Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Price of Inflation. And Back to School. And Observations.

Somehow this slipped past us last July (how cool is that that I can say "last July" so casually because I was here last July? Meaning I'm not feeling so new anymore!) but, like many governments, the Tanzanian government started its new fiscal year in July. This year our teachers and staff spent quite a bit of time talking about often dramatic price increases that happen as a result. In Arusha many dalla-dalla (minibus) fares doubled, for example from 200 shillings to 400 shillings. It's hard to imagine that increasing something from 20 to 40 cents is dramatic, but it really is. Some food products have almost doubled (bread, for instance). Yesterday, my housekeeper told us that in July he spent 40,000 shillings for charcoal and kerosene to cook with--which amounts to almost 1/2 his monthly salary.

Knowing that we have students whose lives are so difficult and often desperate, it's easy to understand why children don't attend school. It's easier to understand why people make decisions here that often seem short-sighted to our Western eyes. When you live so close to the line every day, how can someone ever get ahead or make provisions for the future? What's the good of planning when things change so suddenly?

Yasini is luckier than most. Working for us he has access to people who can help him if he needs it and help him figure out a solution to a problem. He makes a fair salary for his position, but still uses every cent every month with 3 children in school. He has a gas tank and has seen how long a tank of gas lasts us cooking the way we do. Instead of spending 40,000 for fuel, he can spend 25,000 to fill his tank and use his other cooker and the tank can last for him 2 months. We talked about how best to get the 25,000 for the first fill, which ended up being a gift from us, and then talking about how to set aside some money each week so that he can refill the tank when it's time, rather than wait until it's empty and then try to figure out how to get the money. It's a concept that's very basic for us, but not common and often not easy for Tanzanians. On our end, we feel lucky that Yasini will come to us and ask for help with a problem, but not automatically ask for money. It gives us a chance to talk about other ways to approach a situation and look at all options.

On another front, this is from a Peace Corps volunteer teaching in central Tanzania, about the start of a new term...

I showed up at 7 am last Monday morning (the first day of school) only to find I was the only faculty member there with 30 or so A-level students. A few minutes later the academic master shows up and opens the administration office. Not a single O-level student arrived for the first day of school. This usually happens - the students (especially at boarding schools) don't arrive until a few days (or weeks) after the term starts.

One of the reasons this happens is that students have to pay their fees for the 2nd term and don't come if they don't have enough money. Others can't get the travel fare together. As I said before, the lack of resources encourages people to use what they have right when they have it because there's always an immediate need. Setting money aside for a future event, like transportation money, just doesn't happen. Resources that are available now are used now. Future needs will be dealt with when the time comes. Which is why sometimes you can give someone money for something--a bill, school books, medicine--and then find out later that they spent it on something else. You feel cheated, because it seems like they misled you, asking for one thing, then using it for another. They don't understand your irritation or anger--you gave them money, they had a need. The decision on how to use that resource rests with the recipient, not with the giver. On a personal level that causes frustration. Imagine it on a level of NGOs where foreign companies and organizations are trying to allocate money here.

On the school side, it's interesting to note that neither students nor teachers appeared. So little schooling takes place even when schools are in session. Students are sent home to get more money for something the school wants to do. Schools are closed because it's too hot. Or too dusty. Or too wet. Or because they run out of food. Teachers don't show up because they work other jobs. Or because they are in the work room chatting. Or because everyone's spending so much time practicing mock exams instead of actually learning. It's easy to point fingers and say, "What a mess." And it is a mess. But if you have the ability to really look at everything that impacts learning, you find the same things impact schools in the States, too. Lack of resources, low teacher salaries, socio-economic factors that affect families that schools have no control over. It actually allows us to see education between the States and Tanzania as a continuum, rather than "we have all the answers and know the best way and we're here to show you." Believe me, there's puh-lenty for us to learn!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

I Admit it. I'm a Fanatic

We started reading Harry Potter just before the first movie came out. Cameron was 6, easily able to handle the reading (we did read together) although (in retrospect) perhaps a bit young for that final scene in the movie between young HP and Professor Quirrel). We took to it right away and have loved every minute of reading and watching Harry. I think one of the appealing things for Cameron is that the story is non-stop action and humor. As the books have progressed to include much darker themes and some adolescent "snogging" they do become more difficult for the younger set. I think Cameron rereads them so often because he picks up on new insights each time.

