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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The end of the line...

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.

The week of my COS (close-of-service) process was actually surprisingly dull. I stayed at the hotel volunteers always use in downtown Dar (the Econolodge) for long periods of time with a couple other volunteers who were COSing that week. The process required us to run around the office and take care of a list of business to close. The most frustrating was the bank, which couldn’t close my account due to a technical error. They couldn’t empty my account either which was quite frustrating and meant I had to wait in line at the bank on 3 separate occasions. Otherwise, the process was simple and enjoyable as I essentially ate and sat around with friends before heading out on Saturday.

After flying home, life has been a bit hectic as I have traveled to Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, California, Colorado, North Carolina and Georgia if you count being at the airport. The big events were Hannah’s wedding, a conference in San Francisco, visiting Katie’s family in Chicago, Christmas and New Years, skiing at Vail, a trip to visit Katie’s grandparents in North Carolina, and of course getting engaged. Yes, I’m newly engaged if you didn’t hear! Still working on the date so patience is appreciated! Otherwise, I’m applying to graduate school and hope to attend in the fall and just got a job at Target for the short term.

Before I close out this blog for good, I wanted to give a final thought on Peace Corps service as a whole. It’s difficult to really see what the differences are between now and before my service. Everything just kind of blends together and it’s hard to say how I’ve changed as a person. There are little markers but the bigger, more general changes like comfort in front of a crowd or the ability to not worry about others’ opinions are attributes that get applied retroactively, making it hard to put them on a timeline. Regardless, it is unreasonable to suggest that someone could complete Peace Corps service and not change at all. It changes you at your core. You are, at the end, an American with a splash of your service country. Goal 3 of the Peace Corps mission is to bring some of that country back to the US with you, but without even trying you bring it back in you.

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.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Goals 2 and 3

Two-thirds of the goal of the Peace Corps is cultural exchange. Volunteers become ambassadors both directions serving as an example of Americans while at their sites and then a source of knowledge of the culture of their service country when they get back. It’s a cool responsibility and one that’s relatively easy to fulfill as it doesn’t take much effort beyond being yourself. Still, often times these aspects of PC service are considered the most successful and effective examples of Peace Corps’ impact on host countries.

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of just talking with my students since my opportunities to do so are becoming increasingly limited. It seems they have a set list of questions to ask whenever they get an opportunity to ask whatever they want, which is frustrating at times because I feel like I have already answered everything. But then again, I would imagine the same questions would come up in America. It doesn't help that since I'm a novelty everyone wants to ask questions, which makes it understandable that the same things come up. I’m not sure what media outlet started the Free Masons craze here but every Tanzanian student is convinced they’re one of the biggest concerns right now. I do my best to explain that they are regular people meeting in a club-like environment but I still get the same question so the answer is not getting passed around like the conspiracy theory that started this. I also get tired of the why don’t you like our Tanzanian women question. I still am not sure of the motivation behind that question, if it is to say I should be dating a Tanzanian because I’m here or if it’s more joking since I have said I have a girlfriend in America. I’ve even had that question asked of me by PC staff so it is clearly very much on the mind of most Tanzanian people.

Regardless of some minor nuisances, I still find the back and forth of asking questions to be a very enjoyable time. The questions asked are very telling about the community and their feelings and it’s a good opportunity to quell rumors about America or Americans that might not otherwise be addressed. The more times I’ve had these conversations the more pointed the questions have become, which is the benefit of having an American around and comfortably accessible. Just this last time one student asked if America was trying to recolonize Africa. To a PC volunteer that seems ridiculous but I can see how the right cynical perspective could pull that out of America's involvement in so much of the global stage.

It’s also an opportunity to realize some of the impacts you’ve had on your students. One student asked about something I had said the first day on classes which I don’t even remember saying. Granted, it didn’t help that the student couldn’t quite remember the words either, but I got the gist of it and it was an idea that I want the students to remember, so it's exciting to know my words are not falling on deaf ears.

