Thursday, September 13, 2012

"A Prayer for Those Who Have Too Much"

To my brothers and sisters in developing countries:

While I was deciding which oat bran cereal to eat this morning, you were searching the ground for leftover grains from the passing wheat truck.

While I was jogging at the health center, you were working in the wealthy landowner's fields under a scorching sun.

While I was choosing between diet and regular soda, your parched lips were yearing for a touch of water.

While I complained about the poor service in the gourment restaurant, you were gratefully receiving a bowl of rice.

While I poured my "fresh and better" detergent in the washing machine, you stood in the river with your bundle of clothes.

While I watched the evening news on my wide screen television set, you were being terrorized and taunted by a dictatorship government.

While I read the newspaper and drank my cup of steaming coffee, you walked the dusty, hot miles to the tiny, crowded schoolroom to try to learn how to read.

While I scanned the ads for a bargain on an extra piece of clothing, you woke up and put on the same shirt and pants that you have worn for many months.

While I build a fourteen-room house for the three of us, your family of ten found shelter in a one-room hut.

While I went to church last Sunday and felt more than slightly bored, you looked out upon the earth and those around you and felt gratitude to God for being alive for one more day.

My brothers and sisters, forgive me for my arrogance and my indifference. Forgive me for the greed of always wanting newer, bigger and better things. Forgive me for not doing my part to change the unjust systems that keep you suffering and impoverished.

I offer you my promise to become more aware of your situation and to change my lifestyles as I work for transformation of our world.

By Servite Sr. Joyce Rupp, after visits to Guatemala and Liberia.
[ ? Published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, summer 1997. ]

Monday, September 3, 2012

Change and Transition

Change is the exterior events that are readily visible. Diane and I are going through a lot of those: packing up and leaving our home in Tanzania; riding a ship across the Atlantic; setting up a new home in New Jersey; becoming caregivers; and looking for paid work. Change is easy to describe and to talk about.

Transition  is the interior process of meeting and adjusting to change and to what it means. Some transitions are more or less universally understood: grieving for friends and colleagues whom we will not see again; saying goodbyes to places such as our town and the surrounding East African savannah; facing the anxiety of how to make a living; and taking on the responsibility of care for a family member. Those are difficult enough in themselves.

But how do I explain being in a restaurant in Oakland and having to suppress the urge to speak Swahili to the Chinese waitress ... or moments of sadness at the casual ease with which my compatriots accumulate so many things in their homes, in their lives?

How do I tell you about standing in front of a picnic table in L.A. with tears at the sight of all the wonderful abundance and variety of food ... or wondering why everyone is in such a hurry?

The most important thing I got from the re-entry program of our organization was the reminder that transition takes time and often continues long after the corresponding changes have taken place. -Earl

I beg assistance, God of my journey.

To accept that all of life is only on loan to me.
To believe beyond this moment.
To accept your courage when mine fails.
To recognize the pilgrim part of my heart.
To hold all of life in open hands.
From Litany for Times of Journey and Transition, by Joyce Rupp.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Coming Home

A paradox that has much exercised mathematicians is that of the Einsteinian space traveller. Having journeyed at great speed for several months around the universe, he returns to earth to find that whole decades have passed. The anthropological traveller is in the reverse position. He goes away for what seems an inordinately long period to other worlds, ponders cosmic problems, ages greatly. When he returns, only a few months have elapsed ... only his closest friends have noticed he has been away at all.
It is positively insulting how well the world functions without one. While the traveller has been away questioning his most basic assumptions life has continued sweetly unruffled. Friends continue to collect matching French saucepans.

From The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley

I'm feeling so liminal. After leaving our town of Mtwara, there was a week of being in transit; then a week on the Queen Mary 2 passenger ship; then a week in a small town in New Jersey; and as of this writing the start of a week in Los Angeles.

There was something about arriving in this sprawling metropolis that finally set in a feeling of being overwhelmed by the differences in coming home. Driving along Century Boulevard felt like landing on another planet. It was like being a space traveler looking out the windows of a spaceship on to a strange landscape.

Earlier today I walked into a Ralph's supermarket. It's nothing particularly unusual for the U.S. But it's a massively large store. I tried to imagine what it would be like for a Tanzanian to see this. The incredible material abundance, aisle after aisle of foodstuffs, housewares, dog food (!). The shock of how expensive things are as he mentally calculates from dollars into shillings.

Of course, it's all terribly familiar to me too. It's a relief to be back in the English-speaking world, to be able to understand what people are saying to me and to each other. It's a joy not having to struggle to express the simplest things. How easy it is to take language for granted when it is one that is native to you.

