Friday, September 28, 2012

To You, Constant Reader, To You

My apologies, faithful readers. I got too caught up in the beginning to remember the end. I’ve been meaning to write an epilogue for weeks. Now I am.

I just re-read my last blog entry from Tanzania. It seems like a letter from another lifetime, a postcard from the past. But that’s why we write, isn’t it? To document our failures, celebrate our struggles, and preserve somehow the bliss of ignorance and agony of education...and sometimes, just to fucking write. Because the right words, the right feeling, the right writing, can make us cry or make us fly. Well, actually, I don’t know about you. They make me cry, and fly, and die, and then they do it again. 

I’m sitting in my new house, in the middle of my new life. It’s 11:32pm, and there’s a light bulb shining the shadows away, an outlet to plug my computer into, and a tumbler holding a single finger of Jameson. America ain’t so bad, as it turns out. People ask me how it’s been re-adjusting. I’ve talked to volunteers who have had a rough time making the change. Of course, none of them had a fiancee to come back to, and I’m pretty sure that none of them have the family and friends I do, more’s the pity. 

But it has not been without problems, this return. I have no job, little money, and am still a kid with a theater degree who wants to change the world. I don’t really mind though...because change it I shall. I’m currently spending four days a week volunteering for the Obama campaign (the subject of my new blog, please tune in!), and learning the difference between the flashy ideals that inspire a nation and the fluorescent realities that win an election in 2012. It’s the glacial, unsexy kind of change, the “slow boring of hard boards” style change. For someone who’s always been a little more in love with style than substance, it’s a welcome classroom; a useful place to adjust to America while doing some work of noble note.

Of course, it is weird to have had these two seemingly separate lives, that only occasionally bled into one another. I realized things, I forgot things, but in the end, I learned all the old lessons: that life is short, the world is large, and sunsets are beautiful.  I learned that failure teaches better than success, but you get bought fewer drinks for it. I learned that all cultures drink. I learned that that Africans are different from Americans, but no more so than men are different from women and I’m different from Vicky. I can only hope that the trajectory of humanity leads us closer together, because there’s some pretty cool characters on the other side of the world. I learned to say goodbyes that will last lifetimes and got to say hellos that seemed to last for days, under the cool glow of JFK’s night-lights. I learned that sometimes people are entitled to have their faith repaid. At the end of the day, I didn’t win, but then again, I didn’t lose. I made it back, and while I certainly cannot promise that I will never leave again, Dorothy was right. There is no place like home.

This will not be one of my Balzac-esque blog posts. In fact, this is the end. The end of a blog that was an outlet, a confidante, and above all else, a pleasure. Nothing gave me greater joy than when Mom or Kelsey told me that somebody had read my blog. I’m not sure I can communicate how much it meant to me, how much it still means. I would have stopped writing long, long ago, if not for all of you. There is no greater feeling than to realize that you are loved, and fool that I am, I didn’t realize how much all of you meant to me until I left you. If you’ve read one word of one blog entry, you’ve made me happier than you’ll ever know. If you’ve stuck with me through all of the over-long, under-edited schmaltz, than the next round is on me, and the one after that. This was the most remarkable adventure I’ve ever been on, and this has been my chronicle.

Thanks for reading.

        Waldron, out.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Kwa Heri

          Red Smith said that writing was easy. You just sit down at a typewriter, open a vein, and bleed. Here goes.
Nziku walked me back to my house at 10pm on Thursday night. I was leaving at 8am Friday morning. I’d had so many plans when I woke up that morning. I was going to paint a mural, pack, and say goodbye to each and every person that I loved in my village. Yet somewhere in between dawn and dusk, things happened, and life happened, and tasks remained undone. At the end of the day, at the end of two years, I had to accept the things I couldn’t change, the things I didn’t change, and the things that I could change...but only if I was willing to go without sleep. Which I was. I left Nziku at 10, wrote a four-page letter to the next volunteer, then wrote my final journal entry. At that point it was midnight. Nziku was coming back at 6am. The hours in between are a blur. I burned papers, packed bags, repacked bags, and stirred up so much dust that my nose began to resemble a waterfall. I always had more to do, and more to pack, but at some point I just started leaving things, putting them to the side, knowing that they would find a deserving home. It was like abandoning a foreign embassy before a war. 

          I wish I could say that I took some time for introspection...but I didn’t have the time. Also, when you live by yourself and spend at least an hour writing every day, you grow pretty damn tired of the sound of your own thoughts. I was exhausted. I had reached a place beyond feeling, or at least I thought I had. The last few days had been wonderful, but brutally tiring, with my goodbye party, finishing my world map, and running around, trying to say goodbye to an entire community one by one. Some people I got to, some weren’t home, and some wanted to sit for hours. I was fed 5 times in my last day. Each and every one asked me why I wasn’t staying? Didn’t I love it here? Couldn’t I just extend a year, or three? In my head, each time, the answer was the same as Mary Poppins’ answer: “And what would happen to me, may I ask, if I loved all the children I said goodbye to?” But of course she loved all of them, and I loved my villagers. Which meant that I had to tell them that while this life was perfect, it wasn’t mine, it was only borrowed. I’m not sure they understood me. That’s ok. I’m not sure I did either. Eventually, wouldn’t you know it, the sun set again. The day wouldn’t last forever. No matter how far I stretch those 24 hours, in the end they always run out.

          I went over to Nziku’s house one last time, for dinner. I remember when I used to come here, and we would eat, just him and me, with the rest of the family eating outside, as is the custom for a male visitor. I felt weird and bad about the family being exiled because of me, and I told him so. He assured me that it was normal, that nobody was bothered or blamed me. Yet when I kept coming over for dinner, on average once a week, the rules started relaxing. Sometimes his wife would eat with us, sitting on a stool besides the couch. Sometimes the kids would eat in the next room, or maybe in the doorway. But by my last night in the village, we just sat down and ate our ugali as a family. When it was over we talked, trying desperately to find something to say, me explaining the time difference for the umpteen time, just because the kids loved hearing me tell them that while it may be dark here in Idetero, in America it is high noon. I’m not sure they ever believed me. I’m still not sure I believe it myself.

  Nziku and I walked the thirty meters from his door to mine. I looked up at the sky, at the stars, at the Milky Way, at the universe, and wondered at how life could be so big. Then the walk was over, and I went inside my house, said goodnight to Nziku, worked for 8 hours, and then he came back in and said good morning. The candles were all in the same place, just a whole lot shorter. They were the only things still in the same place. The night was over, and now it was Moving Day. The woman who had rented the village my house wanted it back, and wanted it empty. 

