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.


  1. Brian--

    I understand what you said about sometimes enjoying not not understanding conversation (or being expected to contribute)! As another introvert and terrible conversationalist, I also sometimes enjoy sitting at supper and zoning out or thinking while I eat. Although this is probably part of why I tend to eat far more than I need to! :)


  2. It's sort of funny for me to picture you not having a clue, as I would imagine you being one of the first people I'd ask in (English) conversation to explain/catch me up to speed if I were lost. I guess it's a practice in humility, huh?