I have officially finished my Peace Corps service and I am now back in America. I know the last 4 months had no blogging at all and I want to use this as an opportunity to kind of wrap up my thoughts on the experience. While I could try to go into details, I really don’t have the willpower or the memory for it. I’m sorry if it’s a disappointment but after returning and telling the story 50 times over to people individually, I’m just not as excited to do it again.
September was originally supposed to be an extended break for me with an opportunity to relax and wrap up things during break before I left. However, break was moved to October, and I found a way to fill every weekend during the month with my health education weekends.
The health weekends project was one that developed out of big-idea brainstorming. My site mate for a year and a half and I wanted to have a more locally focused version of our region wide girls’ empowerment conference. Serendipitously, we ran into Priscilla, a Scottish woman living in Tanzania working on the health focused education at a small teachers’ college near our sites. We consolidated our efforts and from there the process, I think, has been well documented earlier in this blog. What has not been documented is what actually happened!
In short, we had six classes, each focusing on different health issues relevant to everyday Tanzanians. First was mental health, taught by a group of Tanzanian doctors. Stress and other factors that we readily accept as harmful here in the states aren’t even considered to be a potential problem in Tanzania. Another class dealt with healthy eating and diets. Doctors had the participants calculate their BMI and reiterated that the need for a balanced diet is real and not just an exercise in their biology books. Third, the students learned about diabetes. Priscilla had originally started the event to teach about diabetes due to the fact that one of her students was misdiagnosed with malaria instead of diabetes and subsequently killed by the saline solution that they pumped into his body. Awareness related to non HIV and AIDS issues is low and this class was an important first step.
The other three classes were mostly dealing with sexual issues because of the fact that there is a massive amount misinformation about the issues. Much like in the states, taboos with the issues prevent the facts from always reaching the ears of those who need to know. One class was entirely devoted to the common myths that the students are likely to hear. It also addressed how to talk to younger people about their development because often times kids did not even expect changes when they start happening to their bodies. My session was to teach the students how to make simple pads for women. Often times the women cannot deal with their period in a way that allows them to continue daily activities while staying clean. It was quite an adventure as we did not separate the boys and they got just as into it. I hope that enthusiasm followed them home from the classroom and they shared the skills with their families. Finally, the sixth class was more like what we would consider a sex education class. Students discussed issues and then finished up the class with condom demonstrations.
The events occurred on three separate weekends at three separate schools. In the end I would say we directly taught at least 1500 Tanzanian students. More amazing still, two of the three schools were teachers’ colleges where all the students will be placed in primary and secondary schools as a career. The potential for this knowledge to go on and be disseminated to future students is dumbfounding. I can confidently say that this is probably one of the most influential things I will do in my lifetime if you trace the beneficiaries. Enjoy some photos:
Before I started August, I had planned out my work from that point till the end of my teaching time and I had worked it out so that I could finish the material by the first weekend of September when the students would be ready to leave school for break. It required somewhat of an acceleration in material covered but it was doable when laid out on paper. Naturally, the speed at which we moved through the material was slightly under that of the plan, but it was still unnecessarily fast once the headmaster moved the break a full 3 weeks later. We finished the syllabus up to the end of the unit a full 2 weeks ahead of time.
We then had our terminal examinations during the week of September 26th. Unfortunately, the other physics teacher had already left the school and I was in charge of an additional 2 classes of physics exams. Even worse, it included material I had never taught before. Making a test for students when you don’t know what you should be asking is extremely difficult and I found myself resorting to pulling questions out of a textbook I knew they didn’t have. I think, aside from just how massive a job grading can be, the understanding required to teach well is what I most under-appreciated about my teachers, from Kindergarten to college. On several occasions I have heard the last step to understand something is to teach it to someone else, but how do you make a fair test for something you don’t understand? I’m not sure I could have, but the alternative was no test, which was not an option. Granted, part of the issue is the cultural barrier. We think about things differently, making it harder for me to ask questions that they could do well with if I hadn't addressed the subject matter with them. That’s just the way it is, but I still felt that the students deserved better.
Grading always takes a lifetime, and when the load was increased by over 50%, what seemed like a doable amount of time became an eternity. I spent the following week grading from 8 am to 5 pm on most days. Meanwhile, in what little time I had outside of grading I was packing up getting ready for my trip over the final two weeks before COSing.
