Entry #014: Thursday, May 23, 2013 (Arusha, Tanzania)

Well, today is the third day that I have been working at the Samaritan Village orphanage in Arusha, Tanzania. Yep, my first volunteering gig, and it's at an orphanage. I don't remember why I chose to do an orphanage specifically. Perhaps I figured it's such an obvious choice for volunteering. Or maybe it's because my mother did something similar, and I figured "maybe me too!" If that were the case, I forgot one important fact, which is that my mother is a mother. With motherly instincts and abilities and all that. I most assuredly do not fall in that category, but screw it all, here I am! I'm still not totally sure about the whole thing; but even in the short time I've been here, I've learned a few things about myself.

My exit from Kenya began quite early in the day. I had to check out and grab a taxi at 5:45am, which for a night owl like myself was not the most fun of experiences. I grabbed the last of the foodstuffs I had gotten in Kenya - which mainly amounted to a half-empty box of digestive biscuits (which are not as off-putting as the name would make them seem) and a half-empty box of the most flavorless bran flakes imaginable (perhaps not coincidentally, also the cheapest I had found in the supermarket). Together with a bottle of bottle of water (and as a side-note, does anybody else love Dasani water bottles? Like, the bottles specifically. I admit that I will go out of my way - and pay more - to get a Dasani water because I like their bottles so much), I stuffed these into a plastic bag, which I tied to my backpack. I dropped my key off with the apartment guard, found my taxi, and hopped in. After a long, quiet drive (I take it the taxi driver wasn't too thrilled to be up this early either), we got to the bus station.

Getting on the bus was a painless process, as I had purchased my ticket on my outing that past Thursday (I didn't mention it, because hey, some things are too mundane even for me to note them). Brushing off some vendors trying to hawk gaudy sunglasses, I got onto the bus, sat in my seat, and set my backpack down in the way to put the least stress on my legs while also not being a nuisance to my neighbor, unless I was lucky enough not to...oh, who was I kidding? I knew that this bus wouldn't stop bringing in passengers until every seat was taken. Well, turns out I was wrong - they still didn't stop, not until the aisle way only navigable through some arcane shuffle. I was spared this, having a nice, comfortable seat, near the entrance of the bus, and right next to an open window (as with some of the buses I experienced in Morocco, this one had air conditioning, but only in the same sense that humans have appendices.

On the whole, this day was fairly unexciting...but long. For the first half of the trip, I successfully managed to pass the time either in a drowsy, slightly phantasmagorical state, or just out-and-out asleep. One advantage of waking up so early, I suppose. But, according to all of the information I had read online, this was supposed to be a 9-10 hour drive. This trip lasted 13 hours. And, just to put it out there, I think there was a grand total of one bathroom break, which I didn't need to use. Yes, I went thirteen hours. Also, the vast majority of that time was just spent sitting on my ass, with my near-40-pound backpack pressing down on my legs. If I ever develop deep vein thrombosis, you'll know why. I also ended up eating nothing but digestive biscuits and bran flakes all day. (Oh, and a couple of Mentos mints I found in my backpack.) Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I fully knew that eating nothing but fiber-rich foods may backfire on such a long trip, but I ended up none the worse for wear in the end.

Now, the reason the trip actually did take so long was twofold. First, the general condition of the roads was about as you'd expect, based on my previous entries. Full of potholes and long unpaved sections. In fact, for one portion of the trip, we traveled through the Tsavo West National Park, which had something I hesitate to call a road at all. (That portion was still quite fun in theory, because we had the opportunity to see wildlife on the drive over. I say "in theory", because through the entirety of that portion, the closest we came to seeing wildlife the multitude of large anthills scattered throughout the savanna.) The second reason was because the bus was experiencing technical difficulties. After we had crossed the Tanzanian border, we had to pull off into some no-name town, where they parked the bus by something that had the semblance of a mechanic shop, and waited for...I honestly stopped paying attention after an hour. It was long enough that a few of the visibly (and audibly) upset passengers got off and took motorcycle taxis to wherever their destination was. While the prospect was tempting, I stayed firmly in my seat, as I wanted to get my money's worth on my ticket (even though it was only about $15), and it was still a long way to Arusha. Besides, I had no Tanzanian shillings to pay with. Even staying, though, I couldn't help feeling a bit disheartened when I just heard the CLUNK, CLUNK, CACHUNK that comprised the sounds of repair in the front. The operation was neither subtle nor timely, and utterly spoiled any hopes I may have had of reaching Arusha whilst it was still light.

Oh, but I forgot about the border crossing. Very early on in the trip, the bus manager - who like others like him, I must admit, does an admirable job doing an unenviable job - asked to see my passport. I sneakily take out the two hundred-dollar bills I had tucked in the book for visa payment and show it to him, and he takes it. Immediately, my heart sinks, and I try to get up to grab it back from him, but he somehow slithered his way to the back of the bus through the crowd. Before I could follow suit, he returned to the front, carrying a stack of passports, presumably from the sum total of all the people crossing the border. I breathed a touch easier, as I knew that this meant that there was some protocol here beyond extortion. Perhaps they'd take care of all the visa work for us, so that the crossing would be as fast and seamless as possible? In any case, I made sure not to let the thought leave my head: Get back your passport, get back your passport. Well, as we were approaching the border (at this particular point, the passenger list was relatively small), the bus manager stood back up with the stack of passports, and handed them out. I got mine, and flipped through, trying to see if anything was there. No stamps, no markings, no nothing. I was suddenly more confused at the situation. In any case, we got to the gate and everyone steps out of the bus, walking to the small immigration office nearby. I go in, get my exit stamp, and then hop back in the bus. We drive a sum total of 100 feet or less, stop, and then repeat the process, this time for a Tanzanian entry. I really feel like the two governments could have streamlined that process. In any case, I get in, and fill out the entry form. I had been informed that I'd need a work visa in order to do a volunteer gig, which would be $200. So imagine my surprise, after writing on the "Holiday and Volunteer Work" as my purpose of visit, that I was only charged $100. I didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I paid, took the stamp, and was on my way. I didn't notice until after the bus was well on its way - well, on its way to the mechanic shop - that the stamp clearly said - "Work, paid or unpaid, prohibited". I got a non-working visa. I thought I had been quite clear on my form. Did the immigration officer just miss it, or was this actually him telling me "no" for some reason? But I figured I shouldn't sweat it too much. I sincerely doubted I would really be "caught" by someone. I mean, what were the odds?

