Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Just a Couple of Days Left...

I'm sitting at the Hotel Old Quarter in Amsterdam.  I just ordered a Dutch steak - not quite sure what that is.  Are the cows different here?  I just got a message from a dear friend of mine that said "You're travelling the world."  Wow.  I am.  I have.  It's easy to get so caught up in life and simply forget how amazing my life truly is.  Messages like this remind me to just stop and take in all in.

Today I found myself worried about how in the world I was going to get all of my loot from my travels into my suitcases.  Just so you know, you would worry, too, if you saw me on the train with my overstuffed backpack weighing at least 40 kilos, my broken laptop bag, gigantic purse, three shopping bags and box of 3 highly sought after bottles of Cantillon Gueze.  But, I am quickly reminded that - whoa - I woke up in Brussels this morning and am going to sleep in Amsterdam tonight.  Three years ago I would never have thought I would have a year like this.  I took a chance, went back to school and met a great friend named Leslie.  Even though she is a few years my junior, she gave me some of the best advice I have ever received.  Leslie told me to stop making excuses.  Don't let the conventional ties in every day life keep you from taking a risk and living your dreams.

I know what you're thinking:  Easier said than done.  I thought the same thing.  I still remember the day I called my mom and told her I wanted to put all my stuff in storage and move home.  I wasn't even sure what I would do next, but I knew I was giving myself the option to make a choice.  I didn't even know if my mom would agree.  Thankfully, she did!

It's been just over two years since I put my "things" in a 12x12 cement room - and I haven't looked at them since.  Don't get me wrong.  Sometimes I miss my stuff.  The Christmas trees, Waterford wine glasses and skads of home decorations are all some of my favorite parts of my settled life.  But, in the 24 months that have passed since I put these things away, I have traded them for 6 countries, countless cities, incredible new friends, adventures, moments of sheer terror, and even more moments of absolute delight.

As I wind up my latest trip and prepare to return home, I can't help but feel a little proud of myself.  Not necessarily for what I've done, but for learning that I can.  I can do whatever it is I want to do.  That's inspiring and a bit nerve-wracking all at once!

Oh, by the way, I've just finished my dinner (I'm writing this all on a napkin to type up later).  I love mustard as much as the next guy, but you have to love a country that serves mayo with french friends and mustard with cheese.  And yes, I think the cows here in Holland are better!

A few pics from the last couple of weeks...

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Scramble

I've been so busy updating the second blog I've got going for our school lunch project here in Tanzania, that somehow I've run out of time to update my readers on this blog.  Hopefully, most of you have seen what I've been up to at www.glpterratproject.blogspot.com.  For those of you who haven't, let me catch up you!  And for those of you who have followed the other blog, let me give you some more details!

The Green Living Planet is currently working with 5 different schools in the Arusha area, one of which has become very dear to my heart - Terrat Primary School.  There are about 1000 students at this school that most of us would say sits in the middle of NoWhereville.

We went to plant trees with the students earlier in April and my eyes were opened up to the needs of the school and the community.  Since that visit, with the help of friends, family and several primary, middle school and high school classes back in WI, we've started to raise funds to build 8 sustainable African-style keyhole gardens which will provide the basis for a school lunch program for the students at Terrat.  Last Sunday, May 6 (International Permaculture Day), we went out to the school to build the first of the 8 planned gardens.  You can check out the video recap from our day here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6QYPkWzEck&feature=g-all-u

If you watch the video, you will see how hard the students worked.  Every single child got involved.  We asked for 30 kids to come, but throughout the day over 85 students showed up.  We were actually unprepared to handle that many kids and hadn't brought enough food to feed all of them, so we spoke with the headmaster in the morning to ask him if some of the kids could go home and come back the next weekend to join us on the next build.  I guess that was one of those silly, "I-come-from-America-and-in-order-to-run-things-efficiently-we-can't-have-all-these-kids" ideas.  The headmaster, who may I just say LOVES his students to pieces, told us he couldn't send the kids away.  They were too excited to be there!

Benson and the headmaster

So, let me tell what happened on Sunday:
All 85 students worked.  We got the garden completed within just a few hours and then all 85 students waited around for another hour to get some lunch.  While we were waiting one of the little girls built a replica of the garden and she and some other students sat around reviewing the layers and steps to building the garden so that they could go home and teach their parents.  

Then, guess what happened?  When lunch was ready, somehow (kinda like the 5 loaves and 2 fish), all 85 students, 7 volunteers, 2 parents, 2 school chairmen and the headmaster, ate lunch.  And with only three jugs of water, all 97 of us drank until their thirst was quenched.

I'll be honest though, in the midst of the joy (and relief) I felt that everyone was fed, there was a slight ache.  After the headmaster had made sure every child got an equal portion of food, he returned to join the "adults" for lunch.  I brought the left-over food we had to the students, adding it to the rice that remained in the kitchen.  When the students saw the extra food, chaos ensued.  Arms, plates, hands, all rushing to get any extra food available.  Yelling, pushing, shoving.  These normally respectful, well-behaved students were clambering for any extra bite of food they could get into their mouths.  I stood for a moment, unable to move, and just watched.  Then, when I brought out the water, the response was nearly the same.

Never in my life have I known what it is like to feel that I needed to scramble for a bite of food.  Not once.  So, while I will never be able to fully relate, I am thankful that, in that moment, I was given a glimpse of the importance of this project.  It isn't just a cool idea or a trendy cause.  For these students, who are willing to work so hard to get it done, it is a game changer - a reminder that people in this world care about them and a promise that maybe someday the scramble will end.

