September 27, 2012 by Keisha || The Girl Next Door is Black
I was in Moshi, Tanzania (TZ) for three weeks with a program called Give a Heart to Africa (GHTA). GHTA works to empower woman through the aid of volunteers and donations by educating women and providing the tools they need to improve their lives. Here is part I of a summary of my stay as a volunteer about the house and the volunteers.
There was a rooster who cock-a-doodle-dooed every night beginning at 3am until well after the sun rose. I would have liked to have a stern talk with this rooster about his behavior. Failing reformation, I’d be happy to give him a real reason to cry, even though I prefer eating beef to chicken. One of the house / school managers, V_, wants to print t-shirts with the rooster’s head in the center of a red circle with a strike through it. He’s notorious and he is wanted. On nights when I would forget to use my earplugs, I’d lay awake during his moonlight sonata and debate which is worse: trying to sleep through nature’s animal chorus (neighborhood dogs bark and yell at each other nightly, perhaps they’ve just come from the club and are drunk) or man-made noises like the car horns, car alarms, garbage trucks and drunks I experience at home. On nights like those the chorus of Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” played on repeat in my head. I don’t know any other words to the song, just “I’m wide awake”, and it fits.
The volunteers all share one large house which is next to the small school. Four of the rooms in the house are used as bedrooms with up to six volunteers sharing bunks in three rooms of the house and the house / school manager residing in a fourth in the back. My first week, I didn’t have a roommate. By the second week, A_ arrived, declaring to me within the first hour we met: “I usually don’t like Americans, but you seem cool. Perhaps because you travel and you don’t have that annoying American accent?” She shuddered. “Uh, thanks?” A_ is half Arab/half Polish with a mostly Australian accent. She has long, dark, wavy hair, large green eyes, and a willowy figure. She’s 21, a student at a private university in London and full of energy. If the Road Runner could talk, I imagine it’d sound like A_. We room together my remaining two weeks, the first few days of which, she finds out my life story: “Where are you from? What’s your family like? What are you plans here? What have you done so far? How do you like it? How old are you? You look really young! Do you work? What did you do? Don’t you hate when men aren’t straight up and play games with you?” She is inquisitive, to say the least.
Across the hall was George. George is a tall, lanky, but athletic, 25-year old, from South Carolina. He’s got perfectly straight white teeth, boyishly cut brown hair and a slight Southern drawl. He has enough energy to power a dam. He speaks loudly with a booming voice, is gregarious and innocently straightforward. I met him my first night in Moshi when he asked if I wanted to join the other volunteers for a safari the next day. He has an amazing knowledge of geography and will share random facts with you such as: “For each 15 degrees in longitude, the time zone changes by 1 hour,” (or something like that). He also seems to have memorized the entire catalog of country songs that charted between 1990 and 1999. Over the three weeks I was in the house, I heard him sing country songs to himself, to the students and to the other volunteers. He is pure entertainment and a sweetheart.
Next door to my room were Ka_ and Je_ a mother / son combo. They live in Northern California. Ka_ is half German / half Dutch and of an age where a lady doesn’t tell. She’s blond and speaks with a slight German accent. She is very welcoming and cute. Je_ is tall, slim and chill, though some tough life experiences have left him a bit hardened. During my stay we’d become fast friends. He’s very easy to talk to and shares my sense of fun. He’s my buddy for most of my stay in Tanzania.
V_ had taken over school and house management duties from Monika, the founder of GHTA, and was in the role for about a year. Monika had gone back home to North America for some personal time. A week and a half into my stay, V_ left to go on safari (safari is also used to mean “vacation” or “trip” in TZ, which led to no end of confusion when I was asked “How was your safari?” and I replied confusedly, “I went two weeks ago to see the animals. Huh?”). Pr_, a Tanzanian, moved into the house for the few days between V_’s departure and Monika’s arrival. Pr_ is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and so laid back I’m surprised he doesn’t walk in constant recline.
We were all excited to meet Monika when she returned, as she was our introduction into GHTA having interviewed us all for our positions. Monika is tall (or as I’d later explain to the students in a lesson on making comparisons, “Monika is as tall as A_.”), slender, with bright blue eyes, a soft voice and an easygoing personality. She’s the type of person you just want to be around. At dinner her second night back, I developed a girl crush on her within 20 minutes of hearing what led her to start GHTA, how too many charities and non-profits seem to be corrupt, and how important she feels it is for women to empower themselves through education and career opportunities. I want to be like her when I grow up…even though she’s only 5 years older than I.
