23 June 2011

The In-Laws!!

(First and foremost, thanks to many of you who commented or wrote me notes of encouragement after my last bummer of a blog post. Now back to your regularly scheduled slightly self-mocking observations on life in East Africa!)

We had been planning our visit to “Dani” (grandmother in Luo language) and Innocent, Fred’s nephew who is like his own son, ever since we returned to Africa, and as the time drew closer for the trip to Kenya, I began to get really nervous. I knew language would be a barrier, since Dani and Innocent only speak Luo, but I also had a sense of the weight of the occasion. Fred’s extended family, aunts, uncles, cousins and all, had been waiting for Fred to get married for a long, long time. Most of them had not even seen a photo of me, but they knew I was a white American, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to make a good impression.

As an example, trying to dress for the day we went to their home almost drove Fred crazy. I wanted to wear comfortable clothes for the long trip, but I also wanted to look nice to see them, and I definitely didn’t want to look too American. Trying to find the perfect traveling outfit that would also be the perfect “meet the in-laws” outfit, pairing practicality with themes of cultural integration…my appeals to Fred for feedback or guidance were useless, as I imagine the importance of a wardrobe decision of this magnitude is beyond most men. They could probably identify “wrong” if they saw it on your body, but otherwise, you’re on your own, lady! I finally landed on something that didn’t appall me, and we hit the road for the big event.

Remember the car ride I described where the driver shared a seat with the eighth passenger? Well, I have now realized that this is an extremely common scenario. I have amended my award of “Maximum Vehicular Capacity” so many times in the past few weeks that I have determined that it is only my naivety that would even consider that award worth thinking of. (Eight in the seats, with three to four children in laps, and three to four riding in the “boot” seems to be the absolute capacity for these vehicles, but I’m still expecting to be proved wrong on that front.) The trip to Sindo, Dani’s village, took us about 11 hours, in which we rode in three packed cars, two packed mini-buses, and another packed car. This final car was the one that took us from the tiny town of Homa Bay to the village of Sindo, and the two voluptuous mamas who shared the back seat with Fred and I had us wedged in so tightly that even the bumps of the “detours” off of the “currently being improved” road didn’t budge us.

When we finally arrived at the bottom of the path to Dani’s house, I was so beat I almost (almost) didn’t even care what I was wearing. Fred’s cousin, Beatrice, a lovely 30-something-year-old married mother of five, came running full-speed down the hill from the house. She basically fell on me, hugging me and welcoming me, and she took the bags from my hands, threw her arm around my shoulders and started up the hill. We had to stop and rearrange luggage when Fred’s aunt came from the road where she’d seen us pass, and insisted on also carrying something after her hugs and welcome. Then we stopped again (it’s not a very long path!) when Innocent came tearing down the hill yelling “Uncle! Uncle!” Eventually, we made it to where Dani was waiting for us, and she started crying when she saw us. Half a second of “is that good crying or bad crying?” crossed my mind before she started hugging me and wouldn’t let go!

Suffice it to say that I was very welcome, and as I got to know them better over the weekend, I was let in on the secret: they had been dreading our marriage, although they hadn’t told Fred. Their few observations of marriage between Luo men and white women were not encouraging, and I will summarize their fears in this list. They thought I would be old, wear only tight trousers, refuse to have children (or be too old to have children), take Fred to America forever, and/or dislike them and their home. The stories I heard behind those fears totally legitimize the worst opinion they might have had of me, but by the end of the first day, Fred assured me that they love me and only regretted the language barrier. (Big sigh of relief!)

Their home is on a remote little bay of Lake Victoria. The village is ringed by huge hills (like Chehalem Mountain), and Fred’s family homestead is part-way up one hill, about a 45-minute walk from the village. The lake is nearly empty during the day, since it’s been over-fished for tilapia and Nile perch, but the dagaa (small fish like sardines) are still plentiful. Dagaa have to be fished for at night, so around dusk about a hundred boats set out from the shore with lanterns in them. The dagaa come to the lights and are caught with nets, so it’s like a whole city on the bay each night. There is no electricity or running water up at the house, so they have donkeys that carry full jerrycans of lake water up the hill each morning and evening. Dani has a couple of small gardens close to her three-room house with a separate kitchen, and each garden has a high fence of poles around it to protect from the baboons. They live so remotely that there are a large number of wild animals that come out from the hills at night, including baboons and even the occasional leopard!

