Thursday, November 29, 2012

That Old Familiar Itch

No, I am not referring to Nairobi fly, but rather to a certain feeling I get after having been "Out of Africa" for a while.  It's like an alarm clock telling me it's time to go back, time to get to work.  Sure, these few months in New York have been fun, catching up with friends, hanging with the fam, eating good and drinking better, but it's time to relinquish my creature comforts and get back in touch with the things that matter most.  And, whether it's idealistically romantic or sickeningly sentimental, I only find these things in Africa.

I say "Africa" in general and not "Tanzania" in particular because although it's a pet peeve of most expats in TZ (myself included) to group together fifty-something countries and refer to them as one entity, there is in fact a certain unified persona to the continent, at least the parts that I have been to.  I see it as a sense of wilderness and wildness, danger and damage.  There's a lost, lonely quality that I identify with.  Maybe it lies in the natural surroundings themselves; in TZ, of course they can be found in the poetic kopjes in Serengeti and the majestic foothills of Kilimanjaro, but also on the long, dusty roads between towns, all along the way the villages and shanties, these stops just as profound as the great natural sites that we consider wonders of the world.  Africa is where you can let go of the ties that bind and see the real nature of both man and beast.  Africa is where you know yourself best.  There's no dressing up; everything is laid bare.

There is a real profundity to living and working in Africa and I don't necessarily mean the (supposedly) altruistic nature of development work.  It's more a way of life that permeates every aspect of one's manner of doing things.  It's about paring down your necessities and adapting to a simpler and purer lifestyle, cutting out the clutter, and focusing on what's truly indispensable: basic survival mechanisms, interpersonal relationships, and maintaining a modicum of happiness.  It's so easy living in the Western world to get caught up in all sorts of extraneous stuff that seems really important but actually isn’t, not just material trappings but all manner of white noise that comes along with it: media, politics, keeping up with the Joneses.  In Africa, it is easy for me to shut out that noise and focus on myself and my work.  And that is what I am starting to miss now.  The noise of New York City is creeping in and I'm ready to return to the quietude of Africa.

My current itch pertains most to the classroom.  I have for too long been out of a Tanzanian class teaching youngsters in their native tongue.  My Swahili is foundering after months of disuse and I find myself, in my sleepless moments, thinking whole speeches in Swahili, practicing in my head, reminding myself to check certain noun/pronoun agreements, passive tense suffixes, word choice.  And while I am trying to re-educate myself in this regard, I am really missing the experience of being the educator, of the camaraderie of the class, of greeting 60+ kids with a resounding "Hamjambo?" and being met with a chorus of "Hatujambo, shikamoo mwalimu!"  And then the ensuing chaos of the lesson, me trying to rise above the noise, the children excited by my very presence, the novelty of a mzungu teaching them.

When I first came to Moshi in 2007, I taught five days a week and that novelty wore off after a while and I was just "Mwalimu Sarah," a fairly ruthless taskmaster, but one who didn't use the stick, so that was preferable.  While working for Visions in Action, the small international NGO with which I was employed for two and a half years, I could not teach every day but twice a week was enough to ensure that my presence was not so unusual as to be a distraction.  Now, having been out of action for almost the entirety of 2012, when I go back next month, my re-introduction is sure to be a major event in Msaranga.  Of course, with Toa Nafasi, I won't be teaching per se, but rather observing, assessing, and then facilitating a shift in curriculum to ensure that those children who are struggling receive a proper chance to grasp the material in the way that best suits their individual needs and hopefully then succeed in kind.  It's a lofty goal and an ambitious undertaking, but I find myself not only up for the challenge, but excited, invigorated, and super-pumped.  A little itchy, too, I suppose....!  I am already packing my bags and I don't leave for another four weeks!!

At any rate, those are my deep thoughts for the day.  Take what you will and leave the rest.  Some images of "home" follow....dusty roads, green hills, and that big, beautiful mountain....

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Yo Gobble Gobble!

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all!!  I hope everybody is doing great and that you are all getting ready to get your chow on, watch a little pigskin on the tube (Redskins at Cowboys, 4:15pm EST), and give thanks for all you've got, of course. 