For more info, check out: www.glpterratproject.blogspot.com

Friday, April 20, 2012

It's as simple as "Yes."

Back in November I wrote a blog post entitled "Best Day Ever".  Why is it that, no matter how old we get, how many mistakes we make, or how many lessons we learn, we often miss the most obvious signs in our lives?  When I wrote that post I was in Arusha for the weekend working with my friend Benson, his organization The Green Living Planet, and Mama Jane and her orphanage.  It only took me 4 months to realize being in Arusha, working with the people I truly care about who have given their lives to improve the lives of the people around them, was the place for me.  Every day here is a gift.

On that great day back in November while we were visiting Mama Jane's land, we stopped to see the local government primary school adjacent to her property.  As you know from my last post, I went with some volunteers with The Green Living Planet, so plant trees at that school last week.  The children go to school all day without lunch and the women wait every Thursday for the government to drop off meager food rations to help quell the effects of the 3 year-long drought that has plagued the area.  The pleading looks in the eyes of these women stayed with me after our two day project last week and I couldn't shake the feeling that we could do more.

So last Friday, while I was vainly sitting out in the sun, scarf over my somewhat burned face and 100 SPF suntan lotion on the charred triangle on my chest, trying to even out my tan lines before a wedding, I prayed for an idea.  A way to bring lasting change.  Within 15 minutes I flew out of my chair, bad tan lines all but forgotten.  It was simple.  Kids helping kids.  Remember bakes sales, penny auctions, potluck dinners and coin wars?  If I could find 20 classes in the U.S. that would commit to trying to fundraising $100, we could come up with enough money to build 8 African keyhole gardens that would grow enough vegetables to start a school lunch program.  This week I put together a project proposal, fundraiser ideas and my first ever YouTube video and within 24 hours we have already had 7 classes signing up to help!  Incredible.

I think that, inherently, everyone wants to help somehow.  Sometimes, we just don't see how.  For me, my intention for coming here in the first place was to help.  And, embarrassingly enough, for several months, I enjoyed the relationships, experiences and places, but never really felt like I was helping anyone.  I wanted to help, but, even in a place with so much need, I didn't see how I could.  I've come to the place where I see that no one can do it all, but everyone can do something.  And sometimes, the opportunity is right in front of us.  We just have to realize that this is our chance.

For me, it's the unpaid electricity bill that forces the hardworking women at the orphanage to walk through the neighborhood to collect water so they can wash the floors and cook the day's meals.  It's the little 5 year old boy named Victor who stood in the road outside of a shop watching and waiting for me, even though we had never met before.  He walked with me to my house for a banana and now comes back every day after school to say hello, only wishing for me to take a few minutes away from work to play with him on the swing set.  His mother goes to the market every day to sell fruit in the hopes that she makes enough money to bring home dinner in the even.  Victor, at 5 years old, wanders the neighborhood alone, in old worn out shoes, waiting for her to return at dusk.  Then there is Jane, the house girl who cooks and cleans for less than $60 a month.  When I asked her if I could pay her $6 a week to wash my laundry, she hugged me and told me that God had brought her a blessing.

But here's the thing: I know we can't do it all.  I can't either.  While I know I've made a difference in the lives of some people, there are so many more I just can't possibly help.  Two single mothers asked me to sponsor their children's education today.  For just over $300 a year, both kids could attend a great English medium school here in Arusha.  I just can't afford it.  A man came to the clinic yesterday, with holes literally worn through the bottoms of his swollen feet.  He needed serious medical attention, but refused to go to the hospital because he said he couldn't afford it.  The Maasai warrior who guards my house at night, came to me with mosquito bites all over his feet two nights ago.  His only shoes are a pair of plastic sandals.  All I had to offer were a pair of knee-high, mismatched socks.

The lesson I've learned is this:  All we have to do is open our eyes to the opportunities around us.  We can't do it all, but we can all do something.  So remember, the next time you have that fleeting moment where you think you could do more...You can!  The opportunities are all around you.  All you have to do is recognize them and say "yes".

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to those of you who have said "YES" to helping Terrat Primary School.  Thank you on behalf of the children, but most importantly, thank you from me, for giving me the gift of today.  My latest "Best Day Ever."

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What Can One Tree Do?

I've never been much of an environmental advocate.  My favorite hair spray happens to come in an aerosol can. I miss driving my SUV.  I only remember to use my reusable grocery bags when I'm shopping at Whole Foods - and only then because it just looks cooler.  And I'll be the first one on a plane to anywhere.  I love to travel.  Yet, here I am in Tanzania, and I find myself spending my days - and most of my nights - working to help a new environmental nonprofit organization get up and running.  What gives?

Benson Mariki, managing director of The Green Living Planet, has become a good friend of mine and when we met last October he told me about his dream to start a nonprofit organization that would help teach the people in his community how to care for their surroundings and, in turn, improve their standard of living.  Last week I had the chance to go with Ben to Terrat Primary School, a rural school just outside of Arusha.  The school has 1000 students and on any given day less than 10 teachers.  The two run-down buildings with 9 classrooms scarcely hold enough desks and chairs for 500 students.  The floors are covered in mud and dirt and the cement walls only extend upward to the place where the roof begins, leaving a triangular shaped hole above the walls from one classroom to the next.  Noise travels easily and teaching over the voices from the next classroom over can be a tiresome task.  The children themselves are extremely poor, walking miles to attend school each day.  They carry their only cherished possessions - a single exercise book and a pencil - to  and from school each day in an old, backpack or shoulder bag.  The students arrive at 7am for the morning meeting and remain in school until 2pm each day before beginning their journey home.

