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African Adventure – first day at WEECE

December is actually the summer in Tanzania, so the weather can reach upwards of 100 degrees farenheit. The mornings, however, are nice and cool (lovin’ the jetlag!)

After a brisk morning walk and breakfast, it was time to go to our volunteer placements. We stumbled into the van, and were slowly dropped off at our respective assignments. After an hour of rounds, I was the last one to exit the van.

I entered through a metal door into a small u-shaped courtyard and was quickly introduced in Swahili to Mama Mrema, director of WEECE. I could tell immediately that Valeria Mrema is a rare breed of woman in Tanzania . She is never afraid to speak her mind, offer her opinion, or tell you exactly what she wants. She also has a heart the size of Tanzania. It takes a very special woman like Mama to help found an organization like WEECE, inside of a country where women have been second-hand citizens for decades.

WEECE’s basic mission is to support marginalized women in the Kilimanjaro region to achieve economic stability and gender equality through micro-loans, education, and counseling/advocacy.

So what does this mean?

Well… essentially, it means that women in tough situations (abused, divorced, widowed, outcast, geographically isolated, single mothers, financially challenged, etc.) are given opportunities to become educated, self-sufficient, empowered citizens. On their own, this wouldn’t be possible, but with WEECE’s programs, they have a chance at a decent life.

Here are just a few examples of WEECE in action….

* A woman’s husband passes away and she must find a way to support her three children on her own. She gets a micro-loan from WEECE of $50 to purchase plants and garden seeds so that she can start growing and selling produce at market. She receives advice & workshop training from her fellow WEECE members and is able to make enough profit from her business to pay for her living expenses as well as her children’s secondary school education. Once her initial micro-loan is re-paid, she qualifies for a larger loan to expand her business (perhaps buying some chickens so she’ll have eggs to sell at market too!)

* A young woman whose family was never able to afford secondary school has a desire to learn valuable skills that will enable her to get a job in the community. For a nominal fee, WEECE offers vocational classes that teach each student basic conversational English, sewing, and computer/typing skills. Once her studies are complete, she will have doors opened to her that never existed before as well as a new-found confidence in her own abilities.

* Believing she is in love, a young girl gets pregnant before marriage (giant taboo in Tanzania). The father decides to leave her and the girl is now “unmarriable” with no future source of income. Certain laws in Tanzania provide for the mother to receive some funds from the biological father; however, these are rarely enforced. Through counseling and advocacy, WEECE can work with governmental commissions to ensure these girls receive at least a portion of the money due them to care for their child and will educate them on child welfare.

In addition to addressing individual needs, WEECE also works with larger communities of women to enhance their standard of living.

For example, Mama Mrema worked with the government to provide free mosquito nets to a community of Masaii tribe women who were contracting malaria at an alarming rate.

The organization has also developed multiple projects in a village called Nganjoni to educate women on their rights, reduce domestic violence, decrease malnutrition, renovate the local schools and provide a new health clinic so that they can go to the doctor without having to walk 15 miles! I’ll share much more on Nganjoni later.

Speaking of health issues, WEECE also does its part to educate women on communities on the HIV virus. Currently, 8% of the Tanzanian population is HIV-positive. That’s roughly 1 out of every 12 people. Many individuals (especially in rural areas) do not realize this disease is passed through sexual contact. The Tanzanian culture is such that husbands (more…)

African Adventure – Neema Orphanage

On our way to Neema orphanage, I was shocked to learn that many of the children that live there actually have a living parent.

Tanzanian orphanages are for children whose mothers have died. Many of them still have fathers. In Tanzania, there is no sense of obligation for the fathers to keep their children after a mother has passed away since they are unable to take care of them while they work. “Daycare” doesn’t really exist in our sense of the word. If the children are lucky, their fathers will sometimes visit on the weekends. If the fathers get re-married, it is up to the father & new mother to decide if they want to take the child back. In many cases – the answer is no.

When we arrived at the orphange, I was met with a lone pile of children’s shoes…a hint to what lay behind the building walls.

The Neema orphanage is divided into two sections – the nursery for newborns to 2-year olds and another section for those that are 2+.

We started off in the nursery. Meet Richard, Sara, & Salome.

