Monday, July 19, 2010

A Tanzanian Top Ten

Warning: Long blog post. Feel free to skip.

With just a few days left here in Kitete, I figured it was a good time to reflect on my many adventures of the past nine weeks. I will save a more profound reflection for once I have returned to the States. For now, I have compiled a list of the top ten moments from my time here in Africa. I have given it an alliterative title in honor of Steve Alagna, or #10 as he is more commonly known.

10. Stepping off the plane
– Miley thinks there is something special about hopping of the plane at LAX, well she should try JRO. There was something absolutely thrilling about stepping onto the runway at Kilimanjaro Airport and thinking, “Wow, I am in Africa!”

9. Elephant sighting
– One of my afternoon runs got a lot more exciting when I noticed a gigantic male elephant just 50 yards in front of me. He had wandered out of the forest to torment the local farmers by eating their wheat. They were doing their best to scare him away.

8. Dislocating my shoulder – Perhaps the scariest moment of the trip was when my shoulder popped out while playing volleyball. I cannot accurately describe the relief I felt as it popped back into place. It would have been at least an hour to the nearest clinic.

7. Slaughtering chickens – Nothing gets the testosterone flowing quite like going all Liam Neeson on four innocent roosters. Hopefully PETA won’t attack me when I get back.

6. Dolphins and monkeys
– While in Zanzibar, I had the opportunity to swim with wild dolphins in the Indian Ocean and pet wild monkeys in the same day. I felt like I was Steve Irwin or something. I even managed to avoid getting rabies from the monkeys!

5. July 4th – Few things could make you love America more than spending Independence Day outside of the country. We were determined to do our patriotic duty despite our distance from the homeland. We managed to have a good old fashion BBQ with our African brothers.

4. Daladalas
– You haven’t really traveled until you have crammed 25 to 30 people in a minivan. These vehicles are a safety nightmare; I think most of them have been pieced together with parts from a chop shop. After fighting your way through the crowd to just to get on, you better be willing the forfeit any concept of personal space.

3. The World Cup – I have to admit that I have never been a soccer/football fan, but around here you don’t have a choice. After watching just a few matches with all of these enthusiastic fans, I found myself completely caught up in the action. Nothing was more agonizing than watching Ghana lose with a Ghanaian native in the room.

2. Swahili mass
– While these Sunday morning experiences were often a test in patience, in retrospect they were pretty amazing. Despite masses that ranged from two hours to four and a half hours, the people here were always completely engaged. While I never understood a word of what was said, there was no doubt that the people here possessed a deep faith.

1. Time with students РWhile it may be kind of predictable or clich̩, the time I spent with the students here was easily the most rewarding. Whether it was time spent playing cards, playing volleyball, going for runs, washing clothes, or even in class, these kids were enthusiastic. They showed me that despite their tough situations they can enjoy the blessings they have.

Tanzanian Fun Fact: The first Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere is absolutely worshiped here. His picture can be found in practically every building in Tanzania, and they like to refer to him as “father and teacher”. In fact, there is a movement within the Tanzanian Church trying to get him canonized.

On a completely unrelated note, I am now a billionaire. When the priests returned from South Africa they brought back some of the defunct Zimbabwean currency. I am the proud owner of a $50 billion bill.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Are We Still in East Africa?

We arrived in Zanzibar on Friday evening after a two and a half hour ferry across the Zanzibar Channel. As we said goodbye to the African continent, we entered a world that hardly feels like East Africa at all.

First of all, the climate of Zanzibar is quite different than that of East Africa. With the exception of a few coastal areas, East Africa is fairly arid, with large expanses of dry grasslands like you see on the Discovery Channel. However, Zanzibar is a tropical island with vast forests and plenty of rainfall each year. It makes for a nice change of pace since Kitete has been so cold (it is the winter after all).

