Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas Blessings

Usually I actually enjoy writing our annual Christmas letter. But this year, I feel like we’ve bared our souls almost weekly so there’s very little to write about! Last year at this time, we were frantically trying to sort everything we own into things to send to Africa, things to be stored, and things we needed until we left, but wouldn’t be bringing to Africa and things we needed until we left, but then needed to be stored. Oh, and celebrate Christmas in a way that was “normal” without trying to create something artificial because we wouldn’t be celebrating our American Christmas again for a while. I guess it must have been completely routine because I don’t remember any specifics about it!

This Christmas we celebrated in shorts. We opened a few presents that magically appeared under a baobab tree made of banana leaves and decorated with some favorite ornaments from home. We celebrated with new friends and ate delicious ham and roasted potatoes and yummy desserts. It was much lower-key than Christmases we’ve celebrated—and that’s saying something, because with no family near, we’ve celebrated very low-key Christmases! This year, our kids didn’t ask for anything, or make a wish list (either they’ve truly been transformed, or they have the child’s assurance that gifts will somehow appear on Christmas Day!)

This year, we are surrounded by people who don’t celebrate Christmas, except for a church service and perhaps a little extra something for dinner. Who can’t possibly understand Santa Claus, wish lists, and only “5 more shopping days until Christmas”. Who may have a little extra for new shoes or clothes or school supplies, but probably won’t. And maybe won’t need them anyway—the news reports that when the new school year starts next month, 50% of students who are eligible to attend secondary school won’t be going because there are not enough schools.

33% of the people in this country will attend church on Christmas Day and give thanks for the greatest gift we have ever been given, that of God’s Son. They will celebrate the blessings in their lives. They will remember those who are less fortunate and, like the widow, will give out of their poverty, not out of their excess. They will gather with family if they are able and enjoy a meal together.

The other 66% will not attend church or recognize Christmas Day as anything but another Monday. They don’t recognize the love and hope that arrived with the birth of a child so long ago. Yet they also carry on every day, struggling against tremendous odds to try to do what all of us do—earn a living wage to provide for their families, to try to hope for something better for their children, something more than what they have today.

This past year has been the biggest blessing of our lives. No matter how tired, frustrated, or whatever else, we recognize the tremendous gift that we’ve been given in being here and every day we feel more and more at home. And we have been reminded every day, often in ways that are not always pleasant, that we have been abundantly blessed in comparison to most of the rest of the world. The challenge of “blessed to be a blessing” is to live our lives intentionally in ways that reflect our faith and our gratitude in service to others. We’ve found it to be a difficult assignment, one that I don’t think will ever become easy.

Thank you to all of you who are sending Christmas letters and cards and photos! We are pleasantly surprised every day at the post office to receive an actual letter or card—yes, they are arriving! We have so enjoyed reading about your lives over this past year and we’ve had some great conversations about things we didn’t do this past year. Those trips down memory lane were fun and we found we didn’t feel like we missed out on something, another sign that life is good for us here. Again, we can’t thank you enough for all your words of support, encouragement, and prayers that have sustained us every day. We have come to realize how important you all are to not only us, but to the mission of Peace House Foundation. Whether you’ve written a check, volunteered your time, attended an event, visited us (or will visit), or sent an email, you have contributed to what is happening here in a very powerful way.

Wherever you are, whomever you’re with—enjoy a peaceful and blessed Christmas with family and friends. We will keep you in our prayers in the coming year. Merry Christmas!

Heri ya Krismas!

