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

Stories of Magic: Enchickening the Spirits

A long-haired Icelandic gentleman in tight plaid pants was telling me about his travels, and what he's seen of various local practices for curing illness by sacrificing chickens, and how he believes that witch doctors and shamans are right in buying off evil disease-causing spirits with chicken deaths.  While chickens are a reasonable enough currency being, as they are, ubiquitous, affordable, and easy to kill, it does beg the question of what the spirits do with dead chickens.  I'm assuming a nice spiritual cordon bleu is out of the question here.

You Must Be the Fabulosity you Wish to See

I like my new dressmaker, possibly even better than my Morogoro dressmaker (which is good, since I was a little worried about being able to find a good one at my new site.  Unimportant priorities, I haz them.)  And that I am good friends with the mamas in the corner of the market around her shop.  I don't have to plan my dresses anymore, my dressmaker, mama Asha, in consultation with the other mamas, decides what I should be wearing. She asks me how I want things to fit, and if I tell her she does a good job she modestly tells me it is because I buy good fabrics.  Which I do, but she is really really good at putting the fabric together.  Cutting up patterned fabrics to make a lovely dress is an art and not necessarily easy, even for people in the states who have giant cutting boards and clean floors on which to spread out the fabric and think.   Once she finishes my dresses I try things on in her shop to make sure they fit in case she needs to make adjustments and then the market mamas have to see how it fits as well and tell me how pretty I look.  Which is nice if I've been feeling particularly dirty recently.  Also, I am fulfilling my Peace Corps goal of being a combination status symbol and entertainment option for the local peoples.

The bottom part of the skirt has these clever folds in it. 

More Things in the Stairwell


In Which I Make Even More Money off Expats

In addition to the expat who wants me to live in his house, eat and drink anything in his house except the scotch and take care of his clingy puppy (not feed it or anything, his staff does that, I just have to play with the pup and take him for walks and let him cuddle beside me and follow me around), there are some other expats who want me to go to their house every day for a week and feed their cats.  Not change litter boxes or anything unpleasant, their staff does that, but show up and if I feel like it hang around playing with the cats, use their washing machine, and eat and drink anything in their house.  Peace Corps Feat #17, sponging off expats.   Also, these are really fun cats, prim Penzi and Enthusiastic Claudius.

Enthusiastic Claudius

Prim Penzi

The Good News News Channel

For Christmas lunch, I was invited to the home of another teacher at the college.  Peace Corps Feat #6, get someone to take you home and feed you.  Anyway, she is a lady that I do want to be better friends with, being the other woman teacher in the department (the department head is also a women but because of the way rank works here, the teachers are not just friends with the department heads, particularly if there is a difference in education levels).  She is a very determined lady who took over and fixed her parents' home after they passed away, and she is in the process of divorcing an abusive husband.  She has a small daughter who is going to grow up with a mother who has the guts to be a woman in a very male-dominated field (that's hard enough in the US where there at least is a sexual harassment policy even if it may or may not be enforced depending on the authorities' views of the clothing the wronged party was wearing at the time), and has the courage to defy the traditional role that a woman must have a husband any husband regardless of mistreatment.   My friend on the Masai Steppe told me that the talk of her village is still the lady who divorced her husband and left after he hit her.   Patriarchy: getting weaker all the time!

In other news, cheese!  We've apparently been eating it since before lactose tolerance.  Go, Atlantic Holocene ancestors, go!

An African nation is noteworthy for a lack of corruption!  Go Botswana!  Send some capacity builders to Tanzania!

There is a push for Alan Turing to be officially pardoned, not just apologized to.  Respect for the father of computer science!

Apocalypse Bado

The world didn't end Friday, all my preparations notwithstanding.  I went up (in elevation) to Njombe town for a doomsday party armed with wine, cookies, and glitter (just in case we have time for a final fabulous musical number before the lights go out).   We the volunteers of the southern highlands had a lot of free time that day, since by our assumption, the Mayans would have assumed the world would be ending at sunset in their own time.  After an internet-less fact check (we guessed), we decided that the Yucatan peninsula is probably in the same time zone as Texas, and in December in Texas the sun probably sets around 6:30pm, which would be our 3:30am.  So we went to the waterfall at the end of the world to pass the time.

Above the boulders
Slick from roaring waterfall,
A patient spider.

