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When Volunteering Gets Real

A homeless woman yelled at me today.

Through my company, 10 of my co-workers and I volunteered to help out with Project Homeless Connect’s (PHC) annual event. PHC helps to “connect” the homeless population with the essential services they need: everything from dental care and eyeglasses to haircuts to helping people get low-cost bank accounts. You know, the things that help people feel more included in modern American society.

The event was held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium (where Phish had played for three days earlier this month)  with stations set up for various services including employment.
The event was held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium (where Phish played for three days earlier this month) with stations set up for various services including employment.

My company was staffed in the cafe where a mock restaurant was created to give people with the experience of dining out. There were hosts, expediters, servers and bussers. I like interacting with people and moving around, so I volunteered to be a server. As I’ve learned through previous experiences working with the homeless population, most people are generally pleasant. They really appreciate being treated like a human being and not ignored as often happens on the streets. I had an amusing encounter with an older woman who only spoke Mandarin. All I know how to say in Mandarin is “hi,” “thank you” and “black” (as in “black person”).

[One of my college roommates is Taiwanese-American. One afternoon she was on the phone with her mom, speaking in Mandarin, describing her three roommates. I heard my name “Keisha” and then something else. I asked her, “Did you just tell your mom that I’m black?” She smiled at me sheepishly and said “Yeah, how did you know?” I answered slyly, “I always know when people are talking about black people – in any language!” Call it BSP: Black Sensory Perception.]

Erm...how do you imitate Brussels Sprouts? | photo cr: Barbara L. Hanson, flickr.com
Erm…how do you imitate Brussels Sprouts? | photo cr: Barbara L. Hanson, flickr.com

There were three pre-packaged lunch choices: chicken, turkey or veggie. When I asked the Mandarin-speaking woman for her order, she stared at me blankly and said “No English.” Uh oh. Undeterred, I pantomimed a chicken flapping it’s wings and clucked, “bok, bok!” That got a laugh from the others seated at the table. I then mimed a turkey sticking out it’s neck. More laughter. I didn’t know how the hell I was going to mime a vegetable. Stand still like a carrot, with leaves growing out my head? Lay on a plate like broccoli? I decided to just find a volunteer who spoke Mandarin. [Incidentally, if you want to see real ethnic and racial diversity in San Francisco? Look at the homeless population: Asian, black, white, Latino, immigrants, gay, in wheelchairs, old, young, couples, singles, siblings – everyone.]

There were several Asian volunteers there, none with my company though. I didn’t want to be that idiot that goes around asking any and every Asian person if they speak Chinese. Thankfully, I have a lot of Asian friends, friends who like to play “what kind of Asian is that?” and I’ve learned a lot from them. I scanned the volunteers for someone who looked like they might be the right candidate and hit jackpot on the first try! Thank you, D!  Or rather “xie xie.” I learned (and quickly forgot) how to say “chicken” in Mandarin. I also learned how to say “turkey” in Spanish, thanks to one of our Spanish-speaking customers who kindly answered my “¿Como se dice…?”

——

A guest beckoned me over to her table for help.

“Mumblemumblemuble?” she said.
“I’m sorry, could you say that again?” I asked her.
“Tryyyyyyy!”
“Ok, it’s okay. I am trying to understand what you need. How can I help?”
“It’s NOT okay! TryyyYYYYY!”
At a loss, but with a smile I asked again, “One more time?”
“I.need.a.TRYYYYY! Tryyyy!!!!” She grabbed the tray in front of her neighbor and banged it on the table.
“Oh a traaaaaaaay, ok, we’ll get you a tray.” I realized that she had a Southern twang, which ordinarily I have a good ear for understanding having lived in the South for some years, but the context threw me.

When I returned with her tray she said slowly to me with disgust, “Do you KNOW. how STUPID. you have to be. to make me repeat myself FOUR TIMES?!”

I told her I was sorry and was glad I could help her out.

“WHAT IS YOUR NYYYYY-ME?!” She asked me this as though she were going to report me to someone.

She’d become increasingly more agitated and I admit, I was a little anxious, not knowing if her anger and frustration would resort in me getting smacked in the face. I told her to enjoy her tray, smiled and walked away. I refused to return to that table until she left, concerned that there was something about me in particular that might set her off.

