And finally, a little perspective

While making lunch today, I decided it was well past time to eat the watermelon I bought ages ago, and began to slice it up for salad. It really has been ages, in watermelon years. At least two weeks, maybe more. So predictably, it was a little grainy.

I took a taste. Not crisp. Not perfect. “Ugh,” was my first thought. “Waited too long. This has got to go.”

Wait. What? Before dumping the whole thing into the green bin, I stopped for a second to consider. I ate watermelons in worse condition than that while in Tanzania and was grateful for the fresh fruit. (Hell, I picket weevils out of my bread before putting it in the toaster, and never thought twice about it.) What was suddenly so wrong with it? Nothing – except my knowledge that there were plenty of fresher, tastier watermelons at any of the four supermarkets within a five-minute drive of my house.

the watermelon as a metaphor for my life

There is nothing wrong with this watermelon. Just like there is nothing wrong with me. This is as close as I get to writing in metaphors. (If you want poetry you've got the wrong blog.)

And in that instance, it occurred to me that I have now fully adjusted to being home.

Now really, in the scheme of things, I was not away that long. The adjustment should not have taken four weeks. But within my five days to “rest and relax” when I arrived, there were two people moving into and one person moving out of my home. And I was dealing with a jet lag from the seven-hour time difference. Then I was back to work, and among my usual job description, planning to host a national committee for a series of meetings, as well as a focus-group (of sorts) for my Masters research.

So I was busy. I was not reflecting*. I was completely incapable of intelligently answering any questions about the trip. I could spit out an “It was incredible” or an “I’m so glad I took the time to do that” when prompted, but all those probing questions: was it what you expected? what id you learn? what was the best/worst part? I was useless.

Until now. The meetings are over. The focus group a success. I am extremely pleased with my new house-mate and our living arrangements. I am no longer falling into bed at night utterly exhausted. I am able to think, to consider, to analyze.

What did I learn on my trip? A lot. Too much to cover in one blog post. But in summary, I learned what I can do. I overcame my fear of heights and my claustrophobia – even if only temporarily. I rediscovered my independence, suddenly living in a place where neither my husband nor my big sister were there to pick up after me.

Most of all, I regained a confidence in myself I hadn’t ever realized I had lost. Because I didn’t get sick. Not even a little. Everyone gets sick in Africa, at least once. Even the most well-travelled and hearty of my friends told me it was unavoidable. As someone with a rather traumatic health history**, and serious vulnerability to any of various stomach bugs I had been warned about, this was a fear that had paralyzed me for years. I wasn’t entirely convinced I had a right to take this risk. I dreaded the moment I would call my Dad, delirious, dehydrated, and desperate to get home. I really thought my body was going to defeat me on this one. But it did not. Not even when I ate the soft watermelon.

So what did I learn in Africa? Enough of the worrying. Stop wasting time and energy on things you can’t control that aren’t really problems anyway. Stop wasting food! Eat your damn watermelon. It’s good for you.

*As an Adult Education & Community Development Masters candidate, I read a lot about the importance of reflection. For the first 3.5 years of my program, I dismissed it as touchy-feely bullshit. I have recently discovered it is actually quite helpful.
**For the record – I am perfectly healthy. I have Crohn’s disease. I hasn’t bothered me in more than five years. But for a number of years it was… not good.
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Eat Bicker Love – The Original Soundtrack

A couple weeks ago, a friend (who shall remain nameless) posted a somewhat embarrassed tweet regarding the purchase of the new Iron Maiden CD and the Eat Pray Love Soundtrack in one transaction. I was both amused by her tastes, and inspired. A soundtrack! My trip needed a soundtrack. Of course.

It is at times like these that I love software like iTunes. Yes, I often bitch about the authorization rules, and the odd way it sorts compilation CDs. But one thing I love about iTunes is that it keeps track of my listening habits for me, creating great playlists like “most recently played” or “25 Most Played.” This is where I started my planning.