I visited Terrat Primary School for the first time last November.  The children were on break, but I could easily envision this old public school, long-ago forgotten by the government, filled with students eager to learn whatever anyone was willing to teach them.  My predictions were right.  Benson, Maricel, Abdullah and I arrived at Terrat last Wednesday to continue the work The Green Living Planet had started a few weeks earlier.  The goal is to plant 500 trees on the grounds of the school to help improve soil quality, provide shade for the students and slow erosion.  The area Terrat is in is a farming community that, over the past few years, has experienced severe drought and poor crop returns.  The headmaster at Terrat welcomed us with open arms, excited about the work we are trying to do to revive the environment in his area.

Maricel, Abdullah and I were each assigned a team of 11 students and our mission for the day on Wednesday was to dig 113 holes, one foot wide, one foot deep and fifteen feet apart from each other, to plant the remaining seedlings in the following day.  I tend to be a bit competitive, so I got my team to work right away, devising a system that allowed us to work quickly and efficiently.  The kids were AMAZING!  We worked for four hours and dug 69 of the 113 holes dug that day.  And just to be clear, when I say "dug"  I do not mean with a shovel.  We had old hoes that were attached to 3 foot long narrow tree limbs that we used to chip away at the clay and limestone we found just under the top soil.

Every time I picked up a hoe, my kids crowded around me, giggling at the "mzungu" who was trying to dig a hole.  They would ask me if I needed their help and usually took over about half-way through my attempt at digging.  We spent the day, working hard, joking and laughing.  The students also got a kick out of teaching me new Swahili words like manure (bolea) and plow (jembe).  Several times during the day I asked my team - nicknamed the "Red Army" by Abdullah because they worked so hard - if they needed a break.  It was, after all, the middle of the day and we were outside working during the hottest hours under the sun.  Nevertheless, each time I asked, the kids said they wanted to keep going.  They wanted to "win!"  At one point the school bell rang and the other 900+ students ran out of the classrooms for break.  When I asked if it was time for lunch, my kids looked at me for a moment and then explained that they didn't get lunch.  There is not enough food in the area to provide lunch for the kids at school so only those who can afford to bring 50 Tsh (about 3 cents) can buy a mandazi (small fried donut-type snack) from one of the local women selling treats on the edges of the school grounds.  I left that afternoon, face sun-burned, but smiling, with a tinge of sadness in my heart for these children who exuded so much joy, but had so little.

Thursday morning we returned to plant the seedlings in the holes we had dug the day before.  We arrived to find a much bigger crowd gathered around the schools grounds;  parents and grandparents sitting on stones waiting with old rice sacks or buckets.  Ben told me these people had come to collect food rations from the government.  While we planted that morning, many of the women called me over to chat and laugh with them. The site of mzungu who speaks any big of Swahili in their area is likely pretty rare and they seemed to get a kick out of me running my little "Red Army."  One woman in particular, stands out in my mind.  She asked me if I could bring them rain.  She didn't want money or food - only rain for better soil so that she could tend her own fields and grow her own crops.

I've been following the 58: Global Impact Tour since last summer.  For those of you who don't know about it, it's a movement based on the teachings of Isaiah 58 working to end extreme poverty in our lifetime.  What I love about the project is that it includes an alliance of several nonprofit organizations all over the world that are working together, in different ways, to achieve the same goal.  Each month 58: features a different country and issue.  I was excited to see that this month the featured issue is the connection between poverty and deforestation.  The information on their "tour page" this month has given me a lot of insight into the positive impact simply planting trees can have on the improvement of an entire community.  I'm hopeful that the work Ben is doing with The Green Living Planet will help the mamas at Terrat improve their soil quality so that they can provide for their children.  In the meantime, we are looking at projects we can start to help provide school lunches for the kids by growing food in gardens and in the school field.

I have learned that environmental work isn't about politics.  It's not about global warming, Al Gore, saving the ozone or left-winged liberalism.  In the third world, it's simply about providing the means for the rural poor to feed their families.  Over the next 6 weeks we are celebrating three big environmental days:  Earth Day (April 22), International Permaculture Day (May 6) and Environmental Day (June 5).  The Green Living Planet and 58: are both heading up big projects to restore fruitfulness to the land in Tanzania and the Dominican Republic respectively.  You can learn more about how to support these projects over the next six weeks here:

The Green Living Planet - www.greenlivingplanet.org and Support the project for as little as $10
58: Global Impact Tour - http://ar.gy/blogs

Ben teaching the kids how to plant the seedlings.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


I’ve been thinking a lot about controversy lately.  Controversial actions usually attract a lot of attention.  Media outlets go head to head, experts debate in Congress, professors engage students in lively discussions, and everyone, everywhere, takes a side.  Often, in humanitarian and development circles, controversy is unavoidable. 

