Live from Kwala August 2010 – March 2011

March 8th, 2011: Contributed by Alex Rosenberg


March has been crazy busy. I spent the end of February up to last Friday preparing for the Kwala Committee Meeting, the first of 2011 at the Kwala Clinic and Dispensary. These meetings bring together the heads of Kwala Secondary School, Mahundi Primary School, the local government, and the clinic. We come to discuss past and current NTC projects, issues concerning education, and potential initiatives proposed by the different groups. This means meeting with each group to discuss projects; pestering them to come up with a budget and finish on time; rescheduling when they cancel; coming again; writing the proposals; translating the documents; briefing them on the agenda; sending endless reminders through text messages; and then, well…the actual meeting.

So when the rain started to pour even before we left for the clinic, I pretty much lost it. Insert picture of steam coming from Alex’s ears, face red as a beet. But I took a deep breath and said it was okay. I couldn’t control everything even though I wanted it to be perfect. At that point I relinquished myself to whatever would follow, come rain or sunshine.

But the rain slowed to a drizzle, we bought sodas, and everyone arrived on time. The previous antagonisms and subterranean hostilities that were present in the last KCM appeared to be absent now. We even made jokes and laughed during the meeting. Perhaps tensions were eased by the charming and ever-appeasing Mr. Mitmingi, who took the place of the KWASS headmaster (he couldn’t attend). We have welcomed Mr. Mitmingi into the NTC family since he now acts as the second headmaster. Or perhaps it was the cramped room of the clinic that fostered the casual atmosphere since we were forced to huddle together rather than speak at an imposing distance from one and another.

Either way, I would say that of the three Kwala Committee Meetings I’ve participated in, this one was the most effective. Communication is key; people chose to speak freely, expressing their thoughts and opinions and asking questions about the NTC projects. A few days later, I talked to one member who agreed, as he said that they were able to clear up confusion over how funds were being used for different projects.

Mahundi proposed a new project to stock classrooms with textbooks and a new a cupboard to store the books. The increase of textbooks will reduce the number of students sharing textbooks by 50-75%. The committee unanimously approved it, a decision so implicit that we had to double check that everyone agreed.


After the meeting, we shook hands and dashed right off to Dar es Salaam for a special mission. Marika and I were tasked with purchasing t-shirts for Project Repat, an exciting assignment and welcomed break from our normal schedules. We had a lot of fun rifling through piles and piles of t-shirts, examining the pictures and texts, and then yelling at each other from afar when we found something hysterical. On Sunday, Baba Msangi joined us to look for shirts around the Ubungo markets, and we had a nice lunch together. Of course that was ruined when clumsy Alex proceeded to spill soda all over Msangi. Not the first time, I can assure you. We packed a total of 125 shirts and sent them off to Arusha by bus. It was difficult not to keep them for ourselves, they were so cool. But I’d rather see some lucky hipster in America wearing them!

February 27th, 2011: Contributed by Marika Mura

Travelling on the pikipiki on the way to Kwala I feel amazing to discover how green is the countryside around us. Few days of rain have changed all the scenery around us.

Kids greet me with big smiles, waving their hands. I wonder why they are not in school. I feel sad; there must be so many kids in Tanzania that live in the outskirts of the world, confined to their small reality, working in the land under the sun with no possibility to attend any school. Every time I run on a pikipiki I remember why I am here. I realize the importance of our small projects, I think believing in dreams it’s the start to make great things. And I see hope in the eyes of the kids in Kwala, when they ask me and Alex for books. NTC has brought great changes, thanks especially to the determination of Lisa, which made the kids love the books and the wazungu.

On these pikipiki rides I also think at how lucky I feel. I had everything I wanted from life, all the support I needed during my studies and an easy life. I wish my students could be able one day to feel in the same way. During last week we have chosen the new girls to sponsor through NTC, and I really want to thank the sponsors, hoping that this will be a new start for Sijapata, Zuhura, Joyce and Aruna. Their academic performance is not great, but they try their best. I think what is more important is their attitude towards education, their willing to learn and to get a better future. Maybe their performance will get better now that we are supporting them with school material, allowing them to sleep and eat in the school. I think we found the right girls to sponsor. They have great problems in their families, but they also have big dreams for their future. I really wish we can help them realize their ambitions. We are helping them to build their future. Maybe one day they will look back and feel lucky too.