My listening while in Tanzania was influenced by three major events or circumstances. First, the purchase of a new computer, only days before I left. I simply didn’t have time to load all my music onto it, so I grabbed the iTunes folder, quickly tried to sort my music from D’s (was mostly successful) and copied those files. I directly transferred a few CDs I had acquired in the weeks before I left. The rest was already on my iPod, so I didn’t worry about it.

The second influence was that my iPod broke before I ever made it to Africa. So half the music I was counting on was gone.

Third, I didn’t have a lot of time to sit and listen to music. Mostly, I turned it on while lying in bed, more as white noise than anything else. Something to listen to for about 20 minutes while I relaxed and fell asleep, and to have on quietly through the night to drown out the unfamiliar sounds, like the roosters, guinea fowl, and things that liked to climb on the roof. After being jolted awake on more than one occasion by “Ship to Shore” or “Warhol’s Portrait of Gretsky” I decided to make myself a playlist of “quiet music,” which became the most commonly played list on the computer.

So my soundtrack is far more mellow, and contains fewer of my standard favourites than you might expect – but the standard names are all there.  I have edited so that each artist appears only once, but made no other changes. Hope you enjoy it. You can download your own copy here, and support (mostly) Canadian music in the process.

Til I Gain Control Again Blue Rodeo
Goodnight Josephine The Tragically Hip
Devil’s Best Dress Corb Lund
No Fool for Trying Madison Violet
Ghost of the Eastern Seaboard The Stanfields
Solitary Life Melissa McClelland
At My Window Sad and Lonely Billy Bragg & Wilco
Asking for Flowers Kathleen Edwards
Why Me Kris Kristofferson
Sing Your Heart Out The Trews
The Bleeding Heart Show The New Pornographers
Face of the Earth Joel Plaskett Emergency
Africa Toto

Fashion show!

If it wouldn’t make me sound ridiculously shallow, I could refer to this as the “Eat. Shop. Love.” trip. But I like to think I am deeper than that. Which does not change the fact that I have seriously enjoyed the shopping.

I have never been so excited to purchase textiles. I am taking home more kangas than I know what to do with. They are the perfect accessory: shirt, shawl, wrap, baby-carrier. Not to mention tablecloth, cushion cover, etc. I am throwing out clothes to take home kangas.

I'm not kidding. This is what my suitcase currently looks like.

And then of course, there is the fundi. Fundi might be my favourite Swahili word. When it was first taught to me, it was defined as “someone who does something,” which I thought was an awesome definition. I have since discovered it is more accurately translated as craftsman or skilled worker. In this case: the tailor.

Much of the clothes worn by staff here are hand made, not store bought. And beautiful. The fabrics and patterns here are unmatched anywhere I have yet traveled. With help from the mamas, most of the female volunteers here this summer have had an out fit or two (um… or five!) made by local tailors.

Off the shoulder blouse from Maristella's fundi. (Sorry, this is not flattering as a set, so you don't get to see the whole picture.)


First, Maristella, the headmistress, to me to her fundi, in Dar es Salaam. Here I had one a dress and two blouse/skirt sets made. The dress was a simple black flowered pattern, in a tank style that is entirely functional and western looking. Only I know where it came from. The sets are significantly more Tanzanian in flavour. The styles are similar to Maristella’s clothes: practical, comfortable, and very smart looking. I like them.

Next, Josephine wanted to take me to her fundi, to try something new. She has a very different sense of style, going for brighter colours and tighter fits. Generally more striking. Also very fun.

Bibi bought me this fabric, and asked me to make a pretty outfit for myself with it. Not sure about the trim on the blouse, but generally like it.

I should also mention the prices. Each piece of fabric costs between 4,000 and 7,000 shillings, or three to six dollars. It is an additional 10,000 to 15,000 shilling for the tailoring. The dresses I picked up today cost me approximately $15, tailored to fit.