By far the greatest difference is a cultural one though. Ninety-seven percent of the people of Zanzibar are Muslims. This is clearly reflected in the architecture as well as the people’s dress. Mosques can be found around nearly every corner. They are all outfitted with big megaphones in order to announce the daily prayers at various times (including 5:30am this morning!). Most men wear Kufis, and women keep their heads veiled. It makes for a pretty stark contrast between the Western tourists and the locals.

Tyler actually bought a Kofi on the street and was wearing it around yesterday. We received many questions from the local people about how a Muslim and a Christian could be friends. We simply said, “Why not?” I guess in our own way we are promoting interreligious peace.

Zanzibar Fun Fact: Zanzibar is believed to be the location of the last public slave market. The Sultan of Zanzibar was forced by the British in 1873 to close the Stone Town slave market. The British then proceeded to build a cathedral at the site with a memorial to the many slaves who passed through Zanzibar.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Lake Manyara

While I have internet access here in Nairobi, I wanted to post a quick photo from my trip to Lake Manyara National Park.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Life as an Expatriate

With July 4th just around the corner, I have been reflecting a bit on my experience over the past six weeks living as a foreigner.

It is true that living outside of the US has made me appreciate more fully the blessings that we have. I think that sentiment is terribly cliché, but very true. Not simply our material wealth, but also our civil and political structures are something to be cherished. It is so easy to take for granted that we can move about free of fear, or that we can trust our police officers to do their job without taking bribes. The fact that every window I have seen in Africa has bars (including churches) is a clear indication that no one truly feels safe here.

Another intriguing aspect of spending time outside of the US has been observing other people’s opinions of America. There is a precarious balance between an affinity for American culture and disapproval of US foreign policy. The people here love to hear about America, especially rural people like in Kitete. They are amazed that most of us have cars, and that we don’t have elephants or giraffes. Meanwhile, more educated people like the priests are surprisingly well versed in US politics. They can talk at length about Democrats and Republicans, or about why they think the war in Iraq was a good or bad decision. It has been very interesting listening to their views on politics.

Of course, as in America, not everyone knows what they are talking about. For instance, just yesterday I listened to our cab driver explain how Obama is actually one of the richest men in the world because he is stealing millions of US tax dollars under the table.

Kenyan Fun Fact: Despite being one of the 30 poorest countries in the world, Kenyans politicians are among the richest. Kenyan members of parliament make more than their counterparts in Germany and the Kenyan president earns 10% more than the US president. That kind of corruption makes Rod Blagojevich look like Honest Abe.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Beginning of the End

Despite the fact that I have three and a half weeks left, it feels as though my time here is coming to a swift end.

Friday marked the end of the term for the students here in Kitete. They took their final exams (or terminal exams as they call them), packed up their bags, and headed back to their respective homes. It is hard to imagine that I will never see most of these students again. In just five weeks, we have all become great friends. Hopefully they learned something too.

Before they left, we had a big end of term celebration. We even slaughtered a goat for the occasion. I was supposed to participate in the slaughter, but there was a miscommunication about the time of the deed. I guess I will have to stick to chickens (for those keeping track, my chicken kill count is at three). We had a big feast, they thanked us for teaching them, and we gave them some parting advice.

With the students gone, life is slow here in Kitete. There is not much work for us to do here. We can’t exactly teach without any students. Instead, we are preparing to travel. Monday we will be visiting Lake Manyara National Park, which is full of giraffes, rhinos, lions, etc. Then on Thursday we will head to Nairobi, Kenya for a week, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar for a week, and then back to Kitete. By the time we return from travelling, we will only have one week left.

The experience has been amazing thus far, and there is still so much left to see. In fact, I came across a wild elephant on one of my runs last week. It had wandered out of the forest to eat some of the farmers’ wheat. I watched from about 50 yards away, having been warned that elephants are actually very dangerous.