The adult English classes have started again, with old and new students. It is surprising how different it is to teach to them and to teach to a class of teenagers, or in the case of Alex, to a class of kids. Teaching is a hard job! I had my bad moments few days ago. Unfortunately no matter how hard I try sometimes I realise the “kids” do not take English seriously. And this is mainly because they are not afraid of me. I tried with the idea “if I respect them they will surely respect me” and also “They should study because they understand the importance of it and not because they are afraid of me”. But let’s be honest. We are talking about teenagers. And at their age I was exactly like them. Of course they care more about friends, and love-stories-drama. Of course they don’t do the homework if there is no material reward to gain, or no material punishment (for them this means corporal punishment, or hard work under a boiling sun). Understand the importance of education? Listen to adults? Parents’ supervision? Western ideas. Here the reality is another. It’s not easy. It’s frustrating. I came back with a clear objective. Make the most of my students pass Form two examination. If they fail, I fail. And even if sometimes they give me a hard time, they also are the reason of my presence here. They make my days, with smiles, happiness or anger and frustration.

Next week there will be the Kwala Committee meeting, and it will be hosted by the clinic. We hope to get some good projects ‘proposals, so we can start another great project!

Alex started teaching computers to the kids at the primary school, with the project OXO “one laptop per child”. Grande Alex. I wish we could have more than 5 laptops. I look forward to start again the computer lessons at the secondary school.

Looking forward to the next pikipiki ride under the rain,

Tutaonana Jamani!

January 31st, 2011: Contributed by Alex Rosenberg

After a difficult week, Marika and I are happily back in Kwala. We have resumed our teaching—she at Kwala Secondary School and I at Mahundi Primary School. There is a current lack of teachers at KWASS, so Marika has taken over both Form 1 and 2 English. I have followed my Standard 4 students from last year to Standard 5. The curriculum is remarkably more demanding, and my expectations have risen after seeing how the Standard 7 and Form 4 students fared on their final exams. It is quite easy to fall into the habit of paying attention only to the good students since they are ones who volunteer answers in class. But the ones who need help the most are quiet. So Cool-Teacher-Alex has left the classroom. He has been replaced by Strict-But-Nice-Teacher-Alex. Yes, I will call on you if you aren’t paying attention. Yes, you have homework every day. No, you can’t write in sentence fragments. In only three years, my students will be required to write in English for the majority of their tests in Secondary School. If they pass the Standard 7 exam, that is. I am trying to prepare them as best as I can. If I can successfully teach the Standard 5 curriculum, they will be well on their way.

The Book Voucher Program at Mahundi Primary School is carrying on at its weekly pace. Students have been demanding English-Swahili and Swahili-English dictionaries, and after finishing our recent supply of books, we have fulfilled their wish with a recent visit to the book publisher Mkuki na Nyota. Really, these dictionaries are extremely helpful. They allow students to translate texts from English to Swahili for reading comprehension and to construct sentences in English for writing assignments. Even adults in Kwala have been asking for the dictionaries—just for their personal use. I can’t wait to introduce them into the Adult English program, where they will be a big hit.

Marika and I are in the process of selecting new girls for the NTC Girls Scholarship program. The difficult part is trying to balance the student’s financial need with her academic achievement. Similar to the education gap in America, the problem in Kwala is that often the students who perform well in school are the ones who come from well-off families. They are already able to pay their tuition fees. Their families understand the value of education and encourage them to attend school rather than to stay at home and help make money. I see students milling around in the street and ask them why they are not in school. Marika and I have travelled as far as Mlandizi to investigate why a certain student hasn’t returned this year. They all reply that they have no money. But from past experience, we hesitate to enroll students into the NTC Girls Scholarship program without academic promise. Too often, it seems as though goodwill can be misconstrued as handouts, which are then taken for granted. It can be trying, but I am sure we will find the right new girls.

