I have just finished my first day of staging, so technically my first day of being in the Peace Corps. Knowing that so many people back home want to hear from me during the next two years, I thought that writing a blog would be the easiest way for everyone to get information from me and find out about what I am up to. This post will go up while I am still in the US, but once I am in country, I have been warned that there may not be the best internet connection. This may the last you hear from me for a week.
A little over a year ago, I started looking at the Peace Corps website, seeing what projects were happening or what jobs were listed. When I noticed that some of the shipping out dates of the postings I was interested in would be the summer after I graduated college, I thought that I had to apply. Since then – before, during, and after the application process – I have spoken with so many RPCVs about their experience and have been inspired by what they told me. The more I pondered the decision, the more I wanted to go. My initial reaction to being accepted was excitement. My family, after being supportive of me applying, was briefly a little weary, but they came around. The medical clearance process was for the most part smooth even if there were a few hiccups. Between graduation and now, I have been all over the place, physically and mentally, as I have been preparing to go. I hope to go more into detail in later posts, but I just wanted to set this up and get word out to the internet world that I will be starting something new.
My service is almost over as I am leaving Tanzania in two weeks. As I am preparing for my departure, I have been thinking about the last time that I do things. There are many last times that I have already experienced, some going by without me noticing or making note of them. January was the last time I took a plane ride within Tanzania. The rest of my long distance transportation will be by bus. At the end of May was the last time I administered an exam. I will leave before the midterm is given, but I wrote that one today as the last time I write an exam. At the end of June was COS conference and the last time I saw many of my fellow volunteers in country and maybe ever unless we have a reunion. Returning from that trip was the last time I stayed in Iringa and the last time that I entered Mbeya. Two weekends ago was the last time I visited my site mates. Some of them are at training this week and next week. I said goodbye to them like it would be the last time I saw them. Walking back from Itundu was the last time I took a long walk in Umalila. Last week was the last time I bought daga (small fish) at the market for my cat. I am weaning her off it with some cat food that I bought in Dar. She is on her way to becoming an American cat. This week was the last time I bought produce at my village market. I will not be needing much next week, and I do not want to have any leftovers when I leave. Last week was also the last time I had a full week of teaching. Today was a holiday and next week I will be busy packing up. I plan on leaving many of my clothes behind, so over the past month or so has been the last time I have worn shirts or dresses or skirts. I might never wear my current dress again. Last week was the last time I cooked chili and this past Sunday was the last time I cooked Tanzanian beans using my solar oven. Today was the last time I baked cookies using my solar oven. I have not used my charcoal jiko in several months. I doubt that I will use it in the next week so maybe my last time cooking with it has passed. Tomorrow will be the last time teaching single periods as next week I only plan on teaching double periods. Tuesday will be my last day of teaching. The form ones that is. Last year was the last time I taught the current form twos and form threes. When I go into town next Friday, I will say goodbye to Isuto for the last time. It will be the last time I ride on the Chaka’s bus out of Umalila. That night will be the last night I spend in Mbeya. The bus to Dar will be the last bus ride in Tanzania. The week after will be the last week in Tanzania. When I board my plane the night of August 24th, it will be my last goodbye.
The day to day life of a Peace Corps volunteer doesn’t change too much over the service. We are in our country for a little over two years doing the same thing, for the most part. But one of the things that does change is the other volunteers around you. There is a cycle of volunteers that come in and leave. Here in Tanzania, we have a new class of volunteers about every six months: education in July and health/agriculture in February. Over the course of two years, you are able to meet volunteers from 7 or 8 other cohorts. When I arrived at my site, I had 3 site mates. I still have 3 site mates but now they are all different volunteers than before. I wrote about my first site mates in an earlier entry and now it’s time to introduce my new site mates.
My first new site mate is Katie-Lauren, or KL as the locals call her. She replaced Annie at the nearby private school back in September as part of the most recent education class. Despite being a year younger than me, we are constantly asked if she is my mother or if I am her little sister. That’s what happens when you are a small person. Then there is Connor, who replaced Adam just over a month ago. He is now the closest volunteer to me and has already learned more Kimalila (the local language) than me. It helps that he is a health volunteer and a social person in general who has just been hanging out in the village. There is also Tom who lives on the other side of KL from me. He is another new health volunteer. Interestingly, the village he lives in now is actually bigger than the town he came from back in the US.
