Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Insect Post (At this rate, one of many)

It wasn’t until a few nights ago when I was foolishly tracking down an abnormally loud hissing noise in my courtyard that I realized how often I have sprung for my camera at the site of a terrifying insect of some sort. In fact, I’m willing to bet that at least half of the photos I have taken in the last few weeks have been of unusual bugs.  Naturally, I thought it warranted a blog post because of course, each photo has a story.

We’ll start with the earliest of my unusual insect encounters. The, “Why is that worm flying” bug. This first encounter is special because it occurred while I was still at homestay in Morogoro and provided not only an opportunity for me to closely observe this bug with people who knew what it was but also provided my homestay family an opportunity to observe me observing bugs, which they found hilarious.

The “Why is that worm flying” bug can easily be classified among the least intelligent creatures on planet earth. Insanity, it has been said, is the act of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. With that, I would like to officially take this opportunity to, in italics, offer the “Why is that worm flying” bug as an example. The only time I ever saw the “WITWF” bug was at night, around my family’s outdoor kitchen under the one florescent light that lit the backyard. They came in swarms, hundred of these huge maggots with wings circling the only light source. This, of course, was not unusual to me. What was unusual was that rather than simply hovering around the light the “WITWF” bug chose to fly at full speed directly into the light, knocking themselves unconscious, falling to the ground on their backs, waking up, frantically buzzing their wings to flip right side over, resting for a moment and then repeating, at full speed towards the same light! It blew my mind. Hundreds of these bugs would repeat this over and over again for hours. Naturally I was terrified of their scaly mealworm exterior that seemed too long and heavy for evolution to waste it’s time with wings. Maybe the wings are on their way out, and at this rate, I’d say they deserve to lose them.

The “Why is That Worm Flying?” bug.

 We will stick with our chronological progression but jump a few months into my service at site, but only a few days in my permanent home. In fact, the next three insects worthy of being included in this particular post were all encountered here, in my newly acquired humble two-bedroom home. Coincidence? No.

This next insect was coined the “lobster spider” by a friend and fellow PCV in the region who has apparently encountered them often. She told me their real name too, but “lobster spider” was all that stuck. For any insect sympathizers out there I will warn you now, the lobster spider in the photo below could only be captured after its death considering its frighteningly fast speed which of course, only added to its horror. This one was waiting for me just inside my front door when I came home one afternoon after teaching, and he knew he shouldn’t be there. He immediately scurried into the second room and around the corner so fast, in fact, that my only possible reaction could have been and was to step on him in order to stop him. It was a gutsy little spider, which wasn’t fun to clean. Anyways, this arachnid became more terrifying the longer and closer I had to examine. He had long, hairy legs and two gigantic pinchers for a face. Now, my Teva’s did do some pretty serious damage but surprisingly a lot of his body was still in tact, in tact enough, anyways, for me to get a photo to share with all of you.

The "Lobster Spider"

The next bug actually became less terrifying the more time I had to examine it. Our encounter did, however, begin in a rather terrifying manner. I was sitting in my ceiling-less second room (which, to clarify, does have a roof, just no ceiling tiles) when from the right upper corner of the roof a gigantic humming shadow came straight for me. This thing was huge, the size of a small bat with its wings out. Then it was silent. Maybe it went away, I hoped. But there it was again; the gigantic shadow flew from the floor to the roof, clearly not planning or capable of leaving on its own. So I got my camera and tracked it down. Turns out it was just a really large leaf bug which left me more intrigued than afraid. After getting a few shots of him on the florescent light he'd landed on I gently wrapped him in a kanga and took him outside. In only all of these encounters could end in such a peaceful way.

