Sunday, December 30, 2012

12 highlights of 2012 in Tanzania

2012 brought me several challenges that I never expected to encounter during my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It tested my commitment, will, and faith to remain in the program. With the support of my husband, family and friends inside and out of Peace Corps, the Peace Corps staff, and even a family who became my family within Tanzania, I was able to push through these trying times and have some really spectacular experiences here. Below are the adventures in 2012 that I find to be my top memories. It’s hard to only select 12, but I tried to choose the 12 that are a once in a lifetime experiences. These are not ranked in any order, simply listed.

1. Matema Beach

Matema Beach 2011 (175)

Situated on the northern shore of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi) is a relaxed and minimally developed beach town. The Livingstone mountain range envelops you as you skip into the lake to prevent the sand from burning your feet. To the west, you can see the country of Malawi. I rang in 2012 skinny dipping in Lake Nyasa with about 40 other volunteers. The first minutes of the New Year were spent being thrown a few feet into the air by 3-4 strong men and splashing down into the lake. An action we coined as “launching”. Turn after turn was afforded to daring and adventurous people launching themselves into the New Year. People slowly exited the lake and cozied up alongside a beach camp fire for hours into the night. This beautiful lakeshore was fully explored with beachside walks, snorkeling to find cichlids, and kayaking.

2. Loleza Peak

Fo hugging Mbeya

Loleza Peak rises up at 8,714 feet elevation and towers in the distance of the southwestern city of Mbeya. After several false starts, we finally managed to get on the right trail which brings hikers to the towering peak. The day was memorable climbing with so many friends, new and old. We walked through farms, greeting farmers and mamas along the way. We ate wild berries off bushes and relaxed with phenomenal views of Mbeya. The steep route we chose to the summit included a straight vertical climb without any gear in which I thought that I would surely plummet to my death. We rewarded our survival by combining our food and making a trail mix at the summit.
More about this on a previous post:

3. Discovering Dar es Salaam


Dar es Salaam is bustling full of crowded mini buses and hidden gems scattered around the city. I spent countless days and trips in the economic capital city of Tanzania discovering the cheapest and tastiest places to eat, the best entertainment to be found, beaches, and more. I learned my way around the city and while it is not one of my favorite cities in the world, it’s nice to feel comfortable while visiting.

4. Mbamba Bay


Mbamba Bay is another quaint town located on the shores of Lake Nyasa. It takes several days from most parts of Tanzania to reach this fishing town. Mbamba Bay takes top 12 because it is a town where life is revolved around the success of the fisherman. As you walk the pebbled shores of Lake Nyasa, you are constantly greeted in Swahili by men repairing their fishing nets, women washing their clothes in the lake, and children sneaking a peak at the white people in town. The few days in Mbamba bay were relaxing with a canoe ride, swimming, and hiking.

5. Serengeti


I visited the Serengeti in time to witness the great migration of the wildebeest. Over a million wildebeest migrate north to Kenya. I was awed by the harmony that the zebra and hundreds upon hundreds of wildebeest find with each other. They traveled in single file lines parading across the vast plains of the Serengeti. Their calls to each other were loud, so loud. Let’s not forget the elusive leopard we saw up close, nor the herds of elephants, babies and all. The hippopotamus out of water is an entertaining site – like a huge pig gracefully moving overland. From the dikdiks to the impalas, to the hyenas, lions, and water buffalo. The Serengeti is like having a front row seat to the best zoo in the world.

6. Pride Rock (Gangilonga Rock)

Iringa (7)

This beautiful bit of rock is known by Peace Corps volunteers as Pride Rock, like that out of the Lion King. It is locally known as Gangilonga Rock and it is a peaceful place to walk to and get a view of Iringa town and the surrounding hills covered in large boulders and rocks. When you reach the top after a simple climb up, you don’t question why the chief of the local tribe used to come here to meditate. It’s difficult to locate the trailhead if you do not speak any Swahili and as such there are only ever a few other Tanzanians sharing the view with you.
An old post about Iringa:

7. Cross-culture project of letter writing


One of my success stories of living, working, and traveling in Tanzania is certainly the pen pal system I created at the end of the Tanzanian school year. Over 40 letters from Tanzanian students went out to 5 different countries. It was a most memorable moment to watch my students light up and write their letters. I am looking forward to see their joy return again when they receive a response from a faraway land.
More on writing letters:

8. Ngozi Crater

Ngozi Crater Hike 2012 (14)

As the name suggests, Ngozi crater was formed by a volcano that collapsed over a million and a half years ago. Right after the new year, we hiked up this beautiful mountain and saw chameleons, monkeys, and butterflies along the way. Once you summit, you are rewarded with spectacular views of a lake that is about 650 feet below the summit.