          The sky started to lighten, and more of Nziku’s family, my family, arrived at my door. My things started flowing out of my house like blood out of the vein. There went my shelves, and my sheets, and my spices. My bed was dismantled and moved out in pieces. The sky grew bright, just like it had the day before when I was stretching to run, and I wasn’t sure if it was today or yesterday or two years ago. I wanted to see the sun rise for the last time in my village. I went to tell Nziku that I would be right back. By the time I found him, the sun was up. It was over. I looked at my friends running forwards, clearing my house out, erasing me piece by piece, and I wanted to shout, “WAIT! STOP! I’m not ready yet!” But I couldn’t. It was too late. It was over. I wanted to go see Weston before I left, because I remembered my first night in the village, when he came and looked at me and said that we would do great things together. I needed to know if he thought that he had been right. I started to walk up the hill towards his house in a daze. I heard a sound and looked down the hill. The car was already here. I’d expected it around 8. It was 7:40. How many hours had I sat and waited for cars here in Tanzania? How could I get all those hours back and spend them here, in my home, with Nziku and Weston and my family, and have THIS car come back in a year? I called Weston. It didn’t ring. I never saw him. It was over. There wasn’t enough time.

  I looked around. The house was empty now. Kenzie was in the car, already in transit to America, already homeless, looking a dozen times more intact than I felt. She jumped out. Nditu, the charming, painfully punctual driver got out. Everyone seemed to be moving at double-time, rushing me, pushing me out of Idetero, out of my life. Now they were looking at me. My bags were already in the car, and the sun was up, and would be again tomorrow, but I wouldn’t see it, not here, not that way it seemed to be a foot and a half above your head, and then to take all the heat with it at sunset like a lover stealing the blankets. I couldn’t look at any of them. They wanted me to say something, say the right thing, and to get into the car like I had a plan. I didn’t have a plan. It took me two years to believe that the life I was living here was actually real, and now that I believed it, they wanted me to leave it. Couldn’t do it. I grabbed some pig medications that I’d found under my bed during the night, told Nziku I had to give them to Mama Oslo myself, and started running down the hill, away from all of them, leaving them so I didn’t have to leave them. 

  I got to her house, so close to mine. Why didn’t I visit it more? I loved it here. What else was I doing that always made me rush? I called out, “Hodi”, and she said, “Karibu”, and in I went. I gave her the medications awkwardly, embarrassed to be brought here by work, by something undone, rather than my own very real desire to give it all up and stay in this house forever. She took the meds, then held my hands and said that we should pray. So we prayed. She is an Assemblist of God. I have been lucky enough to go to church with her, and it’s just...different. There is speaking in tongues, and yelling, and a fervent, passionate form of prayer, as if each person’s individual salvation or damnation hinges on the intensity of their supplication. It was no different today. She began to pray, for me. She prayed for God to watch over me and give me strength and protect me on the journey I was about to embark on, but more, to protect me on the journey of life. She prayed for me, her voice rising in volume and deepening in tone, and I closed my eyes and listened. The house seemed to grow larger, and the two of us smaller. Her voice sped up, and I found myself wondering, not for the first or the twelfth time: what do I believe in? Their church, and its rules and ways, that I can’t, or won’t, get behind. But their faith, their burning, wild desire to believe in a greater, benevolent something, that I can’t shake. The faith is real, and when somebody chooses to exercise it on your’s incredibly powerful. Mama Oslo, Lusia Kalinga, prayed on, in time to a rhythm that I couldn’t hear, praying for my soul, praying for me to be happy. Through tightly-closed eyes, I began to cry. 

  I left the village maybe ten minutes later, hanging out of the window, waving goodbye to a people and a place and a time, waving myself goodbye, the part of me that wasn’t leaving, that would never leave, that could never leave. The final goodbyes were too short and too awful and didn’t convey a fraction of my gratitude and my love...but hopefully, they didn’t have to. If I had truly done my job here, then everyone knew already. The car pulled away, into the sunrise, and I had just enough time to whisper a goodbye to the Lollipop Tree...and then it was well and truly over.

          I came to Idetero two years ago, frightened to my core about doing a job I didn’t understand in a place I’d never lived. I was smarter then, when I knew less. I wanted to change things. Now I want them to stay the same. There is a horrible cycle of poverty and paternalism that started in this part of the world long before I came to it, and will continue long after I’ve left, and I didn’t change that. But as I lived here and grew here, I began to believe that the true tragedy is the utter lack of a cultural self-confidence. These people truly believe that I’m better than they are. And if I’ve accomplished anything in two years here, it might be reducing that sense of inferiority, maybe, just a little. By dancing the Dua (the Hehe tribal dance) with them, by carrying water, by making them laugh and laughing with them, by sitting around at the end of the day and doing nothing, together. I’ve written in this blog so many times about how we’re not so different, and also how different we actually are. Both are true. We are unfamiliar equals. And I can’t live with all of you, and all of them. I can’t bring my two worlds together. I can’t even bring myself together. I’ve broken my heart, broken it right in two and left half of it here.

          But no matter how much it hurts right now, I’ve loved every second of my life here, even when I was frustrated and mad and lonely. I won’t trade it for anything, and god willing, I won’t forget a moment of it. This is my life, and I’ve lived the shit out of it, and this is the greatest thing I’ve done with it so far, and it’s over. For all I did wrong or failed to do or couldn’t do, I’m sorry. For all that we were able to do together, I’ll never be able to say thank you enough. I love this village. I love all of the people in it. There’s only one thing left to say.

