Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Every Drop Counts

When Fikiria Kwanza Academy sent our kids home a week earlier than they had stated they would on the syllabus, it presented a little bit of a problem. Not a huge problem; just your standard, dull and slightly annoying, "Welcome to Africa" headache. Hunter and I still hadn't collected the letters (or, for the little ones, the random scribblings of Crayon) our students were going to make for their sponsors, the ones whose money fuels the engine that keeps The Foundation For Tomorrow running and ultimately, to create a better today for Africa's leaders of tomorrow.

The least we could do to say thanks to our benefactors was procure one measly letter.

Joakim's barua

Stefano's random scribblings of Crayon (just because you put an incoherent sequence of letters doesn't make it a real "letter" but they're definitely trying.)

To collect them, we were going to have to go to each kid's individual home/foster home and pick them up personally. Our "last day of work," already extended indefinitely from its original date of December 3, was ♫ beginning to look a lot like Christmas... ♫

... ♫ everywhere you go!

But that is just life in Tanzania, isn't it? Nothing, ever, goes the way you want it to go, and you have to embrace that difference if you want to keep your akili. The key, especially for a rookie NGO like TFFT, is to have fun with it and realize that we are not in control, no matter how hard it is to admit.

Hunter and I were lucky to find a handful of kids, mostly the crew from the Nkoaranga orphanage that we picked out with the help of Mama Mike, still in the dorm when we showed up. We rolled in expecting to find the place packed with kids excited to go home after a long semester; we rolled out feeling fortunate to have gotten a third of our new task out of the way in one stop.

There is a lot of BS thrown our way in this job. The healthy servings of dishonesty, the omnipresent hustling, mountains of seemingly unavoidable controversy, making me wonder what it is exactly that the two of us are doing here. "Fikiria Kwanza" literally means "Think First" in Swahili, after all, and that's the one thing I didn't do before signing on a year of my life to teach there. Ironic, I know -- my father warned me repeatedly to do just one thing before agreeing to anything so time-consuming: "You need to think first, son." Hunter is essentially in the same boat; within an hour of meeting our boss for the first time, he was in. Does it come as any surprise, then, that both of us have had more than our fair share of crisis moments regarding whether or not our presence here is a good thing?

Are we even really helping in the end?

The answer depends on your expectations.

To claim that TFFT is going to "transform education in the Developing World" seems like fighting windmills. Not going to happen. But to claim that we are going to provide opportunities in life for kids like Neema, Roichi, Daniel, Helana, Lomnyak and Amani, not to mention the dozens of others TFFT has already placed in school in this, our first year of existence, is like Steve Nash lining up at the free throw line. Ninety percent chance of success.

Are we even really helping the end? Yes. It's a drop in the bucket, but yes.

Every drop is a living, breathing human being, though. That is what drives me in my work here in Tanzania.

This drop is named Eliopendo.

This drop is named Patrick.

These drops are named Neema and Mandu.

Neither Hunter nor I get paid, but when it comes to seeing smiles on our kids' faces, we will gladly work two weeks' overtime. Neither of us work for the glory of TFFT; we work to provide a brighter future for just a few living, breathing drops in the bucket.

These drops are named Amani, Daniel, Veronica and Neema.

Times like the one above sure don't feel like work. The trek up and down the gargantuan hill in Nkoaranga; our rented car getting stuck in the mud for 30 minutes in the maze of obscure villages behind it; kids not being where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be there -- that feels like work.

But Neema's smiling face?

That is worth more to me than all the paychecks I am missing out on at home.

Neema's sponsor back in the States will soon be receiving a random scribbling of Crayon and a progress report in the mail. That is the best we can do in our attempt to say thanks on Neema's behalf. But maybe a glimpse of her smile is just a little bit better.

We're all just drops in the bucket. That's what I tell myself whenever I feel overwhelmed by the sensation that Hunter and I are fighting windmills alone in a part of the world I never dreamed I'd live in. Every single one of us is a drop. Living, breathing, human drops.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

It sounds weird that the next verse should be "school's out until early January." Still getting used to the hemisphere switch.

For almost all of the 21 new TFFT kids placed in school this September/October, last week marked the end of their first term at Fikiria Kwanza Academy. The older students preparing to enter secondary school had to stay a little while longer, but the wadogo got to go back to their homes and foster homes for the first time in three months.

That's a long time to be away for someone Neema's age.

Joakim, too.

But they were happy on this day: summer vacation, a box of Crayons and an escape from the monotony of the less-than-stellar cuisine they're getting from the Fikiria Kwanza kitchen.

Joyce wanted to go home so bad, she went the five-year-old route and just straight up whined incessantly.

"Nataka kurudi nyumbani," she moaned, not wanting to wait another instant.

"Ngoja tu," I'd say, telling her to wait just a while longer. "Utakwepo mapema."

Joyce was ready to GO.

