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

Non-Capacity Building Self-Indulgence

After an overworked week of grading 99 exams in 3 days while simultaneously hammering out details and writing official letters to make the Linux seminar happen (which eventually only got completed because the secretary decided I am completely incompetent and wrote the official letters for me), I am done.  I'm now on vacation.  It begins with a party, wends its way through the beaches of Zanzibar and Tanga, and ends watching anime and eating spaghetti with the good people of Moshi.  Later, darlings.

Further Evidence Supporting my Hypothesis that I will Die in an Electrical Fire in this Country

I finally got the college to send someone to check my wiring.  Apparently the problems I was having were because the electric company electricians just didn't bother reattaching all the ground wires when they installed a meter.  I dislike sentences of the form "I am not a(n) ____ but ____."  Nevertheless, I am not an electrician, but grounding is important!  Important in a not-burning-things-down sort of way.   It's times like this I kind of hate this country.

Primer on the Good Kiswahili: The Best Words Which can be Said

Note that in Kiswahili, all vowels are pronounced as in a romance language, and in these examples, all consonants are pronounced without any surprises and as an English speaker would expect.   In all but one example, which will be noted, the accent falls on the second to last syllable.   Words should be said aloud in order to appreciate them.

  • Shagalabagala--The most wonderful Kiswahili word.  The accent is on the sha and the ba.  This is slang, so you really shouldn't say it, but it's just so much fun to say!  It means things are hopelessly chaotic with possibly some swearing about the chaos, which is exactly what this sort of word should mean.
  • Pili pili ho ho.  The second most wonderful Kiswahili word.  I feel it is somewhat wasted on the humble bell pepper that it names.
  • Wasiwasi.  Anxiety, worry.  It's really more fun to say "don't worry," which is usiwasiwasi.  
  • Hii ni nini?  A question meaning "what is this?"  The fact that such a phrase is a valid sentence in this language or any language makes me happy. 
  • Sawa.  Labda.  Bado.  Sawa is general agreement, labda is maybe, and bado indicates not yet but sometime in the unspecified future and labda never.  These three words, used judiciously with some smiling and nodding, can be used to successfully navigate most conversations without actually understanding them.

A Puppy and his Goat

Gratuitous cute animal photos!  The internet doesn't have enough. The puppy I'm babysitting for the weekend, Mutwari (meaning chief in whatever language is spoken in Rwanda) now has goats to play with.  Seriously, the goats were purchased specifically to keep the puppy entertained.  I adore expats.

Haiku on the Very Boring Occasion of Invigilating Exams, which is Just Like Proctoring Exams, but British

When I wish for dragons
To carry me off.

In Which People Make me Happy

I was grading exams, and encountered a  multimedia student answer about DRMs to the effect of, and I quote, "DRM is inappropriate and it's full of shit."   Normally the only reason I end up laughing while grading is because of something really stupid like students claiming x-rays come out of the back of computers, but in this case the answer was not only funny but completely legitimate and actually better than most, since the question was "state your opinion of DRM," which may sound like an easy question if you haven't realized that under most circumstances here, getting a student to have an opinion or express it is like pulling teeth.  Ask them what they think and they are likely to just recite everything they know about a subject, which about half of them are doing.

I went to the market yesterday morning to greet all my market mamas and collect my new dress from my dressmaker.  Also to buy onions.  I was sitting in the dressmaker's shop while she sewed on the zipper for my dress (for some reason she always leaves the zippers until I am physically present to collect the dress), mostly just listening to the mamas talk and yell at the occasional passing salesman for being annoying (which is hilarious).  I did some yelling of my own when some passing kid called me "mzungu," just to the effect that I am not an mzungu, and I have a name and should be greeted properly.  The mamas around me joined in yelling at the kid!  They said yes, she isn't an mzungu, she's an African, and she is ours!  I found that wonderful.  Seriously.  My black and twisted heart went pitter pat.

