Thursday, July 19, 2012

3rd Year: New Home

You would think after two years there would be little TZ could throw my way and still phase me. But this past week was rough. Really rough. I think mainly due to the perfect storm of anything possible of going wrong, did go wrong. 

After an emotional last week of saying goodbyes to my villagers and friends around the Mbeya region, it was time for me to move across the country to Mwanza. If you look at a map, the route looks like it’d be an almost direct trip north. But there’s no road. So you basically have to go east- almost the whole width of TZ- and then start the trip upwards. This makes a full two days by bus.  

Typical TZ Travel 
In usual circumstances, travel via TZ buses is exhausting. Rough roads, cramped buses, vendors selling everything under the sun and my skin color viewed as a walking ATM machine. Really, by now I’ve got this under control. Easy, peasy. I travel with just my backpack and a tote bag- perfect for quick, sleuth-like maneuvering through crowded, noisy bus stands. My iPod is always fully-charged allowing for ‘zone-out’ time and occasional napping. I even have these awesome question cards from America for when I have travel buddies to talk to. I got this travel thing down to a science!  

This Trip 
But this was different. I was moving my whole life x-country by way of a TZ bus. There’s no sugar coating it. It was miserable. I had given away and sold very cheaply most of my house to villagers. This left the bare essentials of seven big, heavy bags of clothes, work-related books, fun books, American kitchen gadgets- that I would not part with if my life depended on it- and few other odds and ends. 

Well, long story short, I don’t remember a time when I’ve ever been on such a short fuse. I was almost, maybe, kinda starting fights with those annoying men viewing me as the ATM and wanting to ‘help’ for a price. Not my proudest moment. 

The second day’s bus arrived at my stand 2 hours late and then had engine issues all along the way…making it well after midnight by the time I arrived in Mwanza. BUT, finally, light was shining from the end of the tunnel! Two nice, polite TZ men from the company I would be working with picked me up from the stand. And since it was so late, they’d decided to take me to a hotel instead of my new, empty home!  

The Hotel 
Ah, the hotel. It was not just any hotel. This place was upscale NICE even by American standards! And it made me realize I can no longer function in the NICE world. Within minutes I screwed up all the settings of the flat screen tv remote. Having not eaten supper, I was starving and ordered room service. After the best hot shower EVER, I heard a noise…and kept hearing a noise…I couldn’t figure out what it was but eventually it stopped. A bit later, I realized my room has a doorbell and that had been my food! It was gone forever. But didn’t care too much as I was practically already asleep on the most comfortable pillows EVER.

The next morning- after another hot shower- I head to find the complementary breakfast. Usually in TZ, this means bread, fake butter, tea and maybe an egg and/or fruit. So when I came across a dining room with TWO buffet lines full of different dishes, I couldn’t believe THIS was the free breakfast! I asked a few different people and still sat expecting to be thrown out. Perhaps the most mshamba (redneck) moment was going through the hot buffet line, I got a boiled egg- a common staple around the village. Then a few steps farther, I realized it wasn’t a boiled egg…it was raw for the omelet station! A bit embarrassing to put back but at least I realized before I cracked it!  

New Home 
Well, my new home was a quick reminder that I’m still a PCV. It is also a good example of what a Tanzanian values in a home compared to an American. In many countries similar to TZ, the word ‘privacy’ either doesn’t exist in their language or is looked upon negatively, like loneliness or forced isolation. Tanzanian households tend to include large numbers of people so someone is always around you. Or you are always out working and socializing, not in the home. On the contrary, American homes usually allow for privacy and space. It’s our time to rejuvenate and prepare for the next day. 

Now granted I may need a weirdly large amount personal space and quite time by American standards, but this is especially important here when I need time away from being watched and studied by everyone around me. And- having grown up on a farm- I especially need to be able to relax outside. I loved my house in the village because I had this great brick enclosed courtyard with views of trees and mountains! 

Anyway, taking all this into account, you can imagine why I personally was disappointed to find my new home was a two-room apartment with no kitchen or outdoor space and attached to a store in a busy neighborhood. But because of all this, I get the perks that Tanzanians view more important: security and added value. Because the store is run by the landlord’s wife, I get the benefit of continuous security by someone I trust. And because it is all connected, the utilities are included in the rent which is paid by a third-party. This is a huge bonus on a volunteer’s salary. 

I can definitely see the benefits of my new home and have already enjoyed being in the vicinity of a really good fresh produce market. I’m also a 30min walk from my office and the downtown area which is great exercise and keeps me from dealing with public transportation. The company I work for bought me a great gas stove. With my home leave just a month away, I’m looking forward to shopping for organizers I can bring back to create my kitchen. Best of all, the landlord and his family are super nice and have given me the green light to paint. So I know with some sprucing up I can make it a nice home for the next year.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Was It Worth It?

