Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Hello From the Bush

I know, I know, I’m a total bum for not updating my blog since September. Well, here’s what’s been going on. After Joanna left, we had a flurry of activity leading up to World AIDS Day on December 1. I had written a grant to get gardening and sewing supplies for the orphan group at the secondary school in Kibakwe. It turned out my counterpart was going to be in Dar at the same time I was, so we decided to get all of our supplies together. This involved two days of scouring Dar by daladala (minivans disguised as public transport) to find used sewing machines and supplies. Over those two days, we went to parts of Dar es Salaam I did not know existed. We went to parts of Dar that no one should ever go to. The ends justified the means, though, and we got what we needed. My poor counterpart had to travel all the way back to Kibakwe by bus with four sewing machines. Once I got back to Kibakwe, the onus was upon me to start organizing the students in the orphan group. Here lies the rub. Over half the students in the group were preparing for national exams which run for two weeks, then the other half of the students take their exams over the following two weeks. So we’re looking at a month where none of the students are able to be on the same page. All of this is going on while Carla is trying to show HIV/AIDS videos to the students every week. Another factor that impacted Carla’s project were the sporadic power cuts which prevented her from showing the videos on a few occasions. OK, that was half of October and most of November. Now students are starting to go back to their homes (not all students live in Kibakwe) to prepare their family farms for planting. Simultaneously there’s a nationwide teacher’s strike with varying levels of commitment, so the secondary school headmaster decided to close school a couple weeks early. Students had already stopped coming, teachers were more disinterested than usual, and the students who did show up complained they had nothing to do. As for our clubs at the school, students’ attendance was spotty at best. Nickson and Mama Cocu and Madinda were all doing their level best to encourage the students to show up for the clubs to no avail. As we say in Swahili, “bahati mbaya,” which means, “bad luck.” This expression is used to explain everything from getting a flat on your bike to incompetence of bank employees to people dying. In other words, “you’re screwed.” Now, November’s almost over and we have World AIDS Day, December 1, looking us in the face. Please refer to Carla’s blog (www.carlaintanzania.blogspot.com) to get all of the details of that event. I can’t do it justice compared to what Carla has written. Technically, it was a fantastic event for the community and tons of people were tested for HIV and others at least received education and increased their awareness. Incidentally, it’s not like Tanzanians aren’t aware of HIV and AIDS, but it’s more a case of Tanzanians not wanting to speak openly about these issues and what really causes them and reducing the stigma associated with the disease. In retrospect, the three day event did have an impact on people testing and I’m glad we did it. Also, it was great to have our friend Stephanie staying with us that week. Sorry we didn’t have more of a chance just to chill with you, Mr. Stephaner. After World AIDS Day, we needed a little bit of a break, so we took it easy for a while. After all, the big event was over, students were out of school, and we were free just to hang in Kibakwe, visit with our friends, and reconnect with our village. During this time we began to get more involved in the local PLWHA(People Living With HIV and AIDS) group, Kikundi Cha Upendo (Love Group). This might be the best thing we’ve done since we arrived in Kibakwe. This is a group of HIV+ people, caregivers, and our head doctor who meet once a week to talk about the issues they face and to get education on how to better care for themselves and others. Since we’ve been meeting with this group, I’ve realized that some of my favorite people to work with in Kibakwe, I’ve met in this group. The devotion and amount of compassion in some of the members of this group has made a profound impression on me. We’ve recently started digging a garden behind our house dedicated to benefitting these people. Madinda and I did a short permaculture and double-digging demonstration for the members of the group, and it seems that most people are really into it. Since the heavier rains just started this weekend, we’re planning on finishing the bed prep and planting by the end of the week.

Christmas this past year was spent with the Cs in Dar. We are so grateful to this wonderful couple for welcoming us, and other volunteers, so readily into their home. The Cs invited us and another PCV couple to celebrate Christmas dinner with them and other friends. This involved a Christmas feast akin to an American-style holiday, complete with turkey and all the trimmings and pumpkin pie and cookies. Now, here’s the downside to a wonderful meal like this when you’re accustomed to eating rice, beans, and local greens: my body reacts to the richness of this food by rejecting it. That’s right, later that night I refunded the meal. I spent the next day recuperating down the street at the Js’ whose house we were staying at for part of the holiday. All in all, it was a fantastic Christmas and a great bit of relaxation before receiving our visitors from the US.