          Kwa Heri. Goodbye.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

July 6, 2012

4:20 AM Awoke, in the dark, at the New Paris Guest House in Makambako. The power is out. This means no shower. Good start to the day.
4:50 Waiting outside by the Sunrise Guest House (hostels are often given spectacular names by people who don’t speak English. The Flamingo is a personal favorite.) I put the wind-chill at about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m not dressed for the moment.
5:15 Picked up by our rented coaster (a mini-bus, holds about 35), already half hour late.
5:50 Arrive in Idetero, where I live. My fellow chaperones are waiting, with half of the 30 expected students. Here we go.
6:21 Finally set out, sadly short 2 students. Don’t know what the problem was, but we have far to go and can’t wait any longer. We are two minutes into the trip, and I’m disappointed :(
6:42 The first child vomits. For many of the students on this trip, this is their first time in a car of any kind. Strange landscapes are flashing by, the trees are running backwards, and it’s more than a little disorienting.
6:57 We see the actual sunrise, not the guest house, as we approach Mafinga
7:02 Arrive in Mafinga, or as I like to call it, the Paris of East Africa. The record should show that I am the only one who likes to call it that.
7:04 Biskuti time. Biskuti are essentially Animal Crackers, if they were drained of any nutritional value. They are bland, soul-less, teeth-rotting snack food. My kids, and I, love them.
7:11 We add a theoretical child. The driver of the bus is aware that we set out 2 kids short, and asks if his kid, who lives in a village on the way, can tag along. I ponder. I agree.
7:14 A random guy from the District Education Office decides to hop a ride with us, along with his son. The principal of my school agrees before I can say no.
7:15 We leave Mafinga with me annoyed
7:29 As we drive by, I show all of the kids the house that my counterpart is building. They are agog. They haven’t yet hit the age where teachers become real people.
7:31 We hit our first police checkpoint. Undoubtedly some money changes hands. We move along.
8:01 2nd child begins to vomit. They are cared for.
8:12 The theoretical child that I had previously agreed to becomes an actual child. His name is Ben.
8:15 Second police checkpoint. They wear long white lab coats.
8:18 We reach our first road-work stop. The highway between Iringa and Mafinga is being refurbished. Road work here is a massive undertaking, and there’s a fair amount of illegality involved. On the plus side, I buy two amazing roadside sambusas.
8:33 We pass through on the road construction, and since most of the road is already paved and the traffic is only going one way, our driver decides to play slalom with the traffic cones. He apparently has not noticed the vomiting.
8:34 We pass by an oil-tanker truck. There are goats standing on top of it. The day goes on.
8:40 Second road-work stop. I long, not for the first time, to be living in an age of teleportation.
8:52 A commercial comes on the radio about primary school teachers and parents who help their kids cheat to pass the national exams. I share a look with my counterpart. The principal of our school is alleged to have participated in similar chicanery. If the lions come after us, I’m voting him to be eaten first.
9:08 We hit the first speed bump on the road up to Iringa. There are 14.
9:13 We hit the last speed bump
9:15 We go into a dead end in Iringa, trying to look for breakfast.
9:17 We pull off a successful retreat from the dead end.
9:19 We get off and stop for breakfast, or as its called here, chai. Dan forgets notebook. Nothing too special happened. We turned down one breakfast nook, and then the proprietor stalks after me, holding the chapatti she had cooked for us. I pay her hush money and take the chapatti.
10:18 Dan recovers notebook, and we are back on the road.
10:25 Third police checkpoint. The conductor (that’s what we call him) of the bus gets out. Then so does the driver. This can’t be good.
10:45 We finally leave the third checkpoint, with me fuming. There’s a huge problem in Tanzania with people taking justice into their own hands (i.e. killing thieves the moment they are caught), because nobody trusts the police to not let criminals go for a price. I understand the reasoning.
10:49 The kids are too quiet. I fear a coup.
10:53 We reach the end of the paved road. About 70 dusty miles still to go, and go slowly.
11:00 We stop to chimba dawa. The literal translation is “dig medicine”. We use it when we go to the bathroom. I’ve lived here 2 years. Still don’t get it.
11:11 Do we have a flat tire?
11:12 No, we don’t.
11:30 The road turns into a washboard. Some of us start making noises and listen to our voices rattle.
11:46 Third child vomits. This is becoming a problem.
11:59 The unwanted guests from the District get out. I was stoic when we said farewell. No tears.
12:15 More washboard road. These coasters are made of aluminum and fiberglass. You could break one with a good baseball bat. I hear myself saying to Kenzie, “Don’t worry, she’ll hold together.” Then I hear myself between my ears, saying, “Hear me baby, hold together.”
12:28 I try to nap.
12:39 I give up.
12:52 I am determined to drive on. There are about five kids in various stages of vomiting or recovery. Kenzie persuades me to take a break under a tree where some village child is selling sugar cane. She’s right. We stop, give the sick ones water and a little food, and stretch.
1:08 Back on the bus!
1:38 We arrive in beautiful Tungamalenga, which is where we will be eating and sleeping for the next 24 hours or so.
1:56 Our pre-arranged cook has all of the food ready, and there’s enough of it, and it’s at the price we previously agreed to. This has never happen. I kiss her on the mouth. Then fight her husband. He wins. We eat!
2:15 I finish my pilau (tasty spiced rice) and beans in about 2 minutes. The people who don’t eat like industrial cleaning appliances are still going. I can’t sit still. I decide to walk to our campground to let them know that we are here, even though we won’t be showing up there till about 9 at night.
2:33 The rest of the group finishes eating, and under Kenzie’s guidance, boards the bus and leaves to go towards the park.
2:43 The group picks me up by the side of the road. From here till the park, there are no houses, no nothing. Just the possibility of animals. I promise a celebratory cheer for the first one to spot game.
2:51 The tension builds.
2:57 It becomes unbearable.
3:00 10 hours, 40 minutes, and about 200 miles from when and where I woke up…we see Elephants!!!
3:01 I send a text message to my future wife and current mother, two of the biggest masterminds of this hare-brained scheme, letting them know that they had made it happen.
3:02 Kenzie, as the spotter, receives her “pasha” that literally means to warm up. It actually means we clap for somebody.
3:11 We drive through the entrance arch. I’m reminded of Jurassic Park…and then hope that doesn’t prove prophetic.
3:19 I get us a permit, and we are allowed into the park.
3:28 We take a group picture, lest my fiancée get mad at yours truly.
3:31 We enter the park.
3:33 As has happened more and more often over the last year, I realize that I am living out of one of the greatest days of my life. I look out the window, and I cry a little bit.
3:51 We reach the bridge over the mighty Ruaha. Below, there are hippos! The kids don’t believe me that they are actually huge creatures. All they see are the heads.
4:16 I spot giraffes off the starboard side! They are long-necked, with flirty eyelashes, and my kids go crazy for them.
4:32 We pick up a guide at the park HQ.
4:47 There are zebras to one side, elephants to another, giraffe off in the distance, and impalas everywhere. This is beginning to feel suspiciously like a success.
5:02 The guide opens things up to questions. My students start interrogating him, which questions basically equivalent to, “if a hippo and a giraffe and an elephant could fly, who would win in a race?” He’s a good sport, and always pivots to the educational point.
5:34 Do we have a flat tire?
5:36 They tell me we do not.
6:25 The sun, which rose on us in Mafinga 12 hours and a lifetime ago, sets behind the dried-out grasslands of Ruaha.
6:27 We drop off the guide, with only a half hour to make it back to the gate before it closes. I didn’t write too much in the last two hours. Trust me when I tell you, it was unbelievable.
6:33 The driver is flying on the dirt road to get back to the gate. We had 33 minutes. It took us about 40 going out. I think he may be afraid of sleeping near lions.
6:57 Gate! 3 minutes to spare. Some of my kids wanted to go to the bathroom. I told them to hold it till the gate. One hops out when we pull up, then hikes up her skirt and pees next to the bus. Little more gender equality here when it comes to public urination.
7:04 We leave the gate, after the rest of the students make use of the indoor facilities.
7:40 Back in Tungamalenga, we eat a delicious, well-deserved, well-prepared meal. The ones who were sick, who didn’t eat lunch, devour their food like there’s a bomb at the bottom of the rice. I wander out into the night to buy more water. It’s hot and it’s beautiful and there are stars everywhere. Makambako, with its bitter wind, feels very far away.
8:00 Fatigue abruptly settles in. I need a bed.
8:36 The kids get back onto the bus, giggling. Some of them are as old as 14. I begin to worry about late night rendezvous…
9:05 We arrive at the campsite, where the workers waited up for us. No electricity, but enough flashlights.
9:12 I have a short, quiet talk with the kids, thank them for not being unbearable, and congratulate them. We split them up into tent groups.
9:16 We have to show them how to use tents.
9:33 Kenzie and I see a group of Americans, who are here doing research, playing a late night game of hearts. We sit down with them and slowly begin to unwind.
9:51 The owner, who I suspect of being involved in organized crime and who I really like. He was at a funeral, which explains the distant drums. I pay him about $500 for the rooms…in the equivalent of $6.5 bills. This is a lot of bills.
10:14 Kenzie knows where our tent is. She can’t find it. We’re wandering in the dark, but the moon is close to full, and is up, and is gorgeous. I do wonder about how far lions stray from the park.
10:18 We find the tent.
10:25 After a four-minute struggle with the zipper, we get it closed with us inside. I immediately want to go to the bathroom.
10:34 As you can do only when you’re satisfied and exhausted, I fall asleep two minutes before I’m in the bed. African drums are playing in the distance, mourning a soul gone we know not where, and the moonlight is bright enough to read by. There’s enough time for me to realize that all days are not created equal, and that this was one of the special ones. And then, poof, my lights are out.

