Reflections on Tanzania from Kelligrews Kiwanis Club

Follow this link to hear my podcast interview with Marian White, the Atlantic public engagement representative for Cuso. This was her last interview for Cuso – I think it was a good one!

Cuso returned volunteers at City Hall in St. John's

Cuso returned volunteers at City Hall in St. John’s

My presentation in Kelligrews, Conception Bay South

My presentation in Kelligrews, Conception Bay South

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Run For The World

February 26th, I will be running a half marathon at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, out of the town of Moshi. I have been training hard (with a break for the month of December – oops). Support me by donating to VSO here!

Flocks of children have been entertained by my daily runs around Kamachumu (elevation: 1400m with steep hills galore), and I have found them useful for motivation, whether it’s racing boys up a hill, kicking a soccer ball on the way by, or clapping my hands along to their songs as I pass. Who needs an iPod when you’re the Pied Piper?!*

This won’t be my first race in Africa. Something like the third week I was in the Gambia, I took part in the annual Njawara Marathon, which raises money for the Health Centre. We were still in language training, and in the morning I’d head out and try to run a few kilometres in my long linen pants and t-shirt. The shirt was a gift from Crystal out of a Molson box but I took it for granted that the locals wouldn’t understand “Party Animal”.  In a country that’s 95% Muslim, you tend to keep covered as a matter of course. Running in long pants in sand is hard enough as it is, then add greeting every single person you see. It would go like this: How are you? I am here! How’s the farm? It’s here! The family? They’re there! I hope there’s nothing wrong with them? Nope! Good job for doing that farm work! Thanks, you are running! Yes, I’m running! At that point you would have to start the same conversation with the next person. Even if you saw someone far across a field, you would be expected to yell out to them, clasp your hands in an air-handshake and say “Jerejef!”, expressing how impressed you are at the work they’re doing.

At first the endless greetings seem at best, a waste of time, at worst, paralyzing, when you just can’t remember the proper responses. After a while it becomes a safety net. You know you’re safe, even with white skin, when you’ve greeted every person with a smile on your face. They will come looking for you if you don’t turn up. They’ll come looking for you either way, actually. Here in Tanzania that understanding has served me so well. It even has the ability to turn the tide on a bad day; walking down the street and being cajoled into smiling at everyone and yelling mpao! (mm-pa-OH – goodbye in the local Kihaya language) at the little children is an unbeatable mood lifter.

What with my mostly useless “training”, race day in Njawara crept up rather quickly. I don’t think I mentioned: the “marathon” is not. Men run 11km and women run 5km. Kids run 3km. All the participants got into the manure spreader on the tractor to be driven out to the start points. Prophetically, the village that the girls’ race started from was called Dares Salaam. I’m convinced it was closer to 7km back to Njawara. All along the way, the villagers lined the road and yelled “Toubab! Hurry! Don’t give up!”

I felt pretty awful as I crossed the finish line; thank goodness Leanne was there to take care of me for the next hour. I think I would have kept running straight through the crowds and tents if someone (Sambas, I think, who became a good friend) hadn’t caught me and directed me over to the table to sign my name. The sand and the midday sun were vicious rivals, but I managed third out of seven girls! For the rest of my stay, I was known as the girl who ran in the marathon. Apparently it was even on TV! Way to become popular, albeit while looking completely ridiculous:

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This time around I have stepped up the training to match the intensity (a real half marathon of 21km) and importance of the race. Last time I ran it to build relationships and to prove that a not-so-tiny white girl could run. It worked. This time, I’m joining the VSO Tanzania team to raise money for Education programming and I have even made a fundraising page. Education is certainly the most important cause in Tanzania and VSO has traditionally made a huge difference in the area. Many successful Tanzanians recall VSO teachers from their school days. The school system in Tanzania is a mess of high fees, underqualified, underpaid teachers, and the preposterous system that Kiswahili is taught in Primary school, switching spontaneously to English in Secondary. The system flat-out doesn’t work. VSO Tanzania is working in a multiple-pronged approach, addressing policy, training teachers, and some actual in-classroom teaching. It’s an initiative that will help this country to step out of corruption and poverty if the players coordinate well.