Fred has spent the past several years sending Dani part of his salary each month to make improvements on the house, including constructing the kitchen and a toilet, but they hadn’t quite gotten around to a bathroom yet. Our first night Fred told me, a bit shame-facedly, that we would have to bathe outside. I thought, “no problem! I’ve bathed in the outdoor bathrooms at the orphanages, and I enjoy it!” Then he corrected me by showing me the rock he’d found that would be our shower stall. I love being married, because it was not only appropriate, but necessary for him to stay there while I stripped naked on a random rock in the middle of the great-baboon-ridden-outdoors and splashed water on myself. The next day, the first thing he did in the morning was go out and hire two neighbors to help him construct a bathroom from sheets of tin roofing and poles and rocks for the floor. By afternoon he had built me a bathroom, so that I wouldn’t have to worry about glowing-in-the-dark for any passersby to see.

There were loads of other wonderful and funny moments throughout the weekend, like giving Dani the gifts we’d brought her, Innocent praying at meals, Dani dancing with joy when she saw our wedding photos, Innocent hanging from a tree screaming “Auntie, Auntie, look at me!”, Dani and Fred’s aunt laughing at my attempts at Luo/Swahili/English mix, and the look on Dani’s face when she saw me brushing my hair one morning: “Well, you won’t have to spend a fortune at the salon with hair like that!” It was a huge blessing, and they made me very welcome, no matter what I was wearing!

13 June 2011

Back in the Saddle...and sad...

Well, I've been back here in Tanzania for almost a month, and all I've written about is my transportation woes!  Here's a little sketch of my life in Shirati:

Office/Compound - Shirati was the first place Mennonite missionaries settled in Tanzania, something like 60 years ago, so there's this large compound of Mennonite facilities.  There's the local church and their offices and nursery school and a huge playing field and playground equipment for the kids, which makes me jealous on behalf of the kids at Iringa Road Mennonite Church and their tiny dirt patch playing field/driveway/parking lot.  There's a hospital and a nursing school and a home for people with leprosy, and a ton of houses, some built by the diocese or church, and others left behind by former missionaries.  The diocesan offices are a pretty big one-story building with all the offices facing an inner courtyard and a guest house operating in the outward facing rooms at one end of the "community center".  This is where Fred works, and they've given me the outer part of his office to use as my office.  The first thing I did was put up something bright and colorful...it wouldn't be my office without some art by Spencer Reynolds on the wall!  My outer office location basically means that I'm like Fred's receptionist, but I'm grateful for an office so close to my husband's office.  He is the Planning Officer for the diocese, and a lot of his projects have to do with agriculture, so he's out of the office often working on his farm or garden or test garden.  There are so many new people in the offices that I'm having a difficult time sorting out who is who, let alone their names and jobs.  I do know David in the kitchen, though, because he is like Mama Neema Chiboni in Dodoma: the source of all that is good and edible.

Home - One of the perks of working for the diocese is rent-free housing on the compound, so we have a house not far from the office.  It's been passed over by a number of doctors and other administrators who wanted nicer houses, so they're just really happy that we're okay with living there.  When Fred first came and they put him in that house, it was no problem because he was a single man and insisted that he didn't mind that it was pretty old and run-down.  When they heard he was bringing a wife back with him (and a white woman, no less), they started worrying that I would refuse to live in that house.  I have to admit that it needs a fair bit of work, but it's got great potential.  It's large (10 rooms plus entryway and back porch), and it was designed by some former missionaries (which accounts for the size).  It is like the house I lived in in Dodoma in that it has electricity and water whenever the city permits them to be on, and in that there is only one working water tap at present, so we use a lot of buckets.  It is unlike the house in Dodoma in that it was not furnished, so we have a twin-sized bed that we share and a couple of tables for cooking surfaces and some chairs, all on loan from the diocese.  We can't have guests over, because we have no where for them to sit, which is not such a bad thing, since I'm the object of broad curiosity, and would have chai demanded of me on a regular basis if we had anywhere for people to sit while they demaded the chai.  We're trying to plan for furniture purchasing, but I have a lot of traveling to do in the next few months, so a sofa will have to wait a bit.  The thing I miss the most that we had in Dodoma is a toaster.  What I wouldn't give for a toaster!