January 6th, 2011: Contributed by Marika Mura

61087_10150275007065501_504915500_14923931_4589159_nAnd so, here we come. I’m trying to write my first blog sitting on the balcony of my house in Italy, during these last days of crazy holiday before going back to Kwala. It was very sad news to hear that Emma is not going back to Kwala. She was my dearest friend over there for 5 months, and we basically did everything together. It was however a pleasure to discover that Ross thought I could deal with the responsibilities of NTC Project Director in Kwala and could try to take her place and help Alex.

I arrived in Kwala in July, with another volunteer organisation. However, despite having made a “donation” to the organisation I immediately realised that the organisation I left with had no presence in the village of Kwala, and no projects (they later said to me I was their project (?)…. mah!). Having left London with the concern of friends and family who all thought I was crazy to leave to Tanzania by myself, I started to feel a bit crazy myself as I was on a motorbike to Kwala the first day in July. It had always been my dream, but I was in the middle of nowhere, by myself. It was a relief to meet Lisa a few days after I arrived. She introduced me to the people in the village, giving me that confidence I didn’t yet have. NTC was my real support in Kwala. Then Alex and Emma arrived, school started, and we had a group of volunteers for few weeks to keep us busy. The first month flew by very quickly, I was supposed to only stay for two and a half months. I soon realised that I wanted to stay longer. I hadn’t even learnt the names of all my students yet. The community was extremely welcoming, and my students… oh well, it’s impossible not to love them! In brief, I changed my ticket home until December. I was going to stay in Kwala for 5 months now. I can say that my decision was quite a surprise, for myself first, but also for Alex and Emma, and the rest of the community I was close to in Kwala. But I can honestly say it was probably one of the best decisions I ever took, changing the path of my life completely and giving my experience a whole new flavour.

73108_10150326185865501_504915500_15906387_3677644_nI soon realised even December was too close. I was going to come back in January. And I was mostly doing that for my students. I promised, I didn’t say goodbye. And so here I am, thinking back at my experience so far, and thanking my family and NTC for giving me the opportunity to carry on with this great experience. I heard so many people calling me brave and congratulating me for the life I chose. For me this is the best life I could live, and I do not regret choosing to live without comforts if this means being happy and trying to improve the life of other people that are less lucky than us. Living without comfort…it’s not as hard as it may seem, when you are surrounded by smiles and life seems so easy and rich. Really I have Kwala in my heart, and I guess each one of us has. Working with NTC will be a great experience, and an honour, since a small organisation has proven to be much more meaningful than other big organisations, dealing with the real exigencies of the community and trying to build hopes and friendship. I will join Alex in Dar Es Salaam the 16th, in 10 days, excited and ready to start again. Tutaonana badaaye!

November 11th, 2010: Contributed by Emma Cohan

Ndugu ya NTC,

My apologies for not updating the blog recently. Maybe I am settling into village life a little too well, because I now appear to be on Tanzanian time with my deadlines. The past few weeks have also thrown me a few curveballs. Alex, my fellow coordinator, had to depart suddenly for scholarship interviews. I had to spend almost a week in Dar navigating the treacherous waters of Tanzanian bureaucracy to avoid getting deported. Now I have only a little over two weeks to get all the NTC business in order before the holidays. Yikes.

Right now the Kwala Committee is working to get electricity to Mahundi Primary School. The proposal was passed at last month’s Kwala Committee meeting with the stipulation that the committee meet again to choose the Fundi (or workman) who will do the wiring. So this meeting was held Tuesday. It was actually just a follow up meeting, so less intense than usual, but I was pretty nervous because it was my first time conducting NTC business as sole project director. Then the head teacher of Mahundi, and point person for the project, didn’t show up (it turned out he had been called away to a seminar, information that would have been helpful to have been given a heads up about). Next, the committee called for an additional budget that I hadn’t thought to prepare. By this point I was pretty much panicking, thinking that the meeting was just going to fail. But somehow it didn’t. With the village chairman’s help, we managed to get the meeting back on track.