I’ve been in Dar es Salaam for the past week and have had plenty of access to media and the latest news.  The film Kony 2012 was released by Invisible Children last week.  The outpouring of support literally shut down several Invisible Children websites.  Outrage over the alleged misuse of funds by Invisible Children also flooded message boards, blogs and Facebook pages.  I went to see the movie, Machine Gun Preacher a couple of days ago here in Dar.  It is based on the true story of Sam Childers, an ex-criminal, who makes it his own personal mission to help children whose families had been brutally destroyed by the LRA in South Sudan.  He saves thousands of children from the horrors of war in South Sudan.  In the process, he literally takes up arms and fights back against the LRA.  The movie ends with the real Sam Childers saying during the credits, “If a madman abducted your child and I said I could bring them home, does it matter how I do it?”  Controversial question?  I’d say so.

On a smaller scale, I’ve had the opportunity to both talk and work with dozens of development workers, researchers and NGOs while I have been abroad.  Some of these people have literally given up their own lives in order to improve the lives of others.  Unfortunately, a lot of the talk in development circles is focused on what everyone else is doing wrong.  Invisible Children is too late.  Sam Childers was too violent.  World Vision spends too much in overhead.  Angelina Jolie is just trying to boost her image.  Yes.  Sometimes we have to look at what is done wrong in order to figure out how to do something right.  Sadly, most of what I am seeing here on the ground, in academia and in the media, is just a lot of finger pointing. 

When the media places blame, it’s more understandable.  They’re creating hype, developing a headline story.  But, when one NGO points the finger at another, well – I’ll just say it like it is:  I think it’s appalling.  From an outsider’s perspective, it just looks like one NGO trashing another in order to attract a new donor’s dollar.  I’m not the expert, but I do know that just about every NGO out there is trying to right a wrong, win a fight, better a life, support someone in need.  And not a single NGO out there gets it all right.  Not one.  Sometimes we spend too much in overhead and other times we skimp in the name of saving a penny, but serve one less because of it.  In some cases we act on emotion, ignoring some of the consequences, but in other cases we sit in a board room, weighing decisions while motherless children sit in mud homes crying for help.

I’m not saying every action, by every NGO out there, is justifiable.  And I’m not validating seemingly corrupt actions one way or the way.  All I’m saying is that sometimes children are fed, wells are dug, schools are built and lives are saved despite our humanness.  Do the ends justify the means?  I don’t know. 

What I do know is that fighting each other isn’t helping anything.  So why don’t we stop calling each other out publicly?  Pick up the phone and offer up your expertise.  The blame game isn’t making Invisible Children look bad.  It’s not making World Vision or Sam Childers look bad.  It’s making the nonprofit sector look bad.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

I need a what?!?!

If there is one thing I am more afraid of than spiders, it is the dentist.  And, as luck would have it, early last week I found myself wide awake at 3 am, in excruciating pain, in a guesthouse in Iringa, Tanzania.  Looking back on it, it is sort of funny.  I had pretty much convinced myself that I had the worst migraine imaginable that was radiating pain through the right side of my face, my eye and my jaw.  Truthfully, it was sort of like the time I fell face first on the ice, held my hand over my bloody smashed in teeth and told my mom I didn’t have to go to the hospital because it was only a broken nose.  Apparently, I will subconsciously recreate any ailment in order to avoid a trip to the dentist.

My denial lasted a few days and then last Friday night I woke up with pain that was undeniably only in my tooth.  So this past Tuesday, I started my two day journey to Dar es Salaam to find a dentist.  I was able to meet up with four of my friends from Zanzibar and for a couple of days we hung out, played cards, caught up, cooked fajitas, enjoyed a few drinks and ate at great restaurants.  It was a much appreciated mini-vacation.  Then, Friday morning, I found myself rolling through the traffic jams in downtown Dar in a bijaji, chattin’ it up in Swahili with my driver, heading in to the dentist to get a filling.  In Africa.  To be honest, I was pretty proud of myself for just stepping up and figuring out where to go and how to get there all by myself.  Unfortunately, by the time I got to the dentist’s office the excitement of my adventure had worn off and in its place was a nauseating feeling of fear. 

My fear quickly turned into downright panic when the dentist informed me that a filling wouldn't do it.  I would need a root canal.  And, of course, not just any root canal, but a triple root canal.  Apparently my tooth had three canals that had to be drilled out and the process would take two days.  Fun.

It’s been exactly 24 hours since day one of my root canal and I’m doing surprisingly well.  Somehow, in a third world country, I found a really smart, extremely kind dentist who reassured me he would do everything he could to make sure I was comfortable.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have the headphones I asked for to block out the drilling sound!  Aside from that, he held true to his word.  He was great.  I clenched my trembling hands together, did my best to think about anything other than what was going on in my mouth, and in thirty minutes it was over.  The pain hasn’t been too bad and by next Tuesday I’ll be ready to head back to Dr. Shabbir, my new favorite dentist at SD Dental Clinic for round two.

In the meantime, I plan to enjoy my time in the city and take advantage of the little luxuries like movie theaters, Subway, pedicures, ice cream, high pressure showers and digital TV. 

One hour after my root canal - on the way to the U.S. Embassy

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

On the Mend

I’m sitting in the cutest café eating a bacon and avocado panini.  I meant to take a picture of it just to prove it, but once it arrived, well let’s just say I got so distracted I forgot.  It doesn’t look nearly as appetizing any more.  But it sure is good!

As some of you know I’ve been pretty sick on and off the past few weeks.  I had strep throat twice earlier this year and it came back in full force.  Twice.  In about 3 weeks.  Then last week Sunday I was visited by a pretty terrible bunch of stomach parasites.  I’m not sure what was worse – the symptoms of the parasites or the poison I had to consume for three days to kill them.  All in all, I spent another five days in bed, in the village,  dreaming about my return to the U.S. and wondering if I would ever be able to eat again.