We had a cleaning lady who came every weekday. She’s a former GHTA student in her 40s, who is feisty, takes her job very seriously and is determined to teach the volunteers Swahili one phrase at a time (“Good morning, Mel_.” “No. Habari za asabuhi, Mel_!”) She will wash your clothes for what amounts to US$.13 a shirt and $.18 for pants. Between teaching every morning, during which the sun becomes really warm in the non-a/c’d classrooms, playing soccer with the local kids who visit twice a week, my sunscreen and mosquito repellent daily regimen and hot, dusty 20-minute walks into town, I had plenty of clothing for her to wash. She’s also a clothing ninja. We would leave our shoes on the patio to avoid tracking dirt in the house. One morning I walked outside and couldn’t find my flip-flops. V_ noticed my confusion and asked, “Are you looking for your shoes?” I nodded. “Mel_ washed them for you.” This would be a regular occurrence. If Mel_ noticed a speck of dirt on my shoes, she’d clean them. I’d feel bad because the next day I’d walk into town and come back with dust-covered shoes. She’d just wash them again. I overpaid her purposely.
We also had a cook who prepared us dinner Sunday through Friday nights. She is very sweet and sings songs in Swahili while she cooks. There is a 2-week rotating menu on the fridge. Dishes vary between Tanzanian cuisine like chapati, ugali, mchicha (myummy) and pillau to other cuisines with recipes provided by former volunteers, such as zucchini fritters, pasta with sauce and chili. We usually ate dinner together every night except Friday and Saturday when many volunteers go away for weekend excursions. Having dinner together each night gave us a great opportunity to discuss our days, get to know each other better and form a semblance of a family.
I’d considered other organizations for my voluntourism trip and eventually settled on GHTA because the program fees were very reasonable and all the funds go directly to the school and management of the house. None of the volunteers are paid, including Monika and V_. Conversely, some of the programs I researched spent absurd amounts of the program fees on volunteer marketing and recruitment alone!
I THOUGHT COLD SHOWERS WERE FOR TEENAGE BOYS
There are two bathrooms in the house. One is in George’s room, the other is shared between the other two bedrooms. For the first week and a half of my stay the water in the shower was freezing cold. V_ couldn’t figure out why. There were two buttons to press to activate the water heater before showering, and they appeared to be just for show ’cause they damn sure weren’t heating the water. For over a week I was taking cold showers, shivering, speed cleaning and all the while trying to imagine I was in a sauna (it sorta worked). We eventually had a technician come by to fix the issue. I’m not sure what he did, but George’s shower became the waterfall of ice and ours became the burn-the-skin-right-off your body stream. Given the option of cold water or hot water to bathe in, I choose hot. It also gave me the opportunity to teach the students a new vocabulary word: scalding.
DO YOU HAVE JUSTIN BIEBER IN AMERICA?
Pr_, who is Tanzanian, and I had a fun conversation after dinner one evening. He shared with me: “We really like some American music here. We like Jay-Z, Rihanna, Beyonce (pronounced without the inflection on the final ‘e’), Ne-Yo, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, 50-cent, Keyshia Cole…” I informed him that Keyshia Cole spells her first name wrong (but I’m biased) and Rihanna is actually from Barbados and Nicki Minaj from Trinidad, which he found surprising. He inquired, “Do you have Justin Bieber in America?” I laughed, hard, and told him that we very much have the Canadian Bieber in America, much to the dismay of many Americans. It’s amusing to me: African-Americans often dream of going to Africa to find their roots, and yet we (perhaps unknowingly) send our own hybrid culture to Africa, which is embraced by more than a few. Jay-Z came to Tanzania (Dar Es Salaam) a couple of years ago (with Beyonce in tow) and tickets cost about $20-$30. When you consider how little some people make in Tanzania, it’s a huge investment to see these performers, but people are such fans that they do it.
Later, as we were watching Training Day, Pr_ asked me, “Is it true that Americans are quick to shoot each other with guns?” In TZ knives and machetes are much more prevalent than guns. I’m so glad this is one of the images we export to other countries is that of trigger happy homicidal asshats.
About a week into my stay, just in time for A_’s arrival, cockroaches took up residence in the house. Perhaps they were on vacation elsewhere, freeloading in some other home and decided to make our house the next stop on their trip, but I hadn’t seen a single one until the day after A_ arrived. I don’t like cockroaches. They are disgusting scum of the earth that refuse to die, live in people’s homes without paying rent or at least washing dishes and the ones in Texas even have the nerve to fly around flaunting their ugliness. A_ is also not a fan of cockroaches. While I sneered at them and then spray them for eight straight hours with bug spray ’til they die, she screamed and ran in fear as though they will morph into an alien with giant tentacles and chase her around the house. One weeknight after dinner we were all in the living room having an impromptu party. I’d discovered a channel on the tiny CRT TV that plays American music videos, hip-hop and pop in particular and we were having a few drinks. A welcome taste of home.
An aside: It took almost two weeks before learned I didn’t have to walk into town to buy alcohol. All this time, there’d been a container store within spitting distance of the house and I didn’t know it. Once I found out, I may or may not have become a regular. I can’t really be faulted for not knowing about this as the store was inside a bright orange shipping container, the opening of which faced away from the house. That night, I was in celebration mode (somewhere, somebody is celebrating something) and as the beers are served in tall bottles for maximum effectiveness, I was feeling good.