I am excellent, fantastic, splendiferous, happier than a Slinky on an escalator, and getting ready for the holidays a la Rosenbloom, which means a lotta wine and a lotta noise.

Anyway, enjoy yourselves and, if you have time, take a quick gander at the following article from Monday's The Guardian about parents as agents of change in the education sector in Tanzania.  Nakutakieni Thanksgiving njema!


Simply defined, an 'agent of change' is someone who knows and understands the dynamics that facilitate or hinder change, and utilizes his/her knowledge and skills to champion making a change.  This person is self-motivated by an urge to see positive changes in his/her environment. 

Since independence, our education system has gone through a number of significant changes, some of which were necessary and some notThe main changes in the curriculum have been observed at the primary and secondary levels.

In the last two decades, there has been a dramatic change in the education system which affected the curriculum, textbooks, and much more.  However, all these changes have not been due to various socioeconomic policies but rather the wishes of the prevailing education ministers.

In one way or another, these changes have had an adverse effect on teachers, students and parents.  With each change in the curriculum, students and teachers have had to adjust.  Additionally, parents have had to shoulder the burden of ensuring that their children have obtained new text and reference books.  And worst, these changes affect students' academic performances and parents suffer because their future academic dreams for their children are shattered.  Parents must struggle to look for alternative means of supporting their children so they obtain skills and knowledge for preparation of future responsibilities and economic independence.  Therefore, they are forced either to look for private schools, send their children to vocational training centers, or keep them around to support home chores.  There are myriad effects as a result of decisions made by policy makers at higher levels which have an adverse effect on parents and their households.

It takes courage to be an agent of change in education.  As parents are becoming increasingly involved in the education and training of their children, there is a possibility of using various approaches in affecting changes in their children and the schools in which their children are studying as well as at the policy level.

So, what happens when parents encourage each other?  A strong school community focused on learning develops, to the benefit of all children.  And all parents, regardless of their mastery of language, background, level of literacy or experience, have something to contribute to bring out positive changes.

Parents can become agents of change in education starting from their households.  They need to instill in their children motivation toward learning, encouraging them to learn not just for passing exams but for acquiring skills and knowledge as well.

Parents can take time out of their busy schedules to follow the academic progress of their children in school.  They can review their exercise books and talk with their children as well as visiting their teachers to obtain feedback.

Parents can also participate through attending school meetings and other functions such as 'open days,' which provide an opportunity for parents to obtain an understanding of school operations and participate in providing views or concrete criticisms on issues pertaining to school operations.

It is my strong belief that through such forums, parents can be very good monitoring agents of what is happening in school and can demand improved services for their children.

It should be noted that responsibilities come with these rights; as part of the duty of agents of change, parents should also be ready and motivated to fulfill their responsibilities.

I call upon parents in Tanzania to act as agents of change and promote home learning as well as advocating for improved education services at school.  Building a strong community of families committed to learning benefits our children, and surrounds them with motivation and support while holding officials and authorities to task.

We have heard of several civil societies which motivate citizens' engagement in socioeconomic development issues.  Recently, Twaweza and HakiElimu have stood out to be some of strongest civil societies which advocate for citizens' engagement in bringing changes in the social sectors including education.

Twaweza believes that citizens in East Africa can bring change themselves rather than waiting for governments, politicians, donors or NGOs to do it for them.

I call upon these civil societies to continue empowering parents in realizing their potential and responsibilities in ensuring improvement in education sector services.  Parents should be empowered to learn how to understand their children’s educational needs.  Then, they should learn how to engage with schools and teachers to understand better what the school is providing and how parents can assist in helping meet students' needs.

They also need to learn that they are not passive actors of instruction from the school administration, that they have a right to inquire further explanation on matters raised or decisions made by school administrations which affect their children or households, for example frequent financial contributions, utilization of development grants from the government, disciplinary actions and many more.  Some school administrations are reluctant in cooperating with parents, and in such cases lobbying and advocacy are needed.

