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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Neil's LiveJournal:

Saturday, June 7th, 2008
10:44 am
Olduvai George
Exam season has passed once again without me flipping out and killing anyone. Last year I would get very upset at the problems in exams, but I've since learned to laugh and categorize them. Enjoy with me the madness which comes from exams not being in anyone's (except my) native language and being printed with a broken press.
1) Problems with the writing
a) Some questions have multiple, or no right answers
eg "She ________ like toast." A)Doesn't B)Was C)Is D)Didn't"
"They are going ____ home. A)Of B)For C)To D)Up"
b) Other questions make no sense or are incredibly unspecific
eg "Explain with examples the reasons for the environment."
"Why is war?"
"List five advantages and five disadvantages of trees."
c) Typos, which exist in American exams, are neither noticed nor
appreciated for their hilarity such as the title character of
this entry, the unsung hero of evolutionary theory.
2) Problems with the printing
These boil down to large portions of the test being illegible because they are either black with large drops of ink or completely blank. The Tanzanian cure for this is for the teacher to stand in front of the class and lead the students in a chant of how the test should read. During a biology test, I first had the students repeat several times the question number "section A, question one, part a, roman five". After we were in the same section, we continued our intoning with the missing letters and the word that should be present:
Me: "FU, fungus!"
Students: "FU, fungus!"
Me: "FU, fungus!"
Students: "FU, fungus!"
3) Problems with the answering
By and large, students don't understand English and they certainly don't understand our spelling system (neither, frankly, do I).
a) Sometimes there answer is correct, but needs interpreting
eg "Do never the ranning in the rabolatoly" ("Don't run in the
laboratory", a laboratory rule)
"Fart" ("Fat", an essential nutrient)
b) Sometimes their answer is based on the presence of key words
eg "Q: Diamond and graphite are isotopes of carbon, what are their
similarities and differences?
A: Isotope is the element same atomic number different mass
c) Sometimes they take a stab in the dark by copying a section of their
notes that they have memorized
eg "Q: What is the reason that manganese (IV) oxide is added to
hydrogen peroxide in the preparation of oxygen?
A: Puppies are baby dogs, kittens are baby cats, eaglets are
baby eagles, ..."
Friday, February 8th, 2008
10:50 pm
Cultural Filters: What's Normal?
Every once in a while a traveling salesperson comes by with fragrant soaps or other products that you can't get in our area. They buy the stuff in town, spend the 4000/= to go out to the end of the bus line and then walk back, staying with relatives on the way to make the most of what must be very low profit margins. A while back, one came that was a departure from the usual: a woman. While she was showing off the merchandise in the teacher's lounge of my school, I noticed that she had burn scars on her hands and part of her face. She went on her way after showing of her products and I forgot about her.

A few weeks passed and I was visiting the teachers at the primary school. The first thing they asked me after greetings was "Did you see that woman?". I turned around and looked out the window to see which woman was "that woman", but no one was there. They laughed and said, "No, the one that was selling housewares a few weeks back." I thought about it and said "The one with the burn scars all over her face and hands?" The women discussed their recollections of that day for a while before answering "We think she had scars, but did you see she was wearing pants?". Durning slow news months, people still talk about the Sambaa woman who was dressed like a man.
Saturday, January 12th, 2008
3:30 pm
Air is Good
The bus was hot - very hot - and the windows in the back wouldn't open. Many people didn't want wind blowing in their faces and so left their windows closed. For whatever reason, one young woman's refusal became the focus of the entire back seat and they began to complain that she would suffocate them all. Finally, they called the conductor to force the teenager to open her window.

After the conductor left, a loud conversation began about exactly why children are so disobedient and selfish nowadays. Some said the problem was a lack of farming. Others complained that is was the abundance of money. One woman could not be dissuaded of the influence of marijuana. The argument got quite heated and I was no longer able to follow.

I may be attaching too much importance to this one conversation, but it does seem that Tanzanians are concerned about finding common ground. I'm not the most argumentative person, but I've still shocked people by directly disagreeing with them. I was interested, but not surprised, when the conversation began to cool down as people found the common ground they'd been looking for since the beginning.