We have all gotten together once since Connor and Tom came. It was two days full of walking for me. First, I started out early in the afternoon and took the shortcut to go to Connor’s village. It was a lot of up and down hills, but I made it a little over an hour. I wasn’t sure if Connor was living in the same house as Adam, but I asked the villagers and they told me. I caught up with Connor in his house and rested a little before we set off to KL’s house. Along the way, Connor stopped to talk with all the people we passed, including a boy who was 20 feet up in a tree tossing down avocados to a woman holding out a big basket with which to catch them. It made me think of a computer game. What is normally a 45 minute walk uphill turned into an over hour walk with all the conversations we got into. We arrived to KL, Tom, and Twiga (her dog) waiting at the door for us. We all caught up with each other and checked in with how life at site was before making a pasta dinner and playing Pandemic. The next morning, we sent out to Tom’s village since it was market day there. I was the only one who had ever walked there so I led the way and then got us a little lost (it had been almost a year). After finding what could be a very nice riverside picnic spot, we turned around and found the right way. We stopped off at Tom’s house for a break before climbing up the long hill to his market. I got some blood fruit for myself and replenished the daga supply for my cat. We all sat down to fuel up with some chipsi mayai (a Tanzanian dish sort of like a French fries omelette). In the early afternoon, KL, Connor and I set off back to our homes. In all, I think I walked around 25 kilometers over the two days with a backpack. I would say I’m now ready to hike Kilimanjaro.
I love a good mystery. I am an avid reader of murder mystery books and a hungry consumer of crime shows. While at site I’ve read some Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov’s robot mysteries, and some Sue Grafton thanks to packages from my aunt. When I eat my dinner each night, limiting myself to one or two episodes a night, I’ve watched the newest season of Sherlock, Elementary, Dirk Gently and have gotten invested in so many British shows thanks to a hard drive swap in which I got all of Midsomer Murders. I am a fan of mystery. And all those detective skills that I have learned from these stories came in handy to solve a small mystery. MYSTERY: Who was the previous volunteer
During site announcements, we were each given a Manila folder that included information about our sites. Those who were replacing other volunteers had bigger folders because those previous volunteers wrote about the site for the new volunteers. My folder only contained a basic info sheet about my site, but it did say that there used to be a health volunteer in my village previously. That was all the information that peace corps gave me about this previous volunteer. The next week was site visit, and I met my site mates. Annie told me that she had met the headmistress of my school a few months into her service and that had prompted the school to ask for a volunteer. The headmistress was not aware of Peace Corps beforehand or that there had been a volunteer in the village previously. Since she had only been at the school a couple of years, I knew that the volunteer had to have served before she had arrived. This was the extent of what I learned that week. I didn’t learn anything more until after I arrived at my site for the start of my service. As part of the adjustment period in between pre-service training and early service training, volunteers are required to complete a community entry passport(CEP). I had help from one of the teachers at my school who had good English. He brought me around to interview various people in the village. I asked him if he knew about the previous volunteer. He told me that when he first arrived at the school, he saw him around and that he was only around for a year or so. The teacher did not know what the volunteer did but knew that he was called Yisambi, a common tribal name in the area. When I went to talk to the village executive officer (VEO), he told me that he arrived after the volunteer had left (the VEO is a government appointed position that a member of the village doesn’t necessarily fill). When I went to do a house interview, the baba told me that the volunteer taught religion classes at the primary school. I thought this was odd for a volunteer to do but noted it. When I spoke with some of my students and a few of the teachers at my school, they all told me that he just played football (soccer). When I visited the primary school, the two teachers there pointed out which house he had lived in and told me that he often helped out at the health clinic across the field from the school. Out of all the information, I received, this made the most sense. After a month at site, I only had a few details given to me by different people in the community.
