Friday, July 10, 2009

Okay, I'm a Mzungu.

So "Mzungu" is the word for tourist here in Tanzania. Though I am not a tourist, the term can also stand for "white people". At first I thought it was offensive when people screamed it as I walked down the street, but now I'm really warming up to the idea. I even bought a MZUNGU t-shirt and will wear it proudly at home. I don't know why I was trying to blend in so much through the first week in my village. I am proud that I have traveled far to teach about HIV and am now a PROUD MZUNGU!

Okay... time to catch you up on my adventures!

When orientation was officially over, one week ago today, everyone was split into groups and taken to several villages outside Arusha. These villages will now be our homes for 6 weeks and we will educate in schools, hold community meetings, and host HIV testing days. This trip has officially become the greatest adventure of my life. I have already taught over 200 people about the HIV virus and how to protect themselves. How many people can say they've done that?

I live in the village of Kolila, which is very dry, dusty, and vast (as are most African villages), however we have some of the most incredible people I have ever met. I live with one teaching partner/translator named Mwajuma, and another volunteer named Katherine, who goes to Harvard. We are having an awesome time with our Tanzanian family! They are wayyy cool. They have a fairly large house for the community and have a generator for some minor electricity when needed. We pretty much live on a farm where chickens run around all day, a rooster wakes me up every morning, cows and I share the same plot of land that I brush my teeth in, and we officially have eggs for two meals a day, due to the overwhelming chicken population. My favorite part about my family are the cute little kids! African children are more adorable than normal. The lttle kids love to play with my long blonde hair. They are pretty fascinated by Mzungu hair. I gladly let them braid it, but when they twist it in knots the party is over. ;)

OH and guess what: I can see Mount Kilimanjaro from my bedroom window! It's one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It's huge!


We met with the village leaders who showed us around the tiny village. We visited the market place and met some other people in the town. Africans are very excited when visitors come in to their village and are anxious to offer you a seat in their homes and give you delicious chai (tea).

Our village leaders are pretty extraordinary and had already set up several teachings for us around Kolila. We basically had to prepare and show up. That's half the effort compared to some village leaders who don't arrange anything for you. It was highly appreciated.

While we were talking to the village leaders, about 12 teenagers wandered into the office and heard that we were in the village and wanted to talk to us. I don't think anyone in my group was mentally prepared to teach at this point (we were pretty exhausted from the long trek from Arusha to the village). But that's just how teaching in Africa is...when you don't think you are going to be surprised, you always will be. Here we were...5 Mzungu, in front of 12 young Tanzanians, who just wanted to know why so many people in their village were dying.

That's really how it is here. In the US, most people know of someone who has been impacted by HIV, but here, almost 1/4 of the population is infected. And unlike the US, HIV in Africa is not segregated by sexuality or race, it's mostly young women like myself.

I use the metaphor: In the US, HIV is your next door neighbor. In Africa, HIV is coming to knock on your door.


Church time! One thing SIC recommends is to go to church with your homestay family. Even if you are not Christian or relgiously-affiliated, it's a unique experience that should be cherised. I never dreamed I would enjoy a Swahili church service so much! The energy in the room was incredible and the singing was beautiful. African choirs have a very specific style of voice that fills the whole room. They also dance a lot while they sing, which I love. The Pastor welcomed us infront of the whole congregation and Mwajuma translated.

Then they asked us to teach! The Pastor was very insistent that we educate his congregation on HIV/AIDS (or as it's called in Tanzania: UKIMWI). So off the bat, he said we couldn't talk about condoms...which was disappointing to have to censor our lesson, but we respected his wish. We addressed the audience openly and thanked them for welcoming us. The whole lesson lasted about one hour and we covered a lot of ground. Most importantly we stressed how easy it is to protect yourself from the epidemic and that it is crucial to be tested.

Our overall goal in the 6 weeks is to get as many people tested as possible. We are holding two huge community days in Kolila (one on July 24 and the other August 7) where there will be an SIC HIV testing van that is free and open to the public. My personal goal is to have 1000 people in the village tested by August. So you can see that I am trying to work very hard. I have a feeling I will be quite exhausted when I come home.


MORE and MORE TEACHINGS! Hooray! I love being given the opportunity to teach Tanzanians about HIV. This education is a matter of life or death here.

One Monday we taught a small group of students at a tuition center for one hour and then we had another teaching shortly after with an "Art Group". Apparently villages are full of "special interest groups" of people (like clubs). The Art Group was full of actors, singers, acrobats and just all around performers. As you can probably guess, they were relatively young and liberal compared to the rest of the village. They wanted to keep all their acts secret, so they practiced in an abandon building outside town. We were invited to see a play they had made about HIV and then teach them afterwards. What an amazing group of young adults! You can tell that the youth generation of Tanzania will be the leading force in the fight against AIDS. They welcomed us with open arms to teach them more and have now agreed to perform at our community testing days! I am hoping their performances can help draw in people from around the town, and their skits can also be educational in the process.


