Monday, November 15, 2010

Applying to the Top MFA Programs: Back in the Saddle

This is mostly just a place holder, as Round Two is keeping me too busy to document my experiences as thoroughly as last year (probably a good sign).

But I just wanted to note that after my 2009 experience applying to MFA programs, and coping with my subsequent acceptance to none, I am geared up to make a second go of it.

I just re-read the mostly self pep talk I posted back in April, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I have followed my plan almost to a "T," the three main points of which were:

1. Write two new stories in accordance with my amazing feedback from Driftless House.
2.  Re-invigorate myself by spending the summer in Africa.
3.  Take a workshop taught by Amy Hempel.

As can probably be ascertained by my writings from Africa, my summer adventure was everything I'd hoped it would be.  And I am in love, LOVE, with my class (and Amy Hempel).  But more on that later, including some unexpected turns getting admitted to (and then finishing) the class.

For now, I shall take my leave to continue working on my applications.  The earliest deadlines are December 15, and run through the end of January.  I'm applying to 15 schools this time, and the Michener Center in Austin still tops my list.  Wish me luck!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Results of Tae Kwon Do CHISWEA Fundraiser

I’m pleased to report that the Tae Kwon Do fundraiser for the junior warriors of CHISWEA was a huge success!

Through your generosity, we were able to raise over $4,500 for new training equipment!

I’m also happy to report that a portion of the funds have already been put to exciting use. Thanks to Chris Lassonde and his massive hockey bag, we were able to transport the first batch of equipment via airline luggage, thus avoiding shipping charges. The boys are already breaking in their new focus mitts and sparring equipment, and we’ve got video footage to prove it. You’ll be amazed at the difference proper equipment has visibly made in their training.

Before I left I was also able to commission the building of a security cabinet for storing all the expensive equipment being donated. Over the next few weeks I’ll determine how best to apply the remaining funds and further investigate reliable yet economic shipping options available for getting the rest of the equipment where it belongs. I will also do my best to work with volunteers still on the ground to document the boys using more equipment as it comes.

Congratulations on making a such fun and meaningful impact on these children’s lives. Bravo!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Safari Za Emanuel Kwa Moshi.

Before coming to Tanzania I read several articles calling into question the true value of short-term volunteering, often referred to as "volunteer vacations" or "voluntourism." In short, the argument is that a few weeks or even a few months are simply not enough time to affect change in a developing country. Between unfinished projects and short relationships that end abruptly, some critics posit that short-term volunteering may even do more harm than good.

This may very well be the case, but while I cannot say for sure what the actual value of short-term volunteering is, I feel I can speak confidently on its potential. Given some initiative, drive, creativity and communication/collaboration with other volunteers (and possibly a willingness to spend a little money), there are opportunities to make a small but significant impact.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have found medical "projects" to have the greatest cost-to-benefit ratio. Though none of the children I work with have severely crippling or immediately life-threatening illnesses, there are several who possess treatable maladies that, if corrected, could improve their quality of life. The answer to why they go untreated is always cost, and usually the dollar amount imposing this barrier is shockingly low.

Case in point: My housemate and fellow volunteer, Andreas, from Germany, and his eight year-old student Emanuel. Andreas exemplifies the kind of initiative I'm talking about, and for me has served as a vital source of inspiration. After administering an impromptu vision test to some of the students in his class (which he did by tracing an eye chart off his laptop -- amazing), Andreas decided to further investigate Emanuel's "lazy eye" condition, i.e. seeing with only one eye at a time while the unseeing eye turns inward. After three trips to three different doctors in Arusha (each nearly a full-day affair), paying all the costs every step of the way, Andreas was directed to Moshi (about 80 km away) to see a pediatric opthamologist, one of only two in the country capable of performing a surgery that could correct the problem.

The doctor determined that he could see perfectly well, but emphasized the psychological benefits of corrective surgery -- those with lazy eyes as extreme as his are less likely to be married, less likely to get a job, less likely to be happy, etc.

The surgery involves anesthetizing him, then detaching and reattaching the muscles around his eyes. all of which costs a whopping twenty-seven dollars, U.S.

The catch was that the earliest surgery date available was after Andreas returned home to Germany. While this was very unfortunate for Andreas, since he would not be able to witness the culmination of his noble efforts, it turned out to be a gift for me, who had the distinct pleasure of taking Emanuel for surgery myself.

Some day I intend to write a more detailed and reflective account of our three-day journey, but for now allow me to share some pictures with captions.

Outside the eye clinic at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center in Moshi.

Emanuel getting one last look from the doctor the day before surgery.  Dr. Leigh Woodward, referred to as "Dr. Leigh" by everyone at the hospital, hails from Texas and has been working in Tanzania for just over a year.

 Here's a good before shot.  If he was looking with the right eye, it would be the left that was turned inward.

Emanuel's corner bed in the eye ward, where we spent most of our time.  The ward was huge -- six or seven rooms with a dozen beds each.  This is Eye Central in Tanzania.  Oh, and that little piece of tape on his head indicated what surgery he was supposed to get.  I kept hoping he wouldn't unwittingly trade head labels with another patient.


Emanuel and his ward buddy, Kasimu, playing a memory game with UNO cards. I am so grateful they were able to entertain each other. Certainly took some of the pressure off me.

Curled up in his overlarge patient's smock, outside the surgical "theater."  This is not fear, by the way (he never once the whole trip seemed anxious or scared); this is him hamming it up for the camera, which he does quite often.

 Andreas, this one's for you.  Remember the zombie nurse from our first visit?  SHE LIIIIVES!!!

Getting wheeled out of surgery -- out like a light.

After some failed attempts to wake his sleeping friend, Kasimu sits diligently by his bedside.  Take a moment to grab a tissue if you need to.

First look in the mirror, post-op.  He did not appear delighted or surprised.  Just curious.  Perhaps he is too young to have been all that self-conscious about his eyes.

My favorite picture:  Chocolate cream cookies... the first meal (that he was able to keep down) in nearly a day.  An hour earlier he had polished off a bowl of warm porridge in small little sips.  When I refilled his mug and asked if he wanted more, he vomited on my shoes.

"'C' is for cook-ie, dat's good e-nough for me..."

 Team CBM implored us not to leave until they got some photos of our grand exit.

Back home at last, with his primary caregiver (a nearby neighbor).  Abandoned by his mother and father, Emanuel now lives with his elderly grandparents.

Meet the grandparents.  They may be old, but they're also traditional Masai, which means they're tough as nails.

And of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't end with a close-up of the final result.  Prepare to get a little misty-eyed.










Just kidding.  Here he is:

Ready for Hollywood.

I offer my deepest thanks to Andreas for making me a part of this endeavor.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tae Kwon Do CHISWEA Fundraiser

The junior warriors of CHISWEA need training equipment! From now until August 7th I will be accepting pledge donations by e-mail to bring training equipment to former street children in Tanzania who are currently receiving professional tae kwon do instruction.

Take advantage of this terrific opportunity to give directly to those who have so little, and to see the joy (I’ll be taking pictures and video) you bring to little faces on the other side of the world.

The Children of the Street Welfare Association (CHISWEA) has for 15 years been a source of food, shelter, responsibility and family for kids who wish to abandon their “life on the street”—i.e. not attending school, either having no family home or finding it better not to live there, surviving via the generosity of strangers, panhandling, petty scams and theft, and other unsavory means. Time that isn’t spent hustling is spent just hanging out, often drunk or high on pot and glue fumes (to learn more about CHISWEA read this previously posted account).
At CHISWEA, despite minimal resources, over 70 such children have discovered a more promising and fulfilling life.  With your help, I'd like to make that life even more fulfilling.

Why Tae Kwon Do?
What They Get
What YOU Get
How to Donate

Why Tae Kwon Do?

For the past five years Ezekiel Kaswalala has served as Director at CHISWEA, overseeing day-to-day operations and developing long-term relationships with children still living on the street that may one day choose to live at CHISWEA.

Besides his passion for working with street children, which he’s done for the past 15 years, Ezekiel also possesses an impressive (you might say intimidating!) martial arts resume. He has trained in judo, karate, wrestling and his first passion, tae kwon do, from the time he was 18 years old, won second place in the East Africa TKD championship in 1985, and has served as an instructor of martial arts for nearly 20 years, primarily for soldiers of the Tanzanian military.

Since coming to CHISWEA Ezekiel has generously lent his expertise to the boys he loves so much, running full-length training sessions as often as three times per week. And I can tell you first hand, these kids are seriously into TKD. As Ezekiel has pointed out to me, TKD is a source of discipline, self-defense skills, enjoyment and exercise for the kids. Perhaps more importantly, it gives them a niche, and in a poor country during a tough economic climate a niche can be a lifesaving advantage. Martial arts training (TKD or otherwise) is not widely available in Tanzania, so even those who do not go on to become an international champion may find themselves a successful instructor in the military, at a school or an orphanage, or even in their own studio. They will also have a competitive edge in getting a job with the Tanzanian police, the military, or with a private security firm.

