The recorded ramblings of an unschooled writer, aspiring biologist, amateur equestrian, ardent bookworm, avid music appreciator, increasingly addicted runner and college student spending the summer in Ely, MN.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In and around Olisiti...

October 14, 2009

Today has been such an incredibly full and interesting day. I woke up quite early and after I put on my running clothes, just went to sit by the fire to wait for my running buddies to wake up. Around 5:30, a very large verose eagle owl dove down to hunt for prey in the tall grass just beyond the campfire only about fifteen feet from where I was sitting.

After that, I went for another run from the Peterson compound towards Mt. Meru with Alex and Laila. After a quick breakfast, the group headed for Olisiti Village.

It was a lovely walk, down a dirt road surrounded by all sort of strange African vegetation. When we arrived on the outskirts of the village, we were met by several of the village wazee (elders). With the help of our Kiswahili translators from Dorobo (Douglas, Killarai, Simon and ?, all really friendly and cool guys), they told us a little bit about traditional life in the village and then answered our questions. They were both Waarusha, a group of Maasai that differs in culture from other Maasi groups because they live an agricultural rather than a pastoral lifestyle. They showed us their family compounds (consisting of houses/huts of various styles for each wife and her children to live in) and the livestock currently living in their compounds. They all have larger shambas (farms) farther away, in the plains, that relatives manage for them, so they didn’t have too many animals with them in Olisiti, just the sick ones that needed extra attention or the ones the family was planning to use very soon.

They told us that in their culture, the youngest son inherits his fathers’ property and cares for his parents as they age. This means the older brothers must move out and seek other property on which to build their homes. This is becoming harder and harder as the city of Arusha grows bigger and residents from the city continue to move into the village. It is a huge problem for the current generation of young Waarusha men who don’t have the resources necessary to purchase what has become, financially, very, very valuable land.

While they were walking with us through the village, I saw the most wonderful sight! Three mzungu walking by on horseback! I have no idea who they are or where they came from, but I was so happy to see them. What was really cool was that the whole group was really excited for me to see them and everyone kept checking with me to make sure that I had seen them heading in our direction. I’ve never felt more homesick than in that moment when they all walked by me. I miss riding so much. At home, I spend so much of my time at the barns that in some ways it defines a large part of who I am. I don’t have that here and miss it.

Next the wazee took us to a sacred place in the village, a tree where villagers who practice traditional beliefs come to make sacrifices and pray to gods and ancestors in times of trouble. Shortly after this we had our usual mid morning break for cookies provided by the Petersons and were happy to share the snacks with the giggling gaggle of children we’d collected on the way.

After that we met several of the elected village officials, members of the 25 person council. They represent over 40 different ethnic groups that have moved into the area in addition to the Waarusha and a quarter of them must be female, so it was a very interesting contrast to the traditional wazee we’d met earlier. They talked to us about their way of governing and also explained to us that elections are occurring later this month and for the first time ever, there will be candidates from two parties running. In previous years, only the majority party has been present in Olisiti, but this year the opposition party, the Tanzanian Labor Party, is supporting about 10 candidates. Unlike in Kenya, voting does not occur primarily because of ethnic affiliations, so the current officials have no idea how this dual party system will effect their political lives.

The next place we went was a primary school. It is “Nyere Day”, a national holiday to honor and remember Tanzania’s first president (which is kind of strange, because he was very socialist in his policy and the country is now moving in the opposite direction politically and socially) on the anniversary of his death, so the children had the day off. But we were able to meet with the headmistress, who gladly answered all of our questions about primary school in Tanzania.

For public schools, the government employs and pays the teachers. The government required ratio is 45 students to one teacher, but because this school is in a particularly good locations (close to a large city, but not in it), many teachers request to be transferred there and as result, there are 58 teachers for the school, even though only 42 are required. The main problem they face is not enough classroom space – sometimes as many as 100 students must share a single room!

It was very interesting talking to the headmistress. From a purely Western standpoint, it seems very sad that only ¼-1/2 of all primary students enter high school and that very few of those continue on to university. But Tanzanians see it much more practically. After all, they reason, if you cannot apply yourself and be a good student in primary school, the odds that you will be able to do so in higher education, when the subject matter only gets more difficult, is unlikely. Also, for village life, a high school education isn’t necessary to have a successful career as a carpenter or tailor, for example. Why spend more time in school if you are a lousy student and said study isn’t going to help you get a better job or achieve a higher quality of life? And even if all students had access to higher education, would there be jobs for them that actually required such education?

It gave me a lot to think about and while I personally still feel education is one of the most important things for a person to have access to, I also realize that my perspective is coming from an entirely western point of view. I’ll be thinking about this for a long time I’m sure. How do you balance traditional expectations for education, apprenticeship and childhood with educational experiences that encompass a more global view? It’s a question that I think too many people feel that there is an easy answer for. I think if there is an answer at all, it must be an incredibly complicated one.

Then we were invited into the hut of a traditional healer. It was a tight squeeze –we just barely made it. I was sitting leaning against Devin’s knees, crushed in between Zach and Rachel, but I quickly stopped minding the cramped quarters because the healer was so interesting. She seemed to be pretty young, but obviously was very knowledgeable. She had learned about the plants and herbs and their various uses from watching the healers before her, but knew she needed to be a healer when she received a dream from the spirits telling her she should and giving her more specific information about how to use the herbs to heal people. She said that mainly she treats people for stomach aches and tends to pregnant women and delivers babies. She also has remedies for infertility, or as the translator first explained it “mens with erections problems”. Fortunately, she cracked a smile and started giggling as she explained this and it wasn’t long before the whole hut was laughing about it.

