Saturday, August 1, 2015

Living in Two Worlds

"Living in Two Worlds"
July 23, 2015

I have just returned from another wonderful trip to Tanzania, a trip I had not planned to take this year. I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to go, but transitioning back is always hard. Why is it so difficult to re-engage in American life? As I process my experiences, my emotions often emerge as words. Here are my latest thoughts.

"Living in Two Worlds"

I am living in two worlds
Struggling to reconcile the disparities I see.
My heart roars with rage against injustice
And weeps inconsolably with the sorrows that I see.
But still I marvel at the beauty of the human spirit
And take comfort in the lights of love I find along the way.
I am living in two worlds
Desperately wanting one to claim me
But knowing that because their dichotomies have torn me
I'll never really be at home again in either one.

"A Traveler"

A traveler needs no map to guide her
Because a traveler just follows the road.
A traveler allows no walls to confine her
Because the journey is her home.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Day with My Kids

Fidesta, Damiani, and Yudathade
July 7, 2014

Pat and I spent the next day with Fidesta, Damiani, and Yuda, visiting schools and talking with administrators.  The pace of the day was slow and easy, and I was able to enjoy just being with them.  Remember, these children grew up without parents, and although they are no longer children, they seemed eager to absorb any radiance of mother’s love I could offer, so I gladly indulged them. 

Damian recently finished teacher’s college and had been assigned to a school in a very remote area of Tanzania.  He must travel two days on a bus to get there, and only one bus passes through the village each week.  Communication is difficult and electricity almost non-existent.  How ironic it seems that I gave him a watch to keep track of time in a place where time stands still.  Yet, like many first year teachers, he is excited to go.  He wants to make a difference in the world.  So as Fidesta prepared dinner, Pat and I offered him advice, and you could almost see him filing away this wisdom in his mind. New teachers in Tanzania receive little, if any, support.  My hope is that Damian does not burn out quickly in that harsh environment.  I will keep him in my prayers. 

Fidesta’s life has not been easy since I left Tanzania.  The challenges she has faced and the pain she has endured in her 21 years would make you cry at the injustice in this world, but she has never lost hope.  I cannot help but wonder how much more comforting it would have been for her to have had a mother around to confide in and to reassure her that things would get better.  All I could offer her was a small token to remind her that she is loved, a bracelet with an angel charm, a guardian angel to watch over her.  Fidesta is just finishing her first year at KAM College where she is studying to become a clinical officer (kind of like a physician’s assistant).  Just for fun, or maybe to reassure herself that I am indeed healthy, she listened to my heart and took my blood pressure.  Then, she gave me an extra helping of the delicious food she had prepared: rice, meat, and greens.  I do love those greens!  I looked around at her room, all that she owned packed into a few small bags, a thin mattress on the floor, a candle mounted on the end of a plastic table to provide light to study by at night.  She misses me very much, and she will cry when I go, but she is different now; wiser, more confident, hopeful, and somehow I sensed that she will be ok. 
Yuda had still been a scruffy, scraggly little boy when I left him three years ago, but now he is a man, 18 years old, strong and handsome.  I had Leopold to thank for that.  Today we would check out the school where he would enroll next week.  Yuda had also decided to become a teacher.  The life of a teacher is not easy in any country, but I know from experience how rewarding it can be, so I would not try to dissuade him.  Yuda seemed happy with his choice, and from outside appearances, it did seem to be a nice place, but being familiar with Tanzanian schools, I would reserve judgment until he actually begins his studies there. 
Yuda has always been a shy, quiet boy, but as the day wore on, I could see the light dimming in his eyes.  He was turning inward, and I sensed a profound sadness surrounding him.  Too soon, the shadows grew long and the day was coming to an end.  The kids escorted me to the bus stand.  Damian needed to go home and pack for his trip the next day.  I gave him some pocket money.  He promptly used it to get me a taxi back to the hotel.  I had left Yuda’s gift back in my room, so he and Fidesta rode with me to get it.  When we arrived, the taxi driver went to get some dinner and I ran up to the room to get the gift.  It was a cross and on it was written Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans that I have for you declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.” Yuda clutched it tightly and his eyes teared up as he thanked me for remembering him. 