Tanzanian Fun Fact: Tanzania is home to over 130 tribal and ethnic groups. These groups range in size from only a hundred thousand to two million. Most have their own languages too. The people here are the Iraqw people, originally from Ethiopia. I don’t believe they are of any relation to the Iraqis in the Middle East!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Winter Solstice

While all of you back in the States will be enjoying the longest day of the year later next week, here in Kitete it will be the winter solstice. It is one of the stranger aspects of living in the Southern Hemisphere.

I must confess, of course, that it is not exactly the most daunting winter solstice. Being only about a hundred miles from the equator changes things a bit. Winter here is light years from the frigid temperatures of South Bend, although it is colder than you probably think.

Because we are up in the mountains most mornings there is a thick fog over the whole area and a temperature just below 60°F. By the afternoon the sun typically breaks through the clouds and the high temperature is normally around 70°F.

That’s hardly winter weather by our standards, but the locals here think otherwise. They think it is absolutely freezing. Most of them get all bundled up in winter coats and knit caps. It’s pretty funny to see. A simple sweatshirt in the evenings is good enough for hearty Americans like us.

Tanzanian Fun Fact: The people here don’t have arm or leg hair, absolutely none! They are so intrigued by my hairy legs and arms, and often feel free to touch it. I assume it is an evolutionary difference between living in a temperate versus tropical climate, but that’s just a guess.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Football is God

Today marks the beginning of my fifth week of travel, but more importantly it marks the fifth day of the World Cup.

Each year a consulting firm calculates the billions of dollars of efficiency lost during the NCAA Basketball Tournament due to workers watching the games on the internet. While this is an interesting project, I think they should turn their attention to the World Cup.

Football (or soccer if you like) is the main event here in Kitete, and it is capturing everyone’s attention. At any given point in the day there will be between 20 and 40 people huddled in the dark dining hall watching on a little 24” TV ghetto-rigged to a dilapidated satellite. That’s just for any old game. If an African team is playing, everyone is watching, seriously everything stops. Some of the students even dressed up in shirts and ties for the first Nigeria game.

Just today Tyler and were discussing how the students seem abnormally tired in class. It didn’t take us long to diagnose the problem; the students have been staying up late watching football. Football is more than a sport here. It is a religion.

Tanzanian Fun Fact: I have occasionally heard people talk about wanting to “drop off the grid” by going camping or hiking. They should just come to Kitete. We are roughly 13km from the nearest power line and a 45 minute jeep ride from the nearest paved road.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ignorance Was Bliss

Perhaps the greatest blessing of the past three weeks has been interacting with the students here at Audrey Veldman Vocation and Technical School. The students, who range from age 13 to 23, are some of the most fun and enthusiastic people I have ever met. I have formed some very fast friendships. It feels as though I have been here much longer than just three weeks. Many of the students have already offered for me to come live at their parents' home (sounds like a good offer).

Befriending these students has been amazing, but it is a bittersweet experience. Firstly because they will be leaving for winter break in two weeks. They get a whole month off, so Tyler and I will be gone by the time they return. We will be saying goodbye to these kids forever.

The other depressing part is that we have slowly started learning many of their back stories. Since many of them live here at the school, it is easy to forget they come from extreme poverty. For instance, one of my favorite students is Christopher Burra, a 23 year old carpentry student graduating in November. He is a very bright and enthusiastic kid. He mentioned one day that he wants to join the seminary an become a priest. Sounds great, right? Well I found out from the priests that he never went to secondary school because his family couldn't afford it. He is too old to complete 6 years of secondary school, 4 years of college, then seminary. His dream will never be fulfilled.

Or there is Wilson Charles, an exceptionally athletic masonry student who always has a smile on his face. I found out on Monday that after his mother remarried, his stepdad wanted nothing to do with him. His biological father is an alcoholic, so that is no help. He is literally been homeless since the age of 17. He lives at the school during the school year and often sleeps at a local church where he does chores in lieu of rent.

I apologize for the somber post, but it is simply a dose of reality here in the Thrid World. The good news, however, is that these kids still may have bright futures. The school here has offered these kids a chance for a new life. The skills they are learning here will give them an opportunity to earn a stable income one day.