Unfortunately, without the proper equipment, the boys are very limited in what they can do. Training consists primarily of postures and kicking and punching the air. Given how much the kids love TKD, and what an underutilized resource Ezekiel is, I have pledged to do what I can to get the boys additional training equipment.

As you might have guessed, the greatest challenge is getting the equipment here. The Tanzanian postal service is a nightmare, and most suppliers will not even ship to Tanzania. Ezekiel has identified a source in Nairobi from which we can purchase equipment, but the import costs have raised the prices substantially. Depending on the results of negotiations with the Nairobi provider, it may make more sense to ship the equipment to my own address in the States and then forward them to Arusha (crazy, I know). Thankfully, we have the opportunity to transport some equipment via airline luggage (thanks Chris!) which will reduce the cost a bit, but apart from that most of the equipment will be 2-3 times more expensive than it would be if purchased in the United States.

But that’s Africa. And from what I’ve observed, the higher prices still do not outweigh the benefit the children will derive from this equipment. So I’m asking you to assist me in this worthy undertaking, and to donate whatever you can. If we can obtain the equipment before I leave, I will document the “christening” through photos and video.

To further sweeten the deal, I’m giving you the opportunity to get your hands on some authentic and beautiful African crafts. Keep reading!

What They Get

The prices here are based on estimates, since negotiations are still pending. This list is meant to motivate you, the potential donor, by illustrating the possibilities available depending on how much we raise—I have no expectations of raising enough to purchase everything on this list, but I am very optimistic about how close we might get! The more we raise, the more of these essential training items we can purchase.

If we raise $200, they will get 4 focus mitts (these are hand-worn targets for kicking and punching -- currently the boys just put sandals on their hands).

If we raise $400, they will get the focus mitts and one kick shield (for more forceful kick training).

If we raise $700, they will get the focus mitts, kick shield, and one punching bag.

If we raise $1300, they will get the focus mitts, kick shield, punching bag and two full sets of sparring gear, which includes headgear, chest protector, shin guards, forearm guards, and groin protector.

If we raise $1800 they will get the focus mitts, kick shield, punching bag, sparring gear and 10 uniforms (to be worn by the most dedicated warriors).

If we raise $2300 they will get the focus mitts, kick shield, punching bag, sparring gear and 20 uniforms.

If we raise $4500 they will get the focus mitts, sparring gear, kick shield, punching bag, twenty uniforms and protective floor matting (enough for one sparring pair).

If we raise $7000 they will get the focus mitts, TWO kick shields, punching bag, FOUR sets of sparring gear, twenty uniforms and enough protective floor matting for TWO sparring pairs).

In the event we have leftover funds after making our purchases, I will place those funds in a savings account in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, we can one day help send these kids to Nairobi, Kenya to participate in the East Africa Junior Tae Kwon Do Championship. With the bus transport, hotel, regional passport fees and event registration fees, the total cost will be substantial, but so will the payoff. For one thing, many of these children have never been outside the city of Arusha. But the most important reason to get them there is so they can experience a true culmination of all their training and hard work: observing and participating in official matches and meeting other TKD trainees from across the East African region.

What YOU Get

For donations of $30 or more, you get a bracelet by Izack.

These adjustable bracelets are all the rage among volunteers in Arusha. Remember when those cheap plastic yellow “LIVESTRONG” bracelets were all the rage? These are way, way cooler. People constantly ask me where I got the one I wear, and when I tell them it was made by a resident at CHISWEA they often beg me to purchase several on their behalf.

Izack learned how to make these by watching other craftsmen at work over the years. He’s a man of many talents—besides bracelet making, Izack also raps in Swahili and is a fire-eater.

*     *     *

For donations of $100 or more, you get a bracelet by Izack and a Maasai blanket.

These blankets most commonly come in rich reds, purples or blues and are the traditional garb of the Maasai, the most visually spectacular tribe found in East Africa. Even non-Maasai Tanzanians can often be found with one around their shoulders.

*     *     *

For donations of $200 or more, you get a bracelet by Izack, Maasai blanket, and an authentic hand-carved and painted soapstone bowl (approximately 6 inches in diameter).

Besides their trademark dress, the Maasai are known for their fine craftsmanship including painting, jewelry, footwear, and sculptures in wood and stone.

*     *     *

For donations of $500 or more... well, let's just say I'll try to find something extra special for you.

* Please note: Given the limited space I have in my luggage bags, I cannot buy and transport items outside of this fundraiser.

How to Donate

Simply e-mail me, stating the amount you would like to pledge and your shipping address (to receive your thank-you gifts). I will make the purchases using my own funds and collect a check from you when I return home in September. I’m using the pledge-system to expedite purchasing and to avoid having to refund your money should things not work out. This is Africa after all.

Please help me to bring some more joy into the lives of these most deserving children, and thank you in advance for your generosity!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Meno Bili, Tafadhali.

Inside the dental unit at Arusha’s St. Elizabeth Hospital I sit on the waiting room floor in a circle with three children. To my right, observing our proceedings with rapt attention, are six wide-eyed adults. Some of them lean so far out of their chair there’s room for another person to sit. I sense that some of them wish they were sitting where I am instead of just watching, which pleases but also perplexes me, because what has snared their attention for the past hour is a board game called Snakes n’ Ladders.

Snakes n’ Ladders is the fugazi version of the classic game Chutes n’ Ladders. If yours was a deprived childhood, allow me to explain: The game board features a hundred square spaces arranged ten by ten. Scattered across the board are pictures of twisty chutes (or snakes) and ladders of varying lengths. Players begin at the bottom of the board and take turns rolling a die, advancing their pieces the appropriate number of spaces in a zigzag pattern up toward the final space at the top. If your die roll lands you on a space that contains the foot of a ladder, you get to climb it and jump ahead to the space at the top of that ladder. If you land on a space that contains the top of a chute, you slide down to the space at the bottom of that chute, negating much of your progress. The first player to reach the final space wins the game.

Part of the magic of Snakes n’ Ladders is that it somehow excites delicious anticipation and fierce competition though there is no skill whatsoever involved in the playing. The winner is simply the player who has the most fortunate sequence of die rolls. But anyone who has played the game knows there is no thrill like climbing one of those especially long ladders and finding yourself suddenly at the front of the pack—and you don’t just place your piece at the top; you slide it up the length, guiding it like an ice cube across a narrow plate of warm glass. This person also knows the cathartic relief that comes from watching the leader take that sad, slow plunge halfway down the board on a cursed chute (unless of course that leader is you).

So yeah, I understand the appeal perfectly well. But the notice we’re attracting at St. Elizabeth’s seems extreme—we’re not performing open-heart surgery here. The adults are enjoying the watching even more than the kids are enjoying the playing. When one of the children stumbles onto a snake, mere spaces from the finish, it triggers a startling explosion of laughter and chatter and I have to wonder, is it merely the hours-long wait and lack of well-thumbed magazines that has allowed this little toy to become such a source of stimulation? Or is it more to do with the Tanzanian lifestyle, its simplicity and deprivations?

Physically speaking it is a sad little game—a thin square of cardboard with crude illustrations, four plastic colored tokens light as air and a die smaller than a pea. But it’s easily the best 1000 Tanzanian shillings (about 77 cents) I’ve spent so far on this trip. I had picked it up from the supermarket just hours before, knowing that trips to the doctor in Tanzania tend to be half- to full-day affairs. I am proud of myself for demonstrating such foresight.

I’m also proud of my boy—my man, Bahati, for his willingness to make our game inclusive and allowing it to develop into the public event it is now. Today, he alone is my charge, and since it is rare that a boy from CHISWEA has the sole attention of an adult, I naturally assumed his first instinct would be to hoard it. So when first we were arranging the pieces on the floor, and I noticed another boy looking on intently, it was only a sense of obligation and politeness that compelled me to ask him if he wanted to play too. The boy grinned, said no, and though it was obvious he was just being modest or shy, I was perfectly willing to accept his declination. After all, I may love Bahati and many of the other children at CHISWEA, but I don’t love children. Suffice it to say I’ve never bought into the notion that children are inherently fun and fascinating, so why the hell should I have to entertain some stranger’s kid? I’m already doing my good deed for the day.

But Bahati, sweetheart that he is, urges in Swahili that the kid get over his inhibitions and sit down with us. I’m so impressed, so proud, that I no longer resent having to play with both of them. Later, a little girl takes my place at the board and I take a break. I open up a pack of cookies and motion to Bahati that he should have a few. After taking two for himself, he wordlessly places two each at the feet of his gaming companions. Shucks.