Now the time had come once again to say good-bye.  Oh God, why did you not give us more time?  I hugged Fidesta and told her that I loved her and would pray for her every day.  Crying, she went to sit in the taxi while I said good-bye to Yuda.  Oh Yuda!  Why is it always so difficult to say good-bye to you?  How I wish I could stay.  I hugged him, and then I felt the wall around him collapse.  He hugged me tight for a moment and then he went out and got in the taxi with Fidesta.  The driver had not returned yet, but I did not go out.  Why add to their misery?  I stayed in the hotel and waited until the taxi finally pulled away.  Oh Yuda, if I could release you from this pain, I would.

Return to Tanzania

Return to Tanzania
July 5 – July 16, 2014

I had always imagined what this day would be like, returning to Tanzania.  Now after nearly three years, it was going to happen.  I had tried to sleep on the long flight, but excitement and anticipation kept me awake.  What would they look like?  Would they recognize me?  Was I still an important part of their lives?  So many memories were racing through my mind.  I remembered the pain of leaving long ago, not knowing if I would ever see them again, not knowing what their lives would be like. My heart felt as if it were skipping beats as the plane finally landed, and Pat and I made our way through all the necessary queues to claim our bags.  Then, as I was waiting to grab my bag from the carousel, I looked out the open door at the people gathered to welcome their loved ones, and I saw them.  Rather, I saw their light, the light of happiness which seemed to surround them as they waved and whooped and called to me.  Somehow, in an instant, I had retrieved my luggage and had gone out the door and was in their arms again, showered with flowers, cards, and love.  Victoria, Aggie, her new baby Anticlea Ruth, Neema, Maria, Adolph, Brighton, Damian, Fidesta, and Yuda had all come to welcome me home.

 My entourage escorted us to our hotel, some riding in our taxi and the others coming by bus or budaji. Someone ran out for sodas and we sat in the lobby to catch up on old times, but after two days of traveling and very little sleep, my head began to spin.  My family left me then, assuring me that they would see me soon, and I reluctantly went upstairs.  But oh, how good it felt to finally take a shower and then stretch out flat on a bed!

I fell asleep quickly, but it is in the stillness of the night that awareness finds me, my thoughts so vivid and clear, maybe fueled by mefloquine (an antimalarial drug), but real nonetheless. Why had I traveled thousands of miles to this place?  Surely not to see the environment of Dar es Salaam, a dirty, smelly, over-crowded city. What compelled these people to take time from work or school and spend their precious money to come and greet me?  Who are we to one another?  The horn of the muezzin interrupts my musings.  This early morning call to prayer stirs something deep inside me, seemingly refocusing my eyes, sharpening my ears, and attuning me to what I had seen at the airport.  The light I had seen surrounding them had been the love of God.  We are drawn to one another, like moths to the light, because there is no way we can resist the power of this force.  God brought us all together, each one of us broken and beaten down by life, and He healed us with His agape love.

(Another small miracle that I cannot explain is that my proficiency in Swahili seems to have improved, even though I have not heard it or spoken it in nearly three years.  I had no problem understanding or being understood.  I even served as translator several times, although sometimes I found myself speaking Swahili to Pat and English to Victoria).  

Sunday, March 25, 2012


March 25, 2012

Many of you have been asking for an update, but now that the story is my story, it is not so easy to write.  However, it is time to finally break my self-imposed silence, if for no other reason than the fact that writing gives me peace.  You may have wondered about my silence; I wondered why my words would not flow. 

During my close-of-service conference last August, the facilitator led a session on the difficulties of readjustment.  At my medical exit exam, the doctor presented me with vouchers for counseling services.  I remember scoffing at these implications that readjustment would be a challenge.  After all, I was returning to America, the land of opportunity and abundance, including luxuries like electricity, water, internet, cars, movies, shopping malls, even trash pick-up.  How tough could readjustment be? 
What I failed to consider was that the readjustment I imagined was based on my old life, and now that life was gone.  Maybe once you have followed “the road less traveled by,” it is impossible to ever really return to a more familiar path.

