Monday, December 31, 2012

Heri ya Mwaka Mpya!

Heri ya Mwaka Mpya! Happy New Year!! I’m hearing people outside in impromptu parades banging on pots, singing in the streets, and ringing in the new year.

Yesterday, the Tanzanian MKLM community received its two newest members. Yesterday was also the one year anniversary of OUR arrival in Tanzania.

And what a year it has been.

It has been a challenging year, a year full of wonderful experiences and incredibly difficult times. Yet, here we are. We survived, and we’re stronger for it.

Katie and I have been doing a lot of reflecting, evaluating, and planning for ways to make Year 2 of Mission a better and more productive time. And in all of this, I’ve thought a lot about this past year. Here is one of my many reflections, but one I think is at the core of my experience here in TZ:

I came to mission with a desire to help people. I got an MSW because of the skills I could use to work overseas. I came with a desire, a calling, a mission, to meet the people of Tanzania, to hear their stories, and do my part to improve their lot in life.

But this year has really been about me. This year has been dominated NOT by my work for others, but by my own vulnerability and need. I needed to learn the language (still do). I needed help understanding people. I needed help when we were robbed. At times, I needed to care for my sick wife. I needed to nurse my own homesickness. I needed to get my house set up and in order, etc. It was all about ME ME ME.

And that’s OK.

This is a year I learned a lot about myself, not all of it good. But this was a year that was necessary- a purgatory of sorts- to sort through my own baggage. Before I can help others, my head- and my heart- need to be in their proper place. They’re still not yet there, but 2012 allowed for some great strides to get to where I need to go to really start being the missioner I want to be.

I was always a little frustrated when people would hear what we were doing and would say “You’re doing AMAZING THINGS!” I always want to say, “No, you’re just amazed by what we’re doing.”  But I’m realizing that for my first year in mission, no accolades are deserved, but for myself, a little simple amazement at what I’m doing is OK. Just "being" is amazing enough for me.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

When Life Gives You Termites…

OK, so if you are a reader of either this blog or Katie’s blog, you should be aware of the little termite problem we have had recently. If you are NOT aware, I’ll simply let this video speak for itself:

 Yeah, it was a problem.

But rather than simply slap a band-aid on a larger problem, we took the bull by the horns and went MEDIEVAL ON THESE BUGS. That’s right, termites. The Reids DON”T PLAY. WE KEEP IT REAL REAL, SON.

So basically, I talked my landlord into ripping out all the wood paneling in the living room an dining room (the only two rooms in the house that had it) by basically convincing him that any wood paneling left was an invitation to a termite buffet. That and I basically said “I’m starting to rip out the walls regardless of your answer because the house is infested with bugs, so you just let me know how you’re gonna handle the repairs.” Mind you, all of this was discussed via text message or a mutual acquaintance that knows little English.

He wanted us to pay half, I said I would NOT since it wasn’t my house, but I did end up paying a decent amount. I was on a time limit so I couldn't haggle all that much, and additionally, to save time and not rely on other people's schedule so I agreed to do the painting if the landlord bought the paint. That took some wrangling, but ultimately, after three weeks of working and negotiating, we have a living/dining room that we are really happy with.

So, lesson to the termites: Don’t mess with the Reids. We won’t simply roll over and let you eat our house. YOU WILL RUE THE DAY YOU STARTED EATING OUR WALLS.

So basically, this was our living room before. Not bad, but lot of termite food.

Then a bunch of of ripping out wood, fixing concrete, painting, and cleaning happened.

And now this is our living room / dining room.

Not bad at all.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Tanzanian Christmas

Merry Christmas from Tanzania!

It’s very late on Christmas Day here in Mwanza. (Actually, it's past midnight now, so it's technically Boxing Day. Happy Boxing Day!) We’ve been to church, opened presents, taken naps, sent emails, had dinner with our Maryknoll community, all while our friends and families back in the States were just waking up and starting their day. It’s been strange to be here, so far away from home, both geographically and culturally. But Katie and I have found that it hasn’t been as hard as we expected. It’s strange to be having Christmas on a warm, sunny day, but I’ve done that before (Mississippi represent-sent!). It’s strange to not see many of the familiar signs of Christmas: Christmas trees, reindeer, snowmen, etc. However, Christmas is about more than those symbols, of course. It’s about friends and family and the celebration of Christ’s birth. And we have found these things here.

We also found Leatherface Santa. More on that below.

Last Friday, we headed up to spend the weekend with our fellow missioners Liz and Sr. Marion. On the way, we made a long-overdue stop to visit with John Sweya and his family, friends we met on our 2006 trip to Tanzania. The Sweyas saw us for just one week 6 years ago- not exactly what I would think would create a strong bond- but we were touched by how excited they were to see us. We had lunch, walked around their property, and spent a few hours sharing about our lives over the last 6 years. 

The craziest thing was that when we visited, their daughter was just 9 years old, and adorable and precocious little girl. And she’s now a well-spoken, intelligent 15-year old high school student that wants to study medicine and teach at a university. Crazy. Anyway, during the holidays, to reconnect with such earnest and welcoming friends helps take the edge of the “strangeness’ of Christmas in another culture. John and I even got to recreate a picture from our 2006 TZ trip to commemorate our friendship.

John and I, 2006

 John and I, 2012

Next it was on to Musoma for our visit with Liz and Marion, who had a fully decked-out Christmas tree which also added to the feeling that it really was Christmas. A lot of the trip was uneventful in a very enjoyable way: baking cookies, snacking, watching TV, cracking jokes, playing games- the simple little pleasures that make spending time with friends enjoyable. However, we had a few special events.