I was pretty shaken by the incident, which surprised me. It’s not like I haven’t had people yell at me before. I can throw down with the best of ’em during rush hour traffic in Los Angeles where it’s common for people to cut you off and give YOU the finger for honking at them. I guess, I wasn’t expecting it. The majority of our other customers were amiable and mostly kept to themselves, some even cracking jokes (“I’ll have the filet mignon, please). I also felt I had to maintain a professional demeanor, so I couldn’t be gettin’ all crunk on people.

The scene didn’t go unnoticed as several of the other volunteers looked at me with sympathy (and were probably grateful it wasn’t them!) and assured me that everything was okay. The task leader had a chat with the agitated woman and checked on me to make sure I wasn’t in mental tatters . Other than being a little shaken, I kept it moving. No need to let that oddity throw me off. Besides, I couldn’t take it personally. I’m no doctor, though I do love the hell out of some psychology, but the woman probably has a mental illness of some kind. That’s not the behavior of a mentally stable person. I just wished I knew how best to settle her.

That incident aside, I’m glad I participated.  I’m so inspired by this organization, the hardworking employees that power it, the professionals who donate their services and the volunteers that donate their time. Even San Francisco’s Mayor Lee was there. I spent about three hours on my feet, serving and greeting people. It’s not much; I didn’t change lives. I got to meet some of San Francisco’s residents that often go unnoticed. I hope today’s event helped make some of their lives even just a bit better.

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Tanzania: Voluntourism: Life as a Volunteer with Give a Heart to Africa – Part II

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 II of a summary of my stay as a volunteer, the school and the students.

THE SCHOOL

There are three courses taught at GHTA: English conversation, English grammar and business basics.

The school is free for the students. The program is geared toward women over the age of 30, who have found themselves with few options for education and often, unfortunately, little financial solvency. However, men and younger women are also accepted, with the ratio of men-to-women being anywhere from 10/90 to 25/75. Monika, GHTA’s founder, feels it’s beneficial in the patriarchal Tanzanian society, for men to learn along with women and see just how capable, intelligent and independent women can be. Potential students are interviewed before each semester begins and ultimately 40 to 50 students are selected based on several criteria and in person interviews. Many of the students haven’t had the opportunity to attend school past seventh grade or so as secondary school isn’t free in Tanzania. To attend secondary school, there is tuition of a little over $10/year and other fees for things like watchmen, food, furniture (seriously?), possibly uniforms and other misc. fees. When you consider how little money many Tanzanian people make, it’s understandable that secondary school is often not an option for some families. God forbid you have more than one child to enroll… In exchange for their free tuition at GHTA, the students pitch in to keep the school clean on a rotational schedule.

The school has only been in existence for a little over three years. As time passes and the school’s reputation grows around town, the school evolves. The students I taught were in school for a 6-month semester. However, when the next semester begins in January 2013, that batch of students will be in school for a year. They will also most likely have the option of learning a skill as Monika hopes to implement some skills training. What skills they are taught will in part depend on the talents of incoming volunteers. If you are lucky enough to have talents or skills of some sort, you should volunteer.

English Classroom
English Classroom. I got to make a poster on the ‘four Ps’ for the business classroom’s wall!

There are three small classrooms, each with long wood tables and benches and helpful hint posters on the walls, as well as photos of some of the students, current and past. Additionally, there is a playroom for children. Twice a week local neighborhood children and the offspring of students under the age of eight, are invited to come play at the school in the afternoons. The volunteers entertain them, play games with them, teach them songs, color, paint, play soccer, etc.

The students attend two classes Monday thru Thursday. The first class is from 9-10:30 and the second from 10:30 – 12. They are divided into 4 groups: 1a, 1b, 2a & 2b. The 1s began the semester with little to no knowledge of English or business, speaking predominately Swahili. The 2s began the semester with some knowledge of English and perhaps some prior business experience or knowledge. On Fridays, there are home visits, during which students offer to welcome the volunteer teachers to their homes to see how they live. Unfortunately, as I arrived toward the end of the semester, I didn’t get to attend an official home visit. All of the students had already had their turn.