The "Leaf Bug"

Which brings me to my most recent and least favorite encounter. On my way to bring my laundry in from the line in my courtyard one evening I heard a very loud hissing coming from the unused kitchen portion of my back living area. My curiosity trumped my better judgment and with nothing more than my small headlamp (there was no power on this particular evening) I went in search of “the hisser.” Now initially I was expecting to only find a small cricket, amplified by the shape and materials of the structure that composed this particular area of the courtyard. Not surprisingly I did find just such a cricket only he was on a high ledge in the back of the room, which of course, to get a good photo, would require a closer observation. I carefully scanned the walls and floor of the room I entered a half footstep at a time, my small, slowly dying headlamp attached to my forehead leading the way. I knew the noise being made was loud, possibly too loud for a cricket the size I was chasing but I proceeded regardless. Then, half way to the cricket, standing dead center of the room I realized I had diligently examined every portion of concrete surrounding me except for the ceiling. As I looked up, just inches from my face, an insect four times the size of the original hissing culprit lorded over the entire room with its legs clung wrapped around a supporting roof beam! I don’t even know what to call this bug other than the hisser. Maybe it is some type of queen cricket? I have no idea. What I do know is that next time I will be sure to check the ceiling. This photo still creeps me out.

The "Hisser"

It’s worth noting, I think, that in the process of writing this not only have I killed about a dozen mosquitoes I have also stopped twice, scratch that, THREE TIMES to investigate what could have been possible additions to this post. I think I might start writing in the room with a ceiling from now on.

Also, if anyone knows the actual names of any of these insects I would love to learn them and it would make this particular post far more educational than it currently stands, so please, feel free to post in the comments below.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

“Having a mzungu is something special”

Last week Abbey Secondary officially said goodbye to Jeff Rodwell, their first ever Peace Corps volunteer, and welcomed their second, me. Mndeme, the chair of the social department, organized a volleyball and soccer match between the students to start the evening. The students were competitive and seemed to really enjoy the games as much as we did watching them play. I’m really hoping I will have an opportunity to play with them sometime soon; I’ve definitely been missing the active competition.

Simba vs. Yanga to celebrate Jeff's departure from Abbey.

Jeff's going away dinner.

After the games the head of each department, some of the non-teaching staff and the administration all went to Subiako in Ndanda for dinner and drinks. Dinner was the typical Tanzanian celebration fair with fried chicken, sambusa, chips and kachambali. Father Amani and Headmaster Brother Sixtus sat with Jeff and I (the wageni rasmi or guests of honor) at the head table. The best part of the evening though came after dinner, when everyone in the room was invited to say a few parting words to Jeff.

Jeff and I with some of the teaching staff.

Hearing the teachers share their experiences with Jeff was refreshing. It reminded me of why I was here and gave me even more hope for what I can accomplish in the next two years, both in my work and the relationships I hope to build. They shared funny stories about Jeff’s duties as TOD, about some of the issues he faced when he originally came to site and about being his neighbor. His neighbor even more or less apologized for being so loud over the past two years, something Jeff has jokingly complained about often. Jeff said his thank you and goodbye in Swahili, which was a bit intimidating and I’ll be honest, only reminded me of all the work I still need to do, but once he had finished Brother Sixtus welcomed me (in English) and allowed me to say a few words myself.

I was happy to have the opportunity to address everyone, something I really hadn’t had a chance to do yet. Now that I think back on it, it was really an important moment. Jeff was leaving and my turn had finally come. This was my site now, these are my colleagues and you could see the acknowledgement in the staff’s eyes. That acknowledgement and acceptance I saw in their faces as I thanked Jeff for the work he’s done and explained the work I hoped to do was really gratifying. It made me feel more at home than I have since I’ve been in country. All of my concerns and fears disappeared in that moment as the family of Abbey Secondary officially accepted me as one of their own.

Abbey really does feel like a family. You can tell that the people here enjoy each other. They love being here and they love what they do. Getting to see the appreciation the staff had for Jeff also reminded me of the impact I hope to have. My relationship with the teachers and students are my top priority. Far too often these past few months I have sat up at night and worried about my ability to build these relationships, my lack of Swahili skills or missed opportunities.  But that night reminded me that the people at Abbey want that friendship as well, and that the work I have ahead of me is only half of what I thought it was.