The bigger concern I had was if it was some cosmic sign that this wasn't the right thing for me to be doing. That has been something that had been bothering me since that first night in Nairobi, and the more I looked it up, the more conflicted I felt. A number of essays on the topic decry what they call "hug-an-orphan voluntourism" as not only ineffective, but counterproductive to the children's development, as they get attached to new people who inevitably leave them. I didn't want to be responsible for anything like that. (Also, I only recently realized that I was able to sign up for a program where I am around a large group of young children, and was never asked once for a background check.) Add that to my own neuroses about working with kids, and worries about the environment I'd be in, and all these little proverbial bugs gnawing at my skull, and I was thinking to myself, Should I tell Josephat - he's the head of the orphanage - about how I'm concerned about the whole thing? I decided I'd sleep on it for the night. I tend to stress about things less when I sleep on them (and unfortunately, the reverse becomes true when I can't sleep.)

Anyhoo, I was now in Tanzania. Even setting aside the time spent in "repair", there were plenty of hours left to go in the trip. I used the opportunity to finish the book I was currently read - Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, for the record - and then put my Kindle away, as I never like reading a new book immediately after finishing one. So, I looked outside at the environment. Everything you'd assume would be in a stereotypical African environment was there - red earth, baobab trees (some really impressive ones, too), legit Masai villages. And then came the mountains. I looked at my phone's GPS to get my relative bearings, to try to see which mountain - I could see several - was Mount Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately, I soon determined that I was on the wrong side of the bus to see the mountain. Still, every time I saw a mountain, I thought to myself, maybe that's it? It wasn't until I actually saw it, piercing the clouds, dwarfing the mountains around it, that I knew I was seeing the real deal. I smiled in anticipation; I was looking forward to my hike.

I am going to take a quick break to mention a couple of tiny points, because I don't think I'll find a good place to do so elsewhere, and some I've been meaning to mention them in the last couple posts (as a number of them relate to both Kenya and Tanzania).

  • There are a ton of barbers and salons everywhere in both countries, more than the scant number of different hair styles would have you believe. The thing that struck me about them is that all of them - every single one - has a painting on the side of a person's head, which I can only assume is used to show a good haircut. However, all of these paintings are laughably bad. The people - some of whom I swear are meant to be celebrities - all have their heads stretched, squished, misaligned, and otherwise made unenviable. I realize that you're not going to have Michelangelo painting barbershops, but if it were me, I'd just paint some flowers and call it a day.
  • I realize they are a completely practical gardening tool, but the sheer number of machetes everywhere can be unnerving. Dangling like wind chimes in front of a hardware store. Gripped in the hand of someone passing you on the street. I don't know why it's more distressing to me that someone carrying an axe (which I've also seen). Maybe the historical context. Maybe because when used as a weapon, it's just so...base. The guards with AK-47's are a close second in the surreal sight of weapons in broad daylight.
  • In these cities, there is no sense of spacing with shops. There will be six hardware stores on a single block, but no stationary store. Go to the other side of the city, and there are six stationary stores almost all in a row, but no hardware stores. I guess you could say one area is the "stationary district", but it seems like it could be parsed out better. And it seems like every other store everywhere is a phone credit store. How anyone manages to stand out and sell competitively is beyond me.
  • The stickers/decals on the daladalas in Tanzania (which is literally the same as the Kenyan matatus) seemed to be much more overt in their religiosity. While I did see a couple that read things like "Master Your Journey" and "Ballin ol Day" [sic], I saw many more that said things like "All Eyes on God," "Jesus is Lord," "He is Risen," and - my favorite due to sheer directness - "Read the Bible."
  • Is the United States literally the only country on Earth that pronounces is "tan-zu-NI-uh"? Everyone else seems to pronounce it "tan-ZAN-i-uh".
  • One thing I had found in my backpack, which I had apparently stuffed in there "for later" and forgot about was a tiny package of inexpensive-yet-tasty shortbread, though the term they used on the packaging was "milky biscuits." I'm fairly certain that "milky buscuits" is now one of my favorite two-word phrases, and now resides on an ever-growing list of potential band names.
  • In both Kenya and Tanzania, they still seem to be fond of using old fashioned, skeleton-style keys. While I know they provide infinitely less protection than more modern keys, they also provide infinitely more charm, and I wholly appreciate them.
Anyway, I arrived in Arusha a little past eight, which was well past sundown. So, I was in a new town on a Sunday night, after dark, with no local currency. This had the potential to be a disaster. Thankfully, I had actually made some preparations this time. For one, I had downloaded an offline map of Arusha in Google Maps. Remember that whole deal of me creating a Photoshop map of Tetouan way back at the beginning of this trip? Well, that's for chumps; offline Google Maps is the way to go, for one good reason - you can still use your GPS. Plus, if you have Internet on both your phone and your computer, you can "star" locations, which will show up on your offline map. I did this with great abandon, starring the bus station, my hotel, stores, and other such things. Even without a connection, I had a good idea of where everything was. And luckily enough, my hotel was only a short walk - maybe 10 minutes - from the bus station. Ignoring every taxi driver on my path, I made a beeline to the hotel, and checked in. I was pleasantly surprised with the place. It was a budget hotel - literally, it's called the "Arusha Budget Accommodation Hotel", and for $15, I got a comfy bed, which is all I really wanted. Despite having done literally nothing all day, I was exhausted, and so went to bed without showering. (I mention this because it becomes relevant later.)

