Sunday, February 24, 2013

An ode to a colleague….and am I just a glorified babysitter?

An opportunity walked right by me, yet I am still very happy for our colleague and friend. When Jon & I first began working at our school way back in September 2011, there was a student teacher here. His attitude towards teaching and his dedication to his students was eye-opening for Jon & I. It is rare to find a Tanzanian teacher who does not use corporal punishment, that uses interactive teaching, and who dedicates his life to the well-being of the students. He is one of the French teachers at our school. Around November of that same year, he returned to Dar es Salaam to finish up his university studies. Late last year, he returned to our school after completing his own studies. It was a great day when he returned. You see, Jon & I are viewed to be rather strange to our colleagues. We’re strange because we put our students before ourselves, we put our students before our colleagues and we don’t hit them. In short, we’re viewed as strange because we respect our students. This French teacher shows the same characteristics as us. With his presence, we felt that he was a phenomenal role model to the other teachers. He’s Tanzanian just like them and he does the same thing as us. He believe in education. He believes in the same language acquisition styles as me.

How did this opportunity pass me by then? We had so much to learn from each other. Both being language teachers and having the same belief system in education, we should have been collaborating. Alas, we didn’t because we were both so busy with our students and lives. Two weeks ago, he was offered a job at a college on the northeast coast of Tanzania. He’s ecstatic and so am I. This is an excellent opportunity for him and he always told me he wanted to be a professor. This is an excellent stepping stone for him. While I am really happy for him, I am very disappointed that we are losing potentially the best teacher at our school. It’s hard to express how much his presence and his dedication to our students has left an impact on me. You see teachers like him in this completely dysfunctional school system and it gives you hope that maybe, someday, the Tanzanian education system can turn around.

In the meantime, in reference to my last few blogs titled “why, why, why?”, I asked him why do the parents of our students in the one classroom where they are about 5 years behind continue to pay for them to come to school? I didn’t get it. It seemed like such a waste of resources on everyone’s part. It seems like they can just get to work on the farm. Yet, his response made me realize that there is no real point in teaching these students. He said there are basically two reasons to keep these failing students in school. The first reason, he said, is because it is shameful to the family if they pull their student out of school at this age. It’s shameful for them to put him/her to work even if they are failing everything and not understanding anything at school. Secondly, he said they send their failing students to school because it keeps them out of trouble. If they are not at school, it’s possible they are engaging in relationships (getting pregnant or the risk of HIV), or getting themselves into other trouble (perhaps drinking, drugs, etc). So, sending them to school, even if they are failing, is like daycare for teenagers. Essentially, for this classroom, I am a glorified babysitter. It’s too bad that the parents can’t be talked into sending them to a vocational school to learn useful skills such a being a seamstress, driving cars, maintenance of cars, carpentry, etc.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Kitulo National Park

Just a simple picture blog today about Kitulo National Park, known as Bustani ya Mungu or God's Garden. This remote, yet not terribly difficult to get to National Park is rarely visited by tourists. There are several endemic species...monkeys and flowers and the towering cedar trees. Unfortunately, we were unable to afford the route that allows you to see the monkeys and giant trees, however, we were very pleased with the flowers we saw on our day hike. The park boasts 45 different types of orchids among several other flowers belonging to the touch-me-not, pea, daisy, and other families. It is required to take a guide with you, which was absolutely fine considering he was very knowledgeable on all the flowers. I was actually quite surprised on how much he knew his flora! There is on-going research in the park. While we hiked, there were two researchers present. Besides the researchers and their workers, we had the entire park to ourselves that day. While it rained all around us, we lucked out, finishing our hike on the Matamba ridge down into the valley of Kitulo about 20 minutes before the rain started coming down. 

Sunset from Matamba, the village nearby the park that you can stay in and arrange your guides and pay for your fees.

an orchid 

This flower towers over me!

Jon's favorite flower

This flower is endemic to Kitulo

Our guide drinking from the stream

Check out that crazy bird tail

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why? Why? Why??