So suddenly here I am, a white Canadian girl with not one but FIVE Tanzanian outfits – two of which are rather decidedly African looking. I tried to be practical with syles and patterns so I can wear them at home, and I am confident I can: just perhaps not as sets. I anticipate getting lots of wear from the skirts, and perhaps less from the blouses. Still, well worth the money, and the experience.

My favoutite outfit. Love the colours. Love the fit. And at $16, love the price.

* I did say five outfits, didn’t I? You’ll have to wait till I am home for the other two. (a) they have been worn and are too wrinkled for decent photos, and (b) I quickly became bored with the photo shoot. Modelling is not my cup of tea.

Gandhi’s Limo

I have discovered the cure for claustrophobia: riding a daladala. If I can manage that without a panic attack I can do anything.

Travel in this country is always an adventure. I’ve already mentioned the fact that nothing is ever a trip from A to B. But it is more than that. No trip goes as planned, and no matter how well you think you have arranged things, all journeys, whether the 25k trip to Dar to run errands, or the 5 hour bus ride to Mikumi, seem to take an entire day. So if you are going somewhere you have to be sure to make it worth your while.

We really have had just about every kind of travel interruption you can imagine. There was the tire puncture. And the time we ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere, because the gas gauge on the van is now broken. There are traffic jams like I have never seen. 30 minutes to drive five or six blocks. Taxis inevitably charge us double the price because we are foreigners, and even when we know the price and try to bargain down, we never pay what the locals pay.

Then there are the daladalas. Our last trip back from Dar was perhaps the craziest. An energetic doorman was happily encouraging us to get on his bus, headed to Mbezi. “Go on,” he says, pointing to the bus that was already full to overflowing. He prods me on, I climb the steps and attempt to push my way into an absolute wall of people, and make room for not only me, but Rachel and Gemma behind me. And the bags of groceries (and beer) we are carrying. Madness. The only good part about that drive was that it was sufficiently crowded that I didn’t have to worry about holding on anywhere. The crowd held me up.

Friday we caught the bus to Mikui National Park, about five hours south-west of Dar es Salaam. A benevolent visitor to the school offered us a ride to the bus station, saving us the cost and hassle of two daladala trips, and about an hours worth of time. The bus there was crowded, but we all had seats (Rachel & Gemma really only had half seats.) We were overjoyed by our successful journey.

We made up for this, however, while driving through the park. We were riding along on one of the elephant transepts, helping to gather data on the number of beasts and vegetation and water over a particular area (we did help a little, but mostly we were just company). Much of this work is done in the more remote, less touristy areas of the park. Where the roads aren’t as good. And bridges… well they don’t always exist. In an attempt to drive in and out of a korongo (dry stream bed), our vehicle got stuck in an inconveniently Land-Rover-sized rut in the middle of nowhere and we had to dig up a small part of the African landscape to get out, keeping an eye out for lions the whole time. We have collectively decided to write that one off as a valuable experience. I’m sure there is a lesson in their somewhere.

Rather decidedly stuck.

Monday morning, we were dropped off at the park gate at 6:30 am, to wait for a bus to arrive. There is no real schedule. Buses drive by. Some stop. Some don’t. We waited in the unusually cold morning for someone (anyone) to stop for us. Everyone drove by. Similar to the day Dave and I waited for a bus in Beau Vallon and then just started trying to flag down any random car that passed, we began to consider hitching a ride. That’s when the travel fantasies started.

“If you were to hitchhike, what kind of vehicle would you be willing to ride in?” Rachel asked.

She started by suggesting a truck, driven by a mother with her babies, where we could just hop into the flatbed, would be an ideal and safe ride.

Gemma went one up on that, and thought a bus full of nuns would be our safest bet.

But Matt had it figured out. “I’m holding out for a limo,” he said. “Driven by Gandhi.” Apparently Matt was looking for both safety and comfort. No compromises.

I said nothing, but was thinking how nice it would be if we could get a ride with a safari guide, in one of the many Land Cruisers that were driving by us into the park. The main problem being they were already full of tourists, and they had this pesky “safari in the park” agenda that didn’t fit with our schedule at all.

