Wednesday, January 30, 2008

i just wanted to know.

It is 7:53 am and I just walked in the door to my house. I am tired, hungry, and dirty, but I have my priorities straight: after peeling off my jeans, I immediately opened my computer, started MS Word, and am now willing my grubby hands to type this. I need to reconstruct the events of the last 10 hours... I need to record the truth of last night before my heavy eyelids collapse and sleep steals away the grime I can still see - and the effortless laughter I can still hear - lurking behind this computer screen.

Recently Theo, the leader of Mkombozi’s Streetwork Team, invited any and all staff who were interested to join him in sleeping on the streets of Moshi last night. I was surprised, actually, that I was the only person not on the Streetwork Team to volunteer. After all, it makes sense to me that in order to help our kids – in order to truly to enable them to move forward from a life on the streets – we have to really do our damndest to understand the reality of their day-to-day lives. Never really possible, of course, but I figured that at least I could try.

Before I tell this story, I want to discourage any unnecessary worrying. I had a great time – I never felt in danger last night (except for the snake incident, of course, but we’ll get to that), and I spent the night protectively surrounded by my co-workers Theo, Rey, and Dadi – all strong Tanzanian men. I wore jeans, a hoodie, and a woolen cap – some of the kids didn't even realize that I was a woman for the first 15 minutes they talked to me! I didn’t wear any jewelry, I didn’t carry a bag, and everything I brought with me - only my house key, my phone, and a “just in case” 10,000Tsh note - was stored safely in my bra.

We met up with Theo at 10pm at a local “cinema” – simply a storefront stocked with a TV, VCR, and a few rows of uncomfortable wooden benches. The owner charges people (mostly, from what I could see, drunk men and soccer-obsessed youths) a few hundred shillings to watch a movie or a sports match. He also, however, is a friend to the street kids of Moshi. He lets Theo use the storefront, when it is empty in the mornings, for brief lessons and check-in conversations with the boys. And he allows the kids to watch TV for free, or just chill outside, without harassing them.

After greeting him, we walked around the corner and briefly surveyed the place we would be sleeping that night. Just across the street from an outdoor clothing market (located only a 5 minute walk from the very centre of town), there is a storefront that is exactly the same as all of the other ones on the street – except for the pile of wooden pallets, cardboard strips, and gunny sacks out front that serve as beds for the mass of kids who Mama Azizi, the shop owner, allows to sleep there every night. Her place is just on a regular road in a poor part of town – not surprisingly, unlike the main streets in the tourist areas of Moshi, I noticed the road was littered with trash, rotting food, and various unidentifiable objects left behind from the day’s business. About 10 kids were playing cards on a stoop; after greeting them and Mama Azizi, we told them we would be back later to sleep.

Theo is the full-time street-worker at Mkombozi here in Moshi. He knows the hang-outs and the sleeping nooks, has heard most of the street gossip, and sometimes it seems like he knows every youth in town. As we walked, he explained to me that there used to be a decrepit guesthouse in the center of town where women would sell themselves at night – however, recently it had been shut down by the police. He had just found out, through his street sources, that a new “spot” had cropped up about a 10-minute walk away. Rumor had it that there were some really young girls – street kids – who work out of this new place. Theo’s idea was that we all head down to the brothel and have a leisurely soda while we observe the proceedings.

The “spot” was really intriguing – it was actually a few separate guesthouses spaced out along a long street. The guesthouses didn’t have any signs or names out front that would indicate anything about what their buildings contained. Regardless, they didn’t need any words – the guesthouses were conspicuous and quite clearly all owned by one person… because each building had huge (I’m talking 3 feet tall) red roses and pink carnations painted on the concrete walls to either side of the front doors. Not only that, they all had makeshift flowerpots made of old paint cans hanging from the rafters of the tin roofs! For a business that probably should be trying to stay under the radar, the garish decorations were surprising... and somehow disconcerting.

It didn’t take long for us to make our own conclusions about the place: it definitely seemed like the type of guesthouse where a man could get a room… and could easily find a “friend” to share that room with him if he liked. For eleven pm on a Monday night, there were too many people there – drunk men and large, loud women – for it to be anything else. We also noticed the long-haul trucks on the street, which indicated that the guesthouses are preferred by truckers (a ringing endorsement, of course). Its likely that at least most of the women we saw, although they might not call themselves prostitutes, are probably at times willing to sell themselves for money. The good news: we sat there for about an hour and did not see a single young girl. Maybe because it was almost midnight… but we were relieved either way.

