Archives for posts with tag: East Africa

Alice leads us into the simple classroom and forty, six- year olds jump to attention at the side of their simple wooden desks.

“Good morning, honored vee-see-tors,”, they chorus at a signal from Alice.

A slight young woman, Alice is the lead teacher for the brand new Makumira-Kilala English Medium Primary School.  Built by the Diocese with funds from a congregation in California, this is phase one of the development.  Three classes, pre-school, kindergarten and standard one,  have been recruited to inaugurate the school.  Each year at least one more standard will be added as the children progress.

Alice introduces us as visitors from America.  The children continue their greeting in perfect unison singing/shouting songs and verses in English. “For God so Loved the World……”,”you are very welcome visitors…”

Delighted, we clap, say asante sana, thank you, thank you and marvel at their energetic performance in English, a third language for them after their local dialect and Swahili.  They are given permission to sit down.

Now it is our turn, we say our names and where we are from.  They are polite but do not register much until we ask if we can teach a song?

Lined up along the front of the room, ten Americans begin to sing, “Head, shoulders, knees and toes.”, touching our heads shoulders, knees and toes and “eyes and ears and mouth and nose.”  The students look first at their teacher before grinning broadly. Then they are on their feet, singing along as we go through the song, one time, two times…until the children collapse in giggles and the Americans catch their breath.

We have connected across age, culture and language dividing us.

As first time visitors to this culture, we sometimes feel like intruders, sometimes like voyeurs to their struggles, all the time as separate from a way of life we do not understand. We try not to bring too many judgments to a context so different from our own. In observing, we are aware of how much divides us, how much we do not know. Yet, this simple encounter reminds us that children everywhere like to move, to sing, to see adults being foolish. They have learned the English for head and shoulders, we have learned what we have in common. It is a joy.

“Wow, did you see that?” Julie is looking at a blue farm truck piled high against the slat sides with corn stalks. The pile extends about ten feet above the slats.
“How do they get them up that high?” We ask our driver, Stephen.
“Oh, the dried stalks, they don’t weigh much,” he says.
Our group of fifteen people from Wisconsin has been in the Diocese of Meru, Tanzania on a mission trip for over a week. We are doing some useful things in health care, in education, with mothers and infants but those short term efforts are incidental to the people we meet and what we are learning in a place so different in sights, sounds and way of life. The Diocese of Meru consists of parishes which extend from the Masai tribes near the Kenyan border to the Meserani Tanzanite mines in the southern plateau of land near Mt Kilimanjaro.
We are being taken to visit a vocational school run by the Diocese. At the time we see the farm truck we are on the paved main road between Arusha, departure city for the famous wildlife parks of Tanzania and Moshi jumping off place for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. After twenty minutes on this road passing through bustling villages filled with market stalls, people carrying produce, “piki-pikis”, the motor bikes that dart through the traffic, we turn onto a well-traveled dirt road. The ruts on this road are deep but Stephen promises us soft bumps. We are now in the more arid part of the Diocese so each time a vehicle passes us we roll up the windows to avoid eating their dust.
Off the paved tarmac road the buildings are a bit further apart but still clustered in small villages. Huts to live in and secure animals line the road but most of life in Tanzania is lived outside. We pass dry weather crops in the fields, beans, corn, and something we are told are pigeon peas. They fetch a good price in India. Children walking to school in their colorful uniforms, white shirts, green, blue or red sweaters and skirts and pants wave excitedly to see a land cruiser filled with ‘wazungu”, white people. Women walking to the nearest water spigot or stream with buckets balanced on their heads, pull their brightly patterned katanga’s across their faces to minimize the dust. We slow for a herd of goats crossing the road.
Driving is on the left in Tanzania but on the secondary roads driving is on any side of the road that has the smaller ruts. Colonized by the Germans in the late 19th century, Tanzania was a British protectorate from 1918 until 1961. Everything from the side of the road they drive on to their educational system shows evidence of the lasting effects of the British Empire.
Stephen maneuvers from left to right, the bumps are soft, as we bounce in what he calls the African dance. Mt. Kilimanjaro peeks through the clouds to our right. After another twenty minutes we pull up to the gates of the Leguruki KIngori Technical Education Center. The gates look freshly whitewashed.and stenciled in black with the name and logo of the school. The logo indicates that Diocese of Meru, ELCT sponsors this school.

