Thursday, July 22, 2010

Returning home

I can hardly believe it, but my time in Tanzania has now come to an end. I had a wonderful last few weeks, wrapping up my project and helping the church transition to be able to continue the work on their own, visiting Zanzibar, and traveling all over the country for various MCC Tanzania team meetings. Saying goodbye to friends, co-workers, and my host family was in some cases difficult, but the prospect of returning home to reunite with friends and family has made the leaving process not as difficult as it otherwise might have been. I am so thankful for the generosity and hospitality that was extended to me by so many people throughout the whole year, and I will certainly miss Tanzania.

After saying all of my goodbyes in Shirati about a week ago, I travelled to Nairobi, Kenya and spent a few days at the Mennonite Guest House in preparation for my flight back to the States. It was a nice time of relaxation, and a good space to begin the major transition from life in rural Tanzania to life back in the U.S. I have now just returned to Akron, PA, the headquarters of MCC, after 24 hours of traveling. All of the approximately sixty SALTers have converged from all corners of the world to share in a few days of re-entry activities, and I am looking forward to having this time to share and process with others who have had experiences similar to mine before I will return home.

While leaving Shirati and Tanzania will be a major transition, I am ready to be back home again and to reunite with friends and family. It has been a wonderful year of stretching and growth and new experiences, but it feels like the right time to say goodbye and to return to Michigan. I think I will always have a special place in my heart for Tanzania, and it is certainly possible that I might return to live there again some day, but for the time being I am ready to come home. I know and have heard from others who have lived abroad that returning to life in one's home country is a major transition, so I am a bit apprehensive about the challenges that still lie ahead. Resuming life in a familiar place and with familiar people will I suspect be more challenging than it might seem, as it will force me to realize the ways in which I have changed over the year--changes that up to this point I have not even perceived.

I recently ran across a fairly well-known quotation from the twentieth century Christian writer and poet T.S. Eliot, and I think it describes well my feelings about returning home. He writes:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Seeing 'home' for the first time sounds a bit terrifying, but also in some ways exhilarating. I suspect that in my first few weeks back I will have moments where I feel like I am looking at a familiar picture but with a new set of glasses. My time in Tanzania has I think in a very real sense given me an altered set of eyes through which I see the world. Seeing things afresh will be at turns fun and exciting and at turns painful and difficult, but in the end I am convinced that each new layer of experience that colors our view of the world with a little bit more truth and a little bit more perspective is something to be thankful for, even in the moments when the new vision might bring pain or frustration.

I am very much looking forward to some simple things that I have missed throughout the year, like road biking, going for walks in the woods, eating delicious foods, and even driving a car (watch out if you see me on the road, I haven't driven a vehicle in a year!) Thanks for following my blog throughout the year, and I hope to see you soon in person!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Irrigation Project Moves Ahead

Well it has been quite a while since my last post, so it is definitely time for another update. The months of March, April, and May constitute the long rainy season here, so we have been getting a lot of rain for the past number of weeks. This is a welcome development as the weather has been cooler and cloudier. Those of you living in West Michigan might be appalled that someone would ever wish for cooler, cloudier weather in May, but the constant sun and hot weather here can actually get a little old sometimes. Don't get me wrong, I would certainly never trade the weather here for a Western Michigan sunless winter, but the constancy of the sun and the heat do make me miss the changing seasons. So I consider any change in the weather, especially one that brings relief from the heat, to be a good thing.

The irrigation and farming project that I have been working on is coming along slowly but surely. I had been planning for a number of months to build a large cement tank on a small hill above the field that we are trying to turn into a demonstration farm. The plan was to repair an existing windmill and redesign it so that it draws water directly from the lake and pumps it into the holding tank on the hill above the field. Then, simply by opening a valve at the bottom of the tank and letting gravity do its thing, we would have lots of water to use throughout the field wherever it might be needed. I had hoped to have the tank finished in January or February, but as things tend to go here it took a lot longer than I had hoped. But I was finally able to find someone who had some experience building large cement water-holding tanks, and a few weeks ago we spent about two weeks building the tank. Another SALTer named Cara who is living and working in a small town a few hours drive from Shirati came over to help, which was a lot of fun.

After completing the tank, we waited for about a week for it to dry, and then a few days ago we were finally able to put the finishing touches on the windmill restoration project and connect a pipe from the windmill to the tank. An Italian Catholic brother named Sergio has lived in the Shirati area for about ten years, and he has a lot of practical knowledge about all sorts of things, including windmills. He has been teaching me a lot and has done most of the work in repairing the windmill. So now, after months of waiting, the windmill has finally started to pump water to the holding tank, which is great news!