Here is our funny little Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. I was so excited when I took this picture because the kids were in bed and they had no idea they were getting presents. Family had sent gifts but we had kept them hidden. Saturday they went out and got some little trinkets for each other, so when they went to bed, they each had 2 small things under the tree (and since they knew they were from siblings, they'd be small). Noah only had one, owing to a tantrum Ava threw in a store so she was sent to the car. As he went to bed, Noah said, "I am very thankful I have even one present. I wish all the kids in the world who got only one or none presents would get 10 more." A sweet sentiment. Then, "And I wish kids who got 2 presents would only get 2 more so that way I'd have 11 presents but Cameron would only have 4." Sigh. So much for altruism, at least this year! Actually, Noah is the most generous of all of them when it comes to gift-giving. He has a good sense of what his brother or sister would like and is a very thoughtful gifter.
Christmas Day arrived, the presents under the tree were a huge surprise and after a cinnamon roll breakfast we settled into a pretty traditional gift opening. Noah is aiming to play on a World Cup soccer team some day so he loved his soccer uniform as well as new legos and a Star Wars encyclopedia. Living in the moment, as he always does, he proclaimed this "the very best Christmas ever!" Amen!

Ava was princessed out, with barbies, a Belle dress and other royal trinkets. She wore her Belle dress most of the day and slept with her new dollies. She is anxiously waiting to try out some craft-y things and has already formed new families with her new Breyer horse.

Cameron is a pre-teen now and realized it at the end of the day when he was looking around for something and said, "Hey, where're all my toys?" It was then he realized...he didn't get any! Then he looked around, saw his new iPod shuffle and very cool messenger bag and said, "Oh, yeah, my iPod!" He was so thrilled to get it and is starting to get some music organized. I remember being his age and thinking the same thing about no toys for a Christmas and feeling a bit "lost" even though I loved what I had been given. He's definitely in the transition to being a teen. He did get a few small things and kept himself busy "helping" Noah with his lego kits.
They all loved getting new books (Star Wars and Xmen and animal encyclopedias and novels) and new movies, so they are not too deprived in those areas!
We spent the afternoon with our neighbors and their family from the States playing games and eating a great ham dinner. The kids all played, watched a movie, then early to bed. Pretty much what we'd do if we were back in Minnesota. We were/are very thankful for the gifts we received from family and friends as well as the blessings we've received this past year.
Hope your Christmas was fun, merry, peaceful, and joyous!


Monday, December 25, 2006

Forget Christmas Shopping...How Many Days til Harry?

It’s here! Well, not really here so much as titled. If you’re not a Harry Potter fan, well, read no further. Cameron and I are HUGE fans, and our extreme anticipation at reading the last book is tempered only by the fact that we know it’s the last one. Cameron plans to overnight DHL our copy to us and then we have to shut the internet down until we’re done reading it so we don’t become tainted by any advance gossip or information before we’re done reading.

I won't even get into how great the books are--most of you have read 'em with your kids. If you haven't, or if you don't have kids--START READING! It's not just kiddy lit. One of the great aspects is the author's refusal to take the easy or sanitized road--it's a serious story and it she really delivers.

Mind you, the buzz is that the book won’t be released until sometime in July, so we know we’re really early with all the excitement…

Yeah, I know this has nothing to do with Christmas. We haven't had electricity for 3 1/2 days. The first thing I post when it comes on is this. Go figure.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

December in Tanzania...

...means wearing sunscreen, since it is summer, after all. And hiking in big open spaces. Like these. Actually, it wasn't hiking in the traditional sense--it was more like walking around in the grass. You can't really get a sense of how steep the hill is, but it was like a big bowl (Cameron and I immediately mentally skied it) with a deep karonga (ravine) down the middle. It was absolutely spectacular! Erwin, who runs the Heifer Project in Tanzania, took us out, along with some friends (that's Lucas, Ava's friend from school). Considering the wide open spaces all over the place, hiking and camping are a bit tricky. You can't just go out and clomp around--for one thing, who'd watch your car? You have to know where to leave it or who you can get to watch it for you. Then you have to either speak Swahili very well and/or know the people who are living in the area you want to hike in. You probably will have to pay a small fee to walk around their space. For camping, you need all of the above--you may also need a guard for people or wildlife, so again you have to know the area or be able to negotiate all of that, or bring an interpreter along (it was much easier back home--drive up, pay the fee, and off you go).