In Brother Sixtus’ closing remarks he thanked Jeff for all of his work over the past two years and spoke of how important the computer program was for both the students and for the school. “Dunia letu ni kijiji kwa agali ya technologia,” he said. “The world is a village because of technology.” Access to a computer program like the one at Abbey is rare for many students in Tanzania and it has helped raise the profile of a school that has gained a lot of national recognition in a short amount of time. The students really seem to enjoy the program as well, so much so that it has become a common topic amongst the parents at the school’s regular meeting in Dar es Salaam, where a large majority of our students come from.

One of his final remarks was to me directly. “Don’t walk in Jeff’s footsteps,” he told me, “walk past them. If you walk in his footsteps you will be slow.” I certainly don’t intend to be slow. Jeff has done an incredible job taking the computer program at Abbey this far and I plan, with the help of the students, staff and community, to take them that much further.

“Having a mzungu is something special,” he said, and I couldn't be happier to be the mzungu here.

Jeff's departure also meant it was time for me to move into my permanent residence while I'm here. A few photos follow.

The larger of the two rooms in the house.

The larger room doesn't have a ceiling, so I've been sleeping in the smaller room.

 The courtyard.

The choo. (Pit latrine)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Life is good, but it's ok to dislike

It wasn’t until I actually looked at my blog that I realized how sparse my posts have actually been. Now that I’ve been at site for more than a month things have started to calm down and I’m finally starting to feel settled in, so now seems like a good time to fill in some of the gaps.

Classes started a few weeks ago and I’m really glad they did. It’s nice to be back on a regular routine and actually have work to get done. Jeff, the PCV who served here before me, has a great system for teaching ICT that I plan on continuing once he leaves. Our school is lucky enough to be really well equipped as far as computers are concerned and the lab is set up in such a way that nearly every student has access to a computer. That being the case, Jeff has set up lessons to work as a local webpage on the computers that the students can access and navigate through an Internet browser. The lessons are broken down into units covering different programs like Word and Excel with about 15 lessons in each unit. Since I’ve been here, we’ve expanded the lessons and added a PowerPoint unit, which I plan to keep working on. I’m also planning to add a desktop publishing unit to supplement the PowerPoint lessons for my form three classes next year. I’m not exactly sure what I will eventually be doing with my form four classes, but I’m hoping to set up some type of cultural exchange with a class back in the States. I really think it would be a good way to move their concept of computers from something that needs to be learned in a class to a more practical application as a tool for exchanging ideas.

Jeff teaching a group of Form 1 students.

Me teaching the same group of Form 1 students.

More Form 1 students working on their lesson for the day.

One of the events that delayed the start of classes since my being here was our school’s graduation ceremony. The ceremony was especially exciting because our mgeni rasmi (guest of honor) was former President of Tanzania Benjamin Mkapa, who we were lucky enough to actually meet and get a photo with. While meeting the former president was definitely a highlight, my favorite part of the day had to be the entertainment provided by the students. Music and dancing seem to be a very common passion for many of the students here at Abbey and the graduation ceremony provided a rare audience for the students to showcase their talents. The entertainment covered all spectrums. There was tribal drumming with dancers, an original rap titled “Books In Our Heads” set to the music of Lil Wayne, “Bodyshaking” with music courtesy of Missy Elliot (essentially choreographed group dancing like that seen on America’s Best Dance Crew), a Michael Jackson impersonator and “comedy” that was really more just speeches than stand-up routines. My favorite performance though had to be the original song written by the graduates thanking their teachers, school and parents. The song was in Swahili, so I didn’t understand all of it, but it was catchy, and I still find myself humming it.

Myself, Jeff, Dylan and Mikey (All PCVs in the region) with Former President of Tanzania Benjamin Mkapa

The day and ceremony was incredibly long. The entertainment had actually followed a full catholic mass and a tour of the school for our guest of honor. After the entertainment the graduates received their diplomas, certificates of excellence (awarded to the best student in each subject, which I was lucky enough to design) and the Tanzanian equivalent of leis from their parents, which looked to be made out of old Christmas decorations. But the day still wasn’t over. The ceremony went on to recognize a long list of important donors to the school, a portion my fellow wazungu and I chose to skip. Dinner followed the ceremony, which was later followed by an after party in Ndanda with more food and the regular four drinks each guest was allotted (taken all at once for a reason I am still unsure). The after party started a bit slow but picked up as time went on and ended in a full Tanzanian dance party, which of course, I couldn’t help but participate in.

