Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Week 10

Goodbye Party – My soccer team decided to throw me a goodbye party before I left. The Sambusa Mother (see Week 5) agreed to host the party and make food for the whole team. The first half of the party was simply each member of the team choosing their jersey number. This was a huge deal to them. They argued, debated and thought deeply about which numbers they wanted, eventually coming up almost entirely with numbers that are more like football than soccer jersey numbers (68, 77, 41, 30). I don’t know where they were getting these numbers from instead of the traditional 1-11 that are used by most starters in soccer, but I, of course, didn’t say a word. An important part of choosing their number was then coming to tell me what they chose and showing me their now completed uniform. One by one they came and showed me their shirts. One by one I congratulated and photographed them holding up their jersey (think NFL draft style). It was really fun. For lunch there was rice and beans, which was very good. After we ate, the kids started playing some traditional Luo music and teaching me Luo dancing. Luo dancing involves leg, knee and foot action…but not much else. It’s a different and fun kind of dancing. We listened to music and danced until it got dark, then the team walked me home.   

King Cobra – During my last trip to Roche we (literally) ran into a king cobra. As we were driving towards the village, we saw the snake starting to cross the road. These are considered to be amongst the most dangerous snakes in all of Africa due to the incredible strength of their poison. I was told that getting bit by one here would lead to death, most likely within the hour. These snakes are rare, but when they show up in a village they are incredibly dangerous to the village livestock and to people (especially kids) who may accidentally stumble into one and suffer the consequence. When our driver saw the 7-foot snake starting to cross the road, he immediately sped up (to ensure we’d hit it) and immediately hit the breaks once we were over it. After sitting for a while, we then backtracked to run it over once more. After our pick-up truck had run over the king cobra twice, it was unable to move. This allowed all the passengers to get out of the truck without having to worry about it coming after us (normally, the snake is very quick and hides well in grass making it incredibly dangerous to be around on foot). Everyone started finding rocks around the area and one-by-one took turns pelting a rock at the snake’s head. After about 10 minutes of this, the snake was finally dead and the community was very thankful that we had rid them of this deadly pest.   

Closing the Gas Station – Last Wednesday, the District Commissioner for our region came to Shirati unannounced, together with 40 police officers. They went straight to the gas station (the only one within about 50 minutes of us) and promptly shut it down. They further stationed police there to ensure that no one can go in or out of the station. No one in town has any idea why they did this and no explanation has yet been given. This has further complicated life around here though, as gas is now being sold in street corners by non-official vendors, out of Dasani bottles (which makes measuring the amount of gas easier since each Dasani bottle is 1 liter). How long this will go for and why it happened, I may never know.

Obama Gets His Net – Remember when I first had the honor of meeting Barack Obama (Week 5)? Well there’s one thing I didn’t tell you about him and his mom. They didn’t have a single mosquito net. At the time I didn’t know it, but they would go on to become the only family (out of over 70 that I interviewed) to not have a single net. Obama’s mother explained to me how she was away in Kenya when the government distributed them. She told me of how he kept getting sick with malaria and she didn’t know where she could get a net post-government distribution. Well it was her lucky day. Two weeks ago, one of the many groups of mzungus that I watched come and go during my time in Shirati left me a very nice, very luxurious mosquito net that a person had gotten for themselves in the U.S. before realizing that nets would be provided for them during their time here. This was a net that was truly fit for a King…or President. In my last trip to Burere, I took the net with me and once again found their home. I told his mother (through my translator of course) that as an American, it pained me to know that Barack Obama was frequently getting sick from malaria. I brought him a mosquito net because it was the right thing to do, and because it was the patriotic thing to do. She laughed and laughed and thanked me for bringing such a needed net for her family. She handed it over to Barack who looked at it puzzled but held on to it like it was a new toy. Unfortunately, I was not able to take a picture of this event as Barack Obama was completely nude throughout my visit. While it was a paparazzi’s dream, I figured it was best for me to not get involved in the business of starting scandals.   
My Teacher Gets His Phone – In Week 6, I told you of the Swahili Lessons that I started taking with a friend from the soccer team who needed money to buy a cell phone. After 4 weeks of intensive classes (not really…at all) I decided that my friend had earned his cell phone. My second to last day in Shirati, I walked with him to Obuere (the neighboring village) and went to the cell phone stand where I myself had bought my phone 10 weeks back. I let him pick out the phone he wanted within the price range we had agreed on pre-classes and was all too happy to watch as he opened the box with joy and enthusiasm, installed the battery and turned his first ever cell phone on. He was so happy that he held my hand tightly (see Week 5) and ran home as he tugged me along behind him. He showed his parents, his brothers, his cousins and even friends the new phone he got. When people would ask how he got it he’d say that I gave it to him; I’d quickly jump in and say that wasn’t true, but rather that he had earned it through the hard work he had done.   