Bahati at 14 years old is a rail, skinny like his peers but lacking the thin layer of adolescent muscle most of them pack. He’s modest in temperament but not shy; personable, and generally chipper like most of the CHISWEA stock. When excited he speaks very quickly and with a hint of helium in his voice, so that what is actually Swahili sounds more to me like some Gnomish dialect. He has a few inconvenient medical maladies, his eyes for instance. He looks with only one at a time while the unseeing eye tends to turn outward, a condition he shares with his younger brother. There’s also something going on with his left ear, which he frequently stuffs with cotton. When I ask him why, he points to it and says, “maji,” indicating there is water inside, but the chronic nature of this fluidic blockage makes me think there’s more to it. I wish I could ask him questions like, “Can you hear well out of it?” or “Does it ever hurt, get infected, etc?” but those conversations are beyond our mutual capacity to understand each other, as they would be with most of the boys at CHISWEA. At some point I’d like to get his eyes and ears looked at too.

But today we’re tending to his front teeth, or rather his lack of them. Two years ago a friendly Tae Kwon Do match resulted in his falling face first to the floor, knocking out his two most prominent choppers and leaving him with the gummy smile that is now his trademark. As an outside admirer I am reluctant to “fix” this adorable quirk, but for him it is an ongoing concern. A few days ago, while helping me and some of the other boys paint one of CHISWEA's bare cement walls, Bahati turned to me asking, “Jimmy. Jimmy. Tomorrow… you take me to hospital… and get me… teeth?” He grinned wide and pointed to the vacant space to make sure I understood.

The other boys had a hearty laugh (so did I). It wasn’t a cruel laugh, thank God. Still I know it must be difficult for him to have his face be the focus of attention in this way, a regular source of chuckles, cruel or not, for his friends and even for me.

Searching for words I thought he might understand, I tried to explain that it was probably a long process to have his teeth replaced, that I didn’t have much money and was spending a lot on other projects at CHISWEA, etc. Either I failed miserably or he’s just a tenacious son of bitch because he asked a second time with the exact same wording, gestures, and even the same pauses: “…and get me… teeth?”

Virtually every boy at CHISWEA, young and old, has asked me for something—chocolate, cookies, a bicycle, my hat, my shoes, my pants, my shirt, my UNO cards, my phone, money, money for clothes, money for shoes, money for school uniforms, etc. It was mildly insulting at first, as if my mere presence, my volunteered time, was not gift enough. But I’ve learned not to take it personally, and try to remember that all kids habitually ask for things they want. That’s where we start, crying out for milk or a diaper change and getting served. Manners are counterintuitive and come later. Besides, the boys rarely seem disappointed when I politely decline, and I’ve known them long enough to believe that they are, in fact, very grateful for my mere presence.

Due to my financial limitations, and that their requests rarely constitute a necessity, and that I’d be encouraging impolite behavior, I make a point of declining virtually every request. This is my initial reaction to Bahati’s wish for teeth but this is one of the few requests I’ve received that has seemed especially worthwhile and, hell, the kid is just so adorable. After asking his question a second time as if my first response had never happened, my defenses crumbled, and a few days later I told him we would visit the dentist together “just to ask him some questions.”

Truth be told, once my decision was made I was utterly grateful for the opportunity. As could easily be expected, my weeks in Tanzania are among the most exciting I’ve ever had, but no matter how far I travel the slick demon Boredom is never far away. He creeps in everywhere.

*     *     *

I’ve often wondered whether this is true for adults with Attention Deficit Disorder—and I’ve long considered myself borderline symptomatic—but for me, boredom is largely a physical condition. If I go understimulated for too long, my brain begins to slowly die. It is a painless death, but not without physical sensation. I can feel my head begin to swell, resulting in a dull pressure that builds and builds. I call it the “milkshake” effect because it feels like some contaminant has been introduced into the normally fluid mechanism of my brain and, acting as a deadly thickening agent, slows down every mental process beginning with the most developed cortical functions like analytical thought on down to motor functions, and, eventually, even primal medullar duties like breathing and heartbeat.

In real time I may experience this as, first, finding myself unable to understand what people are saying even though I sense, through my eyes and ears, that they are talking to me. The individual words may even seem familiar, but they no longer fit together in any meaningful way. If the boredom continues, it becomes more difficult to manipulate items with my hands, and I have a greater tendency to bobble and drop them. My coordination and depth perception also deteriorate, so that I’m more likely to walk into parking meters and door frames, causing my companions to say, “Ouch, that looks like it hurt.  Are you okay?  Jim?"

Huh? I think. Oh, yeah. No, wait—huh?

Now my boredom has become a social and interpersonal crisis, and though I am by this time at least aware of what is happening I am nearly powerless to reverse the process, since my addled brain now has a limited capacity to seek out and process the stimulation it requires. Someone could be telling me the most riveting story of a subway mugging he just witnessed, including drawn guns, a hail of bullets, an injured conductor, a derailed car, a shower of sparks in a pitch dark tunnel, screams, blood… but the story is beyond me.  “Hmm. Yeah. Hmm,” I reply automatically, and my vacant expression makes the storyteller wonder from which planet the aliens who body-snatched me came.

Around this time it becomes harder to breathe. And, irrational as it may seem, my last traces of awareness fixate on the possibility that my heart may stop beating. This is the pinnacle of a deeply, deeply internal panic. I’ve read accounts of people with ADD who experience a similar correlation between boredom and anxiety. They describe it as so intense they entertain acting upon outrageous impulses, like suddenly screaming out during a conversation or dumping their drink on the person speaking, just to reassure themselves that they are still a living, breathing human being.

And I do experience days, even weeks, when I indeed feel dead to the world, when my body is simply a shell of what I used to be. There is something that resembles a rudimentary sort of memory collectively contained within the cells of my flesh and bones, causing my body to mimic gestures and motions from my living past simply for their own sake. I am a machine that no longer serves a purpose, my treads turning nonstop as I bump, bump, bump into the same wall over and over. This is where attention-deficit and anxiety meets low-grade depression. I don’t necessarily need to have one of the aforementioned episodes of boredom attack to reach this dead zone, but I’m sure the two are loosely connected. I participate in the routine of daily life without knowing whym since I have no motivation to do so. I derive pleasure from little, look forward to nothing, and lament that I gain no satisfaction from what appears on paper to be a charmed life.

These are the intense sensations I hoped to escape, at least to some degree, by coming to Tanzania and immersing myself in an experience so foreign, in every sense of the word, that I would not have to work nearly so hard to find that stimulation my body craves. There’s a risk involved, because it’s easy to overstimulate and overwhelm myself, producing an equal but different sort of panic. And I must be careful not to focus so heavily on stimulation-seeking that I forget to give myself that minimal amount of comfort and familiarity which I also need to function. (Incidentally, this is why I am writing to you from Africafe, Arusha’s best attempt at a Western-style coffee lounge and diner, where I have spent nearly every Sunday for the past few weeks. That the home fries, pancakes, and even the scrambled eggs taste a little “off” is not nearly so important as the knowledge that I am eating a diner-style breakfast in a plush chair with the sound of clanking plates and a whooshing espresso machine in the background).

After my first few weeks though, I figure the high-risk period for overstimulation has passed. And as I grow more comfortable at CHISWEA, such that I can now tell the boys apart and remember their names, better tolerate the language barrier, trust that they respect and like me, etc., it becomes apparent to me how difficult it is to fill a five-hour day. I teach the kids how to play UNO cards; that’s good for an hour per day. I work on improving my embarrassing soccer skills, whether it’s playing a game or just dribbling the ball with them a while; there’s another hour. We point to things and trade the English and Swahili terms for them; a half-hour. We identify cities and countries on the world map; fifteen minutes. Now what? Lots of sitting around, is what.

And lo, there He looms, grinning and galloping sideways on all fours, back and forth, on those gnarled feet and heavy knuckles, eagerly waiting to infect my brain.

On any given day I’m bound to drift several times in to (and hopefully out of) at least the earliest stages of boredom-induced brain death. Under the right circumstances, however, these early stages can be an asset. Because my brain still preserves most of its functions, and senses danger, it is capable of taking swift inventory of all available resources, internal and external, in the hopes of developing an original solution to reverse the death spiral. Viewed in this way, creativity is something of a survival mechanism, one that produces interesting and occasionally useful byproducts. CHISWEA has already benefited much from the threat of boredom. Maartje, a fellow volunteer from Holland, raised funds to have a layer of concrete poured over the dirt lots inside the compound. Sarah, from Australia, organized a talent show.

Me? I bought forty liters of paint to liven up the drab alley between the boys’ dorm and the common room. I found someone to fix the stove and chimney so that the kitchen hut does not fill with smoke. And with any luck, I will begin my own fund raising campaign to get the boys some proper Tae Kwon Do equipment (STAY TUNED). In many cases these mini-projects require paying a little out-of-pocket, but I don’t consider it charity and I doubt my fellow volunteers do either. Once the idea occurs, acting upon it is usually a no-brainer. It gives us something worthwhile to do for people we like whose gratitude runs deep, and the costs often range from surprisingly to shockingly low. So it’s simple economics really; a small investment with a high rate of return. I cannot, for instance, begin to describe how much satisfaction I derive from watching, every day, smoke come out of that chimney instead of out the door. If only all donations were so personal, the results so tangible and dramatic, charitable giving would be triple what it is now, but alas the abounding opportunities for such charity are separated from us by thousands of miles and vast oceans.