On December 28, our wonderful friends, Brooke and Mike, arrived from the US for a much too brief, two-week visit. After the first night in Dar, we catapulted them right into village life by going straight to Kibakwe the next day. Brooke and Mike were fantastic guests, Mike helping with watering the garden and Brooke baking her first cake over an open fire. There were some violations of our very stringent shoe system in the house, however. Anyone who has ever visited our house is familiar with our systems and probably resents us for them, but it is the only semblance of control we have living in this country. As we like to say, “We do what we have to on the inside” (fans of Good Fellas will get the reference). Of course, Brooke and Mike were beloved by all our friends in the village, and there was even a gift exchange with Madinda and his family (I’ll post pics as soon as I can). After several days in the vill, we moved on to Morogoro and a one-day safari in Mikumi National Park. We had a fantastic time and even got to see a couple of male lions languishing right on one of the roads in the park; this is not typical of most parks, especially Mikumi. Side note: I never got tired of Mike saying,”Hey Lion, that’s a crazy mane you got. How ya doin’? Say hi to ya mutha for me.” Finally, it was on to Zanzibar: Stone Town and Paje Beach. Here is where we met up with Stephanie and proved that you can have two sets of friends become friends, but you need to know what you’re doing. I mean, c’mon, who doesn’t love Brooke and Mike and who doesn’t love Little Mr. Stephaner? Needless to say, it all worked out, and we had a great time in Stone Town and on the beach in Paje. It was the perfect end to a perfect visit. Other PCVs will know what I mean when I talk about the post US visitor hangover. After you have your tearful farewell at the Dar airport, and you’re faced with going back to the village (sometimes a multi-day bus trip), and you’re more homesick than you were before, you just don’t feel like doing anything for a few days. Of course, we all get over this and get back into the swing of things, but it’s tough for those first few days after a really good friend leaves.

Since Brooke and Mike left, we’ve mainly been doing logistical work and planning what we’ll do for our last months before we return to the US. This has involved continuing to meet and work with Upendo Group (PLWHA), meeting with the headmasters and certain teachers of both the primary and secondary schools in Kibakwe, and trying to figure out what else can be done in the time that we have left here. We have become more involved in working with our newest Mpwapwa VSO (Volunteer Service Overseas) volunteer, Peter, a delightful palliative care nurse from England. Since he arrived in October of last year, he has been working with a local NGO that provides home-based care for PLWHAs through a paid volunteer network. When his work brings him to Kibakwe to do home visits, we usually tag along to provide translation services. This has given us an opportunity to see some of the tougher cases of people living with AIDS. Actually seeing patients in their homes and witnessing the obstacles they have to proper health care makes you realize how easy it is for someone to fall through the cracks in this country. Peter has been a great inspiration to all of us working in Mpwapwa district. He has a tremendous amount of compassion and has the opportunity to improve the lives of many people here, and I know he has already done this in the short time he’s been here.

Most recently, we went to Dodoma to help Peace Corps with the IST (In-Service Training) for the Health and Environment volunteers who just arrived at site in August 2008. Our presentation, which we gave with the help of our counterpart Madinda, dealt mainly with program design and management. Basically, a fancy way of saying project planning, or “How do you do a project in your village and make sure it doesn’t turn to crap?” Honestly, we’re still trying to figure this one out, but we have picked up some pearls of wisdom along the way. We were brought in as the voices of experience. Madinda was there to help the new Tanzanian counterparts who accompanied the new volunteers get an idea of how it is to work with Americans, what is expected of them, and how to bridge the cultural and linguistic gap. I think everything went fairly well and I believe our presentations were well-received by the volunteers and the counterparts. I’ve said it a million times before, and I’ll probably say it a million more, Madinda is a rockstar. This man, who only has a seventh grade education, has more conviction, integrity, and compassion than most Americans I have known. For a Tanzanian, especially a Tanzanian in our region, to have these qualities is incredibly rare.