But we had a fantastic time--the weather was hot, with a nice cool breeze--the kind that makes you forget to wear sunscreen and then you regret it later (but we remembered). The view was breathtaking. As we looked down we could see herds of cows and goats, and small bomas surrounded by brush fences. We were followed by the young boy in the picture with Ava and Lucas and for a short while some very young (probably 7-8) year old children who took a break from herding their goats to trail along behind. No wild animals, but lots of birds. We need to get a bird book, as there are so many interesting birds here! And let's face it, it's pretty easy to identify the mammals around here!
And despite the skiing comment--absolutely no complaints on this end about the lack of snow. Nope, not missing the cold at all! We all came back unanimously agreeing that it was a practically perfect day in Tanzania!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas...?

Well, Christmas somewhere. Like here, for instance. It's a bit surreal sweating and listening to Christmas carols. And my snowmen look suspiciously out of place here, as do my snowflake window clings. But Christmas means a tree, don'tcha know. I could have brought my 7 foot beautiful evergreen along with me. I could run over to Shoprite and spend $8 on a crummy little fakey tree. But why would I do that? I could do this instead...

It's a baobab tree. Made from banana leaves. And shellacked. My houseworker and gardener clearly think I've gone 'round the bend. Why wouldn't I have a "real" tree?! But we all love it. We brought some ornaments from home and I bought some lights today. It took about 5 minutes to decorate the thing and the kids were very excited to see it all lit up tonight. Along with a few other Christmas tchotchkes, we're ready for the big day.

Christmas here is very...eclectic. Expats from all the different countries have their own Christmas celebrations, the wealthier Tanzanians adopt many of our traditional elements of the holidays, and most Tanzanians don't really celebrate at all except for a special church service and a maybe a bigger meal on the day. Since the new school year starts in January here, most children's gifts are shoes or clothes or a new uniform, if they get anything. Wealthier children will get fancy dresses or clothes to show off at church (like we do at Easter) or toys. Without the malls, the ads, and all the commericial reminders of Christmas, things have been very low key here. No one has asked for anything really, although Ava has asked if Santa comes to Africa and expressed some concern at the lack of a chimney and the fact that we have bars on the windows and doors. Gifts have arrived from family in the States, but we have hidden them away and not told them anything. I'm sure some people (read: Noah) will be a bit anxious as the day draws nearer and the tree is suspiciously bare underneath. Mark has tried before to get me to keep all the presents hidden until Christmas Day, but I couldn't do it. It was too much fun watching the anticipation. I think this year, though, it'll be so great because on one level the just know there'll be something, but they haven't been at all preoccupied with planning what they'll be wanting and getting. As with everything else here, we'll just have to wait and see.
Even my phone is ringing "Jingle Bells"!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Trouble with School is...

Well, it would be hard to know where to start. The education system in Tanzania has so many problems. This little episode can give you an idea of how people can be shut out of the system. Our housekeeper, Yasini, lived at a Baptist seminary prior to coming to work for us. His oldest daughter (15) and oldest son (10) have gone to government schools (public schools). His 3rd child has always gone to a private English school. Going to an English school gives a student a leg up on being able to learn efficiently in English as all secondary schools are required to teach in English (another huge impediment to students being able to learn effectively, but that's another story). When Yasini moved his family to this side of town, Fadhili switched from a private school to a government school.

And then came the problem. The government school, while allowing Fadhili to attend, would not officially register him. Why? Because he didn't have the proper government school forms. Yasini spent most of this year trying to get the school to accept the information, records, and letters from the private school, but they wouldn't accept them. There really was no reason, and of course no one would put themselves out to help him solve the snag. Fadhili finished this school year (school here runs January-December) and did very well.

