Monday, December 27, 2010

Blessings of the Christ Child

Creche at our parish, Church of Jesus Christ the Redeemer

Merry Merry Christmas and Blessings of the Christ Child to one and all…

It’s really hard to believe it is Christmas here in East Africa. Off the beaten path it does not –feel– like Christmas. The sun is blazing hot and the humidity is off the chart. An occasional breeze blows by. We sit and swelter. I search for signs of Christmas. Christmas trees? Barren desert. Christmas lights? No electricity. A Christmas toast? Unpotable water. Christmas cards? Illiteracy. Candy canes? Bare cupboards. Christmas parties? Malaria & HIV/AIDS. Christmas presents? Abject poverty.

Living in a predominantly Muslim society in the poorest region of Tanzania, how does one ‘experience' the joy and wonder of Christmas?

On Christmas Eve Earl & I returned from our first vacation in Tanzania. Heading north, we rocked & rolled on a cramped dilapidated bus for more than 9 hours to Dar es Salaam. After taking a few days to take care of personal stuff, we boarded an overcrowded ferry and set sail across the Indian Ocean to the isle of Zanzibar. We spent 3 days in the charming historic city of Stone Town & then 3 days on the northernmost tip at a lovely picturesque beach in Nungwi. Returning to the YMCA in Dar, we spent a few more days in the hustle & bustle of the big sprawling seaport. It was there at the Y that we saw our first Christmas tree! But it was very short, scrawny, artificial and so pathetic and forlorn that it was depressing. Even a Charlie Brown Christmas tree has more charm. Why bother?

Moreover, we would not have known it was Advent except for the Scripture readings at Mass every morning. However, we do celebrate Christmas Eve in a big way at our church. But once you step outside, it’s just another sizzling hot dusty day. Bummer.

Soooooo I was really struck when our best friend, Moris, texted us the “Invitation” that Earl posted below. Yes, I have been invited to Jesus’ birthday party before, but this was the first invitation that suggested you “cleanse your heart beforehand.” In a country where the level of poverty is staggering at 33.6 percent; where the number of poor has increased by 1.3 million*; where most child deaths are due to malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea, malnutrition, low birth weight complications as well as HIV/AIDS; and where about 27.5 per cent of the population is illiterate**—Christmas is celebrated in the HEART. Not with glittery Christmas trees, twinkling Christmas lights & cheery Christmas toasts. Not with corny Christmas cards, red-striped candy canes, late night parties or extravagant presents. Strangers to the rampant consumerism & materialism around the world, Tanzanians know very well the meaning of Christmas. They know where to find the Christ Child on Christmas morn. They do not have to search far and wide. They simply look into the inn of their heart.

Well, it is nearly a year and a half since we landed here in East Africa in July, 2009! WOW!!!

We pray that everyone, especially our dear family and friends, will have a Blessed Christmas and a New Year abundant with God’s graces. May your lives be filled with much love, an abiding peace, an everlasting hope, and abundant joy. Please know that you are ever in our hearts and prayers — for you are greatly missed and deeply loved. ~ Diane

* Household Budget Survey 2007, United Nations Development Program
**Statistics cited from the United Nations Development Program:

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Kadi ya Mwaliko (Invitation Card)

Message received on a Tanzanian mobile phone:
"Familia ya Yusufu na Mariam wa Bethlehem wanapenda kukualika kwenye sherehe ya kuzaliwa mtoto wao mpendwa Yesu itakayo fanyika tarehe 25 mwezi Desemba katika kila moyo wa mkristu ulimwenguni kote. Safisha moyo wako kabla. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year."
Translation: The family of Joseph and Mary of Bethlehem would like to invite you to the celebration of the birth of their dear child Jesus, to take place the 25th of December in the hearts of all Christians everywhere. Cleanse your heart beforehand. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Sending everyone Christmas and new year's greetings from this hot part of the world. - Diane & Earl

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Living (Un)routinely

"Since routine is simply a means of controlling time, Europeans are better at it, and therefore accomplish more in a day, a month, or a year. They pay in monotony. Africans control time less efficiently, but enjoy it more: they pay in stagnation." from The Mottled Lizard, by Elspeth Huxley
The notion of using routine in order to manage time reminds me of the Industrial Revolution, when the factory assembly line took efficient use of time to an extreme. Along with the incredible innovations in making goods we apparently learned to apply the characteristics of rigid order, repetition, and predictability to our own lives, both inside and outside of the workplace. In other words, we learned to make our lives more machine-like, more like a precisely defined, tightly-coupled sequence of steps.

At Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco the clock tower has a plaque with a verse from the Hebrew Scriptures: "Son, observe the time, and fly from evil. [Ecclesiasticus 4:23]". An ancient Jewish scribe recorded this admonition that time is short and must be spent wisely in pursuit of the good.

More than two thousand years separate these two writers but in my mind there is a kind of common view of time as a precious finite "resource". So this attitude has been around a bit and became intensified with all the material successes of the developed world in modern times.

But we are really talking about two different things here. One is the use of routine as a way to control and manage time. The other is the drive to make good use of it. Those are two different things.

