IST (In-Service Training)

27 04 2011

So as I promised, I’d have a post detailing my experience at IST, or In-Service Training. This is a time, 4 months after a volunteer has been at site that all volunteers for a particular class come back together to receive additional training. For me, the timing of the training was ideal since I would only miss 1 week or school rather than two like most other volunteers because my mid-semester break happened to fall during the first week of the training. Most of the training was related to what are called “secondary projects” for education volunteers in the Peace Corps. Obviously our first and foremost job is to be a teacher. However, we are encouraged, if we so choose, to engage in other activities either within the school community or the community as a whole. These activities include HIV/AIDS awareness programs, sustainable farming/gardening techniques, creation of afterschool clubs at a school, or for the truly ambitious a revenue generating project designed to increase the economic capabilities of your village. After only 4 months, most volunteers haven’t had a chance to begin any type of secondary project because the first months are spent simply integrating into the community and accessing the needs/wants of the school and or community. However, as we settle into our communities, we are able to begin to better access their needs. During pre-service training we didn’t really have much time devoted to such things as the process of starting a life skills club or teaching HIV/AIDS awareness so this time was intended to give us ideas on how to begin. In addition to all the volunteers coming together, Peace Corps asks that we bring a Tanzanian counterpart so that they can receive the training as well. I chose my fellow teacher Charles to attend with me. I think he was pretty stoked about the opportunity because most teachers don’t really get a chance to receive any quality training after they complete school. In addition to the Tanzanian counterparts having an opportunity to receive additional training, it is a great chance to network with other teachers from all over the country and to share ideas.

As it turns out, many the other volunteers who were attending the conference had to pass through my city of Iringa. The trip for many of the other volunteers couldn’t be made in one day, so we decided to plan a volunteer get-together with all of the other health/environment volunteers in the Iringa region. The volunteers in my class to the south of Iringa would travel to Iringa and stay for two days to do some sightseeing as well as get a chance to meet with the other health/environment volunteers in our area. In all, there were about 26 of us who ended up hanging out in Iringa for a few days before the education volunteers had to continue on to Morogoro for our in-service training. Needless to say we had a blast although we did attract quite a bit of attention; 26 white people walking around a small city in the heart of Tanzania tends to do that. The first night we were in town was actually the second day of the March Madness basketball tourney. Now me being probably the biggest University of Michigan fan I know, I wanted to see if we could find a place to watch the Michigan game as well as the other games that night. As luck would have it, we found a bar that was practically empty and had a huge projector screen with ESPN. Long story short, our group took over the bar and we were able to watch all the games, including Michigan’s 30 point victory over Tennessee in the first round. I was decked out in my Michigan jersey for the occasion and waving my towel going crazy as if I were actually at the game. Most of the Tanzanians probably thought I was off my rocker, but it’s the first time I’d seen any Michigan sports live in over 6 months; I guess you could say I was going through withdraw. The second night, again because there were so many of us, we were actually able to take over a small bar and play our own music. I’m not usually into dancing, but just about everyone who was there in Iringa got out on the dance floor to get their groove on. The next morning, all the education volunteers that I started with departed for Morogoro. From Iringa, it’s about a 5 hour bus ride. Buses are the main mode of transportation in this country. There are upscale buses that you can take and there are buses that look like they are heaps of scrap metal. After experiencing both types of buses, I made the executive decision to always purchase a ticket on the high class bus lines. For an extra 4,000 Tanzanian Shillings, you get water, candy, food, and the peace of mind knowing that the bus conductor won’t try to cram people into the bus like sardines. Many a trips I’ve literally had people, for all intensive purposes, sitting on my lap for an 8 hour bus ride, which is just about as fun as it sounds. I’d even got used to traveling packed into cars like a sardine but my fear is that I’ll lose circulation to my legs one of these trips and have to be medevac’d out of the country which would be slightly embarrassing. “So why did you need to be medevac’d? Where you battling a lion or trying to ride an elephant?” “Oh no, actually I lost circulation to my legs on a bus ride because we were sitting 6 people wide in a van that resembles an empty tin can.” So yea, executive decision from here on out; always pay the extra 3 USD to get the nice bus. Anyway, the education volunteers all loaded into the buses for the trip to Morogoro. The ride isn’t too bad because the route from Iringa to Morogoro is on tarmac road which makes for an enjoyable experience compared to other volunteers who had to brave 5 hour rides on dirt roads that are in terrible condition. Additionally, the landscape was barely recognizable after 4 months. When we arrived in country and left Morogoro to go to our sites, we were at the end of the dry season so there was very little green. However, during the middle of the rainy season, it literally looks like a different country with lush vegetation of all kinds as well as seas of corn and sunflower as far as the eye can see. The road to Morogoro from Iringa also snakes through Mikumi National Park. What this amounts to is basically a free safari. During this stretch of the trip you can look out the bus window and see elephants, monkeys, giraffe, zebra, antelope, and a host of other animals. It’s at times like these that I realize your bus stopping for a handful of giraffes to cross the road is a normal occurrence, and that yea, you are in Africa. Our group of volunteers from Iringa was one of the first groups to arrive in Morogoro. We stayed at the same complex as we did for pre-service training. We got to CCT where we were staying, registered, and grabbed our room keys. Then we did the next most obvious thing; walked down to the local bar and waited for the rest of the volunteers to arrive. Even though it had only been 4 months, it was awesome to see everyone again and to find out about everyone else’s experience thus far since like Peace Corps advertises and what many volunteers will tell you is that everyone’s experience in the Peace Corps is unique. As our fellow volunteers trickled in, many hugs were exchanged, stories told, and beers drank. From the time we left pre-service training until in-service training, only 2 volunteers had “ET’ed” or decided to leave early. I haven’t really had a chance to talk to either of these people since they decided to leave but I know that one of them regretted the decision and urged us all stay if we were having any doubts about remaining in country. I also knew both of them fairly well; they were both in my small group in which we were trained in Kiswahili. This may sound shocking, but a fairly large percentage of volunteers leave their service early for a number of reasons. I’ve heard a statistic that something like 33% of all volunteers leave before the completion of their service. You can’t really truly prepare for an experience like this and know how you’ll react until you get here. The vast number of volunteers (me included) have occasional thoughts about leaving and sometimes ask ourselves “why the heck are we here again??” It’s at times like these that we rely on family and friends back home, but to a larger extent other volunteers in country. Maybe this is part of the reason why volunteers become so close in a short period of time, but I think this contributes to why we were so dang happy to see each other at IST. The first night was spent catching up with fellow volunteers and relaxing after our trip into town. The next morning, the training actually begun.