Now, with access to plenty of water, we hope to move forward with planting various trees and crops. We had hoped to do this earlier, but as the rainy season approached, suddenly a number of farmers had planted crops on the church-owned land that we had planned to use. Understandably, they figured that if the church wasn't using the land then they could. But it was pretty frustrating to discover that just when we were ready to start planting, others had already planted their own crops in exactly the places the we had planned to use. But those crops are now beginning to be harvested, so hopefully we can begin planting soon.

Below are some pictures of the project (and a few other random, unrelated pictures) with descriptions.

Me with some of my host family siblings: Eva, Felista, and John. Their mother died in September giving birth to her fourth child, so now they live with their grandparents (my host parents) in Shirati.

We needed sand for the tank construction, and since we didn't have a wheelbarrow, we carried it with buckets (hard work!) I decided to try it the African way, by carrying the bucket on my head. Unlike most Tanzanians, I needed to use my hands to balance the bucket. I know, pathetic. What an amateur. The head-carrying-method is surprisingly effective for carrying heavy loads though I discovered (although for a rookie like me it was a little painful without some sort of padding on my head).

We paid this woman to bring us some water from the lake to mix with the sand and cement for the tank construction. I watched in awe as this petite woman hoisted that large bucket full of water up onto her head, then proceeded to re-wrap her kanga (dress-like leg covering) while effortlessly balancing the bucket full of water on her head, and then picked up two more jugs full of water and walked a few hundred meters to the tank construction site. This, like so many other things I witness here on a daily basis, regularly reminds me that I am a big whimp.

This windmill, which was installed around ten years ago right on the shore of the lake on church property and has been out of commission for a number of years, is now being used in our project to draw water from the lake and pump it up a slight hill into the cement tank that we built.

Putting the finishing touches on the tank. It holds about 20,000 L of water, and the hope is that it will allow farmers to grow crops on the adjacent church property during the dry season.

This picture has nothing to do with the rest of this post, but I liked it so I decided to post it anyway. This man walking along the side of the road carrying a coffee table on his head is a pretty common sight. People carry all manner of things on their heads and their bicycles. Among the more interesting things I have seen are a woman carrying an upside-down coffee table on her head, complete with all the settings including a tablecloth, cups, tea, bread, etc., and the occasional live goat strapped down into a basket on the back of a bicycle.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Update on travels, and observations on the economic and ethical complexity of a globalized economy

Well a lot has happened in the weeks since my last post; I will do my best to summarize. I spent the week of Feb. 15-19 at the East Africa headquarters of the World Vegetable Research Center (AVRDC) in Arusha, TZ. My Tanzanian work partner and I went for a week of class to learn more about how to grow indigenous vegetables well. We took classes on soil fertility maintenance, nursery and planting methods, pest management, and various other relevant topics. All of the researchers/instructors were able to speak English well, and many (although not all) also knew Swahili, so most of the time they would teach me a concept in English and then teach Samara in Swahili, which made for an interesting experience. It was a very interesting week for me because I was able to interact with and learn from professional scientists and researchers from various African countries, most of whom held advanced degrees in some type of plant science. This is not something that is at all common for me here obviously, as the level of education in Tanzania is quite low, especially in rural areas like Shirati. It felt like I was back in college again for a week studying biology, which was a lot of fun. However, much of the teaching was unfortunately a lot more technical than I and MCC had hoped it would be. Samara (my work partner) has only attended primary school (this low level of education is fairly common in Tanzania) so a lot of the teaching was not really helpful to him at all since it was dealing with information that he didn't even have conceptual categories to understand it with. But other sessions were much more practical and hands-on, which was exactly what we had hoped for.

After the week at the AVRDC had concluded, Samara returned to Shirati on his own and I had about five days of downtime before the start of our quarterly MCC Tanzania staff retreat in Arusha started, so I decided to go to Nairobi, Kenya to meet up with a friend named Steve who did an MCC term in Kenya with his wife in the 1970's and who was spending a few months back in East Africa. He had come to Shirati in late January to meet me and check out my project, and he was now staying in Nairobi. He invited me to come and to show me around the city for a few days, so I took a shuttle bus from Arusha to Nairobi and arrived on Sunday afternoon. I only stayed with Steve in Nairobi for three days, but even in this short time I learned and was challenged by many things.

