Holiday Break: Part 1 (of 3)

14 12 2011

Wow, since I finished school on the 18th of November things have been extremely crazy. Since the 18th I’ve watched 2 Michigan Football games live, both wins, with one of the wins coming against Ohio (fist pump), been to 4 different cities, slaughtered and ate a real live turkey at a mountain resort, conducted a weeklong boys conference, led the training of 40 new volunteers and their Tanzanian counterparts, swam in an actual swimming pool, learned Scottish dancing, jumped out of a runaway bus (since I’m writing this assume I’m fine), joined the Iringa underground weightlifting club (think ‘Fight Club’), had a girl on my shoulders swinging a machete just to cut the perfect branch off a pine tree for a Christmas wreath, and still managed to find the perfect Christmas tree for our Christmas party this weekend. I’ve literally been on the road for the past month, so I’ll use that excuse as to why it has again been such a long period between posts. Since so much has happened I’ll break up the last month of activity into three parts. Part 1 will include my trip to Mbeya to watch Michigan take on Nebraska as well as Thanksgiving. Part 2 will include our boys conference and the 2 day training that I and another volunteer led. Part 3 will include why I learned to Scottish dance, the epic Christmas tree hunt, how I came to join the underground gym in Iringa, and the details of my escape from a runaway bus.

So school ended up closing a week earlier than was originally planned. This is because the headmasters of all 4 schools in my district decided to create and administer common terminal examinations. For this reason, all schools in the district needed to do the exams during the same time frame to make sure cheating was kept to a minimum. There are two main reasons I wasn’t exactly thrilled with this idea. First, school closing a week early meant that I wouldn’t have time to cover all the material I had originally planned. These kids are far enough behind as it is without cutting a week off the school year for a relatively meaningless exam. Second, the exam would be virtually impossible for my students not in the top stream. I could already predict that many students in my lowest stream would receive a score between 0-10 out of 100. After grading my students exams I discovered that I wasn’t too far off in my assumption. Part of the reason so many scores were low is that a large number of students in my lower streams don’t show up to class. They simply skip class and when they do show up they are completely lost because what we are learning is predicated on the fact that they came to class the last period; this isn’t rocket science to see why they are failing. Other students are absent on a regular basis because the headmaster has a policy that if you have not fully paid your school fees, you can’t enter the classroom. These two factors are at least partially to blame for such low scores. I also take a portion of the blame as I admit I’m steal learning to teach in this environment. If I see the students not grasping a concept after I’ve taught it I’ll try teaching the same information using another method or have a discussion with the students as to why and or what part of the lesson wasn’t understood. Despite the poor performance by many students in my lower streams, the students in my higher streams who rarely, if ever, miss class did extremely well. I know it may seem like I’m writing off the students in the lower streams but I can assure you that is not the case. It still, even after more than a year, kills me to see these kids struggle but the reality is that only about 15 students out of a class of 130 will score high enough on their O-Level examinations each year to be admitted into an A-Level school. I try not to let the sometimes hopeless feeling of the situation get to be because lamenting over this fact won’t change a thing. All I can do is show up every day, do my job to the best of my ability, and hope that my students will also try to their best ability. Even if a student doesn’t pass their exams I hope they can at least learn something about how students should be treated and how teacher should act. My students aren’t stupid, they see that I don’t use the stick and they appreciate that. They see that I show up to class everyday unlike most other teachers and they also appreciate that. When these kids get older and have kids of their own, maybe they will have a better idea of what to demand from a school and the teachers who work in that school so that their children can have a better chance at success. I know this is a long-sighted hope but sometimes the effect of Peace Corps isn’t felt until 10-20 years down the road, but this perspective also helps me stay focused when the going gets tough.