The next day was no less of a success. But getting home holds less uncertainty: you know the road, you know the obstacles. Sure, when I awoke I found out that we had blown a tire the day before, and had to put in the spare…which meant about 5 hours of driving on dirt roads with no spare…which was nerve-wracking. We got into the park, saw kudu, warthogs, waterbucks, mongooses, elephants, giraffe, hippos, and crocodiles. To my students’ disappointment, and mine, we saw no lions. They often hang out off the road, our guide said, and with our big bus we couldn’t go bush-whacking. Something for the next volunteer to rectify, I guess. On our way out of the park we stopped by the hippo pool. I climbed over a rock to check out another site for hippos, and when I got back, half my students were gone. Turns out my counterpart was having them gather elephant dung to use in traditional remedies. I was displeased, to put it mildly. But we took a group picture, watched a croc glide gracefully towards us in the water…and we left.

There’s a way you turn your brain off on long bus rides here. Sometimes it means a nap, sometimes just a catatonic state where you wait for the bumping to stop. That’s where I was about halfway back, when my kids started to sing. All different songs, all different melodies, just kids singing in the back of a bus after a long, successful trip. I felt, all of a sudden, like I was in high school again, in the back of a dark bus somewhere on 390. I wish I could have piped their singing back home, for all of you to hear, all of you that made this trip possible. It sounded like victory. It sounded like joy. Thank you all, and congratulations.

You did it.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Way It All Goes Round

             I sat down to write this blog at about 8:30pm. Computer nights are luxury nights in the village. I usually buy a soda, cook something on which I can pour my precious ketchup, and carve out a tiny corner of America. That night I was planning on watching The Untouchables, which I had never seen, and then writing this blog afterwards. I got exactly 17 minutes into the movie (right when Sean Connery makes his appearance…has any other actor played so many nationalities without switching accents?), when the phone rang. It only rang once, which means that the person in the village who was calling me either A. had no money on his/her phone (we do pre-paid voucher here) or B. just wanted me to pay for the phone call. I’m guessing B, but we’ll keep that to ourselves. I picked up the phone, knowing that there are about 3 people in the village who warrant a call-back at my expense after 8pm. The name that came up, sadly, was one of them. My dear friend Mama Beni, who was so instrumental in making our pig project happen. What is she calling me about? As fate should have it, she’s calling about the pig.

            He has escaped.

            There was a time when the starlit adventure that I am about to embark on would have scared me, excited me, made me question my return. I just wish it was warmer. It’s about 20 Fahrenheit out, and it is windy. I throw on 3 layers up top, wool socks, and my warm red cap. I know that we are going to exhaust ourselves chasing a pig through a corn field. We are either going to A. get him back in his pen, B. lose him in the dark and wait for him to return, or C. watch him get hit by a car and eat porkchops tomorrow. Only a question of how long it will take, and how ridiculous it will get. To keep matters short: it took an hour, got pretty ridiculous, and the outcome was A. So that’s good.

            There was a time when I would stop to ponder in the middle of the darkened cornfield, or reflect while I was sprinting dead-out down the road after the swine: how is it that I have arrived here? What twists and turns have me chasing this boar (whose name is Wilbur) through the night? But after the first year you stop asking these questions...because the answer, of course, is: “you asked to be here.” Now my focus is on the pig. How quickly can we get him back in there? How soon can I get back to Eliot Ness and Capone? How will I catch this pig? He is agile, he is spry. I must think like the pig. I must become the pig (there are those who would claim I did this long ago). Eventually a passing guy helps corner him, grab a leg, fasten a rope, and lift His Porkiness into his pen. All in the line of duty. What is a quiet evening without a little pig-wrangling? Too quiet, that’s what. On to the blog that I originally planned on writing.

            A few words about the mazingira (environment) in which I live. It is a windy village, with gentle, undulating hills. This time of year it is especially windy, and the corn and grasses, which have long since dried out to a light blond, wave and slow and stop and blow, like a tide of gold coming and going. There are many, many houses here. A lot of them are newer, built with wood-fired bricks, tin roofs, and if life has been good, cement walls. Those are all lived in, or will be soon (some are built by villagers who live in town, as pseudo-retirement homes). Then there are huts built with hard mud walls and thatch roofs, which seem to grow out of the ground like someone planted little house seeds. These have been around forever (very few of the younger generations know how to make them anymore), and if you go inside, the walls and thatch roofs are a shiny, cancerous black, a testament to years of indoor wood fires. Scattered amid these brick and mud houses are decaying wrecks of abandoned mud houses, some very long in the decaying. The old mud huts fade slowly, their walls returning unto dust, as slow as death and as sure as taxes.

            Connecting all these houses is a network of roads, paths, trails, and lines of trampled grass which would seem to indicate that someone, sometime, had thought this was the right way to go to...somewhere. I walk these paths every day. Some are big enough for a car to pass, some are paths for grazing cows, most can accommodate a bicycle or two, and some are so thin you can’t fit both your feet in them side by side. Many cross streams: a few with bridges, a couple with a useful jumping stone, and most requiring the removal of footwear. I’ve seen paths that lead nowhere, that vanish behind a tree or down a rabbit hole. I have walked on paths that twist and turn in the middle of an open field, avoiding something long since vanished. I wonder who made them: who was the first person to go from point A to point B? Do they know why the paths turn? Were there bees right here, or a curmudgeonly snake over there? I know dozens of paths in my village, maybe even a few hundred. Yet my friends here know them all. Each and every one. They know the paths like they know the people; they grew up with them, they’ve seen them age. They connect us all; they keep us sane. The paths have become old friends of mine. I care less where they lead than I once did. Now I remember when I met them, I remember all the sunsets I’ve seen on them, all the jokes I’ve told and laughed at on them. I don’t mind so much where they go, I’m just glad that they are still going. And from time to time I think about how much I’ll miss them.

            It’s the same with the trees. There are all manner of trees in my village: ones that belong, whose seeds and genes are as much a part of this place as the dirt, and ones that were brought here, like pine, bamboo, and eucalyptus. The eucalyptus are my favorite. Oh, don’t get me wrong. The damn things are unkillable, like vampires. But they’re pretty vampires. They grow straight and tall, towering above the local trees which are twisted, and short, growing horizontally and in spirals. The eucalyptus have long, dark green leaves that are shaped like scimitars. If you crack the leaves open, they smell like clean windows and freshly washed floors. But my favorite part is that if you stand by a tall eucalyptus tree when a strong wind blows, which it very often does, it sounds like you’re standing by the dunes, with the ocean just over the horizon. I close my eyes and I’m back at the beach.