Finally, I often use these back-and-forths as an opportunity to explain why certain things frustrate me. For example, I recently moved into my room that I’ll be staying in for the next 6 weeks or so, but the whole ordeal was an exercise in patience with Tanzanian culture. The day started off with me needing to reference a paper that should have been very easy to obtain. But instead I spent my time searching through boxes filled with papers laying in all directions once the librarian looked at the boxes and shrugged it off as difficult work. While it makes sense to an American that that just means you need to give more effort to the problem, the Tanzanians would see no issue with her giving up and saying it wasn’t meant to be. The fatalism in this country is infuriating and it is helpful to be able to explain that to my students even if they might not agree. Later in the day, I was ready to move but the work to build the door was ongoing, despite having started a full 48 hours before. So I paced, impatient with the situation while my Tanzanian counterparts did not understand my frustration. This might actually be an example of failed cultural exchange because I don’t think people understood my frustration with the issue and blamed me rather than the situation for the problem. Hopefully, if, over time, enough people show issue with the complete lack of timeliness in this country, Tanzanians will realize they need to change. I try to do my part in that process by showing them now that foreigners may not see that lack of concern for time as professional and I think simply exposing them to that fact gives them a leg up since they will be more ready for that expectation in the future.

Apologies for the choppiness of the post. It’s been kind of an idea dump more than a well thought out piece. However, I find it quite interesting to consider the seemingly peripheral effects of things like the Peace Corps that will shape the perception of Americans the world over.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Next in line...

Now that the health class three months ahead of me has gone through the COS process and made their way out of the country, it’s starting to hit me that I’m next in line and I could even classify my departure as soon. Meanwhile, there are daily reminders that I’m still in Tanzania. For example, the last three days I’ve been mostly in my bed or the bathroom due to a digestive issue with my stomach making sounds I didn’t know it could. Regardless, preparing for the end is kind of a rushed process for our class, not by choice but by necessity. As I think I’ve said before, the powers of PC TZ have been searching to shift the program for a while but it was apparently granted just recently. This means the new education volunteers will swear in in about 17 days and if we wanted our sites replaced we had a two month minimum overlap with our replacements.

We can debate the merits and faults of this plan on from both the sides on this and believe me as volunteers we have…too many times! Basically it boils down to do you want someone to help you find your way in a new village or discover it for yourself and do you want someone around while you’re packing up to leave? In the end, it’s irrelevant because the whole duration of Peace Corps they have pounded into you the need to be flexible. From the start, you can’t even choose your country of service and if I got one choice in my entire service I’m pretty sure that would be the one I’d want. The funny thing is I wouldn’t be here and I would have made a mistake with that one choice. The beautiful thing about this process is that when control is taken from you you’re left with making the best of what you have. Well, what I have is magnificent and I couldn’t imagine myself elsewhere. Why do most people love their hometowns? Because they had to live with them for 5, 10, 20 years before they could go anywhere else. Anyway, to bring me back to the point, the overlap is what it is and you’ll see the positives and not realize the negatives are things you could have been without.

However, what it does do to my immediate future is severely limit the time I have left to do things. I will be traveling to COS conference next week and will miss a significant chunk of those days. It wouldn’t be as much of an issue except that I have a female replacement. This means, per PC policy, that I need alternative housing and since I want my replacement to actually stay for her two years, I think it’s best I’m the one living in said housing. It’s not all bad. This gives me an extra filter in which I get to cut stuff out of the trip home. I can be silly with my sentimentality and packing two months early is a good way to cut that out.

Otherwise, it seems my final two months will be devoted to arguably my biggest project of service. The health weekends, which we’ve raised an astonishing amount for (Thank You!), will happen in September and October. With the money raised, we can fund three full weekends, each impacting 500-700 students! As we currently have them planned, they are 3-day events covering a broad range of topics including nutrition and well-being, diabetes, mental health, and sexual health, including HIV and AIDS. I should qualify that and say that I’m certainly not taking point on this project but I hope to make a significant contribution beyond collection of the funds. My Kiswahili is not good enough to run the sessions but I’m going to make every effort to facilitate them as best I can. Documentation to come!

Alas, staring down the tunnel it has gone from just light to a definite world on the other side but I still have a ways to go. Hopefully there are fewer weekends like this one left in my future and I can enjoy the days to come. I’m going to do my best to document the weeks ahead as it should be a volatile time with constantly changing plans. The outline is exciting but we’ll see what happens!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

While I was out...

It's been a ridiculously long break since my last post again and so I feel obligated to start out by saying I'm sorry...again. But to be fair the last 2 months has been surprisingly busy. For lack of a more interesting way to present the information, I'll just run through the events.

The second half of May was pretty much exclusively teaching time. It always works out that the first two to three months of class are the most consistent, productive class time that one has in the school year so it was good to dive in and get a chunk out of the way before things really took off. It was a little concerning how quickly I felt like I was exhausted of teaching however. I look at my teaching load and responsibilities here in country and it just baffles me how teachers in the states do what they do for as many hours a day as they do it. Yeah, teaching two classes the same thing is easier to prepare but it's just as tiring! Not to mention the extra work outside of class where you have to grade etc. Anyway, as with everything else, I'm much more grateful for our education system in the states having seen an alternative.

