16 July 2015

Wow, it’s been almost a month since I last wrote an entry. Time is certainly speeding along. I had an amazing 4th of July weekend with lots of other volunteers (all from my training class but one) in Liuli, a village on the shore of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi). It took a long, long time to drive a relatively short distance from the nearest town over bumpy, dusty, eroded roads, and that time was extending due to a two hour break-down, but it was definitely worth it. We stayed at this awesome “campground” right on the water that had a bunch of bungalow-like huts with tents pitched inside and surprisingly comfortable mattresses. There were also a few communal “shelters” for eating/drinking and resting. It was an awesome spot. The view of the lake, the large boulders reaching out of the water (some with trees and other vegetation), and the Malawi mountain range in the distance across the water was pure beauty – especially at sunset (the sky can get so orange). With the cool breeze, the constant sound of lapping water, and the trade-off between the warm light of the sun and the light of the near-full moon, it was a time of great and much needed relaxation. We had some swimming and rock-climbing/jumping adventures, played a good amount of frisbee in and out of the water, ate delicious food, drank delicious drinks, and enjoyed the light of a bonfire in the night. Another plus was that the guys who ran the place cooked a delicious breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, with massive fresh-caught, perfectly prepared fish. All this was for a whopping 25,000tsh per night – about $13.00usd. It was pretty awesome. Some pictures from our spot on the water below…

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After I returned from this mini vacation, I planned out the next three weeks before early service training (EST). I set up a bunch of meetings with village and ward leaders, “interviewed” and decided on my two counterparts – one for EST and one for the water training, which I was accepted to attend (conveniently directly following EST) – and traveled to see the rest of the sub-villages of my vil, the other primary school, and the other village in my ward and its primary school. There were a few village meetings I attended, focusing on the number of bricks that have been made (my village’s contribution) for the construction of laboratories at the secondary school, on the number of bricks that have been made for the future construction of the zahanati (health center) in my village, on the issue of transporting said bricks (finding the money for the petrol needed), on the decision of where to build the zahanati, on the process of signing up to obtain mosquito nets (vyandarua – a fun word) from the government, and on other topics that didn’t stick in my brain quite so well as those previously mentioned.

Below: The primary school of the other village in my ward, a view from the other primary school in my village in the sub-village I had yet to visit, then two pics from the trip out to see that other village in my ward – beautiful rolling hills along the way.

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I have also planned to do a community mapping activity this Saturday with a variety of community members. My mwenyekiti will help me to facilitate the activity, along with my EST counterpart. The group will be split in two, one group of men, one of women, then we will have them draw maps of the village in their groups. They will include the places and resources that they know and use, and then I will ask them to mark places they go everyday versus every week or month versus a few times a year or never. Then I will ask them to mark the places they like to go, and the places they don’t like to go. And finally, I will ask them to circle the places or resources the see as the most important for the community, and to brainstorm what the community is lacking. After doing this work separately in groups, we will come together and discuss similarities and differences in the maps, how men and women may see their community differently, and what resources the community values and/or needs. It should be interesting. I’ve translated out all of the instructions and have given one of my handwritten copies of those instructions to my mwenyekiti to review before Saturday. Also, I have an example map from my attempt during PST (pre-service training) at my homestay. Hopefully it will all go smoothly!

Then next week, before I depart for the trainings (either Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday), I will meet with my mwenyekiti, EST counterpart, water training counterpart, ward executive officer, agriculture extension officer, and a few other leaders of community groups and knowledgeable farmers to fill out two questionnaires for the water training. One questionnaire is for my village, the other for the neighboring village (the main village in the ward where my ward executive officer also wants some form of water development). In addition to simple questions about the water resources and demands in the two villages, we will need to draw a map for each, showing the water resources, in use or broken. I’ve translated all of the questions and mapping instructions, so hopefully that will go smoothly in addition to the other mapping activity.