Don’t get me wrong. I will find a way to casually mention my list of angelic acts abroad to every attractive woman I ever meet. But it’s not false modesty to claim that the giving I’ve witnessed and practiced here is hardly charity, at least not in the sacrificial sense of the word. I encourage you to plan such a trip and see for yourself!

Not every problem is so easy to solve, however. I have been frustrated to discover, for instance, how difficult it is to sponsor a child for school despite the reasonable costs. Payments are required annually, if not monthly, and unless you are physically present to handle the transactions you cannot trust your money will end up where it’s supposed to go.

Still, if you keep your eyes open and make Boredom work for you, little projects present themselves. Among these, I have found medical projects to have the greatest cost-to-benefit ratio. None of the children at CHISWEA have severely crippling or immediately life-threatening illnesses, but there are several who possess treatable maladies that, if corrected, might significantly improve their quality of life. The answer to why they go untreated is always cost, and usually the dollar amount imposing this barrier is—again—shocking. Not long ago I accompanied a fellow volunteer and his eight year-old student to Moshi, about 80 km away, to visit one of only two pediatric opthomalogists in the country capable of performing a surgery that could correct the child’s “lazy eyes” (his condition is similar to Bahati’s except that the unseeing eye turns inward, not outward). The surgery involves anesthetizing him, then detaching and reattaching the muscles around his eyes. The price tag on this delicate procedure? Twenty-seven dollars.

So, really, how expensive could a pair of replacement teeth possibly be?

*     *     *

If I may return to Boredom and brain death one more time, I have two basic theories to explain my frantic relationship with mental stimulation. The narcissistic theory is that my brain is extraordinarily unique and highly advanced, and that this is both a blessing and a curse. My exceptional output requires greater input, and if these higher input demands are not met the whole system breaks down. For my brain, it’s all or nothing. The gifted are often mad, no?

The second theory is that I am a symptom of developed, and perhaps over-developed, society. I think most would agree that the body can and will get used to almost anything, bad or good. Hence, what serves to bring stimulation or pleasure initially may, over time, lose its effect the way many drugs do. It’s as if every stimulus in the world is a mild narcotic. First it was hanging dangly things over my crib, then action figures, then video games, television, textbooks, the Internet, gourmet cuisine, horsepower, hi-defintion, screen size, surround sound, faster Internet, travels abroad, culture tours, post-graduate education, much faster Internet. Can a brain developing under those conditions possibly experience stimulation in the same way that that a brain which develops within the bounds of a “simple life," limited to the same mud huts, talking to the same ten people, working the same profession and selling the same array of items, eating the same meal day in and day out, walking about within the same half-mile radius?

No one can deny that the average Tanzanian possesses little or nothing above what they need to survive, and yet my general observation has been that they are every bit as content as Americans are. I don’t want to sound naïve— I probably lack exposure to the most destitute and desperate in Arusha and I’m sure there is trauma, both collective and individual, buried so deep that a visitor of three months could never possibly begin to ascertain them. But joy is joy, I can sense it in others, and I’ll be damned if Tanzanians are more wanting of it than we are. If that’s true then it raises some pretty big questions, like what the hell am I doing here in Africa in the first place? What is it that I think I have, and that I want to offer to those who don’t? Even in America there’s plenty of skepticism around how much happiness one can ultimately derive from luxuries and material possessions (not that this stops us from trying). But what about privileges we consider more fundamental, like education? I can’t say with any certainty that I and my college-educated friends are any happier than the mostly uneducated street merchants I pass every day. Is it best to pack as much experience, exposure, enlightenment into your life as possible, to never be satisfied, to always be striving? Or is it better to live simply, to experience boredom as completely routine, to find that you occasionally have to struggle—struggle not to cope with disappointments and hardship and identity crises, but struggle to survive?

Carpe diem? Or hakuna matata? Who am I to say?

At any rate, this distinction may provide some framework for understanding why the Tanzanians who are practically falling out of their chairs at St. Elizabeth can extract such excitement out of a pleasure as simple as watching children play a board game. I am at once envious and sympathetic.

We’ve been playing for nearly three hours when we are finally called in by the doctor. I’m pleased that the office appears clean and organized, perhaps not to the standard I’m used to but nowhere near my imagined, worst-case house of horror. Bahati lies in the long chair and the doctor begins to poke around in his mouth with gloved fingers. I stand off to the side observing, trying to determine whether or not this guy knows what the hell he’s doing. He has a few exchanges in Swahili with Bahati, pokes around some more. Eventually he sighs, sits upright in his chair, and to my utter astonishment he says, “Today we will take an impression of his teeth. Tomorrow or maybe Saturday he can come back to have the teeth fitted.”

“That fast?” I blurt out

Yes. This will be a removable denture, he says, which is better suited than a fixed denture for a mouth that is still growing like Bahati’s. The doctor proceeds to dial someone on his cell phone, and after a short conversation he hangs up, and tells us to wait an hour for another doctor who is coming to take the impression.

He begins speaking in Swahili again to Bahati, who is now standing against the wall with his hands in his pockets, looking toward the floor. The doctor is talking for a long time, and soon his assistant, a heavy middle-aged woman with thick glasses, begins talking to Bahati as well. Her tone is stern; in fact she seems rather angry, which confuses me since the kid hasn’t said more than ten words in the last five minutes.

Eventually the doctor looks at me and smiles. “We are counseling him.”

“Counseling?” I ask

He explains that Bahati’s appearance is a little sub-standard, that his clothes aren’t pressed and a little dirty and that his hair is uncombed (what hair?). The woman is still going at it with Bahati, scolding him. I think back to earlier in the morning, when I asked Bahati if he was ready to go; he beamed and said “Wait,” then disappeared for over five minutes to change into the clothes he wears now.

I wish intensely at this moment that I knew more Swahili than I do, so I that I could counsel both these assheads that they ought to focus on their job instead of offering unsolicited advice.

I (politely) assure them that Bahati took his time this morning and that he’s a real, real good kid. We exit the office and wait for the next doctor to arrive, playing another round of Snakes n’ Ladders followed by some UNO cards (where I suspect Bahati and I are both secretly attempting to let the other win). An hour passes and we are back in the office again, where the new doctor is pressing a tray full of stiff blue goo against the roof of Bahati’s mouth. Doc Number Two strikes me as a nice man but his hands seem unsteady, and don’t inspire the confidence I’m used to in a doctor’s office. I grow acutely aware that he is not pulling his instruments out of sealed plastic, and rinses the goo-mixing bowl with hand soap and water instead of using a new bowl and disposing of it after one use. For all I know, Western practices like these are largely for show. Regardless, I start to hear the sounds of all the bacteria in the room, buzzing, chatting, doing cannonballs into Bahati’s mouth as if he were a pool party. I suppose these are parental instincts kicking in. I haven’t had much experience with these (I assume that’s obvious) and make a mental note to discuss it with my therapist when I return to Boston.

Our walk back to CHISWEA is quiet. Bahati makes a point of thanking me a few times, in his fast and small gnome voice: “Thank-you-ve-ry-much.”

We return the next afternoon, and before we can even get through one game of Snakes n’ Ladders the Doc Number Two arrives and beckons us in to the office.  After a few unsuccessful jabs with this thumb and some behind-the-scenes adjustments, the doctor is able to slip the denture securely over Bahati’s front teeth. My latest worry has been that the denture, which cost a mere 30 dollars, was either going to be extremely uncomfortable, look totally ridiculous, or both.

But Bahati does not appear uncomfortable, and from where I stand he appears to have a full set of natural teeth.  The overweight assistant from the previous day, who is still on my list but I’m about to forgive, approaches Bahati smiling and carrying a small mirror, which she hands to him. He takes a hard look and exclaims something in Swahili, bouncing a little in his chair. I think he is smiling but I can’t tell for sure.

In a voice approaching a whisper I ask the doctor, “Is he happy?”

“Yes,” the doctor smiles back.

Bahati grins wide and looks hard in the mirror again, seriously, as if needing to confirm that his first glance was not a fluke. He breaks into a smile again, chatters something and then this boy, this teenager, begins tap-tap-tapping his feet together as if he were five and had just been sprinkled with pixie dust, ready to float off his chair and out the window. I didn’t cry, but I came awfully close.

Talk about your simple pleasures.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Upigaji Picha.