The week of Christmas is known for having some important birthdays. Most notable of course is Jesus’s birthday, but MY birthday falls in there as well. And for my thirty-sixth birthday, we spent the morning with from HIV+ children of Lisa’s Pride, the support group run by Marion and Liz. We had the pleasure of accompanying the kids as they each picked out a special Christmas outfit. I was with a group of 7 boys between the ages of 4 and 10.No input from adults; the kids get to choose whatever they want. Each child is given a budget of 25,000 Tanzanian shillings, equivalent to about $17 USD. It was a fun day, watching the little guys shop for their own pants, shoes and shirts (with some help from Liz and I), but it was also a sobering reminder of the reality of these kids’ lives as well as the blessings we have in ours. These kids (and their caregivers, who also receive a small amount of money) were so excited to be given 25,000 tsh, which to them is a great amount. Later in the same day, Katie and I found some Christmas cards and a few picture frames we liked and without thinking spent 20,000 tsh to buy the items; our lives may be “hard” by our American standards, but our lives are blessed compared to the difficulties and challenges that face your average Tanzanian, much more so for families dealing with HIV infection.

At the end of the day, we all shared a meal and I was pleased to see there was a birthday cake in my honor! SCORE.

Alright. Leatherface Santa. I know you’ve all been waiting, so here’s the deal: Liz, Marion, Katie and I were sitting around at home playing a board game, when suddenly we hear bells ringing and singing coming down the street. Suddenly Liz jumps up and says “They’re coming here!” and she runs outside to put up the dogs. By the time I got outside, she had the gates open and this is what I see flowing in through the gates: a crowd of jumping, singing people and…Leatherface Santa.

Now, I want to point out that this was a church group out celebrating Christmas, and the man who was Santa was very nice and spoke good English so we could chat a minute. But you can’t tell me it doesn’t look like the Christmas Chainsaw Massacre and that this man killed Santa and is wearing his face as a mask.

Katie REALLY doesn’t like people in masks, so of course I made sure to make this picture happen.

Anyway, they said a few words, stayed a minute, then headed off down the road to bring cheer (and maybe a small amount of terror) to other people. As strange as it was, it was really fun and enjoyable to see something that is so familiar to us (Santa) show up regardless of the shape it took. It helped drive home the fact that it is indeed Christmas.

So I hope you have a wonderful Christmas Day. Remember the blessing we have and remember that the day is much more than presents*, but rather a celebration of the One who has give us the greatest gift of all. I’ll leave you with a video of a Tanzanian Sleigh Ride.

Merry Christmas!

* OK, one thing about presents. I received many wonderful gifts this year, but I want to give a shout-out to Katie because she got me a DRUM, which is a very self-sacrificing thing for her to do because I will play the hell out of a drum 24/7.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Did My Poetic Language Confuse You?

Cartoon from Minitrue.
This blog post is about cross-cultural communication. I communicate cross-culturally every day I live here in Tanzania, for better or worse. Now, there are numerous layers and facets to cross-cultural communication, but allow me to make a few simple generalizations for the sake of this blog. Obviously, the deepest and most vital layer is that of “meaning,” the understanding of right and wrong, proper and improper, and the contextual rationale behind an action. Understanding and navigating these types of differences are the truest challenge for a “stranger in a strange land.” Some things eventually make sense once you learn the cultural context, but other things will never make sense because they will always fly in the face of what you feel to be true and logical when viewed through your own cultural lens.
Then there are purely linguistic differences, differences that affect communication, but really just hinge on one person’s ability or inability to actually speak well in a second language. Now, language holds the key to culture, and I’m learning that in Swahili, the slightest nuance in phrasing can drastically shift the implied meaning of a statement. (It doesn’t help that the Sukuma people with whom I am immersed feel it is often better to indirectly approach most topics since being straight-forward is considered rude. Huh. That’s…inefficient. See: the paragraph above on “deep cultural differences.”) But sometimes, people just say things in a funny way, and you can’t help but laugh. (That’s is the whole idea behind this website.)

I’m certainly not MOCKING individual people for bungling English, because my Swahili is terrible and English itself is a big pile of crazy. But sometimes you can’t help but shake your head, giggle, and ask yourself ‘What the hell does this mean?” The following messages are texts I have received. I cannot tell whether these people were trying to impress me with big English words, or whether they were just trying to demonstrate their emotional investment in our friendship. Here are a few examples of text messages I have received over the last few months (with original misspellings). Again, I’m not making fun of these people, but it’s funny nonetheless. 

Text #1
How was your journey accomplished? I hope you enjoyed it. To me it has left a kindful memory that all people are equal and happier before GOD, GOD is blessing your couple as you love and respect people have a good night 

Text #2
How are you brother? Are you fine? Youre so silence. What is happening there? Did my poetic language confuse you I have guess I didn’t tell you that im a music talented student.

Text #3
It’s funny to have a rested breath after any of life trips, it’s accountably inevitable to interact kindfully with deferment people honestly to show your man kind. I’m still too young to know more about elder’s matters but I won’t meant to escape home obligations.

Text #4
What a place are you permanently settling, im not interested in making friends all over the world as it makes me funny enjoying life, I believe that no one can discover my talent but my real abriciative friends 

I get texts like this all the time. Again, I’m not making fun of the authors, but I cannot help but be tickled by the phrasing. It’s one of the constant sources of amusement we have here (and vice versa considering all the times people have laughed at my Swahili attempts). As for hyper-usage of big, dramatic words and phrases, Tanzanians tend to be pretty dramatic with their English anyway. I recently received a text from a women I met on a daladala. She paid for my ride, we chatted, we exchanged phone numbers, and she’s pretty consistently called or texted me since, for better or worse.

For better: a nice text asking how my day is going.
For worse: calling me at 7am and then speaking only Swahili and then sticking her 10-year-old granddaughter on the phone so I can chat with her. (After that one, I pretty much avoid her phone calls and text a follow-up “Sorry I missed your call” message later if she calls.) 

Anyway, I recently asked how her family was doing (via text), and she wrote this long, dramatic message about how her granddaughter had malaria and had been doing poorly but had looked up at her from her sickbed and asked if she could be sure that Mr. Chris was praying to God for her to be better, and that she assured her I was because I am a brother in Christ. (It must have taken her 20 minutes to type the text. It was a novel.) So, I have no problem with the sentiment in there, but since that was the first time I had even heard the granddaughter (who’s only met me twice) was sick, this struck me as a bit too intense and kinda freaked me out. I think I just wrote back “Uh, glad she’s feeling better,” and left it at that. (Poorly played, Mr. Missionary. Poor showing.) Anyway, this intense phrasing (as well as the inclusion of overtly Christian language) is common. Strangers stop us on the street (literally stop us as we walk by) and ask if they can have our phone number so we an be best friends. It’s just a linguistic quirk through the filter of a super-friendly people, but some days it’s funny, and some days it’s a bit disconcerting.

