Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Peace Corps Experience

After a 24 hour journey, I am finally home for good! It feels excellent to have finished two years of service, excellent to see family and friends again, and, so far, excellent to be once again anonymous within the general population. It might be hard to believe I'm speaking of Philadelphia when I say that everything here is so nice, ordered, and beautiful. The most striking thing is the lack of trees in the city, and lack of soil visible in general.

Was it Worth It?
I was told recently, by incoming Peace Corps Volunteers, that many people read blogs before deciding to join. While I'm still gaining perspective on the experience, I thought it might be helpful to state some general ways I feel these two years abroad have changed me, for better or for worse.

On the brighter side of things, I'm definitely a more patient, flexible, and assertive individual. I can eat pretty much anything, wash clothes by hand, navigate woods in the dark, and wash dishes without any water. I feel ok with dealing with the possibility of having intestinal worms, whereas before you would have to sedate me to even talk about that, and can hold a minority opinion strongly. I can speak Swahili, cook for 15 people, make brownies from scratch, and hike in heals. How useful this is in the U.S. I don't know. I can also communicate across language and cultural borders and somewhat better control my temper. I am more patriotic and proud of being an American.

But with the good come the bad and the ugly. My feet will never look the same. I'm a huge hypochondriac and, what's worse, enjoy talking about it. Cynicism has yet to turn into realism in some areas, and I have no problem telling people not to speak to me that way and if they keep on doing that where they can go immediately. I don't know how to use an iphone or what to say when people ask "how was Africa", and suppressing the urge to bargain with the cashier while shopping at Target is going to be difficult.

So there it is. Hopefully the readjustment back home won’t be as painful as everyone tells me it’s going to be. Thankfully I have a beautiful family and group of friends, who have been incredibly supportive these past two years and very open-armed now that I am returning. THANK YOU to everyone who kept in touch, you have no idea how many times it cheered me up and gave me the motivation to stay when times got tough.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Do Microfinance Loans Work? The Amkeni Pottery Collective

There was a recent New York Times Magazine dedicated to women’s issues. I found it really interesting and thought I would put in my two cents after working on Women’s Empowerment here in Tanzania.

So, does microfinance work? Yes!
Is there enough opportunity for loans out there? Definitely Not!

It seems like the people who receive loans are in the right place at the right time. Luckily for the Amkeni Women’s Group in a neighboring village, I was posted here in Usangi to work at their disposal.

I met Mwanaidi, the group’s executive officer, when I was facilitating a seminar with students for the Usangi Women’s Empowerment Project. She had heard about our seminars, and came on a whim. We talked a little and started meeting up every so often and slowly became friends. She eventually told me about her own organization, a small women’s group.

The Amkeni Women’s Group had started a few years back by a group of friends. All had been affected by HIV in their families either directly or indirectly. All of them were concerned about education in the community. They started helping each other and other families in need by monthly contributions, as well as holding educational meetings at primary schools and singing songs about these issues at public events. They love to sing!

By the time I met the entire group, there were 15 women total. They were motivated to do more in the community but had no means of generating income for such projects. They were barely feeding their families and putting kids through school. Most women either worked family farms or cut and sold firewood at the market to make what little they could.

Mwanaidi approached me about starting a pottery collective to make and sell pots at a market near Arusha. I was at first hesitant, but she was really motivated. I outlined the format of a grant proposal and said “you write it, I will translate”. This is exactly what happened, and a week later I had a grant proposal in Swahili in my hands, budget and all.

I was now more convinced that it would be worth the effort to become involved, so I translated the grant into English and started working with the entire group on details. Details, it turns out, can be difficult when 15 people are involved, especially when they have demanding schedules and an average of 10 people in their household who they support! Many meetings followed.

Usually I would come to their meeting house and greet for 15 minutes while we waited for all the women to come. A discussion inevitably ensues on who isn’t there and speculation the reasons why. Mwanaidi calls the women to order and we start our meeting. She welcomes me to speak, and I ask questions. Discussion begins on what action to take. The views of those not present are speculated, then it is discussed again why they aren’t at the meeting and eventually what their brother-in-law did last week that was really taboo and Mwanaidi calls the women to order. I am welcomed to speak and I raise another question on scheduling. Different options are discussed but it is brought up that one person who is absent wouldn’t be able to do that because her little sister did so-and-so things last week and now the Imam is very angry and Mwanaidi calls the women to order. This process repeats until I wish Peace Corps had given a session on how to stop village women from gossiping. When it starts to get dark they start to sing and I go home feeling hopeful!

But in the end all the details worked out, I submitted our grant (VAST) and we were approved. A spinning machine was purchased and training started. Success! 6 women were fully trained and the other 9 are continuing to learn after one month with a teacher. They already have pots to sell. Moreover, these women have P.U.R.P.O.S.E. when they come to work, because they are excited to be able to come to work. They are productive and motivated and have involved their entire families in this effort. Apparently you can gossip and mould clay at the same time!

