As the Semester Closes

8 05 2011

So as I sit here in the staff room basking in the glorious glow of electricity, it’s crazy to think that I have only 1 more week of actual teaching left in the first semester. The past month and a half since IST has flown by way faster than I realized. I’m also now less than a month a half away from my first visit back to the States for my cousins graduation, which I am getting very excited about. I’ll be coming back June 23 – July 5th. The first weekend I’ll drive (or rather Lindsey will drive; I’m not sure I remember how to drive or which side of the road cars use anymore…) to Charlotte with my sister for my cousin Aubrey’s high school graduation and to see pretty much my entire extended family; again I’m eagerly anticipating this trip because last year was the first year I missed Thanksgiving, the time when we all usually get together. Then I’ll be back in Atlanta for the remainder of the week and for 4th of July to visit all my friends and enjoy such things as hot showers and Chick-fil-a, just to name a couple. I’ve also submitted an application to attend the official Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Celebration at the US Embassy which will be held on the night of June 22nd in Dar es Salaam at the US Embassy. When I saw that the date was set for the 22nd, I couldn’t believe my luck; I’ll be in Dar this day anyway to catch my flight so I’m hoping I get chosen to attend. For those who weren’t aware (and I wasn’t until I came here, so don’t feel bad) Tanzania is considered the first country that Peace Corps started to operate in so the celebration here should be pretty spectacular. There were rumors that Barack or Michelle Obama would come to speak, but it turns out that the Director of Peace Corps will be the keynote speaker. Either way, it will be a historic event. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my application was good enough to receive an invite. Plus, the last time I was at the embassy for our swearing in, the samosas, grilled meat, and fresh juice were out of this world; I can only imagine the spread they plan on having for the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Celebration. I’m anticipating it will be epically delicious. It would be a nice culinary warm-up before I board the plan the following morning for the good ole U. S. of A. But for the past month I’ve been busy with teaching, meetings for the girl’s conference, which is now less than a month away, and finally getting back to a regular routine of running (which I’m thoroughly enjoying, for reasons I’ll expand on later in the post). I was also able to squeeze in a visit to some fellow volunteers to celebrate Easter.

I’m currently working on creating the first semester terminal exam for my students. I’m actually happy about the prospect of being able to write my own exam. The mid-semester exams given in March, we had no say in the content of the material covered, mostly because they wanted to use the stacks of exams that they created and printed out last year. This was problematic because I didn’t get a chance to even look at the exam before the day the exams took place. The school wanted to use these exams because of the ridiculously high cost of printing anything in large numbers here. I understand not wanting to waste these exams and not wanting to waste time and money going through the trouble to create and print new ones but the reality is that they were littered with mistakes and the majority of subjects covered material that teachers hadn’t had a chance to cover yet, me included. Several other teachers and I brought this to the administrations attention but this fact was generally brushed aside. Thus the exam, for the vast majority of students proved to be impossibly difficult. I’d go as far as to say it was demoralizing for my lower streams. The most frustrating part was being required to grade all 200 of the exams knowing that most students wouldn’t score above a 10 (out of 100) which turned out to be the case. So yea, for this reason I’m grateful that we are able to write our own exams this time around. But this week is the final week of teaching. The week after next no classes will be held. As I just found out recently, there will be a district wide sports tournament for the entire week. At first I was frustrated to hear about this because I had planned lessons and review sessions for that entire week and was one of the last teachers to know this event was taking place but now that I’ve had a chance to alter my lessons plans to accommodate the event, I’m pretty excited to see what all goes on. Apparently this is the first part of a qualification process for students to earn spots on district teams, then later regional teams, then finally the national team so I think this is a big deal for the kids. Instead of teaching next week I’ll be helping to make sure all the sporting events run smoothly. Then the last week in May is set aside for final exams. After this, the first semester will officially come to a close.

