Friday, August 8, 2014

St. Mary's vs Government Schools: No contest

Dear Sponsors and Friends,

We've been exploring ways to entice people with money to donate for school construction, as our class space can no longer accommodate our student body, we must build. I figured it would help if I was to test a few local kids from the government schools, then compare their results with ours. Going into it, I knew we would do better, we always do, but I am looking for measurable results now; measurable results are enticing. Since we just gave our kids their midterm exams, this seemed a good place to begin, half the experiment has been done already. Charlene and I asked Farida and Joan (two students from St. Mary's) to round up a random sampling of kids from the local school to come to my house and take the same test our kids took. 

Participation meant cookies, so it wasn't hard to find kids.

Like I said, I knew we would do well in comparison, but what I did not expect was the absolute massacre that it was. Our passing grade is 70%, and the midterm is our chance to see where we need to focus and project how our kids will do on the final. And they did just fine. Most passed, a few are close, and the few we knew wouldn't pass, didn't. Three of our Std 1 kids will most likely be held back next year. Junior got 16% on his math test, and I doubt he will make up the 54 points needed to pass. Hamna shida (no worries), it's ok to be held back. Government schools require 40% to continue on to the next grade. 

So, we gathered about 8 kids on my porch, with their papers and pencils, Farida and Joan ( the 2 kids from St. Mary's school) ready and willing to translate. They are really quite fluent so there wasn't any problem with the kids understanding the instructions. These were kids in Stds 1, 2 and 3, with an age range of 7 to 12. Only the older kids could write their names, and only the oldest boy could do the first part of the test. Early on, we saw we needed to revamp our plan. Basically, we just asked the little kids to write their numbers from 1 to 20. Some could, some couldn't. We did some simple addition, 2 + 2, 3 + 2… Again, the older kids could do it, but the younger ones needed lots  of help and it was clear they didn't understand. To sum it up, they did very poorly. We tried to give them an English test the day before but stopped soon into the exercise, it was just too cruel. Making kids feel inferior was not part of the plan.

This evening I gave the Std 3 test to Samweli's brother. Samweli is in Std 3 at St. Mary's, his brother is in Std 6 at the government school. As with the younger kids, there were sections we just had to skip over, and I wrote some problems for him to do. He got a few correct, but generally did as poorly as the others. Samweli is 3 years younger, and he did fine on the midterm. 

The government school kids can't do any math in their heads, they either use their fingers or make marks on the paper.  In 2003, I taught Std 6 (grade 6) English, in a government school in Idweli, a small village in the southern highlands of Tanzania not far from the Malawi border. I have first hand knowledge of how bad these village schools can be. I have been many places in Tanzania, and Ghana, and it's all the same in most rural schools.

We asked the kids if the teachers are actually present in the classroom, they said "sometimes." We asked what they had done that day, and they said they cleaned the class. Their teacher has a daughter who attends our school, and it winds me up that he will send his own kid to our school while not teaching at his own school. Teachers not arriving, or actually being in class, is not unusual here. There is no monitoring system, even the head teacher is frequently not in class. It's a bad system, and these sweet, eager little kids are getting short changed by the system everyday they sit in their classes. 

There is a National Exam given yearly, in Standards (Grades) 4 and 7, which basically culls the weak from the herd. Students who fail the Standard 4 test do not continue on to Standard 5, they are just done. For those who pass that Standard 4 National Exam with the paltry 40% required,  continue on, and then if they fail the Standard 7 National Exam, they are done. That's it for them. There is no chance to take the exam again. Like I said, it's a bad system. You can complain all you want about the American school system, but a kid can do well if he/she wants to there. And if the entire class failed, heads would roll. If teachers failed to show up, or sat outside and talked and used the phone during class time, more heads would roll. Not here.

So, we got our measurable results to show the people that we are a success, but we don't feel good about it. It wasn't an even match, and if this was a football game on TV, most of you would have changed the channel. We're going to need lots of money in the coming years if we are to survive, and we will be asking everyone, on a regular basis. I have tried to adequately explain how dire the situation is here, but unless you are here, it's almost impossible to grasp how grim it is. I would love to figure out a way to help all the government school kids, but the problems are just too overwhelming. If we could have a very big school, then we could get more kids from the village. But right now we have these 100 kids, and that's the best we can do. 

To all of you sponsoring kids here, know that without your help, your child would be in a government school, not learning, being beaten, not getting fed, and spending school time cleaning the class while the teacher doesn't teach. I don't know what more to say but thank you, and please continue your sponsorship. What you are doing for these kids is huge, and it's an opportunity very few kids here will have. They don't realize it now, at this point they just know they like school. But they will come to realize this, and later on, they will be able to do the same for their own kids. No better way to spend your money.

 Nashukuru sana (I am very grateful)

These pictures are shown so that you get and idea of what a US kid can do vs St. Mary's kids vs kids at government schools. My granddaughter happened to be the only US educated kid available for comparison. It's not a scientific study. It is done just to show that government schools in Tanzania are not educating children very well and that kids who go to St. Mary's can do a lot better - up to the level of US kids. Some of our St. Mary's kids come from the most impoverished families imaginable, yet they do well.

Our goal: to get as many sponsors for kids as possible, so that they can get a good education and be the leaders of tomorrow.