For one, Nairobi is huge. It was by far the biggest city I had been to since leaving the States (it is much bigger and more modern than any city in Tanzania), and at times I felt like I was in Chicago or something. We walked into a mall complex comparable to any very large mall in the States, and I couldn't believe my eyes. I just walked around for a half-hour in awe that a place like this existed. Having lived in rural Tanzania for six months with only occasional trips to moderately large but by U.S. standards very undeveloped cities, I was definitely feeling a strong dose of culture shock. It was like I had instantly been transported to the Mall of America or something and my brain had a lot of difficulty dealing with the instant change. I couldn't believe I was still in East Africa, or that a place like this existed in the middle of a city (and a region) with such a huge number of desperately poor people.

Another very interesting and eye-opening experience for me in Nairobi occurred when Steve arranged for us to spend a night at a guest house in an area about a half-hour drive outside of Nairobi called by some the "white highlands". This was an area of very high elevation that the British took over during their colonization of Kenya. Because of the mild climate and the highly productive farmland, the British settlers kicked the Kenyans off of the land and claimed it for themselves. This theme is of course all too common throughout human history the world over; it is similar to what happened between Native Americans and the English colonists in North America, but with at least one major difference. The area is still controlled mostly by the white descendants of the first British colonizers, but many Kenyans still live in the area and work for these white farm and estate owners. This whole large area has been planted almost entirely for tea production, so as we walked around we encountered view after stunning view of rolling hills covered in perfectly manicured tea bushes stretching as far as we could see. So while this was one of the most beautiful places that I have been to in East Africa, it was also tainted by the history of colonization, the effects and injustices of which were still very present.

When we first arrived to this region called the white highlands in the late afternoon on Sunday, Steve took me to the tiny home of a Kenyan family that he had met while walking around in the area weeks before. The mother, Alice, picks tea leaves for a living, and she had a number of children of various ages that she was trying to support. As we sat in this tiny little house, receiving the abundant hospitality of this poor but gracious woman, eating the beans, rice, and chai tea that she had prepared for us, I felt a wonderful sense of peace and belonging. I had been in enough tiny little houses, and had spoken enough Swahili, that as we sat and talked with this woman I was able to just enjoy the moment and to receive her hospitality without feeling uncomfortable in the strange surroundings.

In talking with Alice, we learned from her that she is paid by her white employer the equivalent of seven U.S. cents for every kilogram of tea leaves that she picks, and since she can pick about 50 kilograms in a full day, she is able to earn about $3.50 cents per day. Now this may sound like an awful daily wage to readers in North America, and really it is, but sadly this is much better than the wages of many of the people that I know in Shirati. For instance, Samara, my work partner, has four children and a wife whom he is trying to support, and he is paid by the church here the equivalent of about $1.50 per day, which is the going rate for the back-breaking work he does as a farmer. Now although the cost of living is much lower here, that is still a terrible wage. He grows most of his own food, because he would never even be able to afford enough food for his family on this wage, much less the other needs of growing children like clothing and school supplies. In defense of the church here, they like almost everyone else have very little money, so they are paying Samara what they can.

But getting back to my point about Alice, she explained that since she is paid by the kilo of tea that she picks, during the dry season, when the tea doesn't grow, she is not able to pick and therefore has no income for those few months. She does not make enough money to pay for her teenaged daughter to attend secondary school (the equivalent of High School) consistently, and at certain times there is not enough money for the family to afford dinner, so they simply don't eat on those days. This was of course very difficult to hear, but the events that came next made it more difficult for me.

We said good-bye to Alice and her family and headed over to the guest house where we would spend the night. It was a large, beautiful old English style house that was built probably at least a hundred years ago by some of the first British settlers/colonizers, and the house was still being lived in and maintained by the 3rd generation descendants of these original British settlers. They had sold most of their land and had turned the estate into a place where tourists could come and learn about the process of tea harvesting and production, as well as about the history of the area (as seen from the perspective of the British settlers). It was in many ways wonderful to be at such a beautiful old home and to have delicious food and all the comforts of Western life that I grow to miss here sometimes. But having just left Alice's home, I also felt very uneasy about the whole situation. The conversation eventually turned to the fact that violence and car-jackings of white people was on the rise in the area, and as I listened I just thought to myself, "man, ya think?! what took so long?!" This community of white farm owners lives in the midst of pretty serious poverty on land that was taken by their ancestors from the ancestors of the Kenyans living around them and working for them, and the people that they pay to pick their tea don't even make enough money to feed their families well year-round. It is no wonder that violence is finally occurring in the midst of this long-standing tension.