God bless the iPhone! Prior to this trip I ordered a digital camera that never came, so I've been using my iPhone as a backup to capture some visuals. I'm sacrificing a some image quality but on the whole it has served me very well. I've been recording more videos than I've been taking photographs, and plan to piece together a short film when I get home that is sure to win a Pulitzer Prize and Oscar. But my photo collection is far from comprehensive. Even so, here are a few shots to fill some of the gaps in my written accounts, focusing (for now) on my volunteer work at CHISWEA.

A note on Tanzania and cameras: Taking photos in this country is a little tricky. For one thing, many Tanzanians, especially those from rural areas, get anxious around cameras -- I don't know who started the rumor that getting your picture taken means losing your soul, but I can tell you it has taken a firm hold here. I've already had instances where I've taken a picture and visibly upset someone (I assured them afterward that they were not in my picture, which fortunately just happened to be true). Many don't even want their houses or livestock photographed.

Another challenge is that those who aren't opposed to having their photo taken often view it as an opportunity to make money off of Mzungus, and will request compensation accordingly. This would not be so exhausting except that many Tanzanians tend to view everything as an opportunity to make money off Mzungus, but more on that later.

I sense that even those who do not believe literally that their soul is taken do feel that something has been taken from them, unduly and without their permission. Perhaps they have a point.

And finally, cameras are easy marks for thieves. In short, I have to be discrete, and sometimes downright secretive, when I decide to pull out the camera.

The exception to many of these rules are children, especially the children I work with, who are complete hams.

Frankie (left) and Chumanchuka pose beside the CHISWEA colonnade.

Ezekiel (CHISWEA Director) and Maartje (volunteer from Holland) have lunch with some of the girls. The special today, like every day, is rice and beans. 

In the kitchen, Issa (seven years old) gives the pot a stir. Incidentally, this is the one I'm stowing in my bag when I come home.

In the boys' dorm, hangin' with the boys.  From left to right, Namanga, Issa, Chumanchuka (what a name!), Joshua, and Adam.

Here we have Bahat, missing the teeth, and... his friend. (Cut me some slack, I can't remember everyone's name in four weeks)

Zacharia, presiding.

Izack, business tycoon and creator of finely crafted wristbands, shows us how the doughnuts are made.

The CHISWEA yard.  Also some laundry.

Another look at the yard, including the main gate.

Joshua draws water from the well.  Issa shows us his handheld mirror because, yeah.

Outside the gate, overlooking "CHISWEA Way" and "The Stadium" just across the road.

A closer look at the Stadium, with a football (soccer) game in progress.

Two cocks brawl it out in a back-alley along CHISWEA Way.  There is civil unrest in Tanzania after all.

At the CHISWEA farm plot, about 3 km outside of Arusha, we (yes, I helped) gather enough beans to feed over 70 people for the next few weeks.

A fire to cook a lunch of fresh-picked maize after our morning of gathering beans.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Unajua CHISWEA Way?

At CHISWEA, my tolerance for conversational impasse grows quickly.

“Uhuru,” Dickson says. His face contorts the way it does when he gets stuck, and he looks away, sucking air through his teeth. “In English…”

We are crouching on the ground outside, in the alley between the boys’ dorm and the common room. At our feet are the Tanzanian and American flags, rendered in dirt. Shapes within the rectangles are labeled their appropriate colors. Dickson drew the flag for America, correctly remembering there are thirteen red and white stripes, but for simplicity’s sake we settled on drawing six stars instead of fifty. I drew the Tanzanian flag, which is divided into two right triangles, green and blue, by a diagonal band made of one thick black stripe and two thin yellow stripes.

Dickson is now trying to tell me what one of the colors on the Tanzanian flag represents. “Uhuru,” he repeats, and makes a tsk tsk tsk sound. He once told a fellow volunteer that he is fourteen years old but this seems incorrect. For one thing, he has the physique of an eleven-year old. And his eyes, set wide and dipping at the outer corners, belong to a person far older, someone who has seen a lot. Whatever Dickson has seen in his short lifetime has left a trace of exhaustion in his face.

Dickson strikes me as the most introspective of all the children I have met at CHISWEA. When we’re together in silence or when I observe him from a distance, I often wonder what he’s thinking.

Usually, when I am talking to one of these boys and encounter this kind of stumbling block, he or I will throw in the towel if several repetitions or rewordings fail to yield that eureka moment—that smile and wide-eyed “A-ahhh.” Once I realize that reaching an understanding is hopeless, at least in this particular instance, I utter a slightly embarrassed “Sowa sowa,” which translates to “Okay, okay,” but really means “Sorry, this ain’t happening.” They in turn give me a reassuring fist bump and walk away.

These failures to understand each other are indeed sowa sowa, because we have our connecting moments. At first, it’s just me finding a flat spot on their bony backs to give them a hard pat, or winking at them and saying “visuri sana” (very good) when a spontaneous little performance grabs my attention. It takes only a few days to broaden my repertoire with most of them. I’m amazed to find how much can be communicated through creative use of a few basic words from plucked from two languages plus an infinite well of sounds, drawings and gesticulations.

Of course, none of this is possible without the freedom to fail, to say “Si fahamu” (I don’t understand) two or three, or even five times, and “Sowa sowa,” when I’m ready to give up. I can recall several social occasions where I found myself conversing with a partner who spoke imperfect English. When I unwittingly stumble into such a dialogue, I naturally assume it is my duty to politely entertain the poor soul who is now ruining my night, no matter how awkward, and feign interest in a conversation that progresses at a half a mile-per-hour. My guilt over participating in such a ruse is compounded by feeble efforts to suppress, as long as possible, the need to excuse myself and escape, escape, escape: “I’m just… going to find my other mink at the barrrithroom. Nice meeting you!”

Obviously there are a million things wrong with this mindset, but if I take one trick away from my time in Tanzania, I hope it is this: Whenever I encounter a language barrier amid friendly conversation, I should approach that conversation as if it were a puzzle or a game, something where I score points for each idea conveyed successfully, where the learning curve is steep and progress builds upon itself and the scores get bigger and bigger. If at some point I must grimace and say, “Sorry I just don’t understand,” or “Sowa sowa,” or use some gesture to convey finality (if they don’t beat me to it, that is), then I simply start a new game.

I sense the sowa-sowa moment approaching as Dickson searches for the English word that eludes him, and I feel bad—he thinks it important otherwise he’d have dropped it already—but at length he raises his arms to cradle an imaginary object, something heavy and lengthy. The object begins to kick.

“Eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh!” he says as his body vibrates.

A machine gun. In my mind I see him firing his gun from a hilltop, raining bullets upon some military jungle village, Rambo-style. It makes me smile.

Dickson lowers his gun and begins waving his arms, “No. No.”

“No war,” I say happily. “Peace!”

“Yes, peace.”

(Actually, “uhuru” means “freedom,” but close enough).

The significance now makes sense. Except for a brief invasion of Uganda in 1979, meant to check the aggression of Idi Amin, Tanzania has never been at war, with other nations or with itself. This makes the country an important source of stability in East Africa, not to mention a source of pride among Tanzanians.

My tolerance for conversational impasse has definitely increased; so has my addiction to progress.

“Uhuru,” I repeat. “How do you say war in Kiswahili?”

“War? Vita.”

“Vita. Uhuru. Vita.” In my head I search for ways to push the conversation along. “In America,” I say, holding up two fingers, “we have vita bili.”

I can see in Dickson’s face that this is news. I pick up the stick we used to draw our flags in the dirt and begin to draw a world map. I capture North America well, but from South America onward my continental outlines get progressively worse.

Dickson must think so too because he waves for me to stop and beckons that I follow him.
In the CHISWEA office he asks for something in Swahili and is handed a large, rolled up map which we unfurl on a table in the common room. I point out Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s not long before a large group of boys have gathered around us. Together we begin locating home countries for other CHISWEA volunteers, past and present.

CHISWEA (Children of the Street Welfare Association) is home to over seventy boys and girls aged between 7 and 21 years. They are not all orphans but, as the name implies, they all came directly from “life on the street”—that is to say, they were not attending school, either have no family home or choose not to live there, and survive through the generosity of strangers, panhandling, petty scams and theft, and probably even less savory means. Time that isn’t spent hustling is spent just hanging out, perhaps drunk, or high on pot or glue fumes.

Coming to live at CHISWEA is voluntary, and doesn’t suit the taste of every street child, who at the very least enjoys a near complete freedom from authority. Residents must adhere to rules and adopt certain responsibilities in exchange for benefits like regular meals, a roof, and a de facto family. The kids speak varying degrees of English, and those who (a) so choose and (b) can afford it (usually because someone sponsors them) will attend school for part of the day, while others are content to just hang out in and around the compound. Most of the girls are also at school during the day, though their instruction is more vocational (cooking, sewing, etc.). They also tend to stay inside their dorm after school lets out, so I don’t see as much of them as I do the boys.

