Thursday, February 24, 2011

Here for another day (or a few more months)

Yesterday, my school had a nine hour staff meeting. Yes, eight hours straight of sitting on wooden wooden chairs listening to conversations in rapid-fire Swahili from anything from student performance, to how much the school should pay to take care of the pigs, to who would be responsible for the school store, to the importance of making sure the students sweep the sidewalks everyday...since they spoke in Swahili, I understood about 1/2 of the first two hours and then stopped listening because it got too tiring to try to keep up, so for six more hours, understood nothing.

Most of the time I try to keep up a "life is great" front for my blog, my friends, and my family. Warning...this post is not like that. Life in Peace Corps is like a bipolar journey. The good times are good and the bad times really suck. There are things about Tanzania and about Peace Corps that I still haven't adjusted too and probably won't. The BS of working for a government agency, the differences in culture sometimes really get to me and I've been stuck in a bit of a rut ever since I returned from America. Most of the time something little happens that pulls you our of a rut: it could be a good conversation with a Tanzanian, it could be a student saying something nice, it could be just getting out of site for a day or two. Although all of those things have happened, they have not yet been sufficient to pull me out of my rut.

So, as I was sitting in the painfully long meeting the other day, I finally came to terms with what I was trying to deny. I really hate teaching. I hate it. I love my students, I love the people at my school, but I hate teaching. I hate standing up there 8 periods a day, 5 days a week and talking about addition and subtraction. I know part of it is that I am teaching way too many periods per week (36) and I know that part of it is that I am teaching math...a subject that I have very little interest in. Maybe it would be a little better if I was teaching 24 periods of biology. But I'm not, and I hate teaching, I hate marking, I hate staff meetings, I hate preparing lessons.

As this dawned on me yesterday, I starting thinking about the 8 months that I have left. 8 months is a long time if you don't enjoy your job. This is what I was thinking about for 7 hours yesterday.

I got home from the staff meeting and was tired, hungry, frustrated. I started using my water heater to heat up some water for a bath and cook Orion and myself some dinner. About five minutes after I got home, the electricity went my electric heater and hot plates didn't work. Since Wednesday is usually my market day and we had a 9 hour meeting, I didn't have enough charcoal to light my charcoal jiko. So I took a cold bath (a cold bath in Africa sounds nice, but it can get pretty cold were I its not) and came to term with the fact that I was going to drink milk for dinner. 5 minutes after i took my cold bath, I was shivering, unhappy, and the lights returned. Africa's way of telling me to screw myself.

At this point I was about 80% sure that I was going to ET...Peace Corps way of saying quit. I was so frustrated. I called my parents and talked to them. I typed up my resume so that I could send it to people and hopefully get a job before returning home, and I went to bed in a terrible mood, and woke up equally as disheartened and frustrated. I went to school like normal, dreaded entering the classroom as normal, although I had a lot of fun talking and hanging out with chai, still it wasn't enough to pull me out of the funk. I left school early with the intent of sending my resume to different people.

On my way to town, I called one of the volunteers in my area and ranted to her for a while. She gave me some perspective. I joined the Peace Corps to help other people, in what ever way they thought they needed to be helped. Although I am not thrilled about teaching math and fail to see the importance of logarithms when 12% of the population has HIV, they think it is important. It's not about me. I know that if I go home now, I will kick myself as soon as I step off the plane. If I stick it out for another 8 months, I will at least be able to say that I finished what I started. If I stick it out another 8 months, I'm pretty sure I will, eventually, come out of this extended rut.

So as much as I miss my family. As much as I miss my home. As much as I dislike teaching. For now, I am here. For now, I'm not ready to call it quits.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Yep. I'm Back

So I've been in Dar now for 2 days, and jet-lag is kicking my butt. I slept until 5pm today. Darn.