9. Ngorongoro Crater


The view of Ngorongoro crater from our campsite was breathtaking (not to mention cold and windy!). Ngorongoro was spectacular and the highlights included seeing male lions up close and seeing “The Big 5”. We saw one of the rare rhinoceroses in the park that cool morning. The water buffalo herds were abundant!

10. Motogoro


This small hike out of Songea town gives views as far as the eye can see! There was no wildlife along the way, but sitting at the top was so peaceful.

11. Time well spent with friends


One of the rewards of living in Tanzania is finding similar minded people to hang out with. These people who also travel Tanzania and live all over the huge country are the best sources of travel advice and information you can receive. We shared several holidays and parties hanging out with these fine people. Many a memory was shared and support received!
More about this during the month of December here:

12. Gombe Stream National Park


Okay, so I said I wasn’t ranking these in any order. Which is true. Until now. Gombe Stream National Park was by far, the best trip I have taken not only in 2012, but in all of Tanzania, and possibly for wildlife viewing, in the entire world. We spent only two nights in this park and got a sneak preview of baboon-viewing. The next day, we were guided and observed chimpanzees only a few feet away from us. We watched them for a long time – they groomed, they played, they masterbated (yes, they really did), they mated, they ate, they chased each other, they made calls. It was fantastic. Their calls will echo in my mind forever. In addition to viewing the chimpanzees, being in a place of such scientific significance where few visitors to Tanzania will ever make the journey is a once in a lifetime experience. It was a long, treacherous journey to the wild wild west of Tanzania, but one that was well worth the 4 days of buses.
More on Gombe here:

Thank you 2012 for a memorable year. In 2013, we are planning snorkeling off the island of Pemba and a safari to Ruaha National park, and flower viewing at Kitulo National Park!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

From Dar es Salaam, Tanzania:


At 91 degrees Fahrenheit, I am pleased to be without snow on this holiday, however, I miss all my friends and family dearly.

Have a safe & happy day!

Sara & Jon

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The old familiar

After a long and rejuvenating vacation to Cape Town, South Africa, Jon and I have returned to Tanzania this afternoon. Dar es Salaam at this time of the year is becoming that hot and humid grossness that gives instant shock when returning from the cooler weather of Cape Town. Stepping off of the South African Airlines plane, I was smacked in my face with humidity. I was still donned in my jeans from the plane ride and the humidity caused them to instantly stick to my legs. Immigration was easy, I'm a resident; I go through the quick resident line that never asks any questions. One of the scariest parts of traveling? When you are watching everyone else's bag but yours go through the black flaps over the conveyor belt, hoping and praying the next bag will be yours. They showed up, thanks to dedicated airline workers.

When you exit the baggage claim, you are quickly greeted by a dozen taxi driver who all want your business. Their first offer is always laughable, the quote in US dollars and for about twice as much as what I know we should pay. The best way to get the fair price is to immediately speak in Swahili. Immediately inform them you live here, you know the price, and stop telling me the "white person" price. The old familiar. Haggling and negotiating to get a fair price.

We hop into a taxi and we head towards our friend's house where we'll spend a few nights through Christmas.The driver feels reassured we can show him how to get to the home of our friend, I'm showing the locals where to go.  I barely keep my eyes open, I have been awake since 3:15am and traveling for 12 hours at this point. The few moments I allow myself to see what's going on around me, I realize again, this is the old familiar. I'm not scared of the taxi driver's wreckless habits anymore. A mini bus is trying to merge into our lane while a landrover is also trying to do the same and we're in the middle? No worries, this taxi driver of mine does this all day, every day. It's about having some trust with him. The people trying to sell stuff to me through my taxi window? No thanks, but I'm not worried you're going to snatch my purse out of the taxi anymore.