It's really hard to explain the Tanzanian education system. It's hard to describe all the of shortcomings of the system. One of many shortcomings is that obviously there are students that have some sort of learning disorder. Unlike America, these students are never diagnosed and will never receive any extra attention. Since my students are streamed this year, I have one classroom where all of the lowest performing students belong. This week the class size increased even more. There are 55 students in this classroom where only about 5-10 can perform at a level where they might consider completing high school. When there are 55 students and just me (and a total student count of about 150 now), it's nearly impossible to reach every single student who needs the help. To be honest, more than half of the students in this stream should not have entered high school. They should return to elementary school and relearn nearly every subject. It's heartbreaking. It's upsetting to see these students struggle so badly, but short of teaching them English that they should have learned 5 years ago, I do not know how to help them. There are too many of them. These students could succeed if they had perhaps a special education teacher or aide to help them through. The language gap doesn't even matter. They don't know any of this material in Swahili. I get so frustrated at my complete inability to help them. Some of it is pure laziness on their part, but a lot of their problems are a result of a poor elementary education background, lack of support in their homes, and just not having any idea on how to learn. An example of one of my student's work is below. Because as much as I type about this, a picture speaks 1,000 words (especially when they are all incorrect words).

Where do I even begin?

The translations to the English are only one page behind. The student simply needed to turn one page to correctly find the translations. I didn't have the heart to mark every single one of his Exercise one attempts wrong, too.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Zebra-cheetah bug

We found this unique bug hanging out on our house the other day. He seems to be a cross between a zebra and a cheetah.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Why are baby animals so cute? A newborn chick peeping away and chasing after its' mother always brings a smile to my face despite the daily challenges of work and life. Overall, chickens are really annoying to live around. They crow early to wake you up, they leave droppings in your yard, and they swarm in your backyard hoping that you'll give them food, however, the advantage is definitely the cutest little chicks ever!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Movie Week!

Experience is the best teacher. After one year of teaching 8th grade last year, I made several adjustments to teach my students better this year. As mentioned in previous posts, one of the many struggles of working in the Tanzanian school system is that corporal punishment is still used as the main motivator for student respect and good behavior. While I have grown numb to witnessing children get beat on a daily basis at school, I have not participated in this method. I have to admit that I have sent students to get hit by other teachers. These students had shown month after month of disrespect and were burdening the learning process of other students. The first time I did it, I went home and cried. It's not an easy decision to go against your beliefs even when it seems to be in the best interest of everyone. Jon hasn't done this, yet, I have chosen to do it on a handful of occasions. Last year, my students requested that I use corporal punishment. That is what swayed my decision. My well-behaved students weren't learning because the poorly-behaved students were disruptive and rude.

Jon & I had attempted to put into place a positive behavior reward system. For whatever reason, it failed last year. The students didn't care. They weren't interested in what we developed. They would rather just behave rudely. This year, we are being much stricter with our students. We have scared them. There is punishment now. Our students who do not do their homework come to our house during their recess and do our household chores. Is this too much? We don't know. But, it's working. I went from around 16 of my students not doing their homework each week to about 6 students. When they do our chores, we tell them that they can either spend 30 minutes doing their homework or 30 minutes cleaning our house. Their choice. We also remind them that they are going to school to improve their living situation. If they don't put forth the effort to learn, they should get used to doing household chores because many students who fail high school just end up becoming housemaids for Tanzanians who are better off. What would a Tanzanian teacher do if they didn't do their homework? The kid would get hit. The kid would still prefer to get hit over doing my dishes. Let's face it - getting struck by a stick is over in 30 seconds. Doing housework during their recess? 30 minutes of awfulness and embarrassment.

But, the students are also being rewarded for their good behavior. Each time a student does their homework, they get a stamp in their notebook. With their stamps, they can buy school supplies from Jon or I. We're trying to show them that hard work will pay off. If they want or need things, they have to do some work. Last week, we had students buy 11 pens, 30 pencils, and 5 pencil sharpeners. A lot of kids are saving up for "more expensive" things like rulers and protractors. 

In addition to that, we are continuing with our movie reward system. This failed last year for some reason, but it is working amazingly this year. What's the difference? We have no clue. But, it's working and our students have been excellent. Students can be individually awarded with movie tickets for various things. For example, consistent excellent homework, effort put forth during class, good results on tests, etc. Every two weeks, Jon & I show a movie after school for students to show if they're holding a ticket.

The other system is giving stamps to the whole class on a classroom chart when the whole class shows exemplary behavior. For example, being attentive and not disruptive, being punctual, being on task, and putting forth effort. The entire classroom needs to do this for the classroom chart to get a stamp.