For me, it's been such a great experience to share with Cameron. We have read and discussed all sorts of theories and possible endings, especially in this last buildup. They are an easy read for adults but not simple in their themes. There are no "good" and "bad" characters. People are complex and flawed, even the hero. There's a level of complexity in the situations the characters face, yet there's always an undergirding spot-on understanding of teenagers, too. Anyone who loves reading, and especially loves reading with their kids, knows exactly when an author succeeds in perfectly balancing the level of writing for a child and the sophistication required for adults. I think there are many books that fit that category. For me, these have been the best.

Then I read the "infamous" New York Times review--infamous because they posted the review 2 days before the book came out, causing a huge uproar about spoilers. Well, I read it and it's been great--just enough to pique our interest while we wait for the book. I thought the article was terrific in the description of the world and the characters Rowling created, a world that is fantastical but absolutely real, perfectly adolescent and terribly adult. I'm posting parts of it here, with NO SPOILERS--I took any possibility of those out.

J. K. Rowling’s monumental, spellbinding epic, 10 years in the making, is deeply rooted in traditional literature and Hollywood sagas — from the Greek myths to Dickens and Tolkien to “Star Wars.

From his first days at Hogwarts, the young, green-eyed boy bore the burden of his destiny as a leader, coping with the expectations and duties of his role, and in this volume he is clearly more Henry V than Prince Hal, more King Arthur than young Wart: high-spirited war games of Quidditch have given way to real war, and Harry often wishes he were not the de facto leader of the Resistance movement, shouldering terrifying responsibilities, but an ordinary teenage boy — free to romance Ginny Weasley and hang out with his friends.

Harry’s journey will propel him forward to a final showdown with his arch enemy, and also send him backward into the past… At the same time, he will be forced to ponder the equation between fraternity and independence, free will and fate, and to come to terms with his own frailties and those of others. Indeed, ambiguities proliferate throughout “The Deathly Hallows”: we are made to see that kindly Dumbledore, sinister Severus Snape and perhaps even the awful Muggle cousin Dudley Dursley may be more complicated than they initially seem, that all of them, like Harry, have hidden aspects to their personalities, and that choice — more than talent or predisposition — matters most of all.

It is Ms. Rowling’s achievement in this series that she manages to make Harry both a familiar adolescent — coping with the banal frustrations of school and dating — and an epic hero…This same magpie talent has enabled her to create a narrative that effortlessly mixes up allusions to Homer, Milton, Shakespeare and Kafka, with silly kid jokes about vomit-flavored candies, a narrative that fuses a plethora of genres (from the boarding-school novel to the detective story to the epic quest) into a story that could be Exhibit A in a Joseph Campbell survey of mythic archetypes.

In doing so, J. K. Rowling has created a world as fully detailed as L. Frank Baum’s Oz or J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, a world so minutely imagined in terms of its history and rituals and rules that it qualifies as an alternate universe, which may be one reason the “Potter” books have spawned such a passionate following and such fervent exegesis. With this volume, the reader realizes that small incidents and asides in earlier installments (hidden among a huge number of red herrings) create a breadcrumb trail of clues to the plot, that Ms. Rowling has fitted together the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of this long undertaking with Dickensian ingenuity and ardor.

The world of Harry Potter is a place where the mundane and the marvelous, the ordinary and the surreal coexist. It’s a place where cars can fly and owls can deliver the mail, a place where paintings talk and a mirror reflects people’s innermost desires. It’s also a place utterly recognizable to readers, a place where death and the catastrophes of daily life are inevitable, and people’s lives are defined by love and loss and hope — the same way they are in our own mortal world.

Wow. Who wouldn't want to read a book like that? Dickensian, Shakespearean, Tolkien-esque. Not to mention a review that can accurately use words like "exegesis" and "bildingsroman." It perfectly describes what I think the appeal has been for these books for the past 10 years for so many people. I am so excited to get the book in my hands, yet disappointed that the ride is coming to an end.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Now There Really is No Good Reason...

This from a blog a new Peace Corps worker just starting work in Burkina Faso:

Minnesotans live in a colder climate than 98% of the rest of the world.

This would seem to indicate that after 20 years of the kind of weather most people fear and most Minnesotans relish, I'd be able to take something in the upper 50s. And yes, if I were home in MN and the temp. cracked 60 in say, March, I'd be breaking out the shorts.