When I had finally finished grading my exams it was just a day before I needed to leave Tukuyu. The school had a small lunch for me with all the teachers at the school including my replacement volunteer. The standard gifts of cloth were given and we ate the spiced rice that is mandatory food for special events. A lack of communication between the headmaster and I caused the event to be hastily put together in about 48 hours. This was one example of when the culture of not planning things till the last minute came in handy and as always, the event seemed to come together at the last minute.
I left Tukuyu on Thursday October 13th and headed to Mbeya. Friday was Nyerere Day, which is the national holiday to celebrate the first president of Tanzania. He is considered their greatest of leaders and most people give him credit for making Tanzania what it is today. In my opinion, he was an intelligent man that had great ideas, often ahead of his time, but, as seemingly the standard in Tanzania, the implementation of those ideas did not succeed in matching his vision.
Anyway, after two days in Mbeya eating good food and saying good-byes to friends, I was on a bus to Morogoro. I stayed with my host family for a night and left the larger portion of my luggage there while I spent the next week up in the north of the country.
Ironically, I had been in the country for 2 years and had not been north of the central portions. So on the 14th, I got my first site, in person, of Kilimanjaro. Granted, it was in the clouds so it just looked like a wall going up into the clouds but you could still appreciate its enormity by seeing just how much of the horizon was earth rising to the heavens. At this point, I met up with 3 friends, Theo, Theresa, and Dan who were going on this adventure with me.
Over the next 3 days we hiked Mount Meru. It is also a dormant volcano like Kilimanjaro. However, it was active just a little over a century ago while Kilimanjaro has been silent for millennia. It stands just over 4500 meters tall which is still almost 1500 meters shorter than Kili, but at ¾ the height and 1/10 the cost of Kili, it seemed a good deal. I’ve never had trouble with altitude before, but as we summited it was definitely harder to breath and felt a little bit like the onset of an asthma attack except it never progressed. The views from the mountain were absolutely amazing! They have you start your hike the last day at 2 am so you can reach the top of the mountain by sunrise, which at first seems kind of silly, but because of the way clouds form during the day, it is the only time you really get a good view. From sunrise, till the late afternoon, we walked all the way back down the mountain, which is impressive because you travel through all the different ecosystems in one day. Needless to say, we slept like rocks that night.
Following that we traveled west towards Ngorongoro Crater. We didn’t actually enter the park but rather organized a tour that took us north around the outside of the park up to Lake Natron. This took us through the Maasai grazing lands which had several herds of cattle and goats intermixed with wild groups of giraffes, zebras, and gazelles. At Lake Natron, we saw hundreds of flamingoes. It is the site where millions of the birds go to breed and although it was not breeding season, the numbers were still impressive. The following day, we hiked another mountain, Ol Doinyo Lengai, which is Kimaasai for Mountain of God. It is an active volcano and was an extremely difficult climb. Due to the make-up of the lava produced, the rock on the surface is extremely crumbly and soft. This meant the distance covered by one step was reduced to almost nothing once you slid backwards through the crumbling rock. It took us longer to hike the mountain than it did to hike Mount Rungwe down in Mbeya, despite it being a couple hundred meters shorter and significantly less horizontal distance to travel.
After returning to Moshi town for the night, we bused our separate ways, which for me meant a last trip back to my host family in Morogoro. The following morning, my host mother (whose English was far better than she ever let me know in training) drove me to the bus terminal to catch my last long-distance bus to Dar es Salaam.
I would encourage anyone interested in doing Peace Corps service to contact a recruiter and talk through if it is for them. They have some somewhat tacky catchphrases (“The toughest job you’ll ever love.” “Life is calling. How far will you go?”) but they do embody the experience. The way I like to put it is that it was the right thing for me at the right time. I’m not sure why, but all that growth you’re supposed to undergo in college seemed most obvious in me during Peace Corps service. However, I’m also fast realizing that there are plenty of people that don’t grow up…ever. The loose leash that volunteers are given by the necessity of distance really requires volunteers to develop the skills to manage work, play, and life effectively. Some might look at the lack of accountability and cry wastefulness but in reality the sheer number of people that benefit from the system far outdoes what almost any other government organization can do. The man who taught us permagardening techniques had an interesting fact, up until a few years ago the Peace Corps’ budget was about equal to that of (I think) The Marine Corps Band. 8,000 volunteers in over 100 countries were doing life-changing work for the same price as the president’s own band. In the past few years the numbers have changed a bit but not by a significant amount. How’s that for financial efficiency?
All in all, Peace Corps really is a wonderful experience. It is a challenge unlike any you will have at home and the bond you make with the people around you is priceless. All my frustrations and disappointments made the experience that much better. In short, it will rank as one of the best two years of my life when things are all said and done.