We interviewed both potential fundi’s about their qualifications, expenses, and timelines. Each of the members listened carefully, took notes, and asked thoughtful questions. Then the Fundis left and we settled in to make our choice. It kind of made me feel like we were on So You Think You Can Dance judging contestants (minus all the dramatic pauses from Cat Deeley). The deliberation was actually pretty simple and we arrived at a unanimous decision quickly. After outlining a few of the next steps for the project, the meeting concluded. Thus, it appears the project is well underway, and if all goes to plan (which lets face it, in Tanzania it rarely does) it should be completed in a few weeks. But even more importantly, of course, I survived my first solo committee meeting! Go me!

This week, in addition to stepping up for NTC, I also had to put my leadership abilities to the test in throwing my and Marika’s first party here in honor of Marika’s birthday. Arranging social engagements has never been a strength of mine, and as usual we left it to the last minute. Figuring out who to invite, how much food to cook, and how to get all the awesome African jams we love to dance to became a little stressful. Marika, Lilian (our friend and housemate), and I started cooking around 5pm, figuring three hours would be enough (of course it wasn’t and the food was an hour late). Meanwhile other friends went to get sodas and set up speakers. So we were all assembled, Marika, myself, most of the Secondary staff, plus some other special guests, by 9pm and ready to chow down. The only issue was that in Tanzania all celebrations are sort of “MC”ed by a host, so as the main “thrower” of the party that responsibility fell to me. Which meant welcoming everyone in terrible Swahili, calling up guests in the correct order to get food, making time for speeches to Marika, deciding when to do cake, and finally opening the floor for dancing. With some prodding from the headmaster, I managed to awkwardly succeed, but it wasn’t until most of the guests departed around 11 pm that I managed to really relax and join the festivities wholeheartedly. Then a small group of us tore up the dance floor (or as Alex likes to say, danced it out) for another few hours, way past midnight, in accordance with true Kwalan tradition. It was an exhausting, but totally worthwhile night, and our Kwala friends told us that they appreciated greatly being part of a real “mzungu” birthday party celebration. In fact, they said, they want to see the tradition expand amongst themselves. I just hope this doesn’t entail Marika and I having to make birthday cakes for everyone in Kwala from now on, haha.

So I think that about sums up the Kwala happenings for the time being. I hope you enjoyed hearing a little about both the professional and personal side of living in here.

Thanks for reading!


October 11th, 2010: Contributed by Alex Rosenberg

On the front of Mahundi primary school there are large letters that read, “Elimu ni ukombozi.” Roughly translated, they mean, “Education is Freedom.” But this freedom has nuances. According to one of the primary school teachers, ukombozi is like struggling in the dark and then coming into the light. The teacher waved her hand over the whole of the school and explained, “It is just something to keep in mind as motivation.” So education is freedom; it is light; it is this and that—an ennobling ideal. And it serves as a reminder not only to teachers, but also to students and parents. I think about the phrase every time I return to the school for our NTC Adult English program. We have just begun to teach adults English language skills within the Kwala village. Now—the hope is—the village as a whole will also recognize and appreciate the phrase.

The classes are going well. We tackle difficult grammar topics like verbs, subjects, pronouns, and adjectives. We build our classes around certain vocabulary sets: greetings, family, work, school, etc. The participants listen intently and repeat the words out loud. They guess what action we are portraying as we act out verbs. But how do we describe a grammar rule that does not exist in Swahili? That is when we get creative.

One participant wears a crooked smile that jerks up and down with the foreign contortions of the phrase: “I….am….from…Kwala.” Each word is announced into the air with visible effort. She laughs when I instruct her in Swahili to ask her husband the same questions. I smile and wait for her to proceed.

The adults in the English class are hungry to learn. They finish their homework before they even leave the classroom, and those who are courageous may ask us questions. No one forces them to come or beats them if they stay at home. They have traveled through life a little longer than regular students. Perhaps they see the importance of education—any education, however large or small. And as a teacher from the secondary school explained it to me, their friends will become jealous that they are learning English and will join the class. So education is also a distinction; it is a status marker; and perhaps it is contagious.

People come from all over the village. There are those whom I recognize from other areas of my life in Kwala: Omari, the village representative, Mama Muhsin, my host mother, and Zaina, who runs the Village Reading Corner. However, one of the greatest rewards from the NTC Adult English program is that I am able to connect with adults whom I would not normally encounter during my time working with the schools.  Here, is a forum. Here, is an ongoing dialogue: half in English, half in Swahili. We come together with a purpose to learn from one another.