The next day, as we were exploring the area on Steve's motorcycle, we came to a tea processing plant where a lot of the tea from the area is processed into the final product and sold or exported. I found it extremely interesting that at the bottom of the sign for this processing factory, it was indicated that the factory was owned by Unilever, the giant multinational consumer products corporation based out of England and the Netherlands that owns over four hundred brands of food and hygiene products. Dove soap, Ben and Jerry's ice cream, Ragu pasta sauce, and Lipton tea are just a few of their brands that are common to me as an American (read up about them on Wikipedia if you are interested, that is where I learned this basic information). So seeing this sign, and putting it together with Alice and the descendants of the British colonial settlers that still controlled most of the land, I began to feel pretty uncomfortable. It was as if I was seeing this clear example of racism, colonialism, and the exploitation of multi-national corporations all coming together in this one place.

But as I have thought about this whole situation for a few weeks now, and researched a bit about Unilever, I have realized that this initial gut reaction of mine was in some ways right and in some ways wrong; the situation is far more complicated and less black and white than I had first suspected. In Unilever's defense, they are not the ones controlling the wages of these Kenyans picking tea. The farm owners, most of whom are the descendants of the British settlers, are the people ultimately responsible for paying people like Alice such a low wage that she can't even make sure that her kids are well fed and able to attend school. Also in Unilever's defense, according to their website and other sources they are actually an industry leader in trying to improve the environmental and social standards of their tea suppliers. These efforts do not seem to have yet found their way to Alice, but according to Unilever, by 2015 all of their tea suppliers will be certified by the Rainforest Action Alliance to meet high social and environmental standards. So while it was tempting for me to jump to the hasty conclusion that Unilever was oppressing these workers for the sake of their bottom line, this would be a false and oversimplified conclusion.

Having lived in Tanzania for over six months now, I have observed that a major problem here is a lack of jobs. People are poor and there are no jobs to be had, especially in the rural areas, except for subsistence farming. And this situation cannot easily be blamed on any outsiders, corporate or otherwise; it is just the way it is. There is no obvious oppression or exploitation that is keeping the people down; there is just a general lack of economic activity and a very low availability of jobs. So in some ways Alice in Kenya picking tea for $3.50 per day is better off than many Tanzanians; at least she has a job. This is a difficult reality for me to get my head around--especially when you step back and take a look at the global picture of the system of trade that Alice is involved in and the massive wealth that this system is producing for some--but it seems to be the case.

This bigger system that I am referring to is international capitalism and the relatively small number of massive multi-national corporations that make up the big players in this system. I did a bit of research on the Unilever website, and it turns out that in 2009 the CEO of Unilever made the equivalent of approximately $4,300,000, not including the value of shares in the company which he also received. Alice and the millions of people like her working for Unilever's myriad subsidiaries make up the foundation of the massive supply chain which allows Unilever's executives and shareholders to obtain these massive amounts of money. Now I won't hide the fact that I am very uncomfortable with this system of wealth creation/attainment, but the complicating factors which preclude a simple condemnation of the actions of large multi-national corporations like Unilever are: 1) Alice and everyone else who works at the bottom of this supply chain is choosing to do this work, and she and these others are almost certainly making more money than they would be if Unilever wasn't directly or indirectly providing them with a job, and 2) The middle-men who come between Unilever and these bottom-rung workers--in this case the plantation owner who pays Alice seven cents per kilo of tea leaves--make it difficult to determine who is ultimately responsible for the fact that Alice works her butt off and still can't feed her family and send her kids to school.

In regard to this question of who is ultimately responsible for Alice’s situation, it seems to me that a number of possible answers could be given. Is it the plantation owner who takes an inordinately large profit before passing the tea up the supply chain? Is it Unilever because they set the price at which they will pay the middle-man for his tea, thus forcing him to skimp on his wages to his workers so that he can make even a reasonable profit? Is it the consumer in North America or wherever else Lipton tea is sold who is only willing to pay a pittance of his or her income to buy tea, so that Unilever is forced by the demands of the consumer to keep its costs so low that Alice can't make a decent wage? Is it the shareholders of Unilever who demand (implicitly in the act of purchasing stock) that Unilever do whatever necessary within the law to give them as high a return on their investment as possible? Or is it the combination of all of these factors working together? (and undoubtedly others that I haven't thought of or mentioned)

I think these are the types of questions that need to be asked if we want to figure out how to help Alice and millions of people like her. It is too easy for many people to either simply blame huge corporations for these sorts of problems, or to praise them for providing jobs at all, when in reality the system which allows Alice to be paid so poorly is far more complicated than these simple conclusions. Although I think that any of the various groups of people whom I mentioned could take action to intervene on Alice's behalf, the most potent power is held by the consumer.

