Friday, July 31, 2009

School for Albino Children

My favorite new friends I made in Africa were three fantastic young people from Great Britain— Rose, Josh, and Vanessa— who were in Tanzania for 7 weeks this summer teaching English at Mwereni Primary School in Moshi. This school is primarily for albinos.

Filed under the heading of “Things I Never Would Have Known About If I Hadn’t Gone to Africa” is the issue of albinos and the hardships they face in Tanzania. In addition to the usual challenges—being ridiculed for looking different, social segregation, the risk of getting sun burned, and suffering eye problems—albinos in Tanzania are in danger of being killed for their body parts.

In short, witch doctors tell people they need a leg, an arm of an albino in order to make magic potions that will bring people good luck or fortune. And quite a few albinos have been murdered in Tanzania in the past few years because people actually believe the witch doctors. I did a google search of Tanzania/albino/witch doctors, and the stories that come up are not for those who are weak of stomach.

Rose told me that the school houses about 80 albinos and most of them are fairly vision impaired. They have a Braille computer room, and the schoolmaster built an enormous hall with huge windows so the children can be protected by the sun and yet still feel like they are playing outside.

In a country where many people believe that being born albino is the result of a curse that was put on your family, the Mwereni School is a place where the students become each other’s family. I love that such a school exists, and I love that young people like my friends Rose, Josh and Vanessa choose to spend their summers helping students learn English so they can have a stab at some kind of successful future.

This is Vanessa, Theresa, Rose and Josh. In addition to being great English teachers, they can shake their groove thing on the dance floor too.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Pentecostals

I awoke to the sounds of pattering rain and the bass line of Pachelbel’s Canon, so I turned off my fan and listened for a few enchanted moments.

Then an organ began pounding out the tune to “I Surrender All” and the screaming began.

Next door to my guest house in Africa there was a Pentecostal church. The people walking down the dirt road to the church were well-dressed and appeared happy to be there, which is a good thing because attendees were always in it for the long haul with services sometimes lasting until 3 or 4 in the morning. At this church there was a lot of singing, clapping, preaching, and cheering. And the casting out of demons. There must have been a considerable number of real and/or imagined demons around there because they hosted exorcisms almost every night.

I’m no demonologist but after 3 weeks of listening from my bed in Africa, I know that demons are hard of hearing because the Pentecostals felt the need to yell at them loudly and frequently. They started with a rhythmic cadence of alternating yelling in which the demon-possessed person shrieked like he/she was in pain and the demon caster-outer shouted authoritatively at the demon. There was a glorious crescendo of noise and enthusiasm and then inexplicably there would be instant silence—like everyone needed to catch their breath or something.

It sounds pretty gruesome- I know-- and more than once my friend Theresa has had terrified volunteers come to her room in the middle of the night saying “someone is being killed out there.” She assures them it is simply a friendly neighborhood exorcism, then she distributes earplugs and everyone goes back to sleep.

So one Sunday I walked over to the gated entrance of the outdoor Pentecostal church and peeked discreetly into the compound. I must have been spotted because they sent a smiling man out to talk with me.

“I’m just listening to the music” I said to assure him I wasn’t a church-wrecker.
“You are welcome” he said.
Thinking this meant I was welcome, I clarified “Can I go inside?”

This was a bold move on my part because God only knows how many demons were hitching a ride on this white woman from America, but as a past theology major I was intrigued by their beliefs and as a former charismatic I was interested in their practice.

He squirmed, shoved his hands in his pockets, and looked at the ground. “They are praying….” he shrugged.

“Ah, ok. Praying is private. I understand” I said, kindly letting him off the hook. I guess they didn’t want to be scrutinized in the middle of an exorcism—and I don’t blame them for that. So I went about my day thinking about how differently they do church from how I do “church” and humming a catchy tune that a white missionary must have brought years ago to the Africans.

“I surrender all…I surrender all… all to Thee my precious Savior…I surrender all.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

African Cuisine

The primary thing I learned about Tanzanian food is that it revolves around gravies. I ate a banana stew with chicken in white gravy, and the cooked bananas tasted similar to potatoes. I had a lot of great vegetable and chicken Marsalas, but again, they were heavy on the gravy. Beef stew…gravy. You get the idea about gravy.

The most common food in Tanzania is “ugali” which is made from corn and flour with the color and texture of grits or a really thick version of the hot cereal “cream of wheat”. Tanzanians eat ugali every day and claim to love it. I don’t know if they love the taste or love that it is a cheap food that sticks to your ribs, but I heard stories of people who visited family members in other countries and lugged along the ingredients to make ugali so they wouldn’t miss it while they were abroad.

Here is a photo of a typical meal I had—grilled chicken, cooked bananas, beans, a generous helping of ugali, some cooked greens, and tomato sauce.

