Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Week 7

Rao Hospital – Last week the regional health inspector paid a surprise visit to the Shirati area. Many hospitals and clinics were nervous and some even ended up with fines or citations, but none quite had it as rough as Rao Hospital. Rao is the only other hospital in Shirati (outside of Shirati Hospital, described in Week 5). What I didn’t know about Rao is that its owner has a bit of a shady history. Turns out its owned by a Tanzanian doctor who got his medical degree in the U.S. He was a bit irresponsible there though and after a few years of practice he lost his license and was sought on an arrest warrant. The doctor fled to his native Tanzania where he opened a clinic in Dar. That clinic was shut down by the government for irresponsibly operations, which again caused the doctor to flee and move to Shirati, where he opened Rao hospital. Rao too was apparently not doing too well. Employees hadn’t been made in 7 months which had led them to take the owner to court and win 3-months ago with the judge ordering he pay their salaries. He still hadn’t, which caused all but the most cash strapped low-level employees to quit employment at the hospital. This meant that when the surprise health inspector visit happened, there were no administrators working at the hospital. There were also no doctors working at the hospital or even fully trained nurses there. They did, however, have over 120 patients. It was the first time in the region’s history that a hospital was shut down by an inspector on the spot. He immediately spray painted the front entrance in red saying the hospital is permanently closed and ordered that all patients be evacuated to Shirati Hospital within 3 hours.

Nyambogo Meal – After finishing my normal rounds of hut-to-hut surveying in Nyambogo last week, I was approached by the Village Chairman who asked me to have lunch with him and the Village Elders. Breaking bread with such an important group of people in a village is an incredibly rare and important honor, I of course had to say yes. The lunch they served me was abundant and delicious. They even brought me a Coke figuring as an American I would appreciate that (boy were they right). I felt very privileged to have this honor. After a long conversation, the chairman made his plea to me. He asked me not to forget the people of Nyambogo. He reminded me of how badly they need water; not in the future, but right now. He reminded me of how long they had been promised help to secure water and how they still hadn’t gotten any and how people were now dying every year from dehydration and exhaustion caused from the long walks they have to take to Kenya to find water during the dry season. And he asked me to do my best to speed up the process and get them, if nothing else, a rainwater collection device so that lives could be saved and quality of life in their village improved. It was a touching moment for me, and I promised him I’d do my best to help Nyambogo. I fully meant and intended to keep this promise.

Teaching “Cheers” – When the chairman first brought out the food and Cokes for me, him and the village elders (before the serious talk began) he told me that there was a local ritual that had to be performed before we could drink and eat. I partook in his ritual. As soon as it concluded, all began drinking and eating. I immediately jumped into action and just as he had done, stood up in seriousness to make an announcement. All immediately and apologetically stopped where they were. I said that in America too there was a ritual that must be done before drinking and eating. “When amongst friends, we all hit our glass bottles together and say cheers” I told them. At first they were confused, so I demonstrated by hitting my bottle against that of the chairman’s. He quickly caught on and said “cheers” to me before beginning to laugh in boyish delight as if he had just found a new toy. Everyone immediately loved this new concept and began hitting glasses together and screaming “cheers” (even when they weren’t hitting their glasses together) left and right. It became a fun mess but everyone clearly loved it. I’ve since been to Nyambogo again and people who weren’t even at the lunch last week came up to me, high-fived me and said “cheers”. I’m not sure what tradition I may have started here, but it would be interesting to come back in a year or so and find out.

Drawing Board – Back to the promise that I made the chairman; as I said, I intended to take it very seriously. The chairman, and others in the village before him, had asked me for help with a rainwater collection tank. Now I’m not an engineer and I don’t have extra money laying around so I didn’t know how I could help. What I do have though is the knowledge of opportunities that exist and an ability to make things work when I set my mind to it. So I did. I called on my grandfather (a hydro-engineer) and my father (a structural engineer) to help design possible collection tanks for the villagers. I contacted folks in my school who run a grant enabling program for students working with community initiated projects in high-need areas. I began to talk to local officials and those who understand local customs to figure out a realistic budget for this whole project. Soon, information was coming back and was looking good. My grandfather and father did an excellent job quickly designing (with specificity) possible project ideas for the villagers to look at. My school approved a grant that would allow the project to start immediately. And local officials told me that the project was in fact feasible and relatively quick to construct, ensuring project effectiveness and that I’d be able to oversee it during my time here. The drawing board was looking great, and I moved ahead with the project at full speed. 