My bed - and home last week

As you can tell by the panini, I survived and I’m eating again.  Thank God!  For a minute there I thought I might end up dehydrated, emaciated and dead.  Ok, maybe not dead.  But it wasn’t fun.

So, I decided to head into Iringa Town for a few good meals, a hot shower and some decent internet access.  I’ve been busy working on a research paper for school and haven’t had the time to get much done in the village.  My break here in Iringa has been amazing and refreshing.  I’m staying in this really cute little guesthouse that has a café and craft center and is run exclusively by people with different disabilities.  We even write out our orders because the waiters and cooks are deaf.  Pretty cool!  You can check out the place here:  www.neemacrafts.com

I start my journey back to the village tomorrow.  And when I say journey – it is exactly that.  An hour and a half ride on a paved road from Iringa to Mafinga where I catch a “bus” that takes me on the 4-hour ride through the tea fields to the village of Ikan’gombe.  The bus, as they call them here, is an old, dented up, psychedelic-looking thing, with cracks all over the windshield and a lot of black exhaust bursting out of the tailpipe.  It broke down twice on my way here and word from the village makes it sound like its condition has worsened considerably since the weekend.    Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches here, but in this case, I really need the bus to leave on time and arrive in the village at the scheduled 6pm arrival time.  That gives me just enough time to make it up and down the muddy, hilly path, through the forest and over the river before dark.  Here’s hoping…

Here are a few pics so you can see my home that I’m heading back to:

View from my bedrooms into living/dining area

"Kitchen" - the blue thermos is for my hot shower water

Stove, burner, hot water heater and oven


Morris - my buddy in the village

Mama Lillian and Angela - the two cooks at the main house and the best part of my days here

Last Sunday, the day I got sick, I went on a little big of a journey with Evodia, a Form 4 (senior) girl who did an interview with me for H20 for Life.  H20 for Life funded the water projects at our school here and wanted to hear from one of the students how it has improved life for them.  Evodia is such a smart girl, full of joy and ambition.  She is the student academic leader and helps kids with their homework.  She hopes to return to VSI as a science teacher once she completes university.  Our walk through the forest and down the hills was a bit of a hike – and of course, the path that goes down, must come up again.  The only difference is that here it usually goes up and down a few more times after that!  Flip-flops were not the wisest choice for the day.  We did finally make it to our destination though and Evodia proudly showed me the well the students had dug.  Now that I live in a home with no running water, I am much more appreciative of wells.  I’m also extremely appreciative of the schools girls we hire to bring us water back from the well.  That was a LONG hike I would not want to take with a buck of water on my head – especially knowing I am going to need at least 3 more buckets just to make it through a day of cooking, bathing, laundry and bathroom visits!

Evodia at the well the students dug

Me at the spring leading to the well

Storm rolling in on our walk back from the well

Not much else to report as of right now.  My illnesses put me out of commission for a bit, but I’m ready to get back to work.  Thanks to so many of you for your prayers, messages and emails while I was sick!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Humble Pie

For most of my life I have easily fit in just about anywhere; maybe most easily, as one of the guys.  I drink with the guys.  Watch football with the guys.  Shoot pool with the guys.  And talk shop with the guys.  I guess that’s why adjusting to village life – or Village Schools Tanzania life – has been more of an adjustment than I thought.  I had some idea what I was getting myself into.  I mean, I figured I’d have to give up my flat iron, heels and maybe even the sparkly eye shadow.  And while camping doesn’t exactly come naturally to me, I have found that I actually love it!  I thought that for four months I would trade in the girly side of me for the side that’s used to fitting in with the boys.  What I didn’t know that while the first part of that was true, I would definitely not be fitting in with the boys.  I am the last to be served at every meal.  Not only am I expected to carry all of my own bags, I am usually expected to carry one of the men’s, too.  I am rarely, if ever, included in any of the shop talk.  And no one ever opens the door for me or offers up their seat. 

I have to be honest.  This was not what I had bargained for.  I mean, I have tons of experience, right?  I expected to be a huge help to this organization and to be appreciated and, I’ll admit it, even respected for what I can do while I’m here.  Instead, no one really knows who I am or what I’m doing here.  In fact, VSI has never had an intern before so since I’m not a teacher, I don’t quite fit into the hierarchy.  And as a woman, without a title, that puts me at the end of the table with the leftover rice and - if I’m lucky - some of the sauce left in the bottom of the pan.

I realized yesterday that since I am not here to change the culture, the only thing that can change is me.  And the truth is, it’s not about me.  It’s not about the people that are around me.   And it’s not even about Village Schools Tanzania.  It’s about God’s plan for me (which, let’s be honest, is still really about Him).  I’m working through the book Sun Stand Still by Pastor Steven Furtick.  It’s a pretty incredible book about the power of faith and desiring for your life to be so impactful that people have no other option but to say that it was God.  Early last week while I was reading the book, I was struck by I Peter 5:6, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God so that at the proper time He may exalt you.”

Humble.  I decided to make that verse my prayer.  I knew I was struggling with a few things around me and figured a little humility might help me fit in a little better.  Heck, it might even round out my character a little; prepare me for whatever is next.  So, while we’ve been warned in church a thousand times that when you ask God to change something about yourself, sometimes it is painful, I marched right on ahead and prayed for humility.  After all, I thought God would just flip the switch and change something in my heart.  I didn’t realize He would continually place me in situation after situation where I was literally forced to be humble!  And worse than that, I’ve been surrounded by some of the most amazing women I have ever met.  They wash clothes, clean filthy bathrooms, boil hot water so the men can shower, cook meals, fetch water and clean dishes.  But, more than all of those things, they are strong, and smart, and hard-working, and joyful….and FULL of humility. 