In the past few decades in the U.S. corporate world the former has been relaxed quite a bit. That's partly due to technology such as computers, the Internet, and cell phones. I think it is also due to the accelerated pace of change in the marketplace and in the business world. Being agile, adaptable, and responsive to uncertainty is considered to be an essential advantage. Still, the ability to follow routine is part of our cultural DNA.

My experience so far is that Tanzanians are not terribly fond of creating and following routine. It is something that they learned from their former colonizers, the British, whom they try to emulate in some ways, but not something that they much take to.

Consequently, I have had to learn both to adjust to people not following routine very well Unin my opinion) as well as often tossing it out the window entirely. For instance, on more than one occasion the school has had visitors show up with no warning at all, much less an appointment. I was expected to drop whatever I was doing in order to talk with them or show them around.

Initially, I found this sort of thing annoying and frustrating. Gradually, I've come to develop my ability to respond immediately to whatever comes up and to recognize that in many situations the interruption to my routine simply does not matter. I can pick up where I left off at a later time.


[ Note: in software development the term "routine" roughly means a set sequence of steps that is part of a larger computer program. How apt that is for the most complex and flexible of machines. ]

Saturday, November 27, 2010

How Big Is That Cockroach?!

We have had a minor influx of these critters inside the house. At about one and a half inches long this one is typical. You should hear the crunching sounds when I step on them. -Earl

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Straight Lines, Square Corners

When I was in middle school the boys were introduced to mechanical drawing using rulers, t-squares, triangles, and pencils. Later as a senior in high school I opted for a shop class in mechanical drawing. We were required to draw in units as small as 1/16 of an inch. Considering that all of the work in those days was done by hand, a lot of precision was expected and taken for granted.

In my computer studies classes here I have been teaching something called a "block diagram", an example of which is pictured. On the blackboard I just quickly sketch the diagram by hand. But our Tanzanian students invariably pull out their rulers and carefully draw boxes with straight lines and squared corners in order to make a copy in their notebooks. I would think, "why bother, all you need is a sketch to record the idea."

Maybe the answer is that in this part of the world people do not "naturally" think in terms of straight lines and ninety-degree angles. After all, how often do you see those in the natural environment?

However, thanks to the genius of the ancient Greek mathematicians we are thoroughly familiar with both the concepts of a (perfectly) straight line and a (perfectly) perpendicular angle as well as their (imperfect) manifestations. I am composing these words by writing on a table that has a rectangular top and is otherwise built entirely of rectangular pieces of wood. In the U.S. there is a strong preference for city streets to be arranged in a very regular grid pattern (with perturbations to allow for features such as steep hills -- how inelegant of nature). Later I will be typing these words into a computer which will display the text on a screen consisting of, say, a 1024 x 768 rectangular array of pixels.

So I suppose our Tanzanian students are being trained to think in a like manner. Why does this matter? Because straight lines, right angles, rectangles, and other geometric objects are abstractions that serve as very useful mental tools for building models. They are tools that enable us both to more readily create artifacts such as wooden tables and computer screens and also to impose structure, order, and manageability on the natural environment, such as in the form of streets, political boundaries, and coordinate location systems. They provide powerful leverage for spatial thinking.

Thanks to Euclid, to Mrs Hillebrand who was my tenth grade plane geometry teacher, and to the milieu and the intellectual legacy in which I grew up, when I use a rough piece of chalk to sketch a bunch of boxes I automatically, habitually "see" perfect rectangles. -Earl

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Form 4 Graduation Photos, Aquinas Secondary School, October 2010

Above left, our parish pastor Fr Patrick Mwaya at the lectern. Above right, Rev Fr Gallus Chilamula, Vicar General of Mtwara Diocese.

Above left, Sr Raphaela Haendler, O.S.B., Manager of school. Above right, Mama Opportuna Komba, class teacher for Form 4.

Above left, Diane with graduated student Reinfrida.

Above right, Sr Maureen Cariaga, O.S.B., Headmistress of school.

[ Photos by Roger Angst and myself. -Earl ]

Monday, November 8, 2010


Diane is the moderator of the student art club and is also the school librarian. Consequently, she has put up a lot of student art work on the walls of the little library.

I just love this whimsical drawing of Diane in one of her Tanzanian-made dresses. It was done by Irene, a form two student (like a high school sophomore) who is also pictured here.

Irene is smart and sassy and, I think, a bit of an underachiever. But the reality is that we don't know much about the lives of our students, although we do get snippets of personal information from time to time.

The "AHAAAAA!" refers to Diane's version of "uh-huh" which she says emphatically and with a rising intonation. She uses this constantly, so much so that if I mimic it, students just crack up. -Earl

[Student photo by Roger Angst]

Sunday, October 31, 2010

maliza, maziwa, zaliwa

At this time I have acquired enough Swahili vocabulary that some words blur together in my mind. For instance, the words in the title of this posting sound alike enough that I have to concentrate in order to use the correct one: maliza, maziwa, zaliwa respectively mean to finish, milk, and to be born.

Lately, I have also noticed having to pay particular attention to nguvu, ngumu, nguru which mean strength, hard, and kingfish.

It is as though I am in a kind of vocabulary soup that is thick enough that I am no longer just a beginner, but still too rich for me to handle with ease.