Sounds good, right?  So why so sad?

A big part of my current ennui is just being physically tired and sick-ish.  I have been suffering from allergies which medicine does little to help, and it's keeping me awake at night sniffling and sneezing, leaving me weary all day.  I took a day and a half off work last week, but I can't seem to get my energy back.  As my sister-in-law advised, I probably just need to drink a bunch more water, so I'll work on that.

Another part of my general gloom is feeling kind of lonely.  I'm starting over, and knew only my husband when we arrived here, but it's becoming clear that people have already formed opinions about me.  Probably due to my weariness, this seems a much bigger deal to me than it would ordinarily, but some of the nursing students who maybe were trying to make a play for Fred before I came along, are making comments about me and just generally always watching me.  It makes me really self-conscious, whether at work or at home, it seems like I'm always on stage, so I end up spending a lot of time locked into the two rooms of our house that are occupiable.  There's one person who has made it clear that he's delighted with me, and that's a friend of Fred's named Sam.  He's an older man living with leprosy, and I'll write a whole post about him soon, but he's wonderful.

One difficulty has been that my Swahili has gotten rusty a bit, although it wouldn't matter too much, because the people I love talking to, the watchmen and cleaning ladies and little kids, mostly speak Luo, their tribal language.  I've tried learning a few greetings in Luo, but I need to put some work into both my Swahili and my Luo.  This was very apparent when I went on a home visit with a bunch of visitors from the States, and I couldn't even greet the palliative care patient we were visiting because he and his wife and son and mother only spoke Luo.  I felt pretty inept that I couldn't encourage them or pray with them or even thank them without translation, which is like stepping back to my first days in Tanzania.  This particular home visit was difficult because the man is dying of AIDS, the family is starving, and they didn't even have a home until the local volunteer social worker mobilized some neighbors to build them a simple house.  They're sleeping in the dirt, and we had brought nothing to give them.  Mennonite Central Committee had just sent hundreds of HIV care kits with things that would help this family, but due to reasons I can't get into without being disrespectful, this family is not receiving that aid.  I encouraged the American visitors we were with to contribute some money to buy food for the family, which they did.  A short term fix, but better than nothing.

Finally, my closing downer is this: I'm feeling pretty isolated from people in the States.  It's always hardest right after I've been there, just as it was hardest for me to be away from my friends in Tanzania right after I arrived in the States.  I could use some bolstering and frivolity, if anyone has the time to lift my spirits a bit.  Thanks for reading all this etcetera, but please don't feel too sorry for me.  I get to eat fresh-picked watermelon grown on Fred's farm in a few minutes, which will be great.

06 June 2011

Safari Ndefu Part Two – Fred and Leisha hit the road!

In this post our intrepid hero and heroine strike out across the expanse of Tanzania, encountering and defeating boredom, discomfort, poor customer service, gawking lurkers and overzealous taxi drivers.

Our story begins where we left off last time, in the airport of Dar es Salaam.  A taxi delivered us to the bus stand in Dar es Salaam around 3:30am, leaving approximately 90 minutes before our bus to Mwanza would begin boarding.  Fred and his friends, Paul and Henry, sat catching up while I made a pillow of my jacket and took a nap on the abandoned bench seat of a taxi-van (dala dala).  When the time came to board the bus, the guys negotiated with the bus conductor the cost of transporting our two trunks, two suitcases and large backpack under the bus, leaving us with a small backpack and two computer bags to put under our feet for the 14 hour journey.  We boarded the bus which was scheduled to depart at 6am.  Tanzania has a law that commercial vehicles (like buses) cannot be on the road at night, so every bus that departs first thing in the morning from the main bus stage ALL try to leave the single driveway and cross three lanes of traffic at the exact same time.  What chaos!