Despite their poverty, these students here are an inspiration to me. They live each day thankful for what they have and excited for the future. You would never know that they live such tragic lives.

Tanzanian Fun Fact: The people here don't have conventional last names like we do in America. They simply tack their father's name to the end of theirs. As a result, my name would be Gregory Peter.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Death of a Chicken and Other New Foods

Warning: The following post is a bit graphic, viewer discretion is advised.

It was a Monday morning just like any other, but for one unfortunate chicken it would be his last...

After breakfast I found Marieta waiting with a knife as basin; she was ready for the slaughter. She grabbed the unlucky rooster from the garage, and we headed out back. Now I know that chickens have very small brains, but this guy knew what was up. From the minute Marieta picked him up he was screaming like I have never heard a chicken before. She placed him on the ground, put one foot on his legs and the other on his wings. Now it was my turn. I mimicked her stance atop the victim and asked "What now?"

She stepped away and simply said, "You cut." I clutched the rooster's head and began cutting, expecting this to be a quick process. I soon realized that this knife was extremely dull. The chicken agonized for almost a minute while I sawed at its neck. I finally broke throgh, he made one last scream, and breathed his last. I held his body for a few more moments while its muscles continued to contract (I had always heard that headless chickens could run around).

As I walked ways with bloody hands, a knife in one hand, and a chicken head in the other, I felt a sense of supreme masculinity, like Liam Neeson walking away after killing 20 bad guys in "Taken." The irony of course was that I had merely killed a defenseless chicken. Eh, testosterone is testosterone regardless.

Other culinary firsts:
-Fresh mango (Lopez shout out)
-Fermented milk (kind of like yogurt)
-Fresh papaya
-Purple porridge (made from millet flour aka "wimbi")
-Goat meat
-Two types of Tanzanian beer
-Fresh avocado
-Sugar cane (you literally gnaw on a branch and suck out the sugar)

Tanzanian Fun Fact: Speaking of food, the Swahili word for butt is "tako." When people from Tanzania visit America, they are perplexed to see people eating at Taco Bell. Would you eat at a place called "Butt Bell"?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Life at an African Pace

Here is my typical day in Kitete:

6:50am - Wake up
7:00am - Morning Prayer
8:00am - Breakfast
9-10:40 - Teach computers
11-12:20 - Teach English
12:20-1:30 - Free
1:30pm - Lunch
2-5:30 - Free
5:30-7pm - Volleyball
7-8:45 - Free
9:00pm - Dinner
9:45-11pm - Free

As you can see, there is a lot of down time here in Kitete. Tyler and I have been doing our best to fill the time without getting bored, but that is a tall task. We read, listen to music, journal, and nap a lot. When we aren't being lazy we go for runs too. We are training to hopefully climb Kilimanjaro in July.

Some days we get a chance to travel with one of the priests for small village masses in the afternoon. These masses take place in tarp-covered lean-tos and last between an hour and half and two hours. This is no surprise of course because life moves slowly here. Things always start fashionably late and last for a long time. For instance, mass this morning was supposed to start at 8am. It began at 8:30 and ended at 11:30! Talk about a test of endurance.

That is all for now. I am excited because tomorrow the cook says I may get to slaughter a chicken! I will be sure to report back if that happens.

Tanzanian Fun Fact: The locals here don't use the typical am/pm method of telling time. Instead it is based off of the sunrise. One o'clock is 7am, two is 8am, and so forth.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Near Crisis

This will have to be a short post because the battery on Deacon Chris's laptop is about to die.

I wanted to post about perhaps the scariest thing to happen to me in a long time. Believe it or not it involves volleyball.

I was playing volleyball with the students yesterday, which is an everyday occurrence. These kids love volleyball; they absolutely eat it up. They would play all day if they could, and they are very good. I was playing up on the net and I jumped to spike the ball but it was further back than I realized. As I pulled my arm back and thrust it forward I heard a pop, and a sharp pain. As I reached for my shoulder I felt a gap between my arm and my shoulder. I had dislocated my shoulder. It was one of the strangest feelings of my life, and it hurt A LOT!