My granddaughter in grade 1 at an American school
taking the standard 1 (grade 1) midterm
90% correct
(pipi is candy)
(in Tanzania when taking this test)

Again my Grade 1 granddaughter
(in Tanzania when taking this test)

This is a Standard 1 (Grade 1) test taken
by a Standard 6 (Grade 6) government school student
5 0f 20 questions were correct

A Standard 1 (Grade1) math test done by a
Standard 6 (Grade 6) Government School Student
2 of 15 questions correct
Standard 1(Grade 1) math test done by a
St. Mary's Standard 1 (Grade 1) student
84 1/2% at midterm


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Grabbing the Rope

     The letter m before certain words denotes the singular. For example, mwalimu is a teacher, one teacher. Mtoto means a child, one child. Shamba is the word for farm, and while mkulima is the word for farmer, mshamba is a derogatory term for someone "just off the farm", basically, a hick. Washamba  is the plural form.
Dirty, dusty village kids.

     My daughter in law, Sarah, has remained behind in the village with her kids while I deal with my problems here in the States. She's doing a fabulous job and I am so proud of her. She didn't have to stay when I left so unexpectedly, and I would not have faulted her if she had left with me. But she chose to stay and continue teaching; pretty brave, if you ask me. Especially with a 5 year old and a 6 year old to take care of.

     There have been good days and bad, like any job. The St. Mary's kids are sweet, fun and absolutely adore her. They will do anything for her. Some even call her Mommy, and will be heartbroken when she leaves. The village kids are another matter altogether. So what's the difference? Why are some of the village kids so washamba and the St. Mary's kids so "normal"? Are the St. Mary's kids basically better people? Are they basically smarter? No and no. The difference is they have been taught.

My son, Asa, helping Neema onto the swing.
Most of the kids in this picture are St. Mary’s kids.

     My son put up a rope swing in our back yard, which began as a wonderful thing. Word got out all over the village and soon kids started coming around. We welcomed them at first, because there is little for the kids to play with in the village. There's sticks and mud and other things lying around, and they're very creative with these, but an actual swing was a marvel to them. It was huge fun at first, especially with my big, hairy son out there playing with them and supervising. But he went back to the US for work and things got out of hand, 4 or 5 kids on the rope, kids pulling and shoving to get a turn, pulling kids off the swing. That kind of stuff. 

They’re dirty, dusty, and everywhere.

     We told them that they were welcome to play on the swing, and with the tub of toys Sarah and Asa brought with them. We told them the rules. They stole the toys, they pushed my grandkids off the swing, as well as their friends, (these are equal opportunity hellions). It's not all of them, just a select few, like it is everywhere, but they run away when we yell at them, and basically one dirty, dusty, village kid looks like all the other dirty, dusty, village kids. They're fast and impossible to catch.
You can see why we can't tell them apart.
They’re all some shade of brown, them and their clothes, and the dirt.

     We tried dealing with it like you would any other problem. We rounded them up and talked to them, explaining the rules again, and for a bit that worked. But there's one swing and sometimes 30 kids waiting to use it. So that wasn't a screaming success. Then we made a rule that only St. Mary's kids could come over, as they are generally more well behaved. That also worked for a while, but the other kids came back. We sent Ruth out to talk to them in Kiswahili, and she threatened them with seven kinds of hell, which worked for a bit. We have made the St. Mary's kids monitors (which they love), but that hasn't worked. Lately Sarah has taken to chasing them with a stick. Yep, it's come to that. A stick they understand, but they still come back. I suggested they put up a swing in the village, but Sarah doesn't want to reward their mshamba behavior with a swing of their own. I personally just see it as a viable alternative. 

     So the swing will come down, which is sad. What is even sadder is that the kids didn't learn to behave well enough to stay. They dropped the rope.

Some kids playing at the river.

     Let me tell you about the life of a village kid. They spend the first year or so strapped to their mothers back. If there is an older sibling, and there usually is, and that kid can walk, the baby will spend a good portion of the day on the slender back of a very young dada or kaka (sister or brother). This is so the mother can work. Childcare is not considered a man's job, and you rarely see a man holding a child. So the mtoto, when he can walk, becomes part of an  amorphous gaggle of kids roaming the village. I will state here that the old saying about it taking a village to raise a child is crap. Basically these kids raise themselves. I have seen 2 and 3 year old kids roaming about totally unsupervised, while their mom is at the shamba. In general, this is a benign form of neglect, born out of poverty. There is no daycare, and people need to work. There is very little to hurt them in the village, and they all run around together and take care of each other. Big kids will pick up little kids who fall, or not, but there is safety in numbers so nobody pays them much attention. They're like the chickens and goats who live here; they know where they live and go home at night when it's time to eat.
This beautiful girl is Pili.
She’s about 14, and had to stop going to school at
Std 2 because her father died. Her life will be very hard.

     Many of these kids don't attend school. Government schools are supposed to be free, but there is a contribution fee, and a child must have a uniform and shoes, so many don't go. They just hang around the village all day with nothing constructive to do. Some leave school because a parent dies and they never go back. Their fates are sealed. Without an education, nothing, absolutely nothing, will happen  to improve their lives. I know Abe Lincoln was self taught and wrote his letters in the dirt blah, blah, blah. This isn't happening here. Sometimes kids who don't go to school watch our kids through the windows. Sad. 
Putting up play electricity poles.
     Our school kids are generally well behaved, but it wasn't always that way. We've been nagging them for over three years, and it's working. We do have a small group of kids that I would call mshamba, but they are new and will catch on. People tell us they can see that our kids are different, but we teach them how to behave, and when they do well, we acknowledge it. In the village, what a child does well is not just unrewarded, it's unnoticed. But let them step over a line and it comes down on them fast and hard. Hence the speed with which they flee. Life for a kid here is very free, they run around and play and have fun. The downside of this freedom is a lack of guidance that does not come in the form of a stick. I repeat, as I will throughout this letter, that most of the kids are just sweet, good kids, but the few that aren't….
Mud play.