Looking at a map of Tanzania, you might note that our origin (Dar es Salaam) and our destination (Mwanza) are about as far apart (latitudinal-ly) as one can get.  Both Fred and I were exhausted.  He had spent Monday and Tuesday traveling by air, then went straight to the bus stage to travel to Dar es Salaam from Nairobi (about a 12-14 hour journey in itself), then napped a bit, picked me up, and hopped on another bus.  We tried a variety of positions to get comfortable enough to sleep, but usually only dozed off for 20-30 minutes at a time.  The rest of the time we spent staring out the front of the bus.  The only point of interest in the whole ride was that we stopped in Dodoma mid-day for a lunch break, but, having had our phone stolen the day before, we couldn’t contact any of my friends there.  It was so strange to reach Dodoma and keep going, since, until this point, Dodoma was home.  However, keep going we did.

We reached Mwanza super late and checked into a guest house Fred had stayed at previously.  The night watchman put us in what turned out to be probably the smallest and worst room in the place.  We had to ask for sheets, soap, and a towel, and neither the lights nor the shower in the bathroom worked.  The only food available that late were some sketchy chips (fries) from a street vendor, but we were hungry, so we gave thanks. Sometime after midnight the watchman realized that he’d not taken a name to write in the register, so he came and knocked at the door to get Fred’s name.  Fred asked him why it couldn’t wait until morning, and finally just gave his name to end the discussion.  At 5am the buses in the nearby bus stage started revving their engines and hooting (honking horns).  Finally we got up and went into town to get breakfast and a new phone.  This was Fred’s first time out in public in Africa with me, and the leers and calls of the young men who are always standing around places like bus stages.  It bugged him, although I explained that hassling was not uncommon at all. 

Around 10am we boarded the bus from Mwanza to the Shirati junction, a trip of about 3 hours.  We were in the very front row of the bus with most of our bags nestled below the bus.  There were two cool things about this bus ride: it rained hard and we saw a herd of zebra on the right hand side of the bus.  I guess I’m not a typical white person, though, because I spent more time looking at the rain than the zebra.  I took photos of neither.  (In case you haven’t noticed, I take photos of almost nothing.)

Finally we reached…not Shirati itself, but the junction for the road to Shirati.  It’s pretty much a wide spot in the road where they off-loaded our luggage and we were immediately swarmed by drivers of the small sedans that ferry people to Shirati and the other small villages nearby.  Imagine, if you will, a Subaru Outback hatchback, but slightly smaller.  Imagine, if you will, watching your two trunks, two suitcases and large backpack shoved roughly into the back of this vehicle along with several giant bags of food and sundry other suitcases and bags belonging to the other passengers of the taxi.  Imagine, if you will, that the other passengers of the taxi number four, in addition to the driver and another random employee and you and your husband, total eight.  How would you put eight full-grown adults into a Subaru Outback in addition to probably 400 pounds of luggage?  They put Fred and me in the back seat with two other men, and we put our computer bags and small backpack on our laps.  Then they shoved a large bag and a plastic basin through the window onto the lap of the other men.  Then they put two men in the passenger seat and a woman in the driver seat, then, I kid you not, the driver sat ON the woman.  I have occasional mild claustrophobia, which set in as soon as we left the paved road and it started raining again, causing everyone to roll up their windows.  I put my head down on the computer bags I was clutching and asked Fred to talk to me about something…anything…to get my mind off my environment.  He was rather distraught to see his wife tearing up and fighting hyperventilation.  Not much further down the road the young man sitting next to me got out and we rearranged the bags, alleviating my rising panic.  Then we stopped again, and they went to push another passenger into the back seat, but Fred protested, so they rearranged the luggage in the back in order to put the employee in the back.  In such glorious manner we arrived in Shirati, earning the taxi driver the award for “Maximum Vehicular Capacity.”

The moral of the story is this: having a husband to fight your battles with luggage conductors and taxi drivers is so, so wonderful.