Watching large crowds of people wait for their mini bus public taxi service known as a dalla dalla, yep, I'm home. As the taxi driver continues to speed to his maximum and slam on the breaks as we nearly rear end the car stopped in front of us, I watch Jon's eyes widen and relax when we don't cause an accident. It's the old familiar, but sometimes, we have to remember that car accidents are a common occurrence and we shouldn't get too comfortable.

I'm back for the next 6-8 months in Tanzania. I'm hoping I can remain motivated to finish this out. The new school year begins in January again, it's the old familiar, I know what to expect and so I should experience far less shocks than the first year.

Friday, December 21, 2012

School's soccer match

There are few extracurricular activities that are available to my students. When families need to work daily just to survive, there is little time for students to do much besides attend school and possibly help do household chores or work on the family farm. One of the problems with assigning homework is knowing that the majority of your students really can't do this work outside of school. The family has to sacrifice a lot of helping hands to allow their child(ren) to do homework instead of house or farm work, trusting in the long run, this will likely benefit the student and their family economically. 

So, if homework is too much to ask for, you can imagine that extracurricular activities like band, sports, or academic clubs are not easy to organize for students. When these activities are organized, once a year usually, the attendance is high. In November, our school competed with a nearby village's school in a soccer match. Soccer, or football which is the English term used here, is the most popular sport among adults as well. Almost every village has one small shop or restaurant that is solar powered showing their favorite teams compete - usually teams from the Premier League such as Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United. Students and men gather here and drink sodas and shout at the TV, the Tanzania version of Sunday afternoon football at your favorite sports bar in America.

Our school's soccer field is not too far from our house, so we heard the shouts of competition from our house when we decided to go check out the action. Jon grabbed a short video of the student's enthusiasm when our team scored. There were about 200 students from our school and 50 students from the opposing team cheering on their respective peers competing for village honor. The video below captures 25 seconds of the students rushing the soccer field and doing flips after a goal. In the end, I am pleased to say that my school won 3-1!

Video 1: students cheering after one goal

Video 2: Everyone is a cheerleader during the games. The students circle the field chanting for their team.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Thanksgiving 3