Anyways, in my 2 days in Dar:
I have been ripped off by 1 taxi driver.
I have been cat-called numerous times on the street.
I have been begged for money a dozen times.
I have had digestive problems twice.
I have bought 6 big bottles of water.
I have brushed my teeth with bottled water 5 times.
I have taken 2 cold showers.
I have tried ordering three things on the menu before the finally had my fourth choice.
I have spent 5000 /= on phone voucher.
And I have spent 10 minutes trying to load my blog page.

Yep. I'm back.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Home For the Holidays

For Christmas, I decided to surprise my entire family (except my mother who helped me to pay for the ticket) by coming home for Christmas. Although most people found out, my dad never did.

I arrived in Boston on December 13, after a 14-hour bus ride and 22-hour flight, in my favorite orange zebra dress and Masai sandals. The weather was way too cold to be wearing my Tanzania clothes. I have been in Massachusetts now for 16 days. In these last 16 days, I have visited friends from my old college town, I have visited friends in Boston, I have climbed walls with my brother, and I have watched a lot of terrible TV (most notable "Man vs. Food" on the food network. I am going to go off on a long spiel about this TV show, because it is disgusting and a huge demerit to American culture. On this TV show, a man travels around America trying different types of food. At the end of every show, he does a "food challenge" and tries to eat a massive amount of food, such as a 6-pound burrito or a super disgusting food like a roll of sushi that is so spicy it causes ulcers. It is a disgustingly wasteful endeavor. I could think of so many better uses of these resources than this already chunky man gorging himself for the sake of entertainment.) Anyway, to continue, I have drank good beer and eaten good cheese and good bread, and I have sat around doing a whole lot of nothing.

I have done a whole lot of nothing because, in the last year, people's lives have moved on. Sixteen months ago, when I left America, I was a kid fresh out of college. All my friends were kids that were fresh out of college. Nobody had real jobs, nobody had a life plan, we were all just kids and could be irresponsible on a Tuesday night and it wouldn't really matter. Now, a year and a half later, we're not kids anymore. Everybody has real jobs. They can't go out on a Tuesday night because they have to work on Wednesday.

In the scheme of things, this is good. At some point, people need to outgrow college. Acting like college kids is OK for college kids, but not for real adults. In the last year, my life and my friends lives have moved on. As I am sitting at home, I realize this. But I also realize that my life has moved on, not here, but in Tanzania. My life, right now, is not in America. When I am here, I can go out and act like a college kid on a Tuesday night, because I have NOTHING to do. I have no responsibilities here. No responsibilty, no job, free rent, free food. Sounds like I'm living the life, right? No! It's terrible. I am ready to get back to my life - in Tanzania. I'm ready to start working again. It's weird that in the last 15 months, my life has migrated from the USA and, in a way, Tanzania is my home.

Not that it will always be. But for now, my life belongs in Africa.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Before I begin this post, let me update you on the status of my student going to America. After several days, lots of arguing with officials, talking to some lawyers, and silently praising the DMV for their efficiency, we successfully obtained a passport for the students. She has met with people from the embassy, seen a doctor to get health forms filled in, and is all-set to go. So that is really good news, and I am really glad that that process is done and behind me. I will nominate students again next year, but I am not looking forward to going through this process again. All’s well that ends well, right?

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written. I apologize. There are a few reasons that it’s been a long time: firstly is that I have been really busy. The past month and a half have been crazy with getting the kids ready for their final exams, marking, filling in report cards, and seeing the kids off.