* Semi-Related Tangent: Is “Engrish” racist? I kind of think it is (and so does this guy), but some of my Asian friends are the ones that think it’s funniest. I do think its funny. And really, it’s not making a claim of superiority over another race; it’s just making fun of terrible, nonsensical translations and an illogical obsession with using English words on any/everything. However, the word itself does make fun of a speech pattern, which is racist. But I’m torn on this, too. The local language here in Mwanza, Kisukuma, doesn’t differentiate between “R” and “L” which leads to all sorts of amusing pronunciations such as “Do you want lice with your meal?” (No, thank you, I'll pass) or the fact that a friend of mine writes my name as “Kilis” because that’s how he hears it (say it quickly and you’ll see why.). The Sukuma people themselves laugh about this fact. So, racist or not? Or racist but harmless? Is there such a thing as “harmless racism?” Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Safari Njema

Safari” is a Swahili word that everyone knows, though most folks likely don’t know it means “trip” in Swahili. The verb form meaning “to travel” is “safiri.” So to say “We have traveled and we had a great trip,” one would say "Tumesafiri, na sisi tumekuwa na safari njema.

A few weeks ago we were fortunate enough to receive a visit from Katie’s mother and step-father, Diana and Jim. If that in itself wasn’t good enough, we were also blessed to have the chance to go on a 6-day safari into the Serengeti, the Ngorogoro Crater, and Lake Manyara National Park. Katie’s mother had been to the Serengeti and the Crater once before, but for Katie, Jim, and myself, this was our first trip into these parks. It should be noted that a safari, with all the fancy lodges and amenities that come with it, is still a rough bit of a slog. It’s hot, there’s a never-ending stream of dust, and riding around on a rough gravel road is exhausting. After 6-hours in a safari vehicle, you are pretty beat up and worn down. But it is so worth every bit of it.

The trip was great for several reasons, but on a practical level, it was nice to simply get out of Mwanza. Now, I try to not be whiny or too negative on this blog, but I will state that I don’t LOVE the city of Mwanza where we live. There are definitely benefits to living in a city- restaurants, well-stocked markets, and stores that sell pretty much anything you really need (for example, there are at least 3 computer dealers in town for any of our gadget needs). There are days when I DO like Mwanza, days when people are friendly, my Swahili actually comes out properly, I hit downtown with a to-do list that actually gets done, no one yells “Mzungu!” and a cool breeze off the lake carries pleasant music in the air from someone’s radio. On those days, Mwanza feels like home and it has some charms. But on other days, the city can be the epitome of urban development done wrong- or as I like to say, an example of “development when there is no development.” Tons of people, pushing, yelling, running every which way, people begging, dead-eyed intimidating stares sizing you up as you pass by, ragged-looking kids sleeping on the street, trash everywhere, smoky dirty air, 1000 radios playing music merging with street sounds into a cacophony of noise- there are a lot of days when this is the vibe of our town. Most days I can handle it and see the former description, some days I can’t see anything but the chaos.

So why am I saying this? Because one of the main benefits of the safari is reminding ourselves that Tanzania is primarily NOT chaos and is actually a land of undeniable beauty. Mwanza is “real” Tanzania, too, but it is good to get out of the urban busyness and into nature a bit more. The soul needs nature, and the disconnect from nature can take its toll. That purposeful opportunity to “enjoy” nature is one thing we don’t really have here in Mwanza, which is ironic, because I feel like life is so much closer to nature here than in the States: there are cows and chickens everywhere, we have bugs in our walls, floods and leaks are an unavoidable fact of life during the rainy season, we buy all our food fresh from farmers, there’s farmland and crops planted on every free patch of soil, the air smells of dirt and earth. We live in a very elemental environment- but we can’t “get away” and enjoy nature, per se. There are no easily accessible parks or preserves. No nature trails or greenways along the river, no picnic areas. So to be out in unspoiled national parks for a few days, where there are no radios, no trash, no busyness- it was good for our souls. It was hard to come back, but once I readjusted and hit “reset”, I’ve found Mwanza to be more palatable.

Another thing that was an unexpected boost from the trip was our ability to use Swahili. Most people on these trips are tourists that maybe pick up a few Swahili words from a brochure. The staff at the lodges spoke a simplified version to people as greetings. While we are certainly no experts, we knew more Swahili than most everyone else on the trip. So when we spoke it back to Tanzanians, their faces lit up in shock. It was funny because they seemed so programmed to speak simply that at times they didn’t seem to know how to respond to us in “real” Swahili. It was actually very empowering, and even though I wasn’t saying anything more in depth than “Excuse me, where’s the bathroom?” it made me see just how much better life will be here when I really get a handle on the language. It inspired me to double-down on learning the language (easier said than done, unfortunately).

Now, back to the safari itself: no words can describe it! It was beautiful and seeing the animals is quite thrilling. The landscape itself is beautiful, so I enjoyed driving around even when we weren’t finding any animals. But boy, did we see animals. In the first 24 hours we saw “The Big Five” (elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo, and leopard). Over the course of the 6 days, we literally saw 160-170+ elephants, around 60 lions, hundreds of zebras, and thousands of wildebeests. (We actually saw a lion take down a wildebeest!) Giraffes, baboons, flamingos, monkeys, warthogs, hyenas, hippos, crocodiles, and birds of all shapes and colors- the diversity and beauty of Creation was mind boggling. Additionally, we visited Olduvai Gorge**, where I was lucky enough to hold a rock that had been carved into a hand-axe around 1.5 million years ago by our primitive forefathers. We also visited the Shifting Sands, which didn’t seem to be much at first but is actually quite a bizarre natural phenomenon.