We woke up early…and we started cooking before people arrived. Beth and I became masters at cleaning and cutting potatoes. Jon was on charcoal duty. He got our 3 charcoal stoves (2 additional ones purchased just for Thanksgiving) lit and stoked to start cooking some potatoes. It was a team effort – the two of us in the kitchen and Jon outside cooking. It was only about an hour in when I cut myself with the knife cutting the potatoes. It was the start of a club. We made a lot of mashed potatoes – the exciting part was with real milk and real butter. People began to arrive and so did a lot of the extra cooking supplies. Soon, the kitchen was taken over with a few extra helping hands. The sweet potatoes arrived and so did the ingredients for two more pies – chocolate pudding pineapple and mango pie.
The turkey arrived as well. No one really knew how to do this turkey. It was still thawing and well, no one had really ever baked a turkey before and especially not in a charcoal oven.
our expensive 11 lb turkey that came dead from Kenya
This is the oven in which the turkey was baked in…for about 6 hours
A few guests and Jon figured it out. They stuffed that bird with onions, garlic, and spices, rubbed it with butter, and tied it together with thread. Into the charcoal oven it went.
As the house grew more crowded with taxi-fulls of 5-6 people arriving at a time. I changed my role from helping prep to being the “ask me anything (eg where are the pots, where is X? I need this, I need that) and the delegate the work” person. With a glass of wine always in hand, I walked around seeing what people needed and when people asked how they could help, I always delegated.
Fruit salad makers…a Tanzanian tropical fruit twist to typical Thanksgiving fare
the best eggnog I have ever had…one glass for everyone and it was gone in 5 minutes
too many cooks in the kitchen?
Steve’s famous bucket of guacamole…a new addition to Thanksgiving tradition
more pies…this is the mango pie…I didn’t make it, I was simply carrying it out of the crowded kitchen to get baked
As time passed, we realized our bird wasn’t going to be finished by 5:00 pm as we had planned. It was baking beautifully, turning  darker, smelling like a good turkey and sizzling in it’s juices. But, time rolled on and the house was being prepared for dinner…the long table was made, the chairs were brought in, and the couch cushions were being stacked in the corner of the room. People were happily buzzed from wine and beer and chatting away…starving I’m sure.
My last preparations for dinner as the turkey was nearing done was making homemade stuffing from scratch. The day before, I cut up two loaves of bread into cubes and allowed them to become stale overnight. I added my vegetarian stock, carrots, onions, garlic, sage, thyme, parsley, and rosemary and got it on the stove. As that baked, I made about 12 cups of gravy and finished that as well.
The turkey….was done. It was about 8:00p.m.
The long table was covered with food – everything I’ve already written about above…including sweet potatoes topped with brown sugar and marshmallows…like my mother-in-law makes each year. People took their seats. We took a lot of photos and all stated what we were thankful for this year. We had 20 people, ages spanning from 23-82. We had volunteers – not only just Peace Corps volunteers, but volunteers who we have adopted into our Peace Corps family. We spanned 3 countries and came from all over Tanzania to give thanks to life, God,  family, friends, and experiences.
Smiles of exhaustion and happiness! We pulled off a 20 person Thanksgiving in the bush of Africa.
We feasted,  no one was hungry. It was a proper Thanksgiving. The only thing we ran out of was the turkey, stuffing and shortly thereafter the gravy. The pies were plentiful, the mashed potatoes were too much, the bucket of guacamole was great. Everyone filled and topped their plates with their favorite foods. It was loud with laughter, happiness, and joy. It smelled of delicious food. Pies were passed around and people were exuberant with the sweet, perfect pies.
After dinner, we made space in the same room as the long table and made our cushion ground.
We all got in cozy and watched a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving followed by Dumb and Dumber. It was 2:00 am and people went to sleep. The next day everyone helped clean up and took leftovers with them.
It was an incredibly, amazingly, successful Thanksgiving and we couldn’t have done it without everyone’s help and cooperation. I will never ever forget this day.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Thanksgiving in Tanzania 2

And so the week of Thanksgiving came and we cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. The teachers, students, and neighbors had all been informed – there’s a large number of Americans coming here. You’re gonna see a lot of non-Africans. They were equally as excited as us.
Thankfully, our friend Beth came a day early. The day  before Thanksgiving (which we celebrated on Saturday) was our baking day. Jon  baked a loaf of homemade white bread and homemade onion/garlic bread. I made my mocha yellow moist cake as a dessert and because 3 people were celebrating their birthdays around Thanksgiving. Jon and I made an apple pie and Beth made a pumpkin pie. We baked from 9:00 am until 12:30 am…past midnight. When you use a charcoal dutch oven, things just take a really long time to bake. My cake took an hour, Beth’s pumpkin pie took 3 hours and Jon’s apple pie took about 2.5 hours. The other thing to note about these pies is that they were HUGE. So large, that everyone got a slice (20 people). The pumpkin pie had to have had about 3x the amount of filling than a normal pie.  Here are some pics of this amazingness:
Above: Mocha cake
Above: Onion and garilc bread
Above: pumpkin pie
Above: apple pie
More to come….

