Monday, January 07, 2008

welcome to 2008...

I can’t believe I have been living in Moshi for 4 months now! It seems like only yesterday I was starting here at Mkombozi Centre. I am coming swiftly upon the time at which I need to decide what I should do next with my life… more on that in a few days.

The last few weeks have been a lot of fun – I have been out to the clubs a few times with my co-workers, which I have found that I actually sometimes prefer over going out with other wazungu. It’s somehow so easy when I am with only Tanzanians: I feel much more like I am Part Of the party instead of an Observer to it. People see that I am not just a guest at their revelry… and it helps that my co-workers keep an attentive eye on me and don’t hesitate to employ firm stare (or even a cut-in on the dance floor) to deter any unwanted attention.

I went to a volunteer’s house for Christmas Eve and most of Christmas Day. As usual (and frankly, much to my relief) it again didn't feel much like Christmas this year. That's what I love about Tanzania – I didn't hear my first Christmas Carols in public until about 4 days before Christmas, and even then it was some crappy old music at a local bar around the corner from my house. No stressful shopping, no brown sloshy snow, no commercialization… just a night watching the stars and making spaghetti for dinner.

On the 26th I went to Dar and met up with one of my best friends, Jason. Together we had planned to go to the island of Pemba for a quick visit. We boarded the ferry the next day but halfway into the journey it got turned around due to rough weather… so we found ourselves on the dock in Unguja with very few options to get to Pemba. We ended up utilizing my credit card (I love technology sometimes) to buy plane tickets on a small 12-seater plane. It was a sweet view and we were relieved to finally arrive at our destination.

Zanzibar is made up of two islands – Unguja and Pemba. Most tourists only know about the main island of Unguja, and so pretty often everybody (including Tanzanians) uses the word Zanzibar as the name for Unguja Island. The whole of Tanzania is maybe 60% Christian and 40% Muslim (plenty of folks have animist beliefs, but almost everybody still claims they are either Christian or Muslim first, even though they still hold the other beliefs equally as strongly). The Zanzibar Islands, however, are 99% Muslim. This is because the island has a long history of settling and colonization by Arabs (which is also why most of the coastal areas of Tanzania, including Mtwara and Newala, have much larger numbers of Muslims than the interior areas of the country).

I am always shocked when I visit Unguja and see wazungu tourists walking around in SHORT shorts and tanktops – pretty damned offensive to the people whose island they are visiting. I guess on the main island the Zanzibaris are pretty used to it… but it makes ME crazy! Jason and I definitely had some interesting conversations with locals, who basically said that it wasn’t a huge problem, that they understood it was our culture… but when pressed, they admitted that they didn’t actually like it at all. Nobody is going to verbally or physically confront you about it, but that doesn’t make it okay. Just a note for anybody thinking of coming to visit me!

Pemba is even more conservative than Unguja. I wanted to smack this stupid tourist couple on the plane with us – they were both wearing shorts and tanktops and they were all over each other in public! Hands around each others’ waists, kissing each others’ necks… I wanted to vomit. Just to give you some perspective: we walked out of the gate and I immediately covered my hair and neck with a kanga (if I hadn’t, I would have been the ONLY woman other than the tourists who wasn’t covered). We immediately came across a large group of Pembans waiting for the next plane to arrive: that flight was arriving back from the Hajj in Saudi Arabia (that is, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca).

Anyway I loved the place – Pembans were SO friendly to us! We had heard from a few (possibly biased) sources that Pembans don’t like wazungu, but I found that to be so very far from the truth. Maybe it was just because we speak Kiswahili or possibly it was very helpful that I was covered in public… but every single person we met was incredibly welcoming to us. We stayed with PC volunteers on the island, so we were lucky to have a “way in” to the communities we were visiting. In Mkoani we ate rojo (a Pemban food that is very vaguely like potato soup) on a stoop in the dark, at night, on a street filled with lanterns and laughing people of all ages. In Chake Chake, we went to visit a local Islamic center that houses 23 orphans and does community work in HIV prevention. We were also welcomed into the house of a local family, who gave Jason a kanzu (a traditional Muslim white robe that falls all the way to the floor) and gave me a beautiful light-weight kanga that I could use to cover myself more comfortably than the heavy ones I use on the mainland. We spent over an hour just talking about our lives, about culture and Islam, about America and about Tanzania. I hate to sound clich├ęd, but it was one of the most moving cultural exchanges that I have had in Tanzania. For people from these two cultures that more often than not seem to fear and distrust and even dislike each other, the amount of love and respect that I felt while sitting on that mkeka mat with them was overwhelming.

We also went bicycling in a local forest. It was fun, but maybe more than we had bargained for: we ended up biking in the hottest part of the day, trying to get through the forest to a beach – and the closer we got to the coast, the more our path turned into a sand-trap. Mind you, I had packed light for the week: I only had flip-flops, and I was also wearing a skirt and a headscarf to keep myself covered. At some point while we were getting more and more bogged down in the sand, my skirt ripped all the way up the middle (you may recall that I often brag about my skills in off-road biking while wearing a skirt: this particular skirt was already in bad shape before our ride, so it wasn’t my fault, I swear). So I then had to wrap myself in a kanga (lessons from Africa: never, ever go anywhere without a spare kanga). It was around this time that we realized that we were running late and might miss the last dala-dala back to our village. And it was right about then that we also realized that we were lost. Very, very lost. And just then… we came across a village. A very poor village, which clearly didn't see many wazungu passing through. Small children started screaming, mamas started laughing, and the men started directing us, with many differing opinions, in the best way to get back to the main road. By the time we had made it through the village, we were the idyllic Peace Corps vision: three sweaty white people on bikes, with about 50 giggling children alternately leading us and following us as we struggle through the sand-trap that is their home.

After Pemba, we went to Unguga for New Years Eve. We met up with some other friends and enjoyed a raging party on the beach and lots of swimming and relaxing. Life is good! After a few nights in Dar, I headed back up to Moshi. The other night I went to a village outside of town just for a night – I visited my host family (the Machas – remember them from 2005?) in the village where Baba’s family is from. It was cool to meet his mother and his siblings and their children. Baba is definitely the most educated and wealthy member of the clan – I was a bit surprised at how simply the rest of his family lives. He clearly helps them out financially, but I was disappointed to see that the local primary school is NOT serving those kids very well at all. My 4th grader cousin still can’t read (which I discovered and quickly pointed out to his entire family, while also encouraging them that they will need to help him at home in order for him to catch up). My 8th grader cousin just failed her high school entrance exams – but of about 35 kids in her class, only 4 of them passed. So no matter how much financial help you give these kids, you are still stuck – unless you take them out of the village, or figure out a way to improve the entire school, these kids don't have a fighting chance no matter what.

Jamila had a great vacation at home in Newala for the holidays, and she just went back to school yesterday. Today is her first day of Standard 3 at King David. She sounds happy and settled. Moshi is coming up to visit me here in a few days – we are still waiting for him to get placed at a boys boarding school. If I were a millionaire, I would send him to King David with Jamila… but that isn’t an option right now. So he will come up here and hang out for a few weeks, I will show him some sights and let him participate in some lessons with the Mkombozi kids, and by the end of the month hopefully we will know where he is going to be living and studying this year. I just want the kid to have a stable bed to sleep in. That's all.

So now 2008 begins with a vengeance, lots of Mkombozi and Jiamini and Peace Corps work to do and so little time. I also have only about a month to make a decision as to what I want to do after PC (there are a few important reasons that I need to start thinking about it now). So my next entry, in a few days, will ponder the options and will invite you to give me your input about WHAT’S NEXT…

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