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The guard opens the gate and ten of us pile out of two vehicles.
“Karibuni, karibuni, you are most warmly welcome,” the slender, middle aged headmaster greets each of us with a handshake. There is a ritual to these visits from Americans. First the greetings, then introductions in the headmaster’s office; each person must sign the official visitors book and tell his or her name, where she is from and whether it is a first time visit to the Diocese and Tanzania. Three secondary school teachers crowd into the small office to be introduced. We learn that this school is different from the other schools that we have visited in that it includes a secondary school and a technical –vocational school. When the students finish Form 4, they can either go to another school for college prep in Form 5 and 6 or join the technical school. Others who fail to qualify for A levels on Form 4 exams can stay at the school and learn a trade. Our co-host is the instructor for building skills, masonry and carpentry. There is an electricity shop, a mechanical skills shop and related support courses.
Next we cross the hall for “chai”. In the manner of the British, this is a morning tea. The tables are covered with white tablecloths and battered ceramic plates and dishes. There are fresh bouquets of Bougainvillea on each table. We are served savory samosas, small sweet bananas and roasted peanuts along with bottled water and tea mixed with boiled milk. Despite the fact that we are now 2 hours behind schedule there is no rushing this social time of hospitality.
The tour follows, we go to bare classrooms where students are being taught in rote English, history, geography, and English literature. Lacking any teaching resources including textbooks, they write whatever the instructor puts on the blackboard, which is an actual blackboard. Next the technical shops. The technical vocational teachers in the group, laugh at the similarity of young men clustered around a car engine, while another sands the inside of a tire. Boys and their toys.
The tour is complete and we climb in the land cruisers for our next stop an hour or so away.
What did we see? I saw lack of resources, ancient equipment, poorly furnished classrooms, anxious looking teachers and administrators, tremendous needs. I also saw dedicated people using the few resources that they have, natural beauty, unfailing hospitality and hope in the faces of the students and the young teachers and students. Did you see that fellow travelers? How do they do that?

P1060670“Meru changes you and calls you back”. An acquaintance in Seattle made this observation after a repeat visit to volunteer at Ailanga Junior Seminary in Meru, Tanzania. As we prepare for another visit, I have been thinking about how has it changed me? What is calling me back?

The people are calling me back. Last night an e-mail came welcoming our group from the Women’s minister of the Diocese, Mrs. Ndefisio Pallangyo. The first time I met Ndefisio, she was a guest in our home, on her very first visit to America. Her smile and her openness to all that was different from home crossed the bridges of time and place. When,a few years later, we made our first visit to Meru, she was there to greet us.  She has prepared a visit to a women’s group while we are there.  She has expanded the circle of her hospitality.

Tomorrow, a group of us from the Waukesha and Milwaukee area will travel to Meru. For many of us it will be our first experience in Meru. For others, it is a repeat visit. We will each have our own unique experience but we will all be changed. We will come back knowing much more about life in a developing country. We will have met new people and done some good work. We will experience radical hospitality. We will see a part of God’s creation with animals and vegetation so different from ours. Some will climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, a wonder of nature. These experiences cannot help but change us.

As I think about how my repeated visits have changed me, the most important changes have come through people. Our official Diocese hosts have worked with me to plan a full itinerary but the people who effect us most will not be just those who plan to be with us. We may find that the driver for safari connects with us in a special way. We may be moved by a child who sidles up to us when something else is going on. It may be a fellow traveler. It may be our own reaction to what we are seeing and doing.

My first trip, I thought I knew something about poverty and Tanzania is one of the world’s poorest countries. I learned that I didn’t know much about how to live daily in the richness of their culture while dealing with a material poverty that makes children malnourished and subsitence a day to day question of survival. I learned about generosity and hospitality, I learned that as a privileged American, I need the bottled water that they make sure we get. I need a driver and an interpreter. I am dependent, not my usual self-image.

