The content of this blog does not reflect the positions of the Peace Corps and is solely the responsibility of the author.

In Which I Step on a Sacred Bee

I stepped on a bee.  It hurt.  I almost caused panic in trying to explain what happened to some onlookers because I accidentally told them that I stepped on a snake [nyoka] rather than a bee [nyuki].  My Kiswahili, it is problematic.

Once we cleared up that minor language trouble, I had to introduce myself at length, because the onlookers at the college right now are all government workers who don't know who I am.  Naturally, among the things I was asked (after "will you fix my computer?" "No.") was about religion, specifically, whether I was Christian or Muslim.  This is a common question*.   It's also not one I like getting because in addition to disliking false dichotomies, I'm somewhat bitter about religion in general for many reasons, and in Tanzania as in the rest of the world, when it comes to religion, one cannot simply claim not to have one and get on with life the way one can with admitting to a lack of, say, vegetable peeler. My standard explanation is that religion, like love, must come from the heart, and if it doesn't there is no good reason to pretend and a lot of good reasons to not.  In this case, this did not work, because the man asked if I didn't believe in religion or didn't believe in god.

In most circumstances, I would be really happy to talk about this because it is an important distinction, but in a garbled conversation of partial English (that he doesn't really understand) and partial Kiswahili (that I don't really understand) I am not prepared for a conversation about metaphysics.  Particularly not after stepping on a bee.  Which hurt.  So I just said I didn't believe in god, because that's easy, at which he got all pantheistic (god is everywhere, even in that tree, or is that panintheism?) and then demanded explanations for the origin of everything or else QED god.  Somehow the upshot of this was his telling me that the origin of the bee that had just enjoyed my foot (that's a translation weirdness) was of god and caused by god as was stepping on it.

I smiled weakly and went home to take over the counter antihistamines and a generic pain killer, because I had stepped on a bee, and it hurt.

*My hypothesis is actually that this happens to women a lot more than men, and only to anyone in regions which don't have a fairly homogeneous religious distribution, but I don't have the data to support that claim.

About receiving on a regular basis the question "are you Christian or Muslim"
People in the sample: 12
men: 5
women: 7

men who say they don't get that question: 4
women who say they don't get that question: 3

Of the three women who are not asked this, all 3 of them qualify that they are in a place with a homogeneous religious distribution, and the 2 of those who are in Christian areas say they get asked which denomination they are a lot.

I need a larger sample size.

Dresses in Tanzania

To have clothes made in Tanzania, one goes to fabric stores, buys fabric, and takes it to another shop where nice people with sewing machines will make whatever you can draw for them or whatever you point to of the pictures they have on the walls.    These are the ones I have had made thus far.     

In Which I am Irritated by Tanzanian Security Theater

This has been bugging me for a while.  Below is a typical Tanzanian lock.  It can be defeated with a flat head screwdriver.

My house has a burglar-proof door.  I broke into it the first night at site, after locking myself out*, with a friendly neighbor who had a screwdriver and a claw-headed hammer.  While one could argue that it took long enough and made enough noise to be an easily defeatable break in, it is not burglar-proof.  Which is not to say that it is bad, since it ensures that I will be victimized by a better quality of more persistent criminal (what more can one ask?) but let's never forget that security is an unsolvable problem and approach it with intelligence and realism.  The best way to keep my house unbreached is to be friends with my neighbors.  

My current annoyances with security are caused by the Tanzanian Ministry of Education, which has actually been the cause of the majority of my annoyances, and typically centering around the national exams.  This is no exception.  Classes at the college are over, the students and most of the teachers have peaced out. The government has moved in to grade more national exams, this time using labor imported from outside the college (couldn't they have done that the last round of grading, rather than interrupt their future teachers' already far too brief training?).  All well and good, except they seem to think I am on retainer to help them troubleshoot their personal laptops.  I agree to giving their personal laptops wireless access.  Period.  I am working on making it clear that I only do this during normal working hours.  The reason this is security related is that the ministry workers are camping in the ICT office building and they have decided that their grading work is so super-sensitive that non-government personnel must be escorted at all times in this building.  This means that when I get text messages asking me to show up and distribute wireless access like the benevolent internet-dispensing deity that I so clearly am, I have to wait around for someone to escort me into the building I have the keys to, let me into the server room (that I also have the keys for) where there are all the servers and routers that I have the admin passwords for, and then they hand me their personal laptops, tell me their passwords for their personal laptops, and then have someone escort me out.

And have I mentioned there is wireless?  And I have admin and personal laptop passwords?  I don't even need to be physically in the building if I decide to be a security problem.  Really government people, the way to keep your sys admin staff (which is pretty much me**) from becoming a security risk is to be good friends with them and not infuriate them with demands for unpaid 24/7 tech support and submitting to pointless security theater.