Yet unbelievably, about 15 minutes later, a Land Cruiser pulled over. The driver spoke with the three locals who were also waiting for a bus, and agreed to take them to Morogoro. We were feeling sad and rejected, when he suddenly turned to us and asked “Hey, where are you going?”

Which is how we came to get a drive from the gate of Mikumi all the way back to the market at Mbezi, in a cozy Land Cruiser we affectionately nicknamed “Gandhi’s Limo.” Luckiest travel day ever, and proof of the power of positive thinking.

Cozy and happy in our "limo."

Can’t help them all

Just back from an evening study session and I am exhausted. The other three volunteers are in town tonight, having dinner with someone from the Ministry of Education. As I had already scheduled a drama club meeting, I could not go. Being the only one here for the study session, I was pulled in a million different directions. Or at least 125.

We are trying to set the girls up with email addresses. Aside from being important for scholarship and university applications, this also gives them a private way to communicate with their friends and family – all letters go through staff and are not necessarily private. This is not an easy task when the only way to do so is to carry my laptop around and give whispered instruction during study time, but we are making slow progress. Some have addresses already, thanks to earlier volunteers. And we have added about 10 in the last 3 days. However the list of those wanting one gets longer and longer.

On a similar and more serious note, there is the issue of medical expenses. The school cannot cover this, and so it is up to the student’s guardian. Many (most) of the guardians are too poor to cover any of this. So the girls are left with no money for a doctor. Previous volunteers had been covering this, but they have left (their program term has ended), and so has their budget.

In the interim, I have tried to cover what I could. One girl needed a cast removed, which cost 60,000 shillings (about $40). Two more needed glasses (less than $25, including the eye test). The cost is so low compared to home, it is easy to say yes. But as more requests some in, I realize I will have to draw a line here somewhere too. On the one hand, I have more money than they can even dream of, and yet even that is far from unlimited. Especially given I am on leave without pay right now.

My approach so far has been not to say yes to anything right away, and tell them I will consult with the other volunteers to see if there is enough money. Just so I have time to consider my options, though I can’t imagine saying no. A family member had offered to help as well, so between the two of us, we should be able to cover anything that comes up during my stay. At least I hope so.

(Interestingly, I have been approached by two older girls to tell me to be careful not to be fooled by someone not actually sick, just looking for an excuse to get out of class. They promised to help me with this, and told me to ask if I was ever wondering. Deep down, teenaged girls really are the same everywhere, social and family conditions notwithstanding.*

What happens after that is unclear. Hopefully someone else will be around to take up the cause.

*I taught a lesson on the use of ‘notwithstanding’ last week.It’s a good word. I am going to try to use it more.

A mzungu acclimatizes

A strange thing happened the other day. We made a trip into Dar es Salaam to drop off Laura and Mari, who were returning to Finland (via Scotland) after five weeks of volunteering.

Traffic and a poorly timed flat tire made the one hour trip into a two-hour one, and anytime someone from the school goes to Dar, there are eight to twenty errands to run, so we were not making anything close to good time. Maristella, the headmistress was with us, so we were a vanload of six wazungu (foreigners/white people – mzungu is the singular) and one local, which always attracts attention.

Our list of things to do included buying phone credit, topping up our mobile internet account, picking up milk and a few other bits at the supermarket, taking Laura and Mari to their friend’s place, and the primary reason Maristella, Rachel, Gemma and I were there: a visit to the tailor.* On top of this was the time needed to change the tire, and an unplanned visit to two former teachers.

On the walk back from church, this truck stopped specifically to ask if the mzungo wanted a ride, ignoring all the locals, including my companions.

Welcome to Africa, where a trip is never from point A to B, but more like A to G or K, with all stops in between.

But back to my original point – the funny thing I noticed, or perhaps did not notice – Tanzania no longer seems so foreign. I After 20 days in the country, I have stopped mentally comparing everything I see to its equivalent at home. I am no longer gaping out the window at the passing scenery, marvelling at the strange architecture or run down shops. I still have a long way to go with learning the language, and visually I will always stand out. But my brain has reset its sense of normal, and this is it. Strange, and I like it.