Seeing as we still don't have a car, and may never get one at this rate, taking the Nkoaranga kids home involved lots of squeezing.

The entire ride up from Kilala, I periodically kept peeking my head back to observe the facial expressions on all of our kids. Remember what it was like to have your parents come pick you up from summer camp, after two weeks or a month away from home? It was tough being gone that long as such a little kid. Multiply the excitement you remember feeling on those final days of camp by six if you went to a mama's boy two week camp, or three if you want to real man four week camp, and you'll have an idea of how close Veronica, Amani, Joakim, Daniel, Odemari, Neema, Roichi and Joyce all were to busting at the seams.

Hunter and I were about to restock an entire neighborhood with its most valuable commodity: beaming, giggling children.

Skips are always pretty good indications that a kid is psyched. They'd been smiling all morning, but it wasn't until the final stretch that I saw some actual skipping. School was out for the summer, after all. If I was that age, I'd be skipping too.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Today was not your average Friday for 16 children at the Good Hope Orphanage in Usa River, Tanzania.

At 8:30, a half hour after they would normally be beginning class at their local government school Meru Peak, a bus from a nearby private school came and rounded them up. The words "Usa River Academy" were sprawled across the sides. For most of these kids, it was probably the first time they'd ever gotten on a real school bus.

All 16 of them needed to take placement exams for the beginning of the new school year this coming January. I sat in the same room with them for three hours, watching each and every kid painstakingly complete a series of tests written in English only. Some struggled mightily -- one kid seriously just filled in random letters, leaving his test riddled with words like "jcxcmjakkwjpzaq," "jmzjjlpmcdrgzsw," and "mkiewqalccvru." Others cruised to the finish line -- they were the ones fidgeting and unnecessarily going to the bathroom for the last hour of the tests. But none of them seemed to get why they were there.

What exactly did they think they were doing there, though? Wasn't it obvious they were being tested for admission? The answer is no.

"Tutatsoma shule gani?" one girl asked me when it was done, as they all crowded around my desk and touched my hair. She wanted to know which school we were sending them to.

"Uhh..." -- did she not know? -- "hapa..." Here.

"Hapa?" she asked, her eyes lighting up as she looked around. Usa River Academy, after all, is one of the nicest schools in the area, and by far the nicest these two eyes have seen. This girl had no idea that the whole time, she was being tested to see where she would be starting at that very school. "Kweli?"

"Kweli," I said. Really.

About five of the Good Hope kids all of the sudden started whispering to each other in Swahili, eyes bugging out: I knew we were gonna go to a nice school, but THIS PLACE??

I normally hate playing God. Hunter feels the same way. Having to pick and choose who gets an education and who doesn't is the worst part of this job. But to see the looks on those kids' faces when I told them they would be going to Usa River ... it was an early Christmas present.

An early Christmas present not only for them, but for me as well.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

I never thought I'd ever hear myself say this, but these past two months of teaching at Fikiria Kwanza Academy have changed things. My eyes have been opened to the truth: Girlz do rule.

You must not know 'bout us, you must not know 'bout us...

At least in Standard 6 they do, my English class being the extent of the sample size. Maybe the wasichana just have an unfair advantage in demographics. More people means more chances to shine. They outnumber my masela 17 to 11 in the class of 28, and out of those 17, I'd say I could have a seamless, three-minute conversation in English with six of them, about a 35 percent clip.
That's about twice the rate of fluency I've found among the guys -- Felix and Baraka alone account for their figure of just over 18 percent.

I hate to say it, but ... I really think the STD 6 girls at Fikiria Kwanza are just smarter.

Sure, there are two dudes who keep it respectable, but as a whole, they've got no answer for Anneth's grammatical precision, Mary John's ability to think outside the box, Itika's conversational acumen, her older sister Heri's quiet command of the language, Maria Peter's anal attention to detail, or Irene's deftness with NSL (Nagging as a Second Language). It's an unending cycle with the dudes: me telling David and Bernard to pay attention, them not doing it, me walking back there to monitor them for about ten minutes, eventually leaving to make trips to Erick and Godson's desks to essentially reexplain the day's lesson in "Kiswahiliingereza" (Kiswahili plus Kiingereza, the East African version of "Spanglish"), and then grading a bunch of mistake-riddled homework assignments by the very kids who, gasp, hadn't been paying attention in class.

Regardless of all the times I've gotten on them, all the dudes are down with Ticha BP (that's me). But none are spilling any leaks on who "likes" who, like some of the girls did the other day when we were chilling after class. Let me tell you, it was awesome. I really felt like an old man, sitting on the receiving end of the gossip chain, observing a bunch of young teenagers giggling and pointing fingers. It started with Itika calling out someone, I can't remember who, for liking Rubben. That shot was volleyed right back: "Itika likes Baraka!" It was a chain reaction of "Nah aww"/"Yah huh" in Swahili for the next 60 seconds after that. Then I learned about the other match ups: Heri-Bernard, Anneth-Felix, and some other juicy rumors. When everyone had thrown her share of mud, I leaned back, resting my head against the wall and laughed out loud, very aware of the main squeeze situation in Fikiria Kwanza Standard 6.