            The next part might sound weird. Or perhaps...just actually is weird, and to me it sounds normal. But like the paths, I’ve come to like a few trees more than others. They have shapes, they have personalities. Do some of them have names? I cannot tell a lie (sure I can, but I’m not). There’s the Sailboat Tree, a eucalyptus which stands outside my house, slanted and sailing south like a clipper, pointing me home (and which, every time I walk uphill to my house, I wonder...if it fell over, would it hit my house, or fall just short into the yard?) Then there is the Engagement Tree. You’ve heard of that one, I believe. There is also the Lollipop Tree, a personal favorite. From almost anywhere in my village I can turn and find The Lollipop Tree. It stands by itself atop a very tall, very long hill. The top of the hill, and therefore the tree, is exactly 5 kilometers from my house, so I often run to it, then back. The hill is almost a kilometer long, and it’s steep, and it’s grueling. But waiting for me at the top, every time, is an old leafy friend. Each time I make it up alive, I say a little thanks to The Lollipop Tree. Last, but not least, there is The Swinging Tree. It stood by the main dirt road connecting my village to other villages further inland, not far from the soccer field. It is aged, and it is huge, with limbs so old and tired that they’ve curved back towards earth. One evening I was walking down to the soccer field, and saw a little girl holding a bent-back branch. She suddenly ran forward and threw herself into the air, and swung up and down and up and down from the tree, giggling like crazy. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything that simple and beautiful.

            Here’s the problem when you fall in love with trees that are planted for timber: they get cut down. A few months ago they re-graded the dirt road running by the Swinging Tree. I took a walk down that evening...and the tree was gone. I shouldn’t have been upset; that’s what the tree was planted for, to be cut down. I shouldn’t have been upset, and yet there I was, like I’d just lost a friend. But, as I said, eucalyptus trees are vampires. So sure as the sun comes up in the east, next fall, once the rains come, that dead, felled stump will throw up another shooter. In ten or twenty years, that little girl’s daughter will have her very own tree to swing on. And then it will be cut down again...and that’s the way it all goes round, I guess.

            Those are the things that I met here. But there are also the things that I brought here with me, or were sent by loved ones, or that I bought here. And sometimes I stop and look at them, and think about the paths they’ve traveled, and the ways that they have become important to me.

            My computer: bought in the West Village in 2008, on a sunny day with me and my mother. It’s served me well; had a bunch of broken thoughts punched into it and never laughed at any of them. It’s been my own private movie theater, my jukebox, and a couple of blessed nights, my way of seeing all your faces. Skype is a hell of a thing.

            My coffee: grown in Kenya, bought in America...and shipped right back to East Africa. What kind of story would it tell?

            There’s the pullover I’m wearing now, which I got for Christmas over ten years ago from my aunt and uncle and cousins. I remember putting it on in their house in New Jersey. It’s kept me warm for so long and in so many apartments, on so many different nights, and now in a couple different continents. Could they have known when they got it how long it would last, how warm it would keep me?

            My pots: bought in nearby Makambako for a dollar or two a piece, that have been the instruments of failure and success, that have seen me burn rice and bake delicious cornbread (sorry for the immodesty...but I make a mean cornbread). They are the tools of that wonderful alchemy that I’ve discovered here. People call it cooking.

            My leatherman: weighing down my right pocket every day next to my inhaler and my keys. I’ve used it to butcher goat meat, peel a few hundred oranges, open a countless number of sodas (by far its most common use), fix a number of village wells, and, oh yeah, carve an engagement ring.

            My iPod, the bearer of news and music and calm, which comes via my sister. It was given to her in Christmas of 2004, and still works beautifully to this day. It also has the added blessing of her name engraved on the back, reminding me daily that my past life wasn’t something I made up, it was real.

            My potato peeler, bought by my beautiful fiancee, which has prepared more potatoes, carrots, and ginger than I would have thought possible, and has sliced some skin off of most of fingers at some point or another.

This is the world I live in, and these are the things I carry. For whatever drama I occasionally detail, for all the pig-wrangling and fire-fighting, it’s mostly pretty quiet. I don’t dodge bullets and I don’t save lives. I live here, amidst and among some pretty awesome characters. It’s beautiful, and it’s simple, and sometimes, when I stand atop a tall hill while the sun is beginning to set, I can see forever. 

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Where Do You Go?

              I have survived another year on earth, in no small part because of all of you people! The birthday was crazy. Woke up and ran 8K for my last warm-up before the Half Marathon on Saturday. Went into The Finger (also known as Mafinga), met with some district officials, picked up the most beautiful piece of clothing any of you will ever see (go to facebook for photos). Came back to the village, transferred about 40 fruit-tree seedlings (mango and avocado) with my Environmental Club, had them sing Happy Birthday to me, then got on a 3-hour coaster ride to Iringa, during which I thought about aging, Africa, and aardvarks (it was very alliterative). Got to Iringa, was greeted by Kenzie, Tala, Stephanie, and a birthday cake! My friends are rather amazing. Went back to a friend’s house, watched the Avengers (I give it a B, maybe B+), and another birthday drifted off into the past. Which is fine, because the real party was on Saturday, at the First Annual Ruaha Half Marathon.

            We were supposed to start the race (13.1 miles, or 21 kilometers) at 9am. It is winter right now in East Africa, and at night we are really struggling (gets down to about 25 Fahrenheit, with no insulation. Four blanket evenings are not uncommon). But we’re still at the equator, and by 11am the sun is about a foot and a half above our heads. Not good running conditions. Why wasn’t the race started at a more reasonable hour, say 7am? Sijui (I dunno). Maybe so the Mgeni Rasmi (Honored Guest) could get in his/her teatime. So the race was to start at 9am. At 9am the race had not started, and the shadows grew shorter. At a quarter after our Honored Guest had not arrived, but the natives were growing restless, so they found a substitute Honored Guest, who made a short speech, which was uniformly ignored, and then they fired off the gun.

            For the whole first quarter of the race, Tanzanians stood by the side of the road, looking at this strange group of people that appeared to be fleeing some as-yet-unseen disaster. They commented upon it, to themselves and to us. There comments were not, on the whole, as encouraging as they might have been. A sample, translated for your benefit, of the motivational sentiments directed at your boy:

            “Huyu ameshachoka” (This guy is already tired (this was at Kilometer 2))
            “Hawezi huyu” (He’s got no chance)
            “Hatarudi” (He ain’t coming back)
            “Bwana! Unajua unakwenda Kalenga? Ni mbali!” (Mister! You know you are going to Kalenga (the halfway mark)? It’s far!)
            “Utashindwa” (You’re going to lose)

            ‘Win one for the Gipper’ it was not. But as I have mentioned in this blog before, Tanzanians don’t tend to believe until they have seen. In their defense, I didn’t look so hot. From the first minute my legs felt like they’d already run a marathon. I don’t know if it was stress, I don’t know if I ran too much in the week leading up, but my legs were dead from the get-go. Tried to keep up with my friend Eric, but he was flyin, and so I threw in my headphones and just started grinding. The way out was just hell. The terrain was actually not bad: it was all downhill. The race started with a gradual 2K incline, then we passed the eventual finish line, and started a long and winding 4K descent. I was being passed, by friends and strangers, and it was hot, and I was tired, and there was a lot of race to go. The scenery was beautiful. Screw the scenery. My friends started passing me, going back the other way. I felt slow, and stupid, and tired.