Sure sign of the impending apocalypse: man in a skirt playing a ukelele.
Waiting for the end of the world was very omen-y--the power kept going in and out--but we went to bed rather than wait for the end of days in the very early morning.  We're wimps that way.  We awoke to find that the apocalypse was still bado, a useful Kiswahili word meaning later, where later is in the range from an hour from the current time to never.  Such the disappointment!

In Which I am Confused by Attitudes Toward Animals

People in the US tend to ask what it's like in Tanzania, and people in Tanzania, well, actually they ask me about Europe, but the idea is that they want to know where it is like in other places.  Typically I respond, "well, uh, different."  Because it's hard to come up with a decent answer that doesn't take up a lot of time.  A friend answers this question by pointing toward the different treatment of animals.  Tanzanians do not have pets.  At most, the more upper class may have dogs and cats around (maybe) as security and pest control, but these animals are not pets, and they do not live in people's houses and sleep in people's beds.  Particularly not dogs, who are, to Muslims, unclean animals and some Canadian volunteers in the Tanga region reported that their Muslim neighbors disapproved of them having a dog named Julius, after the first president of Tanzania.  Additionally, animals are not treated, well, humanely.  Strays are kicked, abused, killed, fairly casually.  It's a bit upsetting.  Recently my apartment building was being painted, and despite the fact that I asked them not to and left a sign to the same effect, the painters knocked down the bird's nest that was in the corner of the balcony.  I don't know why, it wasn't hurting anything.  And I LIKED having birds there.

I don't understand casual cruelty towards animals.  Other people, yes, (not that it's in any way good, but I can understand it) but animals that aren't hurting anything or getting in one's way?  It's incidents like that that really make me want to go home to the states and cuddle with my sweet kitties, droll Scaramouche and world-conquering Tamerlane.  They will snuggle and purr and generally be spoilt, pampered housepets, safe from the cruelty of strangers.
Droll Scaramouche

World-conquering Tamerlane

In the meantime, at least, I have agreed to spend several weeks living in the house of an expat in town to take care of and walk his giant puppy.   Alas that I have neither the equipment nor skills to build a chariot for the puppy to learn to pull!  Because that would be great.  Also, people are scared of this dog, who is, indeed much bigger than the normal dogs around here, being some purebred giant thing and also getting as much food every day as he cares to eat.  Despite being a nice and well-behaved dog on a leash, people will not come near me when I am walking him.  This is great.  Truly.  Normally I do not just walk around, because I have to deal with people yelling "mzungu,", asking for money, asking to be my boyfriend, asking if I need help, or just asking me to explain everything about something related to European culture that I don't know.  Even when people are nice and know me, I have to stop and greet everyone.  So a dog is proving a nice accessory for a peaceful, undisturbed walk.

In Which I Think More about Astrology and I'm Still Confused

It leaves many unanswered questions, the most pressing (after how anyone could take this seriously) being, what happens when humans leave Earth to colonize other planets?  Or at least build habitable far-flung space stations and develop a huge squabbling conglomerate of Terran inhabited space?  Do the astrologically-inclined still use Terran constellations?  Do they declare (constellations aren't really discovered so much as declared) their own constellations?  Named after whom or what?  I really hope the answer is not movie actors or pop singers.  And how many zodiac signs does each planet need?  What about multiple suns and moons?  What about planets in which there is daylight always and stars are never seen?  Once there is an astrological system developed, how is this reconciled with the astrological systems of other planets?

A simple example:  A young Martian lad is going to Terra for schooling.   Being of an astrological persuasion he knows that he can be described as sun in Asimov, Phobos in le Guin, and Deimos in idbehold.  This means he is bright, adventurous, genetically disposed to a full beard, ideologically inclined to feminism, and primed to expect an infinite supply of power ups from ambient fate with a minimum amount of effort on his part.  As the stereotypical (if discriminated against due to Martian accent) college student he is at a party making amorous advances toward young women of his own social class.  He meets a smashing young lady who reveals that she is a Taurus with moon in Libra.  How does our Martian lad determine if she is a proper romantic pairing using only astrology rather than respectful overtures of conversation to determine what she is like as a person? 

On Receipt of a Volume of Catullus in the Mail


From a far-off land,
A small book of poetry
Marked by autumn leaf.  