I was planning to be picked up at 10am, so I woke up at 8am (after a fine sleep), went down for a breakfast (during which I had a cup of Tanzanian tea, which was easily more enjoyable taste-for-taste from the Kenyan tea I had tried), and then went out, with two primary objectives - first, to get some cash. Second, to get a USB modem from one of the local telecom companies, Vodacom. The for most things, the prices for Internet seem much more affordable in Tanzania than in Kenya (budget travelers, take note!). What would give me 12 hours of Internet in Kenya gets me one month unlimited in Tanzania. Granted, the connection isn't great, but so long as I can check my email and give you the blog updates you ache for, I'm happy. Anyhoo, I walk around the town until I see an ATM. I stick my card in, ask for the money, and...am told there's an error, and the transaction is cancelled. So, I try another ATM. Same deal. Another ATM, and another failure. I suddenly realize that it's early on a Monday morning - this is the exact same situation I faced in Marrakech. All the money had been withdrawn from these ATM's over the weekend. I walked into one of the banks, and asked the teller if could withdraw money from them. They told me no, I should use the ATM. I tried telling them that the ATM was out of cash and wouldn't give me anything. As though such a thing had never occurred before, they just told me I need to use a Visa card in the machine. I hid my internal frown, thanked them, and then decided I'd get cash later. So, I instead go to the Vodacom shop (which I learned had to specifically be one that said "Vodacom Shop", rather than just being a shop which sold Vodacom credit). I ask for a modem and a month pass. "Sixty thousand shillings," they say. (Tanzanian shillings sell at about 1,625 to the dollar, so this was about $36.) I take out my credit card. "Cash only." Yes, despite being a major telecommunications provider's main branch in the country's fourth-largest city, it's still cash only. I should be used to this by now. Truth be told, I don't think I would have been annoyed if I had the cash on me. But alas, I didn't, so I stepped out.

I did know that I would need money to pay for my hotel stay, though, because I sincerely doubted they took credit card. And while I could have payed with my American currency, those green bills are more precious here than in their own country, so I wanted to preserve them. I managed to find an exchange bureau and trade out the last of my Kenyan shillings for the Tanzanian variety, and then went back to the hotel, where I paid, checked out, and then sat in the lobby. Before too long, a thin mustached man came in. "Andrew?" he asked. I told him that he had found the right person, and he introduced himself as Josephat. We shook hands, I hopped in his car, and we were on our way. I considered asking to stop for the things I was looking for - after all, I should hope the ATM's would be refilled by now - but I didn't want to be a bother. So we drove all the way to Samaritan Village, which was a good 8 kilometers away from the city center. Along the way, Josephat asked me a number of questions. Where was I from? What was my religion? (It was a Christian institution, as the name might suggest, so he was curious.) What were my life plans? The two items that I think struck him the most - actually, struck everyone the most who I told them about - were that I didn't have a girlfriend, and had no specific plans to get married (my "if it happens, it happens" approach seemed quaint, I suppose), and that I moved out of my parents home nearly a decade ago, since in Tanzania, you could live with your family until you were as old as 30. My only response to this was that I theorized it had to do with the national personality - America was founded on the idea of individualism, and so people want to go out and be individuals.

After the drive, we arrive at the orphanage. First, he gives me a small tour of the area. He shows me an administrative building's foundation being laid ("When will it be completed?" "It depends if and when we get donations"); the central building, which was a small dormitory, activity room, and kitchen (and immediately tried playing matchmaker with me and one of the cooks); the playground, of which a broken swing caught my eye; a small chapel, which Josephat told me people went into at 4:30 in the morning to play music in, and that I may hear it in bed), and the apartment areas, where the older children sleep (on the lower floors) and the volunteers and guests also stay (on the upper floors). I asked if there were any other volunteers; I was told that while there weren't any now, there would be another person coming, I think, this Saturday, and another two coming from the UK in a week or so. This gave me a bit of comfort - I wouldn't be on my own for this, at least not for the whole time. I then actually saw my apartment. It was nothing like the accommodations I was expecting. I had figured I'd be staying in a side room of some local person's house, with a shoddy mosquito net, lots of mosquitoes, no electricity...I think I believed I'd be back in Hellene's place. And I like to believe I was ready for that. I wasn't ready for a huge living room with nice couches and a table, and a set of four individual rooms, each with it's own bathroom. It was much more...well, "upscale" is not really an appropriate term, but maybe "urban" will do. A very pleasant surprise. Also, my bedroom had a perfect view of Mount Meru, the tenth-highest peak in Africa (though I like to pretend it's Kilimanjaro). And there was a box of water bottles sitting on my bed. How sweet!

Josephat said I could start with the children that day or the next. I really had intended on starting Wednesday, so I decided to split the difference and wait until Tuesday, giving myself the day to situate. He agreed and told me to relax, and that I'd get lunch at 12:30 or so. That time comes before I know it, and I hear a knock on the door. The cooking staff comes in, carrying a tray with several different bowls on it. In one is more rice than I could eat in several meals, even if I did eat rice a lot. In another was a shredded leafy green (and other stuff)...thing. I don't actually know how to describe it other than "delicious". And in another bowl was a set of tiny bananas from their garden. I was shocked at the quality of the food - I was paying thirteen dollars a day to stay here and get three meals a day, and they were serving stuff that was easily worth on its own, half that amount. I knew I was going to be working, but jeez if I didn't feel this was a pretty sweet deal.

For the next several hours, I stayed in the apartment, getting a feel of the place. Not having Internet, I amused myself by a) going on my phone and weeding all the apps and games I'd indiscriminately downloaded over months without ever using, and b) reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, which reminds me why I like Oscar Wilde so much. (Incidentally, it's the same reason why I always made fun of the TV show Gilmore Girls - everyone is so damn witty all the time.) I was not intending on reading another book whose principal character was a member of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but maybe I'll continue that with some of my later reading. I managed to get through a majority of the book throughout the day - I guess even with my subvocalization reading, I can power through books when I'm not distracted. Before I knew it, it was dinner time (yes, it really wasn't all that exciting of a day), and dinner, too, was great. I was expecting pretty much the same meal as lunch, as, heck, what reason have they to vary? But no, it was a big bowl of spaghetti (again, it seemed like it was cooked for multiple meals or multiple people), a bowl of cut green beans and squash in some kind of sauce, a salad made of sliced tomatoes and cucumber (and while I've never really eaten cucumber before, I think it can best be described as "inoffensive" in all regards), and an orange. I tacked on a milky biscuit for good measure, and man, this was a good meal. Like I had previously done for lunch, I took my finished tray down to the kitchen (and upon seeing an absurd number of eggplants in the kitchen, I was happy that I had mentioned offhandedly that I really, really dislike eggplants), thanked and complimented them profusely, went back up, and continued reading. I went to bed relatively early, because I thought I might have an early day.

