Peace Corps service is like a looooong run on a treadmill, with some devil-of-a-person playing with the speed level and incline settings… You are always at the very end, feet flying off the back. You land every time at the final few inches of the racing belt, just about to lose balance. Sometimes it all feels more manageable, maybe you’re getting used to it, maybe you’re getting better at it, the hill doesn’t seem as steep as it once did. But in reality it’s just the hand of some wanna-be-god slowing things down a bit for you. And right when you start to think out loud that things have become a little easier, right when some optimisms starts to flow through your veins, increasing self-confidence, increasing the desire and ambition to keep on going, the finger falls on the up arrows. That hill becomes a mountain and your legs are frantically forced to increase the pace. It’s all good, though. The endless race to keep from falling off the edge is worth it and always will be.
Now what prompted that metaphor, you may ask? Well, things have been busy. I’ve just returned to my village after an exhausting but extremely rewarding 3 and ½ weeks. What filled this month? Mid-service training, a week of organizing and planning, a little thing called the LEAD Conference, an AIDS awareness and testing soccer tournament, and lastly an afternoon of swim lessons for a few brave women… Settle in, this is a long entry.
I left my site after the first week of April to head to Dar es Salaam for my mid-service training. This is a weeklong training that all volunteers attend. The focus is mostly on health check-ups (doctor and dentist appointments), but it is also a time to share and reflect, to plan for the next year, and to think about extension opportunities in country should a volunteer wish to stay for another year. In addition to those topics, our MST also focused on remembering Robbie, the PCV in our class who passed away in a bus accident last year.
We started off the week with a small memorial in his honor – candles, pictures, music, and time to share memories and other things. I wrote a poem for the occasion and was the first to read.
Others read poetry as well, or letters, or messages from Robbie’s friends back home. Many just stood to share stories, both funny and sad. We also spent some time thinking about how we will always remember him in our daily life and in our work as PCVs. We each wrote these goals on some paper – here’s mine:
This means I will fetch water every Tuesday – it’s an inside joke in our class from when we were modifying songs for our medley for the swearing-in performance at the embassy over a year ago now. That was his song (Club’s Goin’ Up!)
On Friday of that week, we also spent the afternoon down by the beach in Robbie’s honor. Peace Corps bought five biodegradable dove balloons for us, and we wrote down short messages, or a few words, or just our names, and then sent the doves up up and away.
Also, before leaving the office to walk to the water, we each took a stone with us to symbolize all the things that weighed us down this past year: the things associated with Robbie’s death, the things faced during our service here that wear on us, and anything else that may have come into our lives… We each took our stone and threw it out into the water, and I have to admit, it felt pretty good.
Some partners came at the end of the week to talk about extension opportunities. Currently extending PCVs also came to give us some advice and details on the process. I’m still undecided, but there are some cool opportunities out there that I could nail down easily enough – the question is whether or not I want to stay here for another year.
Other highlights from MST week included hanging out at an expat’s house, and brunch at a revolving restaurant. We actually started off our week on Sunday with brunch – unlimited food (delicious stuff), unlimited mimosas and bloody marys, and some really awesome live music.
I’ll focus on the live music because that was my favorite part. The band was made up of all Tanzanians, and they could play every genre, and play it well (everything from jazz to Tanzanian pop hits). The only thing they lacked in my book was a horn player or two. The keys were great, the guitar player was an awesome soloist, the bass player could groove hard to anything, the drummer was super solid, and the two vocalists were extremely impressive. The female vocalist even successfully rocked Adele.
After about the first minute of hearing them play, I decided I’d have to play with them. I also got another volunteer on board to play the congas. We sat in for just one song, a simple funk jam, but it was so much fun. I felt really rusty, especially when it came to soloing, but it was great to groove especially with the bass player, who clearly loves funk music. Seeing all of my fellow PCVs enjoying the music was awesome too.
After we finished playing, one of the managers came out to me and tapped me on the shoulder. He held out a bottle of Ciroc vodka and told me, “I would like to present this to you for musical excellence, and as a thank you for your entertainment. Everyone enjoyed.” I laughed inside because he seemed so serious – musical excellence indeed. He also told me I had better share it with my conga-playing friend. I told him not to worry about that. He brought over some ice and a few of us did a small shot of deliciously cold, good quality vodka. We decided to save the rest for another time, though – why get buzzed on alcohol I can take back with me when there is an abundance of free alcohol with a time limit to take advantage of already?? Needless to say, I enjoyed more of it the rest of the week with my fellow percussionist, and others…
I also spent a great day the weekend after MST with some volunteers who were staying with an awesome expat (she actually served in Tanzania as a PCV as well). We used the gym in her building, watched Disney movies, and cooked a delicious dinner (a paneer veggie curry of sorts). It was a refreshing afternoon and evening.
The week after MST was a long week of work for me. It had somehow fallen to me to ensure the success of the LEAD Conference – Leadership Experience and Development Conference. This conference is an USAWA program, so as I member of that committee, I took it on with the help of a few other PCVs. Ten PCVs (and their four students and one counterpart each) were selected to attend the conference way back in October. Originally the conference was planned for January, but the funding source fell through, and the members of USAWA who were originally in charge finished their service. Somehow we managed to get the new grant submitted, and the whole event organized over the course of about a month. A lot of it was last minute, but it all came together and was a true success. All the PCVs in attendance helped to facilitate the sessions – it was a great collaboration.