Can it Happen? – But all projects face struggles, and this one quickly proved it would be no different. My father and grandfather contacted me to express concerns about the project. Without someone trained in engineering or at least construction overseeing this project on the ground, they feared the produced structure would be unstable, could possibly not work or could even be dangerous. The money situation also quickly shot up in price when the people in Nyambogo made some further requests, including that the structure have a roof, and that a cook be hired to provide lunch to the volunteer laborers who would be working on the project. That, combined with the new construction supervisor I was being told I’d have to hire meant the project was no longer financially feasible within the budget I had been given by my school. Meanwhile, to add to all of the above, I found out that the soil was too rocky to be dug heavily on and that the design that had been prepared may not work out after all. The project was just 4 days old and it had already gone from a full-speed ahead one to an all brakes unleashed one. It no longer seemed like it could happen.

Officially Starting – But I knew that this project was one that the community desperately wanted and needed. So I decided to do what the Clinton School taught me best, go back to the community, tell them where we were and listen to them for what they thought about how we could still make something work if that’s what they really wanted. It worked. The community threw out suggestions, telling me who I could hire as a construction supervisor who would be good but still very cheap. They told me of a different design they had in mind that would be more feasible and much cheaper to produce. Their design, together with measurements they requested from my father and grandfather, were the key to a successful design. At my request, the school approved some further funding to ensure this important project was still feasible. Last Friday, July 1st, I signed an agreement with the construction supervisor and the project officially started. A plot of land right next to the village primary school was picked out by the community and officially agreed to by the Village Council. Construction is set to begin in the coming in the near future. Flexibility will be important with this project and I’m quickly realizing that it will most likely not be completed before I leave. Nonetheless, I think this is a very important project that can truly help save and change lives for the people of Nyambogo and am happy and excited to have seen it officially kick off!

Obama Gum – There is very little candy, chocolate or sweets available in the Shirati area. One widely popular exception is “Obama gum” an incredibly popular bubble gum launched in 2008. Obama gum comes individually wrapped in a wrapper that simply says “Obama Gum” and has 2 different pictures of President Obama. There is nothing else to the wrap, to the marketing strategy or even to the gum itself. In fact, Obama gum is pretty awful. Don’t get me wrong, it has a great strawberry flavor to it; its just that it lasts for less than 15 seconds…literally. There is no reason for this gum to be purchased or consumed by anyone except for its name. But it works and like I said, it’s the most popular sweet in the area. I’ve thought about bringing Obama gum to America, but figured that the unsatisfactory taste it leaves in your mouth so quickly after you select it, would only be ammunition for Republicans.

Monday Market – One really important event in Shirati is the weekly Monday Market. While I’ve been to this several times now, this past week I spent the most significant amount of time walking around and exploring it with some of my soccer friends, so I figured I should write about it. The Monday Market is a big deal around here. Folks come in from all of the villages to partake, buy and sell there. The entire region of Obuere (one of the Shirati subvillages) is taken over by vendors, busses, trucks and vans (transporting both goods and people to and from the market). It is informally organized with fish vendors, meat vendors, food vendors, knife vendors, shoe vendors, cloth vendors, dress vendors, and random item vendors each setting up shop in specific regions of the market. Some vendors will actually build a mini wooden booth each week while others (most) will simply set their goods on the floor. Even witchdoctors will take some space around the market to do their thing while dozens of curious bystanders gather around to watch. The market is a very interesting and important experience as part of Shirati life.

Marriage Proposal, Again – This week I received my second directly worded marriage proposal since I’ve been here. This one didn’t actually come from the girl who would marry me, it actually came from her mom. The lady who’s been cooking for me the past 7 weeks is an incredibly sweet lady and makes some of the best food around. She and I have become pretty good friends. So when she called me over to talk when I was early for breakfast this week, I didn’t think anything of it. Through the help of my translator who she called over, she asked me if I was not yet married. After telling her I wasn’t, she immediately rejoiced and offered me her daughter as a bride. I was flattered, even though I’ve never actually met her 18-year old daughter. Nonetheless, I refused using the “we get married when we’re much older in America” excuse.