When asked about her views on modern western medicine, she said that she was very glad that it existed because there are some things that she cannot treat and she will tell people to go to the hospital in order to get the help they need if she cannot help them. I thought this was really cool as sometimes people see modern and traditional practices as being completely at odds with one another, instead of complementary as they should be.

All of us wanafunzi were very hungry by this time, so the next stop was lunch, provided by the local women’s organic gardening cooperative. They prepared a fabulous meal of ugali (Rachale and I were SO excited, the rest of the group not so much…), two delicious bean dishes, watermelon, oranges, bananas, sukuma wiki, plaintains, pilipili (chili) sauce and probably some other things that I’m forgetting about! While we were eating, a bunch of children kept creeping up and peeking under the hedge trying to catch a glimpse of all of the waznugu.

After lunch, a young woman who is a member of the community based support group for people who have HIV/AIDS spoke to us with the help of our translators. She said that she was diagnosed with HIV after her husband died in the hospital (of AIDs), and concerned friends of hers convinced her that she needed to be tested. She currently receives treatment through the community group and also goes to a weekly meeting. The members of the group use the weekly meeting as a way to discuss their health and any concerns they might have and to organize ways to help any members that might be having a particularly rough time. They also work to educate others in the community about HIV/AIDs and its prevention.

She said that education is very important and though it does occur in the schools it can be very difficult, because different groups provide different information. For example, most foreign aid health groups will give three good ways to prevent the spread of the disease: abstinence, faithfulness to one’s sexual partner (or partners, in the case of multiple wives) and the use of condoms. Organizations supported financially by the Catholic Church, on the other hand educate people of only two: faithfulness and abstinence. She told us that the Church tells that all condom use is immoral and bad.

I think this is absolutely disgusting and it makes me really glad that I no longer in any way identify as Catholic because I see something truly and deeply wrong with trying to impose morals on a society which is not equipped to adhere to them, and in doing so, essentially condemning people, many of them children (who inherit the disease from their mothers) to a terrible disease that is entirely preventable. Obviously, if one is truly living by the Catholic teachings and is being faithful to their partner, then a condom shouldn’t be necessary, but so many Africans seem to use kind of a patchwork of belief systems when it comes to mixing their traditional beliefs with those brought by missionaries, that it is impossible to know what is going to be absorbed as part of the culturally accepted beliefs and what is not. I guess I just feel that a real “Christian” should be more concerned with lessening pain and suffering rather than following some ridiculous edict that came from human, not divine sources.

After that, we went to see one of the member’s gardens. She explained to us that using the new, organic methods of farming has given the members of the group larger yields of produce, which allows them to feed their families and gives them a surplus to sell at the market and provides important income for their families. I was really impressed by all of these women and by the obvious pride they take in their work. They really made me feel hopeful and happy because they are making such a big difference in the quality of lives for their families because of their dedication and hard work. It really just cemented my belief that any sort of lasting change that makes real difference in people’s lives must come from a grass roots approach.

Before we went back to the Peterson’s compound, we had one final stop. We went to the Orphan House in Olisiti. The Orphan House isn’t an orphanage. Rather, its an after school type program where children who have lost one or both parents (and are living with friends or relatives) or children who being in some neglected can come to learn different skills and speak with other kids or adults about the challenges they are facing. The children have the option of joining different clubs. They have an art club, HIV/AIDs club (an educational program that is cumposlary for all Orphan House students), bird watching club, carpentry club and tailoring club. The idea is to teach the students marketable skills that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn otherwise so that they will have a way to support themselves. As they improve their work, some of it is even taken to the market to sell so they begin to earn some income of their own in order to pay for school uniforms, fees and other expense.

The man who started the program is actually one of our translators. His name and is ? and is an incredible man. As he told the story he lived in a very happy family situation until his mother died and then his father was injured in a gun fight and ended up with severe mental problems that resulted in him becoming addicted to alcohol. Alhough ? had always been top of his class, his father demanded tha the drop out from school to work. ? refused and his father disowned him so he went to live with his brother. His brother was poor, so it was his responsibility to earn his own school fees and he did this in a variety of ways, making paintings, doing carpentry work, guiding safaris, working as a porter on Kilimanjaro, doing odd jobs for a group of nuns, etc. He managed to make it through secondary school, an incredible feat and was working for Dorobo Safaris (the Petersons) when a group of American tourists got talking to him about his upbrining.

He told them his story and also about his dream to create a place for orphans to go and learn so they will not have to struggle like he did. They believed in him and created the Friends of Tanzanian Orphans Fund and raised enough money to help him get the center started. He had just finished building a house for his own personal residence, but decided that the orphans needed it more than he did and so he donated it to be the place for the Orphan House. He is only twenty eight years old and already he has made an unebelieveably large difference in the lives of so many children.

The one common thread connecting all of these amazing people working to better their community is the Petersons. They are so involved in Arusha and Olisiti working with all of these projects and in many cases starting them, by first talking to the community about their needs and facilitating ways to make it happen, such as transporting the gardening women to a horticultural college to learn the basics of organic famring and then arranging for experts in the field to come to the village to give seminars on the subject. They use their safari company “Dorobo Safaris” as a way to raise money for the “Dorobo Fund”, a non-profit organization they have set up to help fund all of the different local, grassroots organizations they support.

I have so much more to say, but almost no battery left on the laptop. Perhaps there will be time for more reflection on all of this tomorrow – but perhaps there will be even more to write about!


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