By the way, 90 percent of that group conversation about love in the land of Tanganyika took place in English, and it was seamless. What else could I expect from my girls?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Meet Lomnyak and Namayani.
TFFT's newest wanafunzi Wamaasai.

Simply put, I am obsessed with this brother and sister tandem, the only two Maasai in a group of 19 students that TFFT placed in Fikiria Kwanza Academy this September. Just look at them. Possibly the cutest kids in history.

On their applications, their ages were listed as seven and five, respectively. Hunter and I place the real figures at around four and three, reverse Danny Almonte style.

Forget about English, the language du jour in every class at Fikiria Kwanza, an English medium boarding school in Usa River, Tanzania. Lomnyak -- who is the boy, by the way -- knew absolutely no Kiswahili before he showed up for school the first day. Not a word. Not mambo; not poa; not even hakuna matata. Unlike his little sister, who had done a brief stint at some day care center where other children gave her a rudimentary exposure to Swahili, Lomnyak had never been to school. As a Maasai, then, it's almost as if Lomnyak had never even lived in Tanzania, a country in which 120 disparate tribes are all threaded together through a common tongue. Until about seven weeks ago, when TFFT changed all that for him, making friends meant making Maasai friends, and speaking Kimaasai with those Maasai friends.

Coming to Fikiria Kwanza has been quite the transition for the big guy, to say the least.

It's been an even bigger transition for Lomnyak than the one shy little Namayani went through in her first few days, but due to the amazing speed in which Lomnyak has begun to pick up Swahili, they are in basically the same boat at this point. Instead of a hopeless situation in Monduli, where they were being given next to no attention by an unemployed Maasai father, suddenly these kids are now drowning in it, be it as it may that it is attention expressed in Swahili and English. Hope has sprung eternal in two foreign languages for these two. One look at Lomnyak's toothless smile, or a quick glance at Namayani's sheepish grin, could tell you how aware they are of this fact.

Lomnyak is "the hitter," as Hunter and I say. Likes to hit, a lot. He's crazy. Namayani, the shy one, is the complete opposite of the hitter. "Serene;" I like that one-word summary of my little Maasai angel, the kid who makes me want to pull an Angelina Jolie more than any other child at that school. If I could take just one thing home from Tanzania with me in my carry on, it would be Namayani. She's probably fit, too -- the kid is tiny.

As her uncle, the brother of the children's widower father, drove her and Lomnyak to Fikiria Kwanza that first day, she sat crying in the back seat, pleading with him to not drop her upstream (in a new universe) without a paddle. Not old enough to understand how this might be helping her, Namayani was frigid her first two, three days at her new school. But as soon as the frost began to thaw, almost overnight she blossomed, like one of the thousands of bluish purple flowers gracing the branches of the jacaranda trees all over the Arusha region at the moment. Every time I see Namayani these days, instead of a frightened, confused expression, I see a huge smile, always followed by a feet-shuffling, meandering trot, my little Maasai angel fluttering her wings in my direction.

I love our wanafunzi Wamaasai.

Life dealt these kids a rough hand. Their mom died during childbirth; their father isn't quite the caliber of Danny Tanner in his parenting ability. Only the chance encounter between a friend of the children's uncle and Meghann, the one who calls the shots at TFFT, secured them a spot in the Original Nineteen. It would be hard to ever call orphans "lucky" just because they get sponsored to go to a private school, but TFFT is doing its best to even out the scales a bit.

To help these children long term, the gift of education will have to do. I don't have the funds to pull an Angelina just yet.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Itika (photo unavailable) is by far my best student. Though native to Tanganyika, she spent a large chunk of her life living in South Africa, so she’s got the inside track on all her born and bred Tanzanian classmates in speaking the English language. Perhaps because it deludes me into thinking that I’m having a significant impact on at least one of these kids, grading Itika’s “homework” (explanation of quotations to come) always refreshes me.

But it’s her mastery of the second person plural that has made Itika my unabashed teacher’s pet.

Fikiria Kwanza Academy, the school where Managing Director Flint and I have been teaching since the beginning of September, doesn’t even have real grades, so Itika’s prize is going to have to be make-believe. I say they’re not “real” because there is absolutely no minimum score that you’ve got to meet if you want to pass onto the next grade, basically eliminating the most basic incentive to study and learn the material, aside from fear of a beating at home: the fear of flunking out, or of having to repeat a grade. I jumped all over this ridiculous policy for a solid hour at the first teachers’ meeting last Friday, attacking its logic like the chickens behind our house attack our daily offerings of compost, but it is such a common policy of private schools in this country that not a single teacher shared my out outrage.

