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.

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."

Bethsaida, day four. Lesson planning.

I have been at the Bethsaida Secondary School for Girls for four days. I still feel a little lost, but am starting to find a niche for myself.

Friday morning, I met the headmistress. I was shown into her office, where she sat at her desk, preparing a lesson, receiving guests, issuing orders and a hundred other things, yet she graciously made time for me as well.

Headmistress Maristella is a thin woman, with close-cropped hair, large brown eyes and strong facial features. She was wearing a light brown printed blouse, with a wide open collar that kept slipping over her right shoulder.She was poised and confident and very smart. Beautiful, but not in a conventional way. Though she was sitting, I guessed she would be rather tall. (I guessed correctly, though due to problems with her right leg, she walks slowly and somewhat hunched, and thus looks smaller when standing.)

I proceeded to tell her who I was, how long I was staying and what I could offer – essentially that while I have some very specific skills they may find helpful, I am also willing to do anything that might need me to do. She immediately suggested I join the Form I Biology class, to see what they were studying, and meet the girls and their teacher. So I did. (And discovered I do not miss high school lectures. At all.)

Each night from 8:00 to 10:15, the girls are in their classrooms, studying and completing assignments. And so I am there, too, to answer questions and assist in any way I can. So far I have helped with calculating densities, explaining elements, compounds and mixtures, describing the theory of human evolution, and solving quadratic equations. I have also typed tests and made photocopies.

Tomorrow, I will be taking over two of the headmistress’ English classes, while she is in town on business. The first class (7:30 to 8:50) is Form IV (highest grade at Bethsaida – approx. equivalent to grade 10). I don’t have much to do – just pass out a test for them, supervise as they write it, and correct when they are done.

Then in the afternoon, I have the Form II class, and will be teaching them about direct and indirect speech, which as a native English speaker I admit I could not define before I read the lesson. (If you are wondering) it involves reporting on what someone else has said. Direct speech is simply quoting exactly what was said. Straightforward. Indirect is far more complicated. Reporting what was said without quoting, and all the changes in verb tense, and changes in adjectives and adverbs. There is a huge list of rules that I had never even considered. I just know how it is done. It seems easy – though the two German volunteers here say they found it very challenging when learning English, and the girls here struggle with it.

Fun. The first test of my teaching skills. Wish me luck.

*Bethsaida follows the standard Tanzanian curriculum structure, preparing its students in Forms I, II, III and IV to take the national “O Level” exams at the completion of their Form IV year. Two additional years following Form IV – namely Forms V and VI – are required to take the advanced “A Level exams”, prerequisites for attending university in Tanzania.