Things really started to pick up the first full week of June. I headed to Morogoro the first to attend what we call the Training of the Trainers, or TOT for short. PC loves their acronyms and you find that everything and everyone has some two to three letter combination used as a reference to speed up conversations. Anyway, TOT was a gathering of every person, volunteer, staff, or contracted help, to plan sessions for the incoming class of trainees (PCTs in case you were wondering). Each volunteer (PCV :P) had applied to facilitate various sessions during the training and so we spent most of the week refining our plans and trying to coordinate between sessions occurring other weeks.

I've always felt like I've done a good job of surrounding myself with people that are one step above me on the intellectual scale. If you look at my resume, I feel like it reads quite impressively but when I look at myself in the context of those around me, I often feel overshadowed. Things like TOT, highlight it the most for me. All these other amazing volunteers have really brilliant ideas for passing on important information and I'm left looking at relatively simplistic ideas presented in a boring way. Nevertheless, we finished the week with a solid product prepared for the new group when they arrived just more than a week after that.

The Saturday after closing TOT, I boarded a bus to head all the way back to Mbeya because the following Monday, I took 3 girls to our annual girls empowerment conference in Mbeya town. Each year, for the last 3 years, the volunteers in the Mbeya region have come together to plan and execute a girls empowerment conference that teaches young women in our communities life skills. We do some of the standard HIV and AIDS presentations, but we go beyond that also, encouraging girls to achieve the most out of their lives. We have successful women come in and give talks about their achievements and the decisions that got them there. We have sessions teaching about family planning and why waiting isn't just about sexual health. There's a session on self-defense where we teach the girls how to quickly get away from someone who may be about to assault them. All-in-all, it's a really fun time while still being a significant educational experience that teaches information that often does not filter down to students in Tanzania.

Every year there is a talent show and for the past 3 years the volunteers have made a production to put on stage alongside the girls' talents. This year we chose Waka Waka, the Shakira song that was created as the theme song to the World Cup in South Africa. I think the video is on youtube if you want to find it but it was one of my favorite moments as a volunteer. We choreographed only the first two verses of the song intentionally, partially because of time constraints and partially because we planned to include the girls, but after we did our portion of the dance we brought up the girls to dance with us on stage. It's clear to me now that that event was not just South Africa's but rather all of sub-Saharan Africa and since Waka Waka represents that event, it's also everyone's song. There was passion in that free-dance beyond what I could have expected and it was a really awesome moment of community. But that's what the arts and athletics can do, bring together two sides of the world and have them cheer in unity.

Following the girls conference was the one week of normalcy in the last 6 or so. I had to pull together my strength to actually teach for a full week. I thought it would be easy since I knew I was going to leave again soon but instead it turned out to be much harder. I just could not focus and it seemed to be a waste of time to put in the effort to make each lesson valuable. I did make it through the week (life is so hard, right?) which was followed by the A-level short break, a one week vacation.

I had already made plans to spend this week on a trip to visit Anna and Adrienne, health volunteers in my region, and so Saturday morning I packed up and rolled out to Mbeya to get the bus that would take me to their villages. Now, if I could have driven straight from my site to theirs it couldn't have been more that 50km, but because the roads are poor and the bus takes people to Mbeya, I had to travel the long way around by first traveling north out of my own valley to Mbeya and then south along the ridge to my west above my valley to get to their sites, probably a good 150-200km.

The week consisted mostly of getting to see the daily life of a health volunteer. There's somewhat of a disconnect sometimes between the lives of health and education volunteers at their respective sites. Education is very structured and we have things laid out for us where as health volunteers really have to develop their work on their own. Additionally, the houses of health volunteers are usually more spartan than those of education volunteers. Both have their benefits but the lifestyles are noticeably different. The differences in Mbeya are highlighted even more by the fact that the health volunteer sites are very village with no water, no electricity, and so forth, where as education volunteers live quite well compared to the majority of Tanzanians. We spent time playing lots of cards, exercising, and cooking in between seeing the various projects they worked on. We made lots of yummy food including two chocolate two days.

We returned as a group and hiked Ngozi crater the following day. I think that was my 5th time doing the hike, but since it's such a nice hike, it just happens. Finally, after meeting up with additional friends, some PC, some not, we rented a car to travel to Matema Beach to celebrate the 4th of July. Again, I think this was my 5th time going to Matema Beach, but I could go 5 more times and not be satisfied, as it's the perfect mix of village and tourist all in one.