So with no real reason to get make-believe extra credit, Itika went ahead and did what “that kid” we all remember from our days as 7th graders would do: she got it anyway, padding her lead like Steve Spurrier in the 4th quarter of a 70-3 drubbing of Florida International during his days in Gainesville.

“Excuse me Teecha, but isn’t the plural form of “you” supposed to be ‘y’all’?”

A third generation Texan on both sides of the family tree, my heart skipped a beat. My immediate first thought was obviously, “Itika,” but it just hadn’t sounded like her. I had to root out the culprit.

“Who said’ y’all’?” I snapped, abruptly, but not in a way that was rude to the teacher who I had just interrupted, Bwana Oola. There was no response. “Who said y’all?” I repeated, a little more eagerly this time around, eyes scanning the room.

Itika, tucked away in the corner, outside my line of sight, raised her hand.

I can’t say I was surprised.

“You’re right about that,” I said, initially looking her right in the eyes. “‘Y’all’ is what you say in real conversation, but it’s not proper English. It’s more like …” – What was that thing my neighbor Biti had taught me to say for "street Swahili?" I looked down at my shoelaces as I searched for the phrase, – “…Kingereza cha mtaa.”

Every single student started laughing. My periodic Kiswahili cha mtaa phrase-dropping gives me big time street cred as a Mzungu teacher with machizi waaaangu (the euphemism Nako 2 Nako, an Arusha-based Kiswahili hip hop group, has turned into the hippest alternative to “my friends” out there).

I was using this opportunity to address the entire class; Itika had brought up an extremely important distinction between ‘textbook English’ and ‘the way English is meant to be spoken.’ Or in case you don't habla inglés, she’d highlighted one example in the difference between textbook English and Kingereza cha mtaa.

“I didn’t want to confuse y’all with it earlier,” I said to the 20-something pairs of temporarily-inquisitive eyes, enunciating you know which word, “but Itika is correct.” As I went to the board to write down my point, I prayed: “Please, Mungu, let one of the kids staring at me actually be absorbing this right now.”

While I still had the floor, I looked back at Itika, and told her we’d talk later. Written on the chalkboard behind me were the words:


When I finally did get a chance to have a one-on-one moment with Itika, it was after Bwana Oola had written on the board his daily list of 10-15 fill-in-the-blank sentences, which students are required to complete during the remaining few minutes of class time (see? Not homework). Knowing Itika doesn’t need all that much time on these linguistic lay up drills, I sat in the empty desk next to her to clear up some “y’all”-related confusion she’d had later on during the lesson on possessives.

“You do say that,” I told her, overriding Bwana Oola’s pronouncement that it was wrong to tell a group of people, “Y’all’s car is red.” “It’s just that it's too confusing to explain this to the rest of the class,” I said, keeping my voice as mouse-like as possible. “But just know, you do say that in real English. You just never write it on a test or a formal letter or something. ‘Y’alls car is red.’ It sounds way better. Sawa?” I ended with a little Swahili.

Itika said, smiling.

So it’s a little bit of a load off now that I’ve got that covered. I've also already taught them, on just my second day as a matter of fact, the most basic English tidbit ever: to answer, “What’s up?” with one word, “Nothing.” I guess the next pressing item on the agenda is the importance of using, “It’s the same thing,” rather than, “Same difference.”

If there’s no difference, after all, it can’t be the same. It’s the students like Itika who I’m trying to reach, and she’s going to have to know these things if she’s ever going to master Kingereza cha mtaa.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

In Hangman We Trust.

Neither Hunter nor I have ever taught English before. We've spoken it a lot, and I like to do most of my writing in it, but teaching the lingua franca of the New World Order is something entirely new. It's one thing to feel prepared for the job after sprinkling 40 hours of TEFL online training atop 23 years of conversational experience. It's another thing to feel like that when it's your time to shine.

If I've learned one thing in the past few weeks, it's this: 40 hours of doing just enough to advance to the next module, added to 23 years of failing to focus on the structure of the English language, don't help you when that moment arrives.

There you are, wondering how it is that you came to be standing in front of a blank chalkboard in Usa River, Tanzania, with 20 pairs of young teenage eyes all glued to you, the Mzungu they assume to be all-knowing in this subject. Your name is no longer Bayless, but "Teacher BP," pronounced tee-cha BP, and Swahili for Mr. Parsley. And your mind, far from collected, is silently screaming to itself, "What now!!"

I'm just glad I have almost no fear of public speaking. That wouldn't help matters at all.

The two of us went into our first morning of work having already been promoted, unknowingly and undeservedly. No longer assistant English teachers, we'd suddenly been elevated to head English teachers for Standards 5 and 6. We owed our thanks to the mysterious "Beatrice," formerly the head teacher for both of those classes, and who still hasn't showed up for work, which started in early September.