Finally, I am spending the next few days babysitting the expats' puppy for them again.   I love my expat sponsored hot shower days.  They need to make sure the puppy has someone to cuddle with because he's very clingy.  It works.  Besides which, they need someone who knows the good Kiswahili to teach their house girl to work their new washing machine.  This is actually tricky since the washing machine is smarter than I am.  Seriously, it is programmable.   It beeps and has flashing lights.  I had to read the owner's manual.  I have a master's degree in computer science from a highly regarded institution and I'm feeling intimidated by a washing machine.  I can't program anything I can't connect to with my laptop!  Eventually I figured out how to make it start cleaning my sheets (hey, if I'm giving laundry lessons I'm bringing all my dirty laundry to do it).  The house girl was fascinated, asked questions that I had trouble understanding because they were both highly unexpected and I don't necessarily know, e.g. 'how does the water get hot?' and 'why does it spin?' and 'why does it start and stop spinning?'   Then she sat in front of the washing machine for a while watching the clothes spin around, which was somewhat adorable.  When I reported this on Facebook, one of my former professors sent me a link to this rather wonderful TED talk.

In Which I am Ashamed of Myself

There is a homeless mentally disturbed person who lives on campus.  This is reasonable enough, I suppose, there isn't really anyplace else for him to go, but frankly I find him a little creepy and try to avoid him.  He doesn't wear pants, screams on a regular schedule (about every 6 hours, almost exactly), and stares while making creepy grunting noises when I walk past.  This isn't exactly unusual, every community has its mentally disturbed person, and while I have known of one to start throwing knives in the marketplace, the worst that I have ever experienced is annoyance with possibly some thrown fruit.

Then the other day I noticed that the man I find extremely creepy was playing with a bunch of little kids.  He was smiling, they were smiling and laughing, all seemed good.  I feel like a really bad person for finding him incredibly creepy when kids feel comfortable playing with him.

Actually, most people here are kind to their homeless mentally disturbed people, they will give such people food and egg on their antics and seem to find them a source of entertainment.  This may not be the best response, but it does beat the US response, which is largely to keep such people deeply hidden.  The one time I did encounter a clearly disturbed person in public (in a parking lot, running around spitting on people), the police were summoned with much talk of how this person was a loose cannon who was really dangerous, which at the time seemed quite reasonable to me.  We have a narrative of the dangerous lunatic, which isn't really supported by facts, but it's pervasive, and I've bought into it.  I should stop that.

Happy Darwin Day!

Today is a day to celebrate achievements of reason and science!  So I'm going to complain about things that have been upsetting me recently because of a lack of reason and science.  Warning: Political.

1) I recently had to fill out and submit my semi annual report on what I do as a volunteer.  That's not what I'm complaining about, though it's complaint worthy (seriously, why does Peace Corps think a Java program is a good option for volunteers?  Java is a huge download that most volunteers have no experience dealing with.  One of the staff looked me in the eye and told me Java was the only option for a platform independent report system.  Which is just plain wrong.).  I'm complaining about HIV/AIDS activities, that we all have to report because a lot of Peace Corps Africa is now funded through AIDS relief because the government is too busy spending money on being the most heavily armed nation on earth to invest in a world more prosperous and educated and less likely to war.  Grr.  Anyway, this is the first time I've said I did anything with an HIV/AIDS focus (I'm a computer teacher.  The topic doesn't lend itself to integrating sexual health talks, so unless my students ask about pornography, it doesn't really come up.) and the questions I am supposed to answer are just about whether or not I had a focus on abstinence or being faithful.  Despite all evidence and reason, we are technically just supposed to talk about abstinence mostly.  Condom education was a grudging addition to what Peace Corps volunteers are supposed to do, and we really aren't supposed to go into it on official forms.   We know that abstinence-only education is ineffective and we know that condoms used correctly are effective barriers against transmission of bodily fluids (we know the properties of latex). Policy, however, is made by people who believe religious disapproval is more important than giving known information to people so that they won't die of terminal diseases.

2) And speaking of religious disapproval being more important then people's lives, abortion here needs to be legal (currently illegal with no exceptions whatsoeverand non stigmatized so that I never again have to see headlines like "Miracle Baby Delivered," and read the article to find out that a baby that had implanted in a fallopian tube had been successfully delivered via cesarean section while the mother died.  (Of course she died, there's really no survival chance from that.) Her demise was one sentence in an article talking about the wonderfulness of the baby living, and she wasn't even important enough for her name to be mentioned.  The uterus-the only organ people can legally be forced to donate even if it kills them, because too many people think a woman's heartbeat is less important than a fetal heartbeat, and don't see why the state can't hand a woman a death sentence for not being good enough at making babies.