Life has indeed continued as usual. The people I know have, for the most part, kept on much as they did when we left. I, on the other hand, am in the midst of passing from one world back to another. I've been through this before. But this time I've been away for three years. -Earl

Sunday, August 5, 2012

On Board the Queen Mary 2

I loved crossing the Atlantic Ocean on this beautifully built passenger ship, coming home using a means of travel that feels timeless. Luckily, the seas were calm all the way across. It was wonderful to be on the water and to be outside on deck even though the North Atlantic chill made it hard to stay out for long.

I had expected to experience some serious reverse culture shock on board. But it didn't happen. I had not left Tanzania for more than three years but there was a part of me that never lost connection with the U.S. thanks mostly to the Internet. The shipboard environment had an immediate familiarity to it.

Like most passengers I right off got into overeating at the endless endless endless buffet of food. Besides stuffing my face (after five days of which my gut started to rebel), I spent time studying software materials and Swahili, reading a novel, attending a few talks and performances, and napping a lot.

I spent time gazing at the ocean, physically and emotionally leaving behind the places, the people, and the home that my life had encompassed.

A couple of weeks ago I was enjoying chipsi mayai at a totally dumpy eatery on a side street in Dar es Salaam. Our last night on the ship I had a club sandwich in our stateroom, compliments of room service on the Queen Mary 2 luxury liner. -Earl

[ Diane looking at the Statue of Liberty as we arrive home ]

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Staff at Aquinas Secondary School

I got photos of almost all the teaching staff and quite a few of the non-teaching staff as of the end of the first term, June 2012.

I labelled each photo with how I normally address the person, "mister" for male teachers, "madam" for female teachers, sometimes with their first name, sometimes with their family name. The term "mama" is a respectful title often used with women who are a little older and more senior.

It was hard to leave our school and to leave Mtwara. This set of photos is to help Diane and me to remember. -Earl

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Maria and Yesu

At the Scholastica convent in the Shangani neighborhood of Mtwara, where I have been staying at their guest house until I leave town.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Pictured is a bajaji as it's called here in Tanzania. Imported from India and mostly used as a taxi, it runs on a gasoline engine, seats three adults comfortably, and holds a good amount of luggage on the shelf behind the passengers. The controls are similar to those on a motorcycle.

The driver is Joslin, one of the first bajaji drivers we got to know a bit. He leases the vehicle from the owner for about $10 a day, pays for the gas he uses and for minor repairs, and pockets whatever is left over as profit. Joslin has done pretty well for himself, having saved enough to buy a motorcycle, which he himself rents out to some one else for use as yet another kind of taxi.

I love riding this little open-air vehicle in this warm climate of ours. It's fun to be in. Rebekka, the bursar at our school, owns one of these for personal use. She can toodle around town with her husband and two young children without having to haul around a car. I am so envious! -Earl

Thursday, July 12, 2012

"Because you are at that place ..."


Because you are at that place on the road
where demons rear up as you cross the bridge
and water's too high to ford with your load
of worries, and you can't see over the hedge

to know what's coming, and laughter is dead,
I give you these phylactery words to say:
You are alive and in the river, led
by grace and mysterious currents. Pray

even as you breathe in and out. This
is the hour. And you agreed to be here.
You are not drowning but living in bliss,
moving forward toward light earned with your tears.

Be awake. Sing. Hold a moderate pace.
And try not to step out ahead of grace.

— Mary Bradish O'Connor

You are alive and in the river, led
by grace and mysterious currents

Diane read this poem out loud to me while we sat in our guest room at the beach house, homeless and in transition. We wept, I recalling the difficulties and the demands of the past three years. –Earl

Friday, July 6, 2012

At the Market

Diane and I are delighted to have LMH send Justin and Lauren to succeed us at our school. During their first few days in Mtwara I have been giving them an orientation to the town center and the main market area.

In this photo they along with our friend and fellow parishioner Moris are in front of the stall of a fruit seller. You can see pineapples, bananas, oranges, passion fruit, and something spikey whose name I don't remember. There may have been some avocadoes and papaya back there somewhere too. I think Lauren will be really happy when mango season arrives several months from now. -Earl

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Roho ya Kristu

Right after the daily morning Mass at our church we chant this before leaving. I love the poetic cadence of it, both in English and in Swahili. -Earl
Roho ya Kristu, initakase
Mwili wa Kristu, uniokoe
Damu ya Kristu, ininyweshe
Maji ya ubavu wa Kristu, yanioshe
Mateso ya Kristu, yanitie nguvu
Yesu mwema, unisikilize
Ndani ya majeraha yako, unifiche
Nitengwe nawe, usikubali
Na adui mwovu, unikinge
Saa ya kufa kwangu, uniite
Uniamuru nifike kwako
Nikutukuze pamoja na watakatifu wako
Milele na milele. Amina.
Spirit of Christ, cleanse me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, give me drink
Water from the side of Christ, wash me
Suffering of Christ, strengthen me
Good Jesus, listen to me
Inside your wounds, hide me
Do not allow me to be separated from you
Protect me from the evil enemy
At the hour of my death, call me
Command me to come to you
Let me exalt you together with your saints
Forever and ever. Amen.