Served for a year (so he either left early or switched sites)
Served several years ago
Helped at clinic
This didn’t tell me much but much of this would help me in my next step. I decided to go back to the village office and look in the guest book. Here in Tanzania the guest book is signed by any and all visitors. There is one at all the schools, all the village offices, and all the tourism offices. You almost can’t go anywhere without signing a guest book. It was in the village office guest book that I found my most vital clue. Back in 2012 a western sounding name was signed. B—— D——-. I looked up the name on Facebook and hit the jackpot. According to his public profile,he went to a religious school, likes soccer teams, is part of a Peace Corps malaria group and had pictures of him playing soccer as well as of him in Tanzania. It checked all the boxes. I decided to message him to ask about his previous activities but he never responded. This was the end of the mystery for me. But only for a little bit. I had learned the name of the volunteer but there was still more to learn.
A few months later, I was at a gathering of volunteers and met an RPCV who served around the same time but was in a different class. I asked him about my predecessor. He jumped at the chance to give me juicy details. He confirmed the information I had already learned and added that the volunteer had brought a coffee company in to do business in the community. That explained the coffee trees I had seen around and also a sign for a coffee company in the village. The volunteer had left early, maybe for a girl. There was also some questions about him earning some money from this coffee business. This was just rumor though. A few months later, I shared a cab with some other RPCVs who had served in a similar time frame. One of them told me that she had gone to a presentation of his in Iringa about growing coffee in his community. This was all they knew about the volunteer and were not familiar with the aforementioned rumors.
At this point in time, this is all I know about the previous volunteer at my site. The next step would be to actually communicate with him. I only have a few months left at site, so completely solving the mystery is only for my own enjoyment. I feel accomplished in learning what I have so far. Maybe I should become a detective after my service.
Tanzania is vast country and traveling through and around it has been one of the highlights, if often tedious part, of my service. There are several modes of transportations, each with a slightly different purpose. Just this past week, as I was traveling from my village in Mbeya to Iringa town, I had to take three different vehicles.
First was my village bus. These tend to be medium-sized buses; 2×2 rows, a small aisle, limited overhead space, luggage compartment underneath and apparatus for storage on the roof. As they make their way from village to village on their way to town, they pack the bus to past capacity, always managing to fit one more person and their sack of potatoes. The kondas (conductor) can sometimes be seen hanging off the side as the bus races down the bumpy, dirt roads. During the rainy season, delays can be expected as the mud in the roads traps the tires. Occasionally they can be stranded in a ditch and have to wait until the mud dries a bit before trying to escape. This can take days. My village has two buses that leave in the morning and come back late afternoon/early evening during the dry season and then one during the rainy season. The price is cheap compared to private transportation and is often the only way out. Some alternatives might be trucks, which can be cheaper but not as safe; Noahs, which are minivans and run all day but are more expensive; and pikipiki/bodaboda (motorcycles), which are everywhere but are forbidden to use by volunteers.
The second vehicle was a daladala. These can also be called minibuses, but are large vans that tend to transport people within a large town and to closely neighboring towns and villages. Their origin and destination is painted on the sides in bright colors. Like the village buses, they pack passengers in tightly, but those standing may have to dip their head a little since the space is not that tall. These are the cheapest options for transportation within and around cities and towns. Another option are bajajis (rickshaw/tut tuts), which are slightly pricier but worth it for the experience.
The third vehicle was a costa (coaster). These are small buses that can have fold-down seats in the aisle. They tend to travel between towns that are several hours apart. The journey from Mbeya to Iringa was about 7 hours. This is neither the fastest nor slowest time I have traveled this way. When I began my service in Mbeya, there was heavy construction between the towns, which detoured vehicles to a rough dirt road on the side. It was not a fun ride, especially with a raging headache that worsened with every jostle even after taking a painkiller. These are a cheap, not-as-comfortable way to travel compared to the nice buses that might travel the same routes. But costas generally run all day while nice buses only leave early in the morning.
Long travel days are a fact of life here. I have spent many full days on buses. Even when I want to only spend one day in town, I have had to spend the night because the bus broke down along the way and I would not have had enough time to accomplish my to-do list in the short time I had before needing to return. When traveling to Dar, it usually takes at least two days, but three days can be more comfortable. On the occasions when I don’t mind spending lots of money, I can buy a plane ticket to Dar. Overall, I have come to not mind long bus trips as much. Anything shorter than 4 hours, I now consider short. Whereas back in America, I made a similar length trip between New York and Washington D.C. over nicer roads several times and considered that a long trip. I now would not mind such a journey.
