Tuesday, January 31, 2012

People of the City (1954), by Cyprian Ekwensi

This was a good but dated novel written by Nigerian author Cyprian Ekwensi (also part of the African Writers Series). This novel was evidently one of the first works of African literature that was widely read outside of Africa circles (according to the book jacket) and Ekwensi is an author of much acclaim. However, it’s a strange read: there are some aspects that are distinctly “African” but remove the African names and such and it would read like a Beat Generation novel. The protagonist (Sango) is a reporter and jazz musician trying to make his way in a big, unnamed city in Nigeria; he’s caught up in a romantic problems with several attractive women. Kerouac could have made an appearance in this story.

The story moves along and it kept me interested, but the author uses some amusing and contrived literary devices to develop and resolve plot points. There’s just a huge pile-on of bad luck on the main character. Sango will do something and a chapter will end and he’ll say something like “Trust me, this is a great plan.” Then inevitably the next chapter starts and with a sentence like “Sango’s plan was not a good one, and he lost his job because of it.” It’s quite amusing it its predictability. There’s also the way the author resolves certain plot points involving both major and minor characters. A character will have some big part in the book, they’ll get dropped for a chapter or two, then later their name will come up and another character would go “Oh, didn’t you hear? They died.” And that’s that. Seriously, two major characters were resolved in this manner, and a few minor characters were bumped off this way, too. And then there’s, of course, a happy ending. Upon a quick review of a few articles about Ekwensi's writing style, he was evidently an author of quite a few short stories, which explains a lot about this novel's structure; it's full of short little plots that are loosely strung together as a whole. It was also his first novel, so his style for longer works was likely still development. I enjoyed reading it. It’s a fun, easy read.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

White Genesis / The Money Order (1965) by Sembene Ousmane

I recently read two short stories written by Senegalese author Sembene Ousmane (published in a single volume as part of the African Writers Series). The first story (White Genesis*) tells of the social fallout resulting from an incestuous relationship involving the village chief. The story is interesting as it contains a lot of cultural touchstones for village life as well as life in an Islamic community. The second story, The Money Order, is about the trials and tribulations that one man faces when he attempts to receive a money order from a relative in France. I liked this one more than White Genesis and it was almost comical in its depiction of the double whammy of bureaucratic red tape and the demands society places on us. I say almost because it’s ultimately not very funny at all.

A few thoughts: While this is a story of fiction, it holds many truths that resonated with me. I’ve only been here in Tanzania for 3 weeks, but I can already see how hard it can be to do something as simple as picking up a money order. Again, it’s fiction, but this story made me appreciate the lengths some of my international students had to go through and some of the bureaucratic hoops they may have had to jump through just to get to the US to study. Secondly, the story delves a lot into the conflict between “traditional” and “modern” values, both for African values as well as Islamic values. There is a great expectation among people in the story that if one can help another person, there’s a moral obligation for them to do so (like “in the old, more traditional” days). But the author also sees the darkside of this value and creates a scenario where everyone is so desperate to demand their share that no one ever gives a thought to the wellbeing of the person who is fortunate enough to offer anyone else help. The protagonist is totally at the mercy of social expectations and in some cases the manipulations of others. There’s a lot to unpack in this little story (such as the conflict between keeping traditions alive vs changing social norms that actually may hinder society) as well as some interesting parallels to the modern welfare state (both pros and cons) that would be worth exploring, BUT I’ll digress for the sake of brevity. Incidentally, there’s also a movie that was directed by the author himself, so that may be an interesting film to hunt up.

* After finishing the story, I still have no idea why this story was called White Genesis.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Had a rough morning in class but a good afternoon of Frisbee and a walk around the nearby neighborhoods (villages, really) trying to chat with people and joking with little kids. But right now, I’m sitting here at my study desk, chugging through some vocabulary words, watching a line of ants crawl across the wall, and glancing out at the dark night sky while listening to Social Distortion. I’m tired, and I wouldn’t call it homesickness, but I am struck by just how far away I am from friends, family, my house, and everything that, until recently, was associated with “home.” It'll be a while before "this place" really starts to feel "like home." As for now, I think it’s time for some sleep…