Prior to going to bed, I tried taking a shower. The hot water was...not hot, but I felt I could deal with that. Unfortunately, there was practically no pressure whatsoever, and whatever came out of the showerhead could be better described as a leak than anything. I wasn't going to get clean anytime soon with this. Feeling my greasy hair, I decided just to check my room for mosquitoes, as I didn't have a net. I couldn't see any (as I had shut every window upon entering the apartment) and then went to bed. I knew that there still be mosquitoes, but I'd take a few bites if they'd just be quiet. They didn't accept my offer. Every so often, I heard it. That high-pitched humming. Whenever I did, I grabbed my phone, turned on the light, and tried to illuminate the little suckers. Twice I found and killed them, but other times they slipped into the darkness. I decided to cover my head with my sheet. So long as I kept a large pocket of air for myself, I wasn't too uncomfortable. I went to bed...

...Only to be woken up by music. I suddenly remembered that Josephat told me that some folks sang in the chapel at 4:30. I thought this would be some light hymns, maybe the faint sound of a piano or guitar. But no, it was so loud and clear that if I could understand Swahili, I'd be able to transcribe every word of every song. And then there was some guy who was...I don't know what kind of singing it was supposed to be. Rock? Rap? Just some guttural sing-talk? I don't know, but he just kept on and on and on. This whole thing went at least an hour, if not more. It was impossible to sleep, especially since every couple of minutes I'd hear a mosquito bzzzzzzzz right above the sheet on my head. And I was in the room furthest away from this chapel. How were the children a floor below ever supposed to get a good night sleep. I honestly did not understand it.

Aside from those little discomforts, it actually was not a bad night sleep. I got up at maybe 7:30 (at least, that's when my alarm was set for). I had remembered the description of the program saying that the main part of my work day would be 8:30-12:30, so I wanted to be sure I was up in case they needed me. At some point after 8am, breakfast came. Crepes. Crepes! Along with bananas and tea. This cooking staff was top notch! I ate and then went down to the main building. As it turned out, there was nothing to do, because all the children were at school. I could help Josephat update his antivirus software (as it was a good two years out of date), but his Internet connection was so slow that I couldn't download anything. I told him that once I got a modem, I'd download the installer and then put it on his computer. I then asked about the swing outside. I had remembered that when I was in Italy, Kelly's kids were crazy about swings. I remember loving swings as a kid, too. I think it's universal. Hence, I figured it'd probably be a good idea to fix the swing. We go out and take a look at it. We briefly consider going to a welder's place and getting the missing link replaced, but that would have required getting the chains loose, and the bolts fastening them to the set were not budging. Finally, we came up with the idea to cut a length of wire from one of the fences and use it as a makeshift chain. With Josephat's visiting brother as my assistant, I wrap the chain around two separate links several times, until I'm confident in it's strength. I then ask for a piece of cloth, and using an old ripped dress, cover the area to prevent anyone from cutting their hand on the wire. I sit on the swing and start going back and forth, hopping up and down a little bit as I do. The swing held. I figured if it could hold me, it would easily hold these children. I asked how long the swing had been broken. "About six months." And it wasn't even that hard to slap together a solution; it just needed someone to say, "can we do that."

After that, there wasn't much else to do, so I went back in my apartment, finished reading my book (literally, I was finished within 24 hours of starting), had another excellent lunch (I don't remember exactly what that time, but trust me), and then at 1pm, went back to the main building. I was told that the younger children would be returning at this time, and I was to help them with their homework. This took about 20 minutes, max. Their homework, which seemed to only be math, was either converting number words into numerals ("twenty-seven = seven") or the most basic arithmetic. Most of my time was spent with two boys who were fighting with each other about who would sharpen pencils. They were using one of those basic hand sharpeners, which are as worthless today as they were when I was that age. They ended up ripping out so much of the surround wood walls that when the boys started pounding the tables with the pencils, it was little wonder why they broke and had to be sharpened again. And I never realized it so distinctly before, but children are amazingly slow at doing anything that requires even the slightest bit of manual dexterity. Before long, the ladies came out from the kitchen and served food to the children (a meal not nearly as nice as what I - and I hope the rest of the adults - had eaten). I was given a look that seemed to say, "You should go." So I left the building, taking all the pencils and the sharpener with me. After clearing out a huge caught piece of graphite (another problem with those things), I sharpened all the pencils as best I could, in about the same amount of time as it took the kids to do one. I brought them back to the building, and handed them to one of the ladies inside. She gave me a look that made me feel like I didn't know what I was doing. And to be fair, I didn't.

I walked back to the apartment and sat down. It would be 4pm when the second group of children would come and need help with homework, and it seemed like I was getting in the way with them taking care of this first group. I felt really dumb. I have little in the way of paternal instincts; I freely acknowledge that. I'll probably always be a better uncle than I could be a father. But here, it felt like they were doing fine, and didn't need me.

I sort of sulked in my room until 4pm came around, and then I went out and saw the second group of kids coming in. They gave me a "Hiiii!" and a wave, and then went about their business. I was lost. I had no idea where to go, what to do, how to engage them. I mean, my thoughts going into this was that, maybe, I could spend my time doing things to help the facilities themselves. Like the swings - that benefited the children even though I wasn't interacting directly with them. That was easy. Going up to the kids and being all like, "Heya, I'm your new friend!" and all that? That's not so much my style. I kind of meandered around, smiling and saying hello, telling them my name was Andrew, until I finally saw some of them going into the homework room. Josephat told me I should go in there and help them. Good, some direction. I confirm with him that I'm not just supposed to give them the answers, and go into the room.

God almighty, what an awkward experience. First of all, it seemed pretty damn obvious that the kids didn't like and/or trust me yet. I didn't blame them in the slightest - I was the stranger here, trying to help them on their assignments. Still, just because I understood their trepidation, that doesn't mean I was immune to its effects. They shirked away from me, gave me odd glances, whispered things (specifically concealing said things from me) and giggling. And yet, I had to continue doing this with a smile and a can-do attitude. Those that would let me see their homework varied from one who basically just wanted me to check their work, to a kid that literally pointed to a question and said, "What is the answer?" I told him that finding the answer was his job, but I'd help him look through his book and/or notes to find it.