"I think she's sick."

"I heard she's in the hospital."

"I think she probably just got a better job and didn't tell anyone."

Of all the products of the FK faculty rumor mill, the last guess alone ended up being proven correct. The English teacher we thought we'd be assisting, Beatrice, had quietly peaced out, without any warning at all, to anyone, and yet it didn't stoke the ire of a single soul on staff. Cultural relativism can be a little harder to swallow when it isn't coated with the sugar known as ignorance.

"What now!!"

I tried a few different things in that first week as the teacher for Standard 6. Only one thing, though, proved wildly popular during my short tenure as the Lone Ranger in charge of a bunch of 7th grade equivalents (the following Monday, my second at Fikiria Kwanza, Bwana Oola was transferred to take control of my class).

My legacy, short as it may have been, will be marked by the memory of Hangman.

I don't have a picture of my own class playing, divided unevenly into groups dividing along gender lines, all calling out different letters. All I've got is this outdated shot of Hunter acting as Hangman mediator, when my team of eight/nine-year-old boys dominated Peanut Belk's team of girls during a friendly a few months ago, before school began.


That's the answer to "What now!!" when I'm put on the spot to sub, like last week, when I received no warning that the Social Studies teacher, also the Headmaster, was occupied with other work. A time killer, perhaps. And a fun one, too. But I really do try and reinforce the day's lesson in my selections.

Here are a few examples I've thought of so far:

For help in geography/politics
T-E-X-A-S I-S T-H-E B-E-S-T S-T-A-T-E I-N T-H-E U-N-I-O-N.

(I hold this truth to be self evident.)

W-I-L-L T-H-E B-O-Y-S E-V-E-R L-O-S-E?

(Though outnumbered heavily, they won the first four or five games in convincing fashion.)

T-H-E G-I-R-L-S T-E-A-M H-A-S T-U-R-N-E-D T-H-E T-I-D-E.

(The girls started Day 2 of Hangman on a 4-0 tear.)

Sayings Pt. 2
T-H-E G-I-R-L-S A-R-E O-N A R-O-L-L.

(They won all seven rounds that day.)

Facts of life
R-E-G-G-A-E M-U-S-I-C I-S T-H-E B-E-S-T M-U-S-I-C.

(I hold this truth, too, to be self evident.)

F-A-L-L-O-P-I-A-N T-U-B-E.

(Not knowing what to write, I shot a quick glance at the [extremely] vivid Biology diagram, illustrated with English labels and hanging on the wall next to the blackboard, where I found inspiration. It was pretty funny, indeed, to hear this one exclaimed by the Headmaster's son Felix.)

Current events
M-Y A-R-M P-I-T-S A-R-E S-W-E-A-T-Y.

(Probably the class' favorite to date).

Every day, since I arrive before Bwana Oola, I have at least one kid ask if we can "play." The name of the game isn't even required; I know what these kids want from me. I say "no" more than "yes," but it's hard to refuse. Hunter uses it as a go-to as well. When in doubt, In Hangman We Trust ... at least until getting a better handle on this teaching thing, or maybe just until we finish our time at Fikiria Kwanza. I mean, who doesn't like playing that game?

Monday, August 27, 2007

When invited to a BBQ at a Muslim Tanzanian's house, it's B.Y.O.B.
... but they'll provide the mbuzi

Hunter and I went to a little get together across the path last Saturday at our next door neighbor Baba Juma's pad. I say "little"; I mean huge. I also say "get together"; I mean stay together, without sleeping, until 9 a.m. the next day. The two of us only lasted until about midnight, but for the first few hours -- before the 100 or so total guests had arrived -- we sat around the fire with all the other V.I.P.'s, grilling out while ducks, chickens, little kids and a pet dog scampered about. Just Baba Juma, a few relatives, some neighbors, the designated servant kids, and the two wageni wazungu -- both staring with wide eyes, and one with his camera ready.

In a lot of ways, it was the same as any barbecue we'd have back home. Jokes, a fire, chilling, friends, anticipation of a good meal ... there was no football on TV, but these other staples are universal from the G8 to the Developing World. I doubt much has changed in grilling behavior since the day man first discovered two sticks, meat, buddies and sitting down. As a matter of fact, for a moment I almost forgot I was in a foreign country, everything seemed so normal. Then I realized that I didn't understand 85 percent of the words people said, and that we weren't exactly grilling pre-cut Omaha steaks.

The calm before the storm.

The only booze Baba Juma and his Muslim guests brought to the cookout was this mbuzi (mm-boo-zee), Swahili for goat. I see mbuzi (the word doesn't change from singular to plural) running around the village all the time, but it was a first to spot one at our neighbor's place. A local Muslim man from Patandi had died 40 days before, during our first week in the village, and as is custom for all Tanzanians, an all night memorial service full of food, chai and prayers was in order. Since the mzee actually passed away in Baba Juma's house, he played host and bought a goat for the occasion.

