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

Turing Bless the IOC

There is an official live stream of the Olympics provided free to Tanzania, and I believe most of Africa.  As if that weren't sweet enough, the stream is available in low enough qualities for those of us who don't have great connections, which surprises me.  The privileged habitants of developed nations sometimes seem a little obsessed with the highness of their definitions, and forget that some of us don't have fast internet.

Boulders and Nothing but Boulders

I recently attended a conference in Iringa, which is a lovely place in which there is a phone number that one can call and people will bring one pizza in exchange for money.  It's a fabulous business model.  I have no idea the name of the business or anything relevant like that, the phone number is simply something I received from another volunteer and have passed it on in my turn.   There is also a business at which one can eat soft-serve ice cream while reading Tanzanian magazines full of valuable dating advice: to whit, wives should sometimes be thanked for doing "simple" tasks like laundry (have you ever attempted to wash all your clothes in a bucket dear reader?  It is, admittedly, simple conceptually, but a lot of work), and women should regard boyfriends as computer viruses, and breakups should be followed up with metaphorical reformatting, whatever that means.  So it goes in the world of gossip magazines.  The important part of all this, however, is that the outskirts of Iringa town are littered with climbable giant boulders, which we climbed.

The last time I climbed these boulders in Iringa, there was a man at the top making a music video, with neither photo nor audio equipment, by singing into a rolled up piece of paper and having his friends act as backup dancers, which was rather fabulous.

Death of the ICT Volunteer

The ICT program of Peace Corps Tanzania is coming to an end, post is no longer recruiting volunteers to teach ICT in secondary schools.  I do agree with the reasoning behind this, that being that in the current situation (all posts want volunteers with computer skills, there aren't a lot of people with computer skills volunteering, so no post can get very many) with very few ICT volunteers as is and post not wanting to spend a lot of time or money training and supporting possibly three incoming volunteers per year, the program should be disbanded.  Being a volunteer that the post doesn't really want to support due to lack of numbers is a somewhat frustrating experience.

That all being said, I'm sad.  I and several other ICT volunteers have been putting time and effort into improving the ICT program on our own.  We wrote a manual for use by incoming ICT folk containing our teaching recommendations and lab practices, things that work and don't, essentially all of the things we wish we'd gotten in training but had to figure out on our own.  We developed a website for use by volunteers in country, on the grounds that we needed one and the job of the computer professional is to create infrastructure that makes peoples' lives a little easier.  On the same vein, we have developed a repository of useful teaching resources, largely maintained on our personal hard drives, that we pass out to people and that we don't want to get lost because stuff that volunteers create and pass around are often lost due to the high turnover.

We can, and will, attempt to find nerdy incoming volunteers to take over for us once we finish our service and leave, because we honestly believe what we do is good and useful, not to mention that the Tanzanian government is honestly trying hard to create a reasonable program of computer education (the speech by some government official at my swearing-in ceremony spoke long and eloquently about how excited they were for ICT volunteers from Peace Corps) and we don't want to see it die.

In the Name of Gloria Steinem, I Command the Foul Demons of Sexism to Depart

There is a group of students from Michigan State University in town, touring parts of the country and doing something or other nutrition-project related for academic credit.  Good on them!  Also, their professor likes to get in touch with the local Peace Corps volunteers so the students can spend an evening with a volunteer asking questions and learning about Peace Corps service.  Thus it was that I got a free dinner last night in exchange for having a bunch of enthusiastic undergrads ask me questions about life and culture and Kiswahili.  This is actually part of my job, too, educating Americans about people and cultures that aren't them, on the grounds that there are better ways than war for teaching Americans geography.

I found the experience a little odd.  Meeting Americans just off the plane who aren't Peace Corps brings a wee itty bit of culture shock.  They talk about how weird it is to find watermelons with seeds in them, and when they find out I make wine the followup question is "what kind of grapes do you have here?" You need grapes to make wine?  And how would I know what kind?  They look purply-blue, and more than that, who knows?  On the other hand, it does remind me how cool this place is when the newcomers start exclaiming about the giant bats.

Then one lady said to me "I really want to join Peace Corps, but my parents say that by the time I get back I'll be 26, too old to get married, what do I do?"  Sigh.  I advised her to tell her parents that many volunteers find spouses during their service, reminding myself firmly that change happens only slowly and it's usually more convincing to phrase objections in terms people will be familiar with and sympathetic to.  After all, science education for women was originally argued in terms of how chemistry would make for better cooking.  Besides which, I did not have an internet-enable device at my disposal at the time and couldn't do a fact check from the U.S. census, which helpfully informs us that as of 2010, women in the U.S. married for the first time at an average age of 26.7 years.  So there.

Despite knowing that this isn't terribly conducive to long-term sustainable change, I still want to go beat this lady's parents with my righteous fists of equality, because seriously, the U.S. is supposedly a developed nation that has embraced equality regardless of a lot of things.  Supposedly.