One man said (in Swahili), "If they sold it, it would have a high price". But what was "it"? It seemed consensus was found a bit further a field. Others said similarly vague things that seemed to have nothing to do with the root of disobedience. Finally, a woman summed up the whole conversation with three simple words whose translation have become the title of this entry. With the matter settled, everyone quited down.
Wednesday, December 26th, 2007
1:02 am
Tanzanians are shocked by a lot of American behavior. For instance, I'm often asked "If a girl is walked in on when she's bathing, is it true she'll cover her breasts as well as her crotch?" and I say yes and explain how people don't even like to breast feed in public. Meanwhile, I think have a common law marriage with any woman who's knees I've seen - from the bottom of a woman's rib cage to below her knees is considered her "sacred area".

I'm often told that African women are more modest then Western women and the evidence is the way they dress. They wear dresses and over that a beach towel sized cloth on their torsos and another wrapped around their waists. Colors are patterns are encouraged not to match.

It's true that you can't see a woman's body, but these layers of cloth (I believe) are actually a not demure way of hiding the shapes of thighs and hips but are a way of making every woman like a wall. These clothes strip away the ravages of numerous births and malnutrition and allow us to see an African woman naked down to her essence: a frankly scary Force Of Nature.
Thursday, November 29th, 2007
3:26 am
A Quick Trip Through the Desert
I was very happy to take the bus from my friends site at 5 AM. I'm used to travelling at 4:15 AM, so I got to sleep in. Travel to the big town where we successfully (but without a turkey) celebrated Thanksgiving, was uneventful. I even got a bus that would take me to Arusha in enough time for me to catch my bus home the next day, but then...
24 Hours on a BusCollapse )
You know how cranky I get when I don't get eight solid hours of sleep.
Sunday, October 21st, 2007
12:52 am
Not much new
I don't really have a single story to tell so I think I'll just give a few short blurbs.

I harvested the potatoes. It was the most pathetic harvest in the history of potato farming. Aggie said we may have planted more potatoes than we harvested, but she was impressed that the potatoes were so deep in the earth. That's what you get when everyone tells you to plant during the dry season or else the potatoes will be flooded. Then they ask why you planted so early and now have to carry buckets of water up a mountain every day. Then you have another job to do (teaching) so some days you don't carry water at all and the potatoes are stunted. Anyway, now I have space to begin my adventures with corn. I think the soil might be too acidic so I'm going to grind up chalk stubs and use the dust (calcium carbonate) as a liming material to raise pH and supply calcium. Chemistry!

I fasted for 20 of the 30 days of Ramadan. I started late; I was on two when all the devout were on 12. My first four days I would tell people how long I had fasted and they would scoff. On the fifth day everyone, and I mean everyone, was incredibly surprised and told me I had done spectacularly well and I would surely go to heaven and see Allah. Five days and 180 degrees of opinion. The whole thing was an exercise in being weird, however. No one could begin to understand that I would fast to feel closer to my students and not because I had to. All the Muslim students (that's most of them) have redoubled their efforts to convert me.

Aggie's mother called me "yule jamaa", which means "that guy", instead of "yule mzungu", which means "that white foreigner". I felt good.

My students were moving logs in the valley and complaining about it. At one point they stopped working entirely and the prefects came to me to say "They don't want to work". I replied "Neither do I" and started reading a magazine. The job didn't get done that day, but I felt better.

Final exams are upon us. My form four students have completely finished their exams and forms one, two, and three start in the middle of next week (the 31st). That means I have one week to finish forms one and three (form two is done and I'm very proud of myself). Every time I tell a class that we finished the syllabus three things happen:
1) they clap and are incredibly excited (it is not common to finish)
2) they ask to be drilled on questions from previous national exams
3) they ask if I'll start teaching them biology, physics, and mathematics
My three responses are always
1) clapping and congratulating the students
2) telling them I have no problem helping them with old exam questions
3) telling them that I can't plan lessons for all of the science classes in the school, but if they have old exam questions I'll try to help them.
I feel bad not being able to help, but one science teacher cannot teach 88 periods of science and math in a 40 period week.
Saturday, September 15th, 2007
12:51 am
Are you brining foreign flora or fauna in the country?
I recently planted a garden with the help of a seven year old named Agnes (Aggie). I don't seem to have much of a green thumb as I planted beans, radishes, and potatoes, but only the potatoes and beans sprouted. Potatoes actually sprouted where I planted radishes. What's with that? Then, I watered the beans to death (something Agnes watched me do, but didn't warn me about). Now the potatoes are being devoured by bugs so I decided to get a chameleon.