This is what the fair trade movement is all about; it recognizes that consumers have the power to demand that Alice and others like her at the bottom end of the supply chain be paid a wage that allows them and their families to live respectable lives, to have enough food and to send their kids to school at the very least. Because while it is true that Alice is better off than she would be without her job picking tea, the fact remains that she is not being paid enough to feed and educate her children. I think as Christians we need to begin to think about standards other than the immutable laws of supply and demand for labor to decide what is a fair wage to pay people involved in producing the products that we buy. To pay Alice just enough so that she is better off than she would be without the job you are providing is really to take advantage of her desperateness. And sadly, maddeningly, this to my understanding is what the global system of trade that provides the world’s wealthy (i.e. me and you) with such an abundance of cheap products is founded upon. To pay extra for fair trade tea, coffee, or whatever else is being sold these days under a fair trade system, is to put your money where your mouth is in saying that you care about the least of these, the Alice's of the world. It is to confess that as a Christian (or even just as a caring human being), your standards for what the people involved in bringing you your products should be paid are not determined simply by what you can get away with. Millions of people are desperately poor, and I think that providing them with jobs is the best way to bring them out of poverty, but we as consumers need to use our power to ensure that we are buying products from companies which pay people a livable wage rather than taking advantage of and profiting from their desperateness.

And one additional note. Most of us are not CEO's of giant corporations, and I've already spoken about the power that we have as consumers to participate (even unknowingly, in fact almost always unknowingly) in the system that brings us cheap products by taking advantage of people's dire poverty, or to use our power as consumers to ensure that the people involved in producing the products that we buy are paid a wage that provides them with a decent life. But another position of power that many of you (not me yet) hold is that of a shareholder. On behalf of all of the people like Alice in the world, I would encourage you to take an interest in the companies that you invest in and use your power as a shareholder to speak up for those who don't have the strength or the power to speak up for themselves. As I understand it, for-profit companies have a legally binding duty to operate in such a way as to maximize profits for their shareholders. So when a person buys stock, whether or not they know it they are telling the company in which they are buying stock to do whatever is necessary within the limits of the law to maximize their profits. As Christians we have higher standards than legality (or at least we should), so we need to make these higher standards known to the companies in which we invest, or to choose companies to invest in which have a track record of using their power to ensure that the people involved in their supply chain receive a decent wage.

So it turns out that truly helping the Alice's of the world isn't easy. Of course she can be helped by our charity and hand-outs in the short term, but this is not a sustainable solution, and it does not provide her with a due measure of dignity. It also turns out that in a globalized economy our actions as economic agents are more ethically complicated than they have ever been, and than in most cases we would care to recognize. But helping Alice demands that we take an interest in how our purchases and investments either capitalize on her destitute state or serve to empower her and lift her out of poverty.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Kilimo Kwanza

Agriculture first, or Kilimo Kwanza, is a new initiative of the Tanzanian government to pour lots of effort and money into improving the agricultural sector of the country. I have been learning a lot about agriculture in Tanzania since I first arrived in late August. Since much of my time here has been spent on trying to plan, organize, and implement the agricultural project that I am working on in partnership with the church, I obviously needed to first get my bearings in regard to the challenges and opportunities facing farmers here.

So while I have learned a lot over the past five months, much of what I have learned has contradicted my presuppositions before coming here. First, unlike the United States, in which something like 2% of the population is responsible for the vast majority of the nation's food production, 80% of Tanzanians are subsistence farmers. This difference is due to a number of reasons, largely lack of access to the machinery and expensive fossil fuel and fossil fuel derived inputs (e.g. fertilizers) that make agriculture so productive in the U.S. (at least productive in the short term). Also, before arriving I had assumed that the East African peoples would be experts at doing agriculture tailored to their environment. It is widely believed that the human race began in East Africa before slowly spreading across the globe, so it seemed intuitive to me that the people here and their ancestors would have been practicing agriculture in this place for a very long time. However, the reality is that until fairly recently, the various tribes of people living in East Africa were primarily pastoralists; they raised cattle and other domestic animals and lived off of the meat and milk provided by these animals. This system worked well for thousands of years, but as the population began to explode in conjunction with the development of limited agriculture, the amount of grassland that was needed to support all of the grazing animals to feed the population was inadequate, so the agriculture that was present needed to expand drastically to feed the population. Also, because the Luo people (Shirati is almost entirely Luo people) living along the coast of Lake Victoria have always had abundant access to fish from the lake, they were not forced to practice agriculture as much as other peoples who did not have such an easily accessible food source.