*It was not my fault.  I had my keys with me.  One of the multiple latches on the inside of the door somehow latched itself while I was outside because it was really loose and I kinda have to slam this door to get it to shut.

**I have taught the ICT teacher who is there to turn the servers on for them how to give wireless access in the hopes that I wouldn't have to do this, but unfortunately, he doesn't have a computer, and the government people's computers pretty much uniformly don't have java installed, which is required to run the nice graphical interface for the router, and I really don't want to mess with the government people's virus-riddled Windows Vista boxes more than I have to.  

Stories of Magic: The Burns of Affection

A volunteer stationed in a village close to Same relates that a girl who was trying to get him to marry her (in Kiswahili, men marry, women are married) burned his name into her arm.  His hypothesis is that this is supposed to somehow bind him to her, but he doesn't know for sure.

On a related note, I have been reading War and Peace and one of the characters decides to prove her love for another by heating a ruler in a stove and then burning herself with it.  Is burning oneself for love a thing?  Did I miss something that would make this make sense?

In Which I am an Aerialist in Tanzania

I got silks and a rescue 8 rig in a box from the US, which was rescued from Customs after an epic battle of wills and official letters.  I hang my silks off an awesome jungle gym thing 

The Tanzanians aren't quite sure what to make of it.  The first few times I did this no one said a word to me.  People stopped and watched, but no one actually asked me what I was doing.  Then some of the male students began to peacock, energetically doing pushups (on the top of the jungle gym right above me no less) and taking off their shirts and climbing around.  A few people then ask me what the name of this mchezo is.  Mchezo means game, sport, entertainment, and the verb from -cheza means to play or to  dance.  At a staff meeting, the principal asked me this as well, I got a round of applause from the other teachers for answering in Kiswahili (they all seem to think it is hilarious and fun that I attempt to speak the language, since the VSO couple there and their former PCVs just spoke English) and now people just seem to accept that I am the odd person who does this odd fabric thing.

Bring me Your Ridiculous, Your Privileged, Your First World Problems

Listen, and I will tell you a story, as it was told to me by a volunteer on leave:

Far far away, in that magical land the US, where clothes are washed by machine and all the roads are paved, there once was a woman, and she had too much pound cake.  And lo!  There was a massive storm, and she was without electricity in her house for several days.  What of her pound cake, which, in the refrigerator that could no longer keep foods cold, might go bad?  Did she eat it?  Well, no, for she could only eat pound cake with strawberries, which she feared to buy in the absence of a powered refrigerator.  Instead then, she gave away all of her pound cake to her neighbors, for she had too much and could not eat it without strawberries.

There are few problems more delightful than those of developed nations.  The inhabitants of such places, they have trouble finding online the precise episodes of television shows they missed on air, they do have uneven coffee table legs, and they have too much pound cake.

The brilliant and wonderful people in the US with whom I converse have this depressing tendency to make self-deprecating comments when they tell me about their first world problems, and indeed, first world problems are first world problems and I have an unfair conversational advantage in that no matter how rough you have it I can probably one-up you, because really, I'm in Tanzania and you aren't.  However, I love first world problems.  They remind us all that civilization is doing something right.

In this is civilization, that we might have too much pound cake and share with our neighbors. Oh Youtube!  Give me me your opera, your flash cartoons, and your animals doing cute things!  And when you are done, I would like a cookie, made in an actual oven with lots of bells and whistles like temperature controls.

In Which I Make a Cake

It was a basic yellow cake, a little funny tasting because I do not buy real butter without a refrigerator, and I have yet to find a source of real milk, but I made frosting for it that was pretty much entirely liquid, and it's not a pretty cake, but it was a genuine actual cake, and it was for my birthday, and it was yummy.

In addition, I bought oranges, which are green not orange, but they are oranges, and hollowed them out jack-o-lantern wise and spooned cake batter into them and cooked them inside the oranges, to make itty bitty adorable citrusy cakelet things.  The downside being that it takes forever to cook, at least if you are doing it in a sufuria over a hot plate, and the juice tends to bubble over and burn and make a huge mess.

A Tanzanian Wedding

A wedding I attended with my host family during training.

The thing was outside under a canopy of lights.

The bride and groom leaving.
The back of the bride's dress.

The bride at a table full of booze and soda

Some members of the wedding party

I just followed these two women around with a camera while they were dancing because they were awesome.

Low quality video clip of people dancing while waving handkerchiefs:

Thank you Tuesday

I went to the big sokoni [market] in town yesterday looking for a mortar and pestle, unroasted coffee beams, and nail polish.  Which I found, no problems, but while I was there I decided I might as well pick up some of the vegetables I would normally get in one of the little villages close to my house.  This was a mistake.