The facility is cordoned by a ten foot wall made of concrete and iron fencing, though the door at the main gate is almost always open during the day and the kids come and go as they please. Within the walls are three main buildings: the boys’ and girls’ dorms, where they sleep barracks-style in closely packed bunks, and the common room where the kids do everything from eat their meals, to play games, practice tae kwon do, draw, and (sporadically) have English lessons in a space not much bigger than a typical American high school classroom. Sectioned by the girls’ dorm, the common room, and the northeast corner of the wall is a dirt courtyard where I’ll often find residents doing laundry in buckets or fetching water out of the well.

Outside the compound, across the main road (and I’ll define “main road” more specifically in a moment) lies “The Stadium,” an empty dirt lot nestled between two cinderblock skeletons—unfinished construction projects that were probably intended to house shops and domiciles but for now remain abandoned. When the weather is dry the boys from CHISWEA and kids from the neighborhood come here to play soccer (which if you’ll recall is “football” to the rest of the world). Soccer matches and related games often make up the larger part of their day.

The facility is located on a road that, lacking any formal name I’m aware of, I have come to call CHISWEA Way. The road begins where most maps of Arusha end, and to walk it for the first time as a Westerner who has never before set foot in the developing world is, in a word, fascinating. There is no pavement, only dirt and stones. Even a brief, misting rain in the morning can leave large pockets of slick mud for a goof like me to leap over and sidestep when the occasional car or moped comes bumbling along. As I progress down this street the shops get smaller, and smaller, until most are mere concrete cubicles inside which you may get your hair cut, purchase shirts, buy some produce, or have a beer. I pass small movie huts where a half dozen people may sit on the dirt floor and watch American films dubbed poorly (but live) in Swahili. The windows and doors to these oft unmarked huts are sealed, but the over-amplified and distorted narrator, frantically yelling over explosions and screams of agony, is a dead giveaway. Grimacing old men with stringy biceps pull two-wheeled carts piled high with shoes or rods of sugarcane. Pairs of chatting women stroll by with heaping bundles balanced effortlessly upon their head. Stray dogs nose around in small piles of burnt refuse, or curl up in the dirt to nap. A family of goats trudge the side of the road looking for the rare sprout of grass. On some days I see a cow, or perhaps a trio of donkeys. And the chickens—my God, the fucking chickens—they’re everywhere, bawking and bobbing across the road in front of me, pecking with precision through trash after the clumsier dogs lose interest, sitting like water balloons in small blocks of shade. Incidentally, chickens are a valued source of protein in these parts, and it is hard to find a well-to-do house in Arusha that doesn’t keep a pen outside stocked with the cluckers, so perhaps the burgeoning population found along CHISWEA Way shouldn’t surprise me. But these chickens roam so freely it seems impossible they would have an owner. Perhaps these Tanzanians can recognize their own chickens better than Westerners can recognize their own pet in a park full of dogs—“Ah, there you are Eggward!”—but that seems unlikely, given the limited attachment one can hope to develop with a creature who’s head you plan to lop off.

There are people at every doorstep, cooking cassava or maize on tiny hibachis, dumping a water bucket onto the street, sitting in a chair in the shade looking at the passers-by. Looking at me. It seems each one of them takes specific notice; for some it’s merely a glance, while others may fix their gaze on me unabashed for seconds at a time, falling in their walk to a near dead stop and turning around so as not to lose sight. This kind of celebrity turns out to be unsettling only for the first day or two. After a week in Arusha it barely even registers how much I stand out. Every few minutes a group of small children will squeal as I pass, waving and shouting “Good morning!” regardless of the time of day, or more commonly, “Mzungu! Mzungu-uuuu!” Given there is a wide variety of customary Swahili greetings, and no one in particular stands out as the most popular, I think it’s fair to say that “Mzungu,” meaning European or white person, is the most common word a Mzungu will hear in Arusha. On CHISWEA Way I am far from the city proper, where Mzungus (the correct plural form is “Wazungu” but here’s a rare instance where I prefer the bastardized Western version) appear with greater frequency, but for the people living here, especially those that tend to stay close to home, I may be the only white person they see all day.

After a mile the road opens up a bit, and there’s more breathing space between structures, more room for some of them to grow. Occasionally I pass a small school, church or mosque set behind the standard gated wall, and farm patches big enough for a perhaps a hundred maize stalks, or a few avocado and mango trees scattered among bean plants. Though the street is never intersected by another road I can now see that much activity exists beyond the street front shops and houses. Rectangular mud huts, growing larger, stand close together and form narrow alleys where I see children darting back and forth, disappearing around corners and behind hanging laundry.

Before long I am approaching the cinderblock skeletons around “The Stadium.” Mild anticipation tickles me as the dirt lot comes into view, and I wonder whether I’ll see a scatter of familiar faces on slender bodies kicking the ball around. If I do, they will each pause to raise an arm in greeting before returning to their game. They never look delighted or excited to see me. Rather, their wave or smile upon my arrival conveys a certain kind of peer respect, the casual sort of gratitude you feel when you smile at a friend you see every week or more, and have for years. I prefer this. I know these kids need more affection and love than they would ever let on, but there’s no way they’re going to betray that need, least of all to me, who they’ve only known a few days and who will certainly leave before long. These kids are nothing if not self-sufficient, and it suits me well, because I’m still not comfortable being the center, or anywhere near the center, of anyone’s world. If I show up, they appreciate my presence. If I don’t appear, they may take notice, perhaps even be a little disappointed, but their life will go on the way it has without skipping a beat. I guess I’m just grateful they don’t treat me like shit, that even though we’re still feeling each other out they are willing, even happy, to share some of their world with me.

It is here, on this dirt lot where I encountered the most beautiful and mesmerizing thing I have so far seen in Africa. It’s my second day at the center and I am playing soccer with twenty boys, some from CHISWEA and some just from the neighborhood. My fellow volunteers look on, chatting with some younger tots on the sidelines, while I skid back and forth in the dirt and occasionally gasp for air, lamenting how much I took my boundless boyhood energy for granted. It’s obvious I suck but none of them seem to mind. Occasionally I earn my keep by throwing out a long leg on defense, stripping the ball from an agile ten-year old before he can take a shot. CHISWEA has one soccer ball but it’s inaccessible at the moment, so we play with a homemade substitute—a spherical web of twine stuffed tight with plastic shopping bags. It’s smaller than a soccer ball but the weight and bounce are astonishingly comparable; a few of the boys have become very adept at making these. Some of them own sneakers but on most days open-toed is preferred. Mismatching pairs and broken straps are common, and all are coated in a film of dried mud. To kick the ball is to lose your footwear, and at any given moment I can spot at least two players running to retrieve an errant flip-flop.

Tempers never flare. Not one argument develops. This is a friendly game, and if they’re keeping score I can’t tell. But for sure they play with intensity, and in every minute I observe a highlight reel-worthy lunge that I’m certain will result in injury. But no bones break—I don’t think any of these kids even scrapes a knee. Where I come from, virtually everyone subscribes to the notion that we as adults must constantly save kids from themselves, that an inevitable chaos ensues when a large group of children have no supervision. But here there appears to be a method beneath the chaos, a guiding force even, that makes it impossible for these children to hurt each other as they release their brimming energy stores, strengthen bonds of brotherhood and express themselves through this bony athletic dance.

As additional players and onlookers begin to gravitate towards us, I notice a little girl approaching from up the road. She is no more than four or five, and has a scarf around her head. As she draws closer, I see that she has an infant wrapped securely to her back. She smiles softly at the activity ahead of her, and when she reaches the corner of the lot she pauses to observe it all. A few of the tots equal to her in size sidle up to her and say a few words. I cannot tell if she knows them or says anything back. I am trying to keep at least some of my attention on the game but I can’t stop looking at her. Is the baby her sibling? Where are her parents? Does she have any? Where is she going? Coming from? For a moment I think how tragic it is that a small child can be burdened with responsibility so early in life, that somehow it steals her innocence away… but who am I to make such a judgment? Me, who has been in this strange country for only a few days, who doesn’t know the first thing about what it means to be a child in Tanzania, the pains and the joys that accompany it.

In looking at her I have slowed down long enough to register how exhausted I am. I drift off to the sideline and lean on my knees to catch my breath. The little girl begins to cut diagonally across the lot, still bearing the same expression of joyful wonder on her face. She seems silently delighted by what she sees, or at least some aspect of it, as if she were wandering through a butterfly garden. I grow nervous when I see that the game has not paused for her passing, nor does anyone take it upon themselves to usher her out of harm’s way. They simply play around her. I am about to step in myself but am hesitant, recalling that I am a visitor here, that I probably understand little and should just let people do what they usually do, the things they did before I got here and what they will continue to do after I leave. Just let it be.