So as far as I understand it, that is where things stand here today. People are being forced to rely increasingly on agriculture to meet the needs of the growing population, but since there is not a long history of agriculture here there seems to be a lot of room for improvement in terms of educating farmers about best-practice techniques. I certainly don't mean to imply that farmers here don't know what they are doing, compared to me they are experts, especially given the fact that many of them can't afford machines or chemicals. Rather, I mean simply to say that there is always room for improvement.

So obviously, since I know very little about agriculture, I am not the person to do agricultural education. Rather, my task here is to bring in people who do know a lot about sustainable, low input agriculture in Tanzania so that they can teach me and other farmers in the area. So this past week I, through MCC, organized an agricultural training course at the church offices here in Shirati for about 25-30 farmers in the area. We hired a trainer to come from Arusha for the week, and it ended up being a really great week of learning. This teacher was a native Tanzanian, and therefore a fluent Swahili speaker, and he taught all week about various methods of doing productive, organic, sustainable agriculture that require no expensive fertilizers and pesticides. Fortunately, he gave me a large packet of papers that contained the curriculum in English so that I was able to follow along as he taught in Swahili, otherwise I would have been hopelessly lost the whole week! I was very pleased with how things went, and I felt like for the first time I had helped to organize something that really, tangibly benefited some of the Tanzanians around me, which was very gratifying.

It was very interesting for me to participate in a formal class/seminar with all Tanzanians and to compare how things work here vs. the way things have worked at the various seminars that I have attended while in the U.S. Every day we would take a stretch break that would consist of someone leading a song or dance that we would all participate in, which of course I have never done at a seminar in the U.S. But it was certainly a lot of fun! We would always start a half-hour or hour late and we weren't very concerned about sticking to the schedule, but I have gotten used to that by now, and it didn't prevent us from learning a lot of material so it wasn't really a problem.

Also, in one week my Tanzanian work partner, Samara--who is helping me to start our instructional agriculture site--and I will head to Arusha for a week long class on vegetable farming at the World Vegetable Research Center. The thinking behind all of this training MCC is investing in is that if he and I are to start an instructional agriculture site for farmers in the area, we better know what we are doing! So while we both learned a lot this past week, we hope to learn still more during our week in Arusha. Travelling with Samara should be interesting seeing as it is pretty difficult for us to communicate well, but I am sure it will be an adventure. After the week of training, Samara will return to Shirati and I will stay in Arusha for another week for an MCC Tanzania team meeting. I am looking forward to seeing all of the other MCC Tanzania staff, many of whom I have not seen since November. It should be a good time of catching up and sharing stories.

I am amazed at how much I continue to learn here about life, the challenges of development work, poverty, faith and trust in God, and the culture of the people here (and conversely my own culture). My time here has certainly raised lots of questions in my mind about all sorts of things, and I will probably spend a lifetime trying to process some of these questions, but I am becoming increasingly convinced that experiences that force one to see the world in a new way and to ask new questions is more important than having the answers.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A New Year Begins

It has been a long time since my last post, a month in fact! A lot has happened in the last month, so an update is long overdue.

I had a great Christmas and New Year's week visiting an old friend and his parents in Mwanza, a big city (2nd biggest in Tanzania, although it is surprisingly undeveloped) about six hours away from Shirati by bus. I met this friend Eric during my semester in New Zealand with the Creation Care Study Program during my sophomore year at Calvin. He had just graduated from Calvin and was on staff with the program and we became good friends over the course of the semester. It turns out his parents are living in Mwanza for a year working with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), and Eric and his wife Margaret had planned a visit to see them over Christmas. They invited me to make the trip over and stay for a while, which made for a great Christmas and New Years. I hadn't seen Eric in two years, so it was good to reconnect with him again, and it was great meeting his parents and his brother as well. I really enjoyed the company and the small comforts of life that I am without here in Shirati, like hot showers and cheese. So now I have made new friends in Mwanza and I will probably go back to stay with Eric's parents for a few long weekends before they return to the U.S. in June.