Friday, June 15, 2012


There are difficulties of various kinds in coming to live and work here. Emotionally, for me one of the hardest things is the occasional begging.

Luckily, Diane and I live in a part of Tanzania that does not see a lot of wazungu, and those who are around are, for the most part, residents like us.

My impression is that places that get a lot of foreign tourists have a lot more begging than our sleepy town. When you are a visitor, it's easier to just give a little money when asked, whether out of compassion or guilt or the desire to get rid of the person. You are merely passing through and you don't have to face the consequences of how you respond, at least not in a direct personal way. Out of sight, out of mind.

For those of us who live in places like this, it's different. The local people are never out of mind. They are our neighbors, students, colleagues, fellow parishioners, shopkeepers, etc. I have least a general concern for their well-being as well as a specific concern for particular individuals. I also have a concern for my own well-being, namely, I don't want to be constantly approached for a hand-out or a "loan", nor do I want to set up such expectations for other wazungu who live here or who are going to.

The upshot is that I grapple with how to respond appropriately in a way that is respectful and caring of everyone involved. Early on, Diane and I took the approach of never giving money to Tanzanians who beg or "ask for help". We did not want to set a precedent, nor did we want to encourage a culture of dependency. We have been very good about sticking to this, which also applies to gifts other than money. In Swahili there is a way to refuse that is polite; that response is almost always enough, with nothing further said.

So why does it feel like an on-going struggle? I began this post by writing that begging is a emotionally difficult thing to deal with. As soon as we arrived in Mtwara an expat who has been here for years told us, "there's no shame in begging". That comment has really stuck with me.

A couple of years ago in the New York Times there was an article about the increased use of food stamps during this recession in the U.S. A single mother was profiled who said that she had to "swallow her pride" to apply for aid. In our individualistic American culture the ideal is that of self-sufficiency: adults work and support themselves and their families. If you're not doing this, what's wrong with you? It feels like a personal failure. So help is asked for reluctantly and then at a very high psychological cost because it is an admission of failing to measure up.

But that's also why it is so hard for us to refuse when asked. The requester has put their self-image on the line — to say no is to dish out yet another blow. Do I like to be so hardhearted?

My conclusion is that among Tanzanians there is an entirely different social and psychological landscape around begging. A complete stranger may approach and ask me to "help him". People we barely know may do likewise. Kids may ask for candy, a ball, or small amounts of money. It all feels rather offhand and casual. It's as though there's not much psychological cost expended, so it's no big deal to ask. And it's no big deal to be refused.

I would not go so far as to say that they have no shame, but rather that shame results from other kinds of circumstances. Being materially lacking so as to need help is not one of them. That's perhaps consistent with African societies being traditionally much more collectively structured and less individualistic. It is just a different kind of survival strategy for a community to have a high degree of mutual dependence and to have a lot of sharing of resources. (By contrast, I'm recalling the line by Robert Frost, "good fences make good neighbors".)

And in Swahili there are proverbs that say that wealth and good things only come from God. They imply that if your situation is good, you can't take much credit for it. Furthermore, if you have been graced by God, then you should share the bounty because it is a gift anyway. There's wisdom in such a perspective.

I do embrace that perspective, but there are other attitudes that also inform my deeply ingrained emotional responses. -Earl

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Community for LMH Missioners While Abroad?

I was recently contacted by someone who is looking into Lay Mission-Helpers and who asked the question "what is the community life like with LMH?" Below was my response, slightly changed. -Earl


I think the kind of community you end up with is completely idiosyncratic and the situations vary all over the map. It depends on a lot of different factors.

No one else has been in Tanzania from LMH or MDA, so there has been no possibility of community of that kind for us. On the other hand, that's about to change because LMH is sending a couple to replace us, and around the same time MDA will be sending two couples to a location a few hours drive away. Those six adult missioners will be able to connect with each other and have some built-in community, something we did not have.

Diane and I live in our own home on the grounds of our parish church. The house is physically separated from the other residences of the church and from the homes and businesses in our neighborhood, which means we get very little in the way of casual chance encounters with our neighbors.

Language is a big problem. Tanzania is a Swahili-speaking country. I have made some good progress in learning Swahili, but my listening comprehension sucks. That limits my ability to sustain a conversation and therefore to be able to talk in a meaningful way.