I’ve never taught before, unless you consider cross-training co-workers or training presentations I’ve given on Agile Scrum at work. I didn’t know what to expect.

THE STUDENTS

English Grammar
I taught English grammar and this book was a godsend.

When I arrived at GHTA, V_, the interim house & school manager, gave me the option of teaching either English grammar or business. George was already comfortably settled as the teacher for that class. I opted out of business as I think I’ve overdosed on the topic. I majored in business in undergrad, I’ve been working in business for over a decade and I’m not in love with it. English grammar, on the other hand, is of great interest to me as I’m always seeking to improve my writing.

Ka_, one of the other volunteers from California, had been already completed her first week of teaching when I arrived. I would be taking over for her at the end of my first week in Moshi. In the meantime, I would shadow her and help out where I could.

Each class has a translator. The translators are former students. The 2s tend to need the translators for less than the 1s do. The translator for my classes was Fa_, a diminutive woman in her late 50s with a lot of spunk and internal fortitude. I liked her immediately.

GETTING TO KNOW TEACHER KEISHA

The students refer to all teachers as “Teacher [first name].” That tickled me. My first day of class, Ka_ introduced me to both classes and had me answer the following questions.
1. What is your name?

2. Where are you from?

3. How old are you?

4. Who do you live with?

Numbers three and four elicited the most response in combination with each other. To number four I answered, “I live with two cats.” I was met with blank stares and puzzlement. “Teacher, you are __years old and you are not married?” I figured, oh no, I’m about to hear that I’m a cat lady. I have two cats so that I’m not leaving a pet home alone. God! Erm….anyway, nope, not married. “Do you have any children?” Nope, no kids. “Why don’t you have any kids?” “I haven’t met anyone I want to have kids with yet.” There were “oohs” from a few of the female students and Fa_ said with enthusiasm,  “Good for you!” Her husband died in the 80s and she’s been raising her five children on her own ever since. She would later tell me, as she was giving me unsolicited counseling on who to marry, “No more men for me. You don’t know if the man is going to like your children. My head is clear and I want it to stay that way.”

SO, TEACHING, HUH?

Just doing a little teaching.

Teaching is hard work. I knew this and have long had much respect for teachers. But, I didn’t realize just how much work it is and how exhausting. Each night before the next day’s class, I’d spend a minimum of 20 minutes, but more often one hour, preparing lesson plans. What would I teach the next day? There are curriculum guides for the class and I would use those, and several other teaching aids to create lessons for the next day. Each Monday I had to give and then grade quizzes that I prepared the week before.  I reached into the recesses of my brain to recall what I learned in a psych class about test development.

Teaching itself was tiring and I only did it for half a day four times a week! Your mouth gets parched, you get tired of standing, you get chalk all over your cute clothes…I was so nervous about teaching and whether the students would respect me. I also wanted them to feel engaged. But, I had no reason to fear. These students wanted to learn. For some of them, just getting to school each day was a large feat. There are students who have to get up incredibly early to work before school; students who travel long distances on busses, foot or dala dala; and students who have children to care for – one of my students brought her baby daughter with her to class a few times. She was adorable and she ended up being fun to use in example sentences.

Often I would come up with example sentences to illustrate grammar rules. During a lesson on necessity (must, have to, have got to), Fa_ decided to chime in with a sentence of her own, “If you don’t want to get pregnant, you must take the family planning pill.” Did I mention she’s in her 50s? And lives in a patriarchal Tanzanian culture? And almost 90% of the citizens are Christian or Muslim? Yeah, she’s awesome.

I also realized that I had favorite students. They were generally the ones that spoke up more and apparently I am shallow as hell, because I found myself favoring the better looking students. Please forgive me. I think it’s an evolutionary response! I found myself working hard to go against my biases. I tried to get the quieter students to participate more (and it worked).  Teachers have it rough.

IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, EXCEPTIONS ARE THE RULE

Have you ever tried to explain to someone the rules of the English language? I remember once telling an ex-boyfriend’s niece that she shouldn’t use double negatives in a sentence. “Why?” she asked. “Because, it’s confusing.” “Yeah, but sometimes you can…” “Actually, yeah, that’s true.” For instance if I were to say, “You can’t not bathe or else you will be stank.” Sigh.

