Saturday, September 24, 2011



I spent my Wednesday afternoon this week shelling peas with the girls
of Form 3 at the secondary school. We had planned to teach, but what
are plans, really? When we got there the place was buzzing with the
excitement and work of another graduation; on Friday we would
celebrate the girls in Form 4. Sometimes I feel like we live
celebration to celebration here, the minute one is over, preparations
seem to begin for the next.

As I was sitting there, I thought, this moment is exactly what I am
here for. We just talked to the girls, helped them with their work,
experienced the everyday. We talked about music (Chris Brown! Rhianna!
Eminem!), what jobs they want to have when they finish school (a
pilot, a banker, a lawyer). We told them about our families and about
school in the United States. The most ordinary of things. It wasn’t
long, though, before the conversation shifted and the tough questions
began. They asked us about America, “Are people rich or poor? What
happen when they catch a thief, do they kill? What about women
oppression? Do you have genital mutilation? Female circumcision? Do
they beat the women? Is there racism? What your impressions of
Tanzania? Is this a rich or poor country?” Whoa. It wasn’t accusatory
or hostile in any way, they were simply filled with genuine curiosity.
Still, it was an incredibly difficult conversation to have. I wish I
could say I answered the questions with perfect eloquence and
diplomacy, but I am certain I did not. On the walk home, and even now,
I am torturing myself with “should haves.” Their interactions with
Americans are so few and the misconceptions are many, I could feel the
weight of opportunity in the conversation and it left me mostly
tongue-tied. Most of my answers were obnoxiously vague and ambivalent,
so much so that the girls jokingly began to call me “sometimes yes and
sometimes no.” I knew, somehow, that whatever I said would be taken
for truth and remembered probably for a very long time.  It may even
be the most some of them will ever experience or know about American
culture. I felt like no matter what I said, it would be inaccurate or
harmful. Yes, there certainly is poverty in America. But how could I
begin to explain how different it is? That while there are certainly
many more people with greater wealth, our social and political
structures make it nearly impossible for those who are poor to live a
life of dignity? That in America, you can work full-time and be poor
because the cost and standard of living is so high? That when they
would rely on family and community, we live in a culture centered on
fierce independence, making that less of an option? But then, with
everything I have seen here, and what I know to be true about their
lives how could I look at them and say that America is a poor country?

The questions they asked about the treatment of women were by far the
most difficult for me to answer. At one point it struck me that these
girls are probably around 15 or 16 years old. The things they were
talking about I didn’t have a clue about that age, much less have the
guts to question a total stranger about. In the end, I couldn’t bring
myself to say, “Yes, women in America are oppressed.” Having spent the
past few years of my life arguing that very thing until I was blue in
the face, this was incredibly difficult for me. I’ve always thought of
this as truth, and of truth as something absolute and concrete. I’m
learning here how contextual it is. How truth takes on different
shapes and adapts to an environment like anything else, but that this
does not reduce or dilute it.

In spite of these difficulties, as I was walking away, again I
thought, this moment is still exactly what I’m here for. Here for the
experience of being asked the tough questions, and for learning that
sometimes there isn’t a good answer.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A short post on my favorite moment thus far


Yesterday I, after experiencing celebrations I was sure could be
topped by nothing, ending up stumbling upon the best moment of my trip
thus far. The day was wild, crowded, over-stimulating and fun, but it
left us very, very tired. So, after dinner when most guests had left,
we crashed in our room. Shortly after, we heard a knock on the door.
It was S. Gotharda inviting us to come and continue celebrating with
the sisters. At this point, for them, they have been working immensely
hard for weeks and celebrating for 4 full days. Continue celebrating?
I can hardly be blamed for my skepticism. But the sister’s meeting
room is just across the courtyard from our room and we could hear them
so we decided to just go and check it out.