Final exams were quite hectic this year. Two weeks before final exams were scheduled, we heard from the Rungwe District Council that we were going to have a district Form III exam, so that all the students and the schools in the district could be marked on their performance. This was really stressful because (a) the students got freaked out about it. (b) there was a topic and a half in the FIII syllabus that I had yet to finish and since I wasn’t writing the test, I couldn’t filter questions from those sections out of the exam. (c) the school didn’t have enough money to finance and carryout the exams…

So after two weeks of running around, trying to finish the syllabus (I almost did it!), and preparing the students for the exams, we did the finals. The FIII physics exam was, as Tanzanian tests go, OK. There were only a few ridiculous questions and I felt that the FIII material on the exam was well covered in class. Most students got C’s – which is between a 40 and a 60 and is a reasonably good grade. The math exam was terrible. It was littered with typos, to the point that many students could not even read the questions, and it was way too long for the allotted time. Students would have needed at least 4 hours to complete it, they were given 2.5 hours, the marking scheme was inaccurate, and most of the material on the exam was FI and FII material, so I really couldn’t gauge how much my kids learned this year…Scores on the math tests ranged from 7-70. I’ll be interested to see the district results. I did the best that I could. It wasn’t perfect. But I can guarantee I will be a better teacher next year. This year was definitely a learning year.

As for next year…we got our period allocations last week during a 7 – hour staff meeting. I am assigned to Form I physics and math and Form III physics and math. I did the math: that is 42 periods per week. If I taught every period, every day, there are 45 periods in the week. Too much. It is because there is only one other physics/math teacher at my school. I believe that this schedule will only last a few weeks until we can get another teacher, but for those few weeks I am going to be swamped! I’ll do what I can, but I may need to drop teaching one of the math classes. Quality over quantity.

But for now, my work is done and I am gearing up for some vacation traveling. I have had a really great few days, preparing to leave. People here are just so great, and the last few days I have had some really great interactions. It just makes me love Tanzania. There’s a guy at the market who makes sambusas (sambusas in English are samossas and are these little meat pies in filo-dough type crust). I don’t buy sabussas all that often but I always talk to the man. The other day he invited my site mate and me to his house for dinner. Unfortunately we had to decline but we’re planning on going at some point. And then the mama at the post office has decided that she needs to call me anytime I get mail to let me know. It’s unnecessary, but a really nice gesture. I brought a piece of fabric to my seamstress to get sewn yesterday and told her that I’d come get it in a month because I was traveling and wasn’t going to be in the area. She offered to sew it by the next day for me…no extra cost.

I now that those are all really little things. But it is the little things in life that matter, right? It’s the little things like being invited to church and a Sunday lunch with one of the fellow teachers. It’s laughing with the fundi about the clothes you want made. It’s greeting people in the street and knowing their name and them knowing your name. It’s bringing bananas as gifts to your neighbors or receiving a mango from one of the girls next door. It’s feeling like you’re becoming part of the community. Maybe it took a year to get there, and I’m sure I’m not there yet…but I am getting there. And it is really great. I am not going to be at my site for about a month, and I am a little sad to be leaving. I am excited too, of course, but I will miss everyone.

Anyways I hope that everyone had a great Thanksgiving and that you are staying warm. Being in Africa, in relatively warm weather, eating mangos and pineapples off the trees – it’s hard to believe that it is almost winter and that people at home are dealing with freezing temperatures, snow storms, obnoxious Christmas commercials and overplayed Christmas songs. It doesn’t feel like the Christmas.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Chance of a Lifetime

Coming to Tanzania was a chance of a lifetime for me. One of the main reasons that on my Peace Corps application that I checked Africa for my “first choice” of where to go was because I don’t know if I would have ever dared to venture to Africa on my own. It’s not like South America or Europe or Asia, where it’s possible that someday I would go. For some reason, at the time of application, all those places seemed less scary. In my mind, Africa was just so scary.

Anywhere here I am, in Africa, teaching two subjects that I would never had had the chance to appreciate in America. I mean as a bio major, my interest in math and physics was pretty nonexistent. I am beginning to appreciate both of those subjects. I got the chance to learn a cool language, meet cool people, experience first hand something that without Peace Corps, I would not have been able to experience. For me, this was a great opportunity, a great change, a great learning experience.

One of my goals was to give some of the young adults that I am teaching some sort of memorable opportunity. Up until this point, I’ve tried to accomplish this by being a good teacher (which is not always the case), caring, trying to teach them things that they may not necessarily be able to learn from Tanzanian teachers because of cultural or educational limitations…condom demonstrations, girl’s empowerment, health, computers…I think all of the girls appreciate this.