So much time has been spent dreaming of this moment. Now it’s finally here. Is it what I expected? I don’t know. I am not even completely sure of what I expected. Relief, sadness, pride in what I accomplished, regret for what I did not, excitement for the next phase in my life, worry that it’s what I should be doing.

Time that went so slowly in those first few months completely flew over the second year. When I think over my time here, the most prominent memories are not those of frustration, anger and sadness. What I think of the most are the incredible moments I had working with the students and women. These friendships along with those created with other PCVs and ex-pats will forever color how I view the world.

Sure I have struggled. There were many moments when I wanted to cut my loses and return home. But I didn’t. And now I am so grateful. When I first arrived in my village, I remember a group of education volunteers preparing to COS (Close of Service). The sense of accomplishment and completion they had was what I wanted. It’s what motivated me through those hardest initial months.
Now I have that and it is sweeter than I imagined. Yes, I can now say I lived for two years in an African village without electricity, modern plumbing or even seeing my friends and family in the US. But what is so sweet is not all that. It was the culture sharing moments…

--Communicating in Kiswahili to explain how my family’s farm operates as compared to theirs or to share good news like when my sister and her husband had their baby

--Teaching my students to play Hoki Poki and Red Rover and then having them teach me local games…as we’re surrounded by the backdrop of mountains, banana trees and other “African-looking foliage”

 --Being surprised by my birthday party thrown by the women’s group….especially considering in the local culture Tanzanians rarely celebrate birthdays or even know their own age

 --Giving a tour of my village to two American women from VA….one of whom was 80-years-old and had lived in my village around 1932-36 when her father worked on the coffee farm

 --The Mwezi wa Farasi, or month of the horse, to celebrate the Kentucky Derby by doing arts and crafts projects with my students

No, I did not “save the world” or even do much to improve it. But- contrary to popular belief- that is not what Peace Corps is all about. As the TZ Peace Corps staff likes to remind us, two-thirds of the Peace Corps Goals is about cultural exchange: sharing my culture with my host country and then sharing their culture with Americans. In turn, we are opening the realm of possibilities for our villagers and helping Americans see the world outside of our own bubble.

When I applied for Peace Corps, I needed a change to shake up my life. I got that and so much more. For that reason, I can honestly say that these past two years have definitely been worth it.

Spawning Mushrooms and Leadership

This is a recent Success Story I wrote about my women's group mushroom project. A write up is on of the steps required to close out a PC grant.

Not much more than one year ago twenty-five women in the small village of Mshewe
came together to form an organization named Zinduka Women’s Group. Expectations of this group were greater than those of other village organizations. The members of Zinduka wanted to work together to improve the food security of Mshewe; provide an outlet for the energy and leadership capabilities of the village women; and create a bond of trust and respect among its members.

Members meet every Tuesday wrapped in matching floral kitenge and blue polo shirts with their group’s name emblazoned on the pocket. This sight shows immediately the sisterhood and camaraderie already shared. Together the women have explored various alternative crops adding to the staples of corn and beans. They found particular interest in producing a small trial of mushrooms.

Seeking help from the village Peace Corps Volunteer, the women began a whole new venture of mushroom farming. With funding support from USAID’s Small Project Assistance grant, the group worked with their PCV to strategically plan and budget the building of a humidity controlled banda. The application of water to the banda’s roof adds moisture to the air inside which assists in the mushroom growth. The funding also provided the group with quality tools needed for mushroom farming.

“I am truly impressed by the dedication shown by the women,” PCV Jessica Byassee states. “I feel using a SPA grant to help improve a project already in existence was an important aspect to our success. The group members had the interest and experience needed to drive this project. Now with the banda and tools needed to grow mushrooms, their crop yield can be more profitable.”

Due to the participation and level of interest shown by the whole membership, sustainability is highly possible. The women want to maintain the banda and their new skills learned for growing mushrooms. They are already thinking of ways to use their profits to improve the banda. Members are excited to sell the mushrooms at the local and regional markets and increase the food available for villagers to purchase.

Women's empowerment was also an important result to this project. The support shown by local and district officials proves the respect this group has gained. As the whole village was aware of group's project, men were impressed by what the women were creating while the women gained confidence in working with men and higher officials. The future possibilities are endless.

And So the Circle Continues

Written December 2011

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was so excited to have been selected to be a Peace Corps Facilitator during the training of new environment and health volunteers last fall. The PCFs were a huge source of support during my training. So I was pumped to help show there is a happy life after training!

Training can be intense and overwhelming from the upheaval of everything we know in America to life in a TZ village. So many things- like cooking and bathing- we have to learn how to do as done here. There’s a lot to be said for learning how to poop into a hole in ground…  

Training of Trainers
Before we could be let loose on the group of impressionable new Peace Corps Trainees we needed to be trained to be a trainer. About 12 from my class (6 health, 6 env) came to together to plan our lessons and review the politically correct ways to answer questions and be supportive. It’d kinda be against the point of being a PCF if you told a struggling trainee about all the rat issues at your house or how a project fell apart after months of work.