            Finally reached the turn, knowing that I still had the hotter half of the race ahead of me, and that it was all uphill. I grabbed a bottle of water, and turned around, and saw that my good friend Natalie was only a hundred feet or so behind me. She caught up, and we started the second half together. Thank god for friends. Since the second day I arrived in Tanzania, until now, 700 days later, I have run with a rogue’s gallery of different Peace Corps Volunteers. But I have run more miles side-by-side with Natalie than any of them. She’s relentless, both in her pace and in her optimism, and that is a hell of a thing in a running buddy, not to mention a friend. We didn’t move any faster than I had been going before, but things go by much quicker when you have someone to share them with. We talked sports and Tanzania. We laughed at the toothless mzee (elder) who asked us for a pipi (candy), and swerved together to avoid the truck that almost ran us off the road. We saw our friend Eric running ahead of us, one minute flagging, the next pulled forward by a bunch of small children who were overjoyed to run with an mzungu (white guy). And we saw all of that together. In the wonderful, informative, and amazing book “Born to Run”, Christopher McDougall writes about how all of the great runners in history were legendarily empathetic; that they cared less if they crossed the finish line than that their comrades also made it. And with 5 kilometers of umoja (one-ness), my amazing friend Natalie had picked me up off the road, and given me back my wind. We were nearing the base of the same long hill that I’d stumbled down an hour ago, and were about a hundred yards behind Eric, and I felt like I’d just woken up. I looked over at Nat and asked her if she would mind if I pushed it a little. She smiled, and said not at all. 

            I caught up with Eric, who is twice as athletic as I am on his worst day. As I pulled up alongside, he told me that he was dying. I told him, “not yet, you’re not”. And he wasn’t. We came upon a bus stop, which had a number of stores and customers and children scattered about, taking a sidelong interest we exhausted trotters. Tanzanians might not be too supportive of random unresponsive runners, but I know my people. As we passed by the crowd, I shouted out: “Pigeni Makofi Jamani! Tusaidie!” (Clap your hands! Help us out! (This is less ridiculous to shout out than it sounds...though given how white I am, and how much in Africa we were...still pretty ridiculous)). And they did. First they laughed, then they clapped, and then they cheered. Eric and I each got handed a half liter of water (our last water point), and I looked over at my man, and he didn’t look like he was gonna die any time soon. Drained my last half liter of water, and started up the hill. Because what goes down must come back up, if it wants to get back where it belongs.

            On Saturday morning, I had found a faded black marker, and written on my hand the letters: WDYG. It’s a reference to one of my favorite book series as a child, The Guardians of the Flame. It stands for: Where Do You Go. As in: where do you go to give up? As I started up that hill, I looked at my hand, at the shadowy remnants of the letters that sweat and sun and 9 long miles had mostly burned away. I didn’t come this far to stop now. I didn’t live two years without my mother, my father, my sister, a lifetime’s worth of amazing friends, and the love of my life, just to give in and give up on the side of some piddly African hill that wishes it was a mountain. A grin spread across my face and I took a look around me, at the beautiful place I’ve been blessed to live in, at the amazing life I've led that brought me to this place, and I started up that hill like I’d been shot out of a cannon.

Up and up and up I went, getting closer, going faster. Now I was passing other runners. Now I was setting the pace. At one of the switchbacks I turned the corner and saw a mob of children, looking at me. I shouted “Twende!” (Let’s Go!), and they started sprinting with me, pushing me, crowding me, each one wanting an acknowledgement, a fist bump. They all got them. When they fell behind me, I was already atop the hill. At kilometer 19 I was fresher than I was when I woke up that morning. At kilometer 20 I was sprinting. One Tanzanian runner and I spent the last kilometer pushing each other, first him surging forward, then me. Down the stretch we came, and I saw my friend TJ standing by the side of the road, hand extended, cheering for me. I slapped his hand and kicked it to the tape, my newfound Tanzanian friend turned on his jets, and the crowd saw the two of us fighting for it and began to scream. We both crossed the finish line at 1:47, about forty minutes behind the victors, yet both of us were grinning like we’d just won gold. 

Sports are funny things. It’s hard to think of something less significant than me running up a hill. Doesn’t change anything, doesn’t help anything. And on any other day, that would be it. But sports can be transcendent, if we are willing to invest ourselves in them. They can reduce us to tears or intoxicate us with joy; they can stand for things larger than themselves: pride, faith, the aspirations of cities, states, and nations. Sports become as powerful and meaningful as they are made to become. So if I choose to make my 21K run a referendum on my worth as a human, that’s what it becomes. Thank God I finished.
Peace Corps had itself a good day on Saturday. We had the first non-African to cross the finish line, seven people make it in under two hours, and the 2nd and 3rd place women runners (my friend Natalie took 3rd!). So how do such speedy people relax? With ice-cold Kilimanjaro Lagers at the finish line. Don’t judge. We then got some lunch, took naps, and proceeded to dress up, make merry, and dance the night away. 

I don’t know where I’m going in my life. I know the next few months are going to tear me away from and reunite me with people that I love. Somedays I can barely sleep, and when I do I wake up exhausted, my mind buzzing with uncertainty and indecision. But for an hour and forty-seven minutes, none of that mattered. I didn’t win. I didn’t even come close. But I finished a long, hot race with a full-out sprint and a smile on my face. Was it meaningless? Absolutely. But was it also incredibly important? Absolutely.

Where do you go to give up?

Not Africa.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dollars and Days

In East Africa, there is a country. It is called Tanzania. And in Tanzania there is a city. It is called Dar Es Salaam (which incidentally means Harbour of Peace). And in that city there is a shopping mall. It is called The Third Ring of Hell. Or it should be. And this is where our hero finds himself, waiting. Waiting for the camera repair guy to show up. Our man got up early, with his act together. Found a new and frightening bus stand, got on the right bus, got off at the right stop (I know, these are rather minor accomplishments. But it’s a city of 8 million people (only 3 million officially, but good luck counting), and there are no road signs. You try it). Was at the mall by 8:45 on Monday morning. Of course, the store wasn’t open. Would not be open, in point of fact, until 11, this despite repeated reassurances from each and every passerby that the proprietor was “njiani” (on the way) or that the would “fika sasa hivi” (arrive right now). But he wasn’t, and he didn’t. So I waited, fumed, read “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” (...all my masculine books are finished. So it’s getting a little “Bridges of Madison County”-ish these days), listened to the Muzak version of “Kiss from a Rose” (I hate you, Seal), and wondered what I had done to deserve this. Long story short, this was my two hour and fifteen minute window into the modern world. Things looked dark. Except when they looked bleak. My days in the simpler life are numbered.