I’ve actually really enjoyed a lot of these types of cultural experiences I’ve had in country so far. Tanzania definitely likes to have a good time. But I’ve actually started to notice a few cultural components I haven’t been incredibly fond of. I think it’s funny that I choose to write it like that because I’m generally not a negative person, in fact, I’m really uncomfortable being negative at all and it’s obvious I am softening my language as much as possible. It actually took a fellow PCV friend telling me “It’s ok to not like something about someone’s culture,” for me to realize and admit that I’ve experienced things in this culture that I didn’t necessarily like.

The lack of productivity and punctiliousness (a new word I’ve learned since being in country) have to top my list of challenging cultural obstacles. Before I say more I want to note that these characteristics are naturally not true of every Tanzanian. Instead, they’re just a few observations I’ve made from my very short time here and from the stories I’ve been told by fellow PCVs.

During my first week at site our school’s driver offered to show me around the villages surrounding our school. We walked through the villages for four hours and everywhere we went I was surprised to see the amount of people just sitting. We even stopped near the end of my tour at a friend of the driver’s home, brought a few chairs into the front yard and sat, at times without a word exchanged for several minutes. Even at my school, amongst some of the best teachers in Tanzania the amount of time spent sitting under one of the mango trees on our school grounds surprises me.

Part of me, naturally, finds this surprising purely because of my own cultural background. I’ve been wired in such a way that I need to always be doing something, even if that something is just as pointless and wasteful as sitting under a tree for a few hours. It reminds me of the amount of television I used to watch back home, especially when I would watch even if there was nothing I wanted to see. It is interesting how access to things like television alter our culture. If every teacher sitting under that tree had a TV or a computer with the Internet, would they still be sitting there? I don’t think one is better or worse than the other. It’s just different.

Aside from the way we spend our free time, I have noticed a lack of drive and pride here in Tanzania. I have heard many Tanzanians talk of the need for their country to develop, but I’ve heard just as many tell me how they have a culture of laziness. Even more disheartening is the sense of pride I think some Tanzanians have. I remember a conversation with a man in which I asked, “But Tanzania is a great African nation, other countries look up to the progress Tanzania has made,” to which he responded with his eyes to the ground shaking his head, “No, Kenya is better.” Again, I’m sure this isn’t the attitude of every Tanzanian, but it still surprised me to hear.

It makes me wonder what “development” really means to the people here.

The punctilious nature of Tanzania has also been a bit frustrating and something I don’t think I realized until I was introduced to the word. To be punctilious is to show great attention to detail or correct behavior. Now, it could easily be argued, (by my former newspaper staff I’m sure) that I myself have some punctilious qualities, but not in the way Tanzanians do. The word was originally explained to me as showing great attention to details of the trivial or useless, a far more fitting definition to the type of behavior I’ve seen in country. For instance, I have seen the best handwriting I have ever witnessed in the notebooks of students I’ve encountered, with measured indentations and vocabulary words underlined with a straight-edge. However, if you were to ask them to summarize the contents of what they have written, many would struggle.

I’ve noticed this attention to trivial detail in other parts of the culture as well. At every ceremony or celebration I’ve attended every person of note down to the mzungu sitting with his home-stay family on the bride’s side of the reception hall is asked to stand and be introduced to all in attendance, a process that had to have taken a least an hour I’m sure. I also noticed it at my first staff meeting in which all of the minutes kept from the previous meeting weeks before were read before the meeting was allowed to continue, a painstaking process that added more time to the already painfully long meeting. 

It’s frustrating because the time isn’t being used efficiently, the form has become more important than the content, and nothing productive seems to come from any of it.

I think in a perfect Tanzania this type of activity would be replaced with something I’ve found noticeably lacking since I’ve been here – creativity. To be fair, I have noticed more as I spend more time here, but I’ve had to look really hard to find it. The region I’m in is actually known for their carvings, done by the Makonde tribe. The carvings exist, but seem in limited quantity and not widely practiced. I’ve also seen it briefly in my students, once in two students drawing in impressive perspective using Microsoft Paint, and again in a group of students filming their dancing and asking to have music added. (Two interests I plan to foster in the coursework I’m planning.) What I find especially concerning is that I don’t think they realize they’re being creative, or how important creativity is to growth and development, not only in artistic endeavors but in academic ones as well.