It has been over a year now since I have been living at my site. That means I have experienced a full year of seasons. While technically you can use the solstices and equinoxes to distinguish between spring, summer, fall, and winter, a different system of seasons is used. For one, I am south of the equator, so it is the middle of spring instead of the middle of fall. The climate is different here and the locals consider right now the end of dry season. There is a lot of dust in the air. No crops are growing. The sun tends to beat down during the day but the nights are still cool. Then will follow the rainy season. The rainy season can be split into shorts rains and long rains, but to me it just means that I have water. We have just started getting some rain where I am. This means that farmers are starting to plant their quick-growth crops. When more rain comes, they will plant crops that take longer to grow. That will be around January. Rain will come almost every day, usually in the afternoon for a few months. This means I have enough water to do everything I need and still have some leftover. It is a glorious part of the year. At nights, I can watch the lightning light up the sky. Some flashes make it seem like day for a brief moment. Around April, the rain stops. With no warning. You wait for one last rain that never comes. This starts the beginning of the windy/cold season. This is the time when I snuggle up in a hoodie and fleece with my cat. The nights are quite cold and the days are pleasantly cool so that I can comfortably wear a light sweater. Sometimes I listen to the strong gusts of wind around my house. I have also seen dirt devils swirling around. It makes me wonder if tornadoes are possible in the mountains.
A year ago, I first stepped on Tanzanian soil; it’s been a year since I was in the US. It has also been several months since I updated this blog. The time just seems to pass by so quickly. On the one hand I feel like I have not done much but on the other I feel like I have started the school community on the path for slow change, which can mean so much. I feel a part of my community, but at the same time there is one thing that sets me apart.
Mzungu. It is a word that I hear often when I am walking through my village, hanging around town, traveling from place to place. Those that know me by name don’t say the word. They will call me Magreti or Maggie or Madame or Mwalimu. It’s one of those words that sounds cute coming from the small children running around but unnerving coming from anyone older. It emphasizes my other status while I’m here. Mzungu means white person. There is no mistaking that I am white.
What is interesting are the number of ethnicities I have been called in addition to just being white. When I was with my two tall, blonde, pale site mates, I was called Chinese. I was asked if I was Brazilian when waiting in line for something. And one of the Indian shopkeepers in Mbeya told me I looked Arab. I am a quarter Mexican, so that would account for being mistaken for something hispanic, but the other two, not so much. The Tanzanian who called me Chinese may have never seen someone of that nationality before, just a description. Maybe its my tan skin tone combined with my thick, curly brown hair gives me a touch of an Arab look.Whatever it is, this is a new experience to me. Even after a year, hearing any assuming race or ethnic names catches me off guard.
Upon arrival in Tanzania, one of the first things given to us volunteers is a prophylaxis pill. We are then told about the dangers of malaria throughout training; some of it is just scare tactics. For us volunteers who have lived all of our lives in a country where there is no malaria, it can be especially bad for us if we get it. In the interest of keeping healthy, I follow all the precautionary measures.
My site is in the mountains, at an elevation of over a mile above sea level. Malaria is not a major problem in my area, but that doesn’t stop me from taking precautions. I take my doxy every night with dinner and I sleep under a bed net. When I asked locals about sleeping under a chandarua, bed net, I got mixed results. Some said they didn’t since there is no malaria, some said they did since there are a few mosquitoes, and others said occasionally. When I first arrived at my site, I saw no mosquitoes, so I understood the first viewpoint. But now that it has been raining, I have seen a few mosquitoes around. It’s not as many as in other parts of the country, but they can still be a bother. They could also carry malaria. Another thing that I learned from conversations is that few people ever get tested for malaria. The clinic said they have free testing, yet most people would just get the medicine before checking if they have the disease. If no one ever gets tested then no one can know how serious of a problem malaria is here. People can travel and bring the disease back. The mosquitoes I have seen might carry it as well. I have concluded that the problem with malaria in my area isn’t that there is none, but that there isn’t a way to know if there is a problem. That’s why educating the community about malaria is so important.