Now, I've learned through this experience that I should never, ever, ever become a teacher for young children. Ever. Junior high, maybe, but only the accelerated learning students. I have very little patience, internally, when it comes to education, I suppose. Literally, I would read the kid a paragraph which had, verbatim, the question they were trying to answer, followed by the answer. I read it aloud again, enunciating on the relevant words. I then asked him if he knew the answer. Blank stare. We went back to the question, which I pointed at, asking if he knew the answer. Blank stare. I turned back to the paragraph and even more slowly went over the sentence that answered his question. Blank stare. My outer calm hid the fact that I was literally ready to break the table in two. "...Let's come back to this one." There was also the fact that the kids were so easily distracted. They could have finished all of their homework in twenty minutes if they just buckled down and did it. But no, they would write half an answer - literally, stop halfway through the sentence - and then lie down on the table, talking and arguing, or just running around. They quadrupled their work time because of this. A part of me wanted to get them to straighten up and fly right, but I have no idea what the appropriate course of action is, even if they were my own kids. I like to think that my own children would be super disciplined (attitude-wise, not beaten-wise), but I don't know if you should make them get in line, or just let them do as they please. After all, they haven't grown up in a normal household. And let's not forget the fact that this was my first day with them; how would I look if I was the angry, mean volunteer.

At some point, the cooking staff walked by and let me know that my dinner was ready. I could not be more grateful. I bid the children adieu, but one of them - the girl who was egging me the most and giving me the biggest stink-eye through all this, asked me if I was the one who fixed the swing. When I told her yes, she smiled, gave me a big hug, and thanked me. Well, that's something, I thought to myself. I went up to my room, where I stayed for the pretty much the rest of the night. I tried to take a shower, but the water pressure was even weaker than before. I managed to wash my hair in the sink; it'd have to do for now. I started typing part of this entry, but decided to hit the sack a bit early, as I wanted to get up early the next day to go into town. I had asked for a mosquito net that day, and, being in the bottom of a bunk bed, had to reutilize some dental floss to hang it above me in a manner that would be at all effective. It ended up working beautifully. As I was lying down, I heard the weirdest shouting coming from...somewhere. Was it some sort of domestic abuse, or was it some evangelical preacher in the chapel? It was all in Swahili, so I couldn't tell, but it lasted for at least an hour. I swear, the sounds here are the weirdest. And of course, they didn't stop then, but instead came up again at 4:30, when another batch of music came from the chapel. Completely different style than the night before, but just as loud. I regretted not bringing my earplugs into bed with me.

My alarm woke me up at about 7am, and having eaten a miniature breakfast of a two-inch banana, a glass of tea, and a milky biscuit, I went out to see all the children in their school uniforms. They all greeted me, and after standing neither here nor there, I hopped in their minibus, and their driver took them all to their respective schools. While most of the schools were nearby, one of the children has a mental disability, and had to be brought to a special school in Arusha proper. He was dropped off (though we parked upsettingly close to a garden surrounded by a barbed wire fence [which is upsetting in its own right], as the child has severe balance issues), and the driver asks me what I want to do. I told him I was just going to get a couple of errands done. He gets out and locks the van. Despite all efforts to tell him that I don't need an escort and that I know where I'm going and that  he can do his own thing and I'll meet him back here, he escorts me (it may have been because his grasp of English was a lot weaker than most of the other orphanage employees, or because he didn't realize I was a fully capable individual). I get my cash, I get my modem, I send something off at the local post office, I go to a store to get a five-liter water (as my bottles would run out before too long) and a small pack of Oreos for the remainder of my deserts (they're no milky biscuits, but they'll do).

This all takes much longer than my short description would imply, but we still had about an hour and a half before the special needs school let out. I suggest to the driver to stop at a cafe somewhere, my treat. He takes me to a place where we each get a cup of tea, and he gets some fried rice-balls, while I have a piece of French toast (which is more of a fried snack than the normal breakfast item you'd imagine). This eats up maybe a half-hour. So, the driver walks me back to the hotel, greeting a bunch of people along the way, as apparently he was friends with, or worked with, a whole bunch of people. A bunch of guides say that Tanzanians are among the friendliest people on Earth. I personally think I value politeness and kindness more than friendliness (and there is a definite difference between friendliness and kindness, dammit!). But that's probably because I mostly consider myself polite and occasionally kind, but not really "friendly". But they did all seem quite friendly, and I will say, with the exception of taxis and daladalas, almost nobody tried the whole "Hello, my friend," thing to get me to eventually give them money, like was the case in Kenya. It was a refreshing change of pace.

Anyway, we get back to the school, and the driver brings me inside. We dally a little while in there, until he shows me the empty headmaster's room. Before too long, the headmaster shows up. They talk a little bit, and then tell me to go inside. The headmaster greets me, and then she and the driver continue talking in Swahili. I have no idea what's going on, so I just look at all the signs in the room with inspirational quotes and such. The two stop talking, and look at me. I have no idea what to say. Finally, the headmaster asks me where I'm from. I tell her, she says, "Welcome", I thank her, and we're back in silence again. A few moments pass, and the headmaster gets up. "Well, come along." I am thoroughly confused at this point, but get up. The driver stays seated. I follow the headmaster, who brings me into a room. With people in there. I suddenly realize this is a tour, with me standing in front of these classes. I have absolutely nothing of value to say except "Hello" and my name, so I mainly just stand there like a jackass while the headmaster explained who I was to the teacher. It admittedly got easier with each new classroom, and in one of them, one of the students shot up to give me a hug (which is one of those moments that would break your heart if you'd let it). We made our way around the whole school, I asked a couple questions about the school's history, the headmaster's history, etc, until we finally reached her room. The driver had gone elsewhere, so we both sat down, and did nothing. After several minutes, I told her, "You don't have to stay with me if you don't want to." Her English wasn't perfect either, so I had to explain in several different ways that I didn't need the company. Finally, after I told her, "You're a busy person," she finally got it, thanked me, and left. I used the opportunity to sneak out and buy a blank notebook in a nearby stationary store (because if I wanted to draw with/for the kids, I'd need something). I got back and met up with the driver shortly before we had to leave. We all got back into the minibus, and drove back to the orphanage, silent except for the occasional question about language from me (as the rules for Swahili seem to change with every person who speaks it; I don't think I'll ever get it).