Of all the special moments I felt so privileged to be a part of in the
past few days, this one topped them all. It was the sisters in their
own, private celebration, after all the fuss was over and the crowds
had died down and we were invited. The sisters who had made their
final vows sat at the front of the room adorned with brightly colored
flowers and wreaths. Groups of sisters took turns coming up and doing
little routines. Singing and dancing of course, but it was different
than what we had seen the rest of the day. They wore costumes (over
their habits and veils), did skits, laughed and joked. They passed out
popcorn, chipsi, and pop and we just sat and laughed with them. Most
of the time, we had no idea what they were laughing about, but the
mood and sentiment was clear through all language and cultural

Watching them, I thought to myself, this is everything a community of
women can and should be. Joyful. Strong. Supportive. Loving. Faithful.
Fun. They were truly celebrating one another and in a way none of the
visitors, including us, could. Because, at the end of the day, it is
their community, and only they can experience the full glory of it
having each made the same, outstanding commitment to God and one
another. In spite of this, I felt in no way ostracized. They welcomed
us without reservation. I felt immensely privileged to witness, what I
think was a perfect example of human beings at their best, living and
treating each other just as God intended.

Be your own radio


The other day, Ash, Claudine (Italian friend/fellow volunteer) and I
left Chipole for the weekend to visit our friends Paul and Tyler, two
Johnnies living at Hanga Abbey. There is one bus a day that goes from
Chipole to Songea (where we catch another bus to Hanga) and it leaves
on Saturdays at 4:30 AM. On this particular day, the bus was
especially packed because the secondary school girls were all headed
home for mid-term break. Almost instinctively, I reached for my IPod
to help pass the time, since the trip to Songea can vary from 2-4
hours long.  Just as I reached for it, though, the girls broke out in
song. Teenagers. At 4:30 in the morning. Many of them would stand for
the whole four hours it would take to get to Songea that day, singing
all the while. I realized they were doing just what I was trying to
do, pass the time, make the trip a little more enjoyable and
ultimately, entertain themselves.

Perhaps it’s the leisurely pace of Tanzanian culture, (everything
takes longer, people usually running late, in fact time is rarely paid
attention to) but it’s a skill I’ve noticed I’m developing here: the
art of passing time. Whether its getting lost in a daydream while
mixing, cutting and frying over 1500 doughnuts in the bakery, playing
a song in my head during our half hour walk to school each day, or
coming up with an idea for the next best-selling novel while waiting
for a car in Songea, a few spare hours has begun to feel less like
wasted time and more like an opportunity.

What is most interesting to me is that for people here, they make
every effort to make these activities communal and most of mine
remains in my own head. This has never been more apparent than over
the last two days. When we returned from Hanga, we returned to the
celebrations of first and final vows. These two days are difficult to
describe, but I think a few rough numbers will do the trick:

Hours spent at mass: 9
Visiting Priests/Brothers: 35 (not including the bishop)
Novices making first vows: 8
Sisters making final vows: 9
Hours the sister spent baking bread to prepare: 12
Bruises: 2 (on my knees, no joke)
Pictures taken: 200+
Visitors/guests: 700+

Basically, it was a celebration of epic proportions. What I cannot
begin to estimate, however, is the number of hours everyone spent
singing and dancing. For weeks we have been waking up and falling
asleep to the sister’s choir practice for the celebration, it has
become so constant we hardly notice it now. And after a 4-5 hour mass
each day filled with singing and dancing, the families and guests
continued dancing for hours, took a break to eat, and then started
back up shortly after. The enthusiasm and energy was seemingly

It isn’t difficult to realize that events like this, especially the
singing and dancing, are the major source of entertainment here. And,
really, everything you need to be happy, entertained and stimulated
you’ve been given. Where I rely on books, T.V., movies or music, they
can pass hours with their own voices and bodies. It is immediate,
always accessible, and economical. Perhaps most importantly, though,
it is communal. For entertainment, they come together to celebrate one
another. What a beautiful way to pass the time.