Jenn is a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Tanzania and she is just two months away from completing her service! Way to go Jenn!
Above, Jenn is standing behind her house wearing a tradition ‘kanga’, a skirt/wrap that her host mother made her, while holding a jembe, which is a widely-used farm tool that locals use to garden and manage crops.
Today, Jenn is going to share with us her experience working and living in Tanzania!
When and where do you serve in the Peace Corps? Did you get to pick your country?
What program are you in? What’s your title?
Above: Jenn’s counterpart, Obedi, is showing off his amaranth that he grows for the seeds. Amaranth, or mchicha seeds, are one of the most nutrient dense foods available in Tanzania and the leaves are a great resource of vitamins, especially iron. Jenn has been working with Obedi to find varieties in both local and new plants that are more efficient in seed and/or leaf production and produce year round. Amaranth is an extremely plant that is resistant to drought and can grow almost anywhere in any soil!
How long was your flight to Tanzania?
The flight was…a long time ago. We flew JFK to South Africa I remember, which added a few hours. In total about 28 hours plus the bus ride from Philadelphia.
Where do you live? What’s your house like? Do you live with a host family?
I live in the Southern Highlands, near the border of Malawi and Lake Malawi (they call it Lake Nyasa here but I’ve never seen that on a map). It’s the bottom Southwest portion of the country, the closest town being Njombe. I had a site change mid-service however, and my first house was in the Songea region, closer to the boarder of Mozambique.
My house now is lovely. As most houses here, it’s made of mud/clay bricks, and the inside walls and floors have cement. It has open ceilings with a simple tin roof and bars on all of the windows — I am fortunate to have a lot of windows with actual glass that let light in. I have a small walled in courtyard, and floor urinal bathroom connected to the courtyard. I have a bedroom, a storage room, and a kitchen room, as well as a living room, all in total about 350m2 of indoor space. I do most of my cleaning, washing, etc. in my courtyard.
My first house was about a 1/3 of the size, with two rooms connected by a narrow front porch where I did my cooking. I also had a courtyard, but more of quartered off section of my neighbors courtyard by a very shotty fence.
We all have host families for the first 10 weeks of pre-service training. After that my first site felt like a host family, since I was living in a family complex, but my next site it was much more private and on my own.
What’s the climate like where you live?
I lucked out! The climate of my current site is kind of like permanent fall most days. The Southern Highland is a large plateau at around 5-6,000 feet above the plains. My site sits at about 5,500 ft in elevation. It gets cold in the winter months (June – August, and some volunteers would say it gets really cold but I’m from Wisconsin) and a little hot in the dry summer months before the rains comes (October – November).
The usual rain pattern is intermediate/heavy rains from January – early May, and then no rain for the rest of the year. The rainy months will have rain almost every day, but often at night or in the early evening. These months also bring a lot of fog to my area, and so many bugs. My site is on top of a ridge, so there’s a good 10-20 mph breeze almost constantly during the dry season. This has not done any favors for my skin…but I’m happy to live in sweater weather many days. However, I hide inside for the hottest parts of the day in the hot months.
My first site was much hotter, as it was in a valley at about 2500 ft. It was much more humid as well and the yearly rain patterns are the same. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there for the rainy season, but it was probably really rainy.
What’s your transportation like in and out of your site?
What is your daily routine? Weekly routine?
My daily routine starts early because I live next to a primary school. The kids arrive around 6:30am to clean and school starts at 7:30am with songs. I work mostly in the perma-garden I built, the farm next to me, and teach about 2-3 times a week at the school depending on the teacher’s schedule.
Students and Jenn’s counterpart, Obedi, working on a garden fence (left) and students learning the importance of pulling out the entire root when weeding and caring for plant beds (right)
Class finishes at 3:20pm and I stay at school until 4:30pm or later taking care of the school gardens (farm, fetching water, etc). That’s usually the time I sneak in to get a group to help me in the garden, do an environment lesson, or invite the kids to my house to color if they have no work to do. Around 5:30pm, I like to go running since it starts getting cooler in the evening but, it depends on how much energy I have left at the end of the day! This is usually when I’ll stop to say hi to friends in my community as they are getting back from their farms as well. When the sun goes down at 7pm, I retire inside to make dinner and relax until a very early bed time at 9pm.
Students working on a world mat mural painting outside of the school
School runs Monday-Friday and many times Saturday. I go to church Sundays not because I’m religious, but because I love the people and sing in the choir (seriously youtube Tanzania choirs to get a good idea). After that on Sundays I catch up on cleaning and laundry, because cleanliness is highly prized here and I don’t wanna be the dirty foreigner. Thursdays usually involve a village government meeting, and Saturdays I frequently go to town to buy food for the week (my banking town is only about 2 hours away).
What do you eat? What are your favorite foods?