We got back to the orphanage, and I tested out the modem. As you can probably guess from the fact that you're reading this...it works. Like I said earlier, not the fastest thing around, but works is works is works. I used this opportunity to check my email, as well as change some of my bookings for my time immediately before and after my Kilimanjaro trek (I was scheduled to be in these $90-a-day places, but seeing as that ABA Hotel worked great, switched to that. Even with some cancellation fees, I ended up saving about $300, which I could definitely use elsewhere). I then found out (no details, I promise) that my bathroom pretty much has no water pressure whatsoever, because in addition to no water coming from the shower, there was none in the toilet reservoir. While using my empty water bottles and the living area sink to manually flush the thing, I get a knock on the door. It's Josephat. He asks me about my visa. I tell him about the situation at the border. He tells me that there are two immigration officials in his office.


He tells me to say that I'm there treating the place a a hotel until my climb of Kilimanjaro, and that I'm not working. So, we walk to his office, and these two guys (who, for all I know, could have just been impersonating officials) tell me that if I'm going to do "what I am planning to do", I need to pay $200. I confirm that I just have to pay $100 more, since I already paid $100. Nope, it's $300 total. I tell them that I'm not doing a job here; all I plan to do was install some antivirus software on Josephat's computer, which is hardly work. Then Josephat speaks to them in Swahili for several minutes. All the while, I'm silent as a shadow. The officials ask me when I plan to leave. I tell them, and when they ask if I am returning to the US, I say, "No, I'm going to South Africa," and then, with some extra emphasis, "to extend my holiday even more." They're silent for a moment, say something to Josephat, and hand me my passport. Josephat tells me I can go. I go back up to my apartment and wait for him. When he gets up, he says I have to be careful to tell anyone who asks that I'm just hear on holiday as a tourist, and not to be seen by any immigration officials doing work outside (like, say, fixing the swing), as that could count as work. Playing with the children could just be considered playing, and helping them with the homework is indoors, so just stick to that. After all, if I were staying for months, I should have the work permit. But I'm just here for a matter of weeks, and $200 is nothing to sneeze at. I thank Josephat for his help, and ask how they found out about me. Was my trip to town to blame? As it turns out, no; apparently, the immigration officials just come by to the orphanage every month or so to try to catch a volunteer and make them pay the $200. Ouch.

After that, I continued organizing my emails until I got my lunch. After finishing, I took my tray down, but saw a large van parked in the driveway. I then saw something I definitely wasn't expecting - a bunch of white people, slightly younger than me, playing with the kids (all of them - I guess the older students got out early?). I found out that they were all from Grand Falls University in Michigan, were spending a month teaching in Tanzania, and that they were visiting the orphanage every Wednesday (this was their last one) to play with the kids. I am also guessing they had brought over a bunch of toys, because there were inflatable balls and bubble wands and all sorts of stuff I didn't recognize. It was nice, if only because it spread the attention around all the different kids. I think there's somewhere between a dozen and 18 kids here. Anyway, going into it, I passed around a ball for a bit, and then went outside to help push some of the kids on my swing. Before long, a couple of the children came up to me and were asking me to swing. In particular, the girl who hugged me for fixing the swing, the one who seemed most off-put by me before, was all over me.

Seriously, she would not let me leave her side for hours. Her and another girl - I'm trying to decide if I should use their names, or maybe pseudonyms - basically dragged me along everywhere. Others came up to me and did things with me, but these girls wouldn't let me leave their vision. While I was pushing the swing, something came up about me being a champion, or just being a big strong guy or something. This is often a role I play; while in the real world I wouldn't consider myself a huge toughman, to a kid I'm like the Rock. With that in mind, I started prattling off about being a WWF champion back in the United States, with the heavyweight belt and other such nonsense. I have no idea if the kids even knew what I was saying. One of the prettier ladies from Michigan asked, "How much of what you said was true?" I told them none, and then told them my real deal. However, before I could strike up a good conversation with this fine specimen, the kids kept pulling me away. It was weird, a total 180-degree shift from yesterday.

I chased kids around, and got into fake martial arts stances and acted like big Mr. Toughman, but I tried to make it a positive influence, so when they asked how to be a champion like me, I told them that the most important thing was discipline (see, I know my own priorities as an authority figure). Unfortunately, they had no idea of the concept, and I didn't feel like I knew enough to explain it well. In lieu of an explanation, I tried to teach them about meditation, but when I immediately saw they couldn't sit still to save their lives, I tried teaching them the Kuji-in (which I practiced for a while when I was in the best shape of my life [that is, when I had the time to go to the gym for two hours a day {that is to say, when I was an intern}]). They seemed to be more interested in the fact that it put their hands into funny shapes than the discipline it was supposed to teach, and we only managed to get to "rin" and "kyo", but it's a start. I also told them that every time they hit me (which kids like to do), they were only hurting themselves. I meant spiritually, but they thought I meant physically, mainly because they were hurting themselves when hitting me.

Eventually, the Michigan folk left, and it was time to do homework. So, we go to their library, and I help them with the work. Again, the process was draining on me, because they wasted so much time not doing homework, and some of the kids couldn't tell me the answer when I was literally pointing at the answer in their book and asking them to read it aloud. And then my hanger-on girl kept on being that quintessential combination of contrarian and capricious. Always trying to convince me of things that the opposite of what I said is true, asking for an explanation of half the words I say (and I'm talking simple words here), and the ever popular descent of "Why? Why? Why?" questioning. My level of playing along diminished with each new session of this, when I would suddenly finish by playing to their Fundamentalist upbringing and say, "Because Jesus said so."

Also, the girl told me that when she first saw me, she was afraid of me, but now she liked me. Funnily enough, this is not the first time I've been told this exact same comment. In fact, I've been told it several times  in my life. No joke, people have told me that I intimidated them super hard when they first met me, and as such, they didn't like me, but then warmed up to me. One of these folks, who I knew in college, said he was scared of me for months before we spoke, and later, confided some very personal secrets to me, and after that, allowed me to be one of the few people he told about her new life and personality. And I have other examples of this phenomena. So it was interesting, though not surprising, that this kid said this. Speaking of phenomena, is facial hair that weird? I swear, every single kid seemed obsessed with my facial hair (although my head hair was also fondled quite a bit, on account of it being Caucasian and soft), and everyone asked if they could cut it. Now, this is where I drew a definite line, because I've always been afraid that people would try to cut off my goatee while I slept. I told them nobody could cut my facial hair, or I would get very angry. I'm not sure if they could tell I was being 100% serious. My facial hair was also cause for them to compare me to both Moses and a lion.