In the same tune, I strongly appeal to parents in Tanzania that we cannot continue to point fingers at the government about weaknesses in the education sector; we need to do something in our own capacity and surroundings starting from our households.

We need to build a strong parents’ power to influence changes and demand accountability of responsible authorities in providing quality education services to our children. 

Take courage, it can be done if you play your part!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Obama Nation

From Actualite Afrique - Africa News, I peeped the following article regarding Tanzania's reaction to President Obama's big win last week. 

Two things to note in this here news piece IMO: 1.) more than a lil' bit of pardoning the prez for not focusing more on Africa in his first four and *hoping* he will do so in the next, and 2.) a very pointed discussion about how Western politicians "graciously concede defeat" and "the huge transparency gap" in the way Western elections are run versus those in most African countries.  While these remarks could really be aimed at any African politician in any African country, they particularly bring to mind Raila Odinga who famously contested (probably rightly) Mwai Kibaki's 2007 presidential win in the detriment of the political stability of his country and the safety of his countrymen.


Dar es Salaam, Tanzania - U.S. President Barack Obama's re-election was the major story in Tanzanian newspapers this week but accompanying editorials focused on its ramifications on other parts of the world.  "As the world's strongest economy, not to mention its military might," wrote The Citizen, "the U.S. has the capacity to dictate a lot of what happens elsewhere across the globe."

The private daily recalled how Obama's 2008 victory at the polls was received with a lot of excitement in Africa, probably, because many regarded the president of the 'Big Brother' nation as "one of us" with his roots in Kenya.

Given Africa's generally parochial politics, where leaders tend to abashedly direct national resources to political supporters and their villages of origin, there was a belief that Obama would spoil the 'continent of his father.'

"It is clear that in the world's biggest democracy, matters are not run on the basis of the big man's whims.  It is American interests, and not the president's interests (and sentiments) that reign supreme," the paper explained. 

The Citizen said irrespective of who occupied the White House, the U.S. had specific areas of focus and "development partners" must not expect much simply because there is change or otherwise at the top of its administration.

"However, the executive's background and style of leadership must surely influence the implementation of initiatives that benefit recipient nations while serving American interests as well," the daily said.

Also, the paper pointed out that the American business, security and cultural dominance can be sustained only if poverty and social upheavals are put in check in other nations, including those in sub-Saharan Africa.

"That is why we expect President Obama will use his second and final tenure of office to boost partnership with developing nations in areas of health, poverty alleviation, and education.

"As he had aptly said in his 2008 acceptance speech, his victory was not about him, it was about 'us.'  And for a man who leads the country touted as 'the land of opportunity,' the pronoun 'us' is not just about Americans; it is about the world at large," The Citizen added.

Meanwhile, The Guardian pointed out that the U.S. electoral system was touted as the best in the world in terms of its openness in partying and campaign styles.  But just like any system, it may not be lacking its own demerits.

Yet there were many lessons that African countries and individual politicians could learn from the polls, said the daily, noting in particular how the loser graciously conceded defeat.

"What Africans may learn here is that the loser need not wait to be prodded into accepting defeat.  Even before Obama spoke, Mitt Romney had conceded defeat at his Boston campaign headquarters."

The paper quoted Romney saying: "This is time of great challenges for America; Republicans and Democrats should work together to avoid partisan bickering and political posturing....leaders should reach across the aisle to solve the nation's myriad problems....We look to Democrats and Republicans in government at all levels to put the people before the politics."

The Guardian also hailed Obama's statement as the re-elected president promised to work with leaders of both parties on national issues and discuss ways to 'move the country forward.'

"This is definitely a major lesson for African leaders.  Not every idea from an opponent is discarded.

"We see a difference that whereas many an African politician handed defeat would at this juncture plot to deny the process its logical run, the thoughts of the former rivals are engaged in plotting the way forward for their country," said the daily.

The paper, however, cautioned that any tampering with the electoral process should be challenged through formal mechanisms.

In addition, The Guardian observed a huge transparency gap between the way the U.S. elections were run and those held in most African countries, partly because of logistical bottlenecks.

