Sunday, October 30, 2011

My bags are all packed....almost

Wow. I cannot believe that tomorrow night I will be back in Springfield for the first time in 5 months. It feels unreal, but I am starting to get pretty excited! Today at lunch, as Katherine and I both made lists about our time in Africa, I realized just how much I will miss this continent. I still cannot upload pictures, but, in the mean time, I thought I would share my list with you all.

The best thing about my time in Africa: Telling Saning'o that he would be able to attend school this year. Being out of my comfort zone for 5 months...and realizing how much I was able to experience because I was out of my comfort zone.

The most challenging thing about my time in Africa: Kilimanjaro! Also, living in a country where very few people speak English. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I didn't realize how little English I would speak/hear while in Tanzania. I'm so glad it was that way because it made learning Swahili a much higher priority.

How I've changed during my time in Africa: I think I am more independent than I was five months ago.  I'm much more up for an adventure and am okay with being completely flexible with my plans. I have also become a less picky eater - and if you know me, then you know that is a big change. As cliche as it sounds, I have also become much more aware of just how fortunate I am in the life that I live.

Favorite foods I've tasted: Mbuzi (goat), chapati and Kyela rice!

What I have loved most about Africa: Engaruka and the people I have met everywhere. I have learned so much about how to be a welcoming and loving person from those whom I have had the opportunity to meet these past months. These people are happy to open their homes and hearts to a stranger.

What I've missed from home: My people! I haven't been homesick since week six (and only a small amount then) but I do miss my people. I am so excited to see everyone when I get back home. I'm lucky enough to have a pretty awesome line-up that will be waiting for me at the airport, and I can't wait! One of the things that will get me on that plane tonight is the thought of seeing my mom and dad, my grandparents, Debbie, Emily, Alexa and Zayden, Brandon and everyone else!

What I'm looking forward to: As cheesy as this sounds I am so excited to find out what my future has in store and where my life will take me. Or maybe it's where I will have life take me. I am very sad to be leaving Africa, but buoyed knowing that there are many more adventures ahead of me.

Favorite experiences: Reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro - a very proud moment for me. Going cage diving (or 'cage breath-holding') with Great White Sharks. Going paragliding; which officially marked the end of my fear of heights. Learning Swahili and using it everyday to connect with people and learn the stories of their lives. Buying a cow at church. Speaking with the secondary students in Tanzania. Getting to know Kellen and Daudi much better and being inspired by them every day! Being willing to try new things that I wouldn't have tried a year ago:  trying strange foods, being willing to talk with people in a different language despite not speaking it fluently, paragliding, going Sokkie dancing in South Africa.

I am glad that I have been able to so honestly share my experiences--the good and the bad--while in Africa with everyone who reads this blog.  It has been a privilege to give you all a look into the first half of my gap year. I still have lots of stories to share about Tanzania once I get back home, so be sure to check back.  The rest of my gap year will be very different than the first half, but I will still be sharing the stories of my adventures with all of you!

Thank you for all the support you have shown to me.  It means so much to me.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bad Blogger

     I have been a horrible blogger this past week! But it isn't totally my fault, I promise. I'm in South Africa visiting a friend for about 2 weeks prior to coming home and we have very little internet so I haven't been able to upload pictures. Don't worry though, I have been taking a lot of pictures! South Africa is a gorgeous country, and the people are phenomenal. Today we are going paragliding off of Lion's Head and tomorrow morning, weather conditions permitting, we will go cage diving with great white sharks! I'm very excited for that one.
      I cannot believe that I head home Sunday evening and will be back in Springfield on Monday night. These five months have gone by, seemingly, in a flash, but have been filled with new and great experiences. While part of me hates to leave, the rest of me can't wait to see all my loved ones :) Pictures will be coming early next week!

Monday, October 17, 2011

So long for now, Tanzania

          134 days ago I stepped off the plane at Kilimanjaro Airport. I was exhausted, nervous, knew no Swahili and was feeling uncertain that I was ready for what I had committed myself to: five months away from home; in a country where I could count the people I knew on one hand. I knew almost nothing about the people, the language, the culture and back home I wasn't even a legal adult. Upon hearing what I was planning to do after high school, so many of my friends had told me that they admired me - and how they couldn't do what I was setting out to do. That first day I wasn't so sure that I could do it either. Had I gotten myself in over my head? The day (click for link) was filled with nerves, tears and many doubts.