However, let’s talk about opportunities of a lifetime. In a country with the 20th lowest GDP, in which the average annual income of the citizens is between $250 and $500 a year, opportunities like the ones that Peace Corps provided to me are pretty limited for your average Tanzanian. The plane ticket to America is 4 times the average income of Tanzanians. However, one of my students was chosen, along with 4 other students from around the country, to attend a Youth Leadership Program in America. She will get to go spend one month in America, attend an American high schools, and stay with an American host family. I am so excited for her. My teachers are so excited for her. My headmistress is so excited. This is, truly, an opportunity of a lifetime for her, and it makes me so happy. Many Tanzanian students have absolutely no global perspective. The boarder of Tanzanian is the end of the world. America is equally as far away and foreign as Zimbabwe or West Africa. Tanzania is Tanzania and the rest of the world is all just one big foreign country. I don’t think this girl yet realizes the magnitude of the world: being on a plane for 15 hours, flying over the Atlantic Ocean, being in a country who probably has never heard of Mbeya. I am quite excited to see her off and welcome her back. And I am so excited to see what she thinks of my home. My culture.

As I write this, I am sitting on my couch, listening to the Glee soundtrack. I haven’t yet told her that she was selected because I wanted to tell my mkuu first. So tomorrow, I will tell her. And then I have about 3 weeks to get her a passport. I can’t wait.

So, it's now the day after. I am writing this blog in installments. I have told my student. She literally skipped away. I have never seen a Tanzanian student so happy. We have a date to go to the regional capital to fill out her application for a passport and visa, and then in 5 months she will be in America for a month.

It's amazing how much that one awesome thing has brought my spirits up. The last few weeks have been very frustrating, for several reasons. The first reason is that three weeks ago our water pump at the school broke, so I haven't had any running water (if any volunteers are reading this that don't normally have water, I now feel your pain. Poleni) I have been surviving on about 1 ½ buckets of water today...thats about 30L (I also have not done laundry in quite a long time...). So now, students have to walk to the river to fetch water. Up until three weeks ago when the pump broke, I didn't even know there was a river near the school. Know why I didn't know? Because the river is nowhere near the school. It is about ¾ of a mile down a really big hill. And students have to go fetch 3 or 4 buckets of water a day: one for the kitchen, one for bathing, one for cleaning, and since teachers don't fetch their own water (myself included...), students also must fetch water for the teachers and workers at the school. I decided that I'd go with the students today and have them teach me how to carry a bucket of water on my head. I got about half a bucket of water and made it about half the way up the hill before I was exhausted and soaking wet from spilling the water (carrying stuff on your head is tougher than Africans make it look). The kids do this several times a day! So besides the kids being physically exhausted from walking up a giant hill with a bucket of water on their heads several times a day, it is also quite disruptive for the school schedule. Today, we didn't have any classes becauses students were choting water literally all day. And even on good days, the students don't get to the classroom until 9:30 or 10:00 because, at the very least, they must get 2 buckets before entering the classroom: one for the kitchen so the cooks can make breakfast and one for a bath, because it is absolutely unheard of not to shower in the morning...So, on a good day, the students miss 3 or 4 periods everyday.

On top of all the not-teaching that is going on...the Rungwe region has decided (we heard of this yesterday) that they are going to do a regional form III placement test so that the spectrum of the best students in the entire region to the worst students. Best schools to the worst schools. I teach form III. I haven't finished the syllabi yet. And since I am not teaching because there's no water...I probably won't be able to finish the syllabus. Ohhh stressful. Everybody's pretty upset about this test. For one, the students and teachers haven't really prepared, but also because the government isn't helping with any of the expenses of the test. And since they waived the fee for the Form II NECTA exam, the school is already over budget. Its just a no-win situation for everybody: the teachers, the students, the schools.

