The views expressed herein are mine and not those of the Peace Corps.



Useful Acronyms

PC Peace Corps
ICT Information & Communications Technology
PCT Peace Corps Trainee (pre-swearing-in)
PCV Peace Corps Volunteer (post-swearing-in)
PST Pre-Service Training
CBT Community-Based Training


When I was home, one question I got from just about everyone was “so do you think in Swahili now?” It seems pretty basic, but it really got me thinking, because I don’t think in any language at all, really. Since then I’ve had a few conversations about how various people’s thought processes work. Kit and Chris and Katie said that they all have interior monologues, little voices in their heads that talk more or less constantly, at various speeds. Moritz said that he thinks in pictures, unless he’s very tired and then he reverts to words (“right before I start talking to myself out loud” he said). And I had an interesting e-mail exchange with David about the way we both think, which I’ve been articulating as follows:

It’s basically like a lake. The surface can be placid or choppy but most of the important stuff goes on under the surface. If I need to say something, need an opinion, whatever, it appears but I don’t know how. The process is opaque to me, which may be one of the reasons why I’ve always found math proofs hard: I arrive at an answer but simply can’t say how I got there. Dave said, and I agree, that this makes it a lot easier for him to pick up tasks (and often makes him frustrated when others don’t pick things up as quickly as he does) but that it also inhibits him from developing the obsession needed to produce works of true genius. We lake-minded people seem to be, by nature, talented dilettantes, easily able to master skills but having difficulty finding the dedication to achieve absolute mastery. I’ve even started wondering if perhaps my eye for details (and my prodigious ability to be irritated to distraction by small things that others don’t even notice) could be related as well.

And the real reason I’m posting this is that talking about these things has made me very curious about the people around me, so I wanted to ask you: how do you think? Words, pictures, opaque processes, or something totally different? How do you think the way your mind works affects your personality and the way you do things? Reply in the comments, please, I’m super curious! And if any of you has an idea of how to find literature on this topic without being flooded with stuff about learning styles, I’m all ears.

Haina radi

There was another storm tonight over Lake Nyasa (do you all call it Lake Malawi? I can’t remember). I could see the lightning flashing from my bedroom window, lower than the last storm, half-hidden behind the mountains.

It’s almost March. The crocuses have started to bloom in our front yard, my mother told me on the phone. “That means it’s almost my birthday,” I said, telling her something that she’s always known, smiling and almost crying at the same time. A cat rubs his head against my hand and I focus on him, forgetting the flowers that mean spring. It’s not spring here, never really will be. Apples and pears and peaches are in season, all at once. Rain comes and goes, clouds hovering in the distance. “In March and April, that’s when the rain will come,” Mama Ismael says, but even now I feel like we’re not getting enough. I think that last year, it rained almost every day; lately, it’s twice a week if we’re lucky. Then two or three days full blazing sun, and the rest overcast, the kind of days that make Mama Ismael say “it wants to rain” but which then don’t deliver.

The power was out today, so I didn’t teach. Instead I spent a couple hours with her at the market, sitting cross-legged on a wooden stool, watching people walk by, occasionally talking. I really like sitting with her on market day, when it seems like the whole town passes in front of her little store. It’s not so much the people but the fabrics that I like to look at, thinking about what I’d do with that print, wouldn’t it be nice if only it were different colors, I should have bought it when I saw it in the store, who’d have thought it’d look that good on, instead of hanging on a wall? I feel like I’m hyper-attuned to the fabrics here; any time I walk with a friend I’ll interrupt the conversation at the drop of a hat to comment on a kitenge or kanga a woman’s wearing. It reminds me of walking around Budapest with Mary. We’d see a woman in great tall boots walk by and start talking about them, no referent, just knowing that the other had seen them. Except that, with few exceptions, my friends here have no idea what I’m referring to.

Wengine wanasinzia

Bret said the rain started at 4 A.M. It was still raining hard–but not pouring–when I woke up at 4.30. The car was supposed to leave at 5 so we were out before 5, waiting along the road in the shelter of the post office. And wait we did. We waited like champs, and waited some more, and then (just to mix things up) we waited a bit.

It started to get light, still raining on and off. We were in telephonic contact with the driver of the car. After half an hour he said hew as coming “soon” (which, to a Tanzanian, can really mean anything). After an hour he admitted that the car was broken and they were doing repairs. “But I’m coming right now,” he assured us. ‘Right now’, of course, meaning anything from five minutes to two hours.