      Almost five months later, I know how off target my feelings were that day. I did it, and I thrived. Never before have I been as consistently happy as I have been these last few months in Tanzania. I came here a stranger, but felt at home before week one was over. Despite my Swahili being basic at best those first few weeks, I found no shortage of people willing to help me practice and found the subjects I could talk about growing quickly.

       As I sat in a shop on market day in Engaruka last week, helping a Mama out with customers as she repaired clothing, I realized just how much I had learned. We were sitting there talking about America: the people, weather and daily life. We talked about Tanzania: where I had gone, why I had fallen so in love with this country, why I liked the food so much. I talked about myself: what I wanted to study in University, where I saw myself in ten years and how many kids I wanted. We talked about the differences between Tanzania and America, religion and so much more. I spent four hours talking with a woman who knows no English and I felt pretty proud of my Kiswahili.
         I've experienced so many new things here. I've held the 3 day old baby of a stranger. I purchased a cow at church. (click for link) I was in my first dust storm. I've spent time with widows who are barely older than I am. I've talked with students about setting goals and peer pressure. I've danced with Maasai women, climbed the tallest mountain in Africa (click for link) and built a chicken farm in Zanzibar. I have seen a woman being carried by her neighbors more than ten miles to the hospital. I have learned that material objects are not what what bring happiness but rather family and love, full stomachs and health, friends and laughter. I've learned to be thankful for what I have; that nothing should be taken for granted and to give what I can. l have been renamed. I have felt more love than ever before. I have seen parents who are grateful to Kellen, Daudi and me, not because we have given their children scholarships to attend secondary school, but simply because we are trying. Whenever I find myself getting frustrated with the difficulties of finding scholarships for 8 students to attend Secondary School (around $5,600 a year total) I will remember the gratitude of the children and their parents and be reminded of why I want to help.

          On my last night in Engaruka, I had one of many long conversations in a strange mixture of Kiswahili and English with a man who had been a stranger a few months ago but I now consider family. He told me "You are family now Namunyak. Whenever you are in Tanzania please come visit your family in Engaruka and feel at home. We will miss you, but we know that you will return and that you will not forget us. We love you." With those words I realized what a gift these past five months have been. I have seen things I will never forget, met people I will always hold dear and lived in a place that will stay in my heart.   

        Baadaye, Tanzania. I won't say goodbye because it is never goodbye, just “see you later.” I might not be able to save or change the world, this country or even the village of Engaruka. I will however do whatever I can to meet the needs and find the tools by which they can change their own lives.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Got my hair done one last time!

I will even miss the surprised looks I get when I reply to someone in Swahili, and the calls of "Mzungu! Mzungu!"

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Nearing the End

          On Saturday Kellen and I got back from my last visit to Engaruka before I head home. We ended up spending 6 days there, which was longer than we had planned but I’m so glad we did! I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a bit of Tanzania during these past 4 months but out of everywhere I’ve been, Engaruka is my favorite, hands down. The thing that makes Engaruka so special is the people that live there. To me, they define the meaning of community: if a person is in need, someone will try to help. If a family is short on school fees, chances are the other villagers will help however they can, even if it isn’t much. We saw a woman who was very sick and going to the hospital. There was no one with a car available that day so a group of other villagers was took turns carrying her to the hospital. The love that the people in Engaruka have for each other, and for visitors, is beautiful and a philosophy I want to live by. 
     We visited Oldonyo Lengai Secondary School and Engaruka Juu Primary school again to talk with the girls in the Empowered Girls Club. Instead of the mzungu (white girl) Q&A that we did previously, I got the chance to talk to them about some life skills! For the secondary students we talked about goal setting: why it is important, how to make goals, the difference between long term and short term goals and some other goal related topics. I hope they found my information useful and will apply it to their own lives. At the primary school I talked about peer pressure, something that seems to be pretty universal. When I asked for examples of peer pressure many of the things said were so similar to the types of peer pressure faced in America. A few of the things they listed were someone pressuring you to have sex, try drugs and gossip and play instead of doing your homework. With them, I talked about the importance of focusing on school instead of letting yourself become distracted as well as the reasons to not give in to peer pressure. The younger girls at the primary school really seemed to have taken in everything we talked about during our previous times there, which was so encouraging! This is the first primary school that Empowered Girls is working with and they have set a high standard so far. 
After I talked, Kellen took some time to give some feminine hygiene products to all the girls who attended the meeting and answer any questions they had about  their menstrual cycle. Imagine having to miss school one week every month simply because you don’t have consistent access to hygiene products. These girls had so many questions and I think that it was one of the first times that they had been able to ask any questions about their bodies without being embarrassed. We also listened to the song that they had written for Empowered Girls and it was great! 