The friendships we will make, with our partners in Tanzania and with each other will be powerful. Shane Claiborne put it this way, “We will not ‘Make Poverty History’ until we make poverty personal.” The problem with the divide between America and the developing world is not that we don’t care about each other, it is that we do not know each other. We don’t know the people who make our clothes or pick our coffee. On this trip we will get a glimpse of that and of our assumptions.

In a couple days, we will be met with warm smiles and cries of Karibuni, welcome. From time to time I will post something about those experiences so that you too can accompany us. God be praised for this opportunity to have our hearts and minds open.

From the front Passenger Seat

In the villages of Northern Tanzania, there is a certain Victorian courtliness that is very gradually changing regarding women and their place in the order of things.  I have tried to be respectful of that even as I chafe a little over it.  This order to protocol means that I am served with the men even as other women who have labored over wood fires to prepare meals serve us but do not sit with us for meals.  Another way this gets lived out is that when we are being driven somewhere and I am the only woman in a group,  I get the front seat!!  Since the roads were established for vehicles by the British, driving is more or less on the left hand side of the road and the front passenger seat is on the left side.

Riding in the front passenger seat is an adventure, not for the faint-hearted or anyone who suffers from the slightest motion sickness.  The day a bus was passing a bus and heading straight towards our Land Rover, seeming to accelerate, was the day I broke my habit of shrieking and or gasping when I feel in imminent danger.   I am mesmerized as this game of chicken is played out among 3 big vehicles, two buses and a Land Rover.  In addition, the motor-bikes with the colorful name of piki-piki, weave in and out and around both sides.  Ultimately, Amon our driver brakes, swerves and grunts,  the east-bound bus slows and the passing bus accelerates.  Over our frequent trips on the only tarmac road, I learn this happens at least two or three times each trip to the nearest city and it is why we have a driver.

The Moshi-Arusha road links with the paved road which connects major cities in Tanzania.  These roads are part of the infra-structure deficits that Tanzania struggles with.  The road was paved in the 1950’s and the number of vehicles has escalated dramatically in recent years.  Cars, buses, 4-wheel drive vehicles of all sizes, tractor trailer trucks(lorries-as they are known here), piki-piki and mini-vans which serve as the local transport all crowd the narrow two lane paved road.  The railroads are non-functional and air transport is extremely limited so commerce is severely restricted by this inadequate network of getting goods to market.  I have admired the avocados we are served regularly.  It is a treat for this Mid-westerner to eat avocado straight from the tree.  It is a fruit that grows well in the region.  When  I ask if they are exported to Europe or Northern European markets,  I am told that it is too expensive, difficult, and time-consuming to get the crop to the nearest port.  Once there,  refrigerated container ships are also in short  supply.  So, the short answer is, no not yet,  are they able to sell their abundant produce to more lucrative markets.  The same is true for the mangos, papaya and passion fruit that flourish here.  It is a great irony when we are served expensive boxed fruit juice packaged in South Africa while we sit in the shade of the mango tree.

Another view from the front seat is when we are not on the tarmac road, none the less harrowing, but a whole new set of hazards.  Vehicles are less common except for the local van/taxis,  dala-dalas, and the motor-bike piki-pikis.  Also, on the unpaved side roads are hand pushed wooden carts,  goats, cattle,  women carrying forage and water,  donkeys bearing water cans, children in uniforms going to and from schools.  From the front seat you can also see all the ruts, rock and hazards as the driver winds his way around obstacles, constantly changing direction based on the depth of the ruts or holes or size of rocks.   A major hazard on the dirt roads that form the majority of roads in the country are the village markets  as people carrying produce, charcoal, firewood, chickens, used clothing on their backs, their heads or on overloaded bicycles must also be negotiated.  Add to this lively mixture the incline of the mountain or the dried up stream beds of the south,  mix in clouds of dust and temperatures in the mid-90’s and you’ve got the picture!!  In our vehicle there is a handle on the dashboard for staying in your seat as you bounce along.  Sometimes the dust is so thick that the driver must slow down to see at all.  The driver is very skillful as he calculates the best route around all the hazards.