     As they grow, they learn what needs to be done, again, because the stick awaits if they misstep. But that leaves us with kids that, while generally compliant and happy, are unready or unable to join in and "act right". They have no concept of waiting in line, or waiting their turn. Everything is a competition, even going to the toilet, and the toilet smells like someone popped the lid off of hell. I personally wouldn't be so anxious to go there.  Most of them are like clay, they can be molded. They don't mind either, because then they can play on the swing. 
This is where 2 of our students live.
It’s hard to expect much from a kid who lives like this.

     You've heard of the refugee mentality. Well, this is similar. There is never enough, so if you want your share, you need to compete. If I threw a donut in the middle of the village, they would pile up like a bunch of halfbacks. I'm not kidding. This is hard for us to understand because we have enough, we have more than enough. The sweet thing is that the kid who did get the donut would share it with his friends. I see this daily, kids sharing a small piece of something  with a group of friends. Everyone gets a tiny piece and all is well. 

     This has been a real heartbreak for Sarah, who wants to love them all and help  them. The sad fact is that a lot of these kids won't be helped. There are too many of them, and too few of us. These kids start life behind the 8 ball, and for most of them, that's exactly where they will stay. And this is precisely why a good education is so vital. I'm not talking about a government school where the teachers beat the kids at will, don't show up for class, or don't teach when they do show up. I'm talking about a system that actually helps a kid be a thinking child who grows into a thinking adult. 
Village kids playing some kind of hopscotch.
Always wash your fruit before you eat it.

     I am sad about the swing, it was a good opportunity to make friends and have fun. I'm thinking that when I return I will start an after school program for kids who need help with math and reading. We had already started before I left, but Sarah had to stop it because of all the kids misbehaving. I, however, am not even a fraction as nice as Sarah; it's not a family trait, and nothing to which I aspire. I don't give even a tiny rat's ass if they love me. I can also yell at them in their own language. And I don't have 2 kids to take care of, let's not forget that. 

     I plan to start with the St. Mary's kids and a few village kids, and the swing will go back up. But more as a reward for work done. The only difference between our kids and the village kids was an opportunity. As I try to help my son here, I have developed a mantra. If someone throws you a rope, GRAB THE %$^&^$#$% ROPE. And if the rope is a rope swing, get in line and don't push.
The rope swing.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Stuck in the Rinse Cycle

     Two or three rains per year I think qualifies as a drought. Yep, I just looked it up, it's a drought, and that's what it's been for the past three years since I arrived in what was once a too sunny Berega. There are two maize crops each year, and for the past three years every crop has failed. It's been very hard, and Ruth said that it was like this even before I came. So I guess it wasn't my fault. Either way, it was with joy and excitement that we greeted the rainy season this year. 
Dry season.

     Berega has greened up and become a lush tropical paradise: everywhere you look there is growth, and greenery. When Asa was here he was shocked at how beautiful the countryside is. The media likes to focus on the dry, dusty parts, kids with flies in their eyes, all that crap. They don't focus on the stunning beauty, but it is here.

Even drier season.


      The good news is everyone has enough water for drinking, cooking and washing. There's so much water that we've become wasteful, and that's kind of fun. There's no place to store it anyway, so we just use as much as we want. A far cry from when my friend Janet was here and we had to flush the toilet with the water we used to wash the dishes.

       Having said my asante Mungus for the rain, I need to tell you that enough is enough. And let me tell you why:

1. Our clothes, which are washed by Hassani's bibi 2 or 3 times a week, have been on the line now for 3 days. They probably won't be dry before the next time she comes, at which point the kids will have to go to school naked. During the dry season, she is thrifty with the rinse water, and the clothes come off the line still stiff with soap. So when it started to rain, I just laughed and counted it as an extra rinse cycle. So now our clothes have finished their eighth rinse (not counting the rinse at night while I sleep). It's no longer funny.

2. Things are molding, and starting to smell moldy. My towel smells like it's been at the bottom of the hamper for three weeks, but all the others are getting their ninth rinse outside. I'm drying myself with my clothes, which will be finished very soon if it doesn't stop. One of the poorer kids came to school the other day smelling very strongly of urine. She has only one uniform, so I asked her to wear a regular dress till her mother could wash it. Well she's in class now in a dress that smells of urine, dried urine, but urine nonetheless. I guess all their clothes are draped over a bush somewhere, rinsing.

Rainy season at Mikumi Park.

3. Monday Market is all but a sweet memory. The roving market comes to Berega each Monday, but with all the rain, and no bridge, and crossing the river on foot, nobody is coming.  We have only whatever's in Berega, which is what we always had. Tomatoes and onions.  Or onions and tomatoes. I'm fortunate to be able to go to Morogoro to buy food, but the locals can't.

