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

The Lake Lost in Mists

Nestled in the frozen elevations of the Tanzanian highlands is the small village of Mchanganye.  It is a remarkable village, full of landscaped paths and brightly painted buildings unusual for the typical rustic life of the country.  But perhaps most remarkable is that it thrives in the shadow of an ancient volcano who's caldera now houses a giant lake known in the local language as the Big One [Ngozi] or sometimes Hema Hema [movement] for its habit of shifting its shape.  The wooded slopes of this long-defunct fiery mountain are known for housing primates that were, until quite recently, unknown to the people of science. Being in the area, I was naturally curious about the place, and so I wrote to a lady I know who makes her home there, suggesting an expedition to the lake in the crater.  Receiving a favorable reply, I set out with a few friends in order to investigate.  

At the beginning, spirits were high, nonetheless, from the beginning we were beset by troubling signs of decay.  The path was marked by an ancient, decrepit guardhouse in which we signed our names in an ancient and decrepit gatehouse, under the eye of a tired, unwashed man.  Just outside the guardhouse, the cheerful flowers planted long ago were swarmed with shining voracious insects.

Further down the path we found ourselves enchanted by flashed of color from the many butterflies, but the only specimen we could come close to clutched itself close to the ground, broken wing dangling.

After some fifteen minutes of easy promenade, we found ourselves in dense forest, and the light diminishing into a grey diffuse haze as a cloud bank settled and began to envelope us in dripping fog.

As we penetrated deeper into the gloom we were startled by a sudden hysterical swaying in the treetops above us.  To our surprise and delight, we saw glimpses of a large, black-furred white-faced thing, about the size of a baboon I think, we took for one of the elusive Highland Mangabeys, a recently discovered and named species.  Being Americans, we of course had recourse to our cameras, yet imagine our astonishment when we realized none of our digitized and retrievable images showed any trace of our sighting!  After dispelling my unease with talk of poor photography, the distance from and motion of the subject, I felt sufficiently comfortable to hastily pen the following few lines:

Leaping white-faced friend
High above the dripping path,
We're glad we met you. 

Even my profound optimism began to be shaken as we proceeded into a forest of banana trees.  Cursed trees, doomed to die after their first and only fruiting, leaving their slimy curved rotting trunks in the forest detritus beneath our feet!  Unhappy trees, of a monstrous and forbidding height, that we have no choice but to pass beneath with shudders.

Demonstrating the prodigious size of this
monstrous vegetation. 

These banana trees
Live only to bear fruit once
Before death and rot. 

As we proceeded up the slope of the mountain, the mist set in fast around us, and while I noted with alarm the increased abundance of spiders, I attempted to calm my fears by reflecting on the mist-ensparkled webbing and the perfection of the webs.

As we left the banana trees and entered a bamboo forest, I became thoroughly alarmed by the prevalence of fallen trees forming unnaturally perfect bridges across the path.  Though I jocularly referred to these as troll bridges, I was far from easy in my mind about these strange structures in a forest increasingly misted into darkness.

At last we reached the lip of the crater, and straining, we saw...nothing.  Nothing but a bed of roiling mist, hiding everything in our view.  Peering intently, I thought I saw movement deep within the mists.  I recoiled with a cry, but my companions, seeing nothing, soon convinced me that it was just my old nervous troubles and I should relax and photograph the flowers.

Where the lake would have been could we have seen it.

One of my completely relaxed companions.

I attempted to emulate my more sanguine companions by occupying my mind and my hands to write the following:

Past the mossy dark,
Beneath the arching troll-paths,
A lake lost in mist.

Nonetheless, I urged haste upon my companions and we soon left that place.  Even the most unflappable of my travelling companions grew disturbed as we found sections of the path so recently ascended now swarming with siafu, the marching army ants which are the scourge of the region.  We descended in increasing haste and silence, pausing only to brush the ants from our persons.  In exhausted perturbation from our labors and unspoken fears, we waited for one of the small buses that pass Mchanganye to return us to Mbeya and civilization.  After an unconscionably long time we were finally able to board and sat huddled in our jackets lost in our own thoughts.  Then the bus stopped again and a preacher boarded.

Normally, bus preachers are a source of great fascination to me.   Bus preaching is, of course, an activity that is at best rude, but I still find it an amusing novelty.

As I listened to the man, providing a running and somewhat cynical translation (God hates booze is possibly not the best translation for mungu hataki pombe) for one of my companions who is less adept in the language, I realized he was talking about people burning in fire (either historical inhabitants of Sodom or proponents of anal sex in future hell) and he was smiling at me.  I stared in hypnotic fascination as the smile grew ever broader while he spoke of fiery death, and while I stared, his face seemed to morph into the white furred mask of the non-photographable monkey we had encountered on the path to the crater.  A horror of blasphemous things unimaginable filled my soul, and I began, for the first time, to suspect the full truth of the things living on the slopes of a mountain that used to weep fire.  I closed my eyes in horror and waited for the end.  

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

I have been heating my water with this thing.  I put it in a bucket, I plug it in, the water in the bucket becomes warm, and I take a bath with the warm water.  It's a good system.