"In our recent memories of presidential elections, we know that it was only in Ghana and in Zambia where orderly handover of power took place," the paper added.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Southern Comfort

Greetings, readers.  I hope you have all weathered the storm in stride.  It's been one week since Sandy and things are nearly back to normal for most of us in Manhattan, but it's a long road ahead for those on the islands: Staten, Coney, Long.  Here's hoping Mayor Bloomberg makes good on his word to restore as much as he can as quickly as possible. 
At any rate, I wanted to put out this lil' bloggy entry about my weekend in South Carolina last month.  Yes sir, I was indeed Lady Antebellum for a day or two.  It was great fun and a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Yankee country.  I hope you enjoyed the photos of me in a kayak and weren't left scratching your heads too long as to the connection between water sports on the Waccamaw River to special needs education in East Africa.  It's all about to become clear. 
You’ve no doubt heard of the "Unsinkable Molly Brown" of Titanic fame, but now it’s time you meet the "Indomitable Mary Gale" of Pawleys Island, SC, and more importantly, the International Association of Special EducationMary Gale Budzisz is the past president of IASE and has become a dear, dear friend of mine since we first met in 2009.  I had just begun the research for my project and was applying for an Echoing Green grant (which I would not receive) and by happy circumstance, I stumbled upon IASE and Mary Gale.  We had some email exchanges, then a phone conversation, and finally met each other face-to-face in Arusha when MG came to Tanzania to visit a project site that IASE was involved with at the time.  We have kept in touch ever since and are particularly in sync now that Toa Nafasi has risen from the ashes phoenix-like.
IASE is a fantastic organization, by the way, and I encourage all my readers to take a look at their newly revamped website and become a "friend" if possible.  Check them out here:  Along with all the good work and awareness they bring to the issue of special needs education and learning differences in the United States, they run volunteer sites all over the globe in developing countries to bring that same work and awareness to places where these types of disabilities are unknownMary Gale has been involved with projects in Bangladesh, India, Mexico, and Tanzanian neighbor Malawi where there is a similar project to Toa Nafasi.  So needless to say, knowing MG and being part of the IASE network has been a huge resource for me.  We have talked about collaborating on everything from recruiting volunteers to donating supplies and MG has already come through on one big "get": due to her familiarity with Curriculum Associates, the publisher of the Brigance assessment module, The Toa Nafasi Project will be the recipient of two donated assessment kits, worth several hundred dollars apiece!  So, lucky us and many thanks to Curriculum Associates, Brigance, IASE, and the indomitable MG!!
For a long time now, Mary Gale and I have long been planning my sojourn down to Pawleys to visit her, talk SPED, kayak, and "wear rags 'round our heads," and with me here in the States now and this project going great guns, we figured there was no better time than the present.  I flew from New York City into Charlotte and then to Myrtle Beach.  MG picked me up at the tiny Myrtle Beach airport and we headed to Pawleys, stopping at a local dive for some dinner.  The food was great (blackened Cajun fish and coleslaw), but the ambiance was even better.  The waitress named Louann or Louelle or some such variation was dressed in gold lame and seemed to be playing the part of a waitress named Louann or Louelle in a local dive in Pawleys Island, SC.  Every word that came out of her mouth was honey-coated.  (Example: "Can I get a green salad instead of potatoes, please?"  "You surely can, darlin' girl, comin' right up, sweetiepie, anythin' else, sugar?")  It was fantastic.  I know the South has a lot of issues but customer service ain't one of them.  Louann/elle was phenomenal.
Mary Gale lives in a lovely little cottage in a non-gated community with other lovely little cottages.  From the outside, they are all beautiful homes, each one a little different, but generally of the same aesthetic.  On the inside, however, I might venture to say MG's is quite different!  Fit for a modern-day Maasai, the whole abode is done up in shades of red and black with tokens from all her various travels.  There's little evidence of her husband Frank's taste anywhere except maybe in the TV room where the football paraphernalia is.  Otherwise, there was the guest bedroom where I slept for the first time ever on a water-bed (!); the gorgeous sun-drenched breakfast nook where we started our mornings with a bit of work and chatter over coffee; the living room, outfitted with black leather couches and Maasai wall hangings; and a stunning collection of vikapu in the kitchen.

