until I'm late for school.

The worst of the monotony-as-torture problems though is loneliness. We're all adults. We can go a whole day without seeing our mothers or our friends. But days become weeks, then months, then a year and a half. Around the holidays, an emotional landmine under the best of circumstances, this is particularly poignantly painful.

So when I made the decision to spend Christmas in my village, away from other Americans to commiserate with, away from skype or even a totally reliable phone line, I was nervous. I'd made precautions: found people to spend the day with, bought some small gifts for my neighbor children that I knew would be a hit, downloaded some Christmas music to listen to, and even bought a bottle of wine the last time I was in town. Historically however I've been excellent at tricking my father into thinking that I don't need to “do anything” for the holidays and then waking up all nostalgic and emotional on the 24th and moping around until he buys a tree. If I pulled a similar bait-and-switch on myself I would have already missed the last bus out of my village. Stuck.

But the 25th dawned clear and beautiful: a crisp seventy degrees with plenty of sunshine. I woke up, baked a Funfetti cake (the bag of premade mix had been a real splurge at about four dollars US), packed it into my backpack with my speakers, some presents and my bottle of wine and walked the fifteen minutes into Sadani metropolitan to visit Mama Benny.

We had agreed to start at nine o'clock but she called to say I should come at ten. When I arrived at eleven, the cake having taken longer than expected, I was only a little bit late. She'd cooked the rice and was just starting to make it into pilau.

Pilau! (That I ate!)

The idea of doing different things on different holidays has yet to reach these sunny shores. Depending on what we are celebrating Americans cook a turkey, drag a tree into our house and stick lights on the roof, hide eggs around our lawn, dress in costumes and give out candy or simply drink until we are sick and pour green food coloring into everything we can think of including the river. Whatever the occasion however Tanzanians cook a huge pot of pilau (a spiced rice), and invite their friends to visit. If you're flush you buy people you know soda or beer. If you're broke (or you don't know how to cook pilau) you walk around sampling what everyone else has cooked.

Being flush, we cooked pilau and some beef stew and had some of it with the cake I made (a huge hit even though I hadn't had the time to make any frosting for it). Having neglected to mail Christmas cards this year I had also brought over some poster paper and crayons to make some photo Christmas cards to email out. Benny and Imelda (a young girl of indeterminate relation to Mama Benny) helped enthusiastically. Some of my students, who had wandered by to charm some pilau out of me and Mama B, helped hold them up.
Then for the rest of the day we sat around listening to American Christmas music on my speakers on Mama Benny's couches and not “doing anything.” It was nice. Also sweltering after we polished off my bottle of wine, she bought us beers and then the neighbors came over with a bucket of Ulanzi, the local moonshine.

I suppose that's how you're supposed to spend Christmas. Not doing much with people you genuinely care for. Except for the Ulanzi, the endless pilau the neighbors heaped on me and the care packages I have been told are en route, I didn't receive a single present this year. But when Mama Grayson and I walked back to the school well after dark the moon was so bright we could see the road clearly and we were laughing hysterically and it was a very merry Christmas indeed.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Termite Day

So this yesterday morning I woke up and found my living room floor crawling with insects. A particularly unpleasant experience since there are no lights in my house and I found this out by stumbling onto a couple of them on my way to open a window. But things like that have long ceased to bother me and I had already cavalierly swept them outside and started cooking breakfast when my phone rang.

“Geneva come to the water spout. I want to show you something?”

“Okay, coming.”

What Mama Benny wants me to see is the two enormous buckets of the same insects I just got rid of that she and the librarian have gathered up in the girl's dormitory and are washing the wings off of. Ah yes... I had forgotten that the mating/flying stage of the termite life cycle (arguably the grossest stage) is a delicacy in Tanzanian cuisine. The occasional days when they all spring forth from the damp earth like a zombie hoard are almost holidays. Neither Mama Benny or the librarian do much work and even my grading is periodically interrupted when I am called to the school kitchen (a shack where the school lunches are prepared in pots the size of small hot tubs) to look at something particularly interesting. Maybe its just that Christmas is looming.

The strangest thing about the day, except for the half pound of bugs in a frying pan, is how I behaved like a tourist in my own village. I squirmed, giggled and finally went to get my camera to document the cooking. I made five or six tentative gestures to my mouth with the first one before finally popping it in (Simon, watching me do this, remarks “Madam you are funny!” and Elisius shouts out “Don't eat them Madam! They are bugs!” before breaking into laughter).