When it was time for my dinner, I was only "allowed" to go up if I promised I would come down and read to them at 8pm. I said I would, went up, ate, and got some of my own stuff done. I went down to their library at 8pm, saw nobody, and went back up. I waited some time, went back down, and the room still seemed dark, so I began walking to the main building, admiring what stars I could see. It was a waxing moon, but you could still see well more stars than in either LA or SF, which I always appreciate. Then one of the kids (again, I'm hesitant to even use pseudonyms, because I have a hard enough time remembering who everyone is already) told me to go into the library, where he turned on the light. Another kid entered, and I told them to get me a book to read. They brought me a children's illustrated Bible stories book. Now, this library had a wide range of books, from things you'd expect from children's library (Dr. Seuss, The Boxcar Children, Little House on the Prairie), to baby coloring books, to the worst, most nonsensical Disney characters book I've ever seen (remind me to go more into detail on that later) to stuff that I felt was above their age level (Fried Green Tomatoes, Plato's Republic), and despite going to a Christian school, and (I think) having to go to chapel every day, they requested I read Bible stories. Whatever denomination this place was, it definitely wasn't Catholic, I can tell you that.

So, for about a half-hour, I read from this book. And let me tell you, if there's anything I am the platonic ideal for, it's reading stories aloud with my mellifluous tones. (If you hear a horn tooting, that's mine.) Really, I don't know why I never got into audio-books  The stories were super simplified (to a point where I felt the meaning in some of them was lost), and it sounded to me like the kids had a creationist view of the world, but then, I forget when we were taught evolution in my classes. Maybe - hopefully - they'll learn soon enough. About halfway through reading, hanger-on girl came in and listened. She tried to get me to read past nine, but thankfully, I had heard this was their bedtime, so it was easy for me to out-and-out say no and not get too much back talk. I promised I'd continue where I left off (in case you're interested, it was the Israelites in the desert), closed the book, and wished them a good night. I then went up to my apartment and didn't go to bed myself, as I was trying to take care of some of my business. Again, no water pressure, so no shower.

So, the second day felt like a total turnaround of the first. On the first day, I felt like I was in the way, and that nobody wanted me there. I felt like maybe I shouldn't be there. On the second day, everyone - especially the one girl - seemed too attached to me, as though it would wound them deeply when I left (and there were question throughout the day worried that I was leaving). Opposite situation, but it made me wonder if it's healthy for me to be here. I suppose it's a better problem to have, but it's still making me wonder...

That night, I remembered to keep my earplugs in my bed, and once the music in the chapel started, in they went. For good measure, I took an app on my phone that can play different noises, and I had it play pure white noise at the loudest volume possible, and stuck this right next to my ear. Even then, I could still hear this stuff. Tonight I'm going to try just playing the white noise (or perhaps a more pleasant sound-drowner) directly into my ears with headphones. My plan did help, though, and I did manage to dose off before they had finished. But then, I suddenly hear a knock on the front door. Then another one. I look at my phone. 6:27. Jesus, it's too early. I get up and begin to walk to the front, when I suddenly remember that I've been sleeping in the nude. I quickly hop on my pants - double checking the fly - put on a shirt, and answer the front door. It's one of the children. Wow, that could have been bad. She was asking to take the hot water thermos that I had held onto in the night, so they could refill it for breakfast. I internally questioned the necessity of this visit, but handed her the thermos anyway. I then went back to sleep, but didn't sleep well at all, mainly because I was paranoid that breakfast would be coming any minute now. As it turns out, breakfast didn't come until almost 9am. (I don't think it could have taken them two hours to boil the water.) Breakfast was...a loaf of white Wonder-style bread? Yep, just bread, along with a tub of buttery spread and a can (yes, a can) of mixed fruit jelly. I felt like the standards had sharply declined in the kitchen, but then I remembered that I was gone the morning before - maybe they had cooked an excellent breakfast that went to waste, and didn't want to repeat the mistake. Whatever, I made the most of it.

I spent...well, pretty much the early part of the day writing the bulk of this entry (which is, amazingly, already still longer than all previous ones - kudos for reading!). The one nice thing about days like that are, well, not much happens during those hours, so that makes it quick to talk about. I did finally take a shower, though I was forced to use one of the bathrooms in the other rooms in the apartment. It was cold - as the heat comes from solar panels, and it was a cloudy day until about a half-hour after I took my shower - but it still felt damn good to rub soap all over my body. But that's a good four days without bathing - probably the longest I've gone since I was a kid. (Though I wonder how the Kilimanjaro trek will be like, hygiene-wise.)

I took my breakfast and lunch trays down just as the kids were getting back from school. Unlike the previous day, they decided to jump directly into their homework. Also unlike the previous day, they decided to do the homework in the main building instead of the library. I found this a bit peculiar, but whatever. I sat down in one of the tiny, tiny chairs and tried helping wherever I could. Though I can never tell when I'm truly helping, because I don't know if my native-English explanations make any sense. Like, one point in particular was super challenging, when one kid was doing subtraction. He was actually doing a damn good job - in thirty questions, I only had to correct him three times. But then he came to 17-0, and was stumped. It is strange - I would almost go so far as to call it surreal - to see a child contemplating, if not struggling, with the most basic of arithmetic. I'll ask one of them casually what five minus three is, expecting them to answer reflexively, and watching them having to take a piece of paper and make little tics on it like some sort of ancient Greek makes you stop in your tracks. So here's this kid who doesn't seem to grasp the concept of zero. I don't know if they didn't teach this to him or what. I try using words ("Zero is nothing, so if you take away nothing..."), I try by comparing zero to one, and I even try with a physical example; I put five books in his hands. "Now, if I take zero books from you," I say, making a dramatic gesture of not taking away any books, "how many books do you have?" "...Four." I literally spent 20 minutes on this concept, and he told me that 17-0 was almost every number except 17. It was only after the hanger-on girl (who didn't seem so keen on me today - mood swings, I guess) came by and told him flat-out that it was 17 that he finally got it. I was upset that he was not able to come to this conclusion himself, and that he still didn't know what in hell zero is, but at least we could move on.