This week we showed 4 movies. One movie was for the ticket holders. And I'm pleased to say that each of the classrooms earned their first movie reward for the whole class. Our attendance was excellent. 40/60 ticket holders came. For one classroom, only two students didn't come, for another class, about 90% came, and the third class about 70% came. They are really excited about watching the movies and I hope their enthusiasm holds out so that we continue to have well-behaved classes and students can learn that they can be rewarded for their work and not just feel worried about getting punished.

Jon & I are lucky that we have eachother to reinforce these positive behavior reward systems. Most Peace Corps volunteers are the only volunteer at the school. They struggle with enforcing these new methods and ideas because it is only them trying to use them. In addition to this, although I can't say for sure, I think one reason that the system is working this year is that we have about half the amount of students in each classroom. As opposed to having 80 students in a classroom, we have about 55 in our largest class. On top of that, the students have been "streamed". This means that my smartest students are in one classroom, while our mediocre performing students are in another classroom, and our lowest performing students (probably only about 1% will pass) are in the third classroom. While many American teachers will think this is a terrible idea - when you have 55 kids in a class, it is really the best system for the students. You begin to lose classroom management when the kid's abilities are so extreme. The smartest students are bored or the lowest performing students are so far behind, they start misbehaving because they can't understand anyway. Streaming students when you have 55 of them in one class really allows for best classroom management because you can go at the speed that will best serve the students.

Each classroom has this rewards poster hanging. It allows the students to visually see how many stamps each classroom has (bottom right-hand corner), the "cost" of each item of school supplies and the schedule for movie ticket holders.

Jon didn't get a great picture, but supervising a movie for one of the classrooms. They watch the movie on my netbook computer (9"x5" screen) if there is no solar electricity or on a 19" TV if there is enough solar power. 55 kids crowded around such small screens and they're still pleased!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

An Open Letter by Perusing blogger

Someone in Peace Corps Tanzania recently posted a link to this blog. It is written by a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Cambodia. It sums up pretty much everything that I feel I have gone through as a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Tanzania. I couldn't express this better, so I am going to save you all the extra effort clicking an extra link and copy and paste her words below. Of course, I take no credit of this work and her original blog can be found here.

Dear Person Contemplating Joining Peace Corps,

I imagine that you’re at a transition point in your life. Perhaps you’ve just graduated, perhaps you’re going through a career change, perhaps you have an itch for something more that can’t be scratched. Whatever the reason, here you are: contemplating joining Peace Corps.

But should you? Is it right for you?

Honestly, you might not know that until you’ve arrived. You can research by reading books and official publications or by talking with current/returned volunteers, but everything you read and hear will probably tell you the same thing: every person’s experience is different. Your Peace Corps life will be uniquely shaped by your country, program, and site.

I’d like to think, though, that there are a few things that are universal throughout the Peace Corps world, and those things tend all to revolve around how you yourself will change - for the better and for the worse - because of your time in Peace Corps.

* ‘Sanitary’ will become an obsolete concept. You will eat on mats that you know are saturated in urine. You will prepare food on counters that also serve as chicken roosts. You will not have consistent/frequent access to soap. You will eat street food that is undoubtedly questionable. You will be dirty, dusty, and sweaty at all times. You will have mind over body battles to force yourself to bucket shower in the winter. Bugs, lizards, chickens, ducks, and mice will crap on everything. These things will be ok. You’ll adjust. The sterile environment of the States will become a distant odd memory or a constant fantasy.

Your body, though, might not adjust as quickly. You will have parasites and infections and illnesses that you had never heard of before training. You will be constantly constipated. Or go the opposite extreme. I hate to say it, but you will probably poop in your pants at least once. You will learn to vomit over a squat toilet and into a plastic bag during a bus ride. You will discuss your bodily functions openly and enthusiastically with other volunteers. No topic will be taboo.

The way you communicate will completely transform. Learning a language from scratch through immersion is a powerful experience. You will learn to have complex communications though expressions, gestures, and basic vocabulary. You will learn to bond with another human being through silence. You will answer the same basic questions over and over and over again. You may never achieve the ability to discuss ideas and concepts. You will develop a new English language which consists of pared down vocabulary and grammatical structures. You will actively think of each word before you speak. Your speech patterns will slow. You will have to define words whose meanings you had always taken for granted. You will learn to listen.

Your concept of money will entirely alter. Paying more than $1 for anything will cause you to pause and question your purchase. You will understand value in the context of a different economic system. You will learn to barter, even on cheaper items. You will consistently feel as though you have been cheated on the price. You will be enraged by all prices upon returning to the States.