Of the Day's Annoyances These

That some volunteers greet news of any activities with the response "that will look good on your resume" and report their own activities in terms of future resume building. There have to be easier ways to pad a resume that do not involve having fungus growing on your skin.  There just have to be.  Also, XKCD is applicable.  Granted I am in a field that is typically 100% employed, so I can afford to be judgmental about others' obsessions with their future job potential to the detriment of their ideological devotion for, or at least interest in, the present.  

That the English VSO couple who work at the college will remark nostalgically on the ways in which the educational system was better under British rule.  I sort of agree with them and I hate myself for it.   Even convinced as I am that a major reason the educational system is so cripplingly broken is that the Tanzanian government built schools in every district of the country in only a few years, a feat of educational ambition that far outstripped any hope of being able to supply every school with teachers.  Or even every school with a teacher.   Even so, I think the British would at least manage to have and stick to some sort of reasonable academic calendar and that would help a lot.  This year, for example, all schools everywhere are being cancelled for an entire month so that the teachers can be census workers instead of teachers.  Colonialism, however, is horribly horribly bad and left many countries infrastructually unsound, ethnically or religiously divided (see Rwanda, India/Pakistan), generally with an excessively racist socialization structure in place to teach people that the ideals of physical beauty and also forms of achievement that actually matter are only found among white people.  

That the chaperon for a group of annoying primary school children from Dar got angry and defensive when I yelled at her charges to greet me as is culturally appropriate to greet an older person in Tanzania rather than with the ubiquitous mzungu, meaning both white person and any generic foreigner.  I happen to think that people yelling mzungu at me is at best rude and also kinda the definition of racist even though I do exist in the privileged world of white people where I can always get good seats on the bus so I'm not going to whine too much about that.  I do not, however, think it that much to ask for me to be addressed by strangers as dada or mama [sister or mother, the typical terms of address for a woman one doesn't know] or the particular-to-the-tribe-in-the-area term Mwenda.  You know, how any person who looked like them would be greeted as a matter of common politeness.   The chaperon agreed that the students should have greeted me politely but thought it more important to make it clear to me that I had no right to say anything because they didn't know any better than to go teach them better.  Also, these kids are from Dar, they see white people all the time, what gives?

That if one is sporting any scratches, cuts, sunburns, or any other skin irregularity, people, even strangers, will feel free to remark and then touch it.  I really really hate that.  I even had someone bend over and pull my skirt from my ankle up to my shin to better view a cut.  This is probably a cultural difference that I should get over, but it drives me bats.   

That when I say "no" to men who ask me to marry them (who are, incidentally, complete strangers) the instant followup question is "why not?"  It is completely culturally inappropriate for them to even ask a strange woman on the street (technically speaking, they should negotiate with my father on how many cows they have to pay in order to marry me), why do they think they are entitled to a reason on why I refuse inappropriate advances?  From strangers?  Oh right, they are entitled enough to ask a stranger to marry them in the first place.  

Things I Learn from Grading


  • Computers produce x-rays, gamma rays, ultraviolet rays, and alpha rays.
  • Computers produce poisonous air which makes it dangerous to eat or drink around them.  
  • There is such a thing as a user interface card.
  • Monitors contain ink, which can splatter if they are placed in direct sunlight.
  • The internet is responsible for HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancy. 

Thoughts on Thinclients

I would like to agree totally with this article, via Ars Technica, because I hate hate hate being expected to work on a computer that I am unable to alter in order to suit my needs.  The rub here is that the college is equipped with thinclients with a Sun x2200 backend server.  I am less than thrilled about the Solaris, generally, for many reasons up to and including my political problems with proprietary software in general and Oracle in particular.  Given, however, that I am not in a world where the choices are plentiful and the budget unlimited, I work with what is present and try to keep it working.   The point of all this being that in the educational circumstances of Tanzania thinclients actually have a place, to whit, they reduce the maintenance work overhead.  The IT staff at the college is, well, me, and I can barely keep 3 servers running, teach in a coherent way, and still have a life.  There are 60 thinclients in the lab, and if I had to service them individually it just wouldn't happen.  There's a second lab of Dell PCs running XP on campus, what for I don't know, but I try very passive aggressively not to do anything about it ever, because a room full of 40 virus riddled windows boxes that I might have to individually alter is not my idea of a good break between periods.  As long as the teaching staff and IT departments are one and the same thinclients are a nod toward a reasonable workload.  Furthermore, in this situation, the students do not have the knowledge to install software.  Getting them to successfully login and change passwords has been the subject of several lessons, I'm not worried about them ever needing access to the nuts and bolts of the system.  I have taught quite a few of them to use the shift key and that is a major pedagogical achievement.  The Joy of Hacking cannot be covered in a 2 year span when the start must be "what are the keys on the keyboard and what do they do?"