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Few Quick Book Reviews

We have purchased a USB satellite modem that plugs into our computers and gets us pretty decent internet, though it’s not super fast and we pay for a certain amount of bandwidth. The result is that my habit of surfing the web 24/7 has ended with a quickness. This has been one of my biggest adjustments here to Tanzania, because constantly reading status updates on facebook or perusing music/movie reviews or looking at pictures of kittens or watching videos of people doing stupid things and hurting themselves- that’s what I DO with my time. And I cannot do much of that anymore with our finite amount of internet access (which is still enough to jump on a few times a day, but the usage is much more precise and limited). So, I suddenly have a lot more time on my hands. This is not a bad thing; it’s high time I cut the cord a little and did something other than the internet.

Like reading a book. Even with our classes and the study of Swahili, I’ve managed to read a book and a half since the start of language school a week ago, and I managed to finish another on the flight over a few weeks ago. Here’s some quick reviews of two books:

Biko (1978), by Donald Woods
This is the book on which the film Cry Freedom is based. It is written about Steve Biko, the black South African activist who was tortured and killed while in police custody in 1977. Written by Donald Woods, a white journalist who was very close friends with Biko and who risked his and his own family’s life by supporting Biko’s activism, the book is a very clinical and detailed overview of Biko and the world of late 1970’s South Africa. It is not always an easy read, but it is a fascinating look at Apartheid and the depths that such a racist system will stoop to protect its own ideology.

To A God Unknown (1933), by John Steinbeck
I had never heard of this book, I found it on a shelf here at Mokoko, I needed a book to read, and I like Steinbeck, so there you go. A strange little book. I’m glad I read it, it kept my interest, but I was kind of glad to be done with it. It’s about a homesteader in California and life on his ranch. The protagonist is a strange character; he’s good, but I couldn’t really connect with him at all (and in fact, no one can- that’s part of the story). If you’re a big Steinbeck fan, read this. If you aren’t, then don’t read this one. And if you haven’t read much Steinbeck and want to know where to start, then don’t start here; read The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men.

I found a whole shelf of books by African authors in the Mokoko library. I’ve read a lot about Africa, but very little of it has been written by Africans. Expect more reviews to come.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

T.I.A. (This Is Africa) Moment #1

One day last week, we decided to venture into Musoma to explore, and we decided to take a dalla-dalla to get there. Now, dalla-dallas are minivans that serve as the public bus system here in Tanzania (and in Kenya, though there they are called matatu). They are licensed to run specific routes, but they are independently operated, so they all compete with each other. People paint pictures and funny phrases on them to make them memorable. I’ve seen Che Guevera on one with “Freedom Fighter” painted on it (illustrated in the picture); I’ve seen a Tupac bus, I’ve seen T-Pain, lots of phrases about Jesus or Allah, I once saw one with the Pope. I saw one with a little envelope icon painted on it with the words “Message Sent!”; there’s even a “Bin Laden” dalla-dalla. They cost about 400 tsh (Tanzanian shillings) to ride, which is about $0.30 USD.

Let me paint you a picture: imagine you are sitting in an old-school Volkswagen minivan. Now imagine there are 18 more people in there with you, and THAT is the experience of riding in a dalla-dalla. Literally, you’ll think the thing is packed to the gills and then they’ll add 5 more people. People load up until everything is filled, then people stand in the spaces in between. It’s in the owner’s best interests to get as many people as they can onboard. Believe me when I tell you that a mzungu on a dalla-dalla will get plenty of stares, but everyone is nice, so the only stress in riding a dalla-dalla is figuring out where to wait for one, where it’s going, where to get off, and how much to pay- you know, minor details. It’s actually not a big deal once you’ve done it few times. There are scores and scores of dalla-dallas in Mwanza going in all different directions in and around the city; the ones in Musoma seem to pretty much run the same few circuits, and all appear to end in the middle of town, so it’s safe and easy to just jump on one, as they’ll all end up in the same place.