I would love the sokoni in town so much were I not white, they have so much stuff, everywhere, and it's wonderful, except maybe for the piles of dead sardine-like fish that sit in the sun and become ever smellier. The problem with being white is that people harass me by following me around shoving stuff in my face (do you want this, do you want that?), and try to overcharge me.  Massively.  After some person attempted to tell me a handful of tomatoes was 2,000 Tsh (it should be about 200) I gave up and was heading out ignoring the tomato-price-gouging sellers running after me frantically offering to drop the price to around 1500 because he just loved foreigners so much.  This was when another man called out to me that he would give me tomatoes for the actual going price.  I thanked him, bought tomatoes from him, and told him what had gone on and started complaining about how every time I came here people give me foreigner prices.  He not listened sympathetically, he then asked me what else I needed, and went with me around the market, and helped me buy my groceries for me at market prices, without wanting a cut for himself, and without pressuring me to buy more stuff then I needed.  When I was done, he told me his name was Jumanne (which means Tuesday) and next time I came to market I should come to him, ask around if I can't find him, and he would continue to help me with my shopping.

This man named Tuesday noticed a complete stranger getting hassled and overcharged and stopped to help and ensured she got the fair price.  Were more of us like him, this would be a merrier world.  May you have diamonds and pearls at your head and your feet, Jumanne.

Stories of Magic: Sacrifices

An Mpwapwa volunteer has heard of man who either agreed or volunteered to be sacrificed to the gods for rain.

In Which it is Weird Even in Tanzania that I am a Woman in Computer-Related Fields

One of the questions on the exams I have been grading is "Do you think the overall affect of ICT on society has been positive or negative? Discuss."  (I believe if I have to grade essays I should at least ask questions I'm mildly interested in hearing opinions about.) One of the students wrote that it leads to gender segregation because people think computers are only for men and the youth, but computers are really for all of us.  That made me smile.

Like everywhere in the world (once we made it through the 1950s), the field of computing in Tanzania is largely dominated by men.  Tanzania in general is, of course, dominated by men, but there are some fields where one can find a lot of women.  There are other departments at this college with a lot more women than the ICT department, which has, besides me, one and I don't see her very often.  Since quite a few of the 9 ICT teachers here are university students from Dar doing there internship and there's a high turnover, one might expect temporary women teachers dropping in, but I have yet to see any.

I was questioned about this recently.  It seems to be more or less accepted that I can sit with my laptop typing, but if I actually do anything hardware related, it causes great comment, and oh my Turing, the fascination that ensues over my ability to use a screwdriver.

I was asked about it by a Tanzanian government official why there aren't more women in ICT at this teacher's college, and as usual when queried by Tanzanians on questions about culture I'm not entirely prepared to answer in English much less Kiswahili, I responded with "I'm not sure, why do you think that is?"  He gave the usual response that women make different choices from men. Sigh.

I really dislike the "women just make different choices" method of justifying gender segregation, since it ignores underlying factors, as, for example, a Tanzanian culture in which there is really strong pressure on women to marry, have children, and do all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, water-toting, farming, etc.

As a side note, I am a ripped aerialist and I am in awe of Tanzanian women.  Washing water in a bucket and cooking over charcoal (or kerosene, actually, since I have never been able to light a charcoal jiko without my neighbors coming over with coals and talking about what an idiot and bad cook I am right in front of me because they think I don't understand and I hate that) is hard, water is really heavy, I don't even try to farm, and cleaning my floors is kind of a big deal, because they are cement and I have to dump soapy water over them and squeegee it all off, and this is a really big house.  The Tanzanian women do all of this, usually way more than me, and they somehow have jobs and spend their chai breaks going home to breastfeed and don't seem to get tired.  I am tired all the time, and mostly all I do is just my job.  

Also, in Tanzanian culture women and men don't tend to hang together that much.  Even in as progressive an area as Morogoro (men and women who aren't lovers hold hands!  In public!) I can still go to a man's house for dinner and his wife stays in the kitchen and brings food out and serves us, because as a white woman expert from the US I seem to count as a man in social situations, which I think confuses everyone including me.

The weirdest thing I think about gender segregation here is that the culture says it is not safe for women to walk alone at night but it is for men, even though as a general thing Tanzanian women are  larger than Tanzanian men. in despite of women not liking to exercise their bodies (according to a 19 year old girl, at any rate.)   Of course, bigger here is more beautiful, so women encourage their daughters to eat, but not their sons.  Due to the food situation this has a real and dramatic effect.  I am as large or more so than quite a few Tanzanian men.  For purposes of scale I am 5 foot 3 and usually around 120lbs.  And yet it is safe for a man a head shorter than me to walk alone at night, but I get lectures on safety.    What gives?