Most roads started out as either footpaths between farms or animal paths as they were driven to market.  Over time, as the communities have grown there have been attempts to widen and grade the roads  but the shape of the mountains, the path of the mountain streams and the long standing shambas make for a narrow meandering journey.  When your destination is announced it is always  stated in the amount of time it takes to make the trip, never the distance.  A journey of only 20 kilometers can take well over an hour if it is up the mountain or in a remote place on the plains.

Today’s journey is to a parish in the far eastern district of the Diocese.  It is drought stricken, de-foliated,  and very poor.  An off-shoot of the Maasai tribe has become agricultural, tending it’s animals while trying to eke out a living from the land.  The drive begins on the tarmac road which early on a Sunday morning is relatively hazard free.  We are driving East and Mt. Kilimanjaro is clearly visible from the front seat.  After 15 km or so,  we turn left and head up the mountain on the unpaved road.  I have been here a while since I don’t think too much about it as we bounce along,  weaving from one side of
the road to the other to find the best ruts to follow.  Five or six km up the mountain we turn east again onto a cow path strewn with rocks.  This actually is not too bad since there is little traffic, except for the occasional piki-piki or wooden push-cart.  As we approach the church,  we find more people walking along the path.  If there had been any doubt about our presence it vanishes when Amon downshifts and we climb the hill to the church yard.  There is a great deal of maneuvering of people and vehicle to park in the shade.  Aside from the Land Rover the only other vehicles are a piki-piki and one pick-up truck.  98% of the parishoners walk to church.

After church, it’s back to the front seat for me.  The ride is down- hill now but there are a few added stops so it is not a reverse journey.    Amon,  leaves the track and suddenly, I am thrown forward as we dip into a deep shale sided ravine.  I hang on and shortly we are climbing the other side of the ravine.  Once we level out and I loosen my grip on the handle,  we are still bouncing through rocks and brush.  Our translator and escort observes from the back seat, “ I think Amon just took a short cut.”  Back on the wider, unpaved road,  we pass a bus going the other direction.  The dust blinds us for a minute but Amon is near home, he does not even slow down.  Further down the road a car is coming straight towards us with no attempt to move to the side.  Amon slows to a crawl,  he knows this car is driven by an alcoholic.  Eventually,  we arrive at our next stop.

Some time later we make one more stop on the unpaved road.  By this time my hair is thick with dust,  and I am on the sun side of the vehicle.  The alternative to dust is to roll up the window and there is no air conditioning.  So,  after some more swerves and bumps,  we return to the tarmac road.  Now,  there is much more traffic.

Amon pulls out to overtake a slow moving car and decides to take on the truck that is ahead of that.  Over the rise comes an oncoming dala-dala,  the local van/bus,  overloaded with people, the roof piled high with baskets,  bed-rolls,  bananas and bags of maize.  Who will give way?  Despite having some experience with this,  my stomach knots,  my grip tightens.  The dala-dala slows,  Amon speeds up and we pull into the left lane where we belong.

When we return to Usa River the unpaved road in this growing community is as bad as any we have been on.  A large truck is stopped on one side of the road.  A crowd of men are on the opposite side  pushing a car out of the ditch as we thread our way through to lurch up the road to the guest house.

Riding in the front seat is symbolic of life here in Tanzania.  It is thrilling, exhausting,  beautiful, dangerous,  physically hard,  sometimes fast, more often slow, bumpy, and sometimes difficult.  But with the help of others we reach our goal safely and together.  I pray that it might be so for these people who have become friends.

Wanted:  A Miracle

Today we stop at the District office to see the bags of maize that have been purchased with money donated from concerned people in the Greater Milwaukee synod.  We meet the pastor who will be with us when we distribute sixty 100 kg bags of maize to people who are trying to subsist in an area that has received almost no rain for nearly 3 years.  The pastor,  Zakiya from Patanumbe tells us that 400 people have signed up for food and that there will not be enough.  My heart breaks a little but I have been here long enough that I am not shocked only discouraged.  Zakiya tells me that these bags of maize are very important, that even though they are not enough, it gives people hope.  He is a kind and gracious man.