I went around to a number of different kids, and in almost every case, I had to convince them to go back and just read the book and copy what it says (which doesn't really mean they're learning, but neither does me telling them the answer straight out). I was initially surprised at the amount of references to sexual education and HIV in books meant for primary grades, but I really shouldn't have been. In the United States, study of HIV and AIDS is almost academic at this point, whereas here its a real issue. Then there was a textbook that, I suppose, was a religion one, or at least some kind puritanical thing, saying that wearing shorts and tank-tops was immoral. Not bad fashion sense, but genuinely immoral. So is long hair. And stealing from the mentally handicapped. (Okay, I agree with that one.) Also, don't kill cats and don't go to discotheques, and you'll be an upstanding citizen.

While one of the children was working on a particularly dull set of physical health questions (two of which asked literally the exact same thing), something caught my eye. It was a nearby window with a number of flies buzzing around it, knocking against the glass as flies are wont to do. But then I looked down, and I saw dead flies. No, not dead. Dying. On their backs, with the legs slightly moving. Maybe an occasional wing flutter on one, rocking it slightly. And these weren't flies that had been swatted; as far as I could tell, nobody swats flies here, because it's a wasted effort. Those flies were dying either of age or hunger. They had spent long enough in this windowpane that it was where they would die. The scene both fascinated and unnerved me. Outside that window was a literally lush, green world. And every fly on there was trying to get out. But try as hard as they might, they would never make it out. And given enough time, they'd be joining their brethren on the sill, lying on their backs, dying without ever making it outside. I was reminded of the haunting words that Nazir, back in Morocco had told me whilst we were cooking tajine: "I wanted to study chemistry and work in a US lab, but it's more realistic to learn tourism and hotel management. People here, they want to leave, to do something bigger than what they were born into. But the world doesn't let them, either through poor preparation, or government interference, and so they are stuck forever." And the same goes for Kenya, and Tanzania, and basically every other developing nation. I became entranced in this metaphor that had physically manifested itself before me, until one of the kids called my name and shattered my reverie. 

I continued helping wherever I could, politely telling the kids who wanted me to push them on the swing that I'd only do so when all the homework was finished for everyone. And I kept my word, going out to the swing. My hanger-on had another mood swing, and was suddenly all over me again. I did some pushing, and when they told me to go on the swing, I obliged (though I was firm in telling them they couldn't get on as well, because I'm not going to tempt fate like that). I said a quick prayer that my wire repair wouldn't break (both to protect my pride and my skull) and began swinging. The kids laughed at me at first because I was barely moving at first, and because my movements seemed somewhat exaggerated. But those exaggerated movements eventually got me going so high that the kids became both enthralled and terrified. I was close to horizontal at times. I did this for ten big swings before stopping. I then saw a dog tied up to the building. I had heard it before, but this is the first time I'd seen it. I asked one of the guys who worked at the place what the dog's name was. He said it was "Puppy", but he said it in such a way that I could only guess the dog was never given a real name. The hanger-on girl told me not to go near it. When I asked why, she said, "It's scary, it'll bite you." I told her it would only bite if I gave it a reason to. I put out my hand, and it started licking. I gave it a few good pets and stepped back. It suddenly went nuts, started barking, and then chased its own tail like a fiend. I couldn't tell if it actually had some rabies variant (in which case maybe it would bite without provocation), or if had just a boatload of pent-up energy. In any case, a bit longer pushing some of the kids, and suddenly it was time for dinner. (And trust me, the breakfast was just a fluke.)

Later, close to 8:40, the kids came to the library for reading. I came down, eager to continue this one thing I felt perfectly confident in. I pulled out that Bible storybook, turned to where we left off (actually, a bit before, as there was some dozing off the night before). One of the boys leaned his head on my shoulder, which I know is a perfectly kid-like thing to do, but felt odd regardless. About halfway through, the hanger-on girl came in. She was listening for a bit, but then went to grab another copy of the book. I told her what page we were on, but seeing her struggle to find the place (or even come close), I traded books and got back to my place. She began reading along, or so I thought. She was reading along the same sections as me, but not with me. She was going faster, but was still reading aloud. I didn't know if she was trying to compete with me or what, but I was getting a bit vexed my the asynchronous narration. I stopped, letting her be the sole voice. But after some time, she stopped, giggled, and told me to continue. Oh, it was going to be one of those things. Kids. Luckily, this only lasted another four minutes before nine, and then they were off to bed. I wished them good night, and went back up to my apartment for another glass of tea, listening to someone in the chapel screaming something (so yeah, it's a denomination of yellers. Pentecostals, maybe?)

And so, here I am. Like I said, I still have mixed feelings about the whole thing. But at least I know longer feel that I'm a failure to the whole thing, which you may remember was my earlier concern. And hopefully when some new blood comes in this weekend, it'll smooth things out even more. I still have lots to learn about working with kids, though. And who knows, maybe when this is all done, I'll be a prime father figure.

...Not bloody likely.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to read about your experiences with the kids. Interesting to see that no matter where or what, kids have some of the same basic issues; such as not focusing on homework and dragging out the whole exercise to having mood swings. I can seem some of those same behaviors in my young nephews and nieces. I also think your ethical conundrum - as to if this sort of thing is good for the kids, is a valid question. Perhaps the older ones are better equipped to deal with the constant change, but I can see how it would be hard on younger kids. It's easy to think that perhaps they get used to it, but that's applying adult logic and reason to a child's mentality. Hell, I still get a little sad when I meet someone who I click with but know I'll never see again. Still, as long as the kids are being well-treated, I guess some care is better than no care.

    Apt metaphor about the conditions of the developing world holding back its people. It's easy to watch the news or read about all the violence and strife in the developing world and think that the people are the cause of their own suffering. Perhaps that's true to an extent, but in the end, these people are fighting for limited resources and when those resources help support a meager lifestyle, ideas of grandeur become hard to sustain. All in all, a good reminder to be understanding.


    P.S. I know this is a bit late of a response. Hope you're recovering well, amigo!