So the other day, we decided to go into Musoma town to walk around. The thing is full but not as packed as it could have been. Now, a brief note about the roads here. While there are most certainly paved roads in the cities, if you’re off a main road, you’re on a dirt road. A rough dirt road. Imagine you are driving in your car, then imagine a really bad rough road that would give you serious pause about driving your vehicle on it. OK, the road in your mind, that’s a GOOD Tanzanian road. These can be way worse than that. So we’re bopping along (there’s 5 of us Maryknollers onboard) and we come to a really rough spot due to construction. Suddenly, BOOM the bus is at an awkward angle and we’re solidly stuck in a muddy ditch. Now, getting stuck in the mud- not a huge thing, it happens in the US, too. But the strangest thing was that the operator opened the side door and everybody just quietly unloads and begins waling down the road, continuing on to their destination. We all look at each other, shrug, and get out. We stand around for a few minutes, and then we follow suit and just start walking down the dusty road in the hot sun. All I could do was laugh. It must be a common enough occurrence that everyone knew the drill and just kept going. I think that’s a good lesson for life in Africa: sometimes shit’s gonna happen, and you just have to keep on going. Actually, that’s a good lesson for life in general.

Here’s the happy ending: We were pretty far out of town, and we had been walking about 10-15 minutes. Suddenly, the dalla-dalla pulls up beside us and gestures for us to get back inside. The owners managed to get the thing unstuck and made sure to stop and pick up everyone that had abandoned ship earlier. I was impressed at the honesty, as it would have been very easy to just cruise on by with our money and go load up with new passengers. I doubt anyone would have paid much attention and recognized the dalla-dalla as it zipped by. It was a good learning experience and another little Tanzania adventure under my belt.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Goodbye to Mamaw Bane

I have just received word that my grandmother, Juanita Bane, has died around midnight US time. This is my mother’s mother. The day before we left for Tanzania, my mom called to tell me she was being put in hospice, so we’ve been expecting this and we’ve known this was coming for even longer. The last few times I visited her, I was pretty certain she had not known who I was. She had been in a nursing home for a few years now, and while at times she was relatively lucid an in decent health, more times than not, she’s been unwell. While it is a strange thing to be so far away from family and friends during this milestone in our family’s history, I cannot say I am particularly saddened by the news. I loved my grandmother, but she’s much better off now than she has been trapped in such a sickly body; it feels like my grandmother actually died years ago. So here are a few reflections in honor of my grandmother.

Orange marmalade. If there’s one thing that always, without fail, makes me think of my grandmother, it is orange marmalade. My sister and I would often spend the night at my grandparents’ house, and every morning, there would be toast and orange marmalade. It was a staple and a treat, and for whatever reason has engrained itself in my mind as a symbol of happy childhood times. Oh, and apple turnovers. Those, too.

My mamaw played the piano/organ at Highland Baptist Church for 40 years or o, so when I was kid, she would always be in her choir robe at the front of the church when we arrived in the sanctuary. We’d run up and see her before and after the service. This special role during the service made her a bit of a rock star, and me cooler by way of association.

I took piano from my grandmother for a little while, as she was also a piano teacher. I never could get into it, so I eventually quit taking lessons. I kick myself for that now.

I am actually at this moment not even sure how old she was because for most of my childhood, she always said she was 39 years old, then maybe a few years older as time progressed, but I never could get a handle on her age. That is funny to me.

Mamaw loved butterflies.

Mamaw also loved soap operas. There was always a soap on the TV.

I have always held my grandmother up as an example of a loving wife and a woman of quiet strength. My grandfather had Alzheimer’s and went downhill over the years to a state where everything had to be done for him, and my grandmother took care of him at every step of the way. I am sure it wore her down, but I don’t ever remember her complaining about it. She just took care of her husband until his death. Consequently, after he died, I am not sure she ever really figured out what to do with herself.

My grandmother loved parakeets, and she always had birds at her house. She would also time and again have fish, and I remember as a kid preparing the fish tank for the new arrival of guppies and the like. Speaking of pets, many years ago, my grandmother’s last parakeet had died and she was without a pet bird, so I bought her a new bird for her birthday. She named it “CJ” after me (Christopher Joel). Eventually, she bought another one to keep the first one company, and lo and behold, the two birds ended up having babies (which is not unheard of but rare for pet parakeets). They ended up having 5 baby birds. What dividends on my initial investment! That was the best $20 I ever spent on a birthday present.

