December 30, 2011

small thoughts: eva soap

Yes, I'm writing about soap. The reason being it does such remarkable things, seemingly defying laws of common sense. Also because I've been in a hotel for the past two weeks using it.

When does soap become "Luxury" soap?
A little background: when you stay in hotels in Tanzania, they usually provide you with a towel and soap (already in your room if you're lucky!), and more often than not, the soap they stock is Eva brand. It usually comes in the cute travel size you see in the picture, though I have foggy memories of bigger bars being available when I first started my service. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, this makes it a good item to take with you when you check out; it's small, it's light, and best of all, it's free! Most well-traveled PCVs have a stockpile in their house for those moments you find yourself without laundry detergent or a decent bar for bucket baths.

But why is it so remarkable? Well, for one thing, once you get it wet, it is absolutely impossible to keep it in your hand. You might think this is an ordinary quality of all soaps, but I've noticed Eva is extraordinarily slippery. On average, I probably drop it 3-4 times more than most other soaps I've used. Which is aggravating when you consider how difficult it is to get a lather out of it.

The other peculiar thing about Eva is its staying power. That is to say, once you do get it on your skin, it's quite hard to remove. Lots of cheap soaps leave residue, and Eva is definitely no exception. This goes doubly if you've decided to use it for washing clothes in the sink. My advice to PCVs is don't do this. Just don't. I did it a few days ago and it didn't go well. I rinsed each garment for a good 25 minutes and the soap was still coming off. I finally gave up and ended up with undershirts that had that awful gritty feeling when you use too much soap.

So there you have it; soap that's impossible to hold, impossible to lather, and impossible to wash off if you ever manage to overcome the first two. Pretty remarkable, don't you think?

December 29, 2011

thoughts on 2011

We've nearly reached the end of 2011, which means it's time for inward reflection! Those of you that like to peek inside my head I'm sure are no doubt excited about reading this post. What's nice about inward reflection for me these days is that it's much easier to do now that I've been picking a word each year to hone in on. The idea is to "create a lens" through which you see the kind of person you want to become.

This year, myoneword was HIARI, a Swahili word that translates roughly as "free will." When I picked it, I wasn't really sure how well it fit with the guidelines for a word. It's easy to envision looking through a lens of "love" or "patience"; there are situations almost daily where we find the need to draw upon these virtues to be better people. But HIARI? What does that look like? To be honest, I chose it despite this problem because I wanted to understand more about what it is. We've all come across the paradox that, though God has planned out all the details of our lives before we were even in the womb, He also gave us HIARI. Lots of people have problems with this, including me. How can it be both ways?

December 24, 2011

3rd year perspectives

Last night, it finally hit me that it's Christmas. It was right around the time I was finishing up a beer in the center of the bus stand in my new town, when I felt the absence of my family. But I realize I've been pretty lucky to be so preoccupied with something else. I don't think it could get much worse than being alone with nothing to do over the holidays. Having a new house to fix up, and organize, and decorate, and be excited about has been a wonderful Christmas present for me.

After feeling a little sad, I started to think about the past 2 holiday seasons. How they've been different and how they've been similar. On the first Christmas I ever spent away from family, I was contemplating my impending medical evacuation to South Africa, due to my being diagnosed with foot drop. I was also burdening my counterpart, spending the entire afternoon in his room eating his food and watching war movies (it's the only American movies Tanzanians really enjoy, since the dialogue isn't really important). It sounds really really sad, but that is a fond memory of my early service. I didn't know the teachers at my school very well at that point, but this guy took me under his wing after we hung out, just one afternoon, drinking beers at the local kitimoto shop. At the time, December 25th was one of the better days compared to the others that surrounded it, and in hindsight, it will probably be one of the highlights of my life. Not necessarily because I enjoyed it in the moment, but because it was a showcase of God's grace and love for me when I felt I was descending into a valley.

Last year was the Christmas that provides the contrast to the two that book-end it. Thanks to the generosity of my parents and grandparents, I got to fly home for the holidays. And it was different from every other Christmas I'd had in America before because I had spent a year living with the other 3/4 of the world (and was going back after two short weeks). I didn't feel guilty; I didn't preach at my family or friends, that they should think harder about how much they take for granted; on the contrary, I was having trouble registering that the past year had actually happened. It was a strange feeling, but I had a new appreciation not just for the things we have in America, but for the people that were a part of my life (Peace Corps Volunteers/Staff and Tanzanians included).

And now, another Christmas is upon us. My contract with the Peace Corps ended before Thanksgiving, but I decided to extend for a year so I'm still here. I could have flown home for Christmas, on the Peace Corps' dime this time, but I've decided to take my leave in March so I'm still here. While it's certainly difficult to be away for the holidays, it's easy to see that God has His hand in how it's all working out.