Eric and I on a ferry crossing a bay in Lake Victoria

In regard to my work here, our agriculture project is still slowly moving forward. A few posts previous I mentioned that the church had hired a young man about my age to work with me on the project. He became sick in late October or early November, and he remained very weak and never really healed fully. It was finally discovered in early December, after he was admitted to the hospital, that he was suffering from AIDS. I assumed that he would start the ARV drugs (which are provided free by the Tanzanian government to all citizens with HIV/AIDS, I think with the help of PEPFAR money provided by G. W. Bush and the U.S.) and that he would slowly recover and live at least twenty more years with the help of the medicine. But his health steadily declined, and during the week between Christmas and New Years when I was in Mwanza I received a phone call and was told that he had passed away. So that was very surprising and sad.
He leaves behind a wife (who is probably about my age) and a young daughter.

Although death is quite common here and funerals--often for middle-aged or young adults--are a regular occurrence, this was the first death of someone that I had known here. I was unable to attend the funeral because I was in Mwanza, but in a way I was glad that I did not have to. I went to a funeral during my first week here when the 30-something-year-old daughter of my host family died during childbirth of a common and largely preventable condition (at least preventable in the Western world with access to the right drugs and pre-natal care), and I don't think I need to go to many more funerals. The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate among Tanzanian adults is approximately 6%, and I think it is a bit higher in this region of Tanzania.

So now the church has hired another young man with farming experience to work with me on the project. He also knows essentially no English, so my Swahili will still continue to improve as we work together. He told me he is 20 years old, and he has a wife and three children! The church here pays him the equivalent of $1.50 per day, which is considered to be a fairly good wage, although it is still appalling in terms of how little it can buy here in light of the fact that he is trying to provide for a family of five.

In other news, I had an experience today that really deserves its own blog post, but I did not want to add two posts in one day. I was invited by a man, who often comes to the church offices where I work, to come to his home and to be a guest at his church. We had attempted to pick a date many times, and each time something came up that made me have to cancel, but today I was finally able to make it. So another young pastor that works at the church offices and I made the journey out to this man's village this morning to be his guest, both in his home and at his church. We arrived at about 9:45 AM, and I was thinking that the church service would start at around 10:00 AM, but I have been here long enough to know that I shouldn't even try to predict these things because I am usually way off. So we were welcomed into his home, and we talked with his elderly father for just over an hour as we ate mandazis (fried dough ball, like a doughnut) and drank tea. I was very surprised at my ability to speak with and understand this old man as we spoke Swahili, which was very encouraging. I had already decided that I would not even try to anticipate what the day might hold so that I could just enjoy myself without wondering why things were moving so slowly or what might come next.

So eventually we walked over to the small church building very close to this man's home and we began the service. It turns out my host was the pastor of this church of about 30 people (2/3 of whom were small children--a microcosm of the young Tanzanian population structure). The service went on for a few hours in typical fashion, except that as the distinguished guest I sat up front with the other pastors as if I was a member of the clergy. Then at the end of the service I was asked to explain the work that I am doing here with MCC and to take questions from the church members about their agricultural problems! If only they knew how little I know about agriculture in Tanzania I thought to myself. So I spent the next ten minutes fielding questions and doing my best in most cases to deftly answer them without really providing much useful information, which made me feel a lot like a politician. And since this was all happening in Swahili I really felt like I was in over my head, but they seemed to be generally pleased with my responses. Then at the end of the service I was asked to pray over the offering, so I offered up my very brief prayer, which due to my language inability contained content similar to what a seven year old might have prayed, but I survived.

So this brought us to about 2:45 PM, at which point my traveling companion and I really thought we should be heading back, but our hosts insisted that we stay for lunch, which I had already expected based on previous experiences. So as we sat eating lunch we could hear a thunderstorm approaching, and since we had walked we thought we should probably be going if we didn't want to get soaked on the way home. But in typical, super-hospitable Tanzanian fashion, an approaching thunderstorm was deemed by our hosts to be an insufficient reason to leave so quickly, so we stayed around for awhile and went through the typical ritual of protracted goodbyes and profuse thanking of the guest by the host and of the host by the guest. But as I was standing by the door, listening to the rain start, in awe of our inability to leave and at the seeming indifference and infinite patience of the pastor I had travelled with, I began to realize that this was one of the many moments where I could learn something from the Tanzanians around me. A potential rainstorm with a long walk home ahead of you is no reason to rush out of the home of a host who wants so badly to feed you until you think you might burst and to ensure that you have had a wonderful time in their home. As it turns out, the rain held off and we had a dry journey home; maybe the others knew it wouldn't rain hard, or maybe they just knew that protecting the honor of a host is more important than staying dry.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christmas time is here

It is hard to believe that Christmas is only two weeks away! I have heard reports of snow storms in West Michigan, and since my last memories of home are from the middle of August with the sun shining I am starting to realize that I have been gone a while already. It is certainly strange to be living at the equator as Christmas approaches; I am finding it hard to believe that it is actually mid December because everything I associate with winter and the approach of the holidays is absent here. Every day feels like the height of summer to me, which is great, although I am missing the changing seasons.