The group was fantastic and it could be split into smaller groups if that was more appropriate for the activity. There's little more to say than that it was as close to the quintessential beach party as you could get. We played baseball in the lake with my whiffle ball and bat (thanks mom!), relaxed in the sun and read a book every morning, and even roasted a pig on July 4th. So it was actually only half the pig but it was still legit. We dug a pit and lit a fire of coals below and then placed the pig on logs that were laid across the pit. Despite the set-up catching fire a couple times, we enjoyed a nice pile of delicious pig that night.

Finally, upon returning from Matema, I continued on to Morogoro to do the actual training of the new class. 39 volunteers make up the group of incoming trainees, however the big difference between this and years past, aside from the scheduling, is that almost half of the group is English teachers. Recently, Peace Corps did an impact study here in Tanzania and found that our single greatest contribution is English language education. I’m not sure if that’s what motivated the switch to English teachers with the new classes, however, it has become a focus one way or another. This resulted in the size of my math group being significantly smaller which is both nice for the short term and disappointing for longer term goals.

I facilitated three sessions to varying degrees of success. The first day we had a math session dealing with the culture of defeatism that most Tanzanians have when it comes to math. Since the day was running slowly, it was kind of tacked carelessly on and ended up getting significantly shortened, which made anything beyond general conversations a challenge. The second day, our morning session was on logical thinking and problem solving and it went much better. We analyzed our own analysis of a Sudoku puzzle in order to identify methods of problem solving and then took a list of methods and applied them to a form 1 (first year of secondary school) math problem. It was a really good session with lots of discussion on how to teach at the introductory level. Finally, the afternoon session was kind of wiped away unfortunately. The original topic of group work was addressed through various other sessions in the previous weeks so we considered trying a physics lab for those who were interested. However, due to some miscommunication we ended up learning how to read 4-figure math tables which are necessary for the first half of secondary school so not all was lost. After sessions, we all went to dinner together and had an enjoyable evening of drinks and pizza.

The next day I had intended to go to the bus stand and get on a bus for home, however, July 7th (Sabasaba or sevenseven for those translating) is a national holiday much like our labor day. Therefore, people travel everywhere and even with an entire fleet of buses heading southwest, I was not able to find a seat. I was able to buy a ticket for the following day, which I did, then returned to the training site. The afternoon was the time period where the trainees learn about the sports and games that are played in the schools and so it was an opportunity to get exercise, something I am always in need of here.

The next day was a rather uneventful day of traveling, which I have learned to consider a good thing. Eventful usually means bad and so the fact that I woke up at a normal hour and was in Tukuyu before sunset made it a very good travel day.

Now I’m teaching from now until COS conference and then with long break approaching who knows what I’ll do the last month. Hopefully blog a bit more perhaps? :P

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The big news since my last post would be my selection to be a volunteer facilitator in the training of the new education class. It’s always nice to come full circle and be part of passing the torch on to the next group. I got to do it in college being a TA for the introductory meteorology course and now I get to do it again for a few days with the new volunteers. I think the training is a both necessary and important introduction to being a volunteer. It slows the culture shock down somewhat since it’s a shared experience with other Americans, allowing you the opportunity to learn about the cultural differences comfortably together. In addition to easing into the culture it offers time to prepare for your daily activities once you get to site. It’s already enough of a challenge to teach here when the your approach is fundamentally different than those you’re working with, so doing so without going through a bit of training would be nearly impossible. Anyway, I was chosen to assist the staff in the training and I’m thoroughly looking forward to it!

The garden project is continuing slowly. We dug our first few beds and planted them early on. However, a somewhat expected lack of organization has left this part untended and it is looking a little tired. However, after a week, the students chose to expand with their own efforts and raised a little money for seeds to create a second plot that is, for now, still bare. We’ll see how the space does as the next week or so continues and plants should start to grow in. Finally, the headmaster has committed the school to funding the purchase of seeds for growing cabbage. In the next few days, we’re hoping to set up a space to start our seeds and have them germinate and grow for a few weeks. After they are stronger, we’ll transplant them into the larger garden alongside the lettuce, carrots, and local spinach that we have already started.