Somewhere there's some math that would also indicate that I'm wimpier than some percentage of the world's population. And I won't be able to dispute it; first of all, it's probably true, and secondly, I can't do math.

You know how you always see old people wearing a sweater and long pants in July? What's going to happen to me? I'm already at that point now, it seems. It did rain last night, just to add to the mix. And we've had at least 6 feel-able earthquakes this week, giving me something else to ponder.

Anyhow...the person I got the stat. from is a guy named Zach. His mom works for Peace House Foundation. I don't know him at all but it's always great to see someone's first impressions of life in Africa. Even though Africa is over 50 distinct countries, I think living here has a common theme no matter where you go. You can see what's up with him at Just North of Ghana.

Monday, July 16, 2007

There's just no good reason...

I mean, I'm at the equator for crying out loud! So someone please explain the fleece socks and blanket, flannel pants, and sweatshirt? And why my typing hand is freezing while the other is clutching a hot cup of tea?

Maybe it's because the temperature is currently 58 degrees in my house.



Over the past 18 months I've chronicled the joys and challenges of living in Tanzania and in the work that we do. Living has become easier as we've adapted to the pace and lifestyle here. Work continues to be rewarding and very challenging. But by far and away the greatest joys have been working with people that convince us that we are answering God's call to be here. We have hired teachers and a headmistress that are strong, convicted, and committed to our mission. They are funny, enthusiastic, and we are so proud to work with them. They have been mentors and invaluable resources to us as we continue to learn about cultural beliefs and expectations and teach us with humor and patience at every turn.

We have built a network of friends who are often resources for us when we encounter problems. Most of them have been here for a long time and have seen it all. They have also been encouraging and I'm always amazed at their willingness to build new relationships each time people come and go in Arusha. We would not have lasted without them.

But PHF's mission, "educating Africa's orphan and vulnerable children", took an enormous step this week as we welcomed the last student for this year's starting class. It took 60 work days, hundreds of kilometers of driving, and uncountable interviews with students, teachers, relatives, and neighbors of some around some 160 students to finally conclude with the selection of Goodhope, our 120th student. The whole purpose of being in Tanzania, of course, is to provide a top-quality education to the neediest children, those that have no other chance. Everything else really pales in comparison when you consider those 120 children, many of whom are orphans, some who have lived basically as slaves, others raised by siblings who are barely out of adolescence but who have pushed aside any aspirations of their own to try to help their siblings get an education. All of them no different, really, than any of us. Who doesn't want the best for their child? Who doesn't dream of the things their child might accomplish? We often pride ourselves on what we've accomplished compared to others, thinking ourselves clever, often without counting the priveleges we take for granted; here nothing is taken for granted.

In the parable of the servants waiting for their master (Luke 12:36-48) Jesus says, "For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required." The privelege of being a part of student verification will be one of the most humbling experiences I think I will ever have. For every child we rejoiced in accepting, I thought of the thousands that won't have that chance. We swept into a village or a home and changed the entire course of a child's life in less than an hour. Why that child at that particular time? Is it possible that we were seen as angels? As blessings from God? I'm more than willing to acknowledge the people that have played that role in my own life, less willing to accept that I may play that role for others. The realization that we have the power to effect that kind of change is in some ways a burden. We have been "blessed to be a blessing" and that entails enormous responsibility.

We don't have orphans and poor children any more. There's Stella and Marta and Johnson and Goodluck. There's Happyness and Neema and Martin and Stefano and now, finally, Goodhope. I could tell you about the events of his life, which are very bleak. But I'd rather you look at him and see his future, not his past. Each child is a name, a real person, not a statistic. Each one is full of potential. Each one is the reason we became teachers years ago. Each one is the reason we have come to Tanzania.

Each one is the reason PHF exists.

Words of Inspiration and Wisdom

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders.
We are ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.


Father Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980 for his work in human rights.

Friday, July 06, 2007

We've Come a Long Way.

I have a new friend--she and her daughter are staying with us for a few weeks. Sherie and her daughter have just moved here for at least a year. The funny thing is we met via my blog, started "chatting" about life with kids here and I invited her to stay with us until she got on her feet. Normally I am not the kind of person who would offer her home to a complete stranger, and I'm sure she's not the type of person who would accept. But that's what Africa does to you, I guess!