There was an unexpected event on Tuesday that certainly left an impression on me, and I feel compelled to write about it. A woman passed away after three days of bad headaches, then chest aches, body aches, and finally an inability to speak. She was a member of the Roman Catholic Church choir, and also a mother of one of the class 7 students I know at the primary school. She was a mother of three others as well: one age 4, one in class 3, and one attending secondary school all the way down in Songea. She was 39. The day of the funeral, people began gathering at the family’s house at about 9:00am – as did I. While the men sat around a fire and conversed quietly, the women cooked a massive amount of ugali, beans, and leafy greens. I attempted to help stir the giant pot of ugali over the smoky wood fire with the giant, shoulder-high wooden spoon, but I didn’t have quite the right touch – to the other women’s extreme amusement. I also tried to help cut up the leafy greens, but women here in TZ cut everything without a cutting board, right into their palm or fingers, and I’ve cut myself enough times in the attempt to follow suit at home stay, that I was only able to cut very slowly and carefully (and badly). So they laughed at me some more, I laughed at myself some more and tried to explain the concept of cutting boards, and they took over the work once again.

Because the woman who passed was a member of the church choir, all the other choir members had gathered to sing and pray inside the house with the family before going to the burial ground. As we cooked and stood around in the courtyard, our “work” was accompanied by song after song. It was really nice. After the cooking was finished, the women took bucket after bucket away to bring it to a house above the burial ground (to be eaten after the burial ceremony). People began to disappear, walking ahead to where the woman would soon be laid to rest. I was conversing with a few women who did not leave, so I was present when a large truck came to the house, when the choir exited the house to stand out front (still singing), when the family (some of the women truly defining the word “wailing”) slowly made their way out front as well, and when the body was brought (in the coffin) to be placed before the truck on a table. Those remaining, including me, slowly began to file up to the now open coffin to look down on the lost woman, and to then climb into the truck bed to travel to the burial site. I experienced an interesting pull of emotions. The sound of women wailing and a church choir singing, the sight of those wailing women collapsing to the ground in their grief to then be picked up by others and passed on into the bed of the truck, the line of people with heads bowed slowly treading, slowly passing their body weight from foot to foot up to the open coffin, the coffin only slightly open to reveal the woman’s head covered in colorful cloth up to her eyebrows, the dark hairline, the surprisingly light brown, still young skin, the crisscross of long-ago, faded and unexplained scars at the center of the forehead, the black brows arching above the fabric, continuing on below to the features no one would see ever again… My heart was beating fast as I climbed (as ungracefully in my long skirt as the rest) into the bed of the truck. The bed was between 15 and 20 feet long and maybe 5 or 6 feet wide. We packed in about 80 people, some sitting, most standing, in addition to the coffin, simple wooden cross placed on top. Then we rocked and bumped slowly down the road to the burial site.

There were between 250 and 300 people waiting for us. We slowly rolled up, choir still singing, women still wailing, and climbed out of the truck bed in front of everyone (equally ungracefully). Then came the coffin, a candle bearer, and the bearer of the wooden cross – the soon to be headstone. People slowly began their walk down the hill to the burial site. A giant hole had been prepared, rope at the ready to lower the coffin down into the ground. The women stood to one side, the men to the other, and some men with digging implements (hoes and shovels) stood in a circle around the hole. The Father from the church spoke a few words, the coffin was lowered, holy water was thrown, and those with the tools put them to use. Before filling in the hole completely, people were called forward to throw some soil over the body – first the family members, then the choir members, then the primary school head teacher, then the village and ward leaders, and then me. I went solemnly forward to the pile of dirt, took one handful (in my right hand so as not to be disrespectful), tossed it where her feet were beneath the soil, then another handful for where her head rested. The men then began their work once again and finished filling in the hole and piling the soil on top. The wooden cross was dug into the soil, and a man came forward to read off the donations that had been collected for the family – from whole sub-villages, and from individuals (including me – I gave 3,000tsh). We had gathered over 200,000tsh. The Father then said a few more words, the choirmaster said a few words, one of the sub-village executive officers said a few words, and the mwenyekiti said a few words. Then the choir started to sing again and we all began the trek back up the hill to the road and the previously prepared food.