Funny thing about chameleons is that they're difficult to see and no one would agree to bring me one. I had a stroke of luck one day when I found my students scaring each other with a stick and went to see what was going on. There was a chameleon on the stick so I asked for it after explaining my predicament. They said I could have it so I grabbed it and put it on my sleeve. Everyone gasped and some of the girls said "Put it on your head" to which I responded "Say it in English, first" (they actually said "weka kichwani"). I felt pretty proud of dodging the possibility chameleon poop in my hair and went home to put the lizard in my garden. I ran into Aggie and asked her why Tanzanians are afraid of chameleons (they aren't poisonous). She told me "If one gets on your head, only your father's sister can remove it. What if your father's sister lives far away? Then you have to ride on a bus with a chameleon on your head."

At least it would be easier to sneak on the plane than other reptiles.
Saturday, August 18th, 2007
12:11 am
I like my women like I like my coffee...

There were too many bees, living in my houseCollapse )

The bees are now a memory, and all that is left is to pick them off of the comb and then squeeze it for their delicious honey, which we stole.
Friday, June 8th, 2007
4:38 pm
I suppose many of you have given up reading this journal, but here I am again regaling you with tales of African High Adventure.
Another long one, but without violenceCollapse )
So much happening, but such an unreliable and expensive internet connection. Maybe things will get better, that belief is why I'm here after all. Keep the letters coming, they are spectacular.
Friday, February 9th, 2007
5:35 pm
It's been a while...
...but I'm back with internet access.

I've started receiving mail at my new address - keep it up, I live for letters.

Teaching has started and my school is not adequate to hold all of it's students. There are about eighty kids each in my freshman (form I) and sophomore (form II)classes and over one hundred juniors (form III). Each class has a room to itself, but individual attention is impossible with so many students. The seniors (form IV) have it easy, there are only 27 of them and of those 27, only 6 are taking science classes. There's also a pretty extreme lack of teaching materials - my current project is churning out periodic tables for my chemistry classes. Class room management hasn't yet been a problem except for my form I's who sometimes get rowdy when I teach them English (there are hilarious accent differences). A few weeks ago, I was teaching them to tell time in English and walking around the class looking at an exercise I had assigned. One student opened his book to show me that he was done, but it fell open to a page literally covered in English swear words. I took it as evidence that he was interested in the language so I just laughed and told him to show me the exercises.

Class is sometimes like putting on a show because the language barrier forces me to act out things as well as explaining them in words. Demonstrating verbs is my favorite; I almost never give written definitions until I've dragged guesses out of my students by giving examples of (for instance) sliding. They already think I'm so strange that I feel I have an obligation to stir the pot.

Besides the challenges, there are many good things. New class rooms are being built and we can expect them to be finished in the near future because almost all of the materials have arrived. The trouble is not labor; part of school fees are building fees, which most people can't pay so they have to come and work (Tuesday is elder day). Also, the teachers are very motivated to teach and are genuinely interested in the students learning. It's very heartening to see that I won't spend my two years leading proverbial horses to water and waiting for them to drink.

Now I'm at a large conference on HIV/AIDS education in a very touristy city. It's very strange to see white people that I don't know. It's nice just to relax and take a shower - even if it is cold. The variety of food is also very pleasant - there is no pizza except in tourist-y areas and even cheese is hard to come by. It's amazing how I'm living in a country so different from my own and the thing I long for is cheese. It really illustrates the things that are important in life.

So I'm running out of time yet again and tomorrow I return to no-internet-land. A cryptic story before I go: For a while, there was a problem in my house. Jen (who has successfully moved, incidentally) and I were unable to solve it and while waiting for a solution to arrive on the Tanzanian end, we were forced to do something horrible. Something that involved sneaking out of the house under cover of darkness. With tools.

So, until next time, appreciate washing machines.
Tuesday, December 26th, 2006
12:33 pm
12:27 pm
My new home
As I said, my home is in the mountains in Northern Tanzania. Being up in the mountains the views and temperature are amazing, which I expected. I also don't have electricity or running water, but besides that, the site is very different than I would have believed.