Luckily Tyler was there and he helped me back towards the parish house where we live. As we were walking I knelt down because of the pain, I used my other arm to lift the dislocated one to about parallel with the ground and gave it a little push. Much to my relief it popped back in! This was honestly a miracle. I am over an hour by jeep from the nearest doctor, and who knows what kind of training that doctor has. It was one of the scariest moments of my life.

I popped a bunch of Ibuprofen and lied down for a while. I think it is going to be okay, but I won't be playing volleyball for at least a week.

Everything else is going well. The teaching is really fun, and the students are enthusiastic. I drank fermented milk, which is like yogurt, for the first time today. Hopefully I won't puke!

Tanzanian Fun Fact: The people of Tanzania are extremely poor, but they have softer toilet paper than the University of Notre Dame, which has a $5 billion endowment.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tamsifu Yesu Christu! Milele Amina!

That is the traditional greeting around here. It roughly means: God be praised! Response: Indeed, Amen!

I am happy to report that I am safe and sound in Kitete. It has only been a few days, but it has been a wild ride so far, both literally and figuratively.

After 26 hours of travel, Tyler and I arrived in Arusha, a large city at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. We spent our first night under mosquito nets in a small hotel with Deacon Chris. Actually I should mention that he took us out for dinner first. You would never believe what he ordered...Chinese. My first meal after arriving in Africa was Chinese food, hilarious.

The next day we explored the city. We got money at the ATM and bought a cheap cellphone. It cost less than $20. We then made the three hour drive to Kitete. It is about two hours on a paved road and then an hour on a dirt path. It would be completely impassable without the four wheel drive LandCruiser. It is like riding a carnival ride for an hour. Thank goodness Tyler and I don't get motion sickness.

Since our arrival we have been meeting the students and staff. There are about 60 students here studying one of four subjects: masonry, carpentry, tailoring, or sewing. Tyler and I will begin teaching them English, computer applications, and some math tomorrow. It should be a real challenge. At least we get to play volleyball or soccer every afternoon.

As the wise Chaz Michael Michaels once said, "Night is a very dark time for me." He had no idea, unless he had been to Kitete. Once the generator is turned off, this place is completely dark, just the moon and the stars. I have been camping many times, but nothing matches this. There is honestly no ambient light whatsoever.

Tanzanian Fun Fact: Tanzanian money feels a lot like Monopoly money. One US dollar can buy roughly 1,400 Tanzanian Shillings. Seeing a bill with that many zeroes would make anyone feel like Donald Trump.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hypocritical Narcissism

If you have spent any amount of time with me, you know that I tend to speak my mind. Some would say I lack tact (Lopez), others would say my filter doesn't work. Regardless (or "irregardless" for Steve) one my favorite things to pontificate about is the narcissism inherent in blogs. Honestly, how could you think that people care about your day-to-day life?

Well, I guess this makes me a hypocrite, and a narcissistic one at that. This will be my blog for the next nine weeks while I venture into the world of Kitete, Tanzania. I don't expect many people to read this, but I hope that it will serve as a funny and interesting way for me to keep in touch with my family and friends while I am 7,425 miles from home (thanks, GoogleMaps).

I will do my best to keep my posts short and interesting, and I will try to post regularly. I will even include one "Tanzanian Fun Fact" each time.

I will be leaving on Tuesday evening from JFK. I will fly with my partner, Tyler, from NYC to Amsterdam then Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro Airport. My next post will likely be from St. Brendan's in Kitete. I hope to have some interesting travel stories by then.

Tanzanian Fun Fact: When Tanzania was formed in 1964, it was initially named the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. It took less than a year for that name to be shortened to just "Tanzania." It rolls off the tongue a little easier.