You will embrace the thrilling dichotomies of thrift versus splurge and ration versus binge. No one knows how to budget like a Peace Corps volunteer. And no one can binge like one.

You will be discontented with your work. You will wonder – and scream to the heavens – about the benefit of your presence. You will feel lost in unstructured expectations and crushed by promising ideas fallen to the side. Your expectations will fade into an unexpected reality. You will learn to celebrate small victories. You will look at mountains and see mole hills. You will try to tackle the impossible. Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll just pick yourself up and take aim at another impossibility.

You will learn to do all of this through pure self-motivation. You will be the one to drag yourself out of bed and out the door. You won’t have anyone holding your hand or pushing your forward. Just you. You will become a stronger person for yourself, by yourself.

You will be a celebrity in your community. That status comes will hardships and benefits that will ineradicably change you. You will be the exception to the societal rules. You will be the foreigner, the one set apart. You will receive privileges and have special attention/status because of your nationality. You will always have eyes on you. You will have joined as an agent of culture exchange and understanding, but you will still find yourself falling into an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Use it. Consider it. Contemplate the value we place on people because of arbitrary characteristics. You will come away from your experience more attune to your own merits, to those that are deserved and to those that are given.

Your culture of personal space, one that maybe you have always taken for granted, will be challenged. You will wonder why you need an entire room to yourself while no one else even has a bed to himself. You still won’t want to give your room up. Privacy will be a privilege or a rarity, not a right.

You will lose all control of your emotions and be on an unpredictable roller coaster of extreme ups and downs. You will go from happy and confident to sullen and tearful by things as simple as ants in your candy or yet another child saying ‘Hello!’ Your highs will be high, but they will be fragile. Your lows will feel inescapable. Your family and friends in the States probably won’t understand this. Your isolation will force you to become your own support system. You will become aware of yourself in the context of solely being yourself.

Your government-issued friends will be your reprieve. The love and closeness you share with people back in the States won’t change, but it will be your fellow volunteers who understand. They will be friendships forged from necessity, and they will be deep and fervent.

You will witness a whole new way of life, and you will question your notion of necessity. You will consider your personal wealth, and people will constantly remind you of it. You will discover what your ‘needs’ are to live a productive, satisfied life. I hope you will remember that when you return to a culture of plenty.

You will be the biggest product of your Peace Corps work. You will change. And you will bring that change back with you.

*I insert a disclaimer: I believe the above assertions to be true for PC Cambodia, a program in its 6th generation of volunteers; I cannot speak with authority on other countries’ programs.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Bucket Wine

A lot of Peace Corps volunteers choose to make their own wine. Not only is it a fun project, but it saves a lot of money. A cheap bottle of wine is generally $6.00 for 750 ml . It costs us about $5.00 to make the equivalent to having 9 litres worth of wine. You can instantly see the savings for us. The basic process is outlined below, but we are tweaking the process to make the best wine possible. Our first batch was mango wine. We're currently fermenting pineapple wine with peach wine on-deck.

First, sanitize a bucket that can hold about 8 litres of water plus other solids.
Prepare about 6 ripe mangoes, 2.5 kilograms of sugar, 3 vitamin C tablets (500mg) or use juice of lime or lemon, and 1-2 tablespoons of yeast. 1 tablespoon is required, the more yeast you use, the more alcoholic your wine. We used 2 tablespoons.
6 ripe mangoes, prepared
After boiling 8 litres of water, add it to the bucket
For a sweeter and less alcoholic wine, add the sugar all at once immediately into the boiling water.
Add 2-3 tablets of 500mg Vitamin C or juice of a lemon or two.
Add your fruit immediately

Cover it temporarily
Once the water becomes room temperature, add your yeast and stir. Cover it.
Every 3 days, remove your cover/lid and stir the wine. Or shake the wine. This allows the yeast to keep activated to continue fermenting the fruit and eating the sugar, creating alcohol.
After 3 weeks of fermenting which involves stirring every 3 days, it's time to bottle your wine. First, you need to strain out the fruit and trying to keep as much yeast as possible out of your bottles.
Be sure to sanitize ALL bottles and filtering equipment
The bottling process
Our first bottle of wine
Celebrated with our first glass of wine...though waiting 5 days to drink after bottling the wine reduces the yeasty tasty.
Our yield for $5.00