Had I gone back to the States, I would've had to come back still homeless. The work on my house probably wouldn't have started until mid or late January, getting dangerously close to when we are scheduled to host our "Project Launch" down south (middle of February), featuring honored guests such as the United States Ambassador to Tanzania and the President of Tanzania himself, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete. In all fairness, my living situation would've been low on the list of priorities.

Had I gone back to the States, I would've missed out on yet another Baseball season (you never know how much you miss something until you go 2 years without it), probably leading me to ET (Early Termination of Service) to avoid watching more incomprehensible Cricket matches. Spring Training can't get here soon enough!

So to my family and friends back in the States, if you're reading these words, know that you're in my thoughts, that I love you all, and that I wish I could be there with you to celebrate the holidays.

Heri ya Krismas, Mungu Awabariki, Allah Akhbar, na tutaonana hivi karibuni!

December 22, 2011

renovating...or rebuilding?

Repairs are underway on my house, and I've been pondering the above title since we started yesterday; some of the things we're doing (like hammering iron bars into the aging brick and mortar infrastructure) make me think there's something more substantial going on. Despite my doubts of its structural integrity, I'm quite confident the fixes we're making now will keep the house standing at least until I leave, if not for the duration of the TZ21 project (which is the ultimate goal). There's also nothing stopping the utter excitement I feel about beginning my second life in Peace Corps, in a brand new setting with new people, and (hopefully) with a fresh perspective. My house has been a big part of this so far, acting as the gateway at which this new life starts.
The video above is just a sampling of the various things that have happened over the past two days. In it, you can see the roof being patched and painted, the interior wood frame being coated with used motor oil (natural termite repellent, apparently), cracks in the concrete being fixed inside and outside, ceiling boards finished in the living area, etc. In addition (not in the video), mosquito nets are in the windows, the electricity has been rewired, and the light fixtures are working as of this evening!

I'm pretty amazed at how fast things are getting done, but there's still plenty left to do. More ceiling boards, more concrete work, stuff in the bathroom and the kitchen, the other side of the roof needs to be painted, among other things. I honestly think moving in by Christmas is a real possibility; as long as I get a bed with a mosquito net in my bedroom, locks on the doors, and we make sure the choo is functional, I would consider it safe to spend the night inside.

A house would be a nice Christmas present, I have to say. But I've already got a plan for the Christmas present I want to give to myself. It has something to do with my living area. I'll share more details in another entry in relatively short order, just be patient!

December 12, 2011

annual conference

I got back from the annual conference last Thursday, just in time to celebrate Tanzania's 50 years of independence not in Dar, which I'm convinced was probably a good thing. The traffic there was even more unbelievable than usual leading up to December 9th, and the rains that fell during the week certainly didn't help (the road from my hotel to the annual conference flooded BIG time on Thursday). In any case, hongera to Tanzania for being free for 50 years! It's funny to hear some other volunteers are running into Tanzanians that honestly believe they were better off as a colony of western countries; I've heard one or two people broadcast that same thought.

As for the annual conference, it went as well as it could have, considering the schedule set for it. We accomplished most of our objectives, and it was helpful for me to learn more about the Implementing Partners involved with the project (except for Agile Learning, who's in charge of the Education Management Information System; they didn't show up). Unfortunately, we really didn't get to deliberate on what Creative calls "emerging issues," or perhaps this is a generic real-world work term that I hadn't heard before. They're basically roadblocks and problems that keep us from getting things done. For example, one of our current emerging issues is getting electronics through customs; the pilot equipment arrived in Tanzania at the end of September, but wasn't cleared to leave the airport until the week we installed it. And that was just kid stuff compared to the procurement of equipment that will happen early next year.

In any case, the venue for the conference was the gorgeous Double Tree hotel in Oyster Bay. We didn't actually stay there (it costs ~$255/night), but we got to hang out by the pool and eat at the buffet. I definitely felt a little mshamba (like a yokel, redneck) in the midst of such luxuries. They had these glasses of red and green...something scattered across the tables, and I was endlessly fascinated with them until I finally summoned the courage to pour some of it into my glass of water. Turns out it was some kind of concentrated syrup that was supposed to add flavor to water, but it was honestly pretty gross. Mshamba-ness aside, I think it's a good thing I'm still a ways removed from the finer things in life (like strange, high fructose corn syrup-based water flavor enhancers). I'm starting to see that the big danger in international development work is losing touch with who you're trying to help. Even just being in Mtwara town I've noticed it's a problem, so I can't even imagine trying to do it in a place like Dar.