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Thanksgiving in Tanzania 1

Several months back, one of the other Peace Corps volunteers in our area mentioned that she was having Christmas at her place. I said, that sounds fun, why don’t I do Thanksgiving? It was agreed on at that random moment over breakfast at our favorite hotel that our regional family holidays would be split between our two households. It was also at this point that Jon and I made the great promise of getting a turkey, a true feat to do in this developing nation that loves to eat chicken. When I was sent back to America for medical reasons, people began worrying, what will we do for Thanksgiving? They didn’t tell me this of course, until after some miracle occurred and I actually could return to Tanzania.
So, the planning began. I told Jon that his only major responsibility would be taking charge of locating a turkey and cooking it. As a vegetarian, I really didn’t want to be involved in this. Now don’t get me wrong, Jon was helping out in so many other ways, but that was his major role.
A month in advance, I began the planning process. I made the facebook event group, sent out text messages, and talked it up. I thought we would have 12-15 people. When the RSVPs started coming back, we had 15 people including Jon and I. Then, we needed to determine what would we eat, what is available here to make this as authentic as possible? Jon’s great math skills came to use when we had to calculate how much of everything to buy. The problem still remained, however, where are we going to get this turkey to fulfill everyone’s excitement about our promise of a turkey.
We had a few leads. One was that my friend said you could get turkey in his village, a live one that would need to be transported 6 hours from where we live. The live, evil turkey (we hear they’re mean) was our last option. Another friend told us of a woman who lives about 3 hours away who claims to sell turkeys. After a week of trying her, she never responded to our text messages and never called back. Then, we found from another American living in our area that there is a British woman outside of a city about 4 hours away who sells turkey. Jon gave her a call, and alas…we had an 11 lb turkey reserved for $60 USD. Thanksgiving was already starting to shape up.
So, how to solve the issue of 15 people in our small house without guaranteed electricity, running water, or a real stove or oven? It took careful and precise planning. We arranged with our school to borrow enough tables and chairs to fit everyone at a long table in our living room. A friend was asked to plan to sleep in his tent in our backyard, fitting 4 people in there. We borrowed couch cushions from the school to make one large cushion ground for people to sleep on in our living room. And we asked all guests to bring their own plates and silverware. A few extra friends were asked to bring extra pots, knives, spices, and other prep material.
It seemed all way good to and then in the last few days 5 extra people joined the RSVP list and our party of 15 was bumped up to a party of 20. But, this is Thanksgiving, everyone needs a place to go eat with an adopted family. We were happy to welcome them in as well.

We celebrated Thanksgiving on Saturday instead of Thursday so that everyone would be able to make it - teachers and all. Also, since Jon and I are both teachers, we didn't want to miss school to prepare for the day. But, on actual Thanksgiving Thursday, Jon took off to get this bird, a trip that took him in total 12 hours. We left the turkey at our favorite hotel to remain in their freezer until Saturday so that it wouldn't go bad over the next two days.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Halloween in Tanzania

Peace Corps volunteers like to get together and continue their American traditions. Some volunteers will teach their schools about these holidays, for example, Halloween. Other volunteers like to just celebrate it with other Americans. I tried teaching about our various holidays when I lived in Japan and it was often not terribly successful. For Halloween this year, we celebrated in our banking town at a hotel that has a nice party bar downstairs. I was incredibly surprised at the amazing costumes that people were able to create strictly from things available in Tanzania. We had dumb & dumber costumes, Peter Pan and Rufio (from hook), a lion tamer, a mechanic (or creepy man), cupid, pirates, and Jon and I were a Tanzanian mama and baby. I rode on his back in the same manner that Tanzanians carry their babies on their back. We didn’t do any trick or treating of course, but it was a very American adult Halloween!
We carved watermelons instead of pumpkins
Dumb and Dumber, Rufio and Peter Pan
Group Shot
We celebrated Halloween on the weekend after, which fell on my birthday. It turns out I share a birthday with two other volunteers! Folake bought us a cake!
Tanzanian mama and baby!
Lion tamer
Mechanic/creepy man and the morning after college girl

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

School Motto

All secondary schools that I have visited in Tanzania have some sort of school motto. It usually tries to give the meaning that education will better your living situation. One simple example I can think of is just “Education is Liberation”. All students will stand up and repeat this motto before beginning a lesson. My school, however, has a longer motto as you can see painted on a school wall below.
While you can see that the motto here is quite a bit longer than the motto I used above as an example (education is liberation), the statement that the students are required to say before each lesson is ridiculously long. Recently, Jon took a video of the students saying it in front of our home:
School Motto
Technically, these students are expected to say this motto before each and every lesson of every day. Personally, I feel that it is a huge waste of time because of the length of the motto. I asked the students to not say it before English and just to say “what’s up”? to me in place of it.
Jon and I can’t totally understand all that they are saying even though it is in English, however, the one part that we can understand which makes us smirk is “death is not sweeter than life”. What a weird thing to make teenagers say…