4. The roads are A MESS. Any road past Berega is impassible. Which means folks can't get to the hospital, or bring things to town to sell. Going to school every day is a hazard, and I'm old enough to fall and break a hip. It takes me about ten minutes to walk to class. The road is full of potholes, slick areas, and small rivers running here and there. I am so thankful I had the school courtyard cemented in. It's pretty wet every morning in the classrooms, but at least it's not muddy.

5. We lose our electricity when it rains hard, so we've been out for a few days. We do have solar lights, but as that requires actual sun, we get about as much light as a birthday candle. The internet is off and on, mostly off. This is the first time in 3 days we've been able to send, and most likely by the time I finish this, it will be gone. Same with the phones. 
We have festooned our house with wet clothes. Kinda smells like a locker room after the big game.

6. During all this time, we've at least been happy about the rain because it promised a good harvest. Maize is the main crop, it's ground and dried and made into ugali. Folks here eat it every day, two times a day if they have enough. The farms near the river are losing their crops from too much water, and if this continues, even more will be lost. Seems this place just can't catch a break. But hope springs eternal, and we are praying it will end soon. Isaac said the rains usually stop in May, so here's hoping. Crops need water, but they need sun too. 

7. Some of our kids live far away and walk to school, so we are missing students every day. We came back from Dar on Monday, after taking Asa to the airport, and as we approached the river we saw a parent walking a bike in the rain. On that bike was one of our preschoolers, who was being taken over the river to school. This was a poignant moment for me, to see what some parents will do to get their kids a decent education. So we put him in the car, plus another, and dropped them off at school. One of the kids we picked up had no sweater, and was so cold. 

Huge hairy caterpillar from Berega.

8. When it rains too hard, the classrooms get dark, too dark to read, or see the blackboard. It would be good if we had electricity, but it doesn't work in the rain anyway, so what difference does it make? Well, the generator just ran out of fuel, so I won't be sending this any time soon.

9. Mud huts can, and do, melt.  

     Enough of my complaints. On to the news. The kids are doing fine, loving school, learning fast. Asa had a great time, and the kids loved him. He's a big, bearded guy, a real gentle giant, and they had fun together. He is missed. Sarah and the kids are still here, so I have help. She can actually type, so there are plans afoot to make supplies and more supplies. Gotta love a ten fingered typist. She's enjoying teaching, but what's not to like? These kids are easy to teach, and they do what you ask them. Sweet, sweet kids.

     The tree swing is still the most popular place in the village, and the area under the tree is completely denuded of grass. They've started piling on 3 or 4 at a time, and we're trying to stop that before the rope snaps and somebody breaks something.

A song from the kid’s Std 2 science book. Gotta love it.

     I have a couch cat. There is a sofa out on the porch and a skinny, mangy cat sleeps there every night. She also benefits from whatever leftovers we have. Currently she is in heat and running around the village screaming for sex. Literally screaming. And now that she has a couch she can take on the entire male feline population in relative comfort. I can sleep through it at night, but Sarah can't, plus the bush babies can get pretty loud. 

     Grandkids are adjusting to school, and it's not easy. They've gone from one end of the spectrum to the other. Jovie likes all the bugs, and today I found a foot long worm and had one of the kids bring it up for him, as he was sick at home. Ayla has decided she likes ugali and beans, and went back for seconds today. They're learning some Kiswahili, and have lots of friends. It's still hard for them, but it's still hard for me sometimes. 

     Sion is leaving on Sunday, forever, and this is very sad, for me and for Berega. He's been here one year, and been in charge of the pediatric ward. He's done some amazing things, and it's tragic that he's leaving. There is literally a busload of kids who would be dead if not for him. He will be talking to the WHO people in Dar next week about malnutrition feeds, and hopefully what he has started will continue. 

Ayla and her new BFF on the way to school.

     There is an American couple coming in June. The male half is an engineer who will work on the farm, and Charlene is going to take over for me. In July I plan to go on a three month vacation to Cambodia and hopefully Laos and Vietnam. Charlene will be here for a year, so when I come back in October we can work together getting the kids ready for finals. I'm so happy to have someone here so I can go in peace. The irony is that July, August and September is the Cambodian monsoon season. I need to get my Karma cleaned.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Karibu! (Welcome)


     The new year began mid January, and so far all is well. There have been a few issues to resolve, but we are managing. I will give all the good news first, THE KIDS ARE DOING VERY WELL!  We have 3 wonderful preschool teachers;  Pascalina teaches the 4 to 5 year olds, Martha has the middle kids who are 5 to 6 and Pasiana takes the oldest group who are 6 to 7. You need to understand that all ages are relative. Parents want their kids here, and will fudge the ages to get them in. Some of our youngest ones look suspiciously like 3 year olds. We have a number of 9 and 10 year olds in the oldest preschool class, but these kids came from the government schools, so had to be put back. They are doing fine, but it does present some problems that you will not see in a class of similarly aged children.

     By the time these preschool kids come to Std 1, they will know more than the Std 1 kids from the govt schools at the end of the year. They will know how to read and write in English and Kiswahili, add and subtract simple sums, count to well over 100, write these numbers when called out  so many things. We were well into the middle of the syllabus when the kids arrived on the first day. We are all about foundation; this is our strength.

     Our parents are very excited about the education their kids are receiving. One parent came to us with a story about his daughter, a preschooler, who comes home every day and teaches her neighbor kids. Our kids are also teaching their parents English. We don't need to advertise, our kids do it for us.