The moral of this story, I guess, is that these mircrofinance grants can do wonders IF the people are motivated to go 90% before even getting the money. In places like Tanzania, those people are all around, they just need a hand at the other end to reach for.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Usangi Women's Empowerment Pictures

Usangi Women's Empowerment Project
7 Seminars discussing HIV/AIDS, Drug Abuse, and Life Skills
9 Villages in Usangi District
150 Participants
40 Students from Lomwe Secondary School Form IV, V, VI
Chomvu Village (9 November, 2008)

Ndorwe Village (23 November, 2008)

Vuagha Village (30 November 2008)

Kiriche Village (18 January 2009)

Kirongwe/Lomwe Villages (25 February, 2009)

Kilaweni Village (1 February, 2009) Students: Azizi, Lucas, Mwanaidi, Aisha, Sadiki - Form V, Lomwe Sec.

Ndanda Village (15 February, 2009) Students: Mary, Margreth, Monica, Zaituni, Innocent, Bonaventure, Godfrey - Form IV, Lomwe Sec.

Update 27/2/09

Update 27 Feb, 2009
Hello Family and Friends, I apologize for failing to update in so long! Things have been pretty busy here since starting the new year. I am now teaching at two secondary schools (another one in my area was in dire (sp?) need of a math teacher) and finally get to use my pc-issued bike. Everyone also laughs at the helmet, but I've gotten used to that!

The new school, Kighare, is a community government school and very different from Lomwe (which is private). There are about 70-90 kids per class, and 4 teachers. I broke up a fight the other day in an adjacent classroom. When there are no teachers around there is very incentive for the kids to study, so it can get rough.

This year is going extremely well, although I still miss home. To compensate for my lack of updates, I have decided to pack this one with Pictures. Enjoy!

We acquired internet at school. I don't' get it, for the first year at Lomwe the computers were unusable, and suddenly we have internet?!?! It would be very convenient except for the fact that its a 56 KB speed. 56 KB! So its like almost having internet. I get to load pages slowly and then look at them until they computer gets overwhelmed and shuts the page down. Still, I guess I shouldn't complain since it beats a 4 hour busride. Anyway, I have had a lot of fund working with teachers at the school on integrating Internet into classroom studies, and showing the beauties of wikipedia. The downside...they can read this blog (Hello Mr. Ndekero!) so I can't write any gossip anymore...or lies..... The pic is of Mr. Mvungi, Mr. Senkoro, and Madam Mfinanga while we are checking out gmail.

I'm also having fun Form IV students to whom I teach computers. They also Peer Educated during the Seminars I was facilitating (see Usangi Women's Empowerment Post). Here they are posing, practicing for the Miss Dar competition.

In early February I was overjoyed to receive my one and only Ma, sister Dr. Molls, and the ever-cool Aaron. I was so busy visiting with them, I forgot to take pictures except these two flattering morning pics. I had all of these activities planned when they got the village, but we ended up just spending time in my house instead. Much-needed quality time, and it was wonderful. Ma and Molls were coming from a month working in a hospital in Uganda. Thanks for stopping by guys! After the visit Aaron climbed Kili. Poa kichisi kama ndizi bro!

I also had some sitemates come for a long-awaited visit! The pic is of Hari, me, Martha and Leiha (who ran from there villages all the way to my house). We had a little too much fun, especially with my neighbors Eva (in black) and Mama Baracka (in green). Good times.

My friend Irene had a Baby, Bryson, on January 26th, 2009 at 5:30am. Thankfully, the birth went smoothly, but he was sick soon after coming out so had to stay in the hospital a week. He was so small, 2kg (4.4 pounds)! He had an IV and a feeding tube, which was just heartbreaking to see.

A month later he's up to 3 kg and looking a lot better. Look at the those cheeks!

He cries quite a bit, but when he calms down we hang out. He's a nice guy; Great taste in music but limited attention span. We take naps together in the evenings. Welcome to the world little guy!

Hangin' Out
When not at school, having visitors, or holding Bryson, I'm usually just hanging out these days with the villages locals i.e. children.
We draw and joke around and even read the financial times for fun. Usually I hang out and read while they play around.
And the following montage is what happens when you let an 8 year old play with the camera: Tabu
Playing Hollywood Star Doctor
Baraka Studying

Cooking in the Kitchen

This tree fell at 4am one morning. It was huge! I heard it fall even though it was all the way down in the valley, and it sounded like a big crunch.

Thanks for checking the Blog out. I will try to be more diligent with my updates. I hope you are well!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Update and Pictures 17/11

Things are going along as usual in Lomwe! It is just about a year since I got here, so to commemorate that holiday I decided to take a picture of the local butchery. Yes, those are cow's feet in the lower right hand corner. And now it may seem reasonable that I have become a de-facto vegetarian in the village.