In Which I Run Away from Site for the Weekend

Sometimes it just has to be done.  I got tired of my house after a week of grey skies with rain every day (I've blessed the rains down in Africa, and now I'm over them), fatigue and a low fever (fevers: so much more fun when Ella Fitzgerald sings about them), and sitting around by candlelight in the evenings because all the light bulbs except the kitchen's are now burnt out and while the school is responsible for replacing fluorescent tube lights and has been apprised of the situation, nothing has yet been done about it because before a government institution can buy anything they are required to go through a procurement process that is approximately as efficient as building a spaceship out of cats.    Also, I was supposed to attend a seminar on invigilation (what is there to say about invigilating exams that can possibly require an entire seminar?) so I really really wanted to be absent.  I went 2 hours down the road to Tukuyu, which is right above the Great Rift Valley, and conveniently enough, there is a hospitable volunteer who is more than happy to have guests show up to watch silly musicals while coloring.   She is having the same problem I am having with dead fluorescent tube lights the school is bado on replacing, but at least I am experiencing this problem in a new and different location.

We took a nice sunrise walk to watch the sun come up over the valley.  I am not a professional photographer, or even a particularly good photographer, so I really can't capture the scale of the drop into the valley from where we were over to the mountains on the far side.  Lake Nyassa/Malawi (depending on which side you are on) was visible later in the morning, but barely.

On a Cash Based Society

Recently, I was sent the following excerpt from David Wolman's The End of Money, which I would really like to read in full:  

I wrote an essay
for "Wired" advocating not merely for the end of small change, but
an end to physical money, period. And I didn't hold back. "In an era
when books, movies, music, and newsprint are transmuting from atoms
to bits, money remains irritatingly analog," I declared. "Physical
currency is a bulky, germ-smeared, carbon-intensive, expensive
medium of exchange. Let's dump it."

Reader responses were...passionate. "Wolman is a fascist.... Taking
away cash would be like taking away our guns: One needs it most only
after it's gone." Another read: "My cash is my business." I was
accused of shilling for secret lobbying groups, and of sacrificing
"the last vestiges of privacy" so that "those bastions of clarity
and honesty called banks and credit card companies can mine our
every transaction."

I had smacked a nerve. People are willing to kill for cash--we know
that. But what I was hearing made me think that people might kill to
keep it. That got me wondering: what is cash, anyway? The simple
answer is little metal discs and strips of paper bedecked with dead
white guys and cryptic messages that make Nicholas Cage go even more
bug-eyed. But what is its place in our economy, our culture, and our
minds? Could we ever do without it? Should we?

I so agree with dumping physical cash.  I find trying to live in a completely cash-based system annoying.  Really annoying.  It means I am captive to the outcome of ATM roulette--that game of going and trying the ATMs in town in a vain attempt to find one which is both working and has money in it--in order to be able to eat.  Could I just go inside a bank if I wanted cash rather than relying on machines?  Sure, if I feel like standing in line for 4 hours, which to date has never seemed like a good idea.  Then once I have cash, I have to touch it.  Money really is nasty.  I spent one summer working part time as a cash officer at a department store, and touching a whole lot of money gets really disgusting really fast.  It is possible to clean it up--I had one extraordinary roommate who was in the habit of starching and ironing her money, which surprisingly enough works fairly well, almost as surprising as that she went to the effort of ironing her money-- and it's worse in Tanzania where a lot of small bills go through the filthy pockets of bus conductors or live in women's sweaty bras.*  I bought a small pouch specifically because I couldn't deal with sweat-soaked wads of money.  Then there is the small problem in which no one in the country can make change, meaning that the cash that I get out of the ATM, which usually comes in 10,000TSH units, is worthless except at select locations.  It is an exceptionally good day when the ATM is out of 10,000s and can only give 5000s.  I've heard there is a magical land in which merchants have boxes of small bills in carefully sorted compartments, attached to computers that tell people exactly how much change is due.