The house is brand new; it would have been my headmaster's, but he gave it up to have an American teacher. Since it was built for a family, there are three bedrooms, a sitting room, and a kitchen. The garden is still a possibility, but the water source is very far and the soil is basically clay.

The school also does not need me to help with chemical and book buying because they do not yet have a lab or library. They're working on building more classrooms first, which is certainly a good idea as they don't have enough.

The final surprise is that I'm actually living with another Peace Corps volunteer! Her house isn't done yet so she is staying with me until it is. Neither of us gets marriage offers becuase people already think we are married, so that is nice.

Another update soon.
Saturday, November 25th, 2006
8:37 am
The Boys (and Girls) Are Back in Town
We have returned from our shadow visits and are safe and sound back in our training city. These are the last few days of training until we leave for our specific sites in the various regions of Tanzania.

Which reminds me, my new site is up in the mountains of northern Tanzania (you know I couldn't actually tell you the city). Cold(er) weather here I come! The area is incredibly lush and I will have space for a garden to grow all of the fruits and vegetables available in Tanzania. Frankly, I can't wait.

The house only has two rooms so it will be very manageable to clean and since I won't have running water or electricity I won't have any utility bills! I'm about half a kilometer from the school where I will teach, which is brand new (it was opened in 2004). The downside of being at a new school is that there is only one math teacher and no science teachers (except me). I guess that just means I have my pick of subjects to teach. There are about 200 students (the school is co-ed and not boarding), about 40 to a class. I can't wait to get started teaching, but the school year doesn't begin until January so I have about a month to get situated in my community and meet people.

I know that this update sounds a bit like forced positives to what appear to be negatives (no electricity, etc.), but I actually am very excited and pleased with my site. It is similar to where I went to shadow a current volunteer so I know the views will be breathtaking and the weather will be mild; what more do you need? The biggest downside is that some of my friends will be going very far away from me so I won't be able to see them for months, but we are all definitely used to being separated from our comfort zones!
Wednesday, November 15th, 2006
4:01 pm
I feel like this is all I ever post about
So, my sister isn't my sister after all; she's my (drum roll, please) cousin once removed. For that matter, my teenage brother is actually my uncle. This gets back to the extended-family-in-Africa-is-really-extended concept that I seem to have a much worse grasp of than I would have thought only two nights ago.

It all started on Sunday, when a women who lives down the street from me told me to say some word I don't remember to my mama. The word turned out to be "Thank you" in the tribal language which they share. Then, two nights ago, my "brother" told me to say the same word to my "sister". She replied with a phrase in the tribal language. When I asked what it meant my "sister" wouldn't tell me and my "brother" only shrugged. I asked him why he didn't know and he said that he didn't speak that language. Odd. I asked him what languages he did speak, one of which my "sister" didn't know. Curiouser and curiouser. After a long series of questions I ascertained their lineage to the best of my abilities. The baby is still my host brother-in-the-American-sense.

This explains why my parents look so young, spaced their children so wide (two teens and a 4 month old), and have so few children; they are so young, didn't space their children widely, and have only just started their family. Other questions remain, however:

Is the woman that first taught me the other word for "thank you" actually my mama's sister, as they all claim?
Is the man across the street actually their brother, as they all claim?
Are they all just members of the same tribe?
Why does my uncle ("brother"), who says he is my mama's brother, not speak my mama's tribal language?

Every new thing I learn just leads to more questions...
Thursday, November 9th, 2006
5:01 pm
Sometimes, dead is better
Read more...Collapse )
In more serious news, all is well here and I'm pleased to shadow a volunteer next week to find out what the life is "really" like. Unfortunately, interruptions in the schedule may mean no posts for quite some time. Be strong, I will write when I can.
Friday, November 3rd, 2006
6:08 pm
Perhaps an unfocused post
Sorry for the lack of posting; I've switched to a different cafe which allows for faster connection to G-mail, but slower overall speed. The upshot is that I can read e-mails, but do nothing else. This week I'm posting first.
A long, and rambling updateCollapse )
Next week is our last week of formal learning then we shadow a volunteer for a few days. Afterward we have a logistics-teaching nightmare called "Week Nine" and then I find out where I will be spending my next two years. In four weeks I move to my site (have I really been here a month and a half?). At some point in the shuffle I may even buy stamps and send out some letters. Although I definitely need more time to write, I will have that when I get to site and hopefully correspondence will become regular.
Thursday, October 12th, 2006
2:48 pm
Another post, another three hours
Do not come to Tanzania for its fantastic connection speeds or reliability. Especially if you ever plan on checking g-mail. FYI.