Monday, September 8, 2008


We recently had the good fortune of receiving a visit from our very good friend Joanna. She was able to spend three weeks with us here in Tanzania. After picking her up in Dar, we went to Paje Beach on Zanzibar for a few days in order to ease Joanna into Tanzania. We had a great time swimming and relaxing on the beach. I think Joanna enjoyed the time to decompress from travelling. We continued our journey by returning to Kibakwe for one week. I think this may have been Joanna’s favorite part of the trip. We had a blast just walking around the village, introducing Joanna to people, and hanging out with our friends at our house. She had some clothes made by Mama Cocu and we did a lot of cooking and baking. After that, we travelled up north to Arusha and Tarangire National Park and Ngorongoro Crater for a few days of safari. The parks were fantastic and we even saw a few black rhinos (through binoculars) at Ngorongoro. Despite Arusha being my least favorite city in Tanzania, we did manage to find some really nice people at the kanga (a traditional cloth imprinted with a design and a single idiom) shops near the bus stand and at Mt. Meru Masai Market. My best interactions with Tanzanians while travelling have been in marketplaces where they’re not expecting a white person to be able to speak Swahili. The average vendor at a Tanzanian marketplace welcomes the opportunity to talk about international politics with a foreigner in Swahili. When we were on safari, we spent one night at a tented lodge near Karatu and Lake Manyara. Absolutely beautiful. Views of Lake Manyara from a wooded hillside and great accommodations. On the way back, we stopped in Morogoro for a night to have dinner at Oasis and relax before going on to Dar. It was a very sad farewell saying goodbye to Joanna at the Dar airport that night, but knowing that we will see her again back in the US in the spring made it ok. We also received a visit from a Peace Corps Trainee who’s at the end of her training. Margaret Mary, who by the time I post this will be at her site, came to “shadow” with us for a week at our site. Shadow week is designed to help trainees get an idea of what to expect once they get to their sites and see what life as a volunteer is like. We asked to get only one trainee since we don’t have a lot of room at our house and, as one of our COSing friends put it, “That’s better because if there’s more than one they can gang up on you.” As it turned out, Margaret was the perfect guest. She was up for anything, always offered to help, brought gifts (though not necessary), and was just an absolute delight. Shadow week is usually pretty chill since it’s one of the only times during training that PCVs are able to be away from their homestay. Most PCVs understand this, so we try to let the trainees plan what to do during their shadow week. As I said before, Margaret was up for anything so we mainly hung out with our friends, walked around our village, cooked, baked, went to visit Ben for a day, and relaxed. All in all, I think it was a really good experience for all of us. I’m really glad we decided to do it. After shadow week was done, we went back to Dar with Margaret for site announcements and then on to Kilosa to help Peter with permaculture training. It was tough being away from our site for so long, but I think the trainees found it helpful to have us around after site announcements to address their questions and apprehensions.

Above are pictures from Joanna's visit to Zanzibar.
Below are pictures of Carla and I with Margaret Mary, our shadow, and at bottom is her at site announcements.


