5 June 2015

Well, it has been a while since my last blog entry, and a lot has happened. First of all there was super-regionals in Iringa. Then came another two weeks in the vil. After that, a trip into town to go to the nearby lake that turned into a 9-day long adventure to Dar and back. It’s been a whole month, which I realize is quite a long time, but it feels like so much longer. I’ll think back and try to remember as many details as possible.

The trip to Iringa was a great time, and I think super-regionals was a real success. There were, I believe, over 60 volunteers gathered for the event. It was awesome to meet so many and hear stories informally throughout the day. We were there Friday evening, then all day Saturday and Sunday – a lot of time to get to know new people and learn from their experiences. The daily activities included mostly volunteer-led talks/discussions about topics that were decided at the beginning of the event by us volunteers. People suggested topics anywhere from info about soils and tree planting, or beekeeping and raising chickens, to mental health in the vil, or recycled art projects with youth.

We also met some contact people for various organizations in the region, some working in the fields of health or agriculture, some trying to facilitate library construction or research about HIV/AIDS in targeted populations (like female sex workers). A lot of variety! So yeah, it was an awesome opportunity to meet other volunteers as well as people outside of the Peace Corps, very informative with lots of success stories, and also overwhelmingly inspiring (in a good way). After the trip it was actually quite difficult returning to the village, encouraging myself and finding motivation to get out in the community again – I’m so very far from any sort of success story at the moment, and it is daunting.

The next two weeks in the vil, though, were productive. Over the weekend, I met with the head agriculture officer and toured his farm, met his wife who cooked me a great lunch, visited his Mother who gave me a tour of her farm (and a gift of bananas – lots of bananas), and also simply chatted about agriculture in the village. We talked about the common crops, the different agricultural groups/committees that exist in the vil, problems with water and irrigation, and his favorite topic: growing parachichi (avocados). In addition to his gifts of corn, parachichi, oranges, and even more bananas (yeah, more), he also tried to give me a chicken.

That was a funny moment. He sort-of appeared out of no-where, spinning through the front door with a squawking black chicken tied by the feet in his hands. He stuck it right in my face with the biggest of smiles. It was really difficult to explain that, at the moment, I didn’t have the means to care for or house a chicken properly, that I couldn’t bring it home with me that day. So he’s keeping it at his house for me to take home later on – that was the compromise.

I also attended church that Sunday for the first time in the vil – the Roman Catholic Church. I tried sitting towards the back, planning to be a diligent observer and subtle participant during the service, but was quickly brought to the front (third row, I believe) to sit in the middle of the choir. There was a lot of singing, led by a female conductor, accompanied by a small but loud male organist. I of course could not sing along, not having a clue what was being said (I could really only catch the word Mungu, God, every so often), but I tried to follow along with the swaying, the clapping, and the foot and hand movements.

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(The Roman Catholic Church)

At one point, we danced around the room a few times in a long train, swaying back, then leaning forward, clapping, reaching up to the ceiling… overall, another amusingly awkward experience. I was then invited to choir practice every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 3:00pm. I’ll try to go one day this coming week, hopefully just to observe, though I’m finding I can never really just observe in any situation here. After the service, which lasted over 3 hours, we danced our way outside to one last song where donated fruit and other food items were being auctioned off. There were two periods of collection during the service, some gave money, others gave the only things they had to give – a few bananas, a basket of corn, a bag of beans, an egg… Then those food items were auctioned, the money going to the church. Someone bought me bananas (I know, more, right?!), though I have no idea who it was.

There was also a soccer game that Sunday evening – my village versus a neighboring village. We have a soccer club, and it turns out they travel to many of the neighboring villages for matches a few times a month, and they also practice every day. From what I’ve heard, they’re pretty successful. I’d say most of the guys on the team are in their twenties, and while it’s awesome they can play a great game of soccer, I wonder if it’s how they make their living – do they work in addition to practice every day? It’s definitely something to investigate, in a sensitive manner, of course.

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(The soccer field)

It seemed like most of the village came out to watch, there was a referee, and the important village and ward leaders (a ward is basically a grouping of three or more villages into one unit) were sitting at a table at mid-field. The crowd was super-excited and really in to the game. My favorite moment was when the opposing team’s female fans started squealing, “safiiiii!” (“safi” basically means “cool”, though its actual translation is “clean”) in their high-pitched voices pretty much whenever their team touched the ball, only to be mocked by our females fans, yelling “safiiiii!” at any and every possible moment as well. At least my interpretation was that our fans were mocking the others. It seemed that way to me due to the laughter that accompanied the repetitive high-pitched cheer. In the end, we won, which kicked off a grand celebration at the town center later on.