Levies on the verge of collapse.

"The lesson to be learned from all this Michael Vick business is to never do anything to upset animal rights activists. They will jump all over you and never let go."

My father's most recent life tip -- practical, as always -- is what prevented me from posting Part III of this series of photos. I personally don't see any problem with perpetuating the Circle of Life, but many aren't cool with promoting the killing of defenseless goats, which is why I'm going to spare them the pain of having to see it up close.

But the rest of you can use your imagination.

Baba Juma is Muslim, but he is not a strict one. I've never seen him pray; he rarely visits the mosque; and we've most definitely shared some beers together at Africa Hotel in our day. But Five Pillars aside, he is adamant about one thing regarding his faith: that any animal he eats be slaughtered the right way, as was mandated by the Prophet. That means slitting an mbuzi's throat while it' still breathing. When Baba Juma pulled out the knife, I knew he meant business. The white Muslim prayer cap atop his head, something that many men his age wear every day, was something I hadn't seen him don in all the time we'd lived beside him.

Two guys held it down while Baba Juma dug his fingers around trying to find the jugular. The knife ran across its throat a few seconds later, and that was pretty much the end of that. It was like a post graduate, East African style biology seminar, and it put the experience of dissecting a cat in 12th grade to shame. For someone who doesn't even like to go deer hunting, it was heavy stuff. The Circle of Life can be pretty graphic.

You become familiar with the whole anatomy of a goat when you attend a barbecue like that. The way it's skinned; how to slow roast the skull to eat the brains, by shoving a stick up through its nose and planting it in the soil beside the fire; the de-hooving method they employ; even emptying out the stomach to see what it had for its last meal. I kept waiting for a reenactment of the "Dances with Wolves" buffalo eating scene to take this experience to the next level, but nothing is eaten raw. Everything, even if it's not eaten by people, is put to some use. For example, the ... ya know ... thingy ... got thrown to the ducks, who proceeded to fight over it relentlessly. Viva la Circle.

The liver, the esophagus, the feet and the many other unidentified mystery objects I put into my mouth were thrown into a concoction called "white soup." Hunter and I tried to glance each other's way when we starting to drink it, but it was too dark to make out any expressions. Our senses took in only the smell of roasted meat and the sound of slurping galore. Both of us tossed our bowls back, no questions asked. As the new kid, you've got to man up in that situation. Salty, a little chewy, and definitely a novelty.

"Mara kwanza," I told the guy next to me, when he asked me why I was inspecting my soup so carefully. "First time." That got him rolling.

But that was nothing compared to the laughter that came about 30 minutes later.

As honored guests, there was no way we were getting out of there without also having to try the pumbu. They looked and tasted eerily similar to eggs. I felt a little sick, but it was only psychological. But at least I was able to check two things off my list of Things To Do In Life last Saturday:
  • Witness a goat slaughter
  • Eat goat testicles
Hunter was able to check off a third from his own personal list:
  • Go back for seconds of pumbu
I'd say he's adapting rather well to the village life.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Thought's from Mwindaji (Hunter - Managing Director)

Everyday, one should find humor, humility and the truth.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Tunajifunza ... pole pole.

That means, "We're learning ... slowly."

Speaking Kiswahili every day, for me at least, has been 90 percent of the fun during our first month in Tanzania working for The Foundation For Tomorrow. No other language experience I've ever had can compare. Español has only really been needed for a few trips to Spain; Français was completely unnecessary when I was studying in Geneva; the little I tried to learn of Srpski during my six months in the former Yugoslavia was most definitely too late. Kiswahili Billy (pronounced Kee-swa-hee-lee Bee-lee), one of the many self-adorned nicknames I've accumulated this month, is an entirely different animal. Here's why:

New and Intriguing (+) Compulsory to Job Performance = The Road to Fluency. Not only am I truly a blank slate, but I've got to learn it, too.

And the locals love it when the two wazungu dudes speak their language. They love it. The amount of street cred TFFT is to have in the Arusha-Usa River stretch is going to be directly dependent upon how far Hunter and I progress with Swahili. Three of our neighbors -- Baba Juma and his two daughters, Mariam and Biti -- are handy teachers. Our tutor -- Bwana Shio -- leaves a lot to be desired. My phrase book -- a publication of the dreaded Lonely Planet -- is just flat out wrong half the time. In the end, getting it down is all about personal initiative.

I find that little kids and market vendors provide the best learning material. Kids talk about simple stuff; vendors use lots of numbers. That, and they're always intrigued by you asking questions in Swahili. You really do learn, too. Cucumber, basketball, tomatoes, shoes, garlic, "shoot the ball," etc. Hunter is only now learning to listen to me and take a little black book to write all this stuff down.