I was able to post some pictures while on an MCC retreat a few weeks ago because I had brief access to somewhat fast internet, so hopefully the photos give you a very small visual glimpse of some of the things I am experiencing here.

So a few weeks ago, in mid November, MCC had its annual all staff retreat. It was a really wonderful time of relaxing, refreshing and sharing joys and struggles with each other. We all met in Arusha for a few days and then we took a small bus to a beach resort on the shore of the Indian Ocean for a three day stay. The place we stayed at was called Emayani Beach Lodge, and it was a really simple and eco-friendly but also very beautiful place. We did a lot of relaxing and swimming; the water was at least 90 degrees Fahrenheit which is amazingly warm for an ocean! One of the days we took a boat trip to a sand island a little ways off the coast and went snorkeling along the coral reefs that surrounded the island. It was really beautiful, with tons of colorful fish and exotic looking coral. My favorite part was seeing 3 octopi as they slowly crawled from one coral to another, changing shape and color and texture in unbelievable ways as they blended in to their surroundings. We also were able to watch two baby sea turtles emerge from their sub-terrainian beach nest and make their mad dash to the sea, avoiding hermit crabs (with our help of course) along the way. Since I can't add pictures here in Shirati, here is a link to a blog of a fellow SALTer in Tanzania with some nice pictures.

After returning to Arusha having finished our time on the coast, everyone prepared to return to their various home and work locations throughout the country. I and another family had to make the customary journey through the Serengeti to get back to our homes here, so we decided that since our park fees would already be covered by MCC and since on our way through we would be passing right by the Ngorongoro Crater (the road is built on part of the rim) we might as well pay a little bit more to enter the crater and have ourselves a safari. So we did just that, and it was incredible! The crater itself was indescribably beautiful, and we saw all kinds of animals up close as we drove around, like lions, buffalo, wildebeest, ostrich, hyenas, hardabeast (what a great name), elephants, warthogs, gazelle, and a few rhino and tons of flamingo at a distance. And then after spending the morning in the crater, we of course still had to drive through the Serengetti plains and woodland to get to our destination, and we saw a whole bunch more animals! It was a great trip to say the least. I have posted pictures on my facebook page so if you are interested and have a facebook account you can check them out.

Upon arriving back in Shirati it was a little difficult to adjust back to everyday, largely uneventful life here after such an awesome vacation, but this place is very slowly starting to feel more like home the longer I am here. The agriculture project I am working on is slowly moving forward, and we hope to fix the irrigation windmill next week. My Swahili is always improving, as the moments where I am surprised by my own ability to speak and to understand someone are becoming more frequent. Two steps forward and one step backward is how it feels, but I am slowly getting better.

I am curious to see what Christmas will be like here; I have already noticed a huge difference as the festivities leading up to Christmas day have thus far been non-existent. It will be strange to experience a Christmas that is so much simpler and more specifically religious than what I am accustomed to, but as my pastor said to me in a recent e-mail, this will be a Christmas that I will always remember as the Good News of Christ coming to live among us is stripped of all the familiarity and consumeristic cultural hooplah that I am accustomed to and boiled down to its simple but beautiful essence. So while I will certainly miss everything about Christmas that I know and love--like being with family, snow, and annual traditions--I am trying to embrace this Christmas as an opportunity to experience the gift of God, in coming to live among us as one of us, as enough all by itself. Nothing else about the season that I know and love to distract or detract from the Good News of the incarnation.

In other news, just in case any of you have sent me a letter and have not heard from me that I received it, that would be because I haven't received it. While I have gotten a few letters and packages from people, a lot of mail has gotten stuck somewhere on the long journey and has not yet made it to me here. But I am patiently waiting for the day when all of a sudden it all appears in a bundle at the post office (or so I hope).

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


A very old elephant blocking the road in front of us in the Serengetti

Giraffe also in the Serengetti

My living room

Myself and other MCC workers by a small lake in Ngorongoro Crater