A few days into my time at Abbey a student came in to use our Encyclopedia program to work on an article he was writing for our school newsletter. I sat quietly watching him work for a while and eventually approached him to ask what his article was about. He was writing about education and had the Encarta page opened to that very topic. The “article” he’d been writing was copied almost word for word from the screen. “Do you know how to cite your sources?” I asked. “No,” he answered worried and confused. “Do you know what plagiarism is?” I followed up. “No sir,” he responded.   

The lack of originality is evident in other parts of the culture here as well. I’m very lucky to be included with a small group of people at my school to have all of my meals prepared for me. Every meal, everyday. In fact, it is often the exact same thing, for every meal, everyday: bread or mandazi for breakfast, and ugali or rice with mchicha and mchuzi with meat for lunch and dinner. The food is delicious; it’s just always the same.

There’s a lot more to share, but this is far too long already, and I have ugali waiting. (Turns out it was actually rice, good day!) I’ll try to update again soon but in the meantime I wanted to put out a call for thoughts and questions. It sounds like a lot more people than I ever anticipated are actually reading my blog so I’d like to keep it interesting, relevant and interactive. If you have any questions or topics you’d like to hear about from my corner of Tanzania I would love to share my perspective. Just leave them in the comments below any of my posts.

Future topics I hope to discuss:

  • Access to ICT in Tanzania – (Thanks to Prof. Bruning for this one)
  • The story of my first traveling disaster – (In progress)
  • Corporal punishment
  • Foreign Aid
A few more photos -

 This is Pude, one of the dadas that cooks our meals at Abbey.

A large catholic mission is responsible for much of the development near Ndanda, including my school, a former leper colony.

One of the homes in Mwena, the village between Abbey and Ndanda. The entire area is covered with palm trees with large wedges cut out to making climbing for coconuts easier.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A few weeks in

I've been at site for a few weeks now and things have been going incredibly well. I'm honestly not sure I could have been placed in a nicer, well suited area for me in all of Tanzania. The site is in a very lush and well developed part of the southern region of Mtwara with plenty of water you can drink right out of the tap. In fact, my school cultivates and maintains an impressively large group of orchards around the school, growing almost everything that can be grown in the region from cashews to oranges, bananas and trees for lumber. 

I've been doing my best to stay busy in an unusual time for my school. The students have been busy taking mock examinations to practice for the national exam and preparing for their graduation which will have a very high profile guest, so they have not had regular classes. Even without classes to teach I have been opening the lab everyday, trying my best to make myself accessible to all of the students and teachers. They have both been coming in with a lot of questions, some that I can answer and others that I can't. Luckily the volunteer I am replacing has a lot of the regular problems figured out and has been great about showing me how to fix some of the more common issues. 

Last week all of the PCVs in the southern part of the country gathered in Mtwara town for a super regional meeting. It worked out really well for us new volunteers as it gave us an opportunity to meet and spend time with all of the volunteers from each sector in the region. I had a blast with the group and I'm really looking forward to spending more time with everyone, especially at the beach house we rented for our last night, right on the Indian Ocean. The highlight of the weekend though, besides getting to see Mtwara town (my favorite TZ city to date) and meeting all of the other volunteers had to be our trip to the private coral reef where one of the environment volunteers has been doing a large majority of his work. The beach was literally untouched that day until we arrived and it was only a short swim out to see the reef, which turned out to be far more impressive than I was expecting. I hope I get an opportunity to go back soon, I'm not sure I could ever get enough of a private beach/reef in Mtwara. 

A view of the Indian Ocean from the private beach near Mtwara.

A few of the orchards surrounding my site.

The administrative building at our school.

Half of one of these duplexes will soon be my home.
I'm currently living in our school's guest house. (Below)

Our school's guest house/headmaster's residence. I live on the left.