Turning the situation around, though, Tanzanians struggling to learn English have it worse. I recall one of the workers at our school trying to hear the difference between wet and wait. Kiingereza ni ngumu sana (English is very hard). -Earl

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What I Do, What I Am

"It is so easy to come to believe that what we do is so much more important than what we are", from Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, Joan Chittister

There are different kinds of difficulties, doubts, and frustrations in coming to a place like Tanzania to be of service. One of those is that despite the best of intentions, effort, and training, you may not really know much about the effect that you are having, the consequences of your being here. You may not be able to see whether you really are creating any positive results (or negative ones either, for that matter).

I think this is particularly true for those of us who are doing something such as teaching, in which we are attempting to touch and to influence the minds of other human beings. That's a hard enough task on your own home turf. But try doing that in a setting where you struggle to understand the native language, relationships and social expectations are murkily understood, and organizational behavior can be baffling.

From time to time I step back from the business of everyday work and life and routine -- as with most Americans, to me being constantly busy is what feels "normal" -- and loosen my grip on whatever it is I'm trying to accomplish. I remind myself that what I am matters as much as what I do, if not more so. It matters because it is my values, attitudes, and character that impel how I speak and act in the world, that determine what I care about and how I treat people. It matters because it is one of the few important things that I can actually be certain about and change (if I am honest with myself). And in the end it may very well be that it is not the activities I carry out that count the most but the presence that I bear as I share life with these Tanzanians. -Earl

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Netball Games

A competitive team sport called "netball" is commonly played by female students in Tanzania. It's very similar to basketball, but one difference is that there is no dribbling! The player who has the ball can only take a step and a half. She then has to either pass the ball or take a shot. It seems that opposing players can block the ball but do not try to steal it. Overall, the game is a lot less aggressive than basketball and looks fun.

I had never heard of this game before coming here. However, according to an article in Wikipedia, netball "is the most popular team sport for women in Australia and New Zealand and remains a popular women's sport throughout the Commonwealth of Nations", of which Tanzania is a member. - Earl

Above, the winners celebrate with candy.

[Photos by Roger Angst]

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Form 1 Students' Debate on Swahili

A while back the English teachers for the Form 1 students, Mr Roger and Mr Komba, organized a debate conducted in English as a way for students to practice their oral skills. Interestingly enough, the debate topic itself was "Swahili should be the medium of instruction in all secondary schools in Tanzania".

The debate was held in the dining hall of the new girls' hostel [dormitory], with some of the other teachers attending also. I was impressed by how well some of our students can speak in a public setting like this! The funny looking microphone is just a prop, not a real one.

[My own take on the topic is that the use of English as the teaching language is a massive failure. Tanzanians should switch entirely to Swahili and push the development of this African language, which is what they are truly able to communicate in. However, Tanzanians themselves are very much split on this. -Earl]

[Photos by Roger Angst]

Sunday, September 12, 2010

African Stations of the Cross, XIII and XIV

Stations XIII - XIV

Kanisa la Yesu Kristu Mkombozi [Jesus Christ the Redeemer church], Magomeni neighborhood of Mtwara. -Earl

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Survival Stuff We Brought to Mtwara

Now that we have been here for a year here are some thoughts about a few items that I'm glad we brought with us. Some are difficult to come by, others were good to have at hand for immediate use.

Katadyn Water Filter. This is a Swiss-made filter that works so well it purifies the water with no need to boil first. You just pour water into its upper container. After some time the water percolates via gravity down into the lower container. I clean and check the filter once a month, which takes about fifteen minutes. The three ceramic elements -- some people call them "candles" -- are recommended to be replaced after six months, but they are supposedly good for 50,000 liters. At an average of eight liters per day, which is roughly what Diane and I use, that means the elements could last for more than fifteen years! I would be very pleased if they actually hold up just for the three years we expect to stay.

Mosquito bednet. As things turned out there was already a mosquito net provided for our bed, but it's been good to have an extra for guests and one that is treated with permethrin.

DEET insect repellant. In a tropical area like this there are mosquitoes year round. Malaria is endemic. I don't use repellant all the time but I find DEET works well in keeping the bugs off me when I need it. It's part of a multi-layered defense against getting bitten, together with mosquito wire on the windows, taping up the gaps in outside walls, wearing long pants, using a bednet, and rarely going out at night. Even so, I've probably been bit at least a thousand times. You cannot eliminate the risk but you can manage it and reduce it quite a bit.

Flashlights, solar- or hand-powered. With frequent power outages in our neighborhood and non-existent power in some places, having good flashlights is a must. Diane has a HybridLight, which is solar-charged and has a battery backup. I have something with no name that is hand-cranked. Both are used regularly and work well. They avoid having to purchase and dispose of batteries.

Power adapters, voltage converters. In Tanzania there are two kinds of power outlets: the round two prongs used in Germany, Spain, and other countries; and the square three prongs from the U.K. Likewise, appliances and equipment come in both flavors. For that reason alone, adapters are needed. Add into the mix our two flat prongs from the U.S. and you really do have to have adapters. They are available locally but it's good to have several when you arrive. Also, the local ones are sometimes of questionable quality.