The structure of the training was as follows. For the first 2 days, the training consisted of sessions designed for volunteers only. We attended sessions from 8am until 5:30pm almost every day with breaks for chai and lunch of course. After the first 2 days, our Tanzanian counterparts arrived to join us in training. Some of the sessions were designed for volunteers only, some were designed for counterparts only, and some were designed for volunteers and counterparts together. Below is a complete list of the sessions we attended with a short description. As I mentioned before, most sessions were designed to give us ideas on how to get started with secondary projects as well as the techniques and process for grant writing.

Day 1: The first day was spent sharing experiences. We already did this in an informal fashion at the bar the previous night but we did a formal exercise to chart our emotions over the past few months. It was really interesting to see what people came up. For me, the lows were obviously the things like “the day I was robbed” or “the first week of school, which was extremely frustrating”. For other people it was “when my puppy died” or “when I had this really painful toe infection” and other really unique things. As a whole though, most volunteers felt that the first month at site when we were there without any work to do was the most difficult. An entire month or so of no real purpose other than to try and fill the days with random activities was a common difficulty with most volunteers. It’s good to know that other volunteers share similar highs and lows and that you’re not out there experiencing these things all alone. The second half of the day was spent on a brush up on Kiswahili. It was mostly spent going over Kiswahili slang that wouldn’t normally be appropriate to discuss with your headmaster or other teachers/administrators but which is useful to know when dealing with hundreds of kids. It reminded of me when I took Spanish in high school. I vaguely remember that half the time I spent studying actual Spanish I’d be tested on and the other half was spent learning Spanish slang that wasn’t useful on exams but was what kids at that age are interested in learning….

Day 2: The whole of the second day was spent going over project design and management. This was one topic that I felt fairly confident in discussing because of my experience with project based work in Atlanta. It was basically going over the feature of successful secondary projects and how to make them sustainable, not just a flash in the pan. Many volunteers envision these great projects, and they sound real nifty and useful, but once they leave to return home they completely fall apart. Other projects do more harm than good in that in some communities, community members see volunteers as ATM machines in which they expect them to write grants for all sorts of elaborate projects that may or not be actually needed. For example, maybe what the community really needs is a simple well to draw water. However, since this volunteer with access to loads of grant money has come, let’s try and get him to build and overly complex water filtration system instead. The problem is that the community in many cases benefits from these projects in the short term but when something with that fancy water filtration system goes wrong, who knows how to fix it and who has the money to fix it? These like these that aren’t always immediately thought about are topics that were covered.