No forks are used, so you roll up some ugali into a ball in your hand, pinch the other foods with the ugali, and eat them all together. It tasted pretty good, but I’ve got to admit that my stomach never did very well in Africa. I don’t know if it was the food, the high altitude (I was at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro), or malaria medicine, but I had a low-grade nausea the whole three weeks I was there.

Bottom line: don’t go to Tanzania specifically for the food unless you are on a top end safari with a world class chef making you Spice Rubbed Chicken, Carpaccio and Fennel Salad, and Roasted Bananas sprinkled with walnuts, thick cream, and cinnamon. Oh, and ugali.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Kilimanjaro Kids Care

For those interested in the daily operations of an orphanage in Tanzania:

At Kilimanjaro Kids Care, twenty two children ages 7-15 live at the orphanage. They have all lived there between 1-2 years and a handful of the children are siblings, but they all consider themselves to be a big, happy family. There are four bedrooms full of bunk beds with the girls claiming two rooms and the boys claiming two. In the backyard are a couple of “hole toilets” in outhouses, as well as a closed off “shower room” where the older children take “bucket showers” with stream water.

There are 3 adult house mothers who live at the home, and while the children are at school these extraordinary women clean the house, do laundry, mend clothes, prepare food, and do what you need to do to keep your sanity while you live with 22 children. The house mothers cook breakfast and dinner over an open fire in the backyard, and serve meals off the floor in a serving room in the house.

They clean and wash clothes with stream water, so every day after school the older girls walk to a nearby stream and carry water (on their heads) back to the orphanage. The older children do their own laundry, and the house mothers help the younger children keep clean.

The children help prepare meals by chopping vegetables...

or by picking rocks out of the dried corn that is used for making porridge.

All in all, these children do a lot more than my sorry lazy butt did when I was a kid. And they are smart, kind, well-behaved kids.

Safety Belts? Huh?

Wazungus on the bottom!” I called out as everyone clamored for the Make a Difference vehicle. The kids thought this was hilarious and massive giggling ensued. “Wazungus onda boddum!” some of the children repeated again and again. More giggling.

Every time we taught and volunteered at the Royal Junior School, the orphans would see Theresa’s safari truck in the parking lot and they would forgo jumping on the school bus in favor of the much more fun option of riding in the truck to the orphanage. The challenge was that there were 22 of them and 5 full grown adults whereas the safari truck had seats for 8.

Undaunted, the adults sat in the seats forming a bottom layer and held at least 2 children on our laps. Backpacks were tangled around our feet, school uniforms were askew, and there was a cacophony of yelling and laughing and tickling and giggling and questions and answers of “what did you learn in school today?”

While I agree with most of our safety laws in the United States, I have to admit that I’m secretly relieved to be in other countries where safety guidelines are a little more “optional”. For me it is worth the sacrifice in safety to be surrounded by happy, smiling, wiggling children who gladly give and receive hugs with a generosity that makes the heart soar.

The Royal Junior School

“I prayed and prayed and prayed…. every morning at 5 am for one year…. God, what should I do?” Headmistress Elizabeth Ndjiki told me the story of how she founded one of the top 3 ranking schools of the region—the Royal Junior School.

A profound woman of faith who could also be a powerful preacher if she wanted to switch careers (I watched her give several mini-sermons to squirming students called into her office), Elizabeth started a school in her house and 10 years later she has several school buildings, almost 500 students, 17 teachers, a garden, a well, and a residence that houses 130 children who board at the school.

I instantly liked Elizabeth and her husband Leonard Ndjiki, who is a retired university professor of philosophy and psychology with a penchant for wearing cowboy hats.

In the three weeks I was there, I taught a journaling class at the school - showing students how to personalize their journals, how to use drawings and colors, how to mind-map, and I encouraged them to pay attention to their lives and to dream about the future. When I walked into any classroom, the students would stand up and recite a greeting in unison—something like, “Good afternoon, Madame, you are welcome at our school.” The smaller children (4-6 years old) giggled when I gave them “high fives” in the hallway.

It’s an amazing school and I was honored to be able to contribute some things they didn’t know about- like mind mapping. On one of my last days I sat down with Elizabeth, coaching her and mind-mapping her dreams for the future of her school. As she spoke her dreams out loud I drew sports fields, a library, a teacher’s lounge, a Secondary school, and even a swimming pool (a gutsy dream in a drought-ridden area). When we were finished, she proudly took her mind map from me and smiled widely as she spoke of laminating it and praying over it. Considering all the Ndjiki’s have accomplished in only 10 years, I’ve no doubt there will be exuberant children splashing in a swimming pool sometime in the next decade.