I find I can hardly remember what it was like to arrive. When Sherie talks about the horrific stress of packing and organizing, I definitely empathize, but it seems like a lifetime ago that I was having my own nervous breakdown trying to fit my life into duffle bags that weigh not more than 50 pounds. I can see the excitement of being here giving way to the realization that everything takes so much effort and energy in these first few months, and that nothing moves smoothly or quickly. I'm amazed that what we are taking in stride now--because I remember how it seemed we would never accomplish anything in a country where checking off two errands was considered a good day! I remember wondering how we could do any work for PHF when we didn't know anyone and had not a clue about how to begin--not that we had the time, since just getting settled was taking forever. We got help from people who had been here a year or so when we arrived and I remember thinking how they looked so confident and comfortable. I was sure I was never going to feel that way!

And then last week at a friend's wedding, another friend who has been here with his family for over 20 years said, "these folks are here to stay. They're for real." Meaning us. I don't know if that's true. I don't know how long we'll stay. But I took that as a great compliment. Lots of people come and go. Lots of projects start and I suppose many of them don't succeed. For someone who has seen all that and considers us and our work a part of this community made us feel really good about our time here.

I think Sherie will find that as well, although I think she wouldn't believe me right now! We have enjoyed having her here and Ava has loved having a built-in playmate every day! I hope someday she'll have the chance to "pay it forward" to someone who's just arriving and see how far she's come as well!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Teachers ROCK!

Fourteen American teachers. 140 Tanzanian teachers. Two Hillmans and a Peterson. Put it all together and you have an amazing inspiring week! It's hard to put into words. Friday and Saturday our teacher volunteers worked with 140 teachers from at least 30 schools, both primary and secondary. Thanks to their fundraising, we were able to offer the two days of training at no cost to them. The turnout and enthusiasm clearly highlighted the desperate need for teacher training and the desire to want to learn on the part of teachers here. It's hard to describe the conditions the teachers here face--no materials, no supplies, classes of up to 100 students, a severe teacher shortage, a rigid and often unreaslistic national curriculum, a rigorous and do-or-die examination system. It's a system that does not encourage innovation or creativity and focuses almost solely on getting high exam scores, which have very little to do with actual learning. In fact, one teacher commented, "We are always talking about teaching, but no one ever says anything about students learning." It's true. Yet these teachers showed up and worked hard for two days, knowing that there must be other ways of teaching and wanting to improve.

They couldn't have found a better group of instructors. After watching each teacher for 5 minutes I was ready to quit PHF and head back to teaching. I would be so proud to call any of these teachers my colleagues and they are some of the best the teaching profession has to offer. They did virtually all of their preparation back in the States and spent 1 day refining their lessons based on what they had seen and heard their first days here. Lessons included sports and games in learning, math and science activities, lesson planning, differentiation, respect and trust, extracurricular clubs, and higher order thinking skills. The teachers all included hands-on activities as well as opportunities to talk about how to adapt the lessons/activities for various age levels, class sizes, and lack of materials. Anyone who teaches secondary school knows how hard it is to get it up several times a day teaching the same lesson--these teachers taught their one hour lessons 8 times over the two days! In addition, these guys managed a 10 mile hike (much of which was up through a river, and no, we were not exaggerating when we told them it was going to be rough, not that they believed us!) and are just now tucking into their tents somewhere up in a Maasai village, where they're learning about traditional Maasai culture as well as the issues facing them. They'll return for a farewell dinner tomorrow night before heading off on safari and then to various places around Tanzania.
One of the things I've learned to take very seriously here is a thank you from a Tanzanian. They don't toss off a "thanks" lightly like we often do. A thank you includes a hand shake that generally continues with hand-holding, full eye contact, and a truly heart felt expression of gratitude. The phrase "nashakuru" is a deeper expression of thanks than "asante sana" and was used over and over at the end of the session. To be thanked in a such a way is such a humbling experience. I came away with a deep appreciation for the teaching experiences I've been blessed to have and a renewed conviction that PHS must continue share its resources with other educators. Think what could be accomplished if we could effect change in other schools as well as our own! I am convinced that teachers here can be far more effective if they are given opportunities to learn and to experience a different way of seeing and doing things. What a blessing for all of us that these 14 teachers shared their enthusiasm, their passion, and their commitment to teaching with us here!