But anyway, the last day of school was a little bitter sweet as I looked back and realized I have just completed teaching a full year in Africa. Reading that aloud back to myself still brings a feeling of shock and disbelief to me, but in a good way. I remembered back how far I’d come since my first day of school when I was nervous as all hell and would literally be sweating bullets. I think about that fear now and I just smile to myself thinking how much easier it has become and how much more effective I’ve become as a teacher and how many relationships I’ve built with my students even if we don’t speak the same language fluently. As much as I enjoyed the first year of teaching I was looking forward to the holiday break to recharge the batteries. I wasn’t quite sure what the heck I was going to do with a month and a half of free time because you can only read a book for so many hours on end in the village before you get stir crazy. However, I knew that the first step on my journey would be Mbeya, the city where I shadowed another volunteer a year earlier and the place where I celebrated Christmas last year as well to visit my friend TJ to watch the Michigan vs. Nebraska football game. Besides me, TJ is probably the biggest football fan by far in country that I’ve met, which makes us automatically great friends. He also happens to be a huge Nebraska fan; not sure if he is a bigger fan of his team that me but if you get a tattoo of your home state on your leg then I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that your allegiance is pretty strong. We had been planning to watch this game together for a year, ever since it was announced that Nebraska would be joining the Big Ten. We decided on Mbeya because TJ doesn’t have the typical Peace Corps living situation. He lives and teaches on a technical college campus and lives on the 4th story of an apartment building. This apartment includes things like an oven, a stove, toilet you can sit on, carpet, and a balcony overlooking the southern highlands mountain range.

I got into town on Friday night and celebrated the end of school with a few ice cold brews. That night, two other volunteers who live close by came over to continue the end-of-school celebration by cooking pizza from scratch; dough, sauce, everything. I’d love to lie and say I had a hand in creating this scrumptious dish but I was only the errand boy running around getting all the ingredients. Carly and Kat did an amazing job; it was probably better than any pizza I have tasted thus far in country, and combined with an ice cold beer on the eve of a big Michigan football game, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that I was in heaven. The next day (GAMEDAY) I started with an early morning run through the rolling hills of Mbeya. It was a beautiful autumn day, perfect for getting into the mood of watching a college football game. I ended up going for a run along the old Tazara Railway which serves as the main rail supply route through Tanzania and into Zambia. However, later in the morning both girls left as TJ and I declared this very important game day a guys only day. The girls understood and completely agreed because they both had seen our ridiculous behavior during games and whole heartedly agreed that it would be better if they weren’t around during kickoff. TJ and I spent the day hanging around town and met up with some new education volunteers who I hadn’t yet met. I’m still getting my head around the fact that me and the other volunteers in my class are defacto veterans at this point. As game time approached, TJ and I got all the good together for the meal we had planned; potato cheese soup with fresh baked bread and hot sauce. It’s hard to imagine a better combination, the aforementioned food with cold beer, and a live feed of the football game. But yet for me it did get better since Michigan ended up winning big. I couldn’t help but chuckle though and feel at least a little bad for TJ whose actions looked eerily similar to mine when Michigan is losing. Cursing, changing the direction of your hat, adding and/or taking off a lucky/unlucky shirt/jersey, and switching seating positions so as to increase your teams’ chances of winning. All logical things that I normally try when Michigan is losing. Even after losing TJ was pretty calm about it though, at least compared to what I may have been like if Michigan had lost.