So here’s the thing.  I haven’t mastered it yet.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I have a long way to go before this trait is anywhere near the list of my top ten qualities.  But, my eyes have been opened to the true beauty of a humble spirit.  The women of the villages here in southern Tanzania are truly gracious.  And while they aren’t treated as such, in my opinion, they deserve far more respect than any of the elders or leaders around them who demand it because of title, age or gender.  These women don’t demand respect.  They don’t expect respect.  But, they have mine. 

Rehima, me, Suzie, Sara, and Antonina

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Story from Madisi

For the past few days Steve, Emmanueli, Sara and I have been stranded in the small town of Njombe, about 6 hours from our home school, Madisi.  We left for Lukima, a VSI school near the border of Tanzania and Mozambique and not even halfway into our journey, the transmission in our truck went out.  After 5 hours on the side of the road we finally got a tow back to Njombe which was an hour away.  We are still waiting for the repairs to be finished.  I don't have internet access often and thought I'd take the time to write a blog post.  The only problem:  Not much to write about when all I've been doing is waiting in a tiny guest house for 3 days.  So, instead of a story from me, I'd like to share with you Susan Vinton's latest blog post.  She and Steve started Village Schools 7 years ago and Susan has dedicated her life to supporting her friends with HIV in the villages surrounding her home.  The sick come to the VSI clinic every day for help, support and friendship.  She is the busiest woman I know and treats everyone who comes to her with compassion and love.


Steve & Susan Vinton
Village Schools International
Box 1929 Tomball Texas 77377

February 1, 2012

A beautiful scene – Baba Asia walking with his 2-year old little boy Bekam, as the two of them were coming home from church.  Baba Asia had been my enemy for at least five years – he hated me and he hated everything about me – but recently he became my ally and even more recently my brother in Christ.  In the midst of all of the death and sorrow that is a part of our lives here, I see God so at work as He draws even the most unlovable towards Him.

Baba Asia was arrogant, angry, mean and oh so very powerful.  And he didn’t like me, he didn’t like Village Schools, and he especially didn’t like what I was doing here.  Oppressing and being just downright mean to women in these villages seemed to be his specialty, and for some reason I will never understand, he seemed to get away with it.  As I tiptoed into the world of HIV six years ago, and as I slowly started putting the pieces together, following the trails of infection, I ended up at his house on several occasions.  The first time the trail of infection led to his house, I humbly and politely let him know that getting tested for HIV was a great idea.  He was polite and all only because of my nationality and because of age, but his heart was oh so very hard.   

I entered into the lives of his many wives.  One of my very first friends here was his first wife Sila, who I was shocked to find out was just left to die, after three of her children died.  As she put it, he and his new wife would just laugh at her as she turned to skin and bones.  When I picked her up and sent her on to treatment, what Baba Asia had planned was thwarted and it made him angry.  Sila recovered and her presence made a mockery of his powerful arrogance.  And then there was Zaida.  She was only 19 years when he married her, but threw her out when she became sick and her baby died.  I called Zaida one of my daughters and through many visits to her little house, I grew to love her. I still remember when she became a new creation in Christ.  The joy transformed her dying body.  Then there was Mama Asia, the wife of the moment in his home at that time.  Her misery and unhappiness was apparent to all in the whole village.  I could barely watch as sores took over her body.  As I privately talked to her about HIV testing, she let me know that she also would be kicked out of the house and she would lose her children.  But eventually she chose life and she got on our bus and she started treatment.  And sure enough, he kicked her out and sent her back to her parents – without her children.  As she left, Zaida entered the house once again, becoming the next wife of the moment.  Why would she return when he arrogantly sent for her?  I honestly will never know.  Poverty and hunger and desperation is something I’ve never lived with, so I have no pat answers, and I won’t try to think I can understand what would cause her to return to his house.  But what I do know is that God used the fact that Zaida was there in that house when Baba Asia’s past finally caught up with him.  Maybe all Zaida wanted was a child she could love – and indeed that she got – her little Beckam was beyond adorable! 

HIV is something that you can’t hide from.  It is just a matter of time.  Baba Asia used his money to buy all the antibiotics he needed.  He used all his money to buy good food.  He used all of his money to get good medical care if he did get even a little sick.  And it kept him going for a few years longer than all of his wives.  But it was TB that finally kicked him hard.  And then when he learned that he not only had TB, but that he was also HIV positive, that was when his world unraveled. Within a few months, he went from being all powerful to being a man who was dying.   Through my friendship with his scared teenage children, through my contacts with his father, and through my many conversations with the all-forgiving Sila and Zaida, I stayed updated on Baba Asia’s illness and through them I sent him many times practical help.  It was through them that I sent him to Kibao Hospital to be admitted, and it was there that he encountered by dear friends, the sisters.  When he informed them that he really didn’t have any money to pay for the hospitalization and the treatment and the medicine, they told him, “Don’t worry, Mama Vinton is taking care of it for you.” 

“Why would she do that?” he asked. 

“She does it for everyone.  She serves Jesus like we do.” 