Everyone eats this stiff corn flour porridge called Ugali, beans, and very well cooked greens sometimes with a tomato sauce. I’m not a huge ugali fan, but I’ve come to crave it. Eating ugali with neighbors is the easiest way to make and keep friends. Celebrations like weddings will have rice and beans, and maybe some saucy meat. The street food is a creation of thick cut potato fries and eggs made in to an omelet called ‘chipsi mayai’ (fries eggs). An assortment of fried breads is also available any time of day, my favorite being chipati a kind of tortilla like fried bread. Sweet, scalding hot black tea (sometimes with ginger) is served with every meal and I try to always have some ready for when guests visit my house.
In areas where there’s a higher Muslim population you can always find a guy walking around and selling tiny cups of coffee. My favorite food is a morning breakfast soup which is just broth from either chicken, beef, or goat, served with a chuck of meat and chipati. Nothing but starch and oil here! But a side salad of fresh tomatoes, cabbage, and carrots usually comes with all the fried stuff. When I’m in Dar es Salaam I eat all of the most amazing Indian food thanks to the huge Indian influence and population
What is your connectivity like? How do you call friends and family?
We’re pretty fortunate, as the cell networks cover most of the country and keeps growing. I can get 3G if I stand in a field about 200m from my house and hotspot my phone in a pinch. I call this “my office” when people walk by and ask what the hell it is I’m doing sitting in a field with my computer. I can call home for about $.50 for 18 minutes and my mother is very grateful for that. The phones here all run by a voucher system, which makes me never want to sign a phone contract again because it’s so easy this way.
What language do you speak? What’s your language training like?
Tanzania is unique in that there are 123 languages, but only one official language of
Swahili that everyone speaks. We had 10 weeks of language training, and our host families spoke very little English. The training was done in small groups of 4-5 volunteers, in their corresponding Community Based Training. This was about 3 days a week, and the other 3 days of training were at a main center will all the volunteers (about 40 at the time) for technical etc. training.
Each volunteer learns basic greetings, and more if able, of the local tribal language. My tribe is the Bena, the language being Kibena. Once in a while older community members ask why I don’t know more Kibena and I have to try and explain I barely know Swahili. Swahili is a beautiful language that is very logical and phonetic. Everyone is happy to help you learn as well, and pretty shocked when you can speak fluently as a foreigner. In traveling to neighboring countries I realized how much safer and easier my time has been here by having Swahili as the universal language.
How close is the nearest volunteer to you?
For my first site — about 3 hours away. For my current site, about 45 minutes. My region has the highest concentration of volunteers, about 35 in a 100 mile radius. The roads aren’t paved in most areas, so it takes a while to get to most peoples’ houses.
What sort of work do you do in your site? What is the biggest project you are working on?
I focus mostly on teaching improved farming techniques like how to build soil structure via compost and organic fertilizers. There’s a huge push for chemical fertilizers and pesticides here, without the training of how to use them. I help farmers learn about sustainable farming practices, agroforesty, and agrobuiness. Because of the yearly rain schedule, I also teach about water catchment and permaculture.
Water availability is a huge ongoing issue as many places transition from outside support to self sustaining systems. I worked on the food security committee during my service that planned an facilitating trainings for gardening, chickens, bees, water security, agrobusiness, as well as developing an Agriculture Manual for incoming volunteers.
At my first site I taught advanced farming practices to the high school and the adult farmers, and home gardening/permagardening at the HIV/AIDs clinic to promote nutrition. I also worked with the primary school on health and environmental issues.
At my new sites I teach English and Environment classes, as well as girls empowerment through art and HIV prevention. Right now my biggest project time wise is a 160m2 permagarden with 25 vegetable beds. In this garden is also a ‘keyhole’ garden example, where a garden space is built in a circle around a compost heap.
The perma-garden (left) and the demo field (right)
The 7th grade class has about 100 avocado pits sprouting, which we will use to teach tree grafting in the next few months and to be planted at their homes and at the school. The garden has many different varieties of vegetables to begin to introduce diversification in the farming system, companion planting, crop rotation, alternative fertilizers, and mostly how to build soil and not destroy it. The school gave me a half acre plot as well where I am demonstrating different planting methods with improved corn, soy beans, sunflowers, and squash varieties. Soon I’ll be getting about 100m2 worth of orange fleshed sweet potatoes to introduce as a new crop to the community.
Field demo map (left) and perma-garden map (right)
I am mid-way through a grant project to build a kitchen for the school with fuel efficient stoves, which is partnered with the avocado tree project to promote reforestation in the area and decrease the smoke inhalation by the students. The school headmaster helps arrange when I teach and I have several counterparts in the village that help with the different projects. Unfortunately my main teaching counterpart that was helping with the Girls Empowerment club left to continue school (but good for her!).
What’s your month stipends? How much did things cost there?