In my eagerness to return to America, I did not think about the implications of having no home and no job. In Africa I lived among the poor, but I was never really one of them.  Now things are so different.  I have seen another side of America.  Milling about community job fairs, I have seen the fear in peoples’ eyes.  Standing in line for a resume review, the middle-aged woman ahead of me poured out her story along with her tears.  Without a job soon, she would lose everything.  I could feel her despair but I had no words to comfort her.  I, too, was traveling through a foreign land.

I suppose I was better off than most.  I had a place to stay and food to eat, although it is quite humiliating asking my elderly mother for gas money.  But I wonder about those who do not have family or friends to help them.  What do they do?  I know being unemployed deprives you of energy and strength, and the fear can be debilitating.  How easy it would be to give up hope.

 Although my spirits were as gloomy as the gray New England days, I pushed myself to search for jobs.  I attended job fairs.  I searched on-line.  I carefully crafted cover letters and sent out resumes.  I assume that most were deposited into the circular file in cyberspace after being electronically scanned for some cryptic keywords that were not there.   I had thought my faith was strong, but there were moments when I called out, “Where are you God?  Why have you abandoned me?”  Then one day, his response popped into my head, “I am here.  Trust me!” and my anxiety about my situation diminished considerably.

I was sure that eventually I would find a job, but I wanted more than just a job to earn money.  I wanted a job which would allow me to continue, in my small way, to change the world.  I did not want easy.  I did not want safe.  I wanted satisfaction for my soul.  Part of me wants to return to Africa, but just as the professor said in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “you cannot go back the same way twice.” I’ll find another way some day, but for now my work is here.

Finally, after six months of unemployment, the job search has come to an end.  I attended a job fair in Washington, DC and was pleasantly surprised to find that I had options.  I contemplated the idea of working at the all girls National Cathedral School.  Imagine attending worship services in that gorgeous cathedral during the school day!   But when I compared it to the opportunity of working at a public charter school in downtown DC, a school described as tough but not violent, I knew that these were not the girls that God intended me to serve.  When the recruiter talked about the charter school, it reminded me a bit of a Tanzanian school.  I felt I could be happy there, but despite its tug on my heart, I turned down that opportunity as well.  I chose instead a teaching position at a new, public, all girls leadership academy in Raleigh, North Carolina.  It offers the challenges and the opportunities to make a difference that I crave, and I already know the environment. 

Although the job search is officially over, I will not actually begin earning a paycheck until the end of August.  I will be moving to Raleigh in May so that I can attend planning and team building meetings for the new school.  Hopefully I will stay with my son for most of the summer, but I may get the chance to become a nomad, bunking down wherever I can.  I look forward to the day when I will once again have a place to call my own, (or better yet, to share with my mom). 

So my adventures are not over yet.  In fact, they are just beginning again, in a new place with new people. I cannot wait! 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Kwa Heri Tanzania! Karibu Tena Marekani!

Kwa Heri Tanzania, Karibu Tena Marekani!
September 23, 2011

            It will be easy to walk away from this place and all of the challenges that accompany life here.  I will not miss the dust or the mud or the lack of electricity and running water.  I want to enjoy a hot shower again, and not have to make do with scoops of water poured over my head while sitting on a cold bathroom floor.   I want to have internet every day and I want to know what is going on in the world.  I am tired of pushing my way onto uncomfortable, overcrowded buses hoping they will make it to where I want to go.  Yes, I love America, and I want to go home.  However, I know that leaving Tanzania will not be easy.  Although I am eager to experience life in a developed country once more, I cannot begin to describe how I feel about leaving behind those whom I have come to love: especially those who love me for who I am and not just for what I can offer them.

            My first parting was with Yuda, and it was the most difficult of all.  I will always remember the day I first met him; he was a scruffy, lonely little boy surprised to see a “mzungu” at his home.  Now he smiles a lot, he seems more confident, and he has hope for his future.  I have found him a place to stay for school holidays with an older couple that I met at church.  The Leopolds are kind and compassionate.  They will be good to Yuda; however, why did my heart hurt so much as he sobbed in my arms when I said good-bye?  Is it possible that I had truly become his mother?  I must admit that I cried too, because somehow I know that this African child has become my son.

