Thursday, September 19, 2013

Doot Doot Doot, Lookin' Out My Front Door

During a recent phone call with my sister, it occurred to me that when I talked about my neighborhood, she had no idea what it looked like. Katie is better at posting pictures of our daily life, but I rarely do. So here are a few shots of our part of the Mabatini neighborhood. More specifically, these are the sights we see when we walk outside our gate.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why My Brother-In-Law is Awesome

So last Sunday, my awesome brother-in-law, Fuzzy, finished the Madison Wisconsin Iron Man competition. (You can read about it in his own words here.) This is a huge accomplishment. What that means is swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, then ran a marathon of 26.2 miles in just under 16 hours. It is a grueling competition that requires serious training and commitment. According to my sister, Fuzzy would sometimes train 6 hours a day. His accomplishment is quite inspirational. Many people have expressed this same sentiment.

Let me tell you why Fuzzy inspires me. When I think of Iron Man competitors, I think of big, bulky musclemen, a description that very well may be the case for some of the professionals that were competing (one of the winners finished the entire course in about 8.5 hours, the other in less than 10). These guys do this kind of thing for a living.

But here’s the thing: Fuzzy's not a professional athlete. Fuzzy is just a guy. Now, he's a great guy. He is athletic and is in really good shape. But he’s just a guy. A guy that made a commitment to do something hard, challenging, draining and risky, because after all that training, there was still the possibility that he wouldn't pull it off. He could have failed. And he took that risk.

And he did it!

He finished the course in just less than 16 hours. And it inspires me much more so than the guy that finished the course in 8.5 hours. That guy? Professional athlete. Can't relate. However, I am inspired by Fuzzy because Fuzzy’s just a guy. Because I’M just a guy. It impresses me to no end at what he has done, because he's not some superman- he's my sweet, shy, super-nice, super-cool brother-in-law. You know, a normal person.

Fuzzy’s accomplishment gets me thinking that maybe if I put my mind to something, maybe I can accomplish it, too (maybe something like, I don't know... learning freakin' Swahili?). Katie and I are embarking on some new work projects here in Tanzania that will assuredly be challenging. When we hit a rough patch (we will), when we feel we are bombing out here in the mission field (a fairly regular occurrence), I will without a doubt think of what Fuzzy has done and say to myself “If Fuzzy can do an Iron Man, I can certainly do this.

So to Fuzzy, I say congratulations on your amazing accomplishment. But even more than that, I want to say thank you. Thanks for setting such a high bar and for showing us that while it’s high, it’s still attainable. Your example to us- and especially to me- is priceless.

 Photo of Fuzzy by my sister, Erica.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Curmudgeon Takes Stock

This won’t come as much of a surprise to those who have spent any extended amount of time with me, but I can be a fairly cynical and pessimistic person. I'm just wired that way. Cranky. That doesn’t mean I’m a hopeless person when it comes to social change and “making a difference.” It just means I expect a lot of those attempts to fail. ☺

But seriously, I am a sympathetic/empathetic person, but I also like to be upfront about challenges and struggles. So I’m not one to spout off little platitudes to make people feel better. I think little sayings like “Everything happens for a reason” and “When life gives you lemons…” are simplistic and rarely do I think they address the complex and difficult issues they are usually hurled at. But I’m going to trot out a well-used saying right here on the old blog:

Count your blessings.

Blessings?” some of you may say. “What blessings? Grumble grumble grumble...” I know. I’m a curmudgeon, too. Life is nasty, brutish, and short. ‘Tis true. But you do have blessings. Your nasty, brutish, and short life could be considerably nastier, more brutish, and much shorter than you know.

Earlier this week, I was sitting in the little office I sometimes use when I'm working in downtown Mwanza, and through the window, I watched a street kid walk into the little cafĂ© that’s located outside my office door. He was on a mission, scouting empty bottles. He swooped in, grabbed some bottles off the table, got a few that were littered on the ground, then without hesitation, moved to each table and ate every scrap of leftover food off every plate that hadn’t yet been cleared. He then turned and walked away toward town, having just had one of the few meals he may have had for the day.

Count you blessings. Yes, life is difficult and full of hardship, but there are blessing to be found. It would do all of us good- myself most of all- to spend a bit more time recognizing that.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Little House on the Hilltop

If you are a regular reader of our quarterly newsletters, you may remember our brief story on Paulina, a woman with whom we are acquainted through Chris’s caregiver support group, Chanua. Paulina has no formal income or education and scrounges for the little money she has to support her family. She has 6 children one of which was born this summer. Of her 3 school-aged children, only one has ever attended school. She is married, but by default she is a single mother, as her husband simply disappears for months at a time. After falling many months behind on her rent (for a tiny house overcrowded with her landlord belongings), the family was forced to move into a single-room “home” the size of a storage shack.

There are many women that we encounter who live in very similar and difficult circumstances, but Paulina’s situation was particularly dire to us. Katie and I, along with my Capacitor coworkers, decided to take a more active role in assisting this family and help with the construction of a small house for Paulina and her family (two of her older kids attend my twice a month children’s group).

Despite her daily struggles, Paulina had luckily managed to purchase a small plot of land far up on the side of a rocky hill. After meeting with a fundi (a builder), we determined what our group could contribute to help at this time. Even with the low cost of local materials and the cheap cost of labor, the total added up to a significant amount (several hundred dollars). So we decided at this time we couldn’t build the whole house, but we could at least build half, which basically meant just one room. Katie and I contributed about a third of the building costs from our mission account donations (the remaining costs were provided by my coworkers).

The construction went well and quickly. The fundi had it built in just one week! So Sr. Genie and I made the trek up to the plot to see the house. Mwanza is a crowded area and growing daily. For those seeking land, the options are often limited especially for those who don’t have the ability to “shop around” and spend a lot to get a plot. The house is built on the rocky top of a steep hill- a hill that is already covered with other small shacks and houses. There are no formal roads to reach it. You either climb up the steep hill, scurrying over the rocks, our you take a daladala (a local bus) to an area called Buzariga and then either walk in or take a pikipiki (a motorcycle). We had to meet the fundi to guide us in because we couldn’t find the plot on our own, and then we each opted for a pikipiki and rode in to the spot.

Truly, the home is small- a single room with no toilet. You may be surprised to see how basic this home is. Remember, there are SEVEN people living in this room. (I myself was surprised at how small the house ultimately was), but this type of housing arrangement is not unusual for the poor in Mwanza. And maybe it’s tiny, but Paulina is now a homeowner, which puts her in a better position than many others in her circumstances.

Paulina stands with the builder (and her 3-day old newborn) at the new house.

The view from the house.

The above picture is a view of the house from the ground. As you can see, the house is located way up on a hill. this picture doesn't adequately convey the hike it takes to get up the hill. When we had previously visited the spot before construction began, it took us about 20 minutes of climbing to reach it. To grasp the inequality that exists in Mwanza, compare Paulina's house to the house in the foreground.

The family moved the week after it was completed, and the week after Paulina’s new baby was born. I can’t say there life is not hard, but perhaps it is a little easier now that Paulina will not have to worry about paying rent. There is space to build an additional room for the house, so hopefully in the future we can help make this happen. Katie and I are grateful for the financial support we get from our donors! It was the support of our donors that made this possible.