It's always been inclined to make ominous sizzlings that I've largely been ignoring, and I successfully ignored the sizzlings right up until one of the prongs melted the plastic around itself and got stuck inside the socket.

The hot plastic glued the prong into the power strip; I can't get it out.

The remnants.

Note the charring on the remaining prong. 
Back to heating bath water on the stove,  I guess.

In Which I Feel Better about Teaching

5 of my programming students from last year organized themselves and asked me to give them twice weekly tutorials in Python.  Students are voluntarily asking me for a class for which they get no credit when I have a reputation as a hard teacher.  This is probably the greatest compliment my students could ever give me.  We had our first meeting this morning.  They all showed up with their netbooks and took notes and worked on the example problem I gave them without complaining.

I got an email today telling me some of the people who were at my Linux seminar want to build a Linux community in Tanzania.  I am so proud of that seminar, and I am so happy that some of the people there want to work to build something lasting for Tanzania out of it.  I'm not sure exactly what they mean or are thinking of doing, but I'm reasonably sure I support it!  

In Which I Continue to Almost Teach

I've been grumpy this past week.  No particular reason, I think I'm just losing patience with the things of the culture that annoy me here as I approach the end of my service.  I'm getting tired of flaky scheduling and stupid questions* about U. S. culture.  I'd rather not come into the office and have to field questions like "if you accept same-sex marriage in your country, what will you do if a man you want to marry marries another man instead of you?"  How is that any different from asking what I do if a man I want to marry marries another woman?   And why do all questions I get revolve around who I'm going to marry, anyway?

Then of course, there is the teaching situation.  I couldn't teach today because I found out my class period is scheduled for the same time and place as another class period.  I couldn't learn this last week because the other lecturer didn't bother teaching last week.  Grump.

At least today I got an email from a student asking me an interesting question that I didn't know the answer to!  I love it when that happens.  The kid went to my Linux seminar and now wants to know how to play a music file straight from the terminal in Linux.  I like working straight from the terminal for a lot of things, but it has never even occurred to me to try doing that.  For the record, I  suggested mpg123 and installed it myself. So far it is working quite well, if testing my knowledge of regular expressions in selecting multiple files to play.

*From my students, there are no stupid questions, because just getting them to ask any questions is a victory.  From people I may or may not know who start asking me about marriage apropos of nothing, there are plenty of stupid questions.

In Which I Live in a Soviet Style Easter Egg

My school was built by the Russians in the 80s.  Hence the staff and students are housed in Soviet style apartment blocks.  The school recently finished having them all repainted, so now the staff and students are housed in Soviet style apartment blocks painted in Easter egg colors.  Mine is canary yellow.

Thing on the Crane Where I Rig my Silks


Fortunately, these things rig their webs off the back of the crane, nowhere near the arm.  If it came to a territorial conflict with a small arthropod, I, as the large and strong tool-using primate with the closed circulatory system and four-chambered heart, would have no choice but to run screaming and find somewhere else to rig.

In Which I Almost Teach

Week two of classes is over for me.  The first week didn't happen because the class schedule wasn't completed until the end of the week, and this week, I managed to get a brief introduction in and discuss my new cell phone and lateness policies, and the rest of the class periods have been plagued by power outages.  The white boards are not usable because they have not been erased for years, so if I can't use the computers or the projector, I am just done.  At least people are showing up on time-ish now.  This is going to be an interesting semester anyway.  I am teaching just one module, Multimedia Applications Production, as an evening class.  According to the syllabus, all the interesting stuff about video editing I taught last semester in Intro to Multimedia I was actually supposed to teach this semester.  So I'm teaching them to make animations.  Which I don't really know how to do myself, so we'll see how this goes.  Then I'll make them make text based and ASCII art computer games.  Because I can.  The frightening thing is that I am probably the most qualified lecturer at the university to teach this class.

In other news, some time ago I was asked if I would be interested in performing on the silks for a fundraiser for a new school in Tanga.   Absolutely, yes!  They finally have a date, May 25, and I still find it awesome that I am being asked to perform on the silks in Tanzania! 

Thing on my Balcony Nevermore

I woke up to the harsh discords of a crow on my balcony this morning.   Poe would, I think, have had a different poetical treatment for the African crows, which have white breasts and a white ring around their necks.  His protagonists would probably still fall insensible with horror at the noises these things make landing on a tin roof at all hours.  

Voyage of the Peace Corps: The Shiny Rocks of Innovative Living

This past weekend I went to Ihanja, a small village near other small villages that aren't really on maps, to visit a very delightful Peace Corps couple and their puppy.  I am really quite in awe of these volunteers, since without electricity or running water, they live and eat better than I do while having the energy to farm, teach English at the primary school, and organize blanket weaving projects for children who are required to board at a school without any mattresses. They are working on a grant to get a refrigerator for the local clinic/dispensary so that ARVs can be stored there, and they adopted and care for a very energetic dog.

Their house has crossed machetes over the door.  I am
so stealing this idea.