Learning the proper slang never hurts either. You throw out a "mzuka kabisa" over a plain old "nzuri" when a kid your age asks you how things are going, and you're going to be the talk of that part of the village for hours.

People fall all over themselves trying to help you learn it. When this old lady on the road today threw out some crazy greeting I'd never heard, my hesitation and confusion were so obvious that she quickly followed it up with, "Sema salama" ("Say peaceful").


She flashed a near-toothless smile. "Anajifunza," I hope she thought to herself. "He's learning."


I will now take you on a tangent loosely related to the issue of learning Swahili: Local Nicknames.

Hunter's is easy. Ninety percent of the people who know us refer to him as Mwindaji. It's the word "Hunter" in Swahili. When people are introduced to him, they don't hear a fratty American name; they hear animal killer. It's an effective deterrent to trying to rob us.

Mwindaji, always the modest one, feels that one name is enough. I, never the modest one, need several:
  • Hakuna Pwani. Literally translated as "Without Bay," which is the equivalent of Bayless. This is the original. I don't use this name often, because it is like Borat's wife -- "she's a boring."
  • Hatari. It was the name of a John Wayne movie set in Arusha National Park, and it is painted all over the place in Tanzania. "Hatari" means "danger." I made one amazing shot after a behind the legs dribble and a fade away jump on the baseline one day, and after it went in, I just yelled out "Hatariiiiii!" The name has stuck with the kids on the court that day ever since, and I definitely do a lot to fan the flames by telling neighborhood kids that yes, my name is in fact "Danger." "And meet my friend, 'Slayer of Animals.'"
  • Ticha BP. Tanzanian kids think every mzungu is a "teacher." In Swahili, that is spelled "ticha." The kids at Fikiria Kwanza, where Hunter and I will begin teaching next month, have a weird game called "BP" that requires everyone to write those two letters all over their hands, legs, arms, whatever. I noticed this and let them know that they were writing my initials. Ever since, they've called me "BP" or "Ticha BP," and once again, I fan the flames by introducing myself as Ticha BP.
  • Billy. This is a universal "We're not from America and 'Bayless' is really difficult to say" answer. I've been called Billy by mistake by Mexicans, Germans, Jamaicans, Yugoslavs, Turks, Chinese, and now Tanzanians. One guy even got my name right a few weeks ago, and Baba Juma quickly corrected him: "His name is Beelis, not Bayless." Beelis, Billy, sawa sawa.
  • Kiswahili Billy. No one has ever actually called me this. I just made it up tonight. And as a matter of fact, I'm not done with it. I think I might just condense to Kiswabili.
The fact that an entire village of little kids screams out "Mwindaji!" and "Hatari!" every time we walk down the road shows that TFFT, with only a month of in-country operations under its belt, is meshing well with members of the local community. If I ever hear them say "Kiswabili," though, then I'll feel like we're making real progress.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A New Beginning

Tengeru, Tanzania

Mambo zenu?

Just a little Swahili for anyone interested. It basically means “What’s up y’all?” The next time someone back home asks you how things are going, just surprise them with a response from East Africa: poa (cool), safi (clean/fit) or boring old nzuri (good) for those of you who prefer vanilla and don’t like Tabasco.

Our plane took off from Chicago two weeks ago, en route for London and onto Nairobi, and it’s crazy to think that we’ve only actually been in Tanzania for about ten days now. It already feels like home, which is a good thing, because while Meghann leaves Tuesday, Hunter and I have got about 50 weeks to go.

But even if we had 100 weeks left on the continent, I doubt the one bag I entrusted to British Airways would ever arrive on my doorstep. Not seeing it emerge on the Nairobi airport conveyor belt after a 24-hour journey generated an annoyance which slowly transformed into rage, but which has now dissolved into a resigned acceptance of fate, as at least I know I’m not the only one – two people have emailed me in the past few days to say that Regis Philbin has been railing against BA every day for weeks with the same complaint. If only the TFFT blog was a bully pulpit with as much media coverage as the Regis & Kelly Live show; I could shame BA into making the recovery of my bag its No. 1 priority … and be reunited with a fresh pair of boxers, five books on Africa and a new shirt within days.

I believe that things happen for a reason, though. Our living situation is a perfect example.

Before Meghann even booked our flights over, she had lined up a nice three-bedroom house to rent in Arusha, replete with security guard/cook/gardener (who must have been a very dynamic individual). That was to be where The Foundation For Tomorrow was to get off the ground in Tanzania, and judging by the photos Meghann emailed us, our home base was looking pretty sweet.

The only problem, it turned out, was the price. The realtor saw that none of us were black, and she naturally charged a “mzungu rate,” which was astronomical in relative terms. Mzungu literally means “European” in Swahili, but its de facto translation is “white person.” If I didn’t know any better, I’d think it meant “hello,” we hear it so often when we walk down the road.