After a few visits, the pub which once seemed a little sketchy, now is simply the pub.

I can only imagine that when I get home, my first hot shower, or glass of water from the tap will blow my mind.
Copying an idea from Laura, Mari and Marie (yes confusing, but one is pronounced with a German accent, the other a Finnish one – see the difference?) we have bought material at a local shop and are having skirts and dresses made by Maristella’s tailor. We want that African flavour, but there style here is much more bold and colourful than at home, so we are also trying to be careful to choose fabrics and patterns that we will wear back in Canada/England. I pick up my dress on Wednesday.

Getting into the school spirit

Spending this much time with teenaged girls, and living on campus, I am really starting to feel like I am back in high school myself. Today especially.

I started the day by finding out at 7:35 that I was supposed to be teaching the 7:30 Eglish class for Form IV. Oops. Not good when the teacher is the last to arrive. (But the good news is, I finished the lesson on the use of “No sooner … than” and started the next project: CV writing! My specialty. Next two classes are CVs and application letters.)

Next, I joined the Form I sports lesson, playing in a netball tournament. This was a version of basketball the girls seem to have developed themselves. Dribbling is optional. I saw it done once. You can run with the ball. All members of a team are on the feild at once, even if that is 10 or more people. ANd once you are withing 2 steps of the net, no one is allowed to touch you. There was also much yelling in Swahili involved. I think they awarded points for that too.

I played just as well as I used to in high school. (Which those of you who know me that long know is not well at all.) At least being the new girl, and thus interesting, I was not the last picked for the team. There is a bright side to everything.

After morning classes, I went for a walk with four of the other volunteers to the shop/pub down the road. It was hot, between netball and much moving of desks and furniture all morning, and we wanted a soda.

Before I continue – let me explain the “pub.” There’s a small building/booth which sells an odd assortment of sodas, cigarettes, beer, spirits, cakes, and snacks. Next two it is a small thatched canopy under which sits a table and five wire chairs. The neighbourhood pub. Oh and there is no electricity, so the beer is warm.

We got our cokes and ginger ales, and were pleased to discover he had some ice in his cooler today, so they were chilled. Bonus. Then Laura decided to show us the bags of spirits. Booze is sold here by the bag, rather than single serving bottles like home. For a mere 400 shillings (not quite $3) you can buy a little baggie of vodka (think ketchup packets from a fast food place, but liquor). Laura discovered this store sold a pineapple cane liquor she had not seen before. So she bought one to take home. Then, halfway through or drinks, she decided she wanted to sample it. So we giggled like a bunch of girls who were cutting afternoon classes as we passed our little baggie of alcohol around the circle, and chased it with gingerale. Fun.

Back to campus for more planning and scheming. I have permission from the headmistress to start a drama club, and witnessed the oddest auditions I have ever seen. I will be working with Form III. They were called to the headmistresses office, and asked to enter one at a time. They stated their name, and were dismissed. If she thought they were suitable, she added their name to my list, if not, she didn’t. That was that. There are 14 girls in my club. They don’t know it yet.

Late afternoon, we went for a longer walk, to a nearby village where I was shopping for fabric, and two of the others were picking up skirts at the tailors. On the way home, packages tucked securely under our arms, we stepped into the ditch to avoid oncoming traffic (the road is narrow) and I slipped on the gravel, scraping my right leg from knee to ankle along a rock. It was sore, and it was (IS) ugly. SO first I regressed to high school, and later to elementary. I look like a 6 year old with a scraped knee. And shin. And foot. But thanks to my trusty NSYCC first aid kit, it is clean and infection free.

Aside from the scrape, all is well. I’m loving the teaching, looking forward to drama club, and planning a weekend trip to Zanzibar. I am excited for the next adventure : gin from a baggie, but I do miss pubs with electricity.