On a different note, in the coming weeks Tanzania’s power supply is be severely impaired when one of the power plants goes offline for repairs. From what I have gathered, for about 8 days starting mid-week this week the power will be out from 8am until 11pm at night. I think power is one of the biggest things I take for granted in the United States. To some degree, I think the expectation for the power to be on at all times is justified in that we’ve built a system that can capably support the demand and we as consumers pay for each bit of electricity we receive. I suppose there are places where we don’t bear the full cost of the service but in general we get what we pay for. Here, simply getting on the grid can be a significant challenge and once you are, the reward is often too much demand for the supply available. It’s an interesting difference in perspective and a good example of how we adjust to what’s available. When you first arrive in country, power outages often endlessly annoy where as by the end, you have a system and power outages can be some of your most productive hours. Let’s hope that holds true this next week.

In non-Tanzanian news, I’ve been tracking the release of a study done by the Brookings Institution in D.C. It’s been ranking bus systems across the United States on their ability to serve transit dependents and especially if they can get them to their jobs. Somewhat shockingly, Wichita ranks in the upper half of the nation’s largest 100 metro areas by these metrics but I feel like anyone in the city would generally agree that our system is severely lacking. The Wichita Eagle is running a story this morning about the city hiring an advisor to identify citizens’ feelings on the issue and as gas soars towards $4 a gallon, I think an improved public transportation system is going to have significant support. I thought the end of the article had an interesting twist in that it brought forward the idea of a referendum for dedicated funding of the system and capital expansion. If that route should be taken, I think it’s important for the city to identify an endgame. Not just ask do you want to raise taxes for a better bus system, but do you want to raise taxes for THIS better bus system. Those of you who know me well know my passion for transportation and have seen its products, including my own ideas for an overhaul of the city’s transportation system. And while I have opinions on what improvements should be implemented, I would definitely support such an effort. I’m interested to hear what other Wichitans think and I’ll definitely be keeping tabs on the story.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Getting up to cruising altitude...

It’s always a challenge to get myself to sit down for 30 minutes and hash out a blog post. I don’t really know why, since there’s not a whole lot of news to write and a few words are valid posts, but I can never seem to consistently do it. It makes me impressed to think about all the blogs I read on a regular basis where someone sits down to write meaningful work every few days, often with little to no monetary benefit but just to talk through ideas.

Anyway, here in Tanzania, things are starting to accelerate. I’ve begun work with a group of students to build and maintain a garden on the school grounds. We started small, digging about 4 beds and planting seeds for various leafy greens (although we’ll see if we had any success with the chickens picking at it for a week). We ran into a problem with miscommunication between myself and the headmaster in terms of what the goals of the group are, as he was disappointed with the size we started with. I wanted the students to show an ability to care for the food but it seems expansion is the priority at this point. When peace corps trains us in gardening methods, they obviously want us to pass those on to the Tanzanian people to spread awareness. However, it’s a battle for every volunteer to try and get the locals to listen to them when teaching because they will never see us as people who know how to farm. We don’t help the image by using the tools efficiently but still it’s frustrating when you have something you want to teach but no one who respects you on the subject enough to listen. I have a couple students beginning to show interest in the concepts so I think maybe I’ll teach a lesson or two on the side and make that a smaller part of the project as a whole. So from here on, I’m hoping to create a system that can be maintained through the constant turn-over that occurs from the school having students run the program. I think seeing something that functions through several leaders would be a big success, especially in this environment.

In other news, the fundraising is officially a go for the health weekends with the local teachers colleges. We had a gap in preparation due to my site mate returning to the states and the other volunteer we are working with needing to take some time off for a few weeks. However, we’re back in the planning stages and while I’m taking a more passive role with these conferences, it’s still exciting to see necessary education done on such a scale.

As for the girls’ empowerment conference, we’re approaching that time where we’re still far enough away to see it as the distant future but close enough to realize work should be started asap. I’m working with at least two other volunteers on putting together a nutrition education program for the girls. We’re finding we have little time to include it in the regular class schedule, so we’re doing our best to design some sort of entertainment teaching on the subject. Other than that, preparations like selecting girls and getting permission slips signed are time consuming necessities that always seem way harder to do that they should be.

I got asked in class today how I felt about the death of Osama Bin Laden. Given that it has been 10 years since 9/11 the response to it emotionally is lacking a bit. I certainly don’t feel like a New Yorker would feel but it’s not like it is lost on me what a horrific day that was. I’ve stood on those grounds before and after the attacks and one of my most unexpected virulent reactions was driving over a bridge in the city, on our way home after visiting Hannah at Wood’s Hole, and realizing that the towers really were gone. However, it was easy to give a sort of politically correct answer and shift the subject. I asked the student how he felt about it, given that before 9/11 Al Qaeda attacked Tanzanians in the American Embassy in Dar es Salaam. Yes it was an attack on the US and even on US soil technically, but the reality is, the attack killed Tanzanians. It was actually a good reminder of just how universal his hatred was for people unlike him. I think the student would have loved to ask more questions but we ran out of class time but it was still an interesting exchange, despite the fact that I’m certain the student was looking for some sort of jubilant response from me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The last beginning of the school year...