     We try to fill from the bottom, taking only younger kids and raising them up in our system. This is not always what happens. Parents come to us, desperate to have their kids join up. Kids are hard to turn down, so we do take older kids and put them back so they can catch up. The good news is that after a year with us, we have been able to move each of those kids up a year. They are still older than their classmates, but now in an older, more competitive environment. These are motivated kids, and it's so good to see them working so hard and achieving so much. One day, when we have a big school, we will have a separate remedial class where kids can come and catch up, then rejoin their age mates. 

     We have 102 kids at St. Mary's, with fully one third on full or partial scholarship. These kids would never be able to get a decent education without help from outside, so thank you all for helping. Help comes to us in many forms. Some of you send money for sponsorship, and hopefully you will keep your particular kids for the duration of their school years. Some send money for books, and we have been able to get enough primers so that we can all read the same book, as a class. We try to have no more than 2 kids to a book, and we read every day. Reading and reading comprehension are one of our primary goals. To read without understanding is like chewing your food without swallowing. 

     A woman from the UK, named Chrissie, ran a marathon last year and sent us 600 pounds, specifically for furniture. We have lots of furniture now, and even some stashed for next year. We are hoping she will run for us every year. While students in the govt schools sit 5 or 6 to a seat, we try to keep it at 2, sometimes 3 with the bigger desks. Students need room to write and move. So thank you, Chrissie. Nashukuru sana. 

     Sometimes help comes in human form, volunteers who come to work with the kids, and who routinely bring pencils, erasers, books, shoes..... We need it all. Currently my son Asa is here, with his wife Sarah and their kids Ayla and Jove. They are helping with the kids, reading to them, teaching English and Math, and their kids will be in our school for the three months they will live in Berega. Asa told me that he was shocked by how much our kids know, and can do. They're having a great time, as most folks do who come to work with the kids. The kids are quite a draw, and I should know, I just started my fourth year. 

     I think that it's important to hear about the kids, but equally important to hear about the issues we face every day. You are our supporters, so I won't tell you everything is fine, that would be less than honest. I need you to have faith in me, so I will not hold back. Our biggest issue is space, we don't have enough. We are in the same rooms with 102 kids as when we started with six. We have been extremely creative with our limited space, and have put in a temporary wall to separate Std1 from Std 2. It is certainly not soundproof, but we are managing. Std 3 is housed in what was the teachers office. It's a room about 15 ft by 5 feet. We have 4 student desks and a teachers desk. This room also serves as the supply storeroom. We will be bringing 4 kids into the class, the older kids I spoke of earlier, so there will be 12 kids and a teacher. I've seen bathrooms bigger than this, I personally have had a bathroom bigger than this. 

     Another issue is school fees. We have been trying to keep our fees down, as well as providing breakfast and lunch. This has not worked out as well as planned. We have had to raise the fees, which will be reflected in next years contributions. For now, the parents have agreed to make up the shortfall. It was either that or stop the lunch program, which would leave most of the kids hungry until evening, or maybe the next morning.

     Another issue regarding school fees is the parents ability to pay. I am amazed that some parents will enroll their child, fully aware of the fees, but with no reasonable expectation of the means to pay. This is how desperate they are for their kids to achieve, and should in some small way demonstrate how bad the govt schools are. 

     I will be writing about individual kids soon, with pictures and reports on their progress, but I wanted to give you some basics first. I want you to understand that, unlike some sponsorship programs, the kids you sponsor will pass, will learn,and will, most definitely, succeed. 

     I also want to thank you for your help, and to remind you that educated people educate their kids. These dusty, barefoot little kids you help will one day be able to put their own kids through school. They will do this without help, because they will be able to pay with money they earned because you helped educate them. And so it goes...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Life without the Bridge

Life Without the Bridge

It's been a while since the bridge washed away, and I am noticing a few things.

1. The small, local dukas have less on the shelves. Which is a drag as we only have small, local dukas to buy what we need, unless we're willing to travel to Morogoro, or another smaller village which may or may not have something worth the trip. 

2. There are very few eggs in the village,and those that are here are almost double the price, but yet the same size. And if it's a bad egg, no refund.

3. Monday Market is a bust. There is a roving market, and our day is Monday, hence the name. There are always onions and tomatoes, greens and okra, which I would rather die than eat. Usually there are bananas, and sometimes mangoes. But because everything needs to be walked across the river, and you just never know if it will be high or low, most of the vendors stay home. Yesterday I saw Sion and Alec, two docs from the UK,coming back from the market, and I rushed up with my newly repaired basket (ever hopeful I would fill it with goodness from the earth). They had some wilted greens, lemons, some chili peppers and okra. I turned around and put my basket away.

4. Going to Morogoro is now an ordeal with a fairly high gruel factor, a term coined by my friend Janet in reference to travel in Africa. It's never easy, but now it's got a few additional steps. The first two are walking down to the river, and crossing it. Then, depending on the water lever, changing your pants. The rest of the trip to Morogoro is the usual 2 hours. On the way home you get to walk from the road to the river laden with your purchases. Then you repeat the crossing and getting back up the hill. I take a pikipiki at this point. It's a long day, but at least you have food.

5.When the water level is up, kids living across the river miss school. 

6. Admissions at the hospital are about half what they should be. Isaac has enough trouble paying the employees on a regular month, so this is a disaster.