A cashew tree in the orchards a short hike from my house.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

All Boys Catholic School Here I Come

A LOT has happened since my last post. For starters, and probably most importantly, we had site announcements yesterday! Our group is going ALL over the country but I will be heading to the south eastern corner in a region called Mtwara. In my placement interview I had asked to be on the coast and compared to the other ICT sites I got exactly what I wanted! I will be teaching ICT at an all boys Catholic school. I'm not sure whether or not the school is a boarding school or not, but I do know I will be living on the school's campus and it sounds like there is a community of nuns and monks that also live at the school. I will have electricity and running water and have heard rumors that the area is known for their cheese and handmade sausages. Almost like I never left Wisconsin! I have also been told that I will be living very close to a natural spring that the area is known for. In fact, there is a bottling plant that bottles and sells the spring water on the map that the current volunteer drew to describe his site for me, which makes me think it will be close.

The volunteer that is at the site now was the first that the school has had and it sounds like he's been very successful. The school apparently has about 50 computers and is really well run, with high expectations of their teachers. (Very different than my internship school where teachers spent more time in their lounge than teaching...) I'm really excited to be replacing a current volunteer because not only will they have a lot of the household essentials I will eventually need, but I think he will also be really helpful in speeding up my integration into the school and community.

Ok, enough about my site. I will know more when I finally get there in a few weeks. I need to post about the headbanging competition I won!

In addition to being a fundi (making clothes) and running a small duka (general store) my mama is also an event designer! And a few nights ago I got to attend a send off party she decorated! It was an INCREDIBLE time but the highlight had to be the traditional music and dance portion of the evening. After a lot of gift giving (they literally showered the bride with stuff, including the traditional blanket for the baba and large pot for the mama) a musician with a large guitar like instrument made from a tortoise shell started playing traditional tribal music. The MC made myself and another PCT that was at the party get up in front of EVERYONE and essentially have a dance off! The traditional dance is almost like a competition between two men to see who can shake their head the hardest - essentially headbanging. It was an incredible cultural experience, and I totally won...

Monday, July 25, 2011

Safari Elfu Mbili na Kumi na Moja!

Officially past the half way point of training our calendar included a much anticipated “trainee directed activity.” The time is intended to allow the group to do whatever we please, but as with every group before us, we chose to go to a nearby national park on a safari! Initially I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was really hoping that the part wouldn’t be fenced or gated in anyway, which luckily it wasn’t. In fact, it was a lot like the wildlife refuge I grew up next to in that you can more or less just drive into the park area on a road that passes right through. There is, however, also an official entrance to the park with a small office that does charge admission, but it was only $20 USD and got us a lot closer to the wildlife. The rate was good for 24 hours so we chose to go both late in the evening, around sunset, and early the next morning when we were told the animals were most active. Even before entering that area of the park however, animals were visible from the road. I was the first on our bus to spot a group of impala. Then we saw warthogs, a giraffe and zebra. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to see all of the animals! There were so many! How I was seeing these animals was also hard to believe. These were free animals living as they naturally do. No cages. No “feeding times”. No souvenirs. It was amazing! Mikumi is actually one of the smaller national parks in Tanzania so it isn’t very tourist heavy and our group was one of very few in the park.

We spent a lot of our initial time in the park waiting to see a simba (lion) that was protecting a recently killed twiga (giraffe). The vantage point we had wasn’t great and the most we saw was her ears and tail once or twice. We had more luck the next morning on the opposite side of the deceased twiga. (see my photos on flickr!) We also saw hippos, crocodiles, baboons and elephants on the second day. I still can’t believe that seeing these animals is normal here. If the fact that I’m living in Africa hadn’t set in by this past weekend, it certainly did after the safari.

