Saturday, November 14, 2009


Computer problems

While I was typing the last two entries, the following problems occurred:
-the keyboard on my computer stopped working. I had to save the half-finished donkey entry and move to another computer.
-an internet cafe employee scanned a document using my computer (I had been moved to an employee computer when my keyboard broke)
-the electricity went out for a minute, then came back on. Or maybe the generator kicked in.

Ah, computers in Tanzania. Things will seem far too smooth and simple when I go home.


Biology scavenger hunt

This year, I set up the national exam practicals for biology. One month before the exam, I received the following advance instructions. (these are excerpts, the instructions also included chemicals and lab apparatus)

Each student must be provided with a liver fluke.

Each student must be provided with:
-a lizard (may be shared by several students)
-a centipede
-a hibiscus leaf
-a cypress branch
-a scapula bone
-radius and ulna bones
-a rib bone

I nearly panicked at these instructions. A liver fluke? What's a liver fluke? What's a cypress tree? How am I going to get enough scapula bones to put one on each table in the lab?

Tanzania has no biological supply houses. You can't just fill out an order for 15 liver flukes, 8 scapula bones, and 4 centipedes. You have to find everything yourself: in short, you go on a scavenger hunt. A scavenger hunt where the stakes are the students' exam scores and possibly their educational futures.

Okay, liver flukes. Liver flukes are parasites that live in livestock livers, specifically in the gall ducts. Apparently, the cows in my district are not infected with liver flukes. So, where to get them?

Try one: the headmaster's cow is being slaughtered for school graduation celebrations. I talk to the students doing the slaughtering and ask them to take a look at the liver. I also put an order in for ribs and scapula bones. I end up with two small, immature liver flukes and seven ribs covered with rotting meet (I received them three days after the celebrations, due to poorly timed travelling on my part). The scapulas were somehow lost. But I did get two from a goat that was slaughtered for another graduation party.

Try two: talk to friends. I have a friend in town, a biology and chemistry teacher who is super-enthusiastic about practicals. He runs the district branch of the Tanzanian science teachers' association, and has hosted several workshops training the local teachers to use the labs. He also has connections. I initially got two liver flukes from him, and got eight more later.

Try three: the mnaada. The mnaada is a monthly market and livestock auction. It also happens to be two days before the biology exam. I bike to the neighboring village on mnaada day, carrying a small container of formaldehyde tucked in an old powdered milk can. The cows being butchered have liver flukes--lots of them! The butchers initially want to charge me for taking parasitic worms off their hands, but fortunately the district meat inspector intervenes. I split up the liver flukes with some teachers from another secondary school, and end up with enough liver flukes to put out one per student. The mnaada also provides four scapula bones--not quite enough, but maybe the students can share.

As for the rest...I get radius and ulna bones by scavenging wing bones from chickens at lunch time. The lab contains a single dry lizard and a single centipede. There are a few cypress trees in town. Fortunately, hibiscuses grow at the school.

So the practicals went reasonably smoothly. There were some last minute preparations, some rushing around the lab to label things correctly, some quick additions of solutions to student tables. But the specimens were there, and it wasn't a disaster. And now I have 15 liver flukes preserved in formaldehyde for next year.


Still here

It's been a while since I've posted--a busy few months of national exams and the end of the term. I'll try to make up for it with a series of posts, of which this will be the first.

It was the last week of the dry season. My water supplies were running low, despite the presence of two 60-litre buckets, three 20-litre buckets, and three 10-litre buckets in my house. The water wasn't running during mid-day,only at 5 am and occasionally at night. So, around 9 pm, I went out to check on the faucet by my house.

A miracle: the water was running. Slowly, maybe two litres a minute, but it was running. I ran inside to grab my buckets before a student or neighbor heard the water and came to fetch as well. I put a twenty-litre bucket under the faucet, and sat down to wait.

The beautiful sound of water hitting a bucket. Stars filling the sky above. I really don't mind fetching water at night. The school is quiet and peaceful, and the sky is beautiful.

But then, footsteps. Shadows. Something large nearby. Something very large. Or somethings?

I look up to find four donkeys standing in front of me, staring at the water.

At the end of the dry season, farmers just let their livestock wander around the school ground. It's against the rules. They risk a five thousand shilling ($4) fine. But the well-watered school flower beds and teachers' gardens are one of the only sources of food at this time of year. And so, the school grounds fill with donkeys and pigs looking for food.

Apparently, nobody comes to give these donkeys water. The donkeys are staring very thirstily at my bucket.

Hmm. The donkeys are several times stronger than me. The donkeys have sharp hooves. The donkeys could easily kick me and steal my water.

One donkey nudges its companion. The companion takes a step forward.

I take a step forward and stomp my feet. The donkey backs off.

We stare at each other. A donkey steps forward. I stomp my feet; it backs off.

This goes on for several minutes. Donkeys are docile animals; they don't attack me and take the water. But neither do they go away. Finally I get tired of being stared at by donkeys, turn off the faucets, and move inside with my buckets. With no water coming out of the faucets, the donkeys lose interest and walk away. I return to fetch water a few minutes later, while the donkeys eat the school flowerbeds.

After months of the dry season--from May through the end of October--it's finally started raining again. Water is coming out of the faucet reliably. Grass is beginning to sprout. The air smells beautifully of rain. And the desperate feeling of the dry season, of suspended animation, of just getting by, is finally over.

I've never appreciated rain so much.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Two years in Tanzania

It's been exactly two years since the day I first came to Tanzania.