The Serengeti is massive and sprawling, so by far you have the greatest chances of seeing animal there by virtue of its size alone, though you may drive through areas where you don’t see anything at all. On our last day, we drove for well over an hour in one area that had virtually nothing in it- but when we DID see something, there were elephants, a pride of lions, and hundreds of zebras and wildebeests, so in the end the dry spells are evened out.

The Ngorogoro Crater is deceptively big from the vantage point of the rim. When we first arrived, I looked at it and thought “Huh, we’re gonna spend 6 hours in that?” because it just didn’t look that big to me from the rim, which once again proves I’m an idiot because the thing is MASSIVE and has a nice variety of landscapes and ecosystems within it. We filled 6 hours with no problem. We had a day off in the middle of our week to rest at a lodge on the rim and basically played cards for hours on the balcony at our lodge looking down into the crater. Fantastic view. In fact, the entire area around the Crater – the Ngorogoro Conservation Area- is beautiful.

Lake Manyara is also big, but not even a fraction of the Serengeti. However, its terrain seemed to be more diverse that the crater, so I think I liked it second to the Serengeti just due to the variety of the landscape (I like woods and trees). I would like to point out that when I rank these three parks, it the difference between an A+ and an A-. They’re all magnificent.

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Truly a fantastic trip and a blessing to have had the chance to experience it- a chance that many Tanzanians themselves will never have. So close yet so far away.

To see a larger selection of our pictures, click here to go to Katie’s Flickr page.***

* I always wondered why these particular animals were the "Big Five." I get the lion,elephant and rhino, but the leopard and the buffalo? Not the giraffe and the hippo? Those dudes are big. Well, thanks to the power of google, we can all learn the answer now.

**The correct spelling is actually OlduPAI which is a Masai word that has been mistranslated and made famous around the world.

***We took about 500 pictures. And Jim took another 1000. We’ll spare you and only present to you the best and/or one that shows a particular animal.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Worksheets, Websites, and Constitutions

I haven’t posted much lately. Sorry about that. But I have indeed been doing things worth sharing, so share I will.

In the last few months, I’ve made several trips to the village of Malya, about 2 hours out of Mwanza. In addition to home visits, my boss and I have been helping the parish women’s group become more of a working co-op. We’ve been helping them draft a constitution, elect officers, and decide on which group projects to pursue. I really like this group and enjoy my time out of the city.

We also invite two representatives of each of the co-ops to the Capacitar office at Mrs. Mbogoma’s house to meet each other and share ideas and concerns. The women did swap ideas and one group shared its constitution with the others to use as a guide for creating their own. A representative of SIDO (Small Industry Development Organization) also spoke and shared about what they do and the types of services they offer groups (microfinance options, trainings, etc). The women were very appreciative of the information they received. While the planning of this seminar was a collective effort, the idea was mine, so it was very satisfying to see it come to fruition.

Since my Kiswahili is still pretty lousy, most of my work is behind the scenes. I’ve designed a series of worksheets to serve as a guide to help the women select a feasible project that will be successful and profitable. The women have many good ideas, but a good idea doesn’t always translate into a realistic business plan.  I have also been designing a website for Capacitar Tanzania. I hope to have it live online soon.

 I’ve also been quite busy working on the arrival of our two new missioners, I’m in charge of orientation for the next year, so there have been emails, skype calls, immigration documents, etc to deal with. Additionally, I helmed the reapplication of 5 current missioners residency permits. Tanzania is updating its system for residency permits and cancelled all current permits. We had to reapply. It was frustrating. No exciting stories there. Just lots of paperwork and frustration. Bang your head against the wall a few times and you’ll get a close approximation. 

I also built this thing in our backyard (with the help of a neighbor). I’m very happy with how it turned out, and we have christened it “The Embassy.” It’s a safe place to serve as an escape when TZ beats us down.

 So that’s it for now. Katie’s mom and stepdad are here for 2 weeks, so I’ll have plenty of new stories to share soon.

 Please consider supporting our mission work. Financial Support can be sent to MKLM, P.O. Box 307, Maryknoll, NY 10545-0307 or online at Denote “Chris and Katie Reid- Mission Account” in the memo line or intention box to support us in mission. All contributions are tax deductible.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Join Us In Mission: An Appeal for Support

Hello, everyone!

Greetings from Tanzania.  Please allow me a few moments to make an appeal for financial contributions to support our missions. As you likely know, Katie has shifted her ministry and is now working with an NGO that works to prevent domestic violence, and I am working with an NGO to help strengthen women's cooperatives. Many of you have made contributions to us, and for that we are very grateful. Up until this point, these contributions have been credited to our fundraising efforts but have gone to general support for Maryknoll Lay Missioners as an organization (which is very critical- if MKLM cannot pay their light bills, there’s no support for those of us in mission).

However, we now have a Mission Account, which means that any money donated in our names goes into an account that we can access for supporting our specific ministries. As we get more settled into our work here, we are starting to identify ministry needs and ways in which we can help those with whom we work. And many of those needs require money. Some of the current needs that we have identified are as follows:
  1. Training manuals: I have gotten my hands on some very good electronic resources on organizing cooperatives; however, to function in a relatively low-tech environment, I want to get hard copies printed. Contributions can help with printing costs.
  2. Seminars and trainings for women: rather than simply give away money, a better use is to spend money for seminars and workshops to educate women on topics such as Entrepreneurship and Financial Management or technical skills such as soap making. Currently, I am researching different options for these types of programs, but all cost money and your contributions would help cover the costs of workshops.
  3. Transportation costs: often, our work requires that we travel out of the city and into more distant rural village areas. Gas and vehicle upkeep is expensive here, so your assistance can help defray these costs.
  4. Language Assistance: there have been discussions about hiring an assistant/interpreter to help me communicate during visits with co-op members, and both Katie and I would like to continue receiving Swahili lessons to improve our speaking ability. Your contributions can help.
  5. Continued support for the MKLM General Fund: we are able to shift money between accounts to make sure that MKLM has funds for its general operation budget. Again, no MKLM General Fund, no international ministry work.
As time goes on, we will certainly identify other ways that your support can help, but these are some of our current needs at this time. While we are the ones living overseas, please remember that we are just one part of the equation; with your support, we’re all in mission together. Please consider a contribution to our account; every little bit helps.