The best part is that I can bug my students in English now. I get to sneak up on them from behind, call out something like, Good Afternoon! They turn around, stunned for a second, in the middle of buying food from a shop or talking to a friend. If they have some background in English, they reply, and the conversation goes from there. So far, it has yet to end.

September 12th, 2010: Contributed by Emma Cohan

As I write this I am sitting on our porch, watching darkness start to win the battle against the pink tinged sky, finding myself pleading with the universe to make the sunset last just a little longer. In the cool serenity that settles in around Kwala in the early evening I feel so completely at ease. I watch the chickens amble around, see the students across the way washing their clothes in bright orange buckets, and hear the sounds of bongo flavor and political speeches intermingling in the air. It is hard to remember in these moments the searing heat of the afternoon or the mosquitoes that will soon be on the attack. For a couple hours Kwala feels like paradise and the educational, economic, and health issues we are working to improve slide to the background. All I feel is joy and gratitude to be living here and experiencing my senses overwhelmed with the beauty of golden sinking light over the Kwala Kwala trees and shrubs.

I am in a particularly peaceful mood right now because this evening marks the end of a three day holiday weekend celebrating the conclusion of Ramadan. I had never celebrated Eid before, but Kwala was the perfect place to change that. Tanzania is about half Muslim, so it is a very important occasion for the whole community. Families come together from far and wide. It was wonderful because I got to eat delicious arrays of food, meet new members of our host family, and be invited to many gatherings. The only downside were some awkward interactions around families tried to set me up with visiting sons.

Looking back on the weekend I realize that I have crossed a juncture in adjusting to life here. While I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, I remember my first several weeks I felt so timid and embarrassed by my bad Swahili that being around the villagers for too long was scary. I liked to stride through the village quickly, preferably with another of the volunteers at my side, exchanging hellos but little else. The communication barriers greatly restricted who I could talk to and learn from here. Recently, however, I have begun to actually take the villagers up on their offers to come over to visit or chat. Even though I still understand only about ten percent of what they say, I find myself somehow able to scrape together some sort of conversation or jokes that go a little past greeting. It may not sound like much, but as a result I feel so much more connected to the essence of the community.

Usually the conversations are very simple and revolve around the host offering me something they are cooking. However, a few times the chats have become surprisingly in-depth, evolving into family histories that usually include picture showing. These stories are often marred by accounts of tragic losses from malaria. In these moments I find myself at a loss, equipped only with the words “pole sana” which seem hardly adequate to express the sympathy I want to offer. It is hard to be here and see a curable disease causing so much suffering. Even though I am proud to be working with NTC to improve education, which ultimately benefits economic opportunities and health for the village, it is still difficult to feel powerless against such a widespread problem that doesn’t exist in the Western world.

But for now I let the large local troubles fade away as I look up at the stars that have emerged over the course of my writing. The electricity has just gone out for the village, a fairly regular occurrence here. I should be frustrated, like everyone else, but all I can think of is how romantic the house looks when lit by torch lamps and how nice the stargazing will be. I better rest up tonight because we have a very important week ahead. Form IV is graduating on Wednesday and we have all spent the past two weeks practicing and planning for it at the Secondary School. Keep your fingers crossed that I won’t get called on to give a speech in Swahili.

Usiku mwema!


September 2nd, 2010: Contributed by Project Director Alex Rosenberg

The crowd of children was growing larger. They sat before me in a circle as we read in Kiswahili the story of Katope, a boy made from dirt so that his parents could have a child. I gazed around the circle of faces and saw some of the children reading along with the books I had provided, others listening in concentration. Their expressions slowly opened like morning flowers with delight, both from the story itself and from the sheer realization that they, too, understood the story. Suddenly, the world did not feel so staggeringly vast, nor the Tanzanian village so foreign. Something was transfixed and held there—this shared moment of reading. We had all come together to imagine who this boy was, to sit in poignant silence after he melted into the rain.