Except the school won't register him and if he's not registered, he can't take the required national exams next year. And if he doesn't take the exams, he can't continue past 4th grade. Yasini went to another government school to see if he could go there for next year and was told that he would have to submit the same kinds of records he doesn't have for this current government school. What's more, even though Fadhili has attended school every day this year, because he's not officially "registered" the school can say he really wasn't there at all.

In this situation most Tanzanians would be absolutely stuck, with a child that would not be allowed to continue his education because of some stupid glitch and a group of very unhelpful people. Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing that happens all the time in all walks of life. There is no rhyme nor reason for what happens here. Fortunately, Yasini works for us. When he told us about the problem, we decided to step in and send Fadhili back to a private school where he can continue learning in English and where he won't have the troubles he's had this year with registration. Funny, when Yasini showed up at that school, they had no problem registering him. His school fees for the year will be 150,000/= (about $130), an amount that would not be possible for Yasini or most Tanzanians to afford.

We also decided to offer his brother Amani the same benefit. Amani was the top student in his grade this year and it will also give him a leg up to be able to learn in English. Fadhili's English is very good, having been in school learning and spending so much time with Noah, but Amani also speaks quite well and will catch on quickly, as he's a very serious student.

Less than $300 for a chance at a better education. To learn English before being thrown to the wolves in secondary school. To have the chance to compete for a very precious (and scarce) spot in a secondary school. For us, not much. For them, it's all the difference in the world.

If that's one thing we've learned here, it's that a little used wisely can do so much here. Yasini's wife can continue to sew and care for their littlest girl (age 2 1/2). They have the money for Johanna to continue Form 3 next year. They have been able to do better than most who work similar jobs by living at the seminary and then with us this year, avoiding rent, water, and electricity payments. When they move into their own house this month (and finally have their whole family together again), they will be able to continue to keep their family as a priority, something that is very difficult to do here. We are happy to be able to do something that can help our friends in this way.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Rugby Rocks

Not that I know really anything about it. Except that it's way more fun than football. The action is non-stop, similar to hockey or soccer--none of those mind-numbing timeouts. You can throw the ball to almost anyone and play doesn't stop when the ball hits the ground. When teams are trying to grab or block a throw in, they hoist a skinny guy up by his shorts into the air. We've seen the national team play a few times and loved it. Rugby is big here in Arusha and you can have lunch/dinner at the fields in the bar and watch the professional teams have at it.

Cameron's chasing a Simonson. The Simonson name is legendary here among missionary and development circles. Dave and Eunice raised 3 large excellent rugby players. It's clear that the genes have been passed to the next generation, but Cameron's giving it his very best shot!

Crazily enough, Cameron loves to play. Crazy because he's never really been interested in team ball sports before. Crazy because you don't play with pads. Crazy because he's, well, the teensiest bit frail looking (he just read this and is objecting to "frail", but I didn't say he was frail). But he's having a great time, so he signed up for the interschool rugby games this weekend. I was a bit worried when they took the field--fielding 6th-10th grade boys on the teams! A few minor adjustments to the rules and they were off.

I myself would be careful about just leaping into a tackle with a bunch of 15 year olds! But if they don't stop the ball carrier and get the ball away from him, he'll just lob it to the next kid on his team and the play continues!

Oops! Interception! Good hands, Cameron--unfortunately, Mr. Red Shoes snagged the ball and is off. We had a great time cheering everyone on.

Cameron's house team came in second for the weekend sports event, which made them feel good. The whole school from kindergarden through 10th grade is divided into 3 teams. During these sports days, the kids compete to earn points to win the house cup at the end of the year. This weekend there was swimming, volleyball, netball, soccer, basketball, cricket, and rugby. They also have a couple track and field meets during the year as well. Everyone participates, all the parents turn out, everyone cheers everyone else on--a great weekend.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Kuangalia, Kujifunza, Kupanda

To watch, to learn, to grow...we're doing it every day! Scott and Sue Augustine had the opportunity to see what's growing at Peace House Academy when they visited this week. The absolutely gorgeous greenery was thanks to incredible amounts of rain. One of the puddles on the road coming in was over the bottom of our Landcruiser's doors! Mucking boots were a necessity, but the views (of Meru, when the clouds cleared) and the rest of the buildings was well worth the mess!