Financial Support can be sent to MKLM, P.O. Box 307, Maryknoll, NY 10545-0307 or online at Denote “Chris and Katie Reid- Mission Account” in the memo line or intention box to support us in mission. All contributions are tax deductible.

Thank you very much.


Monday, June 25, 2012

In Praise of Young Adult Literature, or Why I'm Glad I Didn't Read The Great Gatsby 19 Years Ago

I just read The Great Gatsby. I was assigned this book in 1993 to read as summer reading prior to my junior year of high school. I did not read it, and in fact I barely even watched the movie. I watched it in fast-forward the morning of the test. I posted about this on Facebook, and a friend of mine posted this comment in reply:  

Was it worth it? That book bored the hell out of me in high school.

That’s a totally legit question. Having now made good on a 19-year-old reading assignment, it once again has me revisiting something that I have often considered whenever I read classic that was assigned to me as a teenager, because Gatsby wasn’t the only one I skipped out on: Anna Karenina, Black Boy, Huck Finn, David Copperfield, etc. I’m sure there are more that escape me. It’s been a while. But this leads me to my question:

Why do schools insist on having kids read classic books?

Now, before my literate friends spew their beverage on their computer screens, I want to say that this is not a commentary on the quality of these books; it’s more a statement around the content and context of these books. And ultimately, it’s a statement on why I’m glad to see the lists of books teenagers are assigned these days to be diversified and modernized.

So here’s my main beef: these classics of literature were not written for children or teenagers (and let’s be clear: teenagers are still children). I was assigned Anna Karenina by Tolstoy as part of my summer reading list going into 9th grade for my Honor’s English class. I read about a third of it and then ditched it. Terrible book. Boring. Characters to whom I could not relate at all. Was absolutely unmoved by the book. Now here’s the thing: Tolstoy is considered to be an excellent author. The book regularly shows up on “Great Novel” lists. They regularly make it into a movie. My wife decided to read the  copy I’ve been hauling around since high school and she loved the book. So why didn’t I like it?

Because I was 15, and it’s not appropriate for children.

Illicit? No. Too many big words? I dunno, maybe, but likely no. More likely, it has to do with the fact that a Russian novel about class warfare and doomed affairs occurring in the context of failed marriages didn't resonate much to a 15 year old boy who had never yet been on a date. You know what DID appeal to me at age 15?

Ninjas. And boobs. And dragons. And to be real honest, mostly dragons (which in hindsight might explain the aforementioned lack of dates) Fifteen year old me would have loved this>>>>>.

Likewise for the play The Glass Menagerie. I HATED it when I read it. [SPOILER] Why would someone just up and leave their family in a lurch? That seemed a horrible thing for an adult to do. Well, as an adult that has been through a hell of a lot of difficult issues around family and marriage, the idea of someone ditching it all and leaving, well, I get it now. Still not the right choice, but I get how someone could consider that an option.

I did NOT get that when I was 16 years old. But that’s because Tennessee Williams didn’t write for teenagers.

Anyway, I’m not trying to dumb down school curriculums, not at all. I’m wanting them to be engaging for young minds in a way 18th-century novels might not be. What I’m saying is this: why do we require children to read works of literature that are written above their level of understanding? Complex emotional and moral dilemmas within the context of an adult world will largely fail to interest a kid. People read books because they like the characters, people to whom they can relate, or for whom they can at least imagine themselves liking. There’s a reason teenagers relate to Katniss in the Hunger Games and not Anna Karenina.

This is why I am very happy to see the genre of teen lit / young adult novels becoming such a prominent part of current literary landscape and making inroads into school curriculums. Just like in all writing, some stuff is better than others, but there’s some definitely good stuff out there. Back in 2006 I worked at a library and made it a point to try to read up on young adult/ teen lit novels and there were some very good books in the mix (read Devil On My Heels by Joyce McDonald). Now, does Hunger Games stand up against The Great Gatsby in terms of literary importance? No, and that’s not what I’m saying. I think the point of getting kids to read in school is to make them readers. A kid that likes to read in high school is more likely to pick up a classic later. A kid that is forced to read classic literature to which they cannot relate is going to simply label the book as boring and perhaps not feel inclined to pick up a “classic” book ever again.

Now, do I think all classics should be purged from school curriculums? Absolutely not; let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think there’s plenty of classic books out there that work for teens: Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher In the Rye, Huck Finn. Hell, maybe even Gatsby. These books can stay because kids can relate. Teach the classic authors in short stories or excerpts. And keep Shakespeare, because it’s full of swords and witches and murder and stuff. And that's cool. (Cue Beavis and Butthead laugh here.) But if it teaches a lesson, then throw Hunger Games or some equivalent in the mix. Kids should be taught to enjoy reading and to be kind, to be fair, to be just, to love, to be respectful, to be strong, and to live a life of value and meaning. That’s the lesson’s that should be taught through literature. I think that’s why the author’s wrote it, to tell a story, not to bore their readers. So if it comes down to a modern young adult novel or a Dickens novel- pitch the classic and give the kids something they can earnestly sink their teeth into.

Now, a few final points for my soapbox:

There’s a time and a place for making kids and teenagers do things they don’t want to do. Adults do have insight on the value of something that might escape a younger individual. But I don’t know if literature is the place to do that. Reading? Yes. Reading Dickens? Maybe not. I think expanding the literature available for young readers has been a good thing. I’m sure there are teenagers that are all about the literature that is assigned in school, even if most classmates hate it. I LOVED Ethan Frohm by Edith Wharton even though everyone else seemed to hate it. So there will always be some kids that are literary-minded anyway. But those kids will seek out the books anyway. That’s what they do- they’re readers.