My mamaw was one of my greatest supporters over the years, whether it was showing up for countless school performances, hanging my artwork in her house, paying a portion of my car loan while I was in Americorps*NCCC and making little money, to my decision to become a Catholic. She always seemed proud of me and was always happy to see me.

Erica went through a huge process of scanning all the old photos they found when they cleaned out her house a few years back; when I saw all these old pictures of her as a child, I realized that I really didn’t know much about my grandmother, about her life as a child, as a young woman, etc. She’s always just been my mamaw. It’s hard to pull out specific memories about someone who always seemed to be there, a constant over all the years of my life. I will miss her, and I loved her very much. She played a role in who I am today, and I am grateful for that. I am sorry that time and distance prevented me from seeing her more over the last many years, but such is life, and she understood. She was a good woman and great grandmother, and I know she’s been reunited with all her loved ones who have passed on before.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Life at Shule Ya Lugha

Karibu! Welcome!

We’ve been at the Mokoko Language School for a week and have now completed our first week of classes. It has been a challenge, but it is fun. I’m especially enjoying it because I can almost feel the information hidden away deep in the recesses of my brain being pulled back up to the surface. For those readers that don’t know, I took Kiswahili classes back at USC, but that was 5 years ago, and most of it has been lost due to lack of usage (you may find it hard to believe, but South Carolina doesn’t have many Swahili speakers. It’s true). So with every lesson, I am remembering more and more. I fully expect this surge of memory to plateau pretty soon, but nonetheless it’s fun to know I really did learn a few things back in 2005-06. Katie is doing a very good job with the language. She’s never studied it before, so it’s a bit overwhelming for her, but she’s doing very well so far, and I expect her to continue to pick it up at a quick pace.

A little about the school: This school was started by in the 1960’s by Maryknoll as a training ground for its priests and nuns in East Africa, but over the decades it began catering to anyone who was interested, and eventually the Maryknoll Society handed it over to the Diocese of Musoma to run. One great thing about the school is the relatively small number of students here; we’re in a cohort of 19 people. That’s less than the people in my one Swahili class back at USC, and that’s the whole cohort. We’re broken into smaller classes, so I’m in a class of only three people, which is great because we are getting a huge amount of individual practice while also having a few folks with whom to interact. Everything we are doing so far is by listening and speaking only; we’re not allowed to have a book for at least another week, which is a challenge, but I must say it forces you to really pick it up quick. The instructors are very nice and supportive, and the method they use seems to be working quite well so far. We have five classes a day, plus a language lab in the afternoon.

The students studying here are from all over. In addition to us Maryknollers, there are three more Americans, two nuns from Poland, a nun from the Congo, another from Ghana, and another from Chad, yet another from Colombia, three people from Switzerland, a priest from the Philippines, and a Korean woman working on her Masters in Development studies in the UK. It’s quite a diverse group.

We’ve been venturing into the town of Musoma and wandering through markets and into some of the neighborhoods close to the school to try out our newfound language skills. There’s lots of kids shouting “Wazungu! Wazungu!” (“White People!”). We can tell people we’re students and are studying Swahili, and we can ask people their names and tell them ours. Generally after that, the folks launch into a flurry of words, and we give panicky blank stares and say “Sijui! Sijui!” which means “I don’t know!” It’s pretty fun.

To show off a little of our developing vocabulary: Jina langu ni Chris, na mimi ni mwanafunzi wa Mokoko Shule ya Lugha. Mimi na mke wangu tunakaa Musoma sasa, lakini tutakwenda kukaa Mwanza. (I cannot verify that that is all correct, but it’s a good faith effort at using some of what I’m learning so far!)

Yesterday, a group of us had headed into town to buy a few things and explore the area. We spent the afternoon walking through a bustling market, crowded and full of energy and chaotic busyness. Afterwards, one of our group decided to have her car washed (it was covered in mud from the trip from Arusha in the East to Musoma). As we waited we sat outside a store (a duka) and drank sodas and visited with the store owner. People were walking up and down the street hauling their wares to sell, kids were running around, people were coming up the street from a nearby mosque, the sun shone down while a cool breeze carried the sound of a radio through the air. For a few minutes, I held a little baby that someone just randomly handed to me. Very often, in little moments like that, I have to stop and marvel: we are actually doing this. It’s a crazy thing to up and move to another side of the world, but we’ve dreamed of it for so long and here we are, living the dream. It’s quite a blessing, and I am humbled by the opportunity to do something like this. Asante, Mungu.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The First Few Days

Katie and I (along with our three fellow missioners) have been here in Mwanza for a few days now, and it has been quite an experience. Our Maryknoll colleagues have been tremendously welcoming to us, opening their homes to us, cooking us excellent meals, and really making sure that we get what we need to get adjusted to our new environment. We’re all doing well, still a bit tired, but the effects of jet lag are decreasing with each passing day.