The English language is full of contradictions. Try teaching a classroom of non-native English speakers about comparative and superlative adjectives. Or, let me put that another way: silly, sillier, silliest. Or: funny, funnier, funniest. Ok, so, how about the word “good”. Good, gooder, goodest. Eek, ow, no. It’s: good, better, best. But, why? ‘Cause the English language is stupid, that’s why.

CONVERSATION DAY

Once a week the English grammar students get to have a discussion to help practice their English speaking.  My first week the topic was marriage, divorce and male – female relationships. Just a little light chat. I learned that divorce is revolutionary in Tanzania and is spreading as a method for marriage dissolution. Although, before it gets to that point, the couple may consult their friends for counseling, if that doesn’t work, their parents, and if that doesn’t work, their acquaintances, and if that doesn’t work, well, I guess y’all really don’t want to be together, so time to go to court! They were shocked when Ka_ and I told them that America’s divorce rate is 50%. I was thrown when one of the male students, Bar_, prone to loud exclamations and not shy about stating his opinions stated, “Marriage is like modern-day slavery for women!” Well then!

In that same discussion one of them women said, “My friend said if you’re husband doesn’t beat you, he doesn’t love you.” Many of the women nodded in agreement. Fa_ shook her head with disappointment. Ka_ and I sat with our mouths hanging open. Then one of the older women said, “Tit-for-tat!” I was impressed by her correct use of this expression.

PANTS VS. TROUSERS AKA THE BRITISH ADD EXTRA Us TO THEIR WORDS

During my last few days of teaching, two new volunteers arrived, Jenny and John. They are a married British couple who live in Belgium. John’s a retired engineer and Jenny is an ESL teacher for kids who decided to take a year’s leave of absence to travel the world with her retired husband. They plan to spend a few months at GHTA in Moshi. They are an adorable couple who’ve been married for 30+ years and it’s obvious from seeing how they interact with each other that they make a true effort to treat each other well and make their marriage work.

Some of my students

Jenny would be taking over teaching English grammar when I left, so she sat in on a few of the classes to get to know the students and get the hang of things. One morning I was teaching the ‘1’ students how to express preferences and gave them an example sentence: “I prefer wearing pants to dresses.” A few students looked at me with confused expressions and there were a couple of titters. I figured they just didn’t understand and asked Fa_ if I should explain more. Jenny helpfully suggested we have each student state their preference for either pants or dresses. A few students went until one student, Ester, asked me, “Teacher, what are pants?” I pointed at the pants she was wearing, “You’re wearing pants.” Another student chimed in, “Teacher, trousers are pants?” “Yep!” Conversation started up in Swahili and Fa_ said to me with amusement, “They think pants are what you wear underneath your trousers.” “Underwear?” I asked. Jenny added, “Ah, in England we say ‘pants’ for undergarments and ‘trousers’ for the clothing item.” So, all this time, the students thought I was saying that I prefer to walk around in underwear than dresses. No wonder they looked at me funny, they probably thought I was some kind of freaky American perv.

And thus the students learned one of the differences between American and British English.

I’LL TAKE A SECOND WIFE PLEASE

The second day of class, one of the younger male students kept giving me eyes. I couldn’t tell if he was just curious about me or trying to flirt with me. After class he pulled me aside. “Teacher Keisha, can I add you on Facebook?” Ha! America or Tanzania, Facebook is insidious. He then asks, “Do you want to walk around town with me?” Alone? I think. I don’t think that’s a good idea. We don’t have rules about student-teacher fraternization, but I don’t want to be the talk of the school. Besides, he looks 17. The next week, George would confirm that this student did indeed have a crush on me.

The next day, a male student in his 30s told me, “Teacher, I think you are very pretty. I think we can get to know each other. I like to have a girlfriend.” “You have a wife,” I reply. “Ah, but in my culture, that is not important.” “Well, in my culture, we don’t do that. So, this is not going to happen. Thank you though!”