On my first day, after doing a wee bit of work at the breakfast table, MG and I headed out to the marshlands of the Waccamaw River to get our kayak on – hence the photos from last week which show the start, middle, and finish of my virgin voyage.  Apparently, I did pretty well.  I didn’t tip over and only ran the nose of my kayak into the brush once….or twice….(actually MG doesn't know this because she was too far ahead but I dinged both my kayak and my paddle into a metal birdfeeder in a particularly narrow passage!)  Still, I think she was quite impressed and I was actually really glad we did it.  It was so peaceful and calm on the canals of the marsh with majestic cypress trees draped in Spanish moss - a real Cape Fear momentNavigating the river itself was a bit more precarious and I begged off after only about twenty minutes or so.  But we had a lot of fun, and I didn't see a single snake nor a gator neither!

Now, of course there has to be some funny little story here because this circumstance clearly BEGS for a funny little story (just as unlikely and potentially humorous as "Sarah in Africa" was in 2007, "Sarah in a kayak in South Carolina" is in 2012.)  As we were getting ready to go out on our kayaks, we came across a group of teenage boys hanging out on one of the little landing sites, no doubt preparing to engage in some nefarious behavior.  I was content to let them smoke their doobies or look at their Playboys in peace, but MG went right up to them and started asking them what their intentions were.  And I’m glad she didOne of the youngsters, a certain Hamilton Tiller ("The ladies call me Hammy") had brought a BB gun to the marsh with himMG asked what he planned to shoot, maybe ducks or something, and he said, "Naw, just gonna shoot straight up in the air."  Well this did not sit too well with Mary Gale who, taking a seat with the boys at the landing, gave them a lesson in physics and how what goes up, well, it must come down again!  She also said that we would be kayaking out there and she didn’t want to have to be dodging bullets on what was an otherwise idyllic Saturday outing in October.  (At this point, I may have piped up and quipped something to the effect of "Yeah, and what a shame it would be for me to have come all this way from New York City just to get a cap in my ass in South Carolina."  Probably not all that helpful, I felt a little levity was called for as we were now all quite uncomfortable, me finding myself in the middle of the lecturing parental figure and the wayward adolescents, not knowing which side to be on!)  Finally, however, MG wrapped up her sermon and I asked the boys if they couldn't find other extracurricular activities to be involved in like track and field or Mathletes or something.  This suggestion was met with, "Wow, you really are from the North."

Throughout the duration of my trip, MG kept up her "indomitable" persona with an endless supply of one-liners.  They actually weren’t really one-liners since other than me, I don’t know anyone who likes to talk so much and about so many different things.  I tried to make note of some of the best zingers:
“We don’t get our trash collected out here, it's too far, but there’s a lovely little dump I like to go to.”
“I used to go to church but they pissed me off, collecting money for the pedophiles and all that.”
“Let me tell you about this place in Bangladesh I visited....Well, I can't say too much, but it was god-forsaken, I tell you.
Thank goodness her husband Frank was a man of few words or the three of us would have talked ourselves silly all weekend long.  But Frank's passion is football not conversation and he had mapped out every college game on TV from sunrise to sunset before I even woke up in the morning.  Here’s a good shot of MG, Frank, and their bulldog Luka at the sliding door.

And here, dear Toto, is evidence we’re not in Manhattan anymore.  Down South, there definitely was not an Obama supporter for miles around but, political differences of opinion aside, I found every Southerner I met a belle or a dandy, and greetings in South Carolina were more than cursory, conversation more than passing.  It was actually a refreshing change from the brusqueness of the Yankee Northeast and reminiscent of Tanzanian affability.  I’ll note here that I did NOT engage in any politics or election talk with anyone for the entire 48 hours I was there.  Quite a feat for the Washington DC-born New York City-dweller.
On my last day, we went to the Pawleys Island beach and roamed about a little bit.  It was a gorgeous cloudless day and, though a little chilly, we could still walk in the surf barefoot.  We beachcombed but very few shells were to be found.  We did spot this starfish however with a strange orange spot on his head that we thought might be a wound.