As if to further test my resolve, she stops again, almost in the very center of the lot. She turns a bit, facing toward the road. I am nearly breathless. I feel a sense of urgency, like I am witnessing some magnificent spectacle that must be shared before it vanishes, or before I burst, or something. No one else, not even the other volunteers, seems to take special notice. Do they even see her? My concern for the girl’s safety is still present, but distant now, out of my hands, as if she were on a movie screen. I hope that she will look at me just once, that we might share a moment, but her gaze remains panoramic, transfixed by everything. And there she stood, she with her charge, letting her hand float upward until several of her fingers rested inside her mouth, charmed and charming amid a flurry of shouts and dust and broken sandals. After a few minutes she finally continued onward, crossing the field with gentle little steps and disappearing into the narrow space between two houses.

As the days of my Arusha stint tick by and I settle into a comfortable routine at CHISWEA, remembering a few more names each day, arm wrestling, drawing in dirt, playing cards, sharing a lunch of rice and beans, I keep my eyes out for her, wondering whether I will see her again. I hope that I will, and by equal measure hope that I won’t, that she is type of thing one sees once in a lifetime, becoming grander, more inspiring, with each recall.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Karibu Sana.

The plane touches down Kilimanjaro airport at approximately 8:30 pm, Tanzania time, ending a 17-hour journey by air from Boston with a connection in Amsterdam. The large jet carries several hundred passengers, half of whom appear to be non-natives. Some are dressed in boots and khaki colored clothes as if they’re about to begin exploring the Serengeti plains the moment they step off the plane. Others are younger, college students or recent graduates—how old am I that I can now peg them as college students?—wearing matching t-shirts identifying them as part of a Duke engineering project or else a Christian youth mission. The early camaraderie among some of these volunteers makes me nervous, and I wonder if any them are working with my organization, Projects Abroad.

I feel very aware of my age. I ponder, as I often do lately, all the people I seem to meet who are my age or younger and yet have traveled far more extensively, existing out of country for months or even years at a time. Some earned their experience through academic merit, others by virtue of their medical skills or professional expertise, or, in the case of the Peace Corps—it seems like every other person I meet lately was in the Peace Corps—by their willingness to dedicate a significant portion of their life, two full years, to extremely simple-living in an alien world, a prospect that has always intrigued me but scared me more.

When I think such people, their exposure resumes sitting in an ink-heavy stack next to my single sheet of mostly white paper, the idea that I must pay for my 90-day “volunteer vacation” seems cheap. I’ve been suppressing these feelings of inadequacy for the last year or two it seems, and though one of my hopes for this trip was to alleviate such insecurities, often it seems to bring them into deeper focus.

As I file behind the next generation of hero travelers stepping down the aluminum staircase onto the tarmac, I’m fighting these feelings again. I try my best to replace them with thoughts like, “Wow, I’m touching Africa right now.” The heavy warmth of night is probably similar to what I find when I visit my parents in Florida but I convince myself it somehow feels different, like Africa. I observe my surroundings out of the corner of my eye, careful not to turn my head since I don’t want to be the only person wearing a stupid expression of wide-eyed wonder the first fucking minute I’m here. Africa. Whatever.

The tiny airport appears to be the only source of light in the world, which falls into total darkness a hundred yards (er, kilometers) in every direction. It seems this world will remain largely a mystery until morning.

We enter a small one-story wood building. A couple of small fans pinned to the ceiling struggle to push the air about. Insects circle and dart beneath the fluorescent lights. I applaud myself for being well-prepared on this front, packing as I have my 0.5 percent permethrin spray to treat clothes and bedding, my 23.0 percent DEET spray and 34.34 percent DEET cream for skin, my 1.2 percent sodium lauryl sulfate spray specifically for fleas, my 2 percent diphenhydramine HCl itch relief gel (in case some critter gets lucky), my portable, repellant-impregnated mosquito net and of course my anti-malarial 100 mg capsules of doxycycline hyclate (in case they get very lucky). Standing behind the mob of tall backpacks crowded around the visa office window, rolling back and forth on my heels, I begin to whistle softly: There ain’t no bugs on me, no there ain’t no bugs on me.  There may be bugs on some of you mugs...

After a half hour of slow progress a uniformed man begins processing travelers at the back of the line, collecting a few passports and fees at a time. Eventually he takes my passport along with a few others, but when he returns with receipts and stamped passports for everyone else he looks at me and holds up his hand, saying, “Just wait. Just wait.”

Okay, I reply, and wonder if they’ve discovered something suspicious, which is unlikely since there are no computers on the other side of the glass. Still, I feel a twinge of excitement as I imagine being escorted to a back room, forcefully seated in a metal chair and interrogated in heated Swahili, while a guard silently trains a long black rifle on me from the corner.

Nearly an hour has passed since landing and virtually everyone has obtained their visa, free to move past customs into the luggage area. The same man has now told me twice to “Just wait, just wait,” and the rifle scenario is starting to seem less ludicrous. But finally he emerges bearing my passport, shows me the stamp, and says, “Enjoy Tanzania.” I grin, say “Asante,” and brace myself to discover whether I’ve wasted countless hours listening to Learn Swahili! podcasts.

“Karibu sana,” he replies, smiling back. I assure myself that none of these other whippersnappers bothered to learn a single word of the native tongue.

In the adjacent area I am relieved to find my luggage almost immediately, but struggle to find the promised friendly face holding a Projects Abroad placard. Perhaps they have left without me, which means I must call the office and wait another hour or two for my rescue ride, spending the better part of my first night in Africa sitting in a hut while the kids who have earned their Africa adventure in the proper fashion, at the proper time in their lives, begin wading into their amazing life experiences without me. The rifle and metal chair grow ever more appealing.

I swallow my pride and tell an uniformed person that I’m supposed to be meeting a ride, and he points to another section of the building that, in my defense, is somewhat hidden behind a partial wall. Oops. There are in fact many placards waiting for the newly arrived, and the “Projects Abroad” sign is obvious enough, with its familiar logo printed in color. I wave to the man holding it, who is small and fit, his skin especially dark. “Hujambo,” I venture, more confidently this time, and introduce myself.

“Hello James. Thank you for choosing Projects Abroad. My name is Regan,” he says in a thick accent, shaking my hand in what I will eventually discover is the customary manner for Tanzanians: gripping each other’s knuckles in the familiar Western manner, then angling upward to grip each other’s thumbs, and finally back down returning to the starting grip—one, two, three. I’m slightly distracted by the man’s blinding white smile and the fact that he hasn’t reacted to my Swahili greeting, but I manage to pay attention as he introduces me to a fellow volunteer who has arrived from Holland. His name is difficult to pronounce and I repeat it twice after him.

There’s a second Tanzanian with them who does not introduce himself, nor am I introduced to him. I assume for the time being that he is of little consequence since I’m still repeating the Hollander’s name to myself. I can be polite tomorrow.

The unnamed man loads our bags onto a push cart and wheels it out to the parking lot. The Hollander and I make small talk, trading obvious questions: How long are you staying in Tanzania? Are you volunteering at an orphanage, school, or hospital? Where else have you travelled?

The small city of Arusha where we’ll be living and working is an hour-long car ride from the airport, and the prospect of sharing it with two people who are not native English speakers when I am both tired and preoccupied with the rush of new experience is unsettling. If there is any blame to place in communication difficulties, after all, it is with me, the over-privileged, under-cultured American who needn’t be bothered learning heathen dialects. It’s true, I want to confess, I cruised through four years of high school Italian and can’t speak a word of it, probably because it never really mattered to me in the first place.

But I also took great pains to learn Swedish in college, and not just because my graduation depended on it. I sincerely wanted to make penance for my ignorance. And yet, as my professor astutely observed during her office hours (which had essentially become a weekly appointment with me): “I can tell you’re not very good at learning languages, are you?” I thanked her for recognizing the canyon between my willingness and abilities. Eight years later, in spite of the hundreds of flash cards I’d made and poured over every night to improve my vocabulary, the only phrase I have left in my rusted toolbox is a perfect irony: “Jag kan talar Svenska mycket bra,” (I can speak Swedish very well).

I get into the backseat of the car next to the Hollander. His English is good enough that conversation is easy. I even find his accent and occasionally eccentric grammar to be quite refreshing. I’m just starting to feel relieved when Regan, my Tanzanian host, slips into the backseat to my left, the front passenger seat being occupied by my embarrassing rolling refrigerator of a suitcase which doesn’t fit in the trunk, which leaves me stuck in the middle.

“Actually, um,” I say as the car starts to pull away. “Would you mind if you and I switch seats? I’m deaf in… I can’t hear in my left ear and I’m afraid I’ll have trouble hearing you on this side.”

“Oh,” he says and nods, the smile fading from his eyes but not his mouth. “No problem. No problem.”

I hope he means that it’s no problem because we’re going to stop the car and switch seats, but we continue on past an armed guard to the edge of the parking lot, and turn on to the open road. The driver flicks on his highbeams and we ride without speaking for a while. I sense that the Hollander, who stares straight ahead, understood my request to switch seats and is silently sympathetic.