I was amazed at how little the children cried. If you walked into an American nursery, you would be greeted with an entirely different noise level. The children that were old enough were being fed porridge from cups. The children had a few tattered stuffed animals, and those that were teething were chewing on old plastic and Vaseline bottle caps. A lone mattress was strewn across the floor.

I watched as one baby reached out to the other… “I’ll trade this bottle cap for yours” they seemed to say. They shared their meager toys without any fuss. No signs of possession or jealousy. Several got a big kick out of wearing my straw safari hat. Not too many smiles were to be found, though, and there seemed to be a hollowness in some of their faces. I managed to find a ticklish baby or two; and I have to say, peek-a-boo is a favorite in any culture.

We moved over to the older side of the orphanage. They were eating porridge mixed with rice out of metal cups. There were a couple of tattered soccer balls around, a muddy piece of broken Styrofoam, and the bottom of the empty Vaseline bottle (whose cap was over at the nursery). They seemed completely content, though, with their “toys”.

We gave them high fives, took their pictures, & let them see each image after it was taken. Unlike Tanzanian adults (who think pictures take away a piece of their soul), the kids were amazed at the digital screens that gave them a reflection of their own faces. They laughed and smiled with wide grins after looking at each pic.

As we were leaving, the orphans pulled their little bodies up against the window pane to say goodbye. “Kwaheri!” we said to each other in Swahili. It tugs at the heart, doesn’t it?

We headed back to home-base and began making plans for a holiday trip. Our volunteer group had decided to spend the long Christmas weekend together in Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater. Hard to believe that we’d be off to see lions, hippos, and rhinos in just a few days! We decided to go out on the town for dinner and take our chances at the Indo-Italian restaurant (on the safe list). 😉

Just like the name sounds, they had a full Indian and Italian menu in one place. Strange combo, eh? TAB (That’s Africa baby!) After some yummy pizza, we returned home to get ready for our first day of volunteering…

African Adventure – meeting the neighbors

Got up early (this could become a habit!) and went for a morning run a few miles down the dirt road. I passed a few locals that stared strangely after me. I’m not sure if it was my pale Mzungu skin that caught their eye, or the fact I was wearing shorts. *lol* Probably #2 since I managed to have a kiss blown out of a Daladala window that passed by. (FYI: Daladalas are stripped down vans that most locals use for public transportation. They have about 9 actual seats in them, but usually have 20 people stuffed inside!)

As I turned around & headed back to home-base, I saw Mt. Kilimanjaro through the foliage every few yards. The rising sun hit the snow-capped peak in such a way that it shimmered with a golden glow. Words can’t describe – but the stunning view brought me immediately into the present moment. It really takes your breath away.

Back at home-base, our program leaders gave us an exercise to go into the neighborhood. My group was tasked with visiting a neighbor’s house, meeting the people that lived there, asking to view a kanga, and finding out more about the family.

We tentatively approached the house yelling out “Hodi!” – a Swahili greeting when you are approaching someone’s home. A young woman appeared inviting us into her backyard to sit “Karibu!”
Her name was Bebe and she was one of 5 siblings. Given the large Catholic population and lack of ready birth control, it seems Tanzanian families tend to be large. (There is also a strong sense of community, family, & kinship that reinforces this.)

Bebe set out cheap plastic chairs for each of us so we could sit and chat for a while. This appears to be very much a part of the Tanzanian culture. Even the poorest of the poor in mud huts have chairs and an area for you to sit, talk, and commune together. As Bebe knew very little English, we pulled out our Swahili phrasebooks and did our best to introduce ourselves, stumbling through the words, and attempting to get to know each other better.

We discovered that Bebe was learning to be a seamstress and she pulled out a dress or two that she’d made for herself. Then she showed us our first Kanga. Kangas are traditional East African wraps that are worn as skirts by the Tanzanian women. They are made of cotton and have beautiful colorful patterns on them with a Swahili phrase printed on one end. The garments are wrapped so that the phrases can be read and are viewable from the back.

The phrases are usually spiritual in nature. For example, “Mpaji ni Mungu” means “God is the Sustainer.”. They can sometimes send another message, though.

For example, a woman who has won a love battle with another woman might wear something that says “