I have set a modest goal of $500 but I hope to surpass it! Please donate a few dollars to support VSO Tanzania’s Education programming by clicking here. In exchange… I promise to only pass out after the finish line! I will need Venessa and Tijana to catch me (I don’t mind if it’s with one hand and a Serengeti in the other), but experience goes to show that some Tanzanians yelling mzungu! would be helpful as well!

*Instead I use my iPod to drown out the endless thumping bass from the local bars when I’m trying to sleep.

Cuso International Shows Up In Dar!

CUSO-VSO has recently undergone a facelift and transitioned to a new name, Cuso International. Umeeda Switlo, who works with Cuso, is currently in Rwanda doing a placement. She popped over to Dar for Tanzania’s, and VSO Tanzania’s 50 year celebrations which happened alongside our Annual Volunteer Conference (AVC). She interviewed most of the Canadian volunteers, and managed to grab a few minutes of my time between breakfast and my first Intermediate Kiswahili lesson. Needless to say I was only half awake, having come off a very busy week, but I think I sound reasonably lucid!

Listen to the interview by clicking here!

On Power Dynamics

Meetings are a good place to observe power dynamics, particularly since I don’t understand much of what’s being said.

This thought came to me while sitting outside Bukoba’s nicest hotel, waiting for World Vision Tanzania representatives. Sunday (my boss) and I had come to town for a meeting with them at 9:30am. However, when we arrived at the office, nobody was there – they had gone for a year-end meeting up at the Walk Guard hotel. I don’t know where the fault lay for the miscommunication, but we went up to the hotel to give them our reports, bringing us to sitting outside, waiting.

The word that came to mind was marginalized. Now, maybe that feeling was only partially accurate, since Sunday is a well-respected businessman and I am, well, white. But he doesn’t speak English and is computer illiterate, and I was dressed in sandals and carrying a backpack. The feeling was magnified when we were pulled in to the room during tea break. At every seat there was a laptop and a slide show was being projected onto a screen at the front. They had dismissed us before we even walked in the door, but Sunday tried his best to adhere to the formal process of greetings and introductions. Upon asking them to explain a call for proposals to me, the two men looked pityingly in his direction and said, “they just think that you have arrived with some money, but that’s not true is it”. And proceeded to tell Sunday that I was still learning and perhaps later I could be of some financial assistance. Out of politeness I did not say, “perhaps you could explain the grant to me and I could be of some assistance now”. We were shuttled off immediately and the two men rushed to their tea. We, of course, were not invited to share it.

A meeting I attended yesterday allowed me to get a different picture. It was a quarterly meeting of KALIDEA, a larger organisation on the same model as KAVIPE. Some of our CBO’s also belong to KALIDEA, and Mkinga, the livestock officer, spends much of his time on their animals. It was an honour to be invited, I soon learned. Let me set the stage: me and Joseph (another VSO) at the head table along with the Muleba District government vet, and three Board members of KALIDEA. The rest of the room was filled with Division representatives and extension officers. I was the only woman in the room and the youngest person by at least 20 years. The meeting went on for four hours while representatives read aloud every word of their quarterly reports, and discussed pressing issues like stolen livestock and insubordinate splinter groups. The meeting finished with the government vet reaming out Mkinga publicly for insufficient rabies control in the area (!!).

Although the meeting was extremely formal, and a rather shocking representation of the old boys’ club, we managed to make some concessions. When I introduced myself (in English with Joseph translating – this was no time for bumbling along in Kiswahili… I am called Margaret, I come from Canada, my work is a livestock advisor… *shudder*) I smiled, explained exactly what I was doing here and for how long, and said, “I admit, I am quite young,” and received a gratifying, and somewhat embarrassed guffaw from the men. In turn, the Chair greeted me, his last sentence being “and you can help us out with gender!”, prompting an equally humble laugh from me. We had managed to clear the two elephants in the room, which is more than I can say for the World Vision fiasco. From this meeting, I hope I gained some respect. I certainly gained many an invitation to visit other Divisions and to meet the players in the government ag offices: this good. I exist.

Now comes my admission that I am more comfortable in a room full of older, well-educated male farmers and extension officers than I am in a meeting of KAVIPE stakeholders; poorer, the baseline of the population, less educated. My worldview differs from both groups, but the latter is removed by another degree. So my challenge evolves: how do I engage the farmers that really need to be heard? The ones who have little power, and as such, are so much harder to communicate with? How can I avoid marginalizing them as Sunday and I were in Bukoba? How do I help make them exist?