So as I mentioned, the girl’s conference is taking place June 6th – June 10th and the date is fast approaching. For a short period, we weren’t sure if the money from the grant we wrote was going to be deposited in our accounts here in time for the actual conference, but after several meetings and calls to the Peace Corps main office, we were able to get things hurried along and we should be in the clear. Our whole group is really getting excited; we’ve lined up a number of guest speakers as well as a sponsorship from Chai Bora. The guest speakers include women who are college graduates as well as one mama who was able to send all her children through school by basically creating a chapatti empire in town. She stared out selling chapatti for breakfast only, but grew her business to include lunch and dinner. I have to say, she has the best chapatti I’ve ever tasted and the most delicious chai as well. This is my new favorite spot in town because the food is delicious and the price is unbeatable. I’m also now considered a regular customer; whenever I walk up to the entrance of the place and the mamas see me coming they stop cooking and throw up their arms to greet me and give me a hug. They always clear a spot away for me to sit and bring out the usual; rice and beans with coconut milk, spinach, a delicious pepper sauce, and an ice cold coca cola. They usually give me as many refills as I can handle and talk my ear off about how school is going in Ismani. There are times I stop and look around and can’t believe I’m sitting there at a local food court in the heart of Africa speaking to a kitchen full of African women. When we aren’t chatting, I just watch them cook, the steam rising off the old rusted charcoal stoves with their enormous pots of marinated meats, beans, and gigantic containers of rice, singing traditional African songs in Kiswahili. It’s one of those moments when I think to myself, “wow, I’m actually here in Africa doing this; I only normally see this stuff in movies or read about it in books”. But again, I digress. For our conference, we got Chai Bora, the largest Tea manufacturer in the country to donate T-Shirts, bags, and notebooks for all the kids. We even get to design the T-shirt with a logo specific to our girls’ conference theme; Wanawake wa Kesho (The Women of Tomorrow). Now that we have all our finances taken care of, we’ve just been finalizing the schedule of events for the conference. Sessions will include HIV/AIDS awareness, goal setting, small business skills, and several sessions where panels of successful women (acting as role models) will come in to talk to the girls. In addition to all the formal events, in the evenings we’ve planned a movie/games night, a beauty salon night (clearly me and the two other male volunteers took a backseat to planning this one), and a dance night were we’ll have a DJ come in to spin some tunes since the kids here LOVE to dance. As soon as we finalize the schedule of events I’ll try to post a copy here so you can see specifically what we are planning. Additionally, the female teacher I’ve chosen to come is also super excited, which makes me super excited. We are currently in the process of determining which 5 girls we will take, but I’ve left this task primarily up to Madam Elizabeth since she knows the girls in the lower grades much better than I do. It’s all very exciting to see things finally coming together after several months of planning.

I also mentioned that I’ve finally gotten back into running. Before coming to Tanzania, I’d run anywhere between 20-25 miles a week on average and sometimes more if I was training for a race. Since I’ve finished the P90X program, I could only rest for a couple of weeks before I again got the itch to start a regular exercise routine. I just finished reading “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen“. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it, even if you’re not a runner. The synopsis is as follows:

“Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.

Isolated by the most savage terrain in North America, the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons are custodians of a lost art. For centuries they have practiced techniques that allow them to run hundreds of miles without rest and chase down anything from a deer to an Olympic marathoner while enjoying every mile of it. Their superhuman talent is matched by uncanny health and serenity, leaving the Tarahumara immune to the diseases and strife that plague modern existence. With the help of Caballo Blanco, a mysterious loner who lives among the tribe, the author was able not only to uncover the secrets of the Tarahumara but also to find his own inner ultra-athlete, as he trained for the challenge of a lifetime: a fifty-mile race through the heart of Tarahumara country pitting the tribe against an odd band of Americans, including a star ultramarathoner, a beautiful young surfer, and a barefoot wonder.

With a sharp wit and wild exuberance, McDougall takes us from the high-tech science labs at Harvard to the sun-baked valleys and freezing peaks across North America, where ever-growing numbers of ultrarunners are pushing their bodies to the limit, and, finally, to the climactic race in the Copper Canyons. Born to Run is that rare book that will not only engage your mind but inspire your body when you realize that the secret to happiness is right at your feet, and that you, indeed all of us, were born to run.”

My good friend Kyle gave it to me as a gift before I departed for Tanzania and this is the second time I’ve read it. So a big “thank you sir” goes out to him. It got me good and fired up to start hitting the trails again. About a month or so ago I laced up my now dilapidated running shoes and set off for no particular destination. I figured that I’d been living in my village for 4 months or so, but hadn’t really explored any of the neighboring villages and this would be a good way to get out and explore a little. I started off behind my house down a random trail that took me through enormous fields of corn and sunflower set against the backdrop of the evening sun sinking beyond the mountain on outskirts of my village. Even though I hadn’t run more than 500 yards in over 5 months, I felt surprisingly sprit and light footed. As I crossed through the fields or corn and sunflower into the next village, people that I passed would stop to stare. Kids would hear my footsteps, turn around to see a pale white, red headed mzungu coming toward them and they would be in awe. I’d greet them in the local tribal language and they burst out laughing. A large number of them would even start to run beside me for a couple hundred meters at a time before slowly dropping off. I even ran through one small village center where people saw me coming down the road and proceeded to stand up and cheer like it was the last stretch of the Boston marathon. One elderly grandma who was standing in the road even started clapping and making sounds like “hepp! hepp! hepp!” I couldn’t help but have a little extra pep in my step. And so I continued to run like this for at least a few days every week, every village I passed acting as a small personal cheering section for me. I try not to travel the same route to often because there are countless possible foot trails to follow and my not taking the same route too often it keeps the running interesting and fresh. Sometimes I actually try and get myself purposely lost as I adds to the excitement of it (crazy maybe, but don’t knock it til you try it). I think this is maybe why so many people in America often despise running. They go to a track or and try to run for 20 or 30 minutes around an oval or go to the gym on a treadmill and try to run 4 miles like a hamster on a gerbil wheel while watching re-runs of Friends on the TV attached to the treadmill. I love running, and trying to do either of those things sounds awful even to me. I’ve found that it’s a lot more fun to just grab a watch, a water bottle, and go and get lost. I don’t worry about how fast I’m going or how far I’ve run, but I just run for a pure enjoyment of it, in the attempt to find a new path or find a new village I’ve yet to visit. The joy of passing villagers and seeing their stunned look at the crazy white person rambling through their rural village in the backwoods of Africa is priceless. It’s really quite a tranquil experience every time I go out. I definitely plan to continue running a good amount and maybe even parlay my training here into a marathon or ultra-marathon when I get back to America.