Eventually Regan offers some facts about sites and attractions in and around Arusha, many of which I know already thanks to the feverish research I have conducted these past few weeks. The Hollander, who is a medical student, explains some of the differences between medical training in Holland and in the States. For a moment I’m unsettled by the fact of his youth, his promising career and that he’ll be “volunteering” professional expertise during his stay, but I remind myself that he too is paying for this experience. Also it’s becoming apparent that I know more Swahili than he does.

Regan seems impressed that I’ve come armed not merely with greetings but things like “You are an Amer—no, I am an American… but… I speak Swahili a little,” and “Excuse me, where is please Arusha?” and of course “Yes, miss,” which is my favorite because the Swahili translation, “Ndiyo, bibi,” sounds a lot like “Indeed, baby.” I explain this to my new friends, who smile politely in return. There may be a lesson here, but I know that I’ll continue sharing my cute and clever observation with people until it receives the appreciation it deserves.

At one point Regan asks me something I cannot make out. “You understand” I say in Swahili, shaking my head. He says nothing and smiles nervously, his disembodied teeth and eyes glowing softly in the near pitch dark of the back seat. “You understand” I repeat, then realize my error. “I mean… shit. I don’t understand. I don’t. I don’t.

He asks the question again, using more words this time, and I cannot even tell which language he is speaking. My neck is twisted so far around to point my good ear towards him that I’m practically staring straight out of the rear window. The Hollander mercifully rescues me. “You are asking why we decide to come to Tanzania?”

Oh. Figuring some humility would do America good I decide to be my usual disclosing self. I explain that I’ve lately been meeting lots of well-travelled people and was starting to feel I was missing out, and that life was getting routine. I say tell them I want to shake things up. I tell them I want to see what it’s like to live and work in a developing country. I hesitate on the word “developing” and wonder suddenly if this is insulting. Will it seem I’m implying that, because I come from the “developed” world my decision to come to Tanzania is somehow an intentional stepping down, an act of charity, of martyrdom, before the eyes of my friends and family? Especially since it is, to some extent, precisely those things? I am sacrificing money and certain comforts to acquire what I cannot get at home: perspective, cultural awareness, natural wonders, spiritual cleansing, personal development and, most importantly, a real adventure. “Developing” doesn’t mean inferior, not to me.

Still, explaining—even in my own language—this enlightened stance without sounding grotesquely patronizing and pathetic seems impossible, like trying to assure a seasoned, capable man in wheel chair that he’s not handicapped but “special.” Since I can’t seem to say it without wincing I decide I will simply avoid the term in the presence of Tanzanians.

Fearing that I have confirmed a conception of American arrogance, I confess that I also have tremendous difficulty with other languages and am grateful I can go somewhere to receive a culture shock without being dismayed by the language barrier. “I want to be challenged,” I say eagerly, “but not overwhelmed.” Pleased with this new momentum, I add that I wanted to go somewhere that people would be exceptionally patient in communicating with me. To convey utter sincerity when saying this I meditate on my vacation last year to Madrid and Barcelona. Despite preparing with Spanish podcasts, and sympathy of many waiters and museum attendants, and the great number of Spaniards who speak English, by the end of a week even the briefest of verbal engagements exhausted me, my confidence and sense of self-sufficiency so eroded I was reduced exclusively to pointing and silent gesticulations even when I knew enough Spanish to communicate my needs.

I suspect this difficulty stemmed from a comparative disadvantage, since many visitors to Spain, including many Americans, speak the language well. And here I was, a “special” child with a severe language handicap trying to play in the linguistic big leagues. I was setting myself up for frustration and disappointment. Swahili, on the other hand, is a niche language. As a Westerner in East Africa I’m starting on a level playing field, and every advance gives me an edge.

Hujambo? Sijambo. Habari gani? Nzuri sana, asante. Take that Spain.

When we reach Usa, an Arusha suburb, we turn down a narrow dirt road. The car rattles as we crawl over the rocks and bumps. Occasionally a dog trots across our path, glancing at us before passing through the headlight beams into darkness. We illuminate walls and one-story houses made of solid concrete on either side as we pass. After a bumpy five minutes the vehicle pulls up to a gate that looks similar to others we’ve passed, made of painted sheet metal and embedded in the stone wall that protects the house within.

The Hollander gets out and fetches his suitcase as Regan bangs his fist against the metal door. A woman flanked by a small boy and girl answers. “Jambooooo! Karibu sana! You are most welcome!” she bellows. Though this is not my host family, the strength of her greeting encourages me. I hope I will be received the same way.

The little girl pulls one of the Hollander’s bags, a small one, out of the trunk. She pauses at the open car window and pokes her head in to look at me. “Hello,” she says. She is perhaps eight years old. I smile back at her, and open my mouth to reply but I am caught somewhere between English, Swahili, and her pretty face, so nothing comes out. She continues to look at me for a moment, the way children do when they’re glad to have your attention but unsure what to do with it. She returns with the bag to her mother’s side.

I introduce myself to the family and bid good night to the Hollander, who I will see again tomorrow. We return to the main road. After a few miles the dark street springs to life, busy with pedestrians and shops and taxis and pounding music. Most of the structures appear to be unpainted concrete like many of the houses I have seen. Much of the modest, unlit signage is in English but is difficult to read, and the merchandise cluttered in each of the storefronts makes it difficult to determine what exactly they are selling. Here, food and shoe. Next door, bicycle parts and DVD’s. I sniff hard at the air. It smells like any big city neighborhood, mildly sour, thick with people and refuse and car exhaust. Occasionally there is a waft of food cooking that passes too quickly to identify. I see more dogs, strays I think, since they accompany no one in particular.

We turn down another bumpy road, driving only fifty meters before pulling up to another metal gate, set a few meters back from a row of tiny shops and restaurants. Regan tells me this part of the city is called Sakina. I’ll be living only a few steps away from a supermarket and internet café, and can pick up a “dalla dalla” (the famed fleet of boxy, overcrowded vans that constitute Tanzania’s public transportation) from the main road.

My host family is a single mother living with her two younger sons and a boarding nephew each in their early 20’s. The gate is open so Regan leads me in towards the back yard. As we’re waiting at the back door a young man appears silently behind us. I introduce myself and unlocks the door. He and Regan speak softly in Swahili. The inevitable feeling of mild trespass settles over me.

Inside I meet Julianne, my host mother. “Hujambo,” I whisper, afraid to wake anyone sleeping. Regan says good night and reminds me that he will pick me up the next morning at 10:30.

Julianne shows me her home and assures me it is also my home for as long as I am here. Her English is not as good as Regan’s but we understand each other well enough. I am shown the kitchen; there is a plug-in electric stove with two burners for cooking. We walk through a door and up three steps to a raised dining area, then back down three steps to a spacious living room with three small sofas where a second young man is watching television. We exchange waves.

Returning through the kitchen we enter a corridor with a few closed doors on either side. Here is where she sleeps, where her son sleeps, where the other son sleeps, where the volunteer from Germany sleeps. She shows me two bathrooms. One has a sink, tub and shower, and a sitting “Western-style” toilet. In the other there are two separate chambers with doors: one is a tubless shower, the other is (I think) a squatting toilet, which to me resembles a painter’s tray embedded in middle of the floor. A softball-sized hole at the deep end of the tray brims with water. From where I stand this dark portal appears to stretch on forever, straight down into the darkest nether regions, guiding one’s little deposit to the very center of the earth.

She shows me my room. It’s spacious, unadorned. There are two beds, a small table and a nightstand. A rug lies at the center of the concrete floor. Suspended over one of the beds is a bundled mosquito net. I ask her whether another volunteer will eventually be sharing the room with me but she says no, it will just me. She excuses herself and says she will be going to sleep. The two boys I have met are going to bed too. I say that sounds good to me. It’s about 11:30 at night.

I close the door to my room, lusting for the solitude of sleep. I fiddle with the net above my bed, figuring out how to tuck it under the corners of my foam mattress. I turn off the lone bulb dangling from the center of the ceiling, duck under the net and tuck in the last corner, sealing myself in a mesh cocoon. I draw a thin blanket over my legs. A cool, perfect air pours silently over me from the window above. Though I’d prepared myself to bear it, I am filled with gratitude that I will not have to sleep these next three months in extreme heat or cold, that no matter what befalls me day to day in Africa, good or bad or just different, my bed will be comfortable, a familiar sanctuary to which I can retreat when rattled.

I hear the bustle of the main road outside, but it’s distant and uniform enough so as not to jar me as I drift off. Occasionally a lone dog will cry out, setting off a brief and stunning chorus of barking that might very well include every dog in Arusha. Whether they are attempting to be heard over the others, or chanting in unison, I can only guess.

All at once, as rapidly as it started, the barking dies away.