On another note –

Teaching has been going incredibly well. I love it. Last week I covered file types, naming files and photo editing/drawing software with my form one students. I took photos with each of my classes and loaded them onto the computers in the lab. Then, after doing an activity in which the students created and named their own files on note cards and filed them in the folders that I brought to class, I directed them to find the photo of their stream on the computer. I’ve noticed that every class I do is better as time goes on. I get to do the same lesson 3 times every week and I’m pretty sure my Thursday class always gets the best lesson. In fact, last week Kihonda didn’t have power, which meant no computers in class. I was slightly worried about how I would fill the time, but had back up plans in place. Surprisingly I think it might have been one of my best classes to date. We spent more time on the activity and I could SEE them getting it. Which felt amazing! I also got to cover how to open and save the files by drawing diagrams on the chalkboard. I know the students were a bit disappointed that they couldn’t use the computer (they asked if they could come in on Friday or Monday) but I know they still enjoyed the class and I really think they learned something.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mwalimu Tyler

My first official day as an ICT mwalimu at Kihonda Secondary School didn’t start as smoothly as I would have hoped. My shangazi got a late start this morning and the hot water for my bucket-bath wasn’t ready until 15 minutes later than I was expecting. I’ve worked very hard to establish a predictable routine in the morning, almost down to the minute, but considering the Tanzanian concept of time and relative lack of clocks and reliable alarm systems the fact that I was ready for my maji moto every morning at 6:30 I’m afraid was lost on the extended family member I depend on every morning. I chose to take the water before it was ready in order to save as much time as I could and ended up making up the difference with some speed bathing.

The interruptions unfortunately didn’t end there. I’ve been lucky to not need my med kit for much since arriving in country, but have once or twice used the throat lozenges provided by the Peace Corps. I went again this morning to grab a few lozenges for my backpack and per usual, removed a few small ants along the way. However today the deeper I dug into the kit, it seemed, the more ants I needed to remove. I continued doing so until I found the source of the increased amount of the pests. Apparently a colony had decided to make the back right corner of my med kit its permanent residence and had not only moved in, but had begun laying eggs as well. I cursed, bit my lip and took the kit outside to really shake everything out. The time saved speed bathing with cold water was immediately lost but still didn’t put me too far behind. I was determined for today to be a good day. It was my first day teaching and I really couldn’t wait. I ate and drank chai quickly and left home only a few minutes behind schedule.

By the time I got to school (about a 10 minute walk when I’m really moving) any misfortune the morning had brought at home had completely been replaced by the adrenaline the prospect of teaching brought. I went to our normal room, grabbed my chalk and eraser and headed to the computer lab. Class was set to start at 7:40, and I had arrived at about 7:15. Students were already in the lab, but they were there to clean the floors and prepare the room for the day. I could tell they were avoiding other duties and probably shouldn’t be reading the newspaper or playing games, but I didn’t say anything. They eventually left the room to me and I began uncovering the computers, one at a time. I hadn’t had any time to explore what computers worked or what was on them, so I knew the coming lesson could really go either way. By 8:00 (20 minutes behind schedule, hamna shida, that’s Tanzania) the computer technician brought me a room full of Form 1 students.

I was so excited to start that I’m pretty sure I forgot to introduce myself, which was fine, because they would probably have just called me teacher anyways. I was worried about my ability to use “level appropriate” English, but I think I fell into it pretty easily, in fact, it almost felt natural. I was also somewhat worried about participation, specifically my ability to wait, remain patient and not panic while waiting for students to speak up. Luckily, standing in front of the classroom of 30 or more students felt incredibly comfortable, even as they stared blankly and quietly as I repeated myself multiple times. I even found myself using the charade like non-verbal reinforcements I had seen other current volunteers using.

My first activity to gauge their knowledge was more or less a failure. I asked each of them to raise their hands and show me:

1 if you know a little about computers
2 if you know some about computers
3 if you know a lot of about computers

Most hands that rose, if any, were half up at best - but there was some response. I saw a lot of one’s and two’s, which I was expecting. The next activity I was hoping would be a bit more specific and engaging. I asked them to help me make a list on the board of all the things they knew computers could do. I asked the question a few times and waited for a response. Things move slower here. It takes time for the students to translate and understand what you are asking, think of an answer and work up the courage to give the answer in front of the entire class. Eventually a girl in the class raised her hand and said, “It simplifies work.” A great answer! I was so thrilled I nearly skipped to the board to write it. (In retrospect, however, the answer was almost too textbook. I followed up with “HOW does it simplify work” which produced no response. We’ve been told that this is a common problem in Tanzania. Students very often will memorize terms and definitions verbatim from textbooks, memorizing the English rather than actually learning the information. I guess some volunteers have seen students memorize and write entire essays for their exams, only to use the essay for a question that in no way relates to the content they have memorized.) Either way, I was thrilled and it really got the ball rolling. After a few long minutes we had a relatively decent list of things a computer could do. (One student mentioned drawing, which was a great opportunity for me to tell them about how I was a graphic designer and created art on the computer for a living.)