Reading and writing can give voices to marginalized communities, like the children of developing countries, who do not have a concept of childhood. Reading for pleasure—much less writing for pleasure—is unheard of in Tanzania. Children often live to serve, whether they are government students carrying buckets of water and cleaning up classrooms, or street-children begging for money and food that their parents collect from them each night. But in Kwala, where NTC has worked to create literacy and education projects, reading and writing are quickly becoming their imaginative playgrounds.

Would it not be a strange sight to walk down the road and encounter a young girl calling out for a kitabu? And yet it happens here. At the very least, I am able to provide an escape from trying circumstances; at the most, inspiration, creativity, and a means to a better life. The potential routes of promoting an interest in literature are endless.

Yesterday, I set out with a book in hand to visit the family by the small dirt path. In awkward Kiswahili, I had promised to read with them after they had returned from their sun-dried sojourn. This, then, is an account of what happened, with all its burning lights and exaltations.

There is a certain slant to the light in Kwala that you cannot help but notice. It is less like seeing than being seen, existing in this luminary village half self-aware, half unconscious of where you are going or what you are doing. I catch it as I look at the plants beside the shortcut into the village. I tramp along as though I were setting out on an expedition into the jungle, when in reality I merely struggle to step lightly between the bramble and bushes that dot the sandy walkways. Suddenly, I remember I am in Tanzania; I have left America’s backyard; and I am here to….read. Really?

Stephen Graham described the same phenomenon in The Gentle Art of Tramping: “And as you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach of a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.” The light in Kwala is that great door, one that flashes an entrance when you least expect it.

Please, step inside.

We kneeled down on the mat together, the mother with her child snuggled between the book and her outstretched arms. I took a sip of water from my bottle and turned to read the title, Je, Mimi ni Nani? The letters on the page cohered into words that fell from my own tongue and lips. I pointed to cows that go moo! and chickens that screech koko riko! The boy stuck his small hand out and placed it on the picture of a cat. His mouth opened with the clear shape of an O and intoned: mpaka. Pig, they were not quite sure of—where would they see one in Kwala? But in this small moment of guessing games, I was reminded of how it feels to read for the first time. I myself became that boy or girl in Kwala, sifting through sentences, trying to form connections, creating my own meaning and value.

The mother smiled and thanked me as I got up gingerly from the ground. She offered me what looked like a variation on maandazi. I smelled the loam soil on her hands and the burnt cooking oil from afar. We spoke about those who had left and those who may return. I ate the cake. I gave the kid a pat on the shoulders. This world was enough.

Walking back home, I thought of nothing, my mind blank and cool. I was happy. It was then that I turned to look at the family, the mother playing with her child, and saw the light again through the trees. It enflamed the small figures around the shrubs and dirt mounds, as the colors ran to meet my feet on the grass. The sight had knocked me full force like the gale of some invisible being’s breath. I was sent out, scattered, all my faculties a blur. So here was what I was waiting for; here is what I will wait for. The light has long since died, but I am still burning its energy. I have only so much time here, only so much time to read with others, to live by necessity and without hesitation, to imagine and create my own language: a communion with the village, a mix of Kiswahili and English, of meetings and passings, greetings and exchanges, spreading literature as though it were a sacred rite or ritual. These lights come and go in Kwala, always dispersing and rarely loitering, but when they do arrive, the dry earth cracks open in a blaze, and somewhere a door opens between the sky and mountains.

So I stretch. So I continue to read.

August 22nd, 2010: Contributed by Project Director Emma Cohan

Hey Friends!

So I have to admit it’s a little intimidating to be writing my first blog as one of NTC’s project directors. I have been here for a little over a month and without realizing it some of the culture shock and newness have worn off and been replaced by routine and subconscious adjustment. Thus, I don’t really know where to begin in trying to express my perceptions of life here so far. Rather than attempt to start at the beginning I think I will just jump in with some of my reflections for the week.