We then walked a long route through a back part of town and down to the bus stand. It was a beautiful, haunting night – hundreds of sleeping birds filled the trees, hungry dogs roamed the streets, and anybody who passed us gave us a wide berth – logically nervous about 4 large hooded figures loping down the middle of the road. With my cap pulled low, hoodie up, and hands shoved in my jeans pocket, my gleaming white skin was well-hidden for just this once. We soon arrived at the bus stand and did a quick count – 12 kids sleeping on the concrete outside of stores on the north side… and another 10 youths hanging out, still awake, about 20 feet away. We were welcomed to their bench with jovial calls of “Teacha!”, which is the name that most everyone on the streets calls Theo.

About 5 of the guys hanging out were probably closer to my age than to that of a “street kid” – but they are still, clearly, homeless young people. We talked to them for a while as they grumbled about the new rule being enforced by police in the bus stand – if you are caught trying to sell anything (cookies, watches – even water), or trying to earn some money by carrying bus passengers’ bags, you are fined 20,000/= on the spot… or carted off to jail. Apparently the cops originally said that the new rule was just for the holiday period – I am not sure why – but anyway, the restriction hasn't been lifted yet. The prohibition has left probably hundreds of young people with no income and no way to buy themselves lunch or dinner most days of the week.

One uplifting thing about our chat with these older youths– it was literally less than two minutes into our conversation (I hadn’t even really introduced myself yet) when they pointed out two young boys on the fringes who were “wageni” – new kids. The older youths called the two boys over and kindly, but firmly, instructed them to talk with Theo. So, as he probably does every day when he is on the streets, Theo took a scared and tired boy by the hand and led him to a quiet stoop where he could introduce himself. They talked in muted voices for a few minutes – probably about where the kid came from, how long he has been here, and where he can find Theo in the future if he ever wants to talk. Theo thus began the purposefully slow process of gaining the trust of yet another kid who has been neglected or, very likely, abused by the grown-ups in his life.

Before we left, the youths told us about another 6 boys who were asleep in a grassy area about 150 feet from the stand. Apparently they always sleep there, together, so as to protect themselves from other roving youths. So that brought our informal count of full-time street-kids – before we had even left the bus stand – up to 28.

Around 1 am, we headed back to the stoop where we had begun the night’s journey. As we walked back, we checked under buses, inside boxes, and behind walls – we found a group of 4 boys sleeping, huddled together, behind a collapsed wooden road sign on the sidewalk on the main road through town. We found one other boy sleeping alone behind a low stone wall. These kids brought our count up to 33.

When we got back to Mama Azizi’s, there were about 6 boys still awake, gambling in a simple card game where the “ante” is a single coin that is the equivalent of less than a nickel. Of course, street gambling is illegal, but this wasn’t exactly serious stuff… so I threw a coin in and the boys shuffled over to make room. We ended up playing with them for over 2 hours. Counting the 6 boys who I was playing cards with, I knew that we were up to 39. Of course, I was also acutely aware of a small kid sleeping only about five feet away from me – and I knew that, if I were to just walk past that sentinel boy, I would find many more right there – huddled in the darkness against the walls and under the wooden pallets. I waited over an hour before venturing to look. I wasn’t ready for the count to get any higher just yet.

How can I describe what I saw when I finally went to “stretch my legs”? By this point in the night I was comfortable enough with the kids to closely study what I was seeing without any shame: Young boys – as young as 8, by my guess – huddled together on the pavement. Mostly wearing cut-off shorts and t-shirts. Almost all barefoot – if anything, just wearing rubber flip-flops. And here I was, ambivalent about the 3 am chill with my damned hoodie and sneakers and cap. Under one pallet, I might see only one boy sleeping alone – and then just past him, I’d find four kids all spooning in a row to keep warm. I can’t decide which sight was harder to stomach. Maybe half of the boys slept on top of cardboard pieces to keep out the chill of the concrete… and a few also had their legs wrapped up in gunny-sacks that they were using as makeshift sleeping bags. I counted about 15 boys lying on Mama Azizi’s stoop – it was hard to tell since they were so packed together – but our informal count of full-time street-kids on this Monday night thus shot up to 54.

I stayed up to play cards with the boys until about 4 am. At one point, a drunk man across the street got in a fight with a few guards who had been sleeping outside of the market. The kids playing cards with me briefly ran over to investigate, but they didn’t want to get involved. They came back and quickly started the game up again – obviously trying to distract me, their unexpected white guest, from the sight and sound of fully grown men kicking the shit out of somebody.