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Writing letters

As many of you know, I recently did a project where people were invited to receive a letter from one of my students. One of the syllabus topics that I need to cover is writing friendly letters (as opposed to business letters). It is difficult to teach students how to write letters here, along with most other topics because of their lack of enthusiasm. Their lack of enthusiasm stems from many reasons, however, it is often because what they are learning isn’t applicable in their daily lives. There are a lot of points about letter writing that the students need to remember (things that I didn’t even learn myself in school). I decided that I would see if I could arrange some type of pen pal system between people around the world and my students. At very least, my students would see a point to learning how to write letters instead of just me, saying again, “this is really important, you will probably see it on your national examination”.

After proposing the idea on Facebook, I received a lot of enthusiasm from people who wanted a letter and also would want to write back. I received over 40 offers from people to exchange with my students. Once I knew I had participation around the world, I offered it up to my students. Initially, I had about 45 students sign up to write letters.

I made only 3 rules for my students. The first one was that they needed to show up after school for 2 hours each between two selected days. They couldn’t show up to one or the other. The second rule was to bring something to write with. The third rule was they needed to bring their notes from English class. In the end, I had about 25 students show up.

I guided my students through the process of writing letters by reviewing points we had already covered in class. I brought Jon with me to help with grammar and translation questions. I provided dictionaries so that students could be more independent and look things up on their own. Altogether, we spent about two hours working with the students and helping them develop letters and express themselves. The students had the name of the person they were writing to, the age range,sex, and occupation. Students requested specifically to write to girls or boys. After the session, I collected all their work and corrected it. I didn’t over-correct it because I want the students to gain confidence from writing letters. So, those of you receiving letters will still see grammatical errors, but only minor ones.

Pictures from Day 1:





On day 2, I returned their corrected work and let them review some of their mistakes. Much to the excitement and joy of my students, I bought them “cool'” stationary. A previous Peace Corps volunteer had recently returned to America and she gave me her old stationary. Some students chose to use this girly paper to write to their pen pal. Others chose to use just plain paper. And more entertainingly, I brought some of my own paper with my name on it to write on. They really wanted that.

We reviewed titles of people (this can often be found on their national examinations), how to address envelopes, and the students worked on writing their letters neatly. Much to my pleasure, when I asked students if they wanted to write additional letters to other people, there was an over joyous, collective YES! I only had one student who preferred to just write one letter and leave. As mentioned, I had over 40 requests for letters and only 25 Tanzanian students show up. As a result, most students wrote two letters and some even asked to write four.


I cannot express how great it is for my students to write so many letters. They were concentrating so hard and wrote so many letters that there is no doubt that these students will remember the various parts of a letter and grammar structure for sentences. The next day in class, I had a noticeable improvement in the understanding of format of letters in the students who wrote to friends around the world. It was very rewarding for me. I know it will be rewarding for the recipients, and my students will be enthralled when they get a response. Not only that, they are going to be so eager to understand the letter they get back, that it can only facilitate positive learning and further interest in English.

The last activity was showing a few students at a time how to address their envelopes correctly. One thing about my students is that they all want positive praise before moving on. Although they have already learned how to address envelopes and which title to use with which people, they want me to say “yes, that’s correct” before they write anything. Jon helped significantly with informing the students that their titles are correct. I then showed them on my computer how to write the last name of their pen pal and their pen pal’s address. Don’t worry – my students do not have anyone’s address.

In the end, I have to say that this project was the most rewarding thing I have done with my students. Thank you to everyone who is participating and I wish I could bottle up my student’s happiness in writing to you to show you. It was such a reassuring week when I got to work with these 25 students and watch them be so excited and happy to learn. I am excited to do it again when the responses start coming back. About half of the letters have already gone out in the mail. The second half will go out tomorrow morning. Thank you…ASANTE SANA!


a group of the letter writing students


a reminder on how we address envelopes (I teach British English, thus, the return address on the back of the envelope)


a finished letter


Students waiting to get their addresses from my computer database


They were equally as excited to see my computer than just to write letters!