Nope, not some ancient ruins...just the student dorms on the rise. Each dorm room will house 8 students, with rooms for a warden/matron (the term here for the dorm monitor). There are small courtyards and lounges as well for students to do some studying or hanging out. Actually, I think it will be interesting to watch how students here "hang out" and whether it looks like the way students hang out back in Minnesota.

All of Peace House Academy is great, of course, but the dining hall may just be the nicest building on campus (now, I'm saying that without the actual classrooms being done) but it really is beautiful. In fact, a number of people have commented on the size of our "chapel" not realizing it's the dining hall. The interesting roofline was a change to allow more floor space (somehow, it's a construction thing I don't really understand) but I do understand how great it looks!

From the inside you can get a feel of how light and spacious it feels. On the upper left you can see a row of windows that let in light, not to mention the large windows and doors. The best part about the space is it is a dining hall, a performance center, a chapel, a meeting space, a dance hall...the possibilities are endless. So many buildings here are dark and low and bleak...this one just feels so good!

Back at the heart of the school, which are the actual classrooms...this is one of the science rooms. The small wall at the back will eventually separate the sto rage/lab prep area from the classroom. What I love the most about the classrooms (aside from the size) is again, the size of the windows and the amount of light that gets into each room. We've seen classrooms with just the tiniest windows that hardly let in any light or air. The science classrooms are double the size of the other rooms to allow for science tables and movement for labs, etc.

Lame joke time--here's one of PHA's biggest supporters...literally! Get it? He's a supporter but it looks like he's actually supporting the beam!

OK, there's a reason for the delete key, but for some reason I'm opting not to use it. Now, I'm not sure what to say...

Except that Scott looks a little happy, doesn't he? Kind of how we look whenever we visit the site. Kind of how you'll look when you finally realize you've actually arrived in TANZANIA!

Isaya is our gardening/landscaping genius...so hardworking, so committed, so knowledgeable. What a coincidence! So is Sue! The two of them really spent a lot of time time going over the 26,000 trees he's planted, the hundreds of fruit trees in the orchard, the nursery, and all the plans for the PHA site to make it healthy and beautiful. Isaya's been possibly just about the best thing about the PHA construction project!

Isaya's been so great about doing so
much without spending lots and lots of cash. Most of the plantings done so far have been cuttings or seedlings he's raised or had donated by local businesses. This little nursery, put together by Project 640, is filled with tons of small plantings of all sizes, waiting for their moment. He's also growing grass in another section (grass here grows by spreading, rather than from seed) so that it's ready to grow in an actual yard.

Arusha is pretty arid. Lots of succulents grow here. The rain patterns and soil type provide the perfectly worst combination for erosion. Much of growing success is dependent upon factors beyond human control. Be that as it may, when you have the ability to water things, they will GROW! This little acacia was 8 inches tall back in July. We are watering regularly to ensure that all the plantings have a good start before leaving them to thrive naturally. It's hard to believe--but encouraging, as the site is very hot and dry in January/February/March, so the faster the shade can arrive, the better!

This "little" tree was planted last February--yep, less than 1 year ago--when it was less than 12 inches tall. It's now close to 9 feet! Can you believe it?!

(Another great thing about Isaya is that, because of him, we don't have to worry about any of the landscaping stuff, which is good because we're both of us completely novices in the gardening world!)

As we were leaving I happened to catch a Maasai on the top of the hill. What a contrast between an ancient past and a vision of the future. The Maasai are a particularly vulnerable group; in many ways, their situation mirrors that of Native Americans in the 19th century. What does the future hold for these and other marginalized Tanzanians? It is our hope that PHA will provide the means for students to answer that question in new and innovative ways.