And, to make things just a little bit more ridiculous: the school has decided to send students home on Friday to collect school fees. Which means that they probably won't return to school until Wednesday or Thursday of next week....My question is why not send them home tomorrow, since we aren'ts getting the chance to teach because of the water, and have them come back Sunday...and pray that water is fixed by then...

Oh Tanzania. If I wasn't go excited that my kid gets to go to America, I'd probably be annoyed with the inefficiency.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mock Exam Results

So the education system in Tanzania is as follows: Primary school goes from standard 1 to standard 7. At the end of standard 7, students need to pass a national exam in order to continue with their education. Students who “pass” the national exam move onto secondary school. I put pass in parenthesis because by western standards, the huge majority of them still fail miserably…I’m not sure what the grades are for primary schools but for secondary school, a 25% is passing….So, in secondary school, students study from form I – IV. In form I and form II students take nine subjects: civics, history, English, Kiswahili, math, physics, chemistry, biology, and geography. At the end of form II, students again need to take a National Test (called the NECTA). However, since so many students were failing the form II NECTA, in all it’s infinite wisdom, it was decided that although students still need to take the test, they can continue on to form III even if they do not pass the test (again, passing is a 25%). After form II students can drop physics and chemistry, so in form III and form IV, students study between 7 and 9 subjects. Again in form IV, students take a NECTA. The results of the form IV NECTA decide whether a student can continue on to A-Level. Students who pass their NECTAs are selected to A-Level schools, where they study a combination of three subjects. The subjects they study are dependent on which subjects they did well in on their form IV NECTA.

So every year, schools do what are called “mock exams”. Like the name implies, they are mock NECTA exams. Students in form II and form IV, sit for a week of tests to help prepare them for the real thing. This happened about 3 weeks ago in my region of Tanzania. And we got the results back today. My school was 34/204 in math and 127/204 in biology (I forgot the exact numbers so I am estimating a bit, but I remember we were about the 20th percentile for math and about the 50th for biology). That sounds pretty good right? We’re about average!

Yea. Great. 7 of the 104 students in the form IV at my school did not fail biology. Yes, 97 students got an “F” in biology. The 7 that did not get an F, got a D. Let me remind you that an F is anything under a 25%. A D is between a 25% and a 40%. Nobody got above a 40% and still we did better than about 50% of the schools in the region. Really? That’s ridiculous.

As we were looking at the results the other teachers and I got to talking about what the problem was. I said that I thought that the syllabi were way to long so that the students did not get the chance to understand the material because they were rushing through the material too much. The other teachers disagreed because it’s not like everyone fails, there are a few people that pass…the problem is that the students do not study enough, they just hang around and don’t do anything.

Let me tell you the school-day schedule for my school. Students wake up at 6 am to do “usafi” (cleaning the school grounds) They then bathe and must be in the classroom by 7 am. They have school between 7:30-2:00 with a half hour chai break. From 3:00-5:00 students have remedial classes, meaning teachers can enter the classroom to teach more – if a teacher is not entering the classroom, then students do not need to be studying, but most days, students study during remedial time. From 8:00 – 11:00 students have “prep time”. All students are required to be in the classroom between these hours. Students study plenty here! They are studying, literally, all day. How can people think that it is the students fault? That they are not studying enough? The problem is that the syllabus is so ridiculously long, the tests are written so difficult, teachers are not super qualified to teach (I mean so of them, I’m sure got 26% on their NECTAs and are now teaching the material), and students don’t understand English. I mean, why does it matter how much they study if the material they are studying the do not understand?