At 6.45 it was quite light. The minibus from Makete pulled into town. We hustled down the muddy hill, mostly managing not to slip, and got the last three seats. So we were underway, stopping frequently to clear fallen branches and trees felled by the previous night’s impressive wind storm. A half hour after we started we stopped for the conductors to move large rocks from the trunk to the middle of the vehicle; shortly thereafter they tossed them all into a huge muddy pit.

And this is the good road out of Makete.

Our first big bump sent us all a foot in the air–at 15 miles per hour. In the back the guys giggled hysterically; I turned around and we all traded manic smiles. After that the bumps didn’t faze us.

Maybe an hour into the ride we came upon a tree, 2′ in diameter, fallen across the roadway. It was a mere half hour between our arrival and the tree’s removal, courtesy of a guy with a chainsaw they went to fetch on a motorcycle. While we waited for the tree to be cleared, the car we didn’t wait for passed us, climbing a hill our minibus couldn’t manage.

The storm damage is really unbelievable. Aside from the various trees and branches we clear out of the way, we see houses toppled, corn fields flattened, roofs carried away, and an entire brick wall, demolished.

We climbed up onto Kitulo plateau, at almost 10,000 feet, playing leapfrog with the red car we didn’t get into as it breaks down and we pass it, then they repair it and speed by us. The plateau was freezing and rainy and shrouded in clouds. Moritz almost fell under the wheel of our vehicle helping to push it out of a mud pit (one of the few times it’s good to be a woman in this country, as only the men are expected to help with this dirty, tiring work). Eventually we made it to the road, passing the red car a final time, arriving two hours after we’d expected to.

The next day, my plan to hike to the crater lake having been thwarted by an insurrection within the ranks (my usually effective strategy of simply informing people of the plan and allowing them to opt in or out having backfired), we went to a hot spring and bat cave instead. The hot spring was uninspiring, to say the least, but the cave was pretty cool. Highlights of the trip included: waiting for two hours along the side of the road for the remainder of our group; serenading a village council with the Tanzanian national anthem, played on a dozen kazoos; being chased by three members of said council on bikes, having obtained a ride in a car; the bat cave itself (of course); spinning in one of those whirling teacup rides on a green lawn in a place that looked too clean to be the Tanzania we know; an all-girl foosball tournament; trying and failing to finish a 5-liter tub of strawberry ice cream; excellent pizza; watching the Winter Olympics while blindingly loud Bongo Flava played. It was rather a busy day.

We got to bed at perhaps 1.30 and were up at 5.15 to be out the door at 5.30 to be at the road by 6.00 to be on the dala by 6.15 to be at the junction by 6.45 to be on the car before 7, when it left. Success! The car we got onto was driven by an adorable old man (who everyone called ‘Babu’, literally meaning ‘grandfather’ but used in casual conversation to refer to any older man), accompanied by an apathetic young conductor. To our surprise and pleasure they didn’t pack the car to to the gills as Tanzanians usually do; much less to our pleasure, though no less to our surprise, the door I was leaning against popped open repeatedly not too long into our drive. (With four of us across in the middle seat, not leaning on the door is not at all an option.) I slammed the door; it popped open. Babu slammed it; it popped open. Eventually the conductor deigned to rouse himself, walked around the car, hurled the door shut, and it stayed. I braced my shoulder against the doorframe, my feet against a metal bar, and held onto the seat for dear life for the duration of the ride.

The other three nodded off quickly, chins on their chests, and I pulled out my iPod and headphones. The ride was mostly uneventful–the mud that was so troubling in a minibus proved little problem in a four-wheel drive vehicle–except that we almost collided with other vehicles twice. The first time, when we almost hit a lumber truck on a blind curve, we stopped a scant foot from the side of the lorry, saved only by Babu’s surprisingly good reflexes. Jess and I looked at each other. “I think that’s the closest I’ve come to death on the roads in this country,” I observed. She nodded, both of us distressingly calm. In America we’d have been freaking out, but here it’s all too normal.

The others got off first; I moved to the front seat, and Babu talked to me in English for the ride from Bulongwa to Makete. Occasionally in villages we’ll randomly encounter old men who speak excellent English, relics of the British colonial educational system. Babu wanted to talk about Switzerland and tropical diseases (and the lack of the latter in the former) but I could hardly hear him over the rattling of the Landcruiser on the rocky road, so I mostly just smiled and nodded.