Day 3: The third day consisted of several sessions re-enforcing safety and security issues. Activities such as role plays and ‘what if’ scenarios were used to further teach us about actual events that have occurred and how to avoid them. The country director of Tanzania also spoke at this session about the apparently recent 60 Minutes episode in which it was insinuated that in the past, Peace Corps didn’t really give its full attention to safety and security issues, sexual assault in particular. If you want to read more about it I’m sure you can google it but I assure you that the staff here takes all safety and security issues extremely seriously and after hearing the allegations I can only suppose that either these were disgruntled former volunteers or that maybe in the countries they were serving the staff or perhaps a small number of the staff were the problem. I don’t mean to downplay such serious issues as these but in all fairness issues like these occur more frequently in the US. Additionally, the way the Peace Corps classifies certain incidents makes some of the findings of this 60 Minutes finding misleading. Anyway, I don’t mean to ramble on about this issue as I’m being pretty vague and if you haven’t seen the episode you can read about it online. As everyone knows there are two sides to every story, but I can assure you that in Tanzania, I have no worries about anything related to my safety and security. I can honestly say that I feel safer here than walking downtown in any major city in America.

Day 4: The fourth day of training is when all the volunteers’ Tanzanian counterparts arrived. There was a session for both volunteers and counterparts explaining the role of Peace Corps and why it is that we are even here in the first place. Us volunteers then split up from the counterparts and worked on the process of grant writing for the remainder of the day. Grant writing can be a useful tool, but I’m going to try and do my best to not need to write a grant. From what I’ve seen here so far, foreign aid in this country and in Africa as a whole is doing more harm than good. I’m not saying that we cut all aid because there are obviously exceptions, but it is extraordinary how dependent large groups of people on this continent are on aid from outside. It almost seems to breed a cultural of expecting to receive it, which stifles any type of economic activities or incentive. The old saying goes something like ‘Give a man a fish; he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ I think there should be less emphasis on funneling dollars into this country and more emphasis on funneling expertise to eventually make it a viable location for businesses to invest in. Why go out of your way to do anything if eventually you’ll receive a handout from somewhere else? I know this may sound harsh, but I’ve met many Tanzanians as well as fellow volunteers who feel the same way. I realize that I’m oversimplifying the problem, but this is just what I’ve seen and feel in the short time I’ve been here. China, for all its faults and issues is one of the only countries that look at Africa as a business opportunity rather than a destination for charity money. I think if more countries and companies looked at Africa as a business opportunity it would be much more helpful. But back to my point, if we do find a specific need for money, there are several places that it can be got from by writing a grant. Peace Corps staff are very helpful in writing and revising these grants so if your need really warrants a grant, then they’ll find a way to help you get it.

Day 5 & 6: The fifth and sixth days of training had sessions designed to discuss strategies for limited English proficiency. This session was led by experienced Peace Corps volunteers and was extremely helpful in discussing new techniques for the instruction of your specific subjects in locations where students struggle with English. We also had subject specific sessions designed to address concerns specific to each subject area since each subject here has its own unique difficulties. Again this was led by more experienced volunteers and was another great avenue to learn about new method of instruction to make subjects such as mathematics interesting. These days also included sessions on such topics as Life Skills Education, FEMA Clubs, and other activities geared towards HIV/AIDS education. Life Skills here includes such things as HIV/AIDS education, goal setting, and business basics among other things. These are topics that are extremely important but are not things that are taught within the normal school schedule. Since returning from IST, I’ve discovered that my school has a huge interest in starting up a FEMA club but was just struggling with the ‘how’. Since returning from my training, my counterpart and I now know what the ‘how’ is and are going to attempt to get one started. A FEMA club is designed to be student or teacher led and to provide a forum for students to discuss issues that normally wouldn’t be able to be discussed elsewhere such as relationship issues, myths about STD’s, and other issues related to health and wellness. I’m super excited about this because this is a great way to make an impact with little to no money required. Other FEMA clubs have done things such activities as songs and skits designed to educate peers or primary level children, bake sales to fundraise for education trips to neighboring towns or cities, as well as community awareness campaigns for such things as teenage pregnancy and malaria prevention.