That night we went to another typical down-home Southern spot for dinner and some live music, a place called The Pit, which was actually quite nice.  We sat outside and listened to a relatively famous local group called Ten Toes Up and I had my red wine and flirted with the boys in the band.  (Not really, but in my mind, I was pretending to be the bad preacher's daughter from Footloose.)  This didn't last long however as I am a.) thirtysomething, and b.) Jewish.  Also, MG wanted to get home to Frank and Luka.

Finally, just before I caught my flight out of Dixie, we had a quick lunch at the neighboring golf club.  Not too much to say about it, though it was another lovely day in Pawleys with good food and great company.  The whole trip was just a weekend jaunt but it was so much fun and such a departure from my usual NYC weekend activities that I felt compelled to sharePlus, Mary Gale's name is sure to grace this blogsite again many times, so I wanted to put that out there.  I'm not sure what next week's entry will bring, but hopefully something good.  Good things seem to be the trend these days, hurricanes aside.  Until next time!!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hurroween in the NYC

Well, I don't know if you can make out the pic below but that's basically what it looks like in real life as well as on camera.  It's a sign on my neighbor's door that she clearly posted before fleeing the scene, graciously leaving some sweet treats behind.  I don't want to call it "stygian darkness" as that might be a tad dramatic, and surely there's another circle of hell to be had somewhere....I just can't think of it now.

Hurricane Sandy made landfall in NYC around 6pm on Monday night and as I pooh-poohed her, she made me pay, oh yes, she did!  I went to bed amidst a light rainfall albeit fairly gusting winds and woke up in a near-post-apocalyptic nightmare.  Everything has been shut down below 26th Street for the past 72 hours.  EVERYTHING.  You can practically see tumbleweeds wafting across 7th Avenue.

Now, I'm not exactly a stranger to power outages having lived in rural Tanzania for nearly five years full-stop, so I know how to make do without electricity.  But I will say that this particular scenario of not having juice in a Western country is a bit surreal.  I suppose that when I'm living here in the States - and particularly this year, 2012, when I have been here more than I have in TZ - I do take for granted that things are supposed to work properly.  And quickly.  And without question.  When I'm in the Tanz, it's kind of become a foregone conclusion that some kind of snafu is going to occur whether it's natural disaster, bureaucratic chakachua, or tomfoolery of some other sort.  Hold-ups, run-arounds, and shenanigans of every type under the sun are not only not aberrations, they are the norm.

But Sandy is different than a TZ power outage as it has been a full three days of darkness with no abatement.  And worse than the dark is the cold.  Additionally, for the most part in TZ, power cuts are due to rationing rather than inclement weather though I've experienced the latter as well, particularly in the rainy season, a nuisance but ironically essential as TZ relies on hydro-electric power.  Still, though everyone in TZ complains bitterly about TANESCO, their response time to most of the issues seems immeasurably better than what we are experiencing with Sandy!  I get that New York has a much higher demand and more sophisticated electrical requirements than a small town in Kilimanjaro and I honestly don't mean to malign Con Ed or any other emergency personnel, but you would think that the powers-that-be would have a system in place for when these things occur.  Hapana.  Here we are in the greatest city in the world, the nexus of the universe, the place terrorized by King Kong and Godzilla, saved by Batman and Spidey, where Jay-Z experienced an empire state of mind, where Harry met Sally, where Rosemary had a baby, and where a tree grew in Brooklyn....I know there was nothing we could have done about the storm itself; I just wish we could have been a little more up to the task of getting up and running again, particularly in areas where there was no significant damage or destruction.

Anyway, though I may bemoan no internet, no television, no hot water, no refrigeration, no New York Sports Club, no Starbucks, no Halloween parade, and no New York City marathon for the next few days, I've actually been very lucky.  There is some serious suffering going on out there and the temperature is dropping.  So, a heartfelt pole sana to all those affected by this storm in any way and, hopefully by next week's post, things will be back to normal.  (My South Carolina kayaking entry is almost done, so you'll get to feast your eyes on that in a couple days.)

Be safe everybody!