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.
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.