We were partnered in twos (1 health, 1 env) and spread over the last 6 of 9 weeks of training. Every week of training has a theme of what’s taught. I was placed in week 5 with a good friend and health volunteer in Mbeya. We would be teaching about working with community groups and dealing with gender in development. Great combo!

TOT was a blast for many reasons. Our group was a good mix that allowed me to get to know some I didn’t know as well. Plus, TOT is at the agriculture school where training is held. It was my first chance to return to the area- so many memories came back to me!! I had a strange surreal feeling at first. My time there seemed so long ago. We all got a good reminder of how far we’ve come since we were the impressionable, overwhelmed trainees.

 I also got to visit the family I stayed with during training. To be honest I was not sure I really wanted to see them. They were super nice but not the type to have created the bond other PCVs had with their host families. I went a little more out of a sense of responsibility. But then I got to the village and as I walked to their house, almost every house I passed greeted me by name! And it was not the usual everyday-passing-by-greeting. These folks were excited to see me! I was shocked they remembered me much less my name and background. I loved getting to talk to them now knowing more Swahili than I had in training.

So by the time I reached my family’s home, I was pumped to see them! It was a great reunion. They appreciated my gifts of sugar, soap and candy. I may have even got a little choked up…if I got this way over seeing them, I have no idea what it will be like returning to friends and family in America!!  

The In-Between

After the week-long TOT, we all returned to our sites due to the first few weeks of training being primarily language and PCFs are not needed. For me and couple others coming from Mbeya, the trip for TOT was a long 18hr bus ride. Going there I divided it over two days…but that’s two days of hard bus rides. So on the return trip we decided to try it all in one day…by the end of which I thought it was one of the most miserable days of my WHOLE life. But it was good to get it over with and have a day to relax in town before returning to my vill.

 I had about a month in-between TOT and my PCF week. Several of my friends who were education volunteers were leaving during this time so many sad goodbyes and parties. There was also my birthday!

I was also busy in the village teaching and working with my women’s group. The weather was hot and dry as it was the end of the dry season. The combination of all this was not good. A few days before I was to head to training for my PCF week, I started feeling bad- exhaustion, fever, etc. I thought it was dehydration at first as I probably hadn’t increased my water intake enough to cover how hot it’d become.

So the day came for me to head to Mbeya town to meet my friend I’d be traveling and teaching with. I was chugging water with dehydration salts and ibuprofen. We stayed with another PCV in town who is a nurse in America…thank goodness. Cause I was standing and talking to them one minute and on the ground the next! I’d literally passed out. Not a great feeling to realize you’d passed out and can’t really converse more than answering simple questions.

But my friends were awesome. The nurse one jumped into medical mode and pulled a stethoscope and ear thermometer out of no where. She realized my symptoms could be flu or malaria….almost scary how the symptoms are so similar. The PC med kits include a malaria test so they were able to prick my finger for blood and test it. Not going to lie…I was scared. The malaria prevention meds can mess with your head and emotions. So when you live in the cold areas like Mbeya it’s easy to fall off the meds. Something I was really regretting. Luckily it was negative and after sleeping most of that day I was better enough to just sit on a bus all the next day. I was not going to miss my PCF week! Plus the PC doctor would be at training that week in case I needed him.  

PCF Week
We were totally excited to be going back for our week. There’s usually more than 100 PCVs in TZ. One group each of first-year health/environment and education. Then also one group each of second-year. To have so many spread across the country, we are a fairly tight knit group. When a new group of volunteers comes, it’s like Christmas. Mainly cause it means we’re getting new American neighbors in our regions…aka: new friends, new ‘family’ members.

We could not wait to meet the new trainees. The first day back in Tanga, they were all in their training groups in their villages. I was looking forward to having lunch with the group staying where I had lived and even meet the girl who is now staying with my family. It was funny cause I got really nervous that morning. I had looked at the PCFs last year as these people who have it all together, know all the answers and have had so much success. Not at all how I feel. I was worried I would end up saying something completely wrong and discouraging.

But it was all great! They were awesome and had great questions that I could answer. I was really excited to meet a guy from Kentucky and talk bluegrass for a bit. I really enjoyed them and getting to hear how their experiences related to those of my group.

In fact that was how the whole week went. We had so much fun getting to know everyone. By the end of the week we wanted them all to be placed in Mbeya with us! Our sessions went well. We also assisted staff sessions on malaria and HIV/AIDS. Mainly we tried to be the energizers of the week and help keep the morale high. This ended up being one the best weeks ever, leaving me energized to return to the vill!