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.