So there we were, playing cards under a harsh fluorescent porch light, laughing and trying to ignore the occasional distant thud of a well-landed blow. Suddenly one of the boys put his hand on my knee and whispered, slowly and shakily, SNAAAKEEE! I looked behind me and sure enough – 8 inches from my other knee – was a skinny, dark brown snake slithering along the wall. I edged away, cautiously at first, and then quickly jumped up and ran a few more feet. It wasn't actually a very big snake – probably less than 3 feet long. Very likely not dangerous at all. But who wants to take chances when there are 15 boys sleeping on that ground? One of the kids yelled for the guards – who were kind enough to stop fighting and to come running with their big sticks – to kill the snake. A few sharp cracks on the concrete were all it took – although every THWAP made me cringe at the incongruously harsh sound on this hushed stoop. Some kids jumped up out of their sleep, immediately awakened and on alert. Other boys barely even stirred.

A twelve-year-old boy named Musa had stubbed his toe in the excitement – after it was all over, he came back to the card game and calmly watched the blood pool into a bubble of burgundy on his toenail. It wasn’t a serious injury at all, but I couldn't help but picture my childhood – where a simple toe-stubbing meant a prompt washing with antibacterial soap, coating with ointment, bandaging, and probably even some Advil. Musa didn’t flinch – after all, here on the streets he doesn’t even have clean water available to rinse the dirt out with.

I retreated to the edge of the stoop and quietly reflected on the world I was in. It seems so fake to say that I was truly understanding this reality – secure with warm clothes, “emergency” money in my bra, and the knowledge that I would be back in my house the next night. And yet it was all so TRUE right then – the inescapable smell of feet, shit, urine... the sight of dirty coins under fluorescent light, grime on bare legs... the sound of cards flicking on cement, loud breathing from dark corners, dogs fighting in the distance... The feeling of cold pavement under my knees, dirt under my fingernails.

Theo hunkered down next to me on the stoop and started calmly narrating the story of his work on the streets. His passion was clear even at 4 am in the haunting fluorescence. I learned that he brings a bar of soap to work with him every day – if it's a hot day, he can easily convince the boys to come swimming with him down by the river. He bathes with them so that they don’t feel like he is any “different”. He told me that his greatest worry is that he will try to push his “solutions” onto the boys he meets rather than asking them for their ideas. He described a time that he gave six boys sweaters…which they promptly sold. He blamed himself – because he had never actually asked the kids what they needed. In retrospect, he said, the boys needed food more than they needed sweaters – and if he had only asked them, he would have known that. He will not push a kid who isn’t interested in leaving the streets – but if a boy seems curious, Theo will tell him how Mkombozi might be able to help.

I decided to try to sleep at around 4 am. I lay down near a huddled group of boys, about three feet away from them. After getting myself settled in on my side, with one arm propped under my neck, I glanced up from the concrete and was rattled by the vision immediately in front of my eyes: a boy, who couldn’t have been older than 9 years old, lying still on the ground. Wearing lightweight shorts, a soccer t-shirt, and nothing else. In the fetal position, his t-shirt pulled up over his chin. His bare head rested directly on the concrete. His hands, pressed together prayer-style, were shoved between his thighs to keep them warm. He looked cold, uncomfortable, exposed. And yet he appeared to be completely asleep – he didn’t re-adjust his position once for the 10 minutes that my eyes were locked (I couldn't seem to look away) on his face. He was the last thing I saw before I also slipped into sleep… and he was the first thing I saw when I was soon awakened by another boy nudging his friends, loudly announcing that 5 am had arrived. Most of the street boys in Moshi don’t beg for money (except maybe occasionally when they see tourists). Generally, the younger kids collect scrap metal (they sell it for about 20 cents per kilogram). Those boys have to get started early every morning before all the trash is gone or taken by others. The older kids, who carry packages and buckets of water for grown-ups, don't have to worry as much since their customers wont arrive too early in the morning.

After shaking the sleep off, we began our last mission of the night: a 10-year-old boy who had been sleeping with us, Imani, was quite sick with malaria. Theo had taken him to the hospital earlier on Monday – but as evening arrived, the boy had begun to be afraid of sleeping alone in the hospital. So he snuck out and ran back to his friends on the streets. Theo formulated a new plan: he found an older, bigger youth who was willing to keep Imani company in the ward. So we rounded up the two boys and escorted them to the hospital around 5:30 am. Just as it opened, we were settling Imani back into the same ward he was in yesterday – and convincing the nurses not to be too mad at him.