And it seems that it was that day at the hospital that the seeds were planted.  His dog eat dog view of the world was finally challenged.  It took a whole year for Baba Asia to recover.  His damaged lungs collapsed twice.  Zaida faithfully cared for him, at times as though he were an infant, and then she fell to TB as well.  We prayed with him often, and I took any of medical specialists Dr. Leena would bring with her to visit him.  Talking to him after his two near death experiences, he finally agreed that God sent him back to take care of his family.  He even smiled and had a playful twinkle in his eyes as I talked with him. His heart was finally started to thaw.

And then there as a Christian marriage seminar going on in our village and I asked him to go.  Word had gotten out late about the seminar, and we needed some participants fast!  And so I just went to him to invite him.  Zaida was way too sick to attend, but much to my surprise – and everyone else’s – Baba Asia showed up.  Three days later, he told me that it was the best thing he had ever attended. He told me that that he learned that he had just thrown away good marriages over stupid and little things.  His heart was thawing even more.

Visiting in November with Sila, she let me know that Baba Asia was visiting her church, always sitting in the back, just listening.  It was on Christmas Day though that Baba Asia and Sila’s son both became Christians.  I couldn’t think of any better Christmas gift in the world.  Sila’s son told me later that he just decided that living without God was hopeless.  The new sparkle in the boy’s eyes revealed a new person.

I wish the story had a happier ending, but ten 10 days after Christmas, Zaida, the one I liked to call my daughter, got a headache and died 12 hours later, leaving Baba Asia, her two-year old Beckam and all of the children in Baba Asia’s house who she had lovingly cared for in lieu of their own mothers.  Few things shock me anymore these days, but this one broke my heart. We rushed to the funeral and watched her be buried. Mainly I watched Baba Asia watching Zaida being buried.  There he was burying the one woman he had finally come to appreciate.  I’m glad that Baba Asia is still with us.  He doesn’t hate me anymore.  His transformation speaks volumes to all those in these villages who have yet to meet the One who is the Great Physician.  He heals a whole lot more than just bodies.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Settling In

I alluded to my uncertainty about where I was headed in my last blog post – but let’s be honest.  You all know me well enough.  Let’s just call it like it was:  All out anxiety over the idea of sleeping on a mat on a dirt floor, with no running water, rats nesting around me at night, zero electricity and a cow sleeping in an indoor stable in the central room.  Ok, maybe I wasn’t worried about the cow, but you get the point.  I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.  Zero.  Zilch.  And, while my mind was wandering to the worst possible scenario, somehow I just kept thinking that it would be ok.  I mean, I’ve made it this far, right?  I figure I can pretty much grin and bear just about (let me repeat – just about) everything now.

Thankfully, my expectations – or lack thereof – were greatly exceeded.  After a long day of travelling with many stops (none of which included a bathroom), we made it to Madisi at about 9pm.  Now before I go any further, let me clarify something that I didn’t understand before: Madisi is actually just the name of the hill upon which the school was built.  Whenever VSI builds a school, the village chief and the people of the village decide where the school should be built.  The land that is chosen is always the best land in the area – what we would call “prime real estate.”  Madisi is no exception.  The hill is actually a relatively large mountain at an elevation of 6000 feet (which means extremely pleasant, cool weather!).  From the top where the school is located you see miles and miles of mountains, valleys, rain forest, tea plantations and coffee crops.  The view is one of the most beautiful I have seen in all my life and for the next four months I get to live on the top of this mountain.  Last night before dinner, Susan took me to a hidden sitting space.  We walked down the path that cuts through the forest in the back yard to the edge of the mountain and I was greeted by a scene that reminded me of Gorillas in the Mist.  In that magical spot several mountains seem to come together in a circle creating a sort of crater effect in the middle.  The crater valley is covered in dense rain forest that is now protected and home to monkeys who play among the trees.  Susan has planted some gardens along the path and there is a covered bench where I can sit, read and enjoy the view. 

I’m sure you are all dying to see pictures, but until I can get some sort of internet connection up here, I don’t know when I’ll be able to upload anything.  I have email access on my phone, but that’s about it.  As I am writing this I don’t even know when I will upload it, but the past two days have been so full already I knew that if I didn’t sit down to type now I might never catch you up.  In the meantime, here’s hoping I can upload this soon!

(Update:  Found internet while we were travelling in the car so I am taking advantage of it!)

For the time being I am staying with Steve and Susan, their two boys Joshua and Jonathan and Morris the dog.  I can’t tell you how excited I was just to be greet by a dog when I arrived!  He and I have become fast friends.  The house reminds me of a clash between Little House on the Prairie and Meryl Streep’s home in Out of Africa.  It is big and has an openness to it.  While we don’t have running water all of the time, it is pretty consistent.  Thankfully it rains for a short time almost every day so the rainwater fills the basins which makes life a little easier.  I am, sad to say, back to the bucket showers, but hey, that’s life.  I can’t complain about the food at all.  It has been amazing.  My first night we had spaghetti with red sauce – which is pretty common around here – but we also had homemade garlic alfredo sauce, garlic bread, a fresh salad and dill dressing….what?!?!  Everything is freshly made.  Even the bread.  We have a huge vegetable garden next to the house – and when I say huge, I mean what most of us would consider a hill side.  The garden has strawberries, guave trees, passion fruit, zucchini, squash, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, green peppers, oregano, basil, dill, and a lot more that I am forgetting. 