7. Folks who rely on the bridge to transport their charcoal,maize, and whatever else they sell now either don't go, or need to pay men to carry it across. I just had the school courtyard cemented in, as it's a mess during the rainy season, and every bag of cement needed to be cried over, as well as all the other supplies.

8. I have hit a new personal low food wise. Yesterday I opened a can of Egyptian tuna, which is all the bits that don't make it into the good tuna cans, drained the oil, mixed it with ketchup, and had it on crackers. 

Re: the rains

8. All the roads that were previously just really bad are now impassable by car and the more rural villages can only be accessed by pikipiki. 

9. On a positive note, everyone who has a maize crop, which is everyone, is growing a ton of maize. So everyone will be eating. Ugali is made from ground maize, and free from most of those pesky nutrients we in the US all worry so much about.  It is, however, filling, as only a soccer ball sized  lump of carbs can be, so no one will be hungry.
10. When it really rains hard, the classrooms get so dark we can't read or see the board, so we send the kids home before the lightning comes, and it does. More school missed.

11. We lose electricity during rainstorms, and this is the rainy season, so power goes out frequently.

But in the end, there is the maize, so no matter how bad it is, there's always ugali. This year should be a bumper crop, and they don't have electricity anyway, so my personal woes are immaterial to them, as they should be. Sion, Alec and I are going into Morogoro on Saturday, planning to load up on fruits and veggies. I may be sitting in the dark, but I'll have mangoes.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Yet Another Conversation I Will Only Have In Africa

Just the other day I was thinking I hadn't written in a while. It's been pretty humdrum of late, nothing new or exciting; school, sleep, bad food, the usual. But God does provide, doesn't he?

We were in class this morning, happily correcting grammar and getting hungry for lunch, when Teacher Beatrice stuck her head in and said there was a problem outside, in front of the school. A group of locals were shouting and disturbing the students. Apparently they had caught some thieves, and the crowd was trying to decide whether to beat him or fire him. To the uninitiated, getting fired means losing your job, at least it does in America. Here it means having a gasoline soaked tire thrown over your head and lit, while the crowd stands around watching, cheering, and reaffirming their belief that the son of a bitch had it coming. Marshmallows optional.

On approach I saw three dirty, shirtless men, with their hands tied, surrounded by about 50 folks, including the pastor. Seems the vote was split 3 ways, some opting for firing (or necklacing), some just wanting to beat the holy hell out of him, and a kinder, gentler portion wanting to take him to the village elders.

This is what is left of the bridge to Berega. It was washed away in the flash flood.
My concern was for the kids, as this was happening right in front of the school, and it was coming up on lunchtime and recess. I approached and greeted everyone (greetings mandatory, even if murder is imminent) and requested that if they truly planned to beat or God forbid, fire the men, possibly they could move the venue up or down the road, just anywhere away from the kids. All that smoke, screaming and charred flesh right in the middle of the road when the kids get out of school. Life is tough, but this is ridiculous. I can't believe some of the conversations I have here. And you are all welcome to volunteer, where you, too, can have bizarre discussions about things that would never concern you anywhere but here.

A few minutes later Mbuli told me, in very good English, that yesterday, in Morogoro, there was an unsuccessful attempt to heist a motorbike. Pole sana for the thief, mob justice did prevail and he was fired. I guess he lost his job as well. The judge and jury did, however, take this poor schmuck about 30 km out of town, where they beat him to within an inch of his life, piled wood on him, and set him ablaze. It's technically illegal to fire up a human, so they left town to avoid the police, who normally do nothing unless it's right under their noses. Ruth later confirmed this story, they were driving home when it happened, and saw the flames.

Don't get me wrong, I would neither encourage this, nor want to witness it, but hearing about it does not horrify me anymore. This should be obvious by the way I talk about it. Most of my warm fuzzy has been rubbed off, and this is what's left. Besides, there's not a person here who doesn't know what can happen if they get caught, and from a very young age.

We discussed this with the kids, and a majority think it's definitely wrong to beat a man to death over something sometimes as insignificant as a watch. Now a bag of maize is another story, steal a family's food and you should only hope to live, in whatever shape they leave you. But there is hope, the younger generation seems a little less bloodthirsty. This may change with time, though, when they find out it's impossible to get a policeman to respond without paying him. I say this secure in the knowledge that no policeman will ever read this, or make the effort to come up here to confront me.
Preparing to cross the river.

Most folks here are gentle and reasonable, but all it takes is a few… I will remind you that the pastor was there, although in what capacity I am unsure. What was stolen was some musical equipment used for church services, and according to Ruth, you can still be counted a Christian and be part of the mob. Ruth is my source of all things cultural, and a good Christian. The thieves were eventually taken to the village elders, after a sound and satisfying beating by anyone caring to participate. Ruth said they also pinch the thieves' penises, which seems a bit excessive, but mob rule is just that, a group of normally decent folks who have temporarily lost their brains.

I personally have had three phones, a wallet, money, batteries, my bicycle handlebars, and countless slippers stolen from my house/ bag/ yard. A friend once offered to kill anyone who stole from me in his village (about a 10 km range). I declined, however if they stole a bag of maize…. So that was yesterday, and I have had time to think. Although I have never been a proponent of capital punishment, I do understand that all countries have their ways of dealing with criminals. In America, we try and convict people before killing them, and still sometimes an innocent person is executed. Here, where the law is ineffectual, corrupt, and just generally doesn't give a damn, the judge and jury is frequently the folks who catch the bad guy. Again, sometimes the wrong guy is killed. It's really not that different. Just because we exact justice in a more "humane" manner, doesn't mean the guy is any less dead. Personally, I don't agree with it anywhere, but I understand the frustration which drives people to such extreme measures.