I was in Dar for a week for my Close of Service (COS) Conference. It’s always weird going to Dar, because I get into a bus in the middle of a rural African village, stuck in a seemingly endless struggle to pull itself out of poverty, and at the end of the day I’m standing in a supermarket, wondering if I got into a bus or a time machine. But the US government doesn’t really care about my delicate sensibilities, so the COS was in Dar. Which all in all ain’t so bad. A week in the sun, with my original group of volunteers, where we got information on how to retire as Peace Corps Volunteers, find jobs, and readjust to American life (which apparently involves weeping in front of tomato soup cans). There was a lot of dancing, a bunch of midnight pool parties, some rough mornings, and a fantastic awards show called The Tanzos. Awards given out included “Best Hair” (she thanked her parents), “Closet Genius” (she thanked Nietzsche), and “Greatest Poop Story” (Not sure who she thanked. Those stories tend to accumulate when you combine foreign food and a paucity of toilets). I received the award for “Greatest Tanzo Award Acceptance Speech”. No pressure.

I’ll spare you the run-up and just hit the highlights. “I look at all of you tonight, and I know I’m looking at all of the people that I will one day meet hell.” I proudly and publicly announced my engagement to Stephen DiOrio (once you’ll meet him, you’ll understand my choice). And I talked about how I’m not sure I can believe in governments, or in organizations, anymore. Even Peace Corps. How all of these things succeed or fail because people make them succeed or fail. And that is what I will miss: the people. I won’t look back fondly on Peace Corps the bureaucracy: the forms, the dates, the flash drives. I’ll remember the volunteers, the staff, the villagers, my friends. My closing lines were: “I don’t miss America. I miss Americans. I will not miss Tanzania. I will miss Tanzanians. And I will not miss the United States Peace Corps. I will miss all of you.” 

On with the blog.

The woman running the conference was truly wonderful (not least in that she put up with us. What we lack in manners and calm we make up for in volume). We talked about resumes, RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) networks, interviewing, reverse culture shock, and a lot more. But I was really truly grateful that she shared with us some rather personal aspects of her life as a PCV, her work after Peace Corps in Haiti and Africa, and life as an American living overseas. Many of her stories are wonderful, and made me want to…well, to stay. But one of them struck me, and stuck with me. She was talking about a relative of hers who is always wondering when she and her husband (who is also an RPCV) will stop playing around in Africa and come home. How when he thinks of Africa he just thinks of naked children with distended bellies, crying in front of a camera, surrounded by flies, waiting for your dollar a day.

I guess congratulations are owed to all of you. If any of you felt like this, either when I began this journey or at any point along the way, you have been wise enough not to share said feelings with me. In a lot of ways the purpose of this blog is to make it clear that Africa isn’t about poverty (though poverty exists), or charity (though that is helpful, if done properly), or development work. It is about life and nature and belief and beauty. There are talented people and beautiful people and awful people and lost people. Which makes it different from...nowhere. The difference, I guess, is history. But that’s not my point either. I don’t think you need me to show you how different we can be. There are plenty of people making that point (though fewer and fewer every year, I hope. I wish). I wanted to show how all the things we know and treasure and value exist here as well, just in different packages. I’m not making sense...

...let’s try a metaphor! The kids in my village do a really fun thing. When I show up at a house, particularly if it’s the first few times I’ve been there, the little children will all scurry away around back (I am, in case you’ve forgotten, pretty horrifying). But if I stay long enough, they’ll start to peak their heads around the edge of the house, to have a good look at the scary pale giant. From time to time I’ll catch them looking, and just look back, frankly, into their eyes. The shyer ones turn and flee, but the braver ones will return my stare for a few seconds. Then the game gets too hairy, my eyes get too scary, and they pull their little heads back, just enough so that the wall once again blocks out the sight of me. Once they’re assured that they won’t be turned to stone, they peak back out, and the game resumes. I love that so much, that ability as a child to make something vanish and truly believe that it’s vanished; to be able to close your eyes and make the world go away.

I can’t do that any more, not even if I wanted to. And that’s good. I’m an adult, and I live in a varied and scary world that needs people to confront its problems, not pretend they don’t exist. The Third Goal of Peace Corps is “Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” That’s what this blog is. It’s one small piece of tape holding eyelids open, or perhaps less shit-eatingly, it’s a flashlight pointed at a part of the world that might otherwise remain unseen. But I suspect, in my heart, that all of you already knew all of this. My students are going to make it to Ruaha. They aren’t standing in the desert with their mouths open and bellies bulging. They are fun, and devilishly clever, and they like to run with me when I’m out for a jog. They are not charity cases, but they also do not have much, and they live tantalizingly close to breathtaking animals that they might never see. But now they will. They are going to see some animals. And it is all because of people who didn’t close their eyes, who cared, and who helped make a small, important difference. It’s all because of you.


Saturday, April 28, 2012


Thursday was Union Day. 48 years ago, Tanganyika (which is what continental Tanzania used to be known as) and Zanzibar united, to form Tanzania. Sort of a geo-political version of Bennifer and Brangelina. To celebrate Union Day (which I hope you all did in your own special way), Kenzie and I went to the regional Union Day celebration, which was conveniently nearby, at our local secondary school (which is two villages away). All the bigwigs and smallwigs were there, from Iringa Region, from the district, from the county, from the ward, from each of the villages, and probably from some other level of government that I’ve forgotten to mention. Also there were children from at least 6 different schools, both primary and secondary. They sang, they danced, and were by far my favorite part of the day (more about them later).

After the party had been officially started (every Tanzanian meeting and party has to be officially opened, like courtroom proceedings), it was time for introductions. There were perhaps a 1,000 people at the party, if not more. Well over a hundred were introduced by the Master of Ceremonies. It took some time. When you are introduced, you are expected to stand, wave, and say something followed by “Hoye!”, to which the crowd responds, “Hoye!”. For example you could say, “Muungano Hoye!” (Yeah Union Day!) and the crowd would respond, “Hoye!” (Yeah!) You could also go with “Tanzania Hoye!” (Yeah Tanzania!), “Elimu Hoye!” (Yeah Education!), or “Wafupi Hoye!” (Yeah Short People!). Any of those would get an enthusiastic “Hoye!” in response (the last one might not stir the hearts of the taller folk in the crowd, but give it a shot). Back to the introductions. After we had gone through each and every level of government (with me wondering all the things that this country would accomplish if it cut out one of the three or so levels of unnecessary bureaucracy), Kenzie and I were placing bets on whether or not we would get introduced. We clearly were not on the Emcee’s card, but we do, you know, stick out a bit. And sure enough, he was preparing to segue gracefully into the next part of the party...when someone tapped him on the shoulder and said something along the lines of “don’t forget the pasty ones”. At which point the Emcee launched into a bit about how this year they are rewriting the national constitution, and how there is no ubaguzi (racism), how nobody cares about color here, which was why he simply had to introduce the two volunteers here from America. Kenzie and I stood up, I gave a big “Muungano Hoye!”, and we sat back down, all the while me thinking one simple thought:

“What a crock.”

 I had actually decided a few days before the party to write a blog about some of the negative parts of my time here (the specific inciting incident will be explained shortly). I try and give a fairly accurate accounting of my time here, and it is mostly upbeat, because I mostly love my life here. If I had to make the choice over again, I’d do it all again with no reservations. This, for me (and for my villagers, I think), has been an unalloyed good. Yet some things still rankle. There are moments each day when I wish to be back in America. There is at least one time a month when I grow furious with someone or some situation, until I am mentally squashing them like tiny, squishy bugs. A lot of those situations come from an inescapable, infuriating reality of Tanzania: racism.