Household surveys...we just went door to door to advertise about SIC and our testing days. We also completed household surveys: we asked the head of the household several questions about AIDS and then used the data to better understand Kolila and what we needed to teach. It was very informative and helpful. Unfortunately, knowledge of HIV is scarce. Most people have strong beliefs against even bringing the topic up. This makes our job a lot harder, but we are not leaving without a good fight!


SIC came to Kolila and escorted our group to King'Ori Village for a very special meeting. All the volunteers were asked to have lunch with a village support group for HIV positive patients. That amazing thing is that these people are not affiliated with any organization. Meaning: these HIV + people came out to their communites, stood up against stigma, and have now organized a support group for each other. It is one of the most awe-inspiring things I have ever heard of. Stigma is SO BAD here that most HIV + people would never dream of telling people they were infected. If you are known to be HIV + people won't touch you, talk to you, and most peopler become homeless. And why is this so? Because many Tanzanians have not been given the appropriate education to understand HIV properly and that people who are HIV+ should be treated just as anyone else.

Part of our job as teachers is also to get rid of stigma. We are constantly discussing it in our teachings. You can't get everyone in the village to be tested if they stigmatize against the disease. Common myths include:

- HIV comes in the condoms
- I wouldn't buy anyting from an HIV+ shopworker
-Americans gave us HIV
-The American President shut down all the factories that make AZT's

It's all seems so silly to us, but this is truly what thousands of people believe. It's organizations like SIC that are slowly starting to transform stigma into positive energy; and we start doing this by making sure these myths are replaced with facts.

So back to the patient group:

About 16 HIV+ patients showed up for the meeting and we very happy to share their stories with us. I couldn't have been more appreciative. Hearing them speak was exactely what I needed, to fuel my energy for the first week in the village.

I took the liberty of standing to applaude them all and thanked them on behalf of all the volunteers. It was important that they knew how brave they were. I also shared a personal story regarding HIV and the fight for it all across the world. Apparently this really resonated with one of the women (who happened to be the chairman of the group) and she came to talk to me privately after lunch. I asked Simon to come over to translate. She said that she was very grateful for what I said and could tell that I was going to leave a lasting impact on my village. She had tears in her eyes and told me that when I spoke about HIV in the US it made her heart warm. She said that knowing there are people all over the world that are going through the same hardships she was, made the world feel so much smaller. Then my new friend, took my hand and put a bracelt on my wrist. She hand-makes beaded jewelry to help support their group financially and that the bracelt was a sign of their group. She wanted me to have it. I have never been so touched and it was truly one of the most uplifiting moments of my life.

For all the people in the US who have HIV, there are people here, in Tanzania, who care about you.



On this day we were asked to teach a Maasai Tribe about HIV. Turns out it was actually a Maasai Mama's dance group. SO COOL!

They wanted to perform one of their traditional tribal dances for us and they even wore their traditional attire and jewelry. The Maasai are all over Tanzania and their culture is still as vibrant as ever. The men are initiated into manhood when they can kill a lion with a single spear!

So while the women began to sing and dance, they asked us to join them! And not only did we jump into the circle and dance, but they covered us in their beautiful jewlery. I wore a huge headpeice and large necklaces that were meant to chime when I danced. I couldn't believe this was actually happening. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! I will never forget how happy I was to be a part of their culture for a day. I taught their children how to play follow the leader and we learned new hand games together. The Mama's let me take the kids into the village to show them the market place (and I bought them some chocolate b/c I couldn't resist their smiles)!

It was the most incredible day!!!!!!!


Now we are in Arusha for the weekend and will be coming back to the village on Sunday. It's good to see all the wonderful volunteers again and we are going to our favorite pizza place tonight! PIIIZZZAAA! YES!

To everyone at home:

Thank you for reading my blog. Seeing your comments really makes my whole day. I'm sorry I don't comment back but paying for internet time is kind-of a bore. But please keep 'em comin'!

I miss you all so much and cannot wait to show you how much I love you when I get home.


  1. Sara, I am the worst blog follower ever (I cannot even follow my own brother's blog!) but reading that one post really made me smile, and I'm sure that now I will just HAVE to follow yours! You are amazing Sara and reading what you've written makes me believe even more that heroes are just everyday people doing a little something extra. Today, you are my hero Sara. :)

  2. I try to continually read this blog and see what you are up to in Africa. Today, I sit in tears and can not begin to tell you how incredibly proud I am and blessed to be able to call you my friend. You are honestly one of the most amazing women I've ever met, and I can certainly say that I am a better person because of the friendship you've shared with me. These people are so lucky to have you and I know that you feel just as lucky to be there with them. You are making a difference.

    I love you very much.

  3. Wow. I've been talking to you on the phone, and it has all sounded amazing, but getting the chance to read your narrative with your heartfelt writing voice was a blessing. Macy is right. And so is Ainsley. And so is Megan. You're a beautiful and incredible woman spreading love, care, and essential support to people around the world. I can already tell that you are growing into an ever deeper and wiser woman than the Sara I left, and I can't wait to hear about all of your incredible experiences while I look into your eyes and hear it all. I love you. Keep changing and saving lives Sara.

  4. That story about the bracelet is so beautiful, Sara! I can just picture your little face scrunching up and your little hand going on your chest!