WRITE THIS DOWN

George, as previously mentioned, is a big country music fanatic. He taught English conversation for about three months at GHTA. One morning, during my first week there, I was laying in my mosquito-netted bottom-bunk bed, nursing my sick self, and I heard his class singing loudly in unison, with their Swahili accents: “Write this down / take a little note / to remind you in case you didn’t know / write this down / tell yourself I love you and I don’t want you to go / write this down!” George Strait has a new set of fans. It was adorable and their enthusiasm was and is admirable. Later, he taught them “I Saw the Light”, the Hank Williams version.

HOME VISIT

While I didn’t get to attend an official home visit, my class’s translator, Fa_ invited me to her house. She would cook. She and I bonded quickly during my trip. It wasn’t long before she asked me if I could help her learn to use email. The afternoon we went to an internet cafe, we discussed the state of my love life (the state is non-existent). She asked why I hadn’t gotten married yet. I fell to the ground, pounded the dirt and cried dramatically, “God wants me to be alooooooone!” Or, maybe I just said I hadn’t met anyone I wanted to marry yet and that sometimes men get scared when things get serious. She said that in Tanzania women who are single are looked upon poorly. I told her it’s not so different in the US. I’m in my _s, single and have two cats. The shitgiving doesn’t end. She was surprised. I told her that sometimes when women are single after a certain age and don’t have children, people ask them about it a lot and put pressure on them. Perhaps it’s okay to be educated and support oneself as a woman in the US, but you still better find you a man girl, and best be poppin’ out some babies soon, lest you be branded with a ‘C’ for childless. As for men and dating, Fa_ told me, “For a woman, your father is the best man. All others are just wearing trousers, pretending to be men.” She said that because women outnumber here, men act like dogs. Girl, I know, right? I wanted to bring her back home with me.

Hiking
Hiking in a skirt and flip-flops

On a Sunday, Monika, Ka_, Je_, one of my students, Ab_, whom Fa_ says is “like [her] son”, and I went to Fa_’s for lunch. Fa_ lives with her 10-year old grandson. Her 20something daughter drove in from her job at a safari park to help her mom with the cooking. Ovens and stoves are expensive and many don’t have them, let alone microwaves. So, most of their cooking is done on portable gas stoves or on open fire. Fa_’s house is small, but cozy, down along a dirt road that made for a bumpy car ride.

Before lunch Fa_’s nephew and his good friend took us on an unexpected 1-hour hike behind Fa_’s house, while Fa_ and her daughter stayed behind to finish cooking. On the way to the trail we ran into Fa_’s father-in-law who lives in the house a few fields down. He helped her and her husband get their house. He’s very old, hard of hearing and often not coherent or present.

Hiking in flip-flops on rocky, dusty paths, some wide enough for only one foot, with a stream of water 30-ft below, makes for lots of thrills – if by thrills, you mean almost spills. When Ab_ asked the boys why they took us so far they said in Swahili, “We wanted to show you the waterfalls!” Cute.

From l to r: pillau (bottom), chapati, glazed peas and carrots, curried chicken, spicy eggplant

For lunch, Fa_ and her daughter made pillau, chapati (a staple of many meals), curried chicken, a glazed pea and carrot dish and spicy eggplant. To drink we were served fresh mango juice. Fa_ has a small garden behind her house where she grows mangoes, avocados (known as parachichis in Swahili, love that word), and other vegetables. Some she sells, some she eats. The food was set on mats on the center of the living room floor. We served ourselves. Fa_ and her daughter ate without utensils, while the rest of us opted to eat with. Fa_’s lucky to have her garden. She’s had goats and chickens stolen. The neighbors have too. Or the thieves have destroyed people’s gardens, taking all the fruit and vegetables they could. But, the neighbors look out for each other. It’s a real community.

Voluntourism in Tanzania: Day-to-Day Life as a Volunteer with Give a Heart to Africa

Give a Heart to Africa House | Voluntourism in Tanzania, Africa | The Girl Next Door is Black
The GHTA house

I volunteered in Moshi, Tanzania (TZ) for three weeks with a program called Give a Heart to Africa (GHTA). With the aid of volunteers and donations, GHTA strives to empower Tanzanian women through education. I 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 running the school and management of the house. Volunteers are unpaid, including the founders and the organizers.