If you bring anything electrical that only runs on the U.S. 110 volts, such as Diane's SonicCare toothbrush, then a voltage converter is also needed because the electricity here is 220. Luckily, our laptop charges on either voltage. I understand that's the case with most portable computers.

Rechargeable batteries with charger. These are for our digital camera, which takes two AA batteries and consumes a lot of power. Again, having rechargeables means avoiding buying and disposing of regular batteries. They don't last forever, though. After one year the ones we brought with us pretty much stopped holding a charge. We had to get new ones.

Swiss Army knife. I like the Tinker model, which has two blades, a bottle opener, three screwdrivers, an awl, etc, all of which I have used. This model is a nice balance between size and function.

Small water bottle. There is lots of good bottled water sold, so you can always reuse the bottles. I prefer something that is more durable, like the Nalgene one-pint made of Lexan, pictured here.

Ear plugs. They don't block noise but they do reduce the intensity quite a bit, enough to make a difference when you are trying to sleep on long airplane rides, at noisy airports, and through late-night music, speeches, and gatherings in the public field near our home.

U.S. currency in large denominations. $100 and $50 bills get a much better rate than the smaller ones. We changed some dollars for Tanzanian shillings as soon as we cleared immigration. The rest is stashed away in case the ATMs stop working for withdrawing cash from our U.S. bank account.

Dark Chocolate. For chocolaholics like me, this is a basic food group, if not a survival item. Just kidding. 8-D Actually, I've had very little good chocolate like this since arriving. But thanks to Patti in L.A. we received this particular bar a few days ago. If you ask anyone to mail chocolates to you, have them put it into a closed plastic bag. There's a good chance it will melt on the way.

There are other extremely useful items that come to mind -- such as sturdy zip-lock plastic bags, duct tape, materials for learning Swahili and about Tanzania, etc -- but they are not as immediately needed. I may comment on a few of those in another posting.

- Earl

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

African Stations of the Cross

Stations One - Four

Kanisa la Yesu Kristu Mkombozi [Jesus Christ the Redeemer church], Magomeni neighborhood of Mtwara. -Earl

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Two Worlds, Revolving Independently

"... it was like living in one world while another co-existed, but the two scarcely ever meshed. Sometimes, when Tilly made a cake, she let me use the beater, which had a red handle that you turned. The two arms of the beater whirled round independently and never touched, so that perhaps one arm never knew the other was there; yet they were together, turned by the same handle, and the cake was mixed by both. I did not think of it at the time, but afterwards it struck me that this was rather how our two worlds revolved side by side." The Flame Trees of Thika, Elspeth Huxley

Elspeth Huxley grew up in the countryside of Kenya in the early twentieth century on a farm settled by her English parents. They employed Africans, went to a local chief to intervene in problems and disputes, and otherwise lived amongst the native peoples. I love the metaphor of two arms of a mixer that are closely intertwined yet not touching.

There is a little market area just down the road from our home. Along a row of simple wooden kiosks and tiny "shops" I am able to buy items such as eggs, rice, beans, sugar, salt, matches, cookies, and cellphone vouchers(!). Across the way in the open dirt women set up tables with fruit and fried fish. Some sit on the ground behind boxes displaying cassava french fries. They seem to be there all day. I make my rounds, picking up whatever is on the list this time. I speak enough Swahili to make purchases, but not enough to have a free-form conversation. I walk home, receiving, as usual, stares from some Tanzanians, for whom a non-black person is such a novelty.

Returning home I boot up our laptop computer and enter expenses into a spreadsheet. Since the computer is on, I connect to the Internet. An email from a relative in California informs me that the book I ordered on arrived and will be sent on to me. I read an article on the New York Times website about the psychological effects of long-term joblessness on many Americans. Dinner that evening consists of pasta salad with avocado and cucumber. The pasta was boiled in water purified by our Swiss-made water filter. We start a game of Scrabble, playing obscure unheard-of English words that are only found in the Scrabble dictionary.

Nearby, in another of the buildings on the grounds of the church where we live, the choir is practicing. We can hear very clearly their beautiful Swahili voices. Some of the songs are familiar from liturgies back home. Others sound distinctly African in rhythm and melody.

Do the arms of the mixer brush against each other from time to time? Is real contact possible?


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Pudding Spoons and Forks

"It was remarkable to think how different were Kikuyu lives from our own, and surprising that they found our ways wholly arbitrary, and forgot that salt, mustards, and pepper pots should all be grouped together in two clusters on the table, and that pudding spoons should point in one direction and forks in another. Europeans rarely questioned their own customs; what they did was right and civilized, what others did was savage and stupid. No doubt all people think like this about their own habits. The Kikuyu probably accounted for most of ours as a form of magic." From The Mottled Lizard, by Elspeth Huxley
One could apply Elspeth Huxley's observation to many facets of life but those do include table manners and eating customs.

Growing up in a Chinese immigrant family I was not exposed to a formal Western meal until I was a senior in high school attending a dinner for scholarship applicants at the upscale Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. I still recall vividly the confusion, awkwardness, and embarrassment I felt at facing an array of forks, knives, and spoons that I had no idea what to do with. On that occasion, from a certain perspective, I could have been regarded as rather uncivilized and stupid.