            I have said good-bye to many students over the years, and I may have felt a bit of regret at the loss of the relationships for a short time.  However, I did not feel too bad, because I knew that almost all of them would be moving on to something better.  That is not the case with my students in Tanzania.  When I walked into the form 6 classroom for the last time, the students all stood to greet me.  I was overwhelmed with emotion as I noticed their tears.  How could I leave them?  Would they be able to maintain their confidence or would they lose their hope after I was gone?  I could sense their fear.  Oh God, please be with them and give them peace!  I have only taught form 5 for one term, but I have grown quite fond of them too.  Who will encourage them now?  Who will teach them how to teach themselves?  Who will see that every student has occasional access to a book?  The students wanted to thank me for all I had done for them, but they were embarrassed because all they could give me was a song.  It was a beautiful song, a song about angels.  To me it was worth more than anything money could buy.

            When I am stressed, I tend to turn inward for strength.  I prefer to be alone to work through my problems; however, Fidesta and Aggie wanted to escort me all the way to the airport in Dar.  I told them that it would be painful, but they insisted on coming.  Victoria and Maria traveled from Morogoro.  Aggie’s brother and Mr. Leopold’s daughter also came.  I said farewell to Fidesta’s uncle and brother and many others by phone.  Aggie and Fidesta sang me our favorite song one last time (Nimepata Yesu moyoni wangu: I have got Jesus in my heart).  Maria traced the bones in my hand with her finger and seemed to be trying to memorize its color.  Victoria gave me a long letter thanking me for all I had done and reaffirming her belief that all that had transpired over the last two years had, indeed, been done by the grace of God.  Aggie begged me not to forget them.  I assured her that that would not be possible.  Hearts broke; tears flowed, we said good-bye.  I entered the airport alone.

            Kwa heri Tanzania! (Farewell Tanzania).  Kwa herini my friends!  Thank you all for your support and pray without ceasing; that is, live each day of your life as if it were a prayer to God.    


Friday, September 9, 2011

Wanting Water

Wanting Water
September 7, 2011

            I have had much to think about lately, but many of my thoughts have been about water.  In America, I think we take the availability of fresh, clean drinking water for granted.  If you are thirsty, you are able to turn on the tap and fill a glass and drink.  However, in many parts of the world, that is not the case.  As Elizabeth and I traveled across the flat, dry Arusha highlands, I began to realize just what it means to have no water.  Most of the Arusha plains seemed to be just dust fields dotted with dry scrub brush and fragmented by barren river beds, which will rapidly carry away any rain that happens to fall, because it has nowhere else to go. 

Finding water during the dry season is the most important daily chore and everything else revolves around that task.  Going to school is not an option for many children during this time, because they must herd the cattle, donkeys and goats to the water holes.  When they find one, they join the others filling their buckets and jugs at one end, while the animals wade in the water and drink at the other.  The water hole is no more than a large mud puddle, yet for most people in this region, it is water for drinking, for bathing, for cooking, and for washing clothes.  That muddy, green, bacterial infested, parasite-laden water is life.

            Fidesta recently returned home for term break.  Her school happens to be far out on the Arusha plain.  With more than 1000 students and no water, the administrators had no choice but to close school early.  She told us how difficult it was to obtain water.  Water holes in this region are carefully guarded by the Masai people. Students are allowed to fetch water only once a week: boys on Saturday and girls on Sunday.  The water holes are several kilometers from school and students must never go without a guardian.  If the Masai are there with their animals, students must wait until the animals have finished drinking before filling their buckets.  Sometimes the Masai decide that there is not enough water to share and they chase the students away.  Fidesta buys bottled water at the school shop for drinking because she is afraid of disease, but she uses the dirty water in her bucket for bathing and washing clothes.  She describes her daily micro bath as “passport picture size” bathing.  The school toilets are flush toilets which are no longer flushed.  She said that it is so unpleasant to use them that many students have begun going outside in the bush.  At night when it is not safe to go out, many just go inside on the floor.  

            As thoughts of cholera, dysentery, and typhoid ran through my head, I asked Fidesta if she wanted to shift schools again, but she said it was too late, and despite the problems there, she said that Longido does well with academics.  They have teachers, and the teachers actually enter the classroom and teach.  She likes her school and she wants to stay.  I searched through my first aid kit and found some water purification tablets.  I gave her every pack of wet wipes and hand sanitizer that I had left.  Then I prayed that the rains would come again soon and that God would keep her safe.