After that busy weekend, I managed to schedule a couple of important meetings for Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday I met with the leaders of all the organizations/groups that exist in the village – not just the agriculture groups. There is the chai farmer’s group (tea), the kahawa farmer’s group (coffee), the parachichi farmer’s group (avocados), the mbogamboga group (literally “various vegetables” group), which focuses on food security and nutrition, the music group at the Roman Catholic Church, a group called Upendo (Love), which is basically a savings group (each member puts in a little money every meeting, which is then saved to be used when someone in the group faces some abnormal expenses, like for a wedding or a funeral), the group at the Lutheran Church (there is both the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church in my village), which focuses on farming and morning daycare for children, and finally there is the soccer club (I had the pleasure of meeting the captain).

Almost all of these groups incorporate farming into their activities, either to raise money, or to provide for their members. I asked, with the help of the organist from the church who knows some good English, for a description of each group’s mission, activities or projects, how many members there are (and the numbers of males versus females), and when and where they meet. Overall, it revealed the priorities that currently exist among the community members, in addition to the human infrastructure that has already been established. I plan to set up meetings with members of each group to ask more questions about their activities, and what they see as the village’s assets and challenges.

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(The mbogamboga group’s garden in a valley)

The meeting on Thursday was with the mwalimu mkuu (head teacher) at the primary school. He speaks amazing English, which was (is) amazing. I asked him all about the education system in the village. We talked about student attendance, the challenge faced by upper-level students who have to walk long distances to attend the secondary school in a neighboring village, the different values parents place in education in general (they didn’t continue with their education, so why do their children need to do so?), extra-curricular activities and clubs that exist at the primary school, and even the negative aspects of polygamy (that it leaves a lot of children with only one Father as their provider, only able to give a limited amount of money to finance their education – often times children can’t attend and stay home helping the many mothers). It was a really fascinating discussion, and I’m sure more questions will come to mind later on that will allow for another great meeting.

The mwalimu mkuu is a really inspiring individual, going to speak with any family that questions the need for education, helping families to pay school fees, providing transport every so often to encourage students to get to school on the essential days (examination days, for example), talking of organizing a school bus sort-of system for those upper-level students, especially during the rainy season when the roads can be dangerous even just to walk, etc. etc. He’s a really quality individual, and I’m so thankful to have him in the village.

Well, those were the highlights post-super-regionals. The Saturday after those two meetings, I headed to town to stay with a fellow volunteer for the night, then to visit a nearby lake (owned by the local electric company) on Sunday. Unfortunately, before leaving the other volunteer’s house Sunday morning, we all received some truly terrible news. There had been a bus accident in a neighboring region with five other volunteers involved. They were all coming to the lake to spend the day with us, but they only made it less than an hour into the journey. I don’t know the details, but the bus flipped, cracking the ribs of a few volunteers, and killing one. Robbie was in my training class, and while we had known each other for only a few months, it was a true shock, for everyone, absolutely unbelievable news (still somewhat unbelievable).

The injured volunteers were quickly transported to Dar es Salaam by plane (I believe) for medical treatment, along with Robbie’s body. That day, those of us remaining in town still went to the lake to laugh and cry and remember Robbie together. He was a lover of nature, and it seemed so right to be there at the lake, to swim in the cold water, to feel the warmth of the sun, of the bon fire, to watch the sun set over the mirror of water, to see the moon up above smiling down, like Robbie always did from atop his extremely long legs. We lit some candles, said a few words, threw a frisbee around in his honor. It was a really special day, even though I felt rather numb from the shock and the emotional roller coaster.

On Monday, plans were revealed for Robbie’s memorial service in Dar that coming Thursday morning. So we began our trek north the next day, arriving on Wednesday afternoon. We stayed with very gracious hosts (various ex-pats and US embassy employees) scattered around one side of Dar. It was great to be together again with the rest of my training class. I was able to take a shift at the hospital’s morgue the morning of the service to stand vigil.