In Tanzania it's very common to eat with your hands, no cutlery required. That being the case, it's also expected to wash your hands before eating. In homes and in some restaurants someone will bring water, soap, and a washbasin to each guest, both before and after the meal. Then there is the custom of using your right hand only, avoiding the left hand as much as possible. This is due to the left hand being seen as unclean, which is very literally true if it is used for certain, ahem, bodily functions.

I don't really like to eat with my hands. Doing so is fine for some foods such as sandwiches, cookies, and many kinds of dim sum. But if the food is at all wet, gooey, or oily, I immediately feel like my hands are messy and dirty. Really, the only sensible way to eat is with chopsticks. However, they require a magical dexterity that people beyond the pale acquire with difficulty.

[The photo is of our colleague Geofrey having lunch in the teachers' room. He is eating beans, greens, and ugali, a doughy staple made from corn meal.]


Monday, June 21, 2010

Three Children in Church

One day at the weekday morning Mass three children showed up who had not been attending before. Moving along the pews, they gradually made their way towards Diane. Before long they were sitting right up next to her, looking at her books of prayer and reflection, especially any pictures. They have been regulars ever since, cheerful, respectful, and well-behaved during the service, and always sitting with Diane. A bit later on their mother also started to attend regularly.

There are about twenty adults who go during the week, rarely are there children. So it is especially delightful that we have the presence of these watoto.

[I took the outside picture with their mother first because I wanted to get her permission to photograph. At that time I told her I also wanted to take a picture on another day of her children with Diane during Mass.]


Wednesday, June 16, 2010


The World Cup soccer tournament is going on right now in South Africa. Tanzanians, the men in particular, are following the games keenly, even those whom I never thought of being interested in sports. It's a good game for playing in a country like this with lots of space and little money for equipment.

However, I think the real national sport is bargaining for the price of goods. This may be carried out in many situations, and Tanzanians are master players at it. I suspect they find it both a pleasurable activity as well as a survival technique in a largely subsistence economy that has so little cash flow. I have seen Tanzanians spend time haggling over the equivalent of less than ten cents.

Not only do wazungu (Europeans / foreigners) like me find bargaining awkward and uncomfortable, we are perceived as having big pocketfuls of money. That perception increases the stakes and the level of interest considerably. At the end of the day it's not uncommon for wazungu who have been, for instance, to the market to have a vague feeling of having been cheated.

After almost a year of living in Tanzania I am still adjusting to this practice. As far as whether to get upset about it I try to keep in mind several things.

First is that in the U.S. even though we expect retail prices to be the same for all customers, that is not necessarily the case between businesses. I learned this as a neophyte freelancer who constantly had to grapple with the question of how much to charge clients and in what way. I had, for example, one client who was willing to pay significantly more than the "market price" for my computer services.

Back here in Mtwara we have found that for many goods that are widely available, at any point in time there actually does exist a price that is commonly known and paid. The trick is to find out from locals what that price is. White rice, for instance, uniformly sells for 1000 shillings per kilogram. This removes much of the uncertainty around recurring purchases such as foodstuffs and other household items.

And the reality is that Diane and I do have possessions and income that is far beyond the reach of most Tanzanians. The possessions include not only expensive items such as a laptop computer and a printer but even very ordinary things such as pocketknives, watches, and durable water bottles. The other day I lent a simple magnetic compass to a colleague who teaches geography. She knew about the concept but had never handled such an instrument before.

Our income consisting of teaching allowances from the school and monthly stipends from our organization would put us way below poverty level in the U.S. But here we eat really well, hire a friend to do some of our weekly shopping, have electricity, and pretty much every evening at home check email, log on Facebook, and read an article or two on the New York Times website.

It's good to keep things in perspective. -Earl

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Learning Swahili

Diane and I got a very good start with Swahili during the three-week intensive language course that we did when we first arrived in Tanzania. Since then I've continued to make an effort to keep using and studying it.

There's a lot of good news for English speakers who want to learn Swahili. With only one or two exceptions the sounds are simple and familiar. (One of the odd sounds I know from my parents' dialect of Chinese!) The grammar has a lot of consistency and regularity. Even the exceptions often have a kind of pattern to them. Almost always the stressed syllable in a word is the next to last one. Writing is in the same alphabet as English, minus "q" and "x". The spelling is completely phonetic and a breeze to master. Very often I can hear a word I don't know and am able to find it in a dictionary on the first try (think about that for someone who is learning English -- our spelling is horribly complicated and difficult).

But there's some serious bad news as well. 8-D Nouns, adjectives, modifiers, and verbs are all heavily inflected, that is, the words change form. One way this is done is in singular versus plural. That's not so bad since we have that distinction in English. But the other way hinges on "noun classes", of which there are seven. Each noun class has its own ways for forming inflections.

The modifiers include some -- but not all -- of the numbers. For example, the word for "two" has a different prefix depending on whether you are talking about persons, shoes, oranges, trees, or peppers, for which "two" is then "wawili", "viwili", "mawili", "miwili", and "mbili", respectively. Verbs are similarly inflected depending on the noun class of the subject and of the object, if any.