It’s frustrating. However much I try to teach…most of my students will still fail. And, I’m not even that great of a teacher. It’s difficult to learn the material the night before and then have to teach it. What this country needs is to switch secondary education to Swahili or primary education to English so that students would either learn English in primary school and therefore understand English by the time they reach secondary school or they need to switch secondary school to Swahili so that students understand what the heck they are learning about. The way it is n

Monday, September 6, 2010

Peace Corps Tanzania Packing List

In the past several weeks, I have recieved some emails and a few facebook messages from my future wenzangu volunteers. In honor of the 35 some-odd education volunteers that we will be recieving at the end of this month, my site-mate (Andrew) and I wish to compile a list of "burdens to bear" and "parcels to pitch"

Kwanza. Burdens to Bear - stuff we brought and/or brought and are glad we did.
-Warm clothes. What you're going to Africa, why the heck would we need a fleece jacket and wool socks? Maybe you'll be stuck in Tanga, where you wish it was culturally appropriate to skinny-dip in an ice bath. Or you could end up in Mbeya, where, more often than not, in order to reach your classroom you need to trudge out in the fog'n rain and it 50-degrees out. But we have the best fruit :) Thank you rain.
-Computer. When you have 200 math papers to mark, you'll be really glad that you have a computer with 3 full seasons of Chuck, a season of Glee, and some Eureka, along with a handful of movies. (ps - for those coming this month, we formally request the second half of Eureka-season 3 and season 4, the second half of season 1 of Glee, season 2 of Dollhouse, and the movie "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.) Computers are also good for digital resources that are floating around the country.
-Good cooking knives unless, of cource, you want to try to decapitate a chicken with a knife that is as sharp as the edge of a wooden table. Not fun for the chicken.
-A textbook or two of the subject you are teaching (Andrew disagrees with me here. But I think he is wrong)
-Headlamp. For when electricity sucks.
-Spices. Because rice and beans get boring.
-Floss. Because my daddy thinks that flossing multiple times a day is normal and fun. And necessary. So two years worth of floss: whether that is one roll of twenty...Dad, how many rolls do you reccommend?
- Undies and bras - Unless you want to buy the low-quality(possibly pre-worn) undies and bras that they sell at the local duka. Andrew thinks its OK to wear pre-worn bras because at worst there's a little bit of milk-leakage.
-Maps are fun to look at
-A fun book to read. Don't bring to many. The PCV Tanzania book exchange will always be available.
-Andrew suggests clothes hangers.

ANDREW: One pair of pants. Three collared shirts (2 of them Tanzania print shirts, bought here), two pairs of socks, 4 or 5 pairs of underwear, 3 undershirts.

KATIE: 3 skirts/shirts (many of them bought here in Tanzania), 7 pairs of undies, pair of pants, t-shirt.

Our point: Hand-washing is a bitch, the acceptable length between washings is dramatically increased. You'll also be able to buy clothes here for super cheap. Don't pack tons of clothes. Its silly.


-Mirror - They cost about the equivalent of 30 cents.
-Medicine - PC gives you a ton of medicine.
-Pillows and sheets - Unless you just can't let go of your little Mermaid sheets, PC gives you pillows and sheets, so don't waste your two bags trying to fit in a pillow.
-"One extra nice dress for special functions" - waste of money! They will get ruined. Mabye bring and extra $10 so you can buy fabric and get it sewn here. The only time Andrew has worn his extra nice dress was on a cruise. In Greece. Never in Tanzania.
-The TZ packing list suggests you bring 6 different pairs of shoes. This is silly. Bring one nice pair of dress shoes, and pair of walking shoes, and a pair of sandals. If you need more, buy them here.
-Cookbook. You get one here, which uses locally available foods.

Our advice is to PACK LIGHT. You get two bags and 80 pounds. Don't fill it. During PST, you will get a LOT of stuff, and somehow you need to get all that stuff on a bus to site, after PST. Most things you can buy here, for cheaper (and sometimes lower quality) than you'd buy in the states. But if Tanzanians do without them, so can you.

Look forward to meeting all the new volunteers! Hope your next 3 weeks in the States is great. Make sure to eat lots icecream and cheese and drink some good American beer, with come good company. It'll be a long time before you have it again!