Also, my students have started teaching Women's Emporment Seminars with myself and another teacher in the community. I am so proud of them, especially since they are teaching sensitive subject involving HIV/AIDS and have been doing so very professionally. Below is one of my form VI students discussing transmission....
....and some of the girls with a sign advertising the seminar. We ended up waiting for the village chair to come and open up the community center for an hour, but when it started raining and our participants were getting wet waiting for the show to get on the road (so to speak) I ran to a local hoteli and asked to use that space instead. It worked out in the end, although while we were waiting for the village leader to show up I lapsed into a catatonic chant of (This is Africa) until my students asked if I was ok. Waiting has never been a strength of mine....

Also, we recieved trainees to our site recently and took them on a hike to the bottom of the mountains where there is a waterfall (which is actually vertical in real life..its not THAT different this side of the equator). It was a beautiful day, and I couldn't help thinking how lucky it is to be living out here!
The hike was refreshing and very VERY good excersize, especially coming back up. I hope everyone is well, and miss you all so much! Sorry this update is so short, I think I'm still winded from that hike! -Hils

Monday, October 20, 2008

Top 10 Activities for a Weekend in the Village
(In no particular order)

Piga Hodi (visiting other people in the village). "Hodi" is what you say when approaching a Tz household to say hello. I can't think of an English equivalent in a single word. This pic below is a mural painted by the children of my neighbors on their wall. There are no other decorations. The family is not well off at all, and its the kind of house where the chickens bunk in as well, but they have tons of love, and I thought it was so cool that they had written "one love" in english on the wall.

Coloring with the neighborhood children. Thanks to various gifts from my mother and Aunt Bonnie of coloring supplies, every child in the village of mshewa knows the subtle yet important difference between royal and navy blue. We have a good time, for sure. Here below are Neema (4) and Navuella (2) who are sunday afternoon regulars.
Getting Lost in the Mountains. Even after a year of hiking I still get nervous when 4pm rolls around and I am five mountains away from home. The hiking is beautiful, COME VISIT AND SEE! I always run into extremely nice people, occasionally students home for the weekend, and almost always primates. The last time I went I ran into a very old very drunk man who thought I was chinese and spoke beautiful english. Also a mother who supports her 8 children by making sugercane ale (thus explains the drunk man) and a couple of grandmothers who gave me pictures of their sons and told me to pick one. That's what i call a good day!

Science Club with star students. Below are Margreth, Mary, Zaituni, and Monica who are very intellegent young women from my 3rd year physics class. They, along with other students, are currently building and doing experiments with the very cool Solar Powered Fuel Cell Car thank my Uncle Pete so generously supplied (Thank you Uncle Pete! A letter of thanks is on the way!). At the end of the term they are going to make a presentation for the whole school, poster and all, about how it works, and I'm stoked at focused they are on this project!
10 Ducklings! They are adorable but the mama is very, VERY protective. As it turns out, duck bites do not hurt that much. I of course make her angry by holding them all daily, and am hoping they get used to me. Although, it is probably not a good idea to get attached. In celebration we are eating the non-laying-egg female duck tonight for dinner. I will most likely cry while chowing down, but it least it is not beans.

Teaching Guitar to students on the weekends. We don't get very far, and usually end up with me playing and them singing various Bongo Flava (Tanzanian Pop) songs. I only know two, but boy can we rock out. Still, its a good time, and if Mozart helps increase brain power, Bongo Flava has got to have some benefit, right?!?Teaching computer using the one that Ma sent me (thanks ma). It is the most durable thing ever, and has already been christened with: water, chai, tomatoes, pasta, candle wax, dirt, and probably other stuff I don't know about. But its still up and running 100%, and the kids have gotten really into it, using the word program to write stories about their families and lives which I will have to post here sometime/translate into english.

KILLER ANTS. I kid not. This threat is real and terrifying. The rainy season just started and there were more ants than grains of dirt. Have you read the Poisonwood Bible? It was like that. They eat chickens, for the love of Mungu, and perhaps small children, so we had to elevate all fowl for a few days. One morning I awoke to find that ants had taken over my kitchen and couldn't go in it for a couple of days. I would have taken a picture but I was too busy FREAKING OUT (the pic below is of my and a neighbor, Baraka). Thankfully, with the help of my neighbors and some bug spray left by Betty and Peter (thank you thank you thank you) they were expelled from the house. Cooking and hanging out with my neighbors. This is my favorite thing to do when not teaching. Below is Mwanaidi, my neighbor's housegirl. They rarely let me help cook (and if you have tasted my cooking you know why) but I have other uses including chopping wood, fanning the fire, and spontaneously breaking out in song. This is the core of most cultures: food and conversation. Tanzanians do it well.

Remember family back home. I had the joy of going back and seeing people for my sister's wedding (doesn't she just look beautiful) but it made me more homesick than ever. Luckily, I have tons of pictures which I enjoy sharing with neighbor's and village guests, so if you come visit they will already know who you are!