Taken individually, each noun class appears to be manageable. But trying to keep all of them straight in actual conversation rapidly overloads my linguistic abilities and slow brain. Even a short sentence can easily contain, say, three nouns that belong to three different classes. For instance: "Those two people bought these two sweet oranges and two large peppers". Proper Swahili requires every one of those words to be formed correctly (except for "and"). Sigh.

The noun classes are enough of a difficulty that our Swahili course intentionally avoided spending much attention on them in order not to get bogged down. Our teachers gave us some good reference materials and sent us on our way. With hindsight I see that was a wise thing to do. With practice I am slowly, slowly, beginning to get the inflections right.

As someone who is not especially adept at learning languages, especially conversation, I find that I have to do two things. First, overcome my shyness and embarrassment, and keep using Swahili. Maintain the ability to laugh at myself and accept that for a long time to come I am going to come across as a complete idiot. Second, continue to explicitly study: vocabulary, grammar, usage, whatever. As an adult I am not going to "pick up" Swahili merely by being surrounded by it. But I do know from past experience that persistence pays off. Looking back to ten months ago when we landed I do see that I have made progress. I really am learning an African language. -Earl

Later: A week after posting this, I showed it to a Tanzanian friend who pointed out a mistake with one of the nouns that I used. This just proves my point that the inflections are easy to get wrong. 8-D

Saturday, May 22, 2010


In Earl’s earlier post, you’ll see a photo of Moris & me. And I bet you do not know what we are doing. If you look carefully, you’ll see I am holding something in my hand. In Kiswahili it’s a ‘korosho’ – a cashew nut! And Moris was showing us the traditional way of roasting cashews.

Did you know that in the mid-1970’s Tanzania and Mozambique were the main global producers of cashew nuts? According to the Agricultural Council of Tanzania (, Tanzania was producing 145,000 metric tons of raw nuts in 1974 and in 1998 Tanzania was still producing 121,000 metric tons. Unfortunately, nowadays the production has been below the 1998 peak.

Tanzania has been mainly exporting raw nuts and in 2006 only 20% were processed locally. This is because of the difficulty of cashew processing. Did you know that cashews are in the same family as poison ivy & poison sumac? The cashew plant contains powerful chemical irritants and handling and eating raw cashews will cause the familiar itchy skin reaction in sensitive people. However, the irritants are found in the shell oil, not in the nuts themselves.

According to Don Glass on "A Moment of Science"
(, this is why they’re sold shelled, but why are they roasted? Roasting at high temperature destroys the shell oil, so commercially sold nuts will not trigger a reaction. Cashew nuts that are still in the shell or that are shelled and roasted at home at lower temperatures may be contaminated with the oil, so, shelling raw cashews is about as much fun as handling poison ivy. Isn't that interesting!

Well, in the bottom-center of the collage, Benjamin, a neighbor, is preparing the open fire. Actually, I think at that moment, the cashew nuts are on fire in the pot! On Benjamin's left, there is a photo of the cashew apple as it is picked from the tree. Attached to the bottom of the cashew apple is a kidney-shaped shell that contains the cashew nut. Above Benjamin’s photo, you’ll see Moris & his wife, Lucy, roasting the cashews in the smokey pot. The little girl in the pink dress on the left is their daughter, Dorith. Unfortunately, Exsavery, their son, missed this photo op. Then there’s the close-up of Moris & me cracking the nutshells. What looks like a pile of charcoal on the ground is actually a pile of charred cashew nutshells. We gobbled up the fresh roasted cashews you see in the container. Yum!

Earl & I love cashews and we are delighted that we are living along the Swahili Coast where fresh cashews are a year-round treat!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Our Wazungu Monthly Living Expenses

Since we posted our friend Moris' monthly expenses recently, which is probably not atypical of what many of our Tanzanian neighbors live on, Diane and I thought that for comparison we would also post what our monthly expenses are.

The following list consists of amounts averaged over the first few months of 2010. There were a couple of large, one-time expenditures, including purchase of an inkjet printer. But it gives you the idea of how big the difference is.

Again, the currency symbol for the Tanzanian shilling is /= which is exchanging at about 1300/= to U.S. $1.

Groceries 186,000/=
Eating out 47,000/=
Transportation 18,000/=
Household & electricity 37,000/=
Health & medical 20,000/=
Stationery & postage 14,000/=
Books & newspapers 21,000/=
Clothes & haircuts 9,000/=
Church 6,000/=
Donations & gifts 29,000/=
Internet & computer 145,000/=
Domestic help 43,000/=
Cellphone 15,000/=
Recreation 1,000/=

Total 591,000/=

Moris currently does not have a contract so his list is for survival. I'm pretty sure that if he were generating more income he would also be spending quite a bit more. Nevertheless, at the moment our expenses are about nine times greater per month than his are.

On the other hand, our total is about equal to U.S. $450. That's only a bit beyond what we were paying just for groceries alone in San Francisco. -Earl

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Day Life in the Life of Our Tanzanian Friend

Pictured here with Diane is our fellow parishioner Moris whom we met at the church where we live. Moris has become a good friend to us. Moreover, he is a very good informant about things Tanzanian, speaks English well, and knows how to correct my bumbling Swahili.