The phrase that keeps sticking in my head this week is “It is our culture…”. It is used in various ways. Last night Alex (my fellow project director), Marika (a volunteer from the UK) and I cooked dinner with three of the primary school teachers. As we sat down on a straw mat in their courtyard they expressed concern over if we were comfortable sitting on the floor, even though it was “their culture” to eat and cook this way. We were so excited to be sharing our evening with these women and we gladly joined them on the mat. It felt very cozy and intimate to sit cross-legged together as we chatted and passed the chapati bowl around, adding ingredients. We stayed late into the night, “telling stories” (the Tanzanian phrase for socializing and joking around) and listening to music together. At the end of the night, our hosts insisted on walking us back home part way. When we told them they needn’t bother, they again explained to us that it was their culture to do so and that they enjoyed escorting us in this manner.

I heard the phrase again tonight when I was attempting to help the Msangi family carry water buckets from the water tap back to the house. As I struggled pathetically with a few small buckets, two of the teenage girls easily hoisted large buckets onto their heads and efficiently strode back to the house. They repeated the process several times, passing me as I progressed “pole pole”(slowly slowly). The girls consoled me that “it was their culture” to carry water buckets and that I too would eventually master the task. They also applauded my efforts at hauling water, saying that they were glad I was learning to live like them.

While one of NTC’s goals is to promote cultural exchange between communities on a wide scale, I also find myself continually amazed by the micro cultural interactions that I am privy to here by living in Kwala and working for NTC. Sometimes these exchanges are very explicit, like when the high school students teach me chants in Kiswahili or when Mr. Msangi tells me I need to have a dress tailored out of a kanga so I can look like a proper Tanzanian woman. Other times the glimpses I get into the culture are more subtle. From gossiping with some of the young women I learn indirectly about what dating is like here. From visiting Mama Annu while she is cooking I learn about eating etiquette. (It turns out that it is unacceptable to join for the cooking and leave without eating. This lesson came at the price of having to eat double dinners and a resultant stomachache).

The more I interact with people here, the more I realize how proud they are of their culture and see the confidence and pride with which they show it off. I find myself hoping that I too have something to offer as an ambassador from where I come from, on behalf of myself, family, and nation. However, negotiating a balance of allowing my individual and western differences to come through, while at the same time blending in respectfully to the norms of Kwala, can be a little tricky with my active lifestyle. Every time I ask advice on whether it is OK to play soccer in shorts or take driving lessons on a piki piki, the advice I always get is “just be free” from my friends in Kwala, yet sometimes I remain skeptical.

Fortunately for me, there have now been so many Western visitors to Kwala that the whole village is pretty immune to wazungu wachizi (crazy foreigners) and they seem to tolerate our antics with curiosity and amusement. Still, as a long term guest in Kwala I think it is important to be sensitive to respecting local values in order to avoid serious culture clashes. Fortunately, the more that I interact, ask questions, and continue to participate in cultural exchanges with an open mind, the more I think I will succeed in living in harmony here.

So I think that about covers my cultural insights after month one here. I look forward to sharing more with you all on this subject as I become more immersed in life in Kwala over the coming year.

Thanks for reading!


August 14, 2010: Contributed by Alan Rosenbaum, medical student and NTC volunteer

The opportunity to work in the Kwala dispensary has provided the means for me to learn about medicine in a Sub-Saharan African rural setting and to see cases that are rare in western hospitals. The experience has not disappointed, and throughout the course of my stay I saw many conditions that were relatively alien to me: terrible infections, bizarre skin conditions, crippling traumatic injuries, and debilitating developmental disorders. It is true there were the familiar foes, those common ailments that can be found the world over, but here these diseases seem all the more intimidating. Often patients lack access to health care so their illnesses fester and advance; they might delay seeking treatment until their state is unmanageable, waiting until it becomes so incapacitating that they have no other options. To make matters worse, it is not uncommon that their condition has been complicated by a prior visit to a tribal healer or witch doctor.

It is in this setting that I encountered a great concern for the local people: sexually transmitted infections (STIs).  The HIV epidemic of Sub-Saharan Africa needs no introduction – Tanzania has an estimated 7% of her people infected with HIV – but the unfolding catastrophe affects even the village of Kwala. Nearly 0.5% of the residents of Kwala are found to be new cases of HIV annually. Of particular concern is the fact that it is frequently students at the secondary school who seek care at the dispensary for STI symptoms, …

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