As for the work itself, Wednesday, my first day here, was an insanely busy day.  The community we live in has a nearly 40% HIV/AIDS infection rate.  After being here a short while, Susan started a program to transport those she met who were infected to get the ARVs they needed to become healthy again.  Now, seven years later, with the help of many of the villagers, she has built a clinic that serves almost 500 men, women and children.  Twice a month they travel from miles away on foot to receive their medications.  She also provides education for new mothers on how to prevent the passage of HIV to the new babies.  New babies in the area are also given milk and formula.  It sounds relatively simple, but formula is extremely difficult to find here and VERY expensive.  Susan again got help from some of the local villagers and they have managed to negotiate a good price for the formula from South Africa.  Anyway, Wednesday was CTC day, the day when everyone comes to the clinic, which is just down the path from the house, to receive their ARVs.  Susan took me to the school in the morning at 7:30 am to meet her first class.  The next thing I knew she handed me the exercises and lesson book and said she had to go to the clinic.  I was teaching an English class.  Well, as things happen here, one class turned into four classes and by 2 pm, after pretty much winging 6 hours of class, I was starving and exhausted.  (Props to all of my teacher friends – I don’t know how you do it every day!) 

After the last class, I walked down to the house during the student’s break and met Susan on the path from the clinic.  She immediately took me down to meet some of her friends.  Thankfully, by 3 pm we made it back to the house for a quick bowl of beans and rice and then it was back to work.  I spent the rest of my afternoon meeting mother’s and their children, tracking who came and handing out milk and liche (a soybean, peanut mixture with another ingredient I have forgotten).  Around 6 pm we went to visit a women who did not show up for her ARVs during the day.  She has a cancerous infection on her leg that is common in pregnant woman who are HIV positive.  Susan had arranged for her to go to the nearest large town to get a referral so that she can go to the only cancer treatment center in Tanzania that is located in Dar es Salaam.  I am told the center is over-crowded with two or three patients to a bed.  But it is the only option Tanzanians have.  The trip will not be easy, but the treatment will save her life.

And that was just the first 24 hours!  Tomorrow Steve, Emmanueli, Sarah and I are leaving for 3 other villages where we will help teach a computer-based book keeping system to designated people at the schools.  Students pay for their tuition as they can and with over 3,000 students you can imagine how keeping track of the schools fees can get messy when everyone is paying a little bit at a time.  Tuition is the equivalent of about $25 for a year and some students pay that in four or five installments.  That’s a lot of receipts! 

I’ll update you again when I can – and hopefully get some pictures up, as well.  Pray for internet!  It may not seem as important as rain, but sometimes it feels like it!

Monday, January 23, 2012

On the Road Again

As some of you may know, I have recently made a change in my plans for the second half of the year – a BIG change…but a great one!  I am writing this post from Wihanzi Guest House in Iringa, TZ.  I’ve had my dinner – chipsi mayai (a favorite of mine made of eggs and french fries, especially at the cost of 1600 Tsh – about $1).  
Chipsi Mayai

Wihanzi Guest House
I took a 13 hour bus ride from Arusha in northern Tanzania, down to south central Tanzania today.  It’s been a long day;  however, judging by the speed (or lack there of) of my internet here, I have a feeling it may be difficult to post anything from the villages so I figured I better give you all a quick update now.  Also, when you have a chance, take a second to look at my “Photos – Munich 2011” page on the right.  I’ve uploaded a few more pics from Germany that I didn’t get time to put up over Christmas. 

This morning I said goodbye to my dear sweet friend, Carolina, who I met in Arusha over Thanksgiving break.  I nearly missed my bus.  Everything here in Tanzania is slow…except the long distance busses which seem to be in the biggest rush when you are trying to load 3 suitcases and a backpack in the storage space underneath.  The ride was hot and long, but beautiful.  I saw 3 herds of elephants, several impala and a random warthog along the side of the road.  And the landscape in central and southern TZ is amazing.  We were moving too fast to take pictures, but as soon as I get some I will post them on the blog.

After a lot of “no’s”, much prayer, and good advice from friends and family, I have been given the opportunity to work as an intern with Village Schools International – Tanzania (VSI).  I won’t go into much detail about the organization now, as I’m sure I will have much more to share once I get to work, but take a minute to check out their website www.villageschools.org  Steve and Susan Vinton started VSI in 2005 and have since helped poor villages build over 20 secondary schools in rural Tanzania, with many more in the works.  There is a severe shortage of secondary schools for children here in Tanzania.  Less than one in eight children will ever have the chance to attend secondary schools purely due to a lack of space, teachers and schools.  VSI is working to bridge the deficit between supply and demand in rural Tanzania

Tomorrow morning, Steve Vinton and a couple of the Tanzanian VSI workers who have been with him since the beginning will pick me up and we will head out to the village of Igoda where Madisi Secondary School, VSI’s first school, is located.  I believe I will be living in Igoda, but to be honest, I have no idea where or what to expect.  I’m a little nervous that my excessive luggage might even scare Steve away!  I’m hoping he sees what’s in my heart before he judges me by all the stuff I’ve managed to cart across Tanzania in my bags!

So tomorrow I am heading into the unknown.  I may or may not have a shower, flushing toilet (or flushing hole in the ground), real floors or even a tin roof.  Who knows.  But, what I do know is that working with VSI in Igoda, Tanzania is exactly where I am supposed to be.  And while it may be challenging and a huge lifestyle change for me, I am not afraid.  Something big is around the corner…I can feel it. 
Mt. Kilimanjary - 1.23.12