Diane had the idea of asking Moris to write a bit about his daily life and his family. So he wrote something in Swahili, then he and I together edited it and translated it into English.

We are posting both the Swahili and the English here. The notes in brackets are mine. -Earl
Maisha Yangu (familia)

Morris Damiani Chenga ndilo jina langu. Nilizaliwa mwaka 1970 terehe 22-12-1970. Mpaka sasa nina umri wa miaka (40) arobaini.

Nina watoto wawili na mke mmoja. Mtoto wangu Exsavery ana umri wa miaka 11. Alizaliwa Zahanati ya Ziwani mwaka 1999 mwezi wa tatu. Anasoma Darasa la tano katika shule ya Lilungu Manispaa ya Mtwara.

Dorith ni mtoto wangu wa pili. Alizaliwa tarehe 21-2-2003 katika hospitali ya Ligula saa 5:18. Sasa anasoma Darasa la kwanza. Anasoma shule sawa na kaka yake.

Lucy mke wangu pia anamiaka arobaini. Alizaliwa tarehe 25/9/1970. Anafanya kazi ya kufundisha watoto wadogo Mauntsore. Alisoma katika Shule ya Luagala.

Mimi mwenyewe Moris Damiani nilisoma mpaka Darasa la 7 toka mwaka 1979-1985. Nilifaulu kuendelea kidato cha kwanza. Nilisoma kidato cha kwanza na cha pili lakini wazazi wangu hawakuwa na uwezo wa kunilipia ada ya shule kwa kidato cha tatu na nne, kwa sababu mwaka ule zao la korosho halikuzaa korosho.

Nimekuwa nikifanya vibarua na kazi za mikataba kama mtunzaji wa nyumba kwa muda wa miaka 12 sasa. Kwa kipindi hiki sina kazi. Huwa nafanya vibarua kazi za kujitafutia chakula na mahitaji muhimu ya binadamu. Kila kukicha natafuta kazi ya kufanya.


Ninaamka saa 11.30 hasubuhi kila siku. Ninaoga saa 11.45 na kujianda kwenda kanisani. Ninasaidia kusoma masomo na kazi nyingine za kanisani. Misa inaanza saa 12.30 hasubuhi. Namaliza ibada saa 1.00 hasubuhi. Saa 1.10 hasubuhi ninampeleka Dorith shuleni kwa sababu ya barabara kuu ya Dar-es-salamu. Ninamwacha shule saa 1.15. Narudi nyumbani ninaangalia kamakuna chai au uji. Ninakunywa na ninaanza kutafuta kazi ya kufanya ili nipate chakula. Kama ninapata fedha ninarudi nyumbani kuangalia chakula cha mchana. Saa 10.00 jioni ninaangalia watoto kanisani. Huwa nawafundisha kuhudumu wakati wa misa siku ya juma pili. Siku ya jumanne ninakwenda kwenye jumuia. Mimi ni katibu wa jumuia. Pia ni mwenyekiti wa vijana wa kanisa yaani Vijana Wafanyakazi Wakatoliki au (VIWAWA).

Mahitaji yangu ya chakula kwa mwezi kama ifuatavyo.

(1) Mchele kg 10 sawa na 13,000/=
(2) Unga wa mahindi kg 9 sawa na 9000/=
(3) Sukari kg 4 sawa 6000/=
(4) Mkaa mifuko 3 sawa 9000/=
(5) Mafuta ya kula lita 3 sawa 5400/=
(6) Mafuta ya taa lita 5 sawa 5500/=
(7) Viberiti kasha 1 sawa 400/=
(8) Pesa ya maji kwa mwezi sawa 1500/=
(9) Exsavery na Dorith pesa ya ada ya shule , kwa mwaka
1) Exsavery 7000/=
2) Dorith 7000/=
Michango ya ulinzi kwa wote 5000/= kwa mwaka
Wakati mwengine hela ya shuleni @ 100/= kila siku x 5, 1000/= kwa wiki moja, 4500/= kwa mwezi.

Mahitaji ya sabuni ya kuogea vipande 5 x 250/= = 1250/=
Sabuni ya kufulia kg 4 6000/=

Mahitaji haya ndiyo ninayohitaji kwa mwezi. Najitahidi kutafuta kazi kuweza kumudu maisha, lakini wakati mwingine nashindwa kupata mahitaji haya yote.

My Life and Family

Moris Damian Chenga is my name. I was born in 1970 on 22 of December. Now my age is 40.

I have two children and one wife. Exsavery is eleven years old. He was born at Ziwani Dispensary in March 1999. He is studying Standard 5 [fifth year of primary school] at Lilungu Municipal School of the town of Mtwara.

Dorith is my second child. She was born 21 of February, 2003, at Ligula Hospital at 11:18 in the morning. Now she is studying Standard 1. She is studying at the same school as her brother.

My wife Lucy is also 40 years old. She was born 25 of September, 1970. She works teaching small children at a Montessori school. She studied at Luagala College [near Nyangao].