The second strangest thing is how delicious termites actually are. They are nice and fatty (you don't even need to add any oil to the pot to cook them), the perfect size for snacking and they have a nice crunch but it's the flavor that really make them. Not exactly spicy but there is a definite zest to them: the closest thing I can think of is puffed pork cracklin's. I think they could catch on.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mabadiliko Yanaweza/ Change is Possible Boys Conference

The first official Boys Empowerment Conference in Iringa Region Tanzania happened this year the week after Thanksgiving. If you notice a peculiar upswing in your mood (or possibly your libido) that week its likely it was due to the psychic energy of the forty teenage boys we crowded into a small conference room in a Catholic Mission just outside of Mafinga to talk about HIV/AIDS, alcohol and drugs, fatherhood , gender versus sex, gender roles, condoms, masturbation and of course girls, girls, girls, girls! 

It was our second gender empowerment conference in the region (Girl's Empowerment happened in June) and so of course it was a study in contrasts. The essentials were still there: a talent show (including a skit that could have been a three act opera and half a dozen rap songs), opening and closing speeches, certificates of completion, sports and games, and a question and answer session that covered a shocking amount of ground. But in a lot of ways it was really different.

The Girls Conference was an amazing, transformative, near-spiritual experience that culminated in a dance party the likes of which will never be seen again. It was also the logistical equivalent of a week-long game of a whack-a-mole. I am happy to say that Peace Corps volunteers are pretty quick studies though. Boy's conference was exhausting, but it wasn't quite the mad dash we all knew it could have easily been. We also moved away from having a lot of guest speakers and let our Tanzanian “Counter Parts,” the friends and colleagues we brought with us from our village do most of the heavy lifting. 

But of course the biggest difference, no matter how much we talk about gender equality, was that we were dealing with boys and not girls. Tanzanian boys have a wonderful assertiveness and confidence. Not to say that the girls don't have it at all but they don't have it in the metric tons, cartloads, bushels and barrels like the boys do. The boys have machismo, panache and the ability to ask the question “how much masturbation is too much masturbation?” with a completely straight face. It's impossible not to love them for it.

Enjoy some pics below: 
Maxing and relaxing outside after a hard day's condom demonstration.

Can you name all the parts of the penis? In Swahili? These boys can.

The whole gang!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What's in a name?

My next door neighbor Upendo has three boys: Derrick, Dennis and Davis. My academic mistress has a girl and a boy: Ester and Elia. The swahili/english teacher has a boy and a girl: Frankie and Faradja. The school secretary has only a girl but her name is Brightness Bahati Bange. I have two students who sit right next to each other whose names are Katemi Katemi and Juma Juma. In the classroom next door there is Abhassan Hassan, Nock Nock and Raymond Romance. There is Mr. Tayari, whose name means Mr. Ready and of course I round out the the hilarity by having the funniest possible name for the only white teacher in sixteen hundred square kilometers. 

Of Upendo's boys Derrick is the oldest: seven and very solemn. I like to ask him how his problems are (a common greeting here) because he always looks so world weary when he says that they are fine. He is the most respectful, well-behaved seven-year-old I have ever met too. He is enormously kind to his younger brother, very respectful with my things when he comes over to play and how excited he gets when he sees his mom and dad when they come back from work is frankly touching. 

Davis is not quite a month old and obviously excruciatingly adorable. He and Upendo are spending her maternity leave lying together in bed almost all day, nursing, sleeping and snuggling. I've seen them apart exactly once so far. But they welcome visitors at any time of day and he is developing quite a bag of ticks to entertain. So far he can open his eyes all the way, yawn, grab your fingers, mew softly, smile and sigh.
But however much I love Derrick and Davis, Dennis is my favorite child in the world. He and I both arrived in Sadani on the 24th of November but his birthday is exactly one year before the day I moved in. Dennis isn't an angel like Derrick. He's a little brother and a little spoiled by Derrick, who almost always lets him have his way. He's only just learning to talk and sometimes he comes over while I'm working to play various games with me. In one game we call each others names for an extended periods of time in various emphatic ways: “Neva.” “Dennie.” “NEVA!” “DENNIE!” “Neva!” “Dennie!” “Neva.” “Dennie.” “Nevaaaaaaa.” “Dennnnnnnnnnie.” and so on. In another he touches his nose and I make a beeping noise until he stops or until I run out of breath. In another he points at various things and asks “what?” and I tell him the word for it. In another he sits on my chest and we roar at each other with lions. In another he simply tries to knock the breath out of me while I lie on the floor by sitting on my stomach as hard as he can. For some reason I am actually a huge fan of that last one.