      During the rest of our time I got the chance to talk to a group of widows who make and sell jewelry to support their families and afterwards they asked me to (try) to dance and sing with them. I also spent ore time with the 19 year old widow who lives in the same compound (an extended family’s area enclosed for protection where there are sleeping areas, cooking hut and pens for livestock) where we stay in Engaruka. It still amazes me how different her life is compared to any 19 year old I know in the states. She has had a very hard life, yet she is still such a happy person and has one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen. She is an incredibly loving mother, and seems to harbor no resentment or bitterness for the way her life has turned out. Most days she is only able to afford for her children to eat twice a day, breakfast and dinner, and only a very basic porridge. I decided to give her around $20 and told her she should use to it buy food for her family. She told me that instead she was going to buy clothes for her 3 children - for the first time. Her children have always worn simple pieces of cloth. Having food and clothing were two things I always took for granted growing up but is something that is not guaranteed for so many children.  She is truly an awe inspiring woman and I hope to write a much longer post about her in the future.  

      I cannot believe that my time in Tanzania has gone by so quickly, but I have loved every minute of it. I leave this Tuesday and head to South Africa for 10 days to visit a friend before heading home. I’m so glad that I am not leaving Tanzania and going straight back to the States, because there is a good chance I would just “miss” the plane and stay here! 

My first dust storm!
      I think I have already done the hardest part: leaving Engaruka, knowing that it would be years before I am able to return. A piece of my heart will always be in Engaruka, and I know that I will not forget the people there who have taught me so much.  It is strange to have such mixed feelings about leaving Tanzania when it is so vastly different from the world I grew up in. I am so excited to see everyone from back home,  and I know that I will be able to share what I have learned and experienced with many people:  yet, I am really not ready to leave. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The two faces of Empowered Girls

    We were returning to Engaruka with great news. In addition to telling Saning’o that he now had a sponsor and would be going to school in January, we would also be telling an orphaned girl that we had found a scholarship for her secondary school education.  I was very excited to share in her good news, but on arriving at the village and finding her, she revealed that she was
pregnant - eliminating all hope of future education. 

     This is a heartbreaking reminder of why Empowered Girls is so important, and so needed. Teenage girls in this culture are very vulnerable to pregnancy and the problem starts with complete lack of factual knowledge about sex. This situation is then exacerbated by being taken advantage of by older men, by choosing to be sexually active or by being forced into marriage by their families. In many cases it is far from the families’ first choice that they marry their daughters off, but they are left with very little choice as the bride price is needed for survival and they feel pressure from friends and family members to find a husband for their daughters.  

      Shortly after returning from Engaruka however, I experienced first hand how Empowered Girls is such a positive influence on secondary school girls. Empowered Girls was first started last September at Enaboishu Secondary School in Arusha. Whenever I visited Enaboishu I found it hard to believe that the club had only been around for a year as so many girls were participating in the club and putting so much into various Empowered Girls activities. 

                      They prepared a skit that showed the benefits of staying in school and focusing on their studies. They had a fashion, show showing off different dress designs they had made out of a single piece of fabric and pins. They wrote and performed songs about the challenges women face and overcoming those challenges. The atmosphere in the room was electric, and it made me realize just how few chances most of these girls had previously had to sing, dance and talk openly about the issues they face. There were several students that Kellen knew from her time teaching at the school as well as from when she helped start the club last year who had become much stronger and outgoing. I believe that all the girls at Enaboishu school , even those not directly participating,  benefited from the Empowered Girls program. 

     For me, seeing the incredible result that   Empowered Girls has been able to accomplish in such a short time is a tremendous motivator to continue my involvement after I return to the States and college. While the reasons the clubs need to exist is heartbreaking, the result of Empowered Girls is nothing short of transforming.