In Which I am Confused about my Identity

Normally, a white person in Tanzania is accompanied by shouts of "mzungu!" which means foreigner but has come to mean white person.  Actually it literally means person who walks around, because I guess that's what the first foreigner tourist types did, but it has come to be synonymous with white person.  Anyway, it's just nice to hear it, because it's less important for me to be greeted with politeness than to be reminded that my entire identity is summed up in one word describing my physical characteristics.  /sarcasm.  Recently, however, several people have begun yelling "mchina" (Chinese person) at me, which puzzles me greatly.  I have become so used to relying on people to describe my race in order to affirm my identity that now that people are switching racial terms I have now idea who or what I am anymore.

Bangles from Cat5 Cable!

I get much done when I attempt to avoid grading.

In Which I am Confused by Astrologers

I'm used to inappropriate and ungraceful attentions from men.  It happens.  Not just in Tanzania, I used to live in Houston, where street harassment is an unfortunate and upsetting fact of life.  Also, I am a woman in a field where women are seriously underrepresented which comes with a lot of less than pleasant social things. Nevertheless, there are still situation that are just so weird and puzzling I am fascinated.   Among the new group of volunteers in country (and they are still trainees living with homestay families, they haven't sworn in and gone to site yet), is someone who has been collecting birth dates for all volunteers in country.  Reasonable enough, there are people in country who like to make birthday cards for people and it's nice to get text messages from people on one's birthday.   This man, however, apparently wanted birthdates so that he could make lists of volunteers organized by astrological sign and calculate his perfect romantic/copulatory partner from among the volunteers.  He is making this blatantly obvious by contacting a lot of women who fit the bill (does he not realize we are going to talk to each other about this?), among them me.  His desire is, and I quote directly, to "feel the sting of the female scorpio" and I am supposed to be his emotional support.  Or something.

I would like to point out that I have never even met this person.  This conversation was conducted entirely via text message.

My response was that this would require me to have human feelings and I don't do that.  I refuse to even respond to the sting of the scorpio thing.  He told me promptly that I shouldn't repress my feelings and substitute hard work for human connection.  It's so nice that I have people to tell me what kind of feelings I really have, because otherwise how would I know?  I didn't think I was doing any hard work by sitting on my couch watching anime and drinking a mug* of wine before going to bed, but I'm sure students of deriving generic personality phenomena based on extraterrestrial pareidolia know better than I.  The conversation ended when I finally told him not to hit on me.  I'd be willing to meet up with him because he's Peace Corps, but anything else he needs to approach in a less abrupt and non-personal medium.  He did apologize and back off immediately, which was actually a pleasant surprise.  Though his next move was to text another volunteer who did a training session for this group of trainees and ask about me.  I think he hasn't quite realized how PC communications work, since the first thing this resulted in was the other volunteer contacting me and asking what should be said about me.  I said that the party line is that I don't have feelings, and if I were capable of love, it would only be for a computer.

I haven't heard anything from the man since.  There was probably a more mature way to handle the situation.

*Only the classiest drinking vessels for the Peace Corps.

In which my Computer becomes More Fabulous

It is embarrassing to go to the wrong class as a teacher.  It is even more embarrassing, when one finally gets to the right class, to realize that there is scheduled maintenance in that lab that no one bothered to tell one about until five minutes after the class period began.  Not that I can really complain about this, since I actually prefer to be the clueless foreigner (I get out of much paperwork and many pointless meetings by pretending that I have no idea how to read signs in Kiswahili or follow a Kiswahili conversation) but there are times when I wished I was a better and more proactive volunteer who insisted on knowing the schedule.  But I'm not, so I went home and started coating things with glitter.

This computer is named the Nutmeg of Consolation, because it replaced my stolen computer. 

Much more festive than it's original design.  

"Do they Know it's Christmas?": Adventures in Self-righteous Ethnocentric Holiday Tripe

I realize this song has been around for a while.  I don't care, I only recently found out about it, and I would like to beat the lyricist(s) to death with my righteous fists of educated fury and also a geography book.  Following are lyrics.

It's Christmas time,
there's no need to be afraid.

At Christmas time
we let in light and banish shade

And in our world of plenty
we can spread a smile of Joy
Throw your arms around the world
at Christmas time.

But say a prayer,
Pray for the other ones.

At Christmas time it's hard

but when you're having fun...
There's a world outside your window
and it's a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing is
the bitter sting of tears
Where the Christmas bells that are ringing
are the clanging chimes of Doom
Well, tonight thank God it's them instead of you.