We receive 488,000 tsh (Tanzanian shilling) a month, which is about $210. Most things are very cheap, and as long as you don’t treat yourself to western food or beer too much it’s enough to live on. My main expenses are food and transportation. Living in such a beautiful country makes you spend money fast however, because vacation is always expensive but Zanzibar is soooo nice.
There’s also way too much beautiful fabric here that I want to take home, which it where my stipend truly goes…
What are your biggest challenges?
There’s a lot of challenges, but the first that comes to mind is being a woman here is difficult. It’s infuriating almost daily, especially when traveling. Coming from a strong feminist mindset, to come here and have my knowledge, opinions, and training not be validated because I’m a woman really gets to me. People many times think I’m helpless, but that’s also because you’re a foreigner and you kinda are.
I joke that the first three questions any person ask are:
- 1) Are you married?
- 2) Do you have kids?
- 3) Why not?
Sometimes it varies with ‘Where are you from’ or ‘What’s your name’. The local and Western media focus of white women being one dimensional has something to do with this as well. I’ve learned to deal with it in many ways, and have become a stronger feminist from it. It takes a bit to learn to choose your battles though, and that is a steep learning curve. If I let every instance get to me, I’d go crazy, so thick skin is necessary. Like with everything though, the friends that you make and relationships you have can bridge that gap.
Tanzanian women are the strongest women I’ve ever known, and I also get a secret pass into that world that many male volunteers don’t. Luckily too I have some solid male friends here that get it, and are always willing to help. Likewise, I have an even stronger group of wonderful ladies that offer constant support and comradery as we navigate this strange patriarchy. Once I learned how to cuss out young, very rude males (usually at bus stands), I felt a lot more powerful.
Getting used to the different mentality of time and schedule belongs in the best and worst parts about being here. At first it felt like I was pushing against a wall, trying to get meetings scheduled and people to show up on time. Only two things happen on time here — big buses, and airplanes. Everything else is subject to a 2-4 hours grace period, or not showing up at all. This was frustrating at first until I realized that people value the human connection way more than being on time somewhere. Time takes a back seat to almost everything happening, and that creates an entirely different mindset of what’s important. Life’s hard enough here — why make things harder with the need to be on time to the minute? Life happens first, time happens second. Now that I’m used to it I love it and feel like my priorities were pretty distorted before.
And lastly, I’m still terrified of snakes. I always have been and I thought I’d be desensitized after moving here but unfortunately no. They’re several poisonous species in my area, including black mambas and spitting cobras are the most common. I do a house snake check every evening before bed, and wear big rubber boots when in the field or garden (found snake eggs in the garden last week!) I think it’s making me a stronger person? Three months left without a one-on-one showdown so far but there’s still time…
What is your favorite part about your Peace Corps experience?
The kindness of strangers and the availability of fruit. Almost every person I’ve met here has been unconditionally kind to me just because that’s what you do, because you’re both human beings. Outside of Dar es Salaam, I could leave my bag with a perfect strange and trust that I’ll get it back. Greetings are a big thing here, and you greet every stranger you see on the street even in larger towns. It was a little weird to get used to, but I’m honestly a bit scared to go back to America and not have that feeling. No person is a stranger for long, and just acknowledging other people you pass does wonders in feeling connected to the world and people around you.
Also, the resourcefulness here is astounding. Nothing is every wasted. I’ve seen engine parts made from sheet metal, toys made of bucket lids, and countless other ingenuities using what’s available. It’s been wonderful letting that side of me shine and grow, and having everyone around you be in the same mindsets.
It’s not a part of the culture here to complain. People just don’t. It’s seen as a sign of weakness, and generally no one is going to give you pity or commiserate with you. Even the greets don’t leave space for complaining. It’s something that has changed me, to be in a place where people have a lot to complain about but never see the need. Is it helping the situation? No. Is it bringing you closer to the person you’re lamenting to? Absolutely not. So, talk about the nice stuff, the stuff that’s going well, and the rest will figure itself out. The kids here are the best! It’s rare for me to encounter a rude or spoiled child. They just hang out, no expectation, and significantly less monitored by the parents. I feel like the only kids I hang out with are my family back home, but here it’s all the kids all the time. The students help me anytime I need it without complaint.
And lastly, I wouldn’t still be here without my dog.
Easily the best thing in my life most days. My host family got him for me when I first arrived, saying I would need a friend and guard. We’ve been together ever since, thick and thin. The culture here doesn’t include dogs as friends. For example I first named him Charlie but had to change it because it was a person name, and disrespectful to people. My vet had a dog named Jack, so somehow that was ok (I run in to some people named Jackson that aren’t too happy with his name however).
At my current site every day I win someone over to the ‘dog are the best and our friends’. He’s kind of the school mascot and just hangs out with kids all day. It took a few months for kids to understand how gentle he is, and not run away screaming. Right now I’m figuring how to get him home, because I can’t image being without him and especially readjusting to America without him. I’ll always have a little piece of Tanzania in my Savanna mutt pup.