Kids Get Supplies – That same day, my second to last day in Shirati, I had also arranged to visit the local primary school (grades 1 through 7). Before going to Tanzania, I had heard that one of the greatest problems facing the educational system there was that students can’t afford the pen or pencil that they need for school. In fact, many students are indeed sent home from school daily because they don’t have the “proper supplies” (meaning pens or pencils). With pens and pencils being so cheap and affordable to us in America, I figured this was an easy way that I could help. I brought 110 of them with me to the primary school and, working together with the head teacher, went classroom by classroom giving them out. My $10 investment got the entire 1st, 2nd and 6th grade classes writing utensils. It was incredible to think that just $10 could get 110 students supplies that they desperately need to be able to afford staying in school. There needs to be an easier way to do this more often.   

Flat Stanley – Ginger Beebe, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe’s wife, started a project a few years back called the Flat Stanley campaign. The Arkansas First Lady tries to educate Arkansan children about the importance of reading through these little paper figures called Flat Stanley which she encourages people to take with them all over the world and send her back pictures of. She then uses pictures of the well-traveled Flat Stanley to show kids the importance of learning about different places all over the country and world. Each Clinton School student is invited to the Governor’s Mansion a few months before we leave for our international projects and are given the chance to design their own “Flat Stanley” to bring to wherever they’re going. I made mine red, white and blue and brought him with me to the primary school. I took pictures of the kids with Flat Stanley in each of the classes where I distributed writing utensils and then gave him as a gift to the school. The principal hung him up on the front door of the main office; the kids loved this new little American friend they now have.  

The Nyambogo Project: Final Update – Both last week (Week 9) and in Week 7 I told you of the Nyambogo Rainwater Collection Tank Project that I’ve now been working on. The good news is that the truckloads of sand and stones arrived last week. The workers were able to use the sand and stone to level the ground and start laying the foundation. They then used a mixture of cement and stones to lay the foundation in a stable manner. I’m happy to say that the foundation has been laid and the construction of the tank’s walls is now set to begin! Unfortunately, the project has come to a standstill though. The lack of money for the project to move forward means that the villagers have to wait to continue to build this critical structure. I’m once again hopeful that we can see this happen to completion in the not too distant future.

Stomach Juice & Gallbladder – For my last lunch in Shirati, I invited some of the staff that I’ve been working closely with here on the ground to go out with me to a local restaurant. I had been to this place twice before with my local friends and found they had the best food I had tasted during my time there. I always order a plate of “barbequed” goat tips (think steak tips, but not really), tomatoes and mixed greens. This is served with a piece of ugali (the local “bread” (but not really) which is made of a mixture of water and cassava and you take chunks out of and eat together with whatever else you’re having that meal). As you can see this is a quality meal for the area filled with things I normally don’t have there. The cost for this entire filling platter: 40 cents. With sodas, it comes to 70 cents a person. I splurged and got the folks I had been working with this treat. Halfway through our eating, one of the people I was with asked me if I liked the sauce that they used to barbeque the goat. I said of course, this was my third time ordering this dish as I thought it was delicious. He asked if I wanted to know what the sauce was. That, combined with everyone in the table smiling and chuckling as he said this, made me realize that perhaps I should not want to know what the sauce was. But I gave it a go, and soon regretted it when he informed me that they dip the goat in a mixture of cow stomach juice and gallbladder. As good as that meal was, I struggled to eat the last bit on my plate.      

The Last Practice – Later that same afternoon, I attended my final soccer practice. It was bittersweet and I tried to enjoy every moment of it, appreciating how awesome the experience I had of joining a young team in rural Tanzania and playing with them every day during my time there was. I ran through our dirt field as the sun set behind us and the kids around me screamed things I did not understand in Swahili; I realized how much I’ll miss this fun, peaceful and healthy daily routine. After practice the team got together and tearfully said its final goodbye to me. They had gotten me a gift. Not wanting to let me go home “empty handed” (as they put it) they bought a huge cloth at the market for me to use as a tablecloth back home. It’s a beautiful zebra patterned cloth that goes 10 feet across. It was very nice of them, and I know very hard for them to raise the money to get this. I was once again touched. We said our goodbyes, hugged each other and promised to do our best to stay in touch for many years to come.     