Sunday we hung around Mbeya just relaxing in town, then Monday I made my return trip back to Iringa town. Upon arriving back in Iringa, I contemplated returning to my village but was planning on leaving Wednesday for Mufindi, a place down a little south of Iringa where me and the other volunteers in the Iringa region had been invited for Thanksgiving by a 3rd year extendee volunteer. I accepted the invite not knowing what to expect but knew that I would be exponentially better than Thanksgiving last year when I was dumped off in my village with no electricity, no friends, and completely unfamiliar surroundings. For the past year when I went into Iringa town I’d stay at my usual guesthouse which suits me just fine, but can get pricey if you are there more than a few days. As it turns out, a good number of volunteers, no less than 7, have either extended their Peace Corps service or found jobs with an NGO in Iringa town which means they need housing, which also means that I now have several very nice options on where I will be able to crash, virtually for free, when I go into town. Everyone who has moved to Iringa is awesome and all of them have let me know that if I need a place to stay, that I am more than welcome. So when I arrived on Monday, another volunteer, Theo, had just recently moved to Iringa and was teaching at the teachers college in town. A bunch of other volunteers also happened to be in town working with the Tanzanian Government to create study guides for all the science practicals students here are required to complete. In addition to all the guys working on the science practicals, two other volunteers who had recently moved to Iringa to start work but were looking for housing were also staying at Theo’s place. So in total we had about 6 guys hanging out at one house watching movies. Did I mention that Theo owns a projector? So yea, I reluctantly decided to stay in town Tuesday so that I could catch an early bus on Wednesday to get to the Thanksgiving celebration. As Wednesday rolled around, I boarded yet another bus to go to meet up with the other volunteers in the Iringa region who I’d be celebrating Thanksgiving with. When I arrived in the junction town to meet them I noticed my one buddy was holding a box that looked like it contained something living. A week or two previous, after we had all decided to celebrate Thanksgiving together, we had discussed the possibility of procuring a live turkey for the big day. In Tanzania turkeys are extremely rare. Most people that do see one think they are genetically mutated chickens, but as it turns out the nunnery in town sold them. They are the equivalent of 45 USD for a 12 pound live bird, which is astronomically expensive for a relatively small amount of food here. As it turns out, the box my friend was holding did hold our Thanksgiving day main course. With main course in hand and taxi driver at the ready, the 6 of us piled into a taxi for the 1.5 hour drive out to the site where we’d be spending Thanksgiving. As you can imagine the drive over was a tight fit with 6 people, all our luggage, and a full size live turkey. Add to that the fact that the whole way there was nothing but dirt road, sometimes really bad dirt road, it was interesting to say the least. The first obstacle we faced was a traffic stop. Technically you aren’t supposed to have more than 5 people in a taxi, we had six. So as is common practice, as we approached the traffic checkpoint, the taxi driver stopped and told us that one person needed to get out and walk through the checkpoint. We would then meet them on the other side after we drove through. Since there were two people in the front seat, we made the immediate decision to push our dear friend Sarah who was wearing a dress and nice sandals out and let her walk. We drove through the checkpoint, waved to the police with big smiles and passed with no problems. About 15 minutes later Sarah comes walking up to the taxi all red in the face. We asked her what took so long and she explained that the traffic police had engaged her in friendly conversation and asked her where she was going. Sarah who is adorable and incapable of lying effectively told them she was going to Fox Farms, but was walking because she wanted exercise. The police looked impressed, said their goodbyes and let her pass with no issues, which is funny because a white girl in a dress and sandals walking to Fox Farms, which is more than 20 Km away must have sounded ridiculous but the police seemed to buy it, so we continued on our way. The other obstacle was that since we had loaded 6 people in the taxi, luggage and all, we were riding pretty low. At several points during the trip we bottomed out. We all cringed and politely asked the driver if he would like us to get out when crossing dubious areas in the road but he insisted we stay put, which made each we heard the bottom of the car scrape the bottom of the road more painful. The last thing we wanted was to cause the bottom of this guys car to be ripped off because we convinced him to take 6 people in a taxi. However other than the packed car and the bumpy road, the drive over was stunningly beautiful with rolling chai fields and combination of evergreen and eucalyptus trees dotting the landscape.

After an hour and a half we finally arrived, turkey intact and all. We were met by the volunteers who invited us, Meredith, as well as the young couple, Jenny and Jeff who run the orphanage near the same complex. We were ushered into Jenny and Jeff’s house, which was unreal. In the middle of these rolling green hills, which are eloquently described by a guy named Hemmingway, was their house with a small plateau grassy patch of bright green grass overlooking the fruit tree fields, backed up by passion fruit vine crawling up the front of the quaint little house. Walking inside was like being immediately transported to America. There was a beautiful stone hewed fireplace, hardwood floors, TV with Nintendo WII, and a kitchen area outfitted with an old fashioned wood burning stove. My jaw dropped. Jenny and Jeff lived in this particular house and were surrounded by 6 other houses built into the side of the hill where the orphans lived and were equipped with enough skills to be able to return to their village once they were old enough. After a brief tour of the orphanage and their house, we were taken to the guest house where all us volunteers would be staying. It was only a 5-10 minute walk away but when I saw it and stepped inside, all I would think of to describe it is a mountain lodge. IT had a top floor with a large kitchen/pantry, huge common area, all wood paneled with a deck overlooking the breathtaking view of the surrounding hills. Downstairs were two enormous bedrooms with some of the most comfortable beds and hottest/most powerful showers I’ve ever experienced in Tanzania. I didn’t know what I had signed up for when coming here for Thanksgiving but this blew all expectations out of the water.