Here is part I of my stay as a volunteer, written during my trip.

MEET THE OTHER VOLUNTEERS

There’s a rooster who cock-a-doodle-doos every night beginning at 3am and continues until well after the sun rises. One of the GHTA managers 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 wanted. On nights when I forget to use my earplugs, I lay awake during his moonlight sonata and debate which is worse: trying to sleep through nature’s animal chorus (including neighborhood dogs that bark and howl at each other nightly) or man-made noises like the car honks and alarms, garbage trucks and loud drunks I experience at home in L.A.

The volunteers all share one large 3-bedroom house which is next to the small school. Up to six volunteers share bunks in the house. The house/school manager resides in a small “studio” just behind the main house.

Living Room of Give a Heart to Africa House in Moshi, Tanzania, Africa, Travel Voluntourism | The Girl Next Door is Black
The Living Room

I didn’t have a roommate until A_ arrived in week two, 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’s striking; a girl the boy’s flock to. 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 enough to power a Prius.

We roomed together my remaining two weeks, the first few days of which, she quizzed me about my life:

“Where are you from?

“What’s your family like?”

“What are your 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 do you do?”

“Don’t you hate when men aren’t straight up and play games with you?”

She is inquisitive, to say the least. I have never met anyone like her.

George, at Peponi Beach Resort

George slept across the hall from us. He is a tall, lanky, but athletic, 25-year old from South Carolina with perfectly straight white teeth, boyishly cut brown hair and a slight Southern drawl. He speaks with a booming voice, is gregarious and innocently straightforward. He has enough energy to power a dam. I met him my first night in Moshi when he invited me to join the other volunteers on 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 (which helped them learn English) and to the other volunteers. He is pure entertainment and a sweetheart.

Next door is Ka__ and Je_ a mother / son duo from Northern California. Ka_ is German/Dutch and of an age where a lady doesn’t tell. She’s blond and her German-accented English is endearing and pairs well with her welcoming attitude. 22-year old Je_ is tall, slim and would probably make a fantastic fashion model. He’s super chill, though some tough life experiences have left him a bit hardened. He’s very easy to talk to and shares my sense of fun. We became fast friends and he’s my buddy for most of my stay in Tanzania.

Cockroaches live in the house too. 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 filth.  While I sneer at them and smother them in bug spray, my roommate screams and runs away in fear, as though they will morph into an aliens with giant tentacles and chase her around the house. I feel like her protector.

Dining Room in Moshi, Tanzania House | Give a Heart to Africa House | The Girl Next Door is Black
The Dining Room

AT “HOME”

The weekday housekeeper, Me___, is a former GHTA student in her 40s. She’s feisty, takes her job very seriously and is determined to teach the volunteers Swahili one phrase at a time:

“Good morning, Me___.”

“No. Habari za asabuhi, Me___!”

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 bakes the non-a/c’d classrooms, playing soccer with the local kids who visit twice a week,  my daily “beauty regimen” of sunscreen and mosquito repellent, and hot, dusty 20-minute walks into town, I had plenty of clothing for her to wash. She’s a clothing ninja. We leave our shoes on the patio to avoid tracking dirt in the house. One morning I walked outside to find my flip-flops missing. Another volunteer, noticing my confusion, asked “Are you looking for your shoes?”

I nodded.

“Me___  washed them for you.” This would be a regular occurrence.  If Me___ noticed a speck of dirt on my sneakers, 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.

Ugali, photo by Bacardi on flickr.com | Tanzanian Cuisine, Tanzanian food | The Girl Next Door is Black
Ugali Photo cr: Bacardi, flickr.com
MEALTIME

We also have a cook, another former student turned employee, who prepares dinner Sunday through Friday nights. She is very sweet and sings songs in Swahili while she cooks. The menu, posted on the fridge, rotates every two weeks. Dishes vary; sometimes it’s Tanzanian cuisine like chapati, ugali, mchicha (myummy!) and pillau. Other days we have meals based on recipes provided by former volunteers, such as: zucchini fritters, pasta with sauce, and chili. We usually eat dinner together every night except Friday and Saturday when many volunteers go away for weekend excursions. Having dinner together each night gives us a great opportunity to discuss our days, get to know each other better and form a semblance of a family.