And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmas time

The greatest gift they'll get this year is life.


Where nothing ever grows
No rain or rivers flow
Do they know it's Christmas time at all?

Here's to you...

Raise a glass for everyone

Here's to them

Underneath that burning sun
Do they know it's Christmas time at all?

Feed the world...

Feed the world...

Feed the world,

Let them know it's Christmas time again.

Feed the world,

Let them know it's Christmas time again.
(Repeat several times and fade)

First of all, I need some clanging chimes of Doom, posthaste.  That sounds awesome.   Now that's off my chest, let's discuss geography.  Africa, being a large place, has, amazingly enough, a multitude of geographic conditions.  Some of which not only get snow, but have snow all year round.  Altitude is an amazing thing.  I'm at ~5,000 feet, and I wear sweats and slippers in the mornings.  As far as the assertion there are no rains or rivers, Africa is home to some of the world's largest rivers.  The Nile, for example.  Victoria is the world's third largest lake, and interestingly enough, for the part of the continent in the tropics, Christmas can fall during the short rains, meaning that not only can rain flow, it makes transportation difficult because not all roads are paved.  Furthermore, if truly nothing ever grew in Africa, we can assume that foreign colonial powers wouldn't have had such an interest (a continuing interest) in holding controlling monopolies on crops such as sugarcane, coffee, and tea.  Here in Mbeya there is a lot of coffee grown, and absolutely none of it shows up for sale in the local market because it's all being shipped off for processing and then being sold to foreigners.  A bit southeast of here in Njombe, Lipton has a lot of gigantic tea plantations.   Some of Africa is desert, true, but some of it isn't.  Africa: it's not a homogeneous landmass!   

With geography out of the way, what about this "our world is wonderfully fun and perfect, but everything that isn't us (by which we mean Africa) is terrible" theme?  The gasping ignorance and arrogance of such an assertion is flooring.  The difference between the underprivileged of America and the underprivileged of Africa tends to be that privileged Americans assume that underprivileged Americans deserve it for being lazy or defying "traditional values" and should help themselves while Africans can't possibly help themselves and thus deserve help (I guess that's what is going on?).    Note also the unwillingness to acknowledge that anything in Africa could be good or fun.   Or at all educated about holidays like Christmas, nevermind that Africa has been missionaried to death already and Christmas is generally a national holiday in a lot of nations.  Also, it's not like one has to celebrate Christmas, with or without snow, to have a good time with light and no shade (though didn't they say that the sun was burning and bad and snow was good?  How do we have light if it is snowing? I'm confused.) If we really want to feed the world, let's have a sustainable development plan that demonstrates actual knowledge of and respect for the targeted area, ideally without the schadenfreude of explicitly thanking God it's them instead of us.  

In which I am a University Organization's Keynote Speaker!

So it's just the computer club here at the Mbeya Institute/University* where I teach, and I'm the faculty advisor for the computer club, so I'm not sure it really counts.  Nonetheless, I was asked to present something I was interested in to educate club members, and the club president advertised that I was going to be speaking and some people from outside the club and the computer department entirely showed up on the basis of this!  The presentation also seemed to be well received--I just did a 50 minute or so talk on emulators and virtual machines and mostly just showed people the stuff on my computer, WINE, dosbox, a Windows XP virtual machine, and cygwin installed on the VM.  I talked briefly about the hypervisor and the scheduling problems it has to solve and demonstrated how to install and uninstall a VM using virtualbox.  I also mentioned that I was considering switching to vmplayer because Oracle acquired virtualbox and I don't like Oracle as a corporation, but my laziness tends to get in the way of my software related political gestures.   I got a lot of fairly good questions, someone actually asked me to expound on scheduling algorithms!  I love scheduling algorithms!  My favorite is shortest deadline first, unfortunately, multicore systems tend to break it so we have to switch to the much less intellectually satisfying credit system.    Anyway, I enjoyed it, other people seemed to enjoy it, and several people asked me for the virtualbox program (I came prepared with the windows setup package) and some of my .iso files. Preaching the good news of virtualization here in Tanzania!

*I think they changed recently to a university, which leads to an acronym change from MIST to MUST, which I actually disapprove of.  Mist is poetic, must is either smelly or something demanded.