The school year has officially begun and after a week and a half of relatively frustrating progress I forsee at least another week of slow going before we truly get into the swing of things. Part of the problem is the schedule, which has been unfortunate at best. After returning to country, I had two weeks of nothing before the students returned to school. However, once they arrived, I had to leave for Dar es Salaam for a VAC (Volunteer Advisory Council) meeting for the remainder of the week. Now this week, the school has been struggling with rooms and the class schedule to get students where they need to be and following a consistent schedule. If that wasn’t enough, this year has Easter fall at the end of this week so we are not having class Friday for Good Friday and then Monday for Easter Monday (I always wondered what that day was on the calendar, now I still don’t know but it’s more relevant). The kicker is that the national holiday Union Day, which is always April 26th, falls on Tuesday, giving us a full 5 day weekend. Union Day is a celebration of the anniversary of the unification (surprise!) of TANganyika and ZANzibar. I assume ia was to make it sound more like a real country than Tanzan :P.

Going back for a second, the VAC meeting was a good experience. It’s the second one I have been a part of and it is an opportunity for the volunteers to send representatives to Dar to discuss issues with the PC administration. Often times it turns into a frustrating dialogue between volunteer representatives, who understand that an issue can’t be fixed easily or sometimes at all but have to pass on the complaint from another, and staff who want to put the issue to rest by giving a solid explanation. But usually, tucked in the discussion somewhere is legitimately important material that has to get passed along and does, although perhaps less effectively than we would like. The experience for me is a reminder that we are still a governmental organization and bureaucracy reigns. Many of the answers are carefully phased and things that could potentially allow us to be more flexible in our service aren’t feasible due to the amount of red tape implementation would have to cut through. Still, I think it’s a good opportunity to get volunteers an eye into the administration and bring the two onto the same page.

Back at school, my garden project has been given the official go ahead and we are looking to meet in the coming days to begin the project. I really haven’t ever seen the process of preparation for something like this through its entirety before. In the past, I have entered once the labor comes into the picture to set up and actually work a project. Now, I have to figure out where exactly we are building this garden, how fast it should grow, and who will be involved with each step. It’s a learning experience and having the critical decisions end with me is a situation I don’t think I’ve been in before. I want to include a few Tanzanians beyond my students in the project to expose them to the gardening methods. Yet, it’s not like I can just pass them through to the person who taught me. A volunteer’s responsibility is to distribute skills to the host country national, but up until now that didn’t really process as meaning I will sometimes be the end of the line for information. As we become independent, even in college, it seems as though we still have that net to fall into, be it professors in class or our parents for our home troubles. Obviously, it’s not like I’m out in the cold if I don’t succeed and failure results in some exposed dirt or a corner overgrown with weeds. It’s just dawning on me that the success and failure of this project begins and ends with me and what I have to offer today, which, on a small scale, is terrifyingly exciting.

Other than the garden project, I’m trying to ramp up to normal class operation. I decided to ease myself in with less intense activities that should hopefully stimulate the mind. It’s interesting to see the intellectual differences between our two cultures. I’m trying to make the students think about how to extract as much information as possible out of a word problem and then also exercise their ability to reason so I gave them logic puzzles out of a magazine that was left at my house. When I tried to offer it to the first class, the response was predictably one of confusion and disinterest. Tanzanians have this perception that there is a set list of things to do to study and be prepared for their exams and deviation from that method is a waste of time. I probably have complained about it before. But something that isn’t clearly part of the subject we are studying is definitely not something they see as a good use of brain power. Meanwhile, many people in the states seek out these kinds of problems, which is why my book exists in the first place. What is it about us that causes us to seek to stretch our abilities like that? I’m starting to understand the pessimism from people who operate here long term as the product of the lack of that desire, on the Tanzanians’ part, to improve oneself without reward. When we encounter Tanzanians who break that mold it’s exciting enough to be news for the next time we see other volunteers, the same way as if we saw an awesome sports play. But I suppose that’s our purpose as volunteers, to offer the new way of thinking and if anyone latches on we can support them in continuing with their development. In case anyone does, I have something like 150 logic puzzles at home!