Then came a really moving memorial service. Memories were shared, and everyone laughed and cried. There was a slideshow with pictures from throughout Robbie’s life, a memory board with candles to light, some of his favorite music, an old rap video he made early in college, and a mural to paint together on the wall of the PCV office (of a shark in a Jordan jersey with a basketball and a cheese hat). And then there was the quote that both brought tears to everyone’s eyes, and filled our hearts with warmth – and has become the motto of Robbie’s life for us here in TZ – “Today, I choose joy.”

Some left the following morning, but most stayed through Friday as well to enjoy the feeling of being together (pamoja) for as long as possible. A Peace Corps counselor from the states spoke with our group about the stages of grief, and met with some of us individually. Then the majority of us left Dar the following morning to begin our treks back to site. I arrived back on Monday evening. I spent three days in the vil trying to keep busy by visiting people, spending time at the school, doing my laundry, cooking, reading, etc. But it’s difficult to go back to a place that hasn’t yet become home, to people that are super friendly, but not yet friends exactly, and a house that has the potential to be very lonely. I had productive days (met with the mwenyekiti (one of the village government officers), attended a meeting with an organization that plans to help the village introduce marketing practices into its agriculture, visited neighbors, etc.), but I did not feel present in the least.

While those activities should have given me some feeling of accomplishment, I instead felt rather purposeless, making me restless. So I decided it would be best to take a breather, see some familiar white faces, and get out of the village for a night. And here I am in town, using electricity, sitting on a couch, looking forward to a hot shower in the morning. It was great to share some stories and laughter with other volunteers today.

I see now more than ever before how much us Peace Corps Volunteers depend on each other here in foreign lands, living our fishbowl lives. And I realize now how much I’m going to need the familiar faces, the cultural understanding, the shared humor, and the shared experience in these coming weeks, months, years. The Peace Corps family is truly invaluable, and I’ll never forget it as I try to move forward. After the accident, I really began to think about the dependence we have for one another, not just as members of the Peace Corps, but as human beings. On my journey north towards Dar for the service, I wrote the words below that I’d like to share to wrap up this already overly-long blog post. It’s a shout out to Robbie and his life and character, and to my Peace Corps family here in TZ, and of course my friends and family in all the other parts of the world:

Every day we put our lives in the hands of others. It’s amazing the amount of trust we have inherent in our hearts for our fellow man. Trust that allows for often unacknowledged connections between mankind, connections derived from empathy, from sympathy, but also simply from the fact that we need each other – from dependency. Dependency can be beautiful, as we have seen these past few days within our Peace Corps family. It is the supportive force that allows for existence. But unfortunately, it can also be the cause of powerful grief.

Due to our dependency, there are a great many things in this world that are out of our control. While it is my belief they should remain so, the uncontrolled can lead to tragedy, a sort of tragedy that leaves a person feeling helpless and more than hollow. But let us turn from the thoughts of the dependency that led to our grief, and focus instead on the dependency that allows the lingering warmth within us all to spread – a warmth sustained by the memory of our lost friend. Let us turn instead to one another and share the fire of friendship, the fire of family, the fire of humanity. Discover once again, and again and again, the beautiful side of our dependency as humans. We are together and we always will be. No matter our many differences, we all have warmth in our bodies, in our hearts, we all have eyes that lead somewhere deeper, and we all know this feeling of helplessness.

Robbie understood this. He had the ability to see the warmth in another person’s heart, to see and appreciate the potential for freedom and pure life that exists within everyone. He also understood the importance of the little things, the simple moments shared with others. Let us celebrate our lost friend by following his example, by remembering the importance of the little things – the slap of the wind on your face as you stick your head out the window, like a young dog in search of never-ending excitement in a wonderland world; the sparkle in another’s eyes as you watch him watching the littlest bird flying toward the setting sun, wondering if it’s home lies in that direction; the freedom you feel standing tall on a pair of skis as you race across cold water, or the exhilaration in the expectation.

Let us follow his example too by remembering what it really means to live – what it meant for Robbie to live. People are only people through other people, through our mutual dependency, through the warmth we can share. So share that warmth, open yourself to the depths of other people, allow the friendships we have to blossom, and allow yourself to comfort and be comforted. Robbie would appreciate our dependency, he would see the beauty of it, the simplicity of it, and he would share in the love. So let us follow his example – let us love as we remember, and let us love as we never forget.

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