Ihanja grows lots of sunflowers, which are blooming right now, so we went for a walk past fields of sunflowers, with a rainbow, and picked up handfuls of raw amethysts off the road.  Because we can do that!  The (unpaved) road was surfaced with rocks that included tons of quartz-y things.  Katie helped me hit the raw amethyst pieces with a hammer to get decent stones and showed me how to wrap them for necklace pendanting using copper electric wire and a pair of pliers.  Have I mentioned how I am in awe at the abilities of these volunteers?

I like amethysts.  They are pretty rocks that no one dies over.

Other attractions of Ihanja include a tribute to dead white guy who was sainted for something or other, and the shell of a gigantic Catholic church that was begun but never completed.  Acoustically excellent monument to failure!

The unfinished church was surrounded by piles of unused bricks.
Morning glories grow out of the bricks.

It was a weekend of warm showers, because they have a solar heated water bag and a pulley, and breakfasts of warm bread topped with mayonnaise, eggs, cheese, and tomato.  Did I mention they live better than I do despite a lack of electricity and water?  Not to mention being talented enough to make jewelry out of road rocks and leftover electrical wire.  Also, Katie is the Mad Mistress of Pastries who demonstrates excellent usage of food coloring.  I made the green.  I mixed yellow and blue.  I can do things like that.

Apple pie!  Proving we don't hate America.  Or something.

Evenings can be spent playing Munchkin, a Dungeons and Dragons based card game. I didn't win, but I did have a huge rock of +2 to combat, and a hireling to carry my huge rock so I could still use other weapons.  We were serenaded by the drunken ladies of the church choir, who warble their way home from the bar every evening in perfect harmony.  For creepier entertainment, there is a computer charged by solar energy on which can be played HP Lovecraft podcasts, which left us with Unnatural Urges for Unspeakable Sins and a deep abiding love for decadent prose with many adverbs.

I am now back at site and actually have a class schedule a week after the beginning of classes.  But will the students come this week?  I don't know.

In Which I Don't Help Students

Most of my students are sufficiently hardworking.  Some of my students are really really hardworking and smart.   I try to hold onto that knowledge during days such as today.

I have invigilated my last exam and noticed a peculiar tendency among the students taking such exams to tell me they are nervous and will I please help them.  By this they mean pass them whether they deserve it or not.  This was well illustrated by one young woman who I do not know, she wasn't actually in my class.  She was in last year's programming class.  She failed that exam, for some reason didn't take the supplementary exam then, but got permission to take my supplementary exam instead.  Umm, ok.  The deputy department head gave her permission, so who am I to argue?  Then this student told me she was certain that she had failed because she forgot everything from last year so I "must" help her.  Really now?  I actually don't think I must do any such thing.  

I help students by giving them the lesson notes on request, and making myself available to answer questions and holding a review session before the exam.  I do not help by cheating for them while grading.   Of course, the students that I know were at my seminar will get extra credit, but that's because without my encouraging it they showed up every day on time, with the notes that they'd read in advance, and helped their neighbors.  I could not be more selfishly proud that when people from the community came to the seminar, they saw not just studious university students, they saw my studious university students.  Those students earned some extra credit help, I'm not giving it to some kid I've never seen before who didn't even try to contact me to ask me how to prepare for my exam and thinks I must pass her.  Must forsooth.  I have standards.  

Just to make my day slightly more fun, my troublesome student who cried to me for an hour to change his failing grade (class, not exam grade, so no supplementary to make it up) sent me a text telling me that he had met with my department head who now wanted me to meet with him in order to find a way to "overcome his situation." I checked with my department head, who had told him no such thing.  She had, in fact, told him that the deadline for grade complaints was over and deal with it.  I am really mad at him for lying to me like that.  Seriously, how dumb does he think I am?  I named my headache after him.

Then I tried to find out what the class schedule for this new semester is, since classes started yesterday, but the class schedule isn't actually written yet.  I give up on today.  I will try again tomorrow.  


Jovitha, the Peace Corps medical secretary in Tanzania, recently died after a long illness.  She was in her 20s and had to spend her last days in the hospital.  Other volunteers can and have described the level of care in some hospitals.  I hope Jovitha's was better, but I don't know.

If any of the volunteers were anywhere close to that sick, we would be helicoptered off to Johannesburg for good quality health care paid for entirely by the US government.  But we have that privilege.  Tanzanians don't.  Not even the staff who support us medically, make our doctor appointments, mail us medications, and fill out the paperwork that would send us to Johannesburg in emergencies.

Rest in peace, Jovitha.  

Caturday Post: The 10 Commandments of the Cat

Because teh interwebs needs moar kittehs and I really miss mine.  Photos and commandments courtesy of my lovely sister, who selflessly agreed to babysit my kittehs for my Peace Corps service.

Thou art the cat.  There is nothing and no one more important.
Thou shalt not strive for captioned internet memehood.

Thou shalt not hunt in vain.

Remember the afternoon nap, to keep it holy.  

Honor the Mockingbird.
Thou shalt kill anything which deserveth it.

Thou shalt spread love and joy.

Thou shalt steal anything which pleaseth.

Thou shalt lie on rugs and sharpen thy claws upon them.

Thou shalt covet thy fellow cat's food, and they fellow cat's treats, and hir blankie, and hir sunny spot, and hir catnip mousie.