            Conditions like this may seem appalling and unusual, but lack of clean water is a problem faced by many people throughout the developing world.  The next time you flush a toilet, water your lawn or get up in the night to get a drink, thank God for this blessing and say a prayer for the men and women and children who suffer because they lack clean water to drink.   


Safari Njema

  Safari Njema
 (A Good Journey)
September 3, 2011

     My daughter recently came to visit me here in Tanzania, and since it may be a once in a lifetime trip for her and also because I wanted to see some of the best of Tanzania before I leave, I decided to put aside my kanga and head wrap, pull on my one pair of ill-fitting jeans and become a tourist.  We took the Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar ferry and spent a delightful day and night in Stone Town.  The thing that was delightful was that it was not crowded and there were not many street vendors to harass us.  This was probably because we arrived on Friday (Muslim holy day) during the holy month of Ramadan. The hotel was luxurious (at least I thought so, but then anything with a hot water shower and electricity would seem luxurious to me).  We found a quaint cafĂ© nearby with a nice view of the Indian Ocean and we spent the late afternoon talking and eating ice cream.  
Our Zanzibar trip was wonderful, but the trip back to Dar was not so fun.  The sea was rough and even though I took motion sickness medicine, I had to join many of my fellow passengers outside at the railing, including the aides to the former president of Tanzania.  The former president stayed inside to regurgitate his lunch in a bag. (I wondered why he would choose to travel by public ferry and not by private plane).
Early the next morning Elizabeth and I boarded the Dar Express, a luxury bus, to travel back to Mkuu. A luxury bus means that everyone must be seated.  Most likely you will have your own seat, although sometimes a small child may sit on your lap.  Often the seats are overbooked, and if you are unlucky, you may have to sit on a bucket or a soda crate in the aisle even though you are still required to pay full price for your ticket. If a good Samaritan gives you something to pad your seat, make sure to say “thanks” because the plastic ridges on the bucket get very uncomfortable during the ten hour ride.  
    I was really excited to have Elizabeth visit my site.  I wanted her to meet all of the people that I have written about.  I wanted her to see all of the things that I have seen.  I wanted her to experience everything that I have experienced here in Mkuu.  However, after four days of greeting strangers, struggling to make sense of an unfamiliar culture, listening to me speak an odd mix of English and Swahili, even to her, and not understanding a word anyone said, she was thoroughly overwhelmed. I realized then that I was exposing her to too much too soon.  I have lived here for two years.  What seems ordinary to me now may have at one time seemed extraordinary.  I remembered all of the times that I longed to talk to someone, anyone, who could speak fluent English.  Now, although I might speak very bad Swahili, I can carry on a fairly long conversation. I remembered wanting to get out of the limelight but having nowhere to hide. Now I do not seem to be such a novelty in my community, but on days when I do, I know where to go.  There was a time in my life when I would have been disgusted by some of the foods that I eat here, and I would have been annoyed by some of the habits of my Tanzanian friends.  Now many things do not seem so bizarre, although I still refuse to eat goat intestines and cow stomachs.  It seems ironic that when I have finally adapted to this culture, I am preparing to leave it behind. 

Elizabeth may not have felt so nostalgic, because she seemed quite happy to get out of town.  After the cultural overload in Mkuu, we donned our tourist clothes again and went on safari to Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara National Parks. Last year I went in a school bus; this year I traveled in an air conditioned land cruiser.  There was also a big difference in price, but still the trip was wonderful.  It was awesome to see so many African animals up close.  It was like being in the “Lion King.”  In fact, I might actually have been humming the theme song along the way.  I was nice to share that adventure together.

            After a brief stay at a beach resort in Dar, Elizabeth went home to America and I went home to Mkuu.  Her life will continue as she left it, my old life in America is gone.  When I return in a few weeks, I will begin anew.  Some days I spend too much time thinking about what it will be like, about what I will do, about how I will survive, and I begin to feel tense and uneasy.  Then I take a deep breath and remind myself to just follow the road.  Wherever it leads, the journey will be good.  Safari njema and follow the road!  A traveler always does.