Brazilian Superstar: An Update – Back in Week 8, I told you the story of the park worker who was “my biggest fan”. I told you of how I promised him that the next gol I scored I’d dedicate to him. Well it might not have been as glorious a setting as he expected, and perhaps I wasn’t wearing the yellow and blue uniform that he thought I’d be, but sure enough I kept my promise. My last practice saw me score my last gol (3rd overall during my 10 weeks). I immediately remembered the worker, remembered my promise, and dedicated that gol to him.  

Goodbyes – And so I had to say my final goodbyes to all of the people I had come to know and love in Shirati, Tanzania. The villagers, the local staff, my translator, my driver, the night watchman, the cooks, my soccer team and other friends that I had made. It was a day filled with sad goodbyes but one that made me realize that I have to go back to Shirati one day. I’ve become too invested in the community there not to. Before leaving, I was able to get 10 autographed Bill Clinton pictures from the Clinton Foundation and I purchased 4 Clinton School T-shirts to bring with me as gifts to those who truly made a difference during my time here. In retrospect, I wish I had gotten many more gifts. But perhaps next time I’m in Shirati, I’ll be better prepared.  

Bill Clinton – I am, of course, a fan of President Bill Clinton. And, I found out, so are the people in Shirati…but for very different reasons. “Bill Clinton! He was one of us!” people would tell me when I gave them the autographed picture (with a personal thank you note from me written in the back). Now I understand when they say that about President Obama, as his father was a member of the local Luo tribe (see Week 1), but I could not understand what they meant about President Clinton. And so I would ask. One person, two people, three people…then all ten. And, much to my amusement, all ten gave me the same response: “He was the first American President to be like our Presidents. He had more than just one wife. Bill gets us.”

“How Do You Live Here?” – My last conversation with people in Shirati came over breakfast the next morning, as I awaited the car that would be driving me to the bus that would take me into Kenya. One man, who I had become close to here, was telling me all of the problems he was dealing with this week. Electricity was once again particularly bad (we had about 10 hours of power that whole week), his water pump was having some issues and we would run out of water early during the day, the lack of a gas station made driving his motorcycle impossible, so he had to walk the 15 kilometers to work each day, and on top of that his brother had been arrested on bogus charges and the police was demanding money to let him go. He said that sometimes people asked him “with so many problems here in Shirati, with so much that is wrong, how do you live here?” He laughed at the question he had just posed. “You’ve lived here now Fernando. You understand. These are small problems. These aren’t problems to worry about, they’ll all be fixed. What’s important is that we, the people who live here, we’re together through it all. You help someone out a bit, they’ll help you out a bit, and together, we get through it. It’s a good place. Why wouldn’t I live here?” he said with a smile.   

Getting Home – And so I came home. The car took me to the Kenyan border, which I crossed. I boarded a bus to Nairobi, where this time I fortunately arrived safely and with no incidents. I spent another night at my friend Shamim’s mother’s house in Nairobi, boarded a plane to London and then one to Miami. 62 hours after I left Shirati, I safely landed at home. My welcome wasn’t quite what I had hoped for. First I found my bag had completely torn open and my things were scattered. I collected everything, got a cart to carry it all and proceeded to customs. There, the officer showed great concern that I was coming from rural Tanzania where I lived and worked amongst farms. He told me to go to Door 15. Now I had seen the line moving ahead of me for quite a while; most people were told they could freely leave Miami International Airport after talking to customs, some few people, were told to go to Door 2 for further inspection. I had seen no one go through Door 15. I went inside and found two Homeland Security Officers who had been reading their newspaper startled that someone was sent to them. They asked me why I was there. I explained and after X-raying all of my belongings they sent me to Quarantine Room B. Yes, my welcome home to America consisted of being placed into quarantine. They explained that they feared I might unwillingly be carrying live bacteria or diseases on my body, clothes or shoes from the Tanzanian farms and soil. So they made me wait as they suited up, they put on their full gloves/apron/boots/mask attire, and they started spraying me and everything with me down with some sort of insecticide. They particularly focused on my shoes which were drenched by the end of their spraying and had to be further soaked in a tub of theirs before I could get them back. Over 2 hours after I landed, I was released from quarantine and was properly welcomed home by my family. I immediately went to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, took a hot shower, turned on my smart phone and enjoyed the luxuries of life that I had all but forgotten.     

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