Mawenzi Hospital is a place where homeless kids can get some rest and respite away from the harshness of the streets. Of course… it is also a place that most Americans would walk into and then run out of in terror. It looks like purgatory – the ward we were in had two people to each bed (the person in the bed Imani was to share with was coughing all over the place and looked really sick). The mosquito netting is broken in every single window and there are discarded surgical gloves on the ground. The toilets are bare concrete, the bathroom floor is sloshing with water, and you can smell everything from the end of the ward. There were 15 beds along each side of the wall – therefore 30 beds total… and since they are two patients to each bed, I guess that means there were almost 60 patients in this one room (with only 2 nurses who looked tired, disinterested, or just really overworked). As is expected at a Tanzanian hospital, we were given a slip of paper to take to the pharmacy (outside and across the street from the hospital). There we had to buy the syringes and medicine that Imani would need to treat his malaria with quinine. As we waited for him to get his first injections, a woman walked down the aisle selling tea and porridge to the families who could afford it – in Tanzanian hospitals you either bring your own food, buy it from the woman walking down the aisle… or go hungry.

Around 7:30 am we decided to leave the boys in the competent hands of the nurses. We trudged to the bus stand and found a dala-dala back to our neighborhood. I made it safely home. I am about to take a hot shower, put on clean clothes, and climb into bed for a nap. None of these things are even remote possibilities on this day for any one of the 54 kids who I slept on the street with last night.

Count your blessings.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pay Attention

this article is too important to link to... so just read it here. please.

It's the deadliest conflict since World War II. More than 5 million people have died in the past decade, yet it goes virtually unnoticed and unreported in the United States. The conflict is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Central Africa. At its heart are the natural resources found in Congo and multinational corporations that extract them. The prospects for peace have slightly improved: A peace accord was just signed in Congo's eastern Kivu provinces. But without a comprehensive truth and reconciliation process for the entire country and a renegotiation of all mining contracts, the suffering will undoubtedly continue.

In its latest Congo mortality report, the International Rescue Committee found that a stunning 5.4 million 'excess deaths' have occurred in Congo since 1998. These are deaths beyond those that would normally occur. In other words, a loss of life on the scale of Sept. 11 occurring every two days, in a country whose population is one-sixth our own.

Just a little history: After supporting the allies in World War II, Congo gained independence and elected Patrice Lumumba, a progressive Pan-Africanist, as prime minister in 1960. He was assassinated soon after in a plot involving the CIA. The U.S. installed and supported Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled tyrannically for more than 30 years, plundering the nation. Since his death, Congo has seen war, from 1996 to 2002, provoked by invasions by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, and ongoing conflict since then.

A particularly horrifying aspect of the conflict is the mass sexual violence being used as a weapon of war. Congolese human-rights activist Christine Schuler Deschryver told me about the hundreds of thousands of women and children subjected to rape:

'We are not talking about normal rapes anymore. We are talking about sexual terrorism, because they are destroyed- you cannot imagine what's going on in Congo. We are talking about new surgery to repair the women, because they're completely destroyed.' She was describing the physical damage done to the women, and to children, one, she said, as young as 10 months old, by acts of rape that involve insertion of sticks, guns and molten plastic. Deschryver was in the U.S. as a guest of V-Day, Eve Ensler's campaign to end violence against women, in an attempt to generate public awareness of this genocide and to support the Panzi Hospital in Deschryver's hometown of Bukavu.

Maurice Carney is executive director of Friends of the Congo, in Washington, D.C.: 'Two types of rape, basically, are taking place in the Congo: One is the rape of the women and children, and the other the rape of the land, natural resources. The Congo has tremendous natural resources: 30 percent of the world's cobalt, 10 percent of the world's copper, 80 percent of the world's reserves of coltan. You have to look at the corporate influence on everything that takes place in the Congo.'

Among the companies Carney blames for fueling the violence are Cleveland-based OM Group, the world's leading producer of cobalt-based specialty chemicals and a leading supplier of nickel-based specialty chemicals, as well as Boston-based chemical giant Cabot Corp. Cabot produces coltan, also known as tantalum, a hard-to-extract but critical component of electronic circuitry, which is used in all cell phones and other consumer electronics. The massive demand for coltan is credited with fueling the Second Congo War of 1998-2002. A former CEO of Cabot is none other than the Bush administration's current secretary of energy, Samuel Bodman. Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan, which took over the Phelps Dodge company's enormous mining concession in the Congo, is also in on the game.