I THOUGHT COLD SHOWERS WERE FOR TEENAGE BOYS
cold shower
photo by stevendepolo, flickr.com

The house has two bathrooms. One is in George’s room, the other we share between the other two bedrooms. The first week and a half of my stay the water in the shower was freezing cold and no one could figure out why. There are two buttons to press to activate the water heater before showering, but they damn sure weren’t heating the water. For over a week I took cold showers: shivering, speed cleaning and all the while trying to imagine I was in a sauna (it sorta worked). Eventually a technician fixed the issue. I’m not sure what he did, but we went from ice-cold showers to burn-the-skin-right-off-your-body steams. Given the option of cold or hot water to bathe in, I choose hot. It also gave me the opportunity to teach the students a new English vocabulary word: scalding.

TURN ON THE LIGHTS
Scrabble Board | The Girl Next Door is Black | Games to Play
Photo cr: martinak15, flickr.com

Electricity in  Tanzania is a problem. Depending on who you ask you’ll hear that it’s either because they’re short 900MW, 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. The lights flickered out in the middle of dinner. 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 lanterns, candles, and flashlights. A___ refused to make a move without George’s accompaniment in case a bug needed putting to death. 

What to do at 7pm with the lights out? Go to bed? Too early. Read? Too dark. Talk…to…each other? We talk a lot as is. Play a game? Play a game! The house had playing cards and board games.

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 to Scrabble. We played Scrabble by candle and lantern light. A___ won and I came in second. I blame the poor view of my letter tiles for my loss. I am just a tad competitive.

Scrabble by candlelight makes for a good bonding experience.

IN CONVERSATION

DO YOU HAVE JUSTIN BIEBER IN AMERICA?
Training Day Poster, photo by jb2.0 flickr.com | Tanzania Voluntourism | The Girl Next Door is Black
Training Day, photo by jb2.0 on flickr.com

One of the non-live-in volunteers is a local, Pr_. 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. He 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), Rihanna is actually from Barbados and Nicki Minaj from Trinidad, which he found surprising. He asked:

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 of us.

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 – some as little as US$1 / day – it’s a huge investment to see these performers, but people are such fans that they do it.

Later, as we watched Training DayPr___ asked:

Is it true that Americans are quick to shoot each other with guns?

In TZ knives and machetes are much more prevalent than guns.

It’s a shame that one of the images of Americanism that we export to other countries, is that of US Americans as trigger-happy, homicidal asshats.

ARE YOU VOTING FOR OBAMA?
Inauguration Day 2009, President Barack Obama, L.A. Live Plaza | The Girl Next Door is Black
Inauguration Day 2009

I had hoped to escape thinking about or discussing the inane 2012 Presidential election on my trip, but 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 mention I am American, the response is a wide-eyed variation of, “Oh, Obama!”, “He’s our ‘brother'” or “Yes we can!” POTUS has quite a few fans in TZ.

I get drawn into discussions about everything from the state of the US economy, to why some Americans are so against universal healthcare, to gay marriage, and to the horrid racism directed at President Obama and The First Lady. Once the topic of racism surfaced, Je__ shared some of his less than stellar experiences living as a biracial, young man in North Carolina. A__, my non-American-loving roommate, couldn’t believe her ears. But, that’s racism: it’s so asinine and absurd that it’s almost unbelievable if you don’t see / hear the incidents for yourself.

COUNTRY RAP

We took turns volunteering to wash the dishes after lunch and dinner each day. Often when George volunteered, his dishwashing time would turn into an American Idol audition with him belting out country songs. Once, I volunteered to dry while he washed. It thrilled him to learn that I like to listen to country music sometimes. I requested he sing a George Strait song from the 90s. He obliged, singing “Blue Clear Sky“, and followed it up with another song, aaaand another song, while A___ and I grinned and tried to sing along. I’m sure the neighbors could hear him since he was loud enough to out cock-a-doodle-doo the rooster with the death wish.

Once the dishes were done (man), we moved karaoke night 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.

Not only did George sing for us, he rapped. Imagine a really tall, lanky, “aw shucks” 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.

Mic drop. It was awesome.