Crossing on a good day.
So let's move from what happened outside the school to what's happening inside, which is by far more life affirming. We spent the last week reorganizing, trying to fit 110 kids into the same space we've had since we started. We're full to the gills, but functioning. The kids are doing so well, and having a great time. Our methods are far removed from the norm here, but that's why it works. Generally we do the exact opposite of what the govt schools do, and as I was perusing the syllabus the other day I realized that we have, for the most part, accomplished all the goals set up by the Ministry of Education. So it's going to be a great year. We do have a few kids who need extra help, but it's only 3 months into the year, so I have no worries. We have amazing preschool teachers, and by the time these kids get to Std 1 they can add, subtract, read and write (in 2 languages). So asante sana Teacher Martha, Teacher Pasiana and Teacher Pascalina.

Ann was here for a couple of months, and she found scholarships for 19 kids who need them. Those, added to the ones we already have, give us about 1/3 of our student body on full or partial scholarship. So tunashukuru sana for all those who donated. We also got donations for books, so all of Std 1,2 and 3 have textbooks. A woman from the UK ran a marathon last year and donated money for the tables and chairs we desperately needed. Why all the books and extra desks, when kids in other schools in Tz have no books and sit 4 to a desk? Why are we so fortunate? Should I be sharing the wealth? Is that fair to them? I don't care. Those schools are failing, and we are not, and don't intent to. We would love to help the govt schools, but that would be like reviving that thief under the pile of wood 30 km outside of Morogoro.

I teach all the Math an English for Std 1,2 and 3. Teachers Gile and Beatrice teach everything else. Our interactive methods were new to them, but they're liking it just fine, and are happy here at St. Mary's. The day goes by fast, the kids laugh and enjoy themselves, and nobody is afraid of their teachers. Some of the warm fuzzy does come back everyday as I teach, which keeps me here.
St. Mary’s School, 2014.

One snag is trying to get the parents to get up off the school fees. We've been forced to get tough with the parents, and at the end of the month, if a parent hasn't paid, we send the kid home. Then, by some miracle, the money comes in the next day. We don't like to go that route, but we have teachers to pay and kids to feed. So there you go.

Our toilets are unearthly. There are 2 choos and 110 kids. But Brad has agreed to let us construct additional toilets outside, which should alleviate most of the pushing and shoving, and some of the smell. Thanks Brad.

Some great news! My son Asa, his wife Sarah, and my grandkids Ayla and Jove, will be here mid April. Asa will stay 3 weeks, but Sarah and the kids till July. This is gonna be fun. The kids will go to our school, and Sarah will help teach. Sarah, I've got a couple of kids in dire need of one on one math help, you're gonna love it. I imagine Ayla won't be here but a few days before they've got all her hair in plaits, and possibly Jovie as well.

It has been made clear to me, by everyone in Berega, that I got very, very fat in the US, which is a source of pride here (theirs, not mine). Being fat is preferable to being thin, as being fat means you can afford to eat, and you are healthy. So I am rich and healthy, very rich and healthy, but that's ok, in a few months it will be gone. Priscilla's mom invited me to eat with them this afternoon, as I was walking home. They were eating ugali and dagaa, a ball of starch and small, pungent dried fish with eyes. She offered in jest, it's well known in the village that I would sooner starve than eat dagaa. I tried it once, and inatosha (it was enough).

Still looking for travel buddies for July, August and September. Just let me know.

Have fun, eat well, and can someone possibly send me some marshmallows? I've been craving s'mores.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Karibu Ifunde

Maasai guy
     We have a Maasai boy in our preschool named Ima. He's beautiful, about 13, and starting Std 1 in January. He was in Std 5 at a govt school but not learning anything, so his brother David sent him to us, and he has started over from preschool and is doing fine. Although having a teenaged kid in preschool does present its own unique set of problems, so far so good. His brother David is in his mid 20's, handsome, tall and long limbed, like most Maasai, and works as a tour guide about five hours from here.

The barbecue pit
     David called me the other day to invite me to a sherehe in his village, and promised we would be welcome to take pictures and join in as we wished. Hamna shida. I've been wanting to visit a Maasai village, and my friend Ann also wanted to go. It's not something most people get to do, except on arranged tours, which is a totally different thing, so we jumped at the offer. David arranged for two pikipikis, and off we went, 45 minutes of beautiful scenery over a very bad road. There's lots of beautiful rides over very bad roads here, because the roads are, in general, very bad. Main roads are fine, but I don't live on a main road.

     This village is called Ifunde, and it's in the middle of no place at all. I too live in the middle of nowhere, and this is many miles past me. I always wondered what was behind the mountains. Now I know it's more mountains, tree stumps, and thorny bushes. There's something wonderful about going someplace very few people go, and despite the rough patches in the road, we enjoyed the trip. I have yet to figure out why the driver left the main path for the detour through a million grasping thorn bushes, but such is life.
Ima’s brother, Ima and his mom

     We arrived mid afternoon, and were greeted with big hugs by Ima and David's mother. Most Tanzanians greet in a friendly manner, but with little physical contact. Maasai, however, are not most Tanzanians. She's a lovely, happy woman, with 7 boys, 2 girls, and a ancient husband. Traditionally, Maasai men marry late, and marry young girls. Ima is her youngest, and he was home for the sherehe.