The United Nations has issued several reports that are highly critical of illegal corporate exploitation of the Congo's minerals. A Congolese government review of more than 60 mining contracts call for their renegotiation or outright cancellation. Says Carney, 'Eighty percent of the population live on 30 cents a day or less, with billions of dollars going out the back door and into the pockets of mining companies.' An important question for us in the U.S. is: How could close to 6 million people die from war and related disease in one country in less than a decade and go virtually unnoticed?

By Amy Goodman (January 24, 2008,
[Amy Goodman is the host of 'Democracy Now!,' a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 500 stations in North America.]

Thursday, January 24, 2008

why you so obsessed with the congo, jen?


“The fact is that you have a high mortality rate in Congo altogether by any standard... Of which some is the result of conflict, some is governance, some is that no heath services are available in many areas... some is just pure poverty and the horrible legacy of what colonialism and Western greed did to Congo.”

Congo's Death Rate Unchanged Since War Ended

- Dr. Guha-Sapir
(New York Times Online Article)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

life after peace corps


"Is a life spent following your heart, by definition, a lonely one?"
-josh swiller's book the unheard

I'm reading a book written by a PC volunteer who was placed in Zambia... he poses the above question in the midst of explaining to readers what his motivations were for coming to Africa. He's describing a woman who laments the loss of her loved ones back home - and yet, she can't seem to give up on her dreams even when they take her far from the US. Her heart aches for her friends and family... and yet she knows it would hurt more - albeit in a different way - if she had stayed behind.

Its been a long time since I first realized that Love isn't always enough. It was 2002 and I was leaving somebody I was madly in love with behind on another continent... because no matter how much it hurt, I woke up one day and discovered that Love can't make my dreams go away. It can't make the little man on my shoulder stop telling me that I am meant to be somewhere else, fulfilling some other purpose.

A friend recently sent me a necklace that has a small trinket on it engraved with one word: "hope". I've been wearing it every since. I like to think that it reminds me to have hope for our earth, for my kids, or even for East Africa to just stop imploding. In my more sane moments, though, I realize that it is much more personal than that -- I'm hoping to figure out, and be confident in, a path for my future.

Those of you who know me well know that I tend to have this same crisis every 2 years or so. Y'all are just going to have to bear with me... again!

I could go home, take my GREs, and apply to graduate programs. There are some really great ones - a few of which offer pretty phenomenal scholarships for returned PCVs. I would probably study Social Work/Public Health, although I also am sometimes interested in International Health or International Development... and every once in a while I am drawn to Peace and Conflict Studies.

I could stay in Tanzania. I would come home for Christmas, but I would have a job back here for at least another year-long contract. Ideally I would work at Mkombozi, but I would be open to other possibilities.

I could move to somewhere else in Africa and try to do relief work of some kind. I would love to go to the Congo... Kinshasa, though, not so much the really dangerous Eastern part. I would have to learn French first.

Any of these options would necessarily include, at some point, an extended period (at least 2 months) of traveling through Africa. It would really depend on how much I could afford. Some friends and I considered briefly trying to get grant funding to travel around Africa evaluating programs for Orphans/Vulnerable Children/Street Children. But really, that kind of funding aint easy to come by.

So, this is the part that I know I will regret: I invite you to email me, or post a comment, with your vote. What should I do next?

Monday, January 14, 2008

My Post-Christmas Wish List:

Who has any of the following stuff lying around their house, unused and unloved? I can give it a very nice home, I promise!!!

- Rosetta Stone French Language CDs Level 1 for mac
(or a similar brand)
- GRE lessons and practice tests for mac
- CD that teaches to touch-type for Windows
(actually will be used by some Tanzanian friends)
- DVDs of recent movies (um... for me. me me me me)

Also, Christmas has passed, and I want to briefly thank a few people who sent me the COOLEST packages ever - and I thought I had been forgotten after all these years! The packages arrived after Christmas but all were unopened and full of amazing stuff. A big NIPE TANO to Morgan, Alison, Gillian, Steve... and my mom, whose packages are still on the way.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

better days

A Peace Corps Volunteer, my friend Heath Ray, recently made this video using photos and videos from his life in Tanzania. It is amazingly well-made... and it very much reflects my own sentiments about the work I have chosen to do here.


If you are so inspired, please read "Jamila's Story" to the right or go to to learn how you can help the children I care about.

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…