I don’t think I took too much for granted in America. I was always pretty damn grateful for being alive, healthy, shod and clod. But what I absolutely took for granted was living in a society that is heterogenous. I lived in Brooklyn, for goodness sake. They used to parade a statue of the Hispanic Virgin Mary by my window, right before they lit her on fire and cooked latkas picante (more of that is true than you might imagine). Black, brown, white, albino, Asian, you freaking name it, they were just other New Yorkers, other Americans. A bus fare was the same for me as for Yao Ming as for Samuel Jackson (not that I imagine either of them take the bus all that often). Not here. Here tomatoes cost more because I’m white. Bus fares cost more because I look different. Everywhere I walk (not in my village, but in any other town in the country), I am serenaded by choruses of “MZUNGU!!!” (Whitey!).Female volunteers are routinely asked to take young men back to America with them. We are assumed to be physically weak, ridiculously wealthy, and incredibly stupid, all at the same time. While Tanzanians are among the most welcoming people I have ever met or heard of, anywhere, there is a class of angry young men who blame many of the present-day difficulties (poverty, AIDS, etc.) on any and all white people. Which, on one hand, is understandable. Colonialism did Africa no favors, and centuries worth of harm. On the other hand, not only wasn’t I alive for that, but it wasn’t my country, and I came here to help. I try, I really do, to not let it bother me. But there’s only so many times you can be talked to like a stupid puppy before you start yelling. Which happens, from time to time.

So that is awful, and I hate it. Two points worth making for the other side: 1. It is a racial thing, but it is also a class thing. Rich Tanzanians are quoted higher prices than poorer ones. And conversely, poor rural Tanzanians are often treated like dirt by rich, urban ones. I have a much, much easier time getting a meeting at the District than anybody in my village. Tanzanian drivers will pick me up, give me free rides, but will pass by my village friends with nary a glance. So the racism goes both ways. Which leads me to 2. America doesn’t exactly have all its ducks in a row either. I don’t catch a ton of news, but I’ve heard plenty about Trayvon Martin. You cannot do the job I do and still think that one sort of people are innately better than another. We are different, yes. But it’s the height of arrogance to think that given the same opportunities that we have, these people would not do equally as well, or better.

Back to the party. After the introductions, my school’s children stepped forward. I love watching Tanzanian schoolkids perform. They do a high-pitched shout-singing that is really beautiful when done in unison. For this performance my kids danced with baton-like instruments, and they also had village-made kazoos (which made my heart glad). They sang about Union Day, about the leaders who had made it possible (Nyerere and Karume, of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, respectively). They broke it down with the traditional Hehe dance, the Dua. One of my favorite students, Ephus, ran around cheering and jumping, and everybody laughed. They absolutely killed it. The head honchos from the region loved it. Other students loved it. I loved it. I was so proud of those kids (it should be noted that I had nothing to do with it), of what they had done… and what they had endured.

On Monday I had gone down to the primary school to talk to the principal about a few things. He and I often do not see eye to eye, but we’ve managed to collaborate on a number of projects, and since I have a few more in the works, I had to go over them with him. After our meeting he mentioned that the students were preparing for the party on Thursday, and would I like to see? Of course, I said. Plus one of my teacher friends was running the rehearsal, and I had to see her about something anyway. So we went down to the soccer field, where the students were prepping, with batons and kazoos and drums and a pretty murderous noon-day sun. I grabbed a patch of grass and watched them work. From time to time my teacher friend would stop them and correct them, showing them the proper steps, yelling at the students who were doing the routine sans flair. I was happy: I was back at rehearsal. Then, during a quick stop, the principal called all of the boys off to the side, obviously unhappy with their lack of chutzpah. He said something to one of them, who ran over to where I was sitting. The child said, “Samahani” (excuse me), then reached down to where I was sitting. I moved aside, and he pulled up a long, thin stick that I hadn’t even realized I was sitting on. He ran back over to the principal, and gave it to him. At which point the principal proceeded to beat the living shit out of a bunch of 11-14 year old boys.

 This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this. Yet it is not something I’ve ever gotten used to, nor do I really want to. My friends who teach full-time in schools here see it every day, in varying degrees of brutality. I’ve seen teachers make a female student kneel and hold a large rock over her head until she was physically unable to continue. I’ve seen teachers make students roll up their trousers or skirts and kneel on gravel for as long as they deem necessary. This day with the principal was fairly typical: he had the boys get on all fours in a line. He started using the switch on their behinds. But something particularly angered him about one of my favorite students, Amos. So he started hitting him on the ribs, on the chest, until the child was lying flat on his back, crying, still being beaten.

What do you do? I know there are plenty of volunteers who see nothing wrong with raising a hand to your kid. That never happened to me, but I guess I get it. But this isn’t that. This goes way over the line of cruel, and it isn’t even effective. Tanzania’s educational scores are low, to put it kindly. The students don’t know any more after they’ve had the tar beat out of them than they did before. Yet this isn’t my place. I’m not here to impose American values on Tanzanian institutions. This man is my superior. So I sat there, digging my fingers into my ribs, not sure how I would ever look Amos in the eye again. He’s used to it, I supposed. I’m not. Hope I never will be.

One more, back to the party. I had to sneak out early. I’ve gotten good at that. I went to the bathroom, then went Viet Cong style through the woods to the road. It’s a cardinal sin to leave a Tanzanian party before eating. This, however, is not my first cardinal sin. I got to the road and started flagging down cars to get a ride back to the village (I had a date with my friend. We are doing Occupational Therapy house calls for old people, with Kelsey making scarily accurate diagnoses, and us relating her advice back to them). I got a ride from a couple of older, apparently Indian, men. They knew a little English. I asked them where they were headed. They named a city in the north of the country. I asked them where home was. They named the same city. It was then that I realized that these men, when they talked to each other, spoke Kiswahili. That they are, despite appearances, Tanzanians. There are a couple hundred thousand ethnic Indian and Arab Tanzanians. They’ve lived here all their lives. This is their home. They speak the language. And if I think that I sometimes feel like a stranger in my own house...I can’t imagine what their lives must be like. I do miss this part of America: the differences. The blend. The plurality. I'm sure something is lost when you start blending cultures together. But a lot is gained, I know that.

On to some happier thoughts at the end. We have winners! I refer you all to the photo album “The Unnamed” on my facebook profile. The naming rights for Cow #1 were purchased by Kelsey Drake for $200 (somebody should marry her). I have not yet been told its name. Cow #2 has been bought and named “Where’s Waldo” by Mr. Robert M Schwartz (take a bow). Cow #3 was purchased and christened “Leinad” (I like that my name is being incorporated multiple times) by Her Aussie Highness, Jeanne Fennell. And Cow #4 has been bought, paid for, and named “Rambo” by the distinguished John Arigot. Thank you all so much for playing along, and I can’t omba (request) enough times for those who didn’t win to still donate to the project. I am going out to Ruaha on Monday to finalize all reservations, and will provide a full budget/itinerary in a couple of weeks. This is going to be one hell of a trip, made possible by all of you. I can’t say enough times how wonderful you all are for making this possible. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Waldron, out.