The following is a glimpse of what it’s like in Kibakwe right now: it’s the midst of the dry season and mosquitoes (and Malaria) have returned, but it hasn’t rained yet, it’s starting to get warmer – 80s daytime, 70s night, people are starting to clean their farms and burn agricultural waste from last season, fierce winds in the afternoons and lots of dust, and everybody’s hoping that we’ll have more rain this year than last. Our biggest challenge in Kibakwe right now is that of water. We are trying to have the intake at the water source up the mountain, rebuilt and enlarged so that we will be able to get water every day of the year without interruption. Right now in Kibakwe is the time of year when the water supply gets cut regularly. Early on it only gets cut for a day and comes back at night, but as we get closer to the rainy season the supply can be cut for up to three or four weeks without a drop. And just because it’s called the rainy season, it doesn’t mean we get rain every day. We recently hiked up the mountain to get pictures of the intake and the supply line in order to inform whichever engineers we choose to do the project. We’re hoping to work with an American in Dodoma that we recently met if his busy schedule will allow. The condition of the intake and the supply line is a little disappointing. There are several leaks in the line, some have been repaired with plastic bags and some are just gushing water into the woods. The intake itself is just a 4’ x 4’ concrete box with the supply line and a cheese grater filter in it. This is what supplies all of Kibakwe with its water. In other news, I’ve recently started going to watch an old woodcarver named Kumwemwetea. I’ve known him for about a year, but only recently have we begun to develop a friendship. A couple of months ago we asked him to carve a few things for us and when he brought them by we started talking about art and carving and if he’d mind if I came to his house to watch him work. Well, he loved the idea and I recently went over there to watch him work. He uses a traditional adze called a tezo in Swahili to rough out the shape, then chisels made from long bicycle bolts, and he finishes with a small curved knife. Finishing consists of sanding and finally coating the wood with hair grease – essentially Vaseline. It was great to watch the old timer work and hang out talking with him about why the Tanzanian youth have no interest in learning this skill. Talking with Kumwemwetea, I realized that he really enjoys doing this. It’s not just about selling it. I found myself thinking, “He reminds me of most other sculptors I know: he’s totally down to earth and unpretentious, he’s telling the kids to shut up and sit still, and he’s working with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.” At that point I realized I wanted to learn about woodcarving from this guy. We’re planning on going up the mountain to cut wood when I get back from traveling and I’d like to get some traditional carving tools made for myself. It’s been so long since I’ve done any sculpture, I think it’ll do me good to start carving with Kumwemwetea on a regular basis. I know I have my creative outlet with the drawing club at the school, but my need for working in 3D is pretty strong. My sculptor friends out there will understand when I say that there’s just something about the transformative aspect of sculpting: of starting with one object that you can hold in your hand like a lump of clay or a piece of wood and then turning it into another, better, more actualized object that you can hold.

The Pictures above are of our water source, a two-hour hike up the mountain from Kibakwe. As you can see the intake is a small square cistern with a pipe attached to it (see photo at left). Pictured with Carla are our counterparts, Madinda and Mama Cocu.

To the right and below are photos Kumwemwetea carving and his finished work. Below right is a picture of him sharpening his knife on a stone he carried from the mountain.