When I went to the equivalent KAVIPE meeting a few weeks ago, the attendees were at least of mixed gender; the age thing is another can of beans altogether, as hierarchal cultures can be somewhat unreceptive to youth. I was expected to give flowery greetings, make light of my marital status and whether I had any children, and summarize every village and type of farm I had visited thus far – all in Kiswahili. The reports handed in were all handwritten, not typed, and the presence of our Chair, Sunday, did not elicit the same deference as did KALIDEA’s. Toward the end of the meeting, one of the farmers stood up and began to rant to the audience about the need for a change of attitude, the need for hard work, the need to take opportunities like VSO volunteers and run with them. The need for innovation and movement forward before the entire place stagnates.

So my relative discomfort retreats. If people like that are part of KAVIPE, the stakeholders are accessible. Instead of wishing I was speaking English and theorizing about improvements to the local systems with government employees, I can latch on to the people who create grassroots momentum.

I am currently writing a proposal for a workshop to do a rough organisational assessment of KAVIPE with some of the key stakeholders. I hope to learn how to communicate and identify with them more than the old boys’ club. KAVIPE has access to the people who hold the key to change around here, I think. But I will make nice with the government boys too. I will be needing their support, it doesn’t hurt to debate theory from time to time, and it doesn’t hurt to show a young female face in the midst of their institutionalized ways.

*I have a video of this that I will share when I can upload larger files!

Karibu Tanzania!

If you plan to visit me in Tanzania – and you should – you need to learn only one phrase before you come. It’s like teaching Korean children to ride horses. All they say is “It’s okay! It’s okay! It’s okay!” until you want to scream (“my head is going to explode, it is NOT okay!!”). In Tanzania, all they say to foreigners is “Karibu Tanzania! Karibu Tanzania! [pronounced care-ee-bou]”. It means “Welcome to Tanzania”, and it’s stuck in my head like you wouldn’t believe. In response, you say “Asante sana” [ah-sahn-tay sah-nah], meaning thank you very much. So that’s what I need you all to learn:

Asante sana

I’m telling you this because we are currently doing a one-week crash course in Swahili, the national language in Tanzania. Myself and fourteen other new VSO Volunteers are trying to learn an entire language in one freakin week. Context: the Peace Corps Volunteers get three months. Therefore I plan to hunt down a PCV to teach me when I get to Kagera [kah-gay-rah] region. I would prefer to hire a local for my Swahili lessons, but the sad fact is, even a Tanzanian teacher in a local school will generally not be able to teach a mzungu [white person – mm-zoun-gou] their language. The school system is just too poor. School system aside, without specific training, it can be hard to teach someone your native tongue. I’m not entirely sure I could teach someone English grammar; I never really learned it!

Swahili is a language derived from Bantu (a native East African language), Arabic and English. Since it’s a newer language, the spelling is phonetic, meaning that each letter stands for one sound – unlike English. It is considered the uniting force of Tanzania, having brought all the tribes together and promoted a national identity. Swahili was made the official language by the first president, Nyeyre, after the country gained independence in 1961. He’s extremely respected and referred to as “the grandfather of the nation”. Swahili is spoken widely in East Africa: they say it was born in Tanzania, corrupted in Kenya, died in Uganda and buried in Rwanda. So I’m learning the “true” Swahili (I bet they’d tell me that in Uganda too). They say the same thing about Wolof in Gambia and Senegal: the Senegalese were convinced that the Gambians had mutilated their precious language.

Swahili sounds sort of like Italian, because all the borrowed English words get “i” stuck on the end. So other than Italian, it kinda sounds like baby talk. Some gems:

crazy = chizi [cheesy]
roundabout = kipilefiti [keepee-leftee](yup you got it, they drive on the left!)
fence = fenzi
stamp = stampu
brother = kaka
candy = pipi [peepee]
toilet paper = toileti paper [toilety paper]
okay, let’s move on = hi (extremely confusing when your language trainer keeps saying “hi!” in the middle of the lesson)
what is this? = hii ni nini [hee nee neenee] (please picture us running around yelling hii ni nini! and shaking different items in people’s faces…)

Soon I’ll start a list of Swahili terms that I’ve used on my blog and pronunciations.