The economics of this drought and resulting famine are that donated dollars do not go as far as they once did.  When maize was purchased early last fall, it cost 45,000 TSh, $30 approx., per 100kg bag.  These bags cost 60,000 Tsh per bag.  Our donations do not buy as much even as the need deepens.  Tanzania is experiencing 17% inflation.

Our day continues to visit the Eastern District of the Diocese.  We do not have many partners there.  It is a beautiful place with bougainvillea, hibiscus and yellow flowering trees punctuating the dry mountainside.  We see wilted coffee bushes with small green beans on them,  more bone thin cattle and some goats along the way.  We are greeted by a dozen or so people representing the three partner parishes in the Eastern District.  Our agenda is to talk about partners,  what is going well, how the partners support one another and what could improve.  We get into a long discussion about communication.  Eventually this brings us back to the economics of drought.  Since this area is comprised almost totally of subsistence farmers,  there has been diminishing money to pay school fees as season after season crops fail.  Because  there  are few people with English skills to communicate with partners.  In addition, where there is no water there is also no electricity to charge cell phones and computers.  It becomes expensive for the few English speakers to walk or pay for a ride to a place where there is an internet café or to even charge the cell phone.  In addition there is a shortage of pastors who may have some English skills to serve these remote and struggling parishes.  From the meeting we visit a sub-parish  where we come face to face with the problems we have been discussing.  As is their custom in hospitality,  we start with sharing bottled water and/or soda in the stick and mud church that they started their parish in and now  use for kindergarten.  The elders and evangelist who are there to greet us know that they would like an American partner but they have no concept of what our lives are like.

As we talk about what they would like an American partner to know, we hit on some ideas.  Since they are all peasant farmers, we wonder if dairy goats would be a good thing for them to consider.  A pastor who is with us, becomes quite animated about the idea as dairy goats reproduce quickly and their milk is very nutritious.  Some goat milk in porridge is enough to sustain a child for the day.  Survival is the most basic issue of the people and those who are trying to minister.  It is a Gordian knot of need.

On Thursday, we leave as promptly as anything ever leaves to head south, an area so dry that even the acacia trees are uprooted by the wind because their long taproots have given way under years of little rain and searing heat.  This is the area near KIA airport where wind shears due to extreme heat and resulting dust storms make landing and taking off an adventure.  We bump along the rutted dirt road with the lorrie carrying the 100kg bags of food following.  In the car is the general secretary and relief coordinator, a pastor who is on the Diocese relief committee, Walt and I.  We stop at Canaan parish to pick up the pastor who is a cheerful man, welcoming us many times.  From there we head further south to the sub-parish which serves a clan of the Maasai who moved south many years ago and became more pastoral. We are led by the Assistant District Pastor in his pick-up truck.

When we enter the church yard, it is filled with people dressed in the bright Maasai traditional dress of purple and red.  As we descend from the Land Rover, first the children crowd around,  Muzungu, wazungu , the buzz rises.  All are finely boned, shaved heads and scrawny with the potbellies that mark mal-nutrition.  The girls are dressed mostly in dusty skirts and dresses, those with skirts wear the ragged second hand t-shirts that the US floods the clothing markets with.  There are little boys too, one with a  toy,  the round ends of something make the wheels and sticks hold together his makeshift car. The children part as women surround me,  they want to shake my hand and say karibu,  welcome, or asante, thank you.  As woman after woman grabs my hand,  all my detachment about failed economic systems,  the inadequacy of our relief efforts and post-colonial injustice dissolves,  the tears flow down my face.  The graciousness of these desparate people,  the light of interest and hope shining from their eyes connect with my soul, woman to woman, mother to mother.  God help us all.