I ate with everyone, shoveling in ugali, beans, and leafy greens with the fingers of my right hand. Then I went around and greeted those with familiar faces, chatting about my recent trip to Lima, my thoughts on the other sub-villages I finally had the opportunity to tour, why people don’t eat ugali in America, etc. etc. Then came the time to climb back in the bed of the truck with the choir, the family of the deceased, and others to return to the family’s house. The singing accompanied us once again on our return trip. When we arrived, we unloaded, and then followed the family into their dark home to sing one more song and say one more prayer. Then we left. I walked back home accompanied by a few of my friends from the choir. (I must clarify: I am not officially a member of the choir, though it seems the choir thinks differently… It is a situation both just slightly annoying, and also warmly welcoming. They are simply very friendly people who like to include me in everything. Overall, I’m grateful for it.) In the end this was a rather exhausting, 6 or 7-hour experience, but I’m glad to have been able to partake. It was not the first funeral I’ve been to here in the village, but it was definitely the longest and most well attended by the community.

I’ll never forget the way the women wail, the way they simply collapse in their grief, leaving others to literally carry their flailing bodies from place to place. I’ll also never forget that forehead, with its faded crisscross design. Nor the look on the face of the daughter, the student I know from class 7, as we piled into the truck bed, as we drove down the bumpy road, as she threw the soil over her mother’s body, as she began weeping at the end of the funeral ceremony – the face I had only seen before lit up by a smile. It was a moving day and I am still left pondering the different perceptions of death here, the different responses to it. Death is too common, too every day here. It is so terribly debilitating for one day, then hush-hush, time to move on. It is a difficult thing to process, mostly because I still don’t fully understand my own perceptions of death, my own responses to it. As I said, the experience certainly left its impression on me…

Anyway, I feel justified in saying it has been a busy few weeks since returning from my lovely trip South. I have just a few things to finish and set in order before departing for the trainings. While I’m really excited for the trainings with my fellow volunteers, to get some inspiration for future projects, and to travel a bit, I’ll be out of the village for quite some time (a bit less than a month). I’m guessing time will fly, as it likes to do, but I wonder if it will be difficult returning to my village after such a long time away. I bet my Swahili will be just a bit rusty, and my house will have certainly gathered dust and cobwebs, rat poop and lizard skins… Hmmm, I’ll have to wait and see how it goes – after all my exposure to new information. The important thing is that I have some ideas for what I can do when I return – I won’t be caught purposeless, left to spin my wheels.

I want to plant a garden, to make a few example bag gardens to hopefully teach later on at the primary school. I want to investigate the primary and secondary school science curriculums to see how (or if) they incorporate any environmental or conservation education – the secondary school headmaster asked me to come and teach. I want to get help with some house repairs – fix my leaky roof before more rains come in September, renovate my choo (toilet), replace my doors (they are rather gap-y and I don’t want to take my chances with green or black mambas slipping into my house), and possibly digging a bon fire pit. I would love to find a kitten to call my own – or two – and to feed it those pesky rats and lizards, if it can catch them! I’ll hopefully be able to use the knowledge from the water training to start planning a water project for my village. I want to introduce the concept of compost tea to the agriculture extension officer, to organize trainings for members of the agricultural groups in the vil, and to generate some easy-to-access pamphlets for farmers to understand the info they were given at the soil health seminar last month. I could start an avocado project at the school, teaching about seed germination in the process, start a mama’s baking class to reveal the wonders of banana or corn bread, look into the possibility of bringing a library to the community… There are lots of options out there, and hopefully when I return from the trainings, my excitement for them will remain, and be maintained. For now, though, I need to focus on preparing for my travel and trainings. Exciting times.

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