Also, for those concerned that if we miss the chance to have the kids read these classics in school, people will never read them. What if the only thing they choose to read is Twilight?! So what? People who don’t want to read classics as adults will not want to read them as teenagers, so you’re not really losing an audience there. People who read Twilight might also like other books as well. Low-brow does not preclude High-brow. My appreciation for Les Miserables (my favorite book) is not cancelled out by my enjoyment of The DaVinci Code. And people who view Twilight and The DaVinci Code as the apex of literature, well- they were never gonna pick up Faulkner anyway.

And these classic works of literature are considered classics because they’re GOOD BOOKS, not because teenagers have to read them. People will keep reading the classics if they like to read books. Look at me, for example: The Grapes of Wrath? Great book. Read it as an adult. Of Mice and Men? Read it as an adult. Loved it. 1984? Read it as an adult. Catcher in the Rye? Read it as an adult. Brave New World? Read it as an adult. Huck Finn? Read it as an adult. Black Boy? Read it as an adult. The Great Gatsby? Read it as an adult. And some of these I wasn't even assigned in school and I read 'em anyway! You know why I read these books? Because I heard as a teenager they were great books. And I continued to hear they were great books, and I wanted to read them. But I was able to wait until I could really understand them, could connect with them, could immerse myself in a world to which I could relate. Let’s not ruin good works of literature for further generations. Introduce them, talk about how good they are, and then let people find it on their own at the right time.

So here's to letting young adults read books written for young adults. Here’s a few further articles on the value of modernizing reading curriculum:

High school reading lists get a modern makeover

Young Adult Literature in the High School

So, share your thoughts on this. English teachers? Former students? Current teenagers? What are your thoughts on my diatribe blog post?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

2012 Day of the African Child

Today is the 2012 International Day of the African Child. CNN has created a really good graphic (click here to see it) that conveys both the reasons for hope as well as frustration when it comes to the well-being of African children. However, let’s do our best to keep focus on the hope. 

And remember, as you read statistics, these are real kids. Here are two kids with whom I visited today. Say a little prayer or send some good vibes that all African children will get increasingly better opportunities to enjoy life to the fullest.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Saying “Yes” To Jesus and “No” To Everyone Else

Living in Tanzania, we are surrounded by economic poverty. Some suffer more than others, but overall there’s no escaping the reality that a majority of people here struggle to make ends meet in some way, shape, or form. Whether it’s money for food, or for medicine, or for school fees, or to finish building their incomplete house, etc, most people could use help, pretty much everyone in Tanzania could use assistance, and compared to most folks here, Americans have relatively vast amounts of resources. While people also struggle in the United States (and certainly many people do), we’re talking about a more immediate need than most people in the US will face.

And there’s no escaping the fact that as White foreigners- “wazungu”- by default, we have more resources than pretty much everyone else we meet in the street. My decent but nothing-to-write-home-about yearly salary at my last job paid me about the equivalent of a few decades worth of an average Tanzanians earning power. That’s a hard fact to wrap your brain around, but it’s true.

And Tanzanians know this, so they will ask you for money. Anywhere. Whether they know you or not. Children always ask for money (or candy) and that’s easy enough to ignore. But what about the woman sitting on the street that has no feet. Or the man that walks on his knees because his legs are so twisted he cannot stand? They’re clearly in need. This morning I was walking to the hardware store to buy some nails and I passed an old man with a cane. He looked pretty rough. I greeted him with the respectful greeting for an older person, but the minute he saw me he reached out his hands and wordlessly pleaded for money.

But it’s even more of a request than that sometimes (many times, actually). It’s not begging for a few shillings, it’s directly asking you for substantial help. I met a woman several weeks ago who was speaking to me in Swahili. I could get a little of what she was saying but mostly I was lost. When she realized I couldn’t understand, she went and got one of my fellow missioners who could understand and used her a translator. It ended up that the woman, who I’d known for only a few minutes, was asking me to pay for all her children’s school fees (a legitimate request, I am sure). Liz, my fellow missioner, explained that that was not what we did.

Another time, I was sitting in downtown Musoma and a young guy came up to me, chatting, and it was quite pleasant, but it soon shifted to him asking me for 2000 Tsh (Tanzanian shillings) which I did not give. Here’s the thing: 2000 Tsh is about $1.30.

I’d just spent 3000 Tsh on a Coke and a cupcake as a treat for myself.

And this leads to one of the more difficult things about adjusting to life here. We came as missionaries. We are answering a call to go and serve other people, to be among the poorest of the poor and to help our brothers and sisters, but all I seem to be doing is saying “no.”

We have to be very careful not be establish ourselves as only a resource to be tapped for money, less a person than an ATM machine. (“Oh, look. A white person. I’ll go withdraw some cash.”) Our resources that we offer are our skills and our presence, and we want to be seen as part of the community, not simply as a “thing” with lots of money. This is especially true as we get set up in our own house. Katie and I both have had several people stop us at our front gate and ask for help. We say no. Kids ask us to come into our yards and pick fruit from our trees. We say no. And when clearly haggard, hungry old men ask us for money, we say no. And that’s hard.

I’m certainly not the first people to struggle with this, and we’ve received lot of advice on this. We had a whole day’s training on this very issue during our pre-departure training in Ossining, NY. We’ve heard stories of people giving money to people and immediately establishing themselves as “marks”. We’ve been told to never give assistance to anyone that comes asking for money at your house, and have heard horror stories about people that did and subsequently had lines of people at their gate every morning to the point where they eventually had to move to a new house because the requests were so overwhelming and nonstop. The missioners lost their ability to “be” with the people because all the neighbor saw was white skin and deep pockets (whether it was true or not).

When we were in NY, I asked a retired Maryknoll priest who had lived in TZ for decades what his one piece of advice would be to new missioners, and he said “Say NO to everything.”At least at first. He said to establish ourselves as community members with specific jobs, not as wealthy patrons that will simply set-up shop and dole out money to everyone that comes calling. The requests may be legit, but they will never end. We cannot solve everyone’s problems, so rather than wade into the difficult task of navigating this terrain in a foreign culture, “Just say NO to everyone.”