Home, I was greeted by frantic cats, starving for both food and attention. Dead tired, I fed them then pulled on my pyjamas and climbed into bed. The cats, purring, accompanied me. I fell asleep at 2 P.M., expecting to nap for a few hours and then go to the market, and was woken at 7 A.M. the next day by my neighbor’s too-loud Swahili gospel music. So it goes.

Mapenzi mno

Mama Ismael’s daughter Maria failed her Form II exams. What this actually means is unclear–before two years ago it would have meant repeat the year or drop out; two years ago the government decided to essentially invalidate all Form II results and let everyone continue to Form III; but they may or may not have changed their minds again. That doesn’t really matter, she says, because she’s pretty sure Maria wouldn’t want to go back to school even if she could proceed to Form III instead of repeating Form II. Maria, she says, is distracted by matters of love. (“Unlike all the other teenagers in the world” I successfully avoid saying.) Mama Ismael explains it this way:

If you try to deal with two problems at once, one will become a snake. On the farm, can you farm with one hand and cook with the other? No. It’s not possible. Both hands need to be doing the same thing. Your thoughts need to be in one place. In the kitchen, if you’re cooking but thinking of something else, you’ll put sugar in the vegetables instead of salt. You have to pay attention to where you are, what you’re doing.

It’s the age-old complaint of the parent: there will be plenty of time to live! Focus on your studies! The world, says Mama Ismael, will still be there when Maria’s done with school. It will wait for her. But Maria doesn’t realize that; she sees a handsome boy and doesn’t understand that more are being born every day. So she’s neglected her schoolwork. She sleeps out, some nights.

Tanzanian parenting and schooling are interesting, particularly when contrasted with their equivalents in America. Although Tanzanian parents and teachers may have more control over the physical actions of the children, I think that American ones have more control over thoughts and behavior patterns. If the only discipline method you know how to use is physical, than the only control you’ll get will be physical control. The speech that Mama Ismael gave me (much longer than the one above, which has been abridged and translated for your reading pleasure) was what she clearly wanted to say to her daughter, but probably never will. “You should talk to Maria about it,” I told her, “try to explain this to her” and she agreed that she should, but I don’t think she will. As far as I’ve observed, that’s not how Tanzanian parent-child relationships function.


They tell you, when you join the Peace Corps, that you’ll have more free time than you’ve ever had in your life. Coming out of 16+ straight years of school, you figure that can hardly not be the case. After all, Peace Corps won’t have homework, right?

You have no idea what they mean until you’re done with training, done with culture shock, at site. I got to Tanzania two Septembers ago; now it’s February. I’ve read over two hundred books, watched innumerable hours of television and movies on my computer, sent hundreds if not thousands of text messages and written what must by this point be about a book’s worth of e-mails, blog posts, and journal entries.

Sometimes I do my job, too.

I taught today, actually had kids in the computer lab for the first time since who knows when. My sitemate Bret called me right after the class ended; when he asked how I was I replied, slightly giddy: “I just taught a class, and it didn’t suck!” Kind soul that he is, we chatted about it for a while before I got around to asking him how he was. “I woke up last night with a 105-degree fever,” he said matter-of-fact-ly. We talked about that for a bit, I gave him my condolences, and we hung up; I called him back a moment later to recommend that he watch a certain TV show, if he needed something to distract him during his convalescence.

Then I was home, having fled the school, as I generally do, as soon as classes ended. I lit my charcoal stove and started boiling bath water, then mixed up some banana bread to use up both the leftover coals and the bananas I’d had for long enough that they had started to support an entire fruit fly civilization. While the water was boiling I did the calisthenics I did every morning, put off today because I knew I’d be bathing later. The water came close to boiling and I took it off the charcoal, put the bread on. I use a makeshift oven consisting of a large pot with a tripod of small rocks in the bottom, topped with a metal tray and a blanket on top of that. The item to be baked sits on the rocks while the blanket provides a reasonable facsimile of a heating element on top. Things tend to burn on the bottom but in general it works pretty well.

Bread safely baking, I dumped the hot water into a bucket, topped it off with some cold water from the tap, and had my bucket bath. Imagine having to bathe from a bucket of water, using a pitcher, and you’ve pretty much got it.