We’ve had some fun experiences so far. We went to a Swahili Mass this morning (couldn’t understand a thing), have twice walked though a herd of cattle in the road, went shopping at a market not far from the house (sandals purchased), and experienced a New Year’s Day celebration involving a gang of kids running around in the dark banging on pots and pans and chanting.

It is interesting being back here in Mwanza. We visited here in 2006, but our experiences in the city proper were somewhat limited. Yesterday, we took a trip into the city (our hosts live a little ways out of the downtown area in the Pasiansi neighborhood) and we had a good lunch in the same pizza parlor where we had lunch with Fabian Maganda on our previous trip in ‘06, so it was fun to have some sense of familiarity with the place. But I’ll say Mwanza is much more busy and chaotic than I remembered. The hustle and bustle was a bit overwhelming, yet still exciting.

Of note: the drivers here drive on the left side, and most all cars are standards, and from a newly transplanted set of eyes, the driving looks to be real loose and haphazard. In some ways, it looks fun; in other ways it’s a little horrifying (like in the I-don’t-really-like-driving-and-I’m-not-good-at-driving-a-stick-and-city-driving-stresses-me-out-big-time kind of way), especially since I’m certain that my work will have me driving the most of all the new missioners. Yikes, folks. YIKES.

It’ll be a while before we really establish ourselves into our own routines and patterns. We start language school in the city of Musoma in a week, and until then we’re guests in someone else’s home. Our hosts are VERY generous, but we also don’t want to disrupt their own patterns any more than we already have. It’ll be at least 3 more months before we get into our own places (once we return to Mwanza from langauge school).

The reality of our new life here in Tanzania is still sinking in. Our training in Ossining spent a lot of time preparing us for culture shock and the low-points of our transition, and I am sure that we have lots of those low-points to come, but I was surprised by the flood of anxiety I got not five minutes from the airport upon our arrival. We’ve been working toward this move for a decade; I really don’t think I could have been much more prepared for the move. The sounds and smells upon arrival were wonderful; in fact, it was so familiar it was like a homecoming to experience those sensations again. However, once we turned off the main road into the neighborhood where Joanne and the Ottes live- onto terrible dirt roads and the small houses and the poverty and all the immediate and overwhelming difference- once that was starkly in our face, I had an honest-to-goodness moment of asking myself “My God, what have we done?!” It didn’t help that we were exhausted.

However, that fear subsided quickly. Getting out and starting to familiarize myself with the area has helped and has been a fun time. I’ve talked with our fellow missioners who arrived with us, and that was not an uncommon feeling, and we all agreed that we cannot take it all in right now. We can’t approach this from a "big picture" view everything we will have to do in the next 3.5 years; that will just paralyze us. We need to break it down (“partialize” it in social work terms) and take it in small steps. Language school is our next step, and that should be our focus; we shouldn't worry ourselves about whether we will be effective in our jobs (or whether we can drive the car). It also helps that we have people here who are very much committed to helping us get on our feet. Another thing that helps my processing of our move is to remember why I made the decision in the first place. I’m here because I am passionate about social justice work; I’m here because I want to learn about another culture; I’m here because I want to make a difference, even if it is modest and small; and most importantly, I am here because I have answered a call to live my faith and to serve the least among us. So here’s to a New Year, a leap of faith, and baby steps into our new life.

Here’s a few photos of the neighborhood where we are staying for our first week (and likely will live once we return to Mwanza) as well as a few shots of downtown Mwanza.

This is the home where we are currently staying.

George shopping at a local market stall.

Walking down one of the roads in the Pasiansi neighborhood.

Downtown Mwanza