     This was a circumcision ceremony, but Ima is too young and will join the next group. The ceremony before this one was in 2008, so I guess some years from how he will get his turn, along with his age mates.

No celebration is complete without one or two enormously drunk guys. This was early afternoon, so you have to admire his diligence.
     We did not witness the actual circ, nobody does. The boys sit in a hut and wait for a man with skills in this area to do the deed. I was talking to a moran, (young Maasai men about 18 to 30 years of age), and he was telling me that the boys are not allowed to cry, moan or even flinch during the cutting. I asked what would happen to a boy should he disgrace himself in this manner, and he really had no answer because apparently, it's unthinkable and will not happen. They stay in the hut for 2 days, and during this time their adult female relatives stand outside the hut singing, dancing, and shouting encouragement. Everyone is dressed in their best, and everyone has a good time, with the possible exception of the recently snipped.

Moms and aunts and grandmas singing and dancing for the boys inside
     Men and women celebrate in separate areas, the women singing at the door of the hut, the older men butchering and cooking the meat. The morans (warriors) gather in a circle, singing, grunting and jumping. Just like the NatGeo specials. It's amazing to watch. They stand ramrod straight, arms at their sides, and jump about three feet in the air, using only the balls of their feet. Their heels do not touch the ground. It's a competition. Two moran will go into the circle and face off. Young marriageable girls stand around the periphery and join in the singing.

Meat storage system
Meat, meat and more meat
     Then they walked us down the hill to the food preparation area, featuring rice, some kind of beef stew, and about six cows worth of cooked and barely cooked meat. Large chunks of beef were resting on an elevated handmade wooden platform designed to keep away the dogs, while still making it available to the flies. They dangled long strips of barely cooked meat in our faces, streaks of fat congealing before our eyes. A Maasai diet is primarily meat, and like the NatGeo says, they do cut the vein in the cow's neck and drink the blood. They prepare it in various ways, sometimes just letting it clot, or mixing it with milk. Their red meat diet hasn't hurt them, they are a truly healthy looking people.

     It's impolite to refuse food at a sherehe, so we took a few small pieces. Fortunately the blood and milk mixture was not the soup du jour. I had a few chunks of beef while Ann, that sissy, pretended to nibble a piece then carried it around for a while before conveniently dropping it in the grass. It was ok, very tough and needed salt, but killed just that day so safe to eat. The flies certainly seemed to like it. I got meat stuck in all my teeth and was finally forced to do the unthinkable. I flossed in public. I couldn't stand it anymore, had to do it. I did offer a mint flavored string to my guides, but they didn't know what it was and anyway they have teeth like rocks and chew through just about anything pretty easily.

Ima’s sister
     Ima came by to say hi, and we met the rest of his very large family. We offered to bring him back to Berega on the pikipiki but he said he'd rather walk in the next morning. We were on a wheeled vehicle for 45 minutes, so I figured he'd be walking most of the day. Maasai are pastoral people, and spend most of their time walking and herding their cattle. Many live in villages now, no longer nomadic, but their cattle range far and wide. The feel the entire country is pastureland, and occasionally this leads to conflict. A while back, a Maasai was killed over a grazing dispute.
Ann and her future husband. That she already has a husband was no problem, he has no cows, so who cares?
     My friend Ann is originally from Korea, but everyone here thinks she's Chinese. Anyway, she's in her early thirties, old for a Maasai bride but still young enough to produce many offspring and received numerous marriage proposals. My Kiswahili is reasonable, certainly good enough to bargain with the men over how many cows I expected to receive for her and her childbearing hips. He offered 10, I countered with 200, he laughed and agreed, asking if we could seal the deal immediately. It was all in fun, just passing time, and I only told Ann about it after we had reached an agreement. She laughed, but then looked at me and asked what would happen if there were 200 cows in our backyard the next morning. Hamna shied, she moves to the village to breed, and I am a wealthy cow owner.

Handsome Maasai guys
     We came home, washed the dust off our feet, and took a nap. It was a great day, everyone was so welcoming and happy to have us there. We took hundreds of pictures and got a peek into a totally different culture. Many Tanzanians look down on the Maasai, for their old style ways, and sometimes tease Ima for being Maasai. When the newspapers report an accident, they might say that ten people were killed, and two Maasai.We were discussing it in class one day, because the kids said Ima was beating them, neglecting to mention that they had been harassing him. So we talked about it, and I asked how they'd like it if Ima ragged on them for being Kaguru and not having any cows. Ima has 12. As my parting shot I reminded them that tourists spend enormous amounts of money to visit Africa, but they're not here to see Kaguru ( predominant tribe here in Berega).

What can I say? Is this cool or what?
      What I like about the Maasai, is they don't care what anyone else does, they just do their thing. Even if they come in and get regular jobs, as some do, they are still very much Maasai. They saunter through the village in their Maasai garb, jewelry, and weapons, head and shoulders above everyone else, myself included. They are supremely cool, and they know it. I hope to go back again, maybe for a wedding or some other sherehe. Good to have friends in cool places.