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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Go with the Flow...

The only certainty when doing cross-cultural volunteer work is that there are no certainties. So while I came to Shirati with an idea of the project that I had hoped to be able to work on, things have thus far not gone exactly according to plan. The large-scale reforestation and economic development project which the previous SALT service worker based in Shirati before me had spent most of his time planning has been put on hold by MCC in large part because of the financial situation in the U.S. and Canada. The project would have required a large financial commitment from MCC to get started, and as is the case for most businesses and organizations around the world budgets are tight this year. So it is disappointing to learn that a financial downturn in the industrialized world affects even economic development and environmental protection projects in Tanzania, but that is the nature of the interconnected world we live in. I hope to learn more about the status and future of the project when I attend my first MCC Tanzania all-staff retreat next week, but for now it is looking like I will be spending most of my time working on other projects.

However, the good news is that there are other projects that I will be able to work on here that will aim to simultaneously address the economic poverty of the people and the ecological degradation of the land, problems which are interconnected and need to be addressed together. The church has recently hired a young man named David who is about my age to work with me on starting an agriculture project on church property near Lake Victoria. Our goal is to use the site both for educational purposes and for income generation for the church’s Orphans and Vulnerable Children program. We hope to integrate new technologies and farming techniques, such as using a wind turbine to draw water from the lake to irrigate the land, so that farmers in the area can learn new ways of farming that are affordable and sustainable. We also hope to plant many trees throughout the site as a demonstration that trees and agriculture can be done together. David does not really speak any English, so working closely together will certainly help my Swahili speaking skills to improve.

As for life here beyond my work, overall things are going well. The people here are very kind and welcoming, even surprisingly so at times, and I have appreciated their hospitality and willingness to help me and to be patient with me, especially when I cannot figure out what they are trying to say! I have been spending a lot of time reading in the evenings, which I have really been enjoying as it is difficult to have intellectually-stimulating conversations across a language barrier. It has also helped to ease the transition as this is the first fall season that I can remember when I have not been in school.

I have become accustomed to not understanding what is going on most of the time unless someone is talking directly to me. Most of the time people speak too quickly for me to understand, although my language skills are slowly improving, so I am not able to follow the conversation. On top of the fact that I am a novice Swahili speaker, the area I am living in is almost entirely made up of people from the Luo tribe (which historically has surrounded Lake Victoria), so much of the time people speak Luo to one another. Almost everyone here speaks Swahili and Luo fluently, and many people know English on top of that! Needless to say I am very impressed by their language abilities as I am struggling to learn only my second language. Since I have no intentions of learning Luo and my Swahili is not that great I have accepted the fact that I often won’t know what is happening. While this could conceivably be very frustrating, I have actually learned to sort of enjoy it. I have lots of time to think and daydream, which as in introvert I tend to enjoy, and because I don’t know what is going on a lot of the time people don’t expect much from me in terms of contributing to conversations, so I have learned to enjoy being an active observer and learner.

I am looking forward to attending the quarterly MCC Tanzania retreat next week. It will be good to share the joys and struggles of life and work here with others going through similar experiences.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bringing you up to speed...

I have been in Tanzania for about two months now, and have finally decided to set up a blog! My internet is better here in Shirati than I had anticipated, so I think that maintaining a blog is feasible. Unfortunately it will probably be difficult or impossible to add pictures because of my internet connection here, so I'll have to try to write extra well in their absence.

I spent my first month in the city of Arusha doing Swahili language training with the two other Tanzania SALT volunteers, Cara and Rachel. We had a good time getting to know each other and studying together, and at the end of our time in Arusha I was very impressed with how much of the language we had learned. Our teacher was a young man about my age named Humphray; he came to our house each weekday and taught us from 8:00 AM until 3:00 PM. We made lunch together everyday, which gave him the chance to cook some traditional Tanzanian food for us and us the chance to cook for him some North American dishes. He was a wonderful teacher and a great guy; I really enjoyed getting to know him.

After a good month of language and cultural introduction in Arusha, I boarded a bus for my eight hour journey to the small town of Shirati where I would be living and working for the next ten months. The road from Arusha to Shirati leads right through the middle of the Serengeti National Park, so as a bonus I was able to see a huge array of African animals from the window of the bus as we drove by. I saw a lion family, an elephant, three giraffes, hippopotami, gazelle, zebra, baboons, ostriches, and probably some more cool animals that I am forgetting. The bus ride was long and uncomfortable, but overall quite enjoyable because of the novelty of the experience. I was the only non-Tanzanian on the bus, heading to who-knows-where, equipped with my very basic Swahili language skills, taking it all in and enjoying every moment.

Shirati is a small town (population approx. 5,000) located in the very Northern part of Tanzania, 3 km from Lake Victoria and about 15 km from the Kenyan border. Mennonites from the U.S. and Canada first came here in the 1930’s, and ever since then there has been a steady presence of Mennonite missionaries/development workers from North America. The Mennonite Church in Tanzania now has over 60,000 members, all stemming from the initial encounter in Shirati. Much of the work that Mennonites have done here centers on Shirati hospital, which was constructed with the assistance of North American Mennonites and continues to operate with financial assistance from Mennonite groups in North America.

The mission of MCC is not evangelism but work related to relief, development and peace. In many cases (such as here in Shirati), MCC partners with an already established church to address various issues and problems facing the community. I am still unsure as to what exactly my work here will entail, but it will be in some way related to the promotion of environmental and human health. I am working in conjunction with and under the direction of the Tanzanian Mennonite Church.

I am now spending my days working on my Swahili language skills (although many people here speak English well) and building relationships with people here. SALT stands for “Serving and Learning Together”, and while I certainly hope to contribute something positive to the community here during my ten month stay, it is already very evident that I will learn a great deal by simply living here and sharing life with the people of Shirati. I eat all of my meals with my host family and spend time at their house, and I live at my own place nearby in a small house that I share with a young Tanzanian doctor.

I’ll probably post updates rather infrequently, but check back periodically if you are interested in following my journey!