But Wait, There’s More… - Later THAT SAME DAY, I received my 3rd marriage proposal since arriving here. This one came from my temporary translator for the day. While I’ve always used a specific guy as my translator since being here, he was busy that one day this week and so I was given a 1-day temporary translator. She was really friendly and we chatted a lot in between houses that I visited that day. While walking from my 6th to 7th house of the day, she asked me for my age. She was excited to find it out, exclaiming that she was just 3-years younger than me which would make us a perfect couple. “Are you looking for a wife? I think this could work out” she said. It was awkward using her as a translator for 4 more houses after having to reject her marriage offer.

Haircut – 7-weeks into my time here, I decided that I needed a haircut. I figured that this would both make me look nicer and would serve as yet another interesting cultural experience during my time here. While in Tarime (the closest “big city”) to get money and buy supplies for the above mentioned Nyambogo project, I also went to get my haircut. Here people spell English things phonetically; and so all of hair saloons spell their names as hair “cutz” saloons. This basically made us family. I walked into one of these places and was pleasantly surprised. While the outside makes it look like a tree-house of sorts (all wooden boards making up a small shack) the inside is generator powered, has some decent chairs and even music playing from the radio. I sat down and requested a scissor cut. The guy didn’t know what I was talking about and after some confusion someone who spoke better English told me that they don’t have scissors at this hair salon. At that point, I figured I might as well let the man do his thing and see what happened. He buzzed me this way and that, used 5 different types of blades at the end of the buzzer and was careful about getting things perfectly…or so it seemed; they also don’t have mirrors so I’m going based on what I could tell. Well 25-minutes later he was done. It was once of the longest haircuts of my life and I couldn’t even tell if it was good or not. Regardless, I admired the effort he put into it, and loved the wet towel he used to wipe me down afterwards making sure no stray hairs were left on me. Finals cost of this adventure: $1. While I don’t normally tip here, as its culturally not done, I felt like I had to in this case. I was exorbitant and gave the man a 50%/50 cent tip. He was clearly incredibly thrilled and grateful; as was I…although I’m still not sure what my hair now looks like.  

Colonial Influence – When meeting an elder in Tanzania one is expected to give a specific greeting that shows the utmost respect. “Shikamo” is what the younger person says, to which the elder responds with “Marahaba”. I’ve become used to this, both as one who receives the greeting from younger kids and as one who gives it to those who are older than me. What I haven’t become used to though is the translation, which, in fact, repulses me. The way its been explained to me, “Shikamo” translates to “May I have the honor of rubbing your feet?”, and “Marahaba” means “If you must, but only once”. The greeting comes from colonial times when locals would have to say this to mzungus.

Stoning to Death – This week, a thief tried breaking into the window in our hostel to steal our electronic equipment (laptop, ipod, etc). Luckily, someone spotted them in the act and they ran away before grabbing anything. Luckily for them, they outran those pursuing them and got away. I heard from folks in the town that two weeks ago, a different man trying to rob a house, was caught mid-act, ran away, and was caught by those pursuing them (in my soccer field as a matter of fact). Those who caught him took justice onto their own hands and stoned the robber to death, on my soccer field. I couldn’t believe this, but had it verified by a couple other folks in town. Wow.

Safari Njema: Part II – I’m once again traveling. This time, I’m spending the week in Cape Town, South Africa with several of my Clinton School classmates who are doing their international projects here. More on this next week, for now, once again wish me a safari njema!


  1. may i ask you about your experience in tanzania?

  2. Thank you for writing in your blog. I visited Shirati for 3 weeks about 10 years ago as an innocent young medical student on elective. I've always wondered what has happened to the people there since then!
    Thank you also for what you do for others- you must be a pretty awesome human being. I don't even know if your name really is Fernando, but I sincerely wish you the best in whatever you do. good vibes from sydney, aus