The point is not to be heartless, but simply to not set us up for failure. As strangers in a strange land, we really don’t know what we’re doing yet, so we need to protect ourselves, not from Tanzanians, per se, but from ourselves. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t care about people. We’re here for a reason- to help people- and we cannot undermine our effectiveness because we are sympathetic/empathetic people crushed under the weight of the problems we’re here to address. Using our time and talents, we’ll eventually establish relationships with people and then we’ll be in a better position to give our “treasure” in effective, more sustainable ways. But, man, it’s hard.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Now Here's A Little Story I've Got To Tell...

 As countless fans around the world try to come to terms with the death of a musical icon, Adam Yauch aka MCA of the Beastie Boys, I’m trying to figure out exactly how to describe why his death is such a loss to me, and I just can’t shake this one image that keeps popping up in my mind: a home recorded cassette tape, cracked in two but still improbably able to play in my tape deck, lying on the floorboard of my 1978 Chrysler Volare station wagon, with the words “Ill Communication” scrawled on the label. That tape, more than any other, epitomizes my senior year of high school, a tape that was played on endless rotation, and because of that association, is still my favorite of all the Beastie Boy albums.

When I think of the Beastie Boys, the first person I think of is Jeremy Mucha.’ It was with Jeremy that I first discovered the group and with whom I most often listened to the Beastie Boys while cruising around Vicksburg, MS in the Plaidwagon. I managed to see the group twice over the years, and both times I was with Jeremy. In high school, Jeremy, our friend Billy, and I were always together, but musically, it was definitely Jeremy and I that were a bit obsessed with the Beasties. We would spend hours just driving around at night, wasting gas, windows rolled down and singing at the top of our lungs.

At the news of Adam Yauch’s death, many people have been talking about how much their music means to them, many remembering how they listened to the B-Boys in elementary school when their first album, License to Ill, came out (in 1986). That’s not my story, however. I was a late bloomer to the Beastie Boys. I come from a family of major music buffs, but I was an odd duck about my music tastes. I mean, in the eighth grade I became obsessed with Jethro Tull. In ninth grade, I started listening to Tom Waits. And because we had a satellite dish (the big, old school ones) I could watch Much Music out of Canada and got into a bunch of Canadian bands. Because I had that music station, I did know that Beastie Boys, though not very well. Until the summer of 1994, when the video for “Sabotage” went on heavy rotation.

Ill Communication was released the summer before my senior year, and that summer, 1994, was the first time I ever listened to a Beastie Boy album all the way through. It was not long after that I had all their albums (only four at the time). I had posters, key chains, video collections, I even had a unopened bottle of Brass Monkey on my shelf.

So the Beastie’s became the default soundtrack to my senior year and onward into college. In college, any time my crew (in particular, Lynny, Lucas, and Ian) would get into a car, someone would always yell “Parts!” and we would divvy up who gets to sing the different verses of the band, and we’d inevitably have a B-Boy sing-along. I always took MCA. He was always my favorite. I’m not sure why. Somewhere out in the world, there’s a tape floating around of a bunch of us lip-synching to “Paul Revere” in the Hinds Community College cafeteria.

Skip ahead a few years, and in 1998, the Beasties released Hello Nasty, which is a good, but honestly very strange record. I got to see them again on this tour, once again with Jeremy but also with my dad in tow, because by this time he’d also become a pretty big fan of the group (because my dad was awesome like that). Here I sit writing this, 15 years later, and I think about us three standing there at the show, watching MCA jump around on stage, and having no idea of the profound impact cancer would have on the life of all of us. My father’s and now Adam Yauch’s lives cut short, gone due to cancer, Jeremy’s family having recently had a very big cancer scare, and me sitting here wishing I could talk to my dad about what a huge musical loss MCA’s death is. He’d totally be down for that conversation.

Over the years, the Beastie Boys put out several more good albums (not great, but good) and I enjoyed all of them, but none so much as their last album Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2 (and sadly, I expect this WILL be their last album). I love this album, from start to finish, and think it’s one of their best. For a band that had hit their 25 year mark, they had no business putting out an album as good as that, and it speaks to the seemingly limitless talents the three group member’s had. I was stoked to know they were back in full force and was looking forward to seeing what they did next.

But it is not to be. I am not na├»ve about death, but dammit, I was hit hard by this. Cancer gets to me anyway, but this was like the death of part of my youth- in fact, one of the best parts of my youth. I know that in the grand scheme of things, one singer’s death pales in comparison to the massive tragedies that happen around the world. But no one wants the painful reality of death to come crashing into their party music. The Beastie’s music is so full of life, I cannot imagine that one is now dead. And I was telling Katie last night that, for a small town Mississippi boy, the Beastie Boys were a major part in forming my mental image of what New York City was like. Now, I’ve lived in NYC since those Mississippi days of dreaming of the hip, big city, and it’s strange to me that it now feels as though part of New York City has died for me. 

So RIP, Mr. Yauch. I didn’t know the man. He was famous, I was the fan. But I just want to give a shout-out to my favorite Beastie Boy, MCA, and thank him for his music’s role in my life. I have all their albums on my iTunes and still regularly play them, but that music just never sounds as sweet as it did on that old, cracked cassette tape all those years ago.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Happy Anniversary, Katie!

It's been a wonderful 9 years!

Here is a picture of us on our wedding day:

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Update: Mwanza, Work, and Houses (and Zebras)

Sorry I haven’t posted much lately. It’s not like there hasn’t been anything going on. In fact, the last several weeks have been chock full of things, including Katie’s birthday, visitors from the US, a night out at a Tanzanian night club, the end of language school, and our first Tanzanian Easter. To make it up to you, here's a lovely photo of some zebras (taken last Thursday on the way back from language school).

We left language school last Thursday. The school was our first Tanzanian “home”, but as our life necessitates, we had to yet again pack up our things and head off to another location. This move was bittersweet, as we left not only our fellow Maryknollers Liz and Sr. Marion, but we also said goodbye to the teachers that we had befriended. As they are some of the only people we know here in TZ, we basically left almost our entire social circle behind.