We both like to work a lot. The needs of a secondary school are endless, and there's always something else that could be done. So our day to day life is very much dominated by school. Even on the weekends we often do things work-related at home, especially using our own computers.

Outside of work we don't have much left over for other things and for other people. Certainly for me, dealing with the energy of well over two hundred adolescents is more than enough. 8-D

So where has that left us? Luckily, Diane and I have a close, supportive relationship, and we talk easily with each other. We are constantly debriefing over dinner, sharing our experiences, speculating about what is going on and what the meaning of something is, laughing over funny incidents. For us, it's been a community of two, and that's been enough to sustain us.

And where does that leave you? Well, if you and your wife have a solid relationship, that will be the single biggest asset you bring in terms of community. If you don't, you probably should not consider doing this. It's way too stressful. (No offense intended — I know nothing at all about you two.)

If you're slow with foreign languages like me, then get a jump start on learning the main language of where you're going. I started on Rosetta Stone for Swahili while still in L.A. That helped me to keep up with my classmates when I attended language training in-country soon after arriving. Keep steadily plugging away at it. Every bit of progress helps you to better connect with the local people.

Maybe the most important thing is to know your personality type and what your emotional and psychological needs are. I'm a pretty strong introvert. After a day at school with adolescents acting out and sitting at my desk in a large open room shared with a dozen other teachers, when I come home I crave quiet time with Diane and to be alone. That spills over into the weekends too.

Some factors are in your control, some are not. Your mileage will vary.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Oh, Rats

We bought a Tanzanian rat trap a couple of years ago when we used it to capture and kill a critter that was coming out from inside the walls. We then had all of the openings boarded over and haven't had to use the trap again until just a few days ago.

Diane had suspected another visitor, but it wasn't until she left on her trip that a pretty good sized grey furry animal with a long thin tail just brazenly ran out along the baseboards in plain view while I was sitting here on our computer.

When I was about to go to sleep, I set the trap near a wall, baiting it with a smear of peanut butter (during a summer biology class in high school, we used peanut butter to catch field mice to be dissected; it's the only thing I remember). I also closed the door to our bedroom.

In the morning there it was, caught by the neck. To give you an idea of its size, the length of the trap is about four and a half inches. When I went over to the rectory kitchen to drop off vegetable parings and fruit peels for the pigs, I asked the mama who was cooking what to do with the rat's body. She said to just put it anywhere outside, the birds would eat it. I haven't seen anything like vultures around here but there are a lot of very large black and white crows. I suspect they are quite the scavengers.

Late the next day the body was still there but was already well advanced in decaying. Nature is the ultimate recycler of everything. -Earl

Friday, May 25, 2012

"Humans Have the Cooperative Edge"

From the article "Planet of the Apes? No, Humans Have the Cooperative Edge", published in the New York Times in March:
So researchers are reporting after a study that compared preschool-age children with chimps and capuchin monkeys when solving a puzzle. The children cooperated; the animals did not.
     . . .
The study highlights one of the most important aspects of modern human society: the power of teaching. "Perhaps the most effective means through which you can cooperate is through teaching,” Dr. Laland said. In this way, a basic skill or piece of knowledge spreads through society, “and then one individual will refine it, and then that will be spread through the society, and then that process will be repeated."
After spending the past three years as a schoolteacher at a secondary school, I now have the utmost admiration and respect for those who do this full-time, all the time. This is hard-ass work, emotionally trying and demanding of a lot of people energy. I've done my bit, and I'm ready to go back to building software, which is hardly easy intellectual labor but which is demanding in a very different way.

Still, there are moments when teaching has felt really, really rewarding. We humans are wired for it — as the article asserts, it's an important reason why we are the alpha species on this planet.

So, Mrs Wolf, Mrs Powell, Mr Falkenstein, Mr Andrews, and Mr Dunne, teachers all, I thank you for the difference you made to this shy skinny Chinese American kid who still remembers you with gratitude and tears as he writes this. -Earl

Monday, May 14, 2012

Polykarp Paintings at Majengo Church in Mtwara

This past Sunday Diane and I went to the Catholic church in the Majengo neighborhood of our town. We had known about this place but had never gone there even though it's very close to the main market. So as part of our getting more exercise and seeing a bit more of Mtwara before we leave, we took an early morning walk to the church from our home.

The church is known for its paintings by Fr Polykarp Uehlein, OSB, who came to Tanzania from Germany around 1963.

The paintings are wonderful! Immediately following are a photo of the altar and one of a side painting inspired by Genesis.
And below is a photo of the back of the church. The very wide grey painting which stretches all the way across is the stations of the cross. I took an individual picture of each of the fourteen stations. The depiction is striking. Because of holes and other irregularities in the wall, a few of the paintings are not entirely intact. - Earl