Bathing always makes me tired, I’m not really sure why, and today was no exception. After ascertaining that the bread would not be baked by the start of the class I’d pretty much decided to put off until next week anyway (there were electrical issues the first two days of the week, and I hate for students at the same level to be at different points in my curriculum: it gets too confusing!) I retreated to bed. A cat crawled in next to me and I curled around him. Distant thunder rumbled as the clouds drove sunlight away. It rained for a while, a soothing static that didn’t threaten to come in the windows, that wouldn’t blow under the doors. I don’t actually nod off but I relax into the warmth of the blankets and the cat, eyes closed, breathing even, ears filled with the quiet sound of the rain.

Muziki yangu

Music has always been important to me, something that I strongly associate with specific times of my life. Listen to Elvis Costello’s album ‘My Aim Is True’ and I find myself driving my beloved yellow Volvo station wagon along the windy mountain roads surrounding State College, PA; ‘Kojak Variety’ finds me a bit later that summer, driving a rental car very fast along the broad, straight highways around Phoenix. Put on Doves’ ‘The Last Broadcast’ and I’m in the back seat of a rental van with my family, plugged into my CD player with a teenager’s sullen conviction that I’m right, watching the sunflower fields of southern France fly by outside the window. The Wailin’ Jennys’ ‘Firecracker’ is the trip up to Acadia I took senior fall with two friends; Alison Krauss & Union Station’s ‘New Favorite’ is sophomore fall, hunched over my computer in my dorm room, driving my roommate crazy listening to the album on repeat as I tried to get over a break-up. The soundtrack for our post-graduation road trip was Brad Paisley’s “I’m Still a Guy”, which played–seemingly on repeat–on every country radio station we listened to. We initially greeted it with cheers and then, one by one, began to groan as we heard the first notes.

In the kitchen today, iPod on shuffle, I tried to figure out what the soundtrack to Tanzania would be. Dar Williams’ ‘The Beauty of the Rain’? Sugarland’s ‘Enjoy the Ride’? Amy Winehouse? Beck? The Cowboy Junkies? Eddie from Ohio? Ollabelle? I won’t know what my Tanzania soundtrack is, I realized, until after the fact. I won’t know until I’m at home, in a context that is definitely not here, and the first few notes of a song transport me to a bus on a bumpy road, the top of the mountain between here and where my sitemates live, my bed covered in two purring cats.

I kind of can’t wait to know what it’ll be.


Since I woke up this morning, my shoulders and left arm have felt strange, as though someone took them apart and wasn’t quite sure how to put them back together. My shoulders ache; my arm twinges strangely when it’s in perfectly normal positions. I have no idea why.

The weather has been apathetic lately. Walking home this evening I looked up at the half-grey half-blue sky, listening to distant rumblings, and imagine that the sky was like me, knowing that it should be raining but really not wanting to get out of bed.

I’ve been experiencing a strange overlapping of dreaming and waking. My dreams, never particularly elaborate or unbelievable, have seemingly become so prosaic that I forget that the things I dream about and the things I do in life are different. Like: I couldn’t decide, earlier today, if I’d actually been in Philadelphia yesterday. I dream about doing things here and then can’t figure out if my subconscious is screwing with me or not. It’s like high school, when my mom would knock on the door to wake me up and I’d roll over, go back to sleep, and dream that I was getting up an getting ready for school. When she knocked again, telling me to get dressed, I’d mumble “but I am!”

P.S. I scheduled my done-with-Peace-Corps meeting. It’ll be the morning of October 28, after which I will be home. In time for Halloween. Crazy!

Nipo tu.

“That car’s windshield looks like a Jackson Pollock painting made entirely of mud,” I said to Bret towards the beginning of our second day of travel, as we bumped along the pot-holed dirt road towards Makete. “That does not bode well for our trip.”

“I think you’ll really enjoy the mud patch before Tandala,” he replied. “On the way out we had to push the minibus up the mountain.” And he was right: that part of the road was truly a sight to see, loose, churned-up mud all the way up the mountain. It wasn’t far from the spot where the bus went off the road, killing three people and heralding the end of bus service until the end of the rainy season.

The trip wasn’t bad, though, despite that mud. It helped that it hadn’t rained in a day or two, so the mud was better than it could have been. It helped that we were in a minibus instead of a big bus, and that the worst mud patch was downhill for us rather than up. We got to site in a little under six hours, counting an hour of waiting in Tandala while people were dropped off and others got on. Once the rains start in earnest, though, I think that if we want to leave we’ll have to take the other road, towards Mbeya instead of Njombe.