Make a Difference Now

My friend Theresa Grant is an amazing woman who experienced a meaningful spiritual transformation some 4-5 years ago and left her high-powered Silicon Valley job to move to Africa, where she eventually started and maintains her own nonprofit organization called Make a Difference Now (MAD). MAD currently does work in Zambia, India, and Tanzania. Theresa’s work in Tanzania includes collaborating with local partners to care for 22 orphans in an orphanage called “Kilimanjaro Kids Care”. Theresa is responsible for their education and she sends all 22 of the children to an excellent private school. She is considered their parent, and yes, she is required to go to Parent Days at the school to represent her brood.

In Tanzania all children are required to go to Primary School- even though many families are so poor they cannot afford to buy the school uniform for their children. At the end of Primary School students take an English test, and if they pass the test they are allowed to move on to Secondary School. Without going to Secondary School there is little chance of ever landing a job beyond manual labor—like working as a porter, hotel cleaner, cook, or farmer. And sadly, 20-30% of children pass the English test to get into Secondary School. After that only 5% of children graduate from Secondary School to go on to college or university.

So one of the key things Theresa asks volunteers to do when they come to Tanzania is to spend quite a bit of time reading books with the children so they can hear how Westerners pronounce things and to imitate them the best they can. And these kids LOVE to read. I would stand at the orphanage and call out “Who wants to read?” and at least 5 children would race to the library yelling “Me, Madame, me!” There was a line to read with the volunteers. These photos are of volunteers Josh and Vanessa reading with the children.

It definitely put a new spin on “Go, Dog, Go!” and “Curious George” for me to hear them read out loud with a Swahili accent.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

First Impression

My first impression of Africa was that everyone carries everything on their head. I vaguely remember seeing photos of that before, but when I saw it in real life it never failed to fascinate me.

I constantly saw people balancing baskets on their heads. And buckets of stuff. And big bunches of green bananas. And 10 litre canisters of water. Women rushed off to market with any number of things on their head.

Here's a lady I saw carrying a bunch of sticks for firewood on her head.

I don't know why it interested me so much, but truthfully, it is the first thing that made an impression upon me. I wish my first impression was of the kindness or the ingenuity or the tenacity of the African people. But no, it's that they can balance bananas on their heads. I never claimed to have deep thoughts all the time.

Immediately Breaking the Rules

"Whatever you do, don't have sex, don't get a tattoo, and don't go into any water." Before I left for Africa, my friend Elizabeth passed on some medical advice that her doctor friend gave her before her trip to Rwanda. "Ok" I agreed, thinking none of those things were likely to come up. Four days later I found myself wading thigh deep through a mud-bottomed river trying not to think of leeches, piranhas, or the myriad bacteria seeping into my pores.

Why was I immediately breaking the rules? Not by choice. I was in Moshi, the region around Mount Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania. There are numerous "wazungus" (white folks) in Moshi, and they take turns hosting a monthly event called "The Hash". The Hash, I was told, is an expatriate tradition around the world in which expats regularly gather together in a foreign country. The Hash used to be about hanging out and drinking until someone got the brilliant idea to get some exercise. So Hash participants take turns creating a running/walking trail outside the city limits by marking a course with piles of flour. Serious runners run quickly like a bunny to the next pile of flour and show the slower walkers where to go by forming sticks into an arrow on the ground that points in the right direction.

I was assured the walkers were all about just strolling, talking, and taking it easy-- so I agreed to go. But I soon found myself trudging, breathing heavily, and cursing the day I was born.

The person who created this particular hike had decided to lead runners and walkers straight through the brush where bushes grow needle-like “leaves”. I hiked over logs and under branches. I walked through tall grass, jumped over small streams, and pulled endless rocks out of my sandals. I listened to strange bird calls and watched the setting sun light up unfamiliar trees. At one point I heard a fearsomely sharp, quick howl and stood stock still until I spotted a monkey high in a tree. Jet-lagged, hot, sweaty, and tired, my entire existence boiled down to finding the next pile of flour.

After 9 kilometers the sun was low in the sky and I just wanted to be done with what I was now thinking of as “the wretched Hash”. Thinking less than pure thoughts, I wearily rounded a corner to discover that the only thing between me and the finish line was a muddy river surrounded by trees and brush that made it impossible to pass through anywhere except to wade through the water.

“Crap” I said. I looked behind me and knew I was too tired to retrace my steps backwards for 9 km, and I certainly wasn’t keen on wandering around the African bush by myself at dusk. So I rolled up my pants, pulled off my dusty sandals, and did what a traveling woman has gotta do.

At the campground at the end of the walk, about 25 wazungus clutched bottles of beer and huddled around bags of salty snacks. “White people are crazy” I muttered to Ben, our African driver who was waiting under a tree bemusedly watching the wazungus trickle in from the hike. He laughed but was too polite to agree.

Amsterdam Airport

The orange bin comes in handy if you want to properly recycle your pet hamster before hopping on a flight.