Without any sort of debit or credit cards people are limited to the amount of cash they can carry, which is dangerous in a society with a critical crime rate and also means that people have no flexibility about when they can make purchases.  It is fashionable in the US to bemoan credit cards as a way for people to spend money they don't have, and credit card debt is a problem, but if, say,  your refrigerator breaks 10 days before pay day, what else are you going to do?  (Far be it from anyone in the US to live without such a thing.)  Things break and people get sick irrespective of payment schedules.  In Tanzania, due to high interest rates on loans, it is almost impossible for entrepreneurship to happen, standard credit card rates in the US are a lot lower than interest rates on loans from Tanzanian banks.  Additionally, a purely cash-based society is cut off from the world market.  I was working with some expat friends who run a coffee company, because they want their internet to just work (good luck with that, darlings) and have a decent wireless connection throughout their concrete block office building.  Again, good luck with that.  I checked for them in the computer stuff stores around town looking for a wireless router that is going to be a little strong against concrete and couldn't find any decent routers.  In the US, I would just order something online (actually, in the US I would have done that first, because electronic store staff tend to assume that because I am a woman, I am stupid) but that's not all that feasible here unless you have a US credit card or bank account, and then there is this problem of how do you put money back into that bank account when you are paid in Tanzanian cash and you can't electronically do anything to the Tanzanian bank account.

The only real objections I can see to a cashless society are 1) What happens when the power goes out? 2) What about fees charged to read credit and bank cards?  It is hard for small merchants! and 3) won't the government be able to trace every purchase you make?

1) is a somewhat facile objection, since if the power goes out, the banks and atms aren't going to work either, so unless you have your entire bank account under your mattress it isn't going to make a huge difference whether or not the economy is cash based.   Actually since card readers can be battery operated (we had one such at the Renaissance Fair boutique I used to work at), a non cash-based society can still work through power outages that are short of natural disaster levels.

2) is a real problem.  I don't know how to solve it.

3) is also a real objection, but I feel like that's more easily solved than 2.  Hire a hacker, yo.  My impression is that there is a thriving demand for hacker skills in places like China to get around the Great Firewall.  

*It's not like women have pockets here, people.  And given the theft rates, I wouldn't trust anything valuable to something as snatchable as a purse.  Which leaves bras, but having loose money in one's bra is both nasty and kinda awkward because sometimes you have to fish down your shirt for change.

In Which I am Asked to Run a Seminar

My counterpart (the host country national who works with me most closely), who is a wonderful man and also the fastest walking Tanzanian I have ever encountered,*  had an idea.  He wants to hold a week long evening seminar for both interested people at the university and people in town on using Linux.  Both basics (how to get it, how to update it, free software alternatives to common proprietary software) and more advanced system administration topics (creating users and groups, running openldap or apache servers) will be covered.   I could not support this more.  Which is good since I've been asked to teach it.  I'm fairly happy about this.  This is, after all, what I'm here for: people want to learn things for which there is a lack of trained professionals on hand, so Peace Corps loans them some professionals.  The downside being that to get this started I need to have a course proposal and outline drafted out by Monday in order to show administration types so we can get official permission to do this and make it happen.  I think also that my counterpart will make sure that most of the organization details get taken care of if I can make sure I am prepared to teach this.  Another reason why my counterpart is wonderful.

In other good news, I have managed to convince my multimedia class that I am an arbiter of good taste.  One of the students told me he has written and recorded a piece of music and would like to get my feedback on it.  I attribute this to my choice of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" for an example song in the classes on editing audio.

*I get sidewalk rage in this country, people walk so slowly.

In Which I Decide to Institute more Draconian Teaching Policies

Because my students do not have reliable access to email I provide them with my phone number with the caveat that they only text me, they don't call me, because I don't pick up on numbers I don't know and texting usually ends up being cheaper in this country than phone calls.  Starting next semester I am going to add another caveat that religious texts are an automatic 10 points off a student's final grade, with a possible additional penalty of -2 points multiplied by the number of people to whom I am supposed to forward the text.  An extra penalty calculated by how much it annoys me will be applied to any texts sent between the hours of 9pm and 7am.

This morning's (at 4:30am) annoying religious text message, capitalization preserved:

Morning is not only sun rise but A Beautiful Miracle that defeats darkness and spread light.

Now the ancient Egyptians did indeed believe that sunrise was a defeat of darkness, since the sun god had to take the form of a cat every night to slay the serpent of darkness, and it is possible that I might credit my sweet little orange cat Tamerlane with making the sun come up, but Tanzanians habitually mistreat cats.  Furthermore,  we all should be able to think enough to realize that if this Beautiful Miracle (physics: now with extra miraculosity!) was permanent, without revolution causing planetary night, Earth would probably only be habitable at the line between day and night.  At least, that's how it works in science fiction.   This is, however, an opportunity for a gratuitous cat photo.

Sunny Tamerlane practices for his nightly battles.
I miss my sweet kitties.