Finally, for the Easter holiday, another volunteer and I decided to catch a bus down south to the city of Songea to visit two other volunteers who live in town. The bus ride was about 7 hours but it was totally doable given the fact that for Easter here we had Friday, Monday, AND Tuesday off. Not a bad deal. So Friday morning my other volunteer friend Sarah and I, who lives just south of me, departed for Songea. I was really looking forward to the trip because Veronica, the volunteer whose house we were staying at lived more or less in the city and had running water and electricity, 24/7. That ladies and gentleman is what is called luxury here. Not only was the house equipped with awesome amenities, but the view from the back porch of the place was unreal. In the backyard there was an enormous Mango tree surrounded by several patches of banana trees. In essence, you are able to go out and grab a mango and or banana fresh from the tree whenever you please. If that wasn’t enough, the backyard sloped down and overlooked the mountain range on the far side of town which turned out to be an ideal place to watch the sunset. I brilliantly forgot my camera so I’ll try to scrounge up some pictures as again it’s one of those sites that words just can’t do justice. Another volunteer in Songea that lived a little outside of town also came over and stayed for the weekend. The four of us enjoyed the Easter holiday mostly by hanging out and watching movies on the PROJECTOR that Veronica had. Most days would consist of lazily lounging around, going out for breakfast, and then hanging out at night with a few casual beers to watch the sunset followed by a couple movies. One night we were able to find a copy of ‘The Lion King’. Being in Africa, I’d say we all thought it was only right that we watch this childhood classic again. Now we know that rafiki = friend, asante sana = thank you very much, and hakuna matata = no worries! (although hakuna matata is considered “Kenyan” Swahili and here in Tanzania they say ‘hamna shida’). On Easter day, we decided to cook a traditional Easter meal; cheeseburgers, homemade french fries with old bay seasoning, and a fresh garden salad. Okay so maybe it wasn’t that traditional, but when I posed the idea to the other three, we all immediately agreed it was a good idea. It turned out to probably be one of the freshest meals I’ve ever prepared myself. For the meat, we went into town to the butcher where half a cow was literally hanging from the ceiling. We told the guy how much we wanted and he proceeded to hack off a nice chunk for us with his machete for us to grind by hand later. It probably isn’t the most sanitary thing in the world, but I think most of our stomachs have adjusted to the change in diet here in Africa. After buying the meat, we went to the bakery where there were pulling the bread out of the oven then over to buy a fresh wheel of cheese. For the salad, we were able to visit one of the ex-pats with whom we knew in Songea. Even though the guy was out of town, he still had no problem with us going into his garden and hand-picking about 4 heads of lettuce of various varieties to use in our salad. On our way out of the garden, with no way to carry the lettuce, we fashioned a small bag out of banana leaves from the nearby banana trees and helped ourselves to a few fresh guavas from the small guava orchard that the guy also had in his yard. Easter evening the four of us turned on some music, had a few cold beers (I emphasize the cold part because we also had a refrigerator, another rarity), and cooked ourselves one heck of an Easter dinner.

I’ve also been meaning to post about the recent rise of a pastor in northern Tanzania who claims so have a drink that cures such diseases as AIDS, Cancer, and diabetes, just to name a few. Like me, you know this is obviously ridiculous, but that hasn’t stopped about 50% of Tanzanians from visiting this guy to get a sip of the magical drink. You’re hard pressed to find a person in this country that doesn’t believe with all his heart that this guy is the real deal. However, this post is already longer than I intended and the electricity is about to be shut off. I’ll be sure to give a more in depth description of this supposed ‘cure all’ medicine in my next post!




2 responses

9 05 2011
Karen Okupniak

Glenn — It’s been great to follow you through your first semester and see the confidence grow in you. Good luck with the 50th-anniversary-invite. I also loved “Born to Run”, which I listened to as I was starting to get into running. What a great way to get back into it! — Karen

9 05 2011

Glenn thanks again for taking us on another adventure through your eyes!!! I love your blogs and the interesting stories you share with us!!! I can actually visualize some of what you write. Continued success while there. Please let me know if there is anything I can send you that you miss from the good ole US. I will do my best to get it to you. Take care and God Bless!!!!

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