Session topics included team building and teamwork, malaria, HIV/AIDS, sexual health, condoms, nutrition and home gardening, goal setting (a whole day focused on this, including a visit to a nearby university, and many guest speakers), science competitions, gender roles and stereotypes (and a gender equality debate), and action planning for bringing it all home to the student’s schools and communities.
The students not only had the opportunity to learn about this great variety of topics, but also to express themselves through teach-backs, arts and crafts, and a talent show. These are some of the vision board collages that the students made, focusing on their goals and dreams in life. We did this activity at the end of the “career day” – the day with the guest speakers and university visit.
The conference was one week long, and while it was an exhausting one, it was totally worth it. So many smiles on the faces of the secondary students, and even after just those few days at the conference, some of them seemed so much more confident. PCVs were saying things like, “I never knew she could speak so much English,” or “I’ve never seen him say more than a few words in class.” We provided them this opportunity to put themselves out on the line in a safe setting, and I was happy to see so many of the students taking advantage of it, stepping out into the spotlight to see what it’s like. I think they’ll all remember that week for the rest of their lives.
After that week in Morogoro at the conference, I travelled to the village of a neighboring PCV for the weekend. So close to home, and yet so far away! Our long-awaited event, an AIDS awareness and testing soccer tournament involving 6 teams from 8 different villages (four of those villages combined to form two teams), finally actually happened. We wanted to do the event for World AIDS Day, but had issues with the grant (it took forever to move it through and get it approved). But we made it work in the end.
The village hosting the event won the tournament, but everyone had a great time. Unfortunately, the t-shirt printer we used for our t-shirts screwed up and did not get the shirts finished in time – failed promises are not uncommon here… That was a big bummer. BUT, we will deliver the shirts to those who tested later on. Another downer is that the tournament started and therefore ended late (no real surprise there, let’s be real), which meant that the community theater group did not get to do their performance as planned. They will instead do it on this coming Saturday for a smaller audience… You win some, you lose some.
Still, there were some good speeches about the importance of testing for HIV for everyone to hear (I’d say there were about 2,000 if not more people present). Plus 164 people were tested, received counseling, and saw condom demos – 101 men, and 63 women. The day became a heavy one for 8 of the 10 people who tested positive, as it was the moment they found out they have HIV. 4 of the 10 tested positive were females in their 20s, 5 of the 10 were males in their 30s, and 1 was a male age 45. I like to believe that it must have been a good place and time to find out. There was support available from professionals, and they could get help immediately. I just hope they follow through and make the effort to actually obtain take their medicine…
The day after the tournament was also a special one. Chris, the volunteer who hosted and organized the majority of the testing day, had the idea to raffle off one of his bikes to those who found the courage to get into a body of water. There is a dam used for seasonal electricity in his village, and we enjoy going to swim there every so often. Chris also brings some of his friends from the village there to test their bravery.
In general, most Tanzanians are afraid of water – they didn’t grow up swimming like many Americans, and so do not feel comfortable around it. Chris acquired a life jacket from some expats in town, and has been slowly encouraging a few people from his community to give it a try.
While many men have tried it out, with the help of the lifejacket, and even without, only a few women have gotten into the water (maybe just two before this past weekend). It took a lot of convincing, but four more women made it into the water with our help and promise that they would not drown. One woman freaked out and almost drowned ME as I attempted to help her in the water, but hey, it happens…
It might have been raining, the water was quite cold, and I’ve never seen Tanzanians shiver so much, but they all wanted in! A free bike is good incentive.
After we returned from the dam, all the names of those who swam were written down, and Chris chose the winner of the bike.
We were happy that it was one of the women who swam for her very first time earlier that day. She was bashfully thrilled, and took her bike home with pride. We told her that we would be having a going-away party for Chris the next weekend (he is finishing his service) and that she is welcome to come to the dam with us again. She said without hesitation that she will swim again next weekend. Chris heard her bragging around to some others, and another woman came up to me later saying that she too would swim next weekend. She then made sure that I would be there to help her, which was adorable, and when I said yes, she was all smiles… Definitely a feel-good day for us.
The next day, I finally made it back to my village and home. I didn’t choke on too many spider webs as I entered my house, which was a pleasant surprise I suppose. My mosquito net was half fallen down, which suggests rats, but I’ve still yet to hear them, so maybe they left. Also, every wooden surface had mold growing on it… that was unexpected. Some of my clothing also harvested a bit of mold, and my belt was absolutely consumed by it – I guess mold likes old leather the best. Needless to say, I am ready for the rainy season to be over… On a more positive note, the rain barrel I made before leaving works well (no leaks!) and is completely full. And at least my sheets and pillow didn’t have any mold growing on them – not that I could find, that is.
And now I have two full weeks in the vil to get my feet under me once again. I have some Environmental Club lessons planned at the primary and secondary schools, a mamas group meeting (we’re cooking bean burgers!), and I will start to form an actual plan for my water project. I’ll also re-do my permagarden… It’s in rough shape after my long trips from the village without adequate care. I’m not too disappointed though, because now I’ll get to design it for the dry season (assuming it arrives), and will be able to test out my drip irrigation system that I got from the water training last year. It’ll be fun.
As you can see, it has been a crazy whirlwind this past month. But I am still at the back of that treadmill, running hard, keeping my balance, waiting in patient desperation (that may or may not be a contradiction…) for a finger to press the down arrow a few times. My legs might be tired, but I won’t let them give out.