Next, I asked the class to help me make a list of the things that they wanted to learn about computers. By this time, the ball was really rolling (in relative terms, things were still moving quite slowly. But they were participating!) Just as we were finishing our list and as I was moving on to definitions and describing the difference between hardware and software (my fellow CBT members helped me come up with a great analogy using the brain as hardware and ideas as software) a teacher walked into the room and said, “I want chairs.” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. How rude! I was teaching. Students were learning. And you want chairs? I don’t care what you want. He didn’t even acknowledge that I was in the room; he spoke directly to the students as if I wasn’t even there. I only get four 80-minute sessions with each of these groups and we already started 20 minutes late. The last thing I need is another distraction. Regardless, with little to no hesitation the students got out of their chairs, picked them up and carried them away. I had no idea what to do and was completely powerless. Was my lesson over? Were they coming back? Were they planning on standing for the next 50 minutes?

Luckily one student remained in the room (he was the only one with a wooden rather than plastic chair). I looked at him, then out the door, then back at him. “Are they coming back?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered. “With chairs?” I asked. “Yes,” he repeated. “Good,” I concluded with bewildered relief.

About 10 minutes later the room had refilled with students. We moved through the lesson on hardware, which included more participation and drawing on the board, plus my new awesome brain analogy and moved on to what I’m sure the students were all looking forward too – the computers! Turning on the computers was a bit chaotic, as I knew it would be. Not all of the machines worked and some ran Ubuntu while others used Windows, which made it difficult to explain how things worked at first.

My original plan was to have each of the groups around a computer report back to me the programs that they found on each computer. However the trill of having the machine working in front of them was too much for them to sit and simply look at what it could do, they wanted to use them! I quickly abandoned the plan and decided to move right to the end of the lesson I had planned. (I also really felt like I had reached teacher mode by this point. I’m not sure where it came from but after a few failed attempts at “hands up if you can hear me” and “quiet please” - “eyes on me” with an incredibly fluent and seemingly practiced gesture mimicking the command rang from my voice like I’d said it a million times before, with authority no less! I’m not sure how or why, but it definitely felt natural, totally fit the situation and completely commanded the attention of the room. It was perfect. I was teaching.)

I explained to each group how to open a word processor. (Word for Windows and Open Office for Ubuntu) and introduced the sentence:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

I asked the class if they knew what was special about this sentence. They had no idea, so I explained the fact that this sentence contains every letter in the English alphabet. I started to go through the letters and to my very pleasant surprise they all joined in!

I then explained that we would now be playing a game. Each computer would race to see who could type the sentence the fastest and raise their hands when they were finished. They loved the idea and jumped right in. The groups finished at a staggered pace and I finally had an opportunity to walk around and see where they were having problems. Many of them didn’t know how to add spaces, move the cursor or delete mistakes. Some even had problems using the mouse. The activity turned out to be really useful because not only were they thrilled to be using the computer but they were practicing the basic computer skills they would need to effectively use a computer. It also gave me some great ideas for things to cover in the future.

By the end of my time with the group they didn’t want to leave. And neither did I! Some of the slower groups tried to stay behind in order to finish typing the sentence and show me what they had done. (I didn’t have a prize for completing the task, so I went to each computer that was finished and gave high fives, which they LOVED!)

Teaching the class was a completely new kind of high for me. It was a complete adrenaline rush the entire time and I left the class beaming with excitement. It left me in such a good mood that I actually didn’t mind our Kiswahili session today, which I very regularly dread. I can only hope that every day will be half of what today was.