The first night there we had a traditional dinner of Tanzanian fare prepared for us by our guest houses own personal cook, Upendo (‘Love’ in English). Jenny and Jeff came over to hang with us and so graciously brought along two crates of beer for us to enjoy. The next morning, we had a delicious breakfast, again prepared by Upendo, but we all woke up early to partake in the dinner preparations. The first order of business was to take our friend, Terrance, T-Pain, Teyshaun, aka The Turkey and prepare him to be cooked. One volunteer held the feet while another volunteer did the honors and cut the neck. After draining the blood, we soaked it in boiling water and defeathered it. Finally we handed the bird off to Upendo, the master chef, to cook for us. The rest of us continued preparing food and some made pilgrim and indian hats out of colored construction paper. Me and two other volunteers were in charge of the green bean casserole, which ended up being completed with homemade onion rings on top. As the day went on, various friends of Jenny and Jeff arrived. The previous day two German volunteers who lived and worked in Iringa town had come to celebrate with us. On Turkey day an English ex-pat couple came as well as some nearby missionaries. After the preparations were complete, everyone gathered around the table of food to take pictures. I can honestly say that while it may not have been quite as good as my family’s typical Thanksgiving day spread it didn’t look half bad. The various dishes included fresh golden brown turkey stuffed with homemade stuffing, scalloped potatoes, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, mango/pineapple/passion fruit salad, fresh garden salad, garlic bread, cheese quiche, spinach quiches, fresh vegetable plate, pumpkin pie (I WAS SO PUMPED), mulberry pie, cheesecake, chocolate brownies, and other items which are slipping my memory due to me slowly falling into a food coma. Just like at home, before we ate, we all went around the table of food and said what we were thankful for. For a lot of people there it was their first Thanksgiving day experience, so this was a great way to shape a little American culture with people from other countries. The English couple joked that they wouldn’t be able to tell their friends back home in England that they had participated in Thanksgiving, given the history between the two countries. After everyone had finished saying their thanks, Jeff (actually a Canadian) did the honors and carved up the bird. We ate our dinner on the cool grassy plateau in front of our mountain lodge that overlooked the rolling green hills. Everything was absolutely delicious, turkey included, and the experience couldn’t have been more surreal.

After everyone had taken their post-meal nap, a group of us went up to the small airstrip on the top of the highest hill in the area, only 10 minutes away, where high paying guests landed to come and stay near where we were currently staying. And so thus here ended my second and final thanksgiving day, playing ultimate Frisbee on a dirt airstrip on top of a giant hill overlooking the lush green valleys of the southern highlands of Tanzania. Even though I couldn’t be with my family on this Thanksgiving day, I could not really have asked for a better Thanksgiving day with the awesome friends I’ve become so close with here in Tanzania.

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2 responses

15 12 2011
Aunt Lynn

Holt, we all have so much to be thankful for. I am very happy that you had a wonderful thanksgiving with wonderful friends!! You were with us in spirit as you are everyday… Bobjie enjoyed her first skype experinece! I am going to goggle snake nest/eggs in order to be prepared for your next entry, yikes…… xoxo Aunt Lynn

14 12 2011
Jean Legacki

Your Thanksgiving sounded wonderful. Although, I can’t wait until you are with us again next year at Thanksgiving! Am anxiously awaiting the details about your exciting bus rides.

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