In other news, Africa remains cool (in the slang sense, not the temperature sense). It has recently started raining in the evenings and we are now approaching the theoretical beginning of the short rainy season.

My sister is definitely a sister. She has begun doing sister things with the family like joke around and not work all the time. Call your bookies, the decision is in.

Although I have some nice pictures, I cannot post them yet because coming to town is always a surprise. Also, I don't take as many pictures as I would like because I don't want to flash that kind of cash regularly.

I know this update isn't anything spectacular, but I really have settled into a routine: wake up, bath, breakfast, school, tea, school, lunch, school, home, study, dinner, bath, sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat. During down time, I read my "Where There Is No Doctor" book, which gives you practical advice for dealing with parasites - every word is poetry to me. I'm learning Kiswahili at an average rate and I am pleased to be able to do more than greet people. Next week I start teaching actual Tanzanians and I'm very excited about that.

Hope things are well in you lives.
Wednesday, October 4th, 2006
7:03 am
Africa Dreamin'
I have made it to lovely Tanzania. I hope things are well with all of you as I am happy and healthy. Jet lag meant three days without sleep for me but everything is sorted out sleep/wake cycle wise so that is good.

The flight was Dar es Salaam via Amsterdam. We stayed in Dar es Salaam for 2 days seeing nothing but our hotel/convent, the Peace Corps HQ, and the road in between. Then we went to [undisclosed location] where we are staying for our 10 week training. I can tell you where I am in letters, but I'm not supposed to post anything too specific online and, by extension, you are not allowed to post anything online (or publish it) that I send to you in letters. If you want a letter and I don't already have your address, get me your address via Aimee or a blood relative of mine.

I'm staying with a Tanzanian family while learning Kiswahili and learning to teach (I'll be teaching Chemistry, by the way). My family is cool, my dad travels a lot for work so it is usually just my mom, my baby brother, and my preteen brother. I might also have a sister in her teens/twenties, but the word for sister and servant is the same so I haven't yet figured out how to tease out the nuanced meanings. She works a lot, but she isn't always working and she seems cheery in a family sort of way so the jury is still out. I also have about a billion other "relatives" in Tanzania because close family friends are just called "mother", "sister", "brother", etc. depending on age and sex. Extended family takes on a whole new meaning.

It is hard to learn the language, but I console myself that I speak better than the 3 month old, who has had about 6 times as much exposure to Kiswahili as I have (not counting prenatal listening).

I'm pleased to report that East African food is PHENOMENAL. It way more than makes up for the fact that Gmail and Africa have gotten together and decided that I don't get to check my e-mail. Also, I have not yet gotten sick. I came close the day I ate seven or eight oranges, but as we all know close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

I'll update again the next time I can make it where I am.
Tuesday, August 15th, 2006
9:39 pm
Pink pajamas - penguins on the bottom
I'm learning Kiswahili (commonly called "Swahili" in America) and I have been struck with some interesting similarities between it and the foreign language used in Disney's The Lion King:

* All of the sound combinations seem to be acceptable

* The Lion King is set in Africa, which is also where Kiswahili is spoken.

* At one point, Rafiki (the wise baboon mystic) says "Uh-Sahn-Tay Sah-Nah" which I know to mean "Thank you very much."

Of course, each song or utterance could use a different language or just be gibberish. The gibberish hypothesis is especially likely since English allows many of the same sound combinations as Kiswahili.

As my knowledge of Kiswahili grows, I hope to determine whether or not the language is Kiswahili and even translate the lyrics. Until I've learned enough, however, we will all be plagued by the questions:

Whose got their Ginsu?
Whose got their Ginsu?
Whose got their Ginsu?
Whose side are they on?
Thursday, July 20th, 2006
5:19 pm
Old news
I got my Peace Corps assignment:

Where? Tanzania
What? Teaching science to secondary school students.
When? Leaving MI the 17th or 18th of Sept. Leaving American the 21st of Sept.
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