I myself Moris Damian studied up to Standard 7 from 1979 to 1985 [at Chikunja Primary School in Masasi]. I passed the exam to continue with Form One [first year of secondary school]. I studied Forms 1 and 2 but my parents did not have the means to pay the school fees for Forms 3 and 4, because that year their cashew crop did not bear fruit.

I have been doing manual labor on contract as a domestic worker for the past twelve years now. At this time I do not have work. Usually I do some manual work so as to find food and essential needs for human beings. Every day I look for work to do.


I wake up at 5:30 in the morning each day. I bathe at 5:45 and get ready to go to church. I help with reading the readings and other work at the church. Mass starts at 6:30 a.m. I finish the Mass at 7:00. At 7:10 I take Dorith to school because of the main road to Dar es Salaam [which has much traffic]. I leave her at school at 7:15. I return home and see whether there is chai [tea with sugar] or uji [porridge made from corn flour]. I drink it and I start to look for work to do so that I can get food. If I get money I return home to look for lunch. At 4:00 in the afternoon I look after children at church. Usually this is me teaching them to [altar] serve during Mass on Sundays. Tuesdays I go to the community ["small Christian community", groups of which the parish has several]. I am secretary of the community. Also, I am chair of the church youth, that is, the Young Catholic Workers (VIWAWA).

My food needs per month as follows.

[The currency symbol for the Tanzanian shilling is /= which is at about 1300/= to U.S. $1]

(1) White rice, 10 kg, 13,000/=
(2) Maize flour, 9 kg, 9000/=
(3) Sugar, 4 kg, 6000/=
(4) Charcoal, 3 bags, 9000/=
(5) Cooking oil, 3 liters, 5400/=
(6) Kerosene, 5 liters, 5500/=
(7) Matches, 1 package, 400/=
(8) Water expense per month, 1500/=
(9) Money for school fees for Exsavery and Dorith, per year,
1) Exsavery, 7000/=
2) Dorith, 7000/=
Contribution for security [school watchmen] for both, 5000/= per year
Other monies for school, @ 100/= per day x 5, 1000/= per week, 4500/= per month

Soap needed for bathing, 5 pieces x 250/=, 1250/=
Soap for washing, 4 kg, 6000/=

These necessities are what I need each month. I try to make sure that I find work to be able to support life, but at times I fail to get all these necessities.

Some time ago we started to hire Moris to do weekly food shopping trips and other errands for us. When we asked him to write about himself he also brought back to us several letters of reference. An excerpt of one of those letters follows. -Earl

I am writing to recommend Morris Damian for employment. Morris worked for me for two years (2004-2006), cleaning the house and washing clothes. Morris is a very reliable and trustworthy employee. Furthermore, he is an ethical and honorable person. I have recommended him to many other Peace Corps volunteers in the course of my two years of service, and have heard only praise regarding Morris work from these colleagues.

... I consider myself very fortunate to have had Morris in my life, as a friend and employee, and am all too happy to advocate for him.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Being Wealthy

The Tanzanians regard all foreigners as being fabulously wealthy. Relatively speaking, we are. A manual laborer here may make about U.S. $3 to $4 per day. Our dollars do go a long ways for certain items such as locally grown food, transportation, domestic help, and hand-made items.

But I think the Tanzanians are only focused on the money in our personal pockets. My feeling of being wealthy, as an American, arises not from what I possess as an individual but from other kinds of tangibles and from many intangibles.

There are the things that could be called "public assets". These include an extensive and reliable power grid; water supplies that provide clean, potable water out of the tap; sewage systems; garbage collection and disposal; and paved streets and roads. There are hospitals and clinics; fire departments; health departments; and parks, playing fields, and zoos. Then there are the intellectual and cultural resources: public libraries; museums; and colleges and universities. All of these come from what we envision, maintain, fund, and value collectively as a society, not individually.

And there are the intangibles such as civil rights and political freedoms. I remember living in Taiwan in 1971 during a time of military dictatorship. I was stunned to learn that newspapers and magazines were strictly censored; that only a few people were allowed to have passports and to leave the country; that a police officer sitting outside a movie theater could stop me for having hair that was too long.

I feel wealthy not because of the modest amount of money that Diane and I have managed to earn and save (which would not go far in the U.S.) but because I benefit immeasurably from what I have inherited from a developed, democratic country in the latter half of the twentieth century. -Earl

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell

Down through the tomb's inward arch
He has shouldered out into Limbo
to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:
the merciful dead, the prophets,
the innocents just His own age and those
unnumbered others waiting here
unaware, in an endless void He is ending
now, stooping to tug at their hands,
to pull them from their sarcophagi,
dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,
neighbor in death, Golgotha dust
still streaked on the dried sweat of his body
no one had washed and anointed, is here,
for sequence is not known in Limbo;
the promise, given from cross to cross
at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.
All these He will swiftly lead
to the Paradise road: they are safe.
That done, there must take place that struggle
no human presumes to picture:
living, dying, descending to rescue the just
from shadow, were lesser travails
than this: to break
through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud; to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that if mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home. He must return,
first, in Divine patience, and know
hunger again, and give
to humble friends the joy
of giving Him food--fish and a honeycomb.

by Denise Levertov