A basic fact of life here that we have to accept is that most people who see that you’re mzungu are going to think they can take advantage of you if they so choose. However, I have done a lot of traveling in the past year – Western Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, East Asia – and nowhere have I encountered people as warm and hospitable as the Tanzanian people. Here, everyone smiles, everyone greets you, and hitch hiking is merely a matter of waiting 45 seconds to a minute with your hand out.

“People see this, and they see money,” our dreadlocked friend Frank told us the other day, when he pinched a flap of dark skin on his wrist and motioned towards our arms with his eyes. Another dreadlocked friend, Kapanya, conveyed the same message last week when explaining why it was so expensive for us to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The better we get with the language, and the more people in our village come to recognize that we know our way around, the less we’ll have to deal with mzungu nonsense. But back in the days when TFFT’s Tanzanian project was in the planning phases, that crafty realtor thought she could pull one over on poor Meghann. It almost worked, too, except for one thing. That realtor failed to realize that this fledgling 501(c)(3) is run by a woman you don’t want to mess with.

Around these parts, Meghann Hessert Gunderman is known colloquially as “The Businesswoman.”

Meghann could bargain a Coke machine into only charging a quarter. She’s relentless. You should see her negotiating with the tax collectors on the low-cost, public transport vans known as dala dala’s, which unlike a bucket of water, can never truly be filled. Her basic knowledge of Swahili and steadfast refusal to be taken advantage of as a mzungu woman in a black man’s world means she can nickel-and-dime dala dala workers into submission almost every time.

Our first day riding one, when the three of us went from Arusha to the village we’re now living in, Tengeru, Meghann failed to realize that dala dala prices had changed somewhat in her absence. It was my first day, and all I knew of Swahili was how to count to three, so I remember only the word mbili (“two”) being thrown back and forth between her and the angry dala dala employees who were demanding more money after we hopped off.

“Hapana, hapana,” Meghann kept saying, shaking her head, not caving into the con that a ride from Arusha to Tengeru could cost anything more than 200 shillings. “Mia mbili.”

“Nne! Mia nne!” they kept yelling, the man with the money jingling the coins in front of her face. They wanted 400 shillings per person.

“Hapana!” Meghann yelled.

“Petrol! Petrol!” they explained. Gas prices have skyrocketed here, too.

“Let’s go,” she said, walking away. Hunter and I fell into line behind our leader. As we marched off, Meghann stubbornly refusing to pay a nickel more than the legitimate total of 600 shillings, or about 50 cents, all we heard were a pair of voices grumbling in Swahili and the dala dala tires screeching away towards the next stop. Victory was ours.

It was only later that we asked our Tanzanian friend what the rate for a dala dala ride from Arusha to Tengeru really was.

“Oh, it’s 400,” Ajit said. We all shot a glance at one another. “It has gone up.”

Turns out that Meghann was the one doing the hustling. She had saved TFFT almost half a dollar.

Losing my bag happened for a reason. It forced me to find “new” clothes at Tengeru’s outdoor market the other day, which led me to an item I have wanted for about three years now: an amazingly tacky/amazingly awesome, gold New Orleans Saints Ricky Williams jersey. Likewise, losing the house we were supposed to have gotten in Arusha happened for a reason. It forced us to go hunting for a cheaper place, which led us into the village real estate market.

I’ve said we live in Tengeru. The truth is we live in a village even smaller than Tengeru, Patandi. It’s about 12 km from Arusha, and that’s 12 less kilometers Hunter and I will have to traverse every day on the way to work in Usa River. Not just the location, but the vibe of the place we rented lets me know that this is exactly where The Foundation For Tomorrow needs to be.

Oh, and by the way, it’s about $200 less per month than the original place in Arusha. So Meghann has now saved TFFT $2,400.48 on the year with her pit bull like bargaining skills.

Our next door neighbor, a Muslim man named Baba Juma, gives us all the protection we need, simply by association. No one in Patandi messes with Baba Juma, and so no one is going to mess with his wazungu friends, Mwindiji (“Hunter” translated into Swahili) and Hakuna Pwani (“Without Bay” translated into Swahili).

Meghann has no cool name translation.

So far, we’ve been going through a long orientation process. Our work as assistant English teachers at the Fikiria Kwanza Academy doesn’t start until September, at the beginning of the new school term. Construction on the library we are building for Fikiria Kwanza will start next month. At this point, it’s been all about getting our living situation sorted, introducing ourselves to all of the friends Meghann has already made for TFFT during previous visits, assembling a Tanzanian Board, and learning a little bit of the language so we can get people to stop looking at us as wazungu and start looking at us as true neighbors.

And in case anyone is wondering, yes, hakuna matata is Swahili. What a wonderful phrase, I must say. It means “no worries,” but I doubt I’ll hear it said fooooor the rest of my daaaaaaaaays in Tanzania, because no one actually says that anymore than we would say “gee golly” in America.