When the ritual greetings are over, the truck arrives to a round of applause and people gather round as the sacks of maize are offloaded onto big tarps spread on the ground.  Two tall, slender, fierce looking Maasai men in traditional garb,  red print robes tied at one shoulder, deeply pierced ears and beaded neck and head jewelry signifying their status, have taken command of the on-the-ground organization.  Meanwhile, Walt has taken the opportunity to take some pictures of the kids and the Mazungu  grandmother who has appeared.  One little girl, maybe 2 or 3 years old,  is in a dusty floral print dress that reminds me of Emilia, our grand-daughter.  While the others gather in groups to have their picture taken and marvel at the miracle of seeing themselves instantly in the digital camera, this one stands to the side quietly,  watching and solemn.  This child and our privileged grandchildren should all be able to grow up in a world where there is enough food, a decent school to go to and health care when they need it.  The differences between the life circumstances of these children and our grandchildren is so vast that I am sure many will say,  you can’t compare,  and yet, the commonality of the hope and joy that shines in these young lives cannot be denied.  

The men who rode on the truck are continuing to heave the 100kg bags off the truck.  Nearly all the labor here is manual, only a tiny percentage is mechanized, not including relief operations.  Our hosts lead me to the benches and plastic lawn chairs that have been placed under one of the few trees for resting and watching.  There is a party atmosphere as clusters of women from different  shambas catch up on gossip, keep up on the proceedings and watch the children.  At some point it is time to go into the small mud church.  It is the evangelist who serves this church under the supervision of a pastor who has organized the day.  Everyone files into the church except those who are working to organize the maize.  The prayers are said, we are assured that all have been welcome whether or not they are members of the church.  We are introduced and applauded,  Walt must talk because I am once again crying, overcome with the color, the hope in the face of futility,  the humanity of it all.  A hymn in full harmony is sung and everyone moves back out into the church yard for the distribution to begin.

The two Masai men now stand atop the pile of maize with all the authority of some ancient chiefs.  All they lack is their spears which I am sure are around somewhere.  I ask one of our translator hosts who these young men are and he says that they are “elders” of the church, men who have been given leadership roles because they have brought their whole shamba into the church.  I note that is a difference from years ago when this was a mostly a female event.  The pastor replies that it is a mark of their evangelizing efforts but also of the desperate times.  It has been 5 years since this area has had a harvest.  Only 4 of the 5 hand-dug wells,  also financed by American church donations, are producing water. Some of their cattle, their only assets,  are dying of starvation and lack of water.  If they can get the cattle to market they can buy at most a bag of maize per cow.  I ask why the people stay here under such impossible circumstances.  My host laughs, almost a bark of frustration,  where would they go?  What would they do?

At one point the Diocese relief coordinator,  Mr. Nnko, steps to the front of the crowd surrounding the tarps of maize and says,  “see me?  Line up here.” And they all line up.  Two very old, stooped women are pushed aside as the line forms.  Mr. Nnko brings them to the front of the line.  The bucket that contains approx. 10 kg of maize is filled and poured into the bags that the mamas have brought.  The distribution has begun.  We watch and Walt takes pictures for a while and then it is time to visit another sub-parish a few miles away.  We will return after that short side trip.

We are part of a ritual that has grown out of too many times that such a distribution was required,  everyone seems to know their role except the visiting Americans who follow where led,  speak when asked to and are humbled by the honor given to us on behalf of the many donors from southeastern Wisconsin.  We walk through structures that now have roofs by the grace of God,  peer down wells, and encourage the evangelists and pastor who care for this flock.

When we return to the distribution,  most of the maize has been distributed.  Here and there we see women,  heaving bags and baskets tied with colorful but faded Katanga cloth onto their heads to begin the 3 or 4 kilometer walk back to their huts.  The procedure is that everyone who showed up will be given the first portion for as long as it lasts.  If there is enough,  a second round of 10 kg portions is given.  That is underway.  The loaves and fishes have multiplied.  “Extra” baskets have been set aside for the workers and the choir waiting to honor us at yet another outpost.  For today, the miracle has been given.  Thanks be to God!