I arrived home exhausted, slightly sick, to find one very skinny cat who was delighted to see me. His brother was MIA; I was afraid to ask my friend who was taking care of them where he was, afraid that he got sick and died. So the one cat and I unpacked (he being as involved as possible, shoving his face into my hand and mewing plaintively) and then sat in bed as I worked on the book I’d been reading since Dar. I felt strange, out of place. Stuck between two worlds. As great as the visit home was, I didn’t quite belong there any more–things proceeded without me, friends changed in ways I hadn’t predicted, everything seemed a little off. But I don’t belong here, either, and that’s never been clearer to me. Probably I just need to re-adjust, need to be less exhausted, but as I sit staring at my book but not seeing it, I want to be somewhere else, but I don’t know where that is. Neither place seems right.

The closest to home I got, actually, was the weekend my family spent at the beach house. There, nothing had changed, and I could convince myself that things were as they always were. In our house there were subtle differences: new glasses in the cupboard, a new painting on the wall, a new sink in the bathroom. The sorts of things you only notice when you’ve been away from a wholly familiar environment for a little too long.

The next day I go to school in the morning, set up the new power strips I bought in Dar, peer out the window at the students cutting grass, hoeing flower bets, hauling water. Then I walk into town to visit friends, make myself seen. “Where’s my gift from America?” people I barely know ask when I tell them where I’ve been. “Haven’t got one, sorry!” I reply with a smile to soften the blow. They don’t really expect anything, necessarily, but seem to figure that it never hurts to ask.

Even as I resume my normal routine, chatting with friends, I’m still haunted by this feeling that I don’t belong here. “I missed you!” one friend tells me, and I reply in kind even though she barely crossed my mind while I was home. From America, this whole country seemed like a strange dream, something I’d just woken up from. Something that changed me so subtly that I felt the same, even as the differences wore at me like a stone in my shoe. Arriving home from the airport late at night, I strode into the kitchen, grabbed a glass from the cabinet without thinking, and filled it with tapwater. It was only as I started to gulp it down that I did a double-take and almost spit out the water before remembering that no, in America the tapwater’s safe to drink. When I take a bus up to Philly I half-expect to see vendors out the window selling eggs, fruit, cell talk time, but the windows are sealed shut. Tanzania peers around the corners, always in my peripheral vision but never there when I try to look at it head-on, as elusive as a reflection in my glasses.

And despite all that, I don’t feel changed. I expected to come home from Africa a dramatically different person, but it turns out that I’m the same, that my Africa-self and my America-self are neatly partitioned. I have no urge to speak Swahili with black people (as I’d half-feared I would), and despite those corner-of-the-eye glimpses and the nagging sense that something’s different, I feel like the same person. I cut off a foot of my hair, but that doesn’t change me. I have my left ear pierced, something that for years I thought I’d never do, but I’m still the same.

But now I’m back here and, looking back, I can see clearly what I didn’t see in America: I’m trapped in between. Between the girl who can sit on a bus for three hours and not talk and not miss it and the one who reflexively starts a conversation with the Tanzanian sitting next to her. Between our kitchen in Arlington, full of light and family, and my kitchen here, full of nothing but me.


Back in Tanzania since Sunday, I have a week in Dar es Salaam for my class’s Mid-Service Conference (which is exactly what it sounds like) before I head back to Makete.

So tonight we all had dinner together at the Badminton Institute, an Indian restaurant downtown. We’d planned to arrive at 6 but did so to find that the restaurant didn’t open until 7 (we sipped passionfruit juice at the side of the road, waiting). What with the complexity of paying both a food and a drinks tab for 30 people, I didn’t get back to where I was staying until 10.30, late for me in any country even when I’m not jet-lagged.

Thanking my lucky stars that I’m staying with friends of the family rather than at a hostel (and feeling a bit guilty at leaving so early and staying out so late), I walked into the house, said goodnight to my gracious hosts, and stepped into the shower to wash off the grime of the city.

Dar is a very grimy city. All day I kept looking at my feet, disbelieving that they were so filthy, and rubbing a patch clean, marveling at the grossness. There’s clove soap in the shower, and I emerge feeling clean and smelling wonderful, like Christmas potpourri.

And then, to bed. Despite some jet lag, I managed to stay awake all day today (unlike yesterday, which featured two naps of two and three hours, as well as an early bedtime).

Narudi Tanzania

Heading to the airport for an epic journey featuring a day-long layover at Heathrow in about an hour. Thank you to everyone who made this an excellent vacation. A more detailed post may or may not be forthcoming.