…literally, it’s been months since I’ve posted on the Rocky Woodbridge Journal. I apologize for the long internet silence. We’ve been pretty busy over the past few months with workshops, organizing clubs, writing grants, having a visitor from the US, and lots and lots of travelling. Also over the past couple of months, we have lost most of our Mpwapwa crew. Our good friends Loni, Holley, James and Jane, and James and Christy have all returned to the US after finishing their two years of Peace Corps service which leaves only four of us here in Mpwapwa: Ben, Thad, and Carla and me. Having good American friends that you can periodically hang out with in your region is crucial to the psychological wellbeing of most volunteers. We have a few good Tanzanian friends, but sometimes you just want to speak English with a fellow American that will know where you’re coming from. Having said that, we’re still doing well here. To be honest, since we’ve been travelling so much over the past few months, we crave being in our village for more than just a week at a time. When we are here, we find ourselves incredibly busy. We’re usually at the secondary school meeting with different clubs and organizing with a few of the teachers. Carla has started an English club, my Art club is still going well, and we’ve started working more with the Tumaini (Hope) club for Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC). Carla’s English club is going well. She’s working with the students to improve their basic conversational skills. Even though most subjects are taught in English, it amounts to little more than a teacher copying out of the book and onto the blackboard and then the students copying into their notebooks. There’s little to no comprehension of the language and that’s true among the teachers as well. Carla is doing her level best to make English club a fun time for the kids. Meanwhile, my art club is moving right along. There are only a few students who are really serious about drawing and they show up for every session. I’ve basically given them a place where they can draw for a couple hours twice a week. My main objective with these kids is to foster in them that they can draw whatever they want, not just from magazine photos of rap artists. I’m trying to encourage creative thought which is not highly valued in Tanzanian culture. If you do something outside of the group or outside the norm, you’re judged for it. We’re working on drawing skills and projection techniques for enlarging pictures. I’d like to be able to do a mural with these students eventually: one that they conceive of and design themselves. Tumaini Club is a group of 59 secondary students that are Orphans or Vulnerable Children (OVC). In the developing world, and specifically in Tanzania, OVC is a term used to describe a person under 18 who has lost at least one parent and/or is living under difficult circumstances such as alcoholic or abusive caretaker, elderly or disabled caretaker, financial hardship, etc. The members of Tumaini (the Swahili word for hope) are currently working on a vegetable garden at the secondary school, from which they sell mchicha (a Tanzanian variety of spinach) to local vendors. Recently, we’ve been working with Carla’s counterpart, Renfrida, and secondary school teacher Mr. Nickson, both professional tailors, in order to diversify the club’s activities. Renfrida and Nickson have agreed to teach sewing fundamentals to the club members. Our hope is that the students will be able to supplement their small vegetable gardening enterprise with a sewing business. I am currently writing a small grant to acquire a sewing machine, sewing supplies, and garden tools, so that Tumaini Club can have a fighting chance for success. All too often the case is that students lose interest in activities for lack of proper equipment, insufficient supplies, and lackluster leadership. We’re trying to lead by example: we’re at the school when we say we will be, we do what we say we’re going to do, and we’re trying to teach that it’s better to earn by hard work than asking for handouts. Also, we are teaching the club members about different gardening techniques like permaculture. The students are just happy to be doing something different. Along those lines, we just acquired a volleyball from James and Christy and we’re planning on teaching the students how to play. Mr. Nickson is really excited about this. Every time I see him he asks if I’ve downloaded the rules yet. It’s really refreshing to see this type of enthusiasm in the village and it makes our job here a lot easier. I’ve included some pictures so you all can get a visual of what I’m talking about. Enjoy.

Clockwise from top left, James (Short), Thad, Loni, James (Tall), Carla, and Christy, James (Tall) by himself, and Loni, Christy, and Holley

Saturday, June 7, 2008


Greetings from Kibakwe. We're only about a month or two away from our landscape going from green to brown. The desert has already started reclaiming Kibakwe by occupying the recently harvested fields. Even though the daytime temperature doesn't fluctuate much year-round, Tanzanians complain about how cold it is right now(50s overnight, 80s during the day). Honestly, this is close to being my ideal climate, but without seasonal change it gets a little confusing as to what time of year it is.

Well, the past couple of months have been busy. Carla and I both succeeded in organizing and conducting two one-day workshops on the topic of HIV/AIDS education. Each Training Of Trainers(TOT) was conducted at the secondary school on consecutive Saturdays in May. The first one was for HIV/AIDS support groups which are composed mostly of concerned members of the community with little no formal education. They absolutely loved the seminar, found it to be really helpful, and were so appreciative of the opportuntiy to learn. The second group was the Kibakwe area primary and secondary school teachers and they were more difficult to please. First of all, there were a few that voiced their disappointment in not receiving a posho or sitting allowance to attend the workshop. The posho system is one of the main obstacles to development in Tanzania. Most Tanzanians with any amount of education beyond secondary school or in any position of authority automatically expect to be paid(posho) to attend seminars and workshops, very different from the US where attendees are the ones to pay. Secondly, there was one primary school teacher that expressed her displeasure the night before the seminar when she discovered there would be no meat offered with lunch the next day. She actually called me on my cell phone to complain about a free meal. During the workshop itself, there was a small portion of the group of teachers that seemed really interested in and attentive to what was being presented. I have much more faith in the community members to educate others about HIV/AIDS than in the teachers. Overall, though, I felt that the training events can be counted as a success. Even if many of the people don't do any teaching, the materials are out there in the community for people to read themselves. Over two workshops, there were 72 attendees, and each one got four books on HIV/AIDS, life skills, nutrition, and nutrition for children living with HIV/AIDS. That makes 288 books that are, hopefully, in circulation in Kibakwe right now.