When I came here, life felt like an adventure. Everything was new, exciting, unpredictable. I was excited to practice my Swahili by talking to the person sitting next to me on the bus, excited and a bit afraid to try the local transportation and to see new parts of the country. Life was hard at times, but at the end of the day, I always had a good story.

Now, life here feels normal. The lack of entries in this blog lately aren't due to a lack of good stories, but rather to the fact that what used to strike me as an interesting story now strikes me as normal life. I talk casually about cars running out of gas in the middle of the road, about marriage proposal from the person next to me on the bus, about having 50 students in the lab using bunsen burners at once at school. A good book I just read (Collapse by Jared Diamond) refers to our changing perceptions of what is normal over a long time as "creeping normalcy". Normalcy has crept up on me in Tanzania, and now it's here.

This has its ups and its downs. The good news is that life here takes much less effort. I know where to find the things I need. I know what I can expect to take a lot of time, and how much I can expect to get done in a day. On the other hand, the loss of the feeling of adventure makes the downs a lot harder. Since I no longer have a sense of excitement to get me through hard days, annoyances become simple annoyances, frustration becomes simple frustration.

Exams are approaching at school, and it will be exciting to watch the students I've been teaching biology for two years take their exams. I'll post some stories on that once the exams are over (practical exams always lead to some interesting stories...).
Once Form 4 finish their exams, I'll be left with my Form 3 chemistry students, who I plan to teach for another 6 months before leaving.

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I'll try to catch up once national exams are over.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Nipo nipo bado!

To quote a popular Bongo Flava (Tanzanian hip hop) song, I'm still here! It's been a while since I've posted. Some news:
-I've extended my service, and will be here until June.
-My town is developing! In small ways, but ones that make my life considerably more cheerful. When I got here, the only bread available was stale factory bread from Arusha; now there are two bakeries in town. My favorite restaurant now sells passion fruit juice--one of my favorite juices in Tanzania, but one that had never been available here. And there's a place with satellite internet in town...though admittedly, the connection is fairly unreliable.
-Speaking of development, I was talking to a guy from Denmark who'd been in my town in the nineties. I'd already known that there was no paved road to the town in 1995. According to him, there was also no electricity and only two shops. He remembers the first bar in town to install a television, after electricity finally came. And he remembers there being only one bank.
Well, now there are four banks in town, a paved road, electricity, and innumerable shops. Buildings are going up at an amazing rate. Land is being bought for tourist hotels, to the point where it's so expensive that many of the locals can't afford it. There are two places with internet, and the town feels very, very much connected to the outside world. And like it's continuing to change very, very fast. I'll be interested to come back here in ten or twenty years and see what things are like.
-I had my close of service conference, at a beautiful and tranquil beach hotel on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam. After nearly two years here, the first volunteers from my group are beginning to return home. It's an uncertain time for a lot of people, as most of us aren't sure what we'll do next. And, after adjusting to life in Africa for two years, it's going to be hard to adjust to life in the States again.
I've put all this off my extending. But next June, I'll be going through the same thing. In the meantime, I watch my training group slowly leave, send them my good wishes, write down their email addresses and promise to keep in touch...then take a car back to my village. Nipo nipo bado.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Lake Manyara

On the map, my village is near the border of Lake Manyara National Park. I've always thought that, if I simply ride my bike in the correct direction, I'll find a view of the lake.

But until now, I've never had the time to go looking for one.

That changed this week. My school cancelled final exams due to a photocopying issue (the place printing the exams wanted more money than we had, there was a misunderstanding over pricing...long story short, we couldn't have final exams because we couldn't pay for them to be printed). So, suddenly I had a free week of time on my hands.

The first time I saw Lake Manyara was in my own village. I went hiking with a friend and a friend of a friend to the hills above the village. After about an hour and a half of climbing up and down, up and down, we reached a hill with a church on top. And there before us was a view of Lake Manyara.

Beautiful. But not as beautiful as the view in a neighboring village.

I've been promising to visit some friends in a neighboring village for a few weeks now. This week, I finally biked to their house with a neighbor to guide me. We had lunch (chicken--it's customary to kill a chicken for a guest), then went on a two hour hike/bike ride toward Lake Manyara. Our destination: a campsite for tourists with a view of the entire lake, a mere half hour's walk from the border of the park. I didn't even know there were campsites for tourists in the villages of my area! The view was absolutely amazing: we could see the entire lake, and the forests stretching in front of it, and various towns that I've travelled through on the other side of the lake. We even saw a gazelle of some sort in the forest, and the tower of the ranger station in the park.

It took me a year and a half to find out that this view was here. A year and a half! I guess that shows how long it takes to truly get to know a place. It's a good thing the Peace Corps puts us here for two years--I'm only just starting to feel like I know my area.

And a belated thanks to the Peace Corps staff who placed me here. Not only does the mountain containing Ngorongoro Crater rise above the cornfields of my village, Lake Manyara is only a few hours walk away. I feel very, very lucky.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Approaching break

Just a short update to let you all know I'm still here. School break starts in about a week and a half, after two more days of teaching followed by a week of exams. Teaching wise, it's been a long but good term. I finally feel like my students understand what I want from them, and that they trust me to know what I'm doing. Plus, I finally do feel comfortable here--Tanzania really does feel like home these days. I'll be traveling for much of the month of June (I do need the break from my village), but I'm looking forward to continuing my teaching in July. More blog updates coming as soon as break starts!

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