Day 7 & 8: The seventh and eighth days consisted of sessions related to methods for giving and receiving feedback, alternatives to corporal punishment, and additional information for creating and maintaining permagardens. One of the more successful sessions was one in which a woman living with HIV came in to talk about her experience. I can imagine this being a difficult thing to do but even more difficult for someone in a country as conservative as Tanzanian and even more difficult considering she is a women. There is an enormous stigma attached to people living with HIV/AIDS here and the fact that this lady is brave enough to go around talking about it was extremely commendable. It was really informational for us volunteers but for our Tanzanian counterparts, it was something they had never seen before. The overwhelming reaction from our counterparts was amazement and a feeling of congratulations towards the presenter for talking about her situation. I have to say my counterpart even started the round of applause in thanks for her coming in to talk to us. Then the session on alternatives to corporal punishment was especially interesting because this was a session in which the volunteers and counterparts attended. Clearly all the volunteers are opponents of corporal punishment while the vast majority of counterparts do practice corporal punishment. Many of the Tanzanians were surprised to learn that the government does in fact have guidelines related to how and why students may be disciplined and even more surprised at how strict the rules were. For example at my school as well as other schools students who are late arriving to school are usually beat without being questioned. What if the student was late because they were caring for a sick relative? What if they were sick themselves? What if they were taking care of their brothers or sisters because their parents were unable or unwilling? Questions aren’t asked of the students first and they aren’t allowed a chance to explain ‘why’. It’s just assumed that they are ‘lazy’ and that they need to be disciplined. I’ve heard this from countless teachers but I reply with ‘if you actually think the corporal punishment works, then why is it that every day the same amount of students are late? You say beating them works but why are they continually late every day? That is a questions many teachers are not able to answer. I suggested that if students are late, make them stay after school to make up the time. To be honest, many students would rather be hit than have to stay after school anyway, so you may be able to achieve your desired result without resulting to force. It was a good discussion and if nothing else got our Tanzanian friends thinking about methods of discipline outside of the traditional methods.

Days 10 & 11: The final two days were spent preparing a life skills lessons to actually teach at a nearby school in Morogoro. We were pared with other volunteers and counterparts and required to select a life skills topic to present. My group consisted of two other volunteers and 3 tanzanian counterparts; two males and one Muslim female. The topic we chose was ‘Early Teen Pregnancy’. We basically put together a short 50 minute session started off with an icebreaker game/dance then a roundtable discussion on the issues related to teen pregnancy. How does it affect the male student? The female student? The parents of the students? The community? The Muslim woman was the one who literally rocked the house. She absolutely rocked the house and was inspiring to me and the other volunteers in our group. She got the kids energized and encouraged to open them to open up and get into a really good discussion about the issue. By the time we realized we had gone over time, we had branched off into other life skills topics seamlessly and just let the kids take over the session. The fact that the other Tanzanian counterparts were so awesome at leading discussions of this type was really encouraging.

Most sessions were very informative while others were slightly redundant but on a whole I think most volunteers and their counterparts enjoyed the training.

During the day we had training but in the evenings. We were free to pretty much relax and travel around the city. The complex we were staying at did serve dinner, but on multiple occasions I was convinced to instead go out to get food. There are 3 places that are famous with volunteers in Morogoro. The first is Dragonaires. This is the place that has pretty good pizza, ice cream, and real tasty Chinese food. This is also where we held the first annual ‘IST Prom’. What can I say, when we all get together with not much to do, these are the types of things we come up with to keep us busy. The first Friday was when we celebrated our IST Prom. It was a lot of fun as we created a huge banner, got all dressed up, we all had dates (even the older volunteers!), and even had a prom king and queen. Again, since there were so many of us, we were able to get a huge section of the place reserved for us. We also convinced the owner to let us use the main stage to perform a little karaoke on later in the night. The second place is The Oasis Hotel. This place is famous for its Indian food and for the fact it has a huge outdoor pool. One of the nights after our training we all went over here to sample the delicious Indian food. As far as Tanzanian hotels go, this one was up there in terms of how nice it was. We were able to pay a fee to go swimming and were able to relax until the late hours of the night in the huge grass courtyard eating Indian food, ice cream, using the free wireless internet, and watching a few of the March Madness games on the flat screen TV’s they had in the lobby. The third place is called the Acropol Hotel and is famous for their bacon cheeseburgers. By the time people decided to go to the Acropol for this burger, it was near the end of the training and I had spent a serious amount of my Tanzanian money on food. At first, when people said they were going I told them I’d probably just try to hang out and eat something cheap at place we were staying at. However, the volunteers here know me too well and know my weakness is scrumptious American style food so after about 5 minutes of convincing, I said what the hell and decided to join them. After making the decision to go to this place and actually having the burger, I knew I made the right decision. As far as burgers go here in country, this definitely was one of the best ones I’ve had. By the end of training, I don’t think there was any doubt that I put on a couple pounds but I have to say it was well worth it. Being able to take a breather and hang out and catch up with other volunteers for 2 whole weeks was amazing. Between the food and stories from other volunteers who are sharing similar experiences, I’d say that IST was a huge success.

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