Soon we'll be going on vacation for a bit since our friend Joanna is coming for a visit in the next couple of weeks. We'll pick her up from the airport in Dar Es Salaam, then to Zanzibar for some beach time, back to the village for a while, up North to Arusha, Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire Park, and finally back to Dar. The past weeks have been like anticipating summer break and our TOTs were like our final exams. It will be good and bad to get away from the village for a while. Good to see our friend that we haven't seen in over a year and travel to cool places and eat good food, and; bad to be away from our house, our neighbors, our garden, and our cat. Right now in Kibakwe most people are at their farms harvesting peanuts, corn, and sunflowers. Once the harvest is done, most Kibakweans won't have anything to do until October or November when they will prepare their farms for the next growing season. Starting in July will be the perfect time to start planning our next projects since everyone will be around with nothing to do. However, nothing to do also means lots of time to hang out and get drunk, so I'm trying to be optimistic. On the agenda right now for possible projects is an HIV/AIDS awareness mural, an HIV/AIDS video series to be held at the secondary school, an English club/class at the secondary school, a sewing club for secondary school orphans, gardens at the primary and secondary schools, and trying to rebuild a better, larger water intake.

I'm hoping that our little vacation with Joanna will recharge our batteries for the upcoming work. And here it is, the request for donations. If anyone wants to send us any really simple kids' books or English flash cards, that's what we're looking for right now. Also, if anyone has any books on drawing or Art History, my drawing club would love them. Thank you all for your continued generosity.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Sorry there aren't any pictures this time. I had some problems resizing the most recent photos from Kibakwe and beyond. I promise there will be many new pics next time. The latest news from Kibakwe is as follows: both Carla's and my grants were approved and the money was deposited into our accounts, so we've been able to start planning our Training Of Trainers(TOT). These will be one-day training sessions on how to teach about HIV/AIDS. My grant is to teach local AIDS groups and youth peer educators while Carla's is to teach Kibakwe area primary and secondary school teachers. We're organizing all of the logistics of these training events and they will be taught by our head doctor and the nurse midwife. Everyone is very excited about this and we're hoping it will all go well. In other news, I was recently elected Volunteer Action Committee (VAC) representative for the Dodoma region. This is the Peace Corps equivalent of a labor union or student council. We meet for three days in Dar es Salaam four times a year and discuss volunteer issues and present them to administration. We also write a quarterly newsletter detailing issues discussed and updates on our respective regions and their volunteers. I have started an art club at the secondary school and we meet once a week for two hours to draw. All of the students (about 10 or 12 usually) love to draw and some of them are really talented. I'm planning to involve them in the painting of a mural on the side of the village office within the next few months. I've been trying to teach them different techniques such as how to enlarge a photo or drawing without using a projector. Those artists out there will know what I'm talking about. Overall, the art club has been a very positive experience and the kids have loved having an outlet and an activity after school. Since we're coming up on the dry season (once the harvest is done) most people in Kibakwe will be at a loss for anything to do until the next planting season starting in late September, early October. For many of the students various after-school clubs provide a positive alternative to drinking, drugs, and prostitution, all of which are growing problems in Kibakwe. I'm expecting that after the TOTs we'll be busier than ever since we're inviting 50 people to each event. This means that our social and work circle will increase greatly. I expect many more visits from teachers and members of AIDS groups after May. All we're trying to do is get the people of Kibakwe motivated to start doing these events themselves and provide them with the necessary tools to continue after we leave. We always stress to people that you don't need lots of money to educate and that eventually we will be leaving Kibakwe to go home, but you can continue this same work by yourselves. Every day in Kibakwe our goal becomes more and more clear and the people who are capable of helping us achieve it become more evident.

Monday, March 31, 2008


This is just a little plug for my friend Andy Kochanski and his newly opened watering hole. Read more at : http://www.mkeonline.com/mkeinfo/issues/03-27-2008.asp

Or you can ask him yourself at :
Kochanski's Concertina Beer Hall
1920 S. 37th
Milwaukee, WI 53215

or 414-83-POLKA