Somehow we ended up discussing which celebrities of the same sex that we find attractive (we’re all straight). I expressed my girl crush on Rihanna and exclaimed, “If I were a lesbian, I’d totally hook up with her!” Je_ insisted that as a man, he cannot tell when another man is attractive. Ka_ and I called shenanigans and I chalked it up to Western conditioning of males not to show any signs of bending in the “wrong” direction. A_’d gone to the bathroom when we heard her scream with terror, “There is a roach on the floor!” We all headed to the bathroom and sure enough, there was a giant freeloading cockroach on the floor, just impudent, like the damn thing owned the place. Oh, hellll no! I told A_ I’d kill it, but someone else would have to dispose of it, because I refused to touch it. I grabbed the bug spray and Je_ accompanied me into the bathroom while I sprayed the shit out of the little bugger, while yelling, “Die motherfucker! Nobody invited you here!” Je_ was rolling with laughter. Me and the cockroaches? We gon’ fight.
ARE YOU VOTING FOR OBAMA?
I had hoped to get away from thinking about or discussing the inane 2012 Presidential election. It’s stupid, it’s lame and the media focus is misguided. Should people put their dogs on the roof of their cars? No. But, what does that have to do with helping the economy or making healthcare accessible to us all? Some people still insist that the President is a Muslim. He’s not, but if he was, does that negatively impact his ability to run the country? Ugh. I digress. In any case, there is no getting away from talking about American politics even on the other side of the planet. Quite a few times in TZ, when I mentioned I am American, the response was some variation of, “Oh, Obama!” or “Yes we can!” The POTUS has quite a few fans in TZ.
Monika’s Tanzanian boyfriend, Lu_, is big into politics and would probably happily discuss the topic all day. I would try to hide my face at the dinner table or pretend to suddenly go deaf, “can’t hear…politics, oh darn…”, but it didn’t seem to work. Everyone seemed to fall on the liberal end of the political spectrum. We had several discussions about everything from the state of the US economy, why some Americans seem so against every citizen having healthcare, gay marriage, to the racism directed at President Obama and The First Lady (which I don’t think helped A_’s view of America, though George and I told her there was a small, but vocal minority responsible for such statements). Once the topic of racism surfaced, Je_ shared some of his less than stellar experiences living as a biracial person is North Carolina. A_ couldn’t believe some of the things he experienced. But, that’s how racism works: it’s so asinine and absurd that it’s almost unbelievable if you don’t see / hear the incidents for yourself.
TURN ON THE LIGHTS
Electricity in Tanzania is a problem. Depending on who you ask you’ll hear that it’s either because they’re short 900 MW or the government is corrupt and makes deals with sketchy electric companies. Either way, from time to time the electricity goes out without warning. I experienced this my first night in Moshi when I arrived to a pitch black house. The power went out for more than a few hours at least three more times while I was there. On one such night, only A_, George and I were in the house. We were in the middle of dinner when it happened. A_ became slightly panicked, “What if the cockroaches start coming out now because it’s dark? What are we going to do? I can’t take it. Why are they heeeeeere?!” We grabbed the lanterns, some candles and flashlights (A_ refused to move without George to accompany her in case a bug needed to be put to death) and contemplated what on earth to do at 7pm with the lights out. Go to bed? Read? Talk…to…each other? Play a game? Play a game! None of us could remember the rules to any of the card games we knew, and without Google to help jog our memories, card games were out. We decided upon Scrabble. We played Scrabble by candle and lantern light. A_ won, I came in second and I blame the poor view of my letter tiles for my loss. I may be just a tad competitive. Scrabble by candlelight makes for a good bonding experience.
We would take turns volunteering to wash the dishes after dinner each night. Often when George volunteered, his dishwashing time would turn into an American Idol audition with him belting out country songs. On one occasion I’d volunteered to dry while he washed. Knowing I’d lived in Texas for a while, he was thrilled to learn that I like to listen to country music sometimes. I requested that he sing a George Strait song from the 90s. He obliged, singing “Blue Clear Sky“, and followed it up with another song, and another song, while A_ and I grinned. I’m sure the neighbors could hear him as he was loud enough to out doodle-doo the rooster with the death wish.
Once the dishes were done (man), we moved karaoke time into the living room and he went on a tear. He told us about country rap and one of his favorite country rap artists Cowboy Troy. I’ve never heard of this dude. Imagine a really tall, lanky white guy loudly singing a country song with a twang and suddenly busting out into a rap that includes the lyrics:
What’s-your-name is; now don’t be scared.
Get on the dance floor, girl, you heard:
Hands on your knees, arch that back.
Shake that podunk a dunk an’ make it flat.
We were done. It was awesome.