30 April 2015

It has been an exhausting week! I left Dar last Thursday to travel to my banking town, spent Friday meeting important political officers and immigration officials, visiting the bank (which was out of money…) and post office, and shopping for some few items to make it through the first week(s) at site. I arrived here in my village last Saturday in the late afternoon. The drive was a lot faster than usual because my village executive officer (VEO), who met me in town that morning, arranged a private car to take us and all my stuff from my banking town to the village – super posh. I’ll be honest, that first evening moving into my house was a rather terrifying experience. I had some solid moments of feeling absolutely helpless.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone the whole time. A very generous and helpful neighbor saved me. She is a teacher here at the primary school in my village and lives next door. She brought me food (rice, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, salt, sugar, and tea leaves), had some school kids fetch water for me, helped to sweep and wash the floors (and get rid of some of the many spiders and spider webs), washed my dishes, lit my charcoal jiko, helped me cook rice and brought already cooked beans over to eat, etc. etc. etc. AND she spoke a little English. We chatted off and on for the evening, and then she left me to eat. By that time I felt so much more whole and capable. I’ll definitely acknowledge the possibility that if she hadn’t been there I would have spent much of the evening on my bed in a ball crying. The next day she then showed me around the village and helped me with the new Kibena (the local language) greetings.

The village is small with an estimated population of about 400 people. There are 4 or 5 dukas (very small shops) that sell some of the essentials for everyday life (salt, sugar, tea, rice, beans, eggs! sometimes…, soap, etc. etc. There is the one primary school across the road from me, a church, the village government office, one mgahawa (restaurant – please note, it’s a term I use very loosely here), a church, a place to buy and drink pombe (alcohol), and then a few other shops (also used loosely) for bike parts, or for building, or for a few electronics.

Solar is the only form of electricity here, and it is surprisingly common. Lots of people have solar-charged lights, maybe a radio, and some have panels up to 100watts for actual light bulbs and to charge phones and other devices if they have them. The school has a 100watt panel, which is allowing me to use my computer right now (so nice!). The panel also provides light at night for the night classes that my first friend and neighbor here teaches. She teaches class seven, the last in primary school. The students in class seven have examinations in September that they begin to prepare for in March – for six months, March to September, they have normal school during the day, and also two night sessions until 10pm. The night classes are even held Saturdays and Sundays. The students stay at the school during these six months, eating, sleeping, and (of course) playing in between class. It’s a hectic schedule that would not fly in the US.

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I really enjoy the environment here. All the corn and tall trees (some evergreens), the rich soil, the surrounding hills and forests… The weather here is so much more pleasant than up north on the coast. It actually rains here and I need blankets or my sleeping bag at night, yet if it’s sunny during the day, it’s hot (80s?)

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I’ve spent my first five days here mostly organizing my things, setting up a plan to study Swahili on my own, and continuing with my learning. I’ve also spent time getting more practice using my charcoal stove, washing dishes, cooking rice, beans, and potatoes with some tomatoes and onions to spice it up a bit, setting up a system for preparing safe drinking water, digging a compost pit for food waste, dreaming up a way to make my choo (toilet) more functional and make using said choo at least a somewhat enjoyable experience (it’s a very small hole at a surprisingly difficult but subtle angle that I have to hit while standing on two tall blocks or while angling myself from the floor… sorry if that was too much information, I’ll continue with my list now…), daring to walk out my door to interact with neighbors and others in the village, visiting with two neighbors in particular and cooking kande (beans and corn, kind-of like chili) with one, getting drenched in the rain on a visit to the duka, reading my kindle, listening to my radio, and enjoying evenings of solitude in the candle light. It’s both an extremely stressful and peaceful existence, which is a surprisingly exhausting combination.

Yesterday was the most exhausting day I’ve had here. I left the house early to visit my neighbor and to start cooking kande with her for lunch. I was intercepted by my VEO who tried to communicate something important to me. He is very difficult to understand and definitely uses some grammatical concepts I haven’t yet covered in my Swahili education. The message I got from his words was that he had to go “pale” (over there) down the road because somebody died that morning, then he would return later for a meeting, and then perhaps after that meeting he would come with some workers to install locks on my doors and bug screens on my windows. I got the part about the person dying correct, but when he returned at 1pm from the funeral I was taken mid-meal of kande to attend that meeting he mentioned – unexpected…

The first part of the meeting was inside the village government office with 26 people in attendance. I introduced myself at the beginning of the meeting (my name, where I’m from, that I’m a volunteer of agriculture with the Peace Corps), then the rest of the time spent in that room was filled with people listing names of other people. There were two development officers (I think) present, and they did some talking then asked the consent/agreement of the others present (other leaders in the village I was told). After this part of the meeting we moved outside to find about 150 people gathered sitting on the grass (I think the group consisted of all the adults in the village – those who have birthed or fathered a child). My heart jumped a bit at this point because I knew I’d be sitting up front with the others from part one of the meeting. I also thought that just maybe I’d have to introduce myself again to this massive group.

I was correct. The first order of business was me. My VEO explained the Peace Corps to the group, explained I’d be staying in the village for 2 years, that I came from America and spent time training in Tanga, and that I am learning Kiswahili. He also said a lot of other stuff I had no hope of understanding at present. Then he asked me to introduce myself. I was nervous, but had planned a bit of what to say. I greeted the group in Kibena, told them my name, where I come from, explained when I arrived and my training in Tanga, said I am happy to be here and will continue to learn Swahili – slowly, and then I thanked them all.

You’d think I was a natural stand-up comedian because they laughed after every sentence. I think they were just amazed that I new some Swahili, and I know I look like a clown up there in my white skin, dirty blond hair, and clothes from the states. I think I left a great impression, though – I at least left smiles on many faces. All in all, it was a nervous success. After that we sat in the killer, high altitude, equatorial sun for two and a half more hours while more names were listed and suggested and the two development workers gave their spiel once again. At the conclusion of the meeting I shook some hands then retreated to my house with a raging headache from the sun and lack of water. After some ibuprofen, fried eggs and rice, a warm bucket bath, BBC radio by candlelight, and just some simple, solid alone time, I felt pretty good about the day. I went to bed at 8:30pm exhausted.

Next week holds an exciting event that will take me out of my village for a long weekend – super-regionals. It’s a meet-and-greet event that brings together volunteers from a few different districts, of all training classes, and allows them to connect with each other, share ideas, and talk through struggles and successes. I’m excited. It is also held in a city, so there might be an opportunity to buy some things I can’t find in my banking town – like perhaps a toilet seat?? (I’m dreaming big here…) After super-regionals, and after two and a half more months on my own, the next big event will be two weeks of EST (early service training).

There’s a lot to do before then – learning Swahili of course, meeting the members of my community, learning about the village, its challenges and its strengths, speaking with community leaders, gathering data, talking about what is needed here in the village, conducting some door-to-door interviews, and, of course, just learning how to live here in a small rural village out in the middle of nowhere. There’s a long, long road ahead of me and it’s daunting to think I’ve only spent four full days here, there is so much more to do. But I’ll just take one day at a time, and I know I’ll make it through with some fortitude and endless, regenerative patience.

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