So now, we’re back in Mwanza, this time to stay, and things are kicking off in full-swing. We’re currently staying with the Ottes, our MKLM colleagues. Tomorrow we officially start work! I’m heading out at 7:30am to catch a dala-dala and see if I can find my way to the Capacitar office. These first few months are really focused on continued language acquisition, and we’ll be supported by our coworkers and supervisors as we get our bearings, but I’d be lying if I said I was not a little bit nervous. Additionally, later this week, we’ll (hopefully) be working out the details for renting our own house. We found a place we like (directly across the street from the Ottes) but so far we’ve not been able to connect with the landlord, though he knows we’re interested. We need to finalize the details for some needed repairs, and hopefully, if all goes well, we can be in the house in a few weeks.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Two Days of Work

We are currently back in Mwanza for a week’s break from language school, and each of us have spent the last two days at our respective worksites. As you may remember, I will work with Mrs. Constansia Mbogoma at Capacitar Tanzania, a health and wellness program. Now, theoretically, I was recruited to assist with several women’s cooperatives, a side project of Capacitar, but this effort is new and thus my job has been pretty nebulous up to this point, and pinning down an exact job description has been a challenge. I’ve been OK with this, but it’s been kind of hard to mentally prepare for my ministry when my MKLM folks are talking about women’s co-ops but most of the info I’ve received from Mrs. Mbogoma was about Capacitar and the wellness work. Ostensibly, the two are connected (the groups I’ll be assisting have all received Capacitar training), but I just didn’t really know how the two would mesh in reality.

At this point, I should state that breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and meditation all have traditionally held very little interest to me. It’s just not something that “grabbed” me, and anytime the option to attend a meditation workshop or exercise group arose, I opted to be somewhere else. We had several workshops on this type of stuff at our MKLM training, and I just didn’t like much of it. So when the focus of my work seemed to be shifting to exactly that type of stuff, I did get nervous that this was not the placement for me and even talked with Katie about whether I should bring this up. But I committed to it and resisted the urge to make a snap judgment without giving it a chance, so I said a prayer and took a leap of faith, and here I am. After two days of working with Mrs. Mbogoma and getting a glimpse of what I’ll be doing, my concerns have largely subsided and I’m very excited about the work that lay ahead.

Though I am still not 100% sure exactly what I’ll be doing, working with women's groups will be the bulk of my work, though I have gathered that I will likely have my hands in many different projects, and that is exciting. I was happy to see how much of Capacitar’s work dovetails with Social Work goals and methods. Mrs. Mbogoma welcomes any new ideas and suggestions I can provide, and she has welcomed into the organization with open arms. I think I will receive a lot of in-depth exposure to Tanzanian culture through this ministry and will learn an incredible amount from these experiences as well as Mrs. Mbogoma’s mentoring. As a bonus, I also think my own health will likely improve from learning the wellness exercises (for the last two days, we began the day with about 15 minutes of Tai Chi in her garden. It was quite enjoyable, and I was reminded that, despite my general reticence for this type of thing, at one point I was really interested in Tai Chi).

On my first day (yesterday), I spent the day hearing more about Capacitar’s work. I was able to practice my Swahili quite a lot- Mrs. Mbogoma used to teach Swahili so she made sure I was using it. Additionally, I met another of my colleagues, Mary, and the three of us continued speaking about projects. We also talked about the differences in Tanzanian and American cultures then strolled around her garden and she explained what plants were growing. The day was pretty short, and after a dalla-dalla ride I was home by about 2pm.

Today, day two, (Wednesday), I was able to get a first-hand glimpse at what my post-language-school work will entail. After more Tai Chi in the garden*, Mrs. Mbogoma, Mary, and I set out to catch a dalla-dalla to the outskirts of the city to visit the Buswelu Women’s Cooperative. Great experience. The women were very welcoming and excited that we were there. I met each woman, looked at their vegetable stalls where they sell their produce, then we all went out to see two the women’s farms. As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve been a little shy here lately- performance anxiety, if you will. Yet today, out in this more rural setting, with all these women, I was completely comfortable (could really talk with them, but it was never awkward being the lone mzungu and the only guy). My brain was spinning with questions about the co-ops, and as I walked through the fields (mashamba) I felt all my fears lifted from my shoulders and the excitement take hold. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but suddenly that wasn’t scary anymore, but an opportunity to get out there and learn. This was it- this was what we were called here to do, this desire for this type of experience was what made us want to come here. It was a great day. So praise the Lord**, I think I’m gonna like my job!

*My MKLM colleague Caitlin told me I was going to be the most zen person she knew after enough time at my placement.

**Seriously, praise the Lord!

Monday, March 05, 2012

A Confession

I have something to confess. It’s not something that I ever thought would happen to me, but it did, so I’m going to just put it out there for everyone to know.

I like Glee.

No, I love Glee.

Now, I know I have some of my friends out there are now shaking their heads and thinking “Downloading REO Speedwagon was bad enough, but now this?” This can seriously do some damage to whatever cred I may have as a bona fide music snob*, but it’s true. I genuinely like this show. But man did I not think I ever would.

My mom loves Glee and would always make me watch clips when I went home for a visit, but I never saw the appeal. She always just showed me the song segments, but without any context, it was just a show of pretty people doing karaoke versions of pop songs I didn't much like to begin with. However, here in TZ, one of our fellow missioners had the first two seasons on DVD, so Katie started watching the show as a way to zone out at night after studying Kiswahili all day. I’d watch a few minutes here, then a few minutes there, and slowly but surely I got pulled in. I still don't like a lot of the song selections, but they'll bust out some good stuff enough to keep me hooked (they love some Queen). I think the show has some really good messages in it, and I’ll be damned if watching a bunch of good-looking, highly-talented actors unrealistically being portrayed as high school outcasts singing songs about being losers doesn’t actually resonate a little with my own memories of feeling out of place in high school.

So I love Glee. Unironically. I guess I'm a Gleek. I just needed to put that out there. Don’t hate on me too much, because I can’t sing well enough to use today's Top 40 hits to put on a show-stopping number to express my innermost feelings of rejection.

* My music philosophy is that people should listen to whatever music makes them happy. Love what you love. Just know that, at the end of the day, my music tastes are still better than yours. BOOM.