Monday, July 20, 2009

Lake Manyara & Ngorongoro crater

Dear friends & family,

It's week 4 here in Tanzania. I can't believe I have already been here a month. Nearing the half-way point on my time here, has made me realized how much work there is to do. Two months is not nearly enough. However, I will have to make the most of it! My goal is to be completely and utterly exhausted when I arrive in Florida on August 16th.

To summarize my past week, I will begin with stating that it has been a rather short period of time in Kolila b/c we entered our 3-day weekend (time off for volunteers) on Friday. After returning from Arusha last Monday, we only had four days in the village. My group decided to make the most of it & teach in the most vast place we could think of for Kolila: The Sokoni! (english translation: the market)

The sokoni has an official "market day" every Tuesday and Friday where hundreds and hundreds of people come into Kolila to stock up on various produce & products. After gaining word that our "Art Group" friends from last week, had access to a stero system, we knew we could teach in the market on Friday. The Art Group supplied us with 5 stereo speakers & 3 microphones, in agreement that they would be able to perform for the crowd as well. The group had prepared several skits, raps, songs, and other performances about HIV. Though most were comical or satirical, they were highly educational about the epidemic. I am always grateful when artistic people can use creative ways to educate other than lecturing.

So everyone knows I like to be on stage, right? :) WELL, not only did I have a microphone, but our group taught on a major platform in the market. Put Sara Conklin on a stage with a microphone and you know things are about to get crazy. We had so much fun cheering with the crowd and having small competitions to see who was the loudest volunteer. Guess who won? The blonde-haired Mzungu. Johnson would scream "TESTING DAY!" And I would return with "NEXT FRIDAY!" After repeating these phrases over and over, the crowd had to applaud to see which one of us was the loudest. They loved it! It not only grew the attention on the crowd, but solidified us teachers who care about the community.

Small steps to reduce the stigma around American volunteers is always a good thing. It's a common belief amongst villagers that westerners come into Africa and try to change everything. Then once they do, they leave to go home as quickly as possible. SIC works to make every educational opportunity sustainable. We want the education to continue after we leave. For example, when we are teaching a group of Midwives, we not only instruct about HIV, but train them to educate HIV+ mothers in their village as well.

Back to the sokoni teaching: Can you guess how many people were there? 648!!!! We taught 648 people about the effects of HIV and how to prevent it. All in one day! We managed to keep the crowd's attention for over 3 hours as we prepared the lesson and the Art Group performed in between teachings. We also emphasized our testing days over & over & over again. Hopefully we have ensured that hundreds of Kolila villagers will be at out HIV testing day this Friday.

After all our hard work, going into Arusha seemed like a blessing. We could relax for a little while and process the volume of the teaching we had just done. I have never been so proud of my teaching group; everyone put their hearts and souls into reaching that crowd.

On Saturday in Arusha, 2 Safari trucks were waiting outside Meru Inn to pick up 15 of the volunteers for our 2-day Safari! On Saturday we were going to visit Lake Manyara, then Sunday would be spend in Ngorongoro Crater.

It was about a two hour drive to Lake Manyara from Arusha. Lake Manyara National Park is a shallow freshwater lake in Tanzania, that is surrounded by African Wildlife. It is fairly small (only 127 sq. feet) , so there are greater opportunities of seeing animals in one day.

Upon arriving in the National Park, our Safari driver popped the top off of the truck so we could stand half-way outside and half-way inside, protected from being eaten by lions ;). We saw ELEPHANTS IMMEDIATELY and I cried with excitement! I'm lucky that my favorite animal in the world is very plentiful in Africa. You also can't miss seeing an elephant, even when it's trying to hide. My favorite part was when the baby elephant came running up the truck and stood right next to me; I wish so badly I could have reached out and touched it! Of course, we all stood as still and quiet as we could in the truck, so that we wouldn't disturb the wildlife too much. Plus big Mama elephant was just around the corner and we didn't want to anger her. Somehow I couldn't stop singing Winne the Pooh's "Hefalumps and Woozles" the whole time.

We visited a pool full of Africa's most deadly animal: the hippo. Turns out they kill more people than any other animal here. We kept our distance accordinly, but still enjoyed them wading around in the water. Hippos are not very attractive creatures, and somehow they manage to come across as cute and cuddly in cartoons. They are quite mean and you wouldn't want to come within a mile of those teeth!

After the elephants and hippos, we saw loads of giraffes, antelope, baboons, wildebeests, water buffalo, and warthogs. I don't think I can ever visit a zoo again and not think about Africa. It is a incredibly unique experience to take an African Safari, and you can never forget how incredible the animals looked in their natural habitats.

We spent a long day in Lake Manyara and heading to a campsite closer to the road. We pitched our tents underneath a canopy of the most stars I have ever seen, and spread out around a campfire. Without other tourists around, our group decided we could finally let out all the cheezy things we wanted to say all day.
With risk of being incredibly embarrassed, I avoided (all day) saying out loud:
* "This is so much better than Animal Kingdom!"
* "Look it's Pumba!"
* "I've seen that in disney world"
When we sat around the campfire, our smores brought out the urge to scream all those phrases in laughter and sing various "Lion King" songs with no shame. I mean really, could you go on an African safari and avoid having "the circle of life" stuck in your head?

Day two was in Ngorongoro Crater! UNBELIEVABLE! It covers about 3,200 square miles and is about the size of Crete. Our guide said there are over 25,000 wild animals living the crater. Including Black Rhinos, which are incredibly endagered. Their local population declined from about 108 in 1964-66 to between 11-14 in 1995. Can you imagine only having 11 Black Rhinos left in an entire country? And we got to see one! We also saw Lions catching their prey, multiple elephants & hippos playing, and various other exotic wildlife.

My African safari was one of the most amazing thins I have ever done. I was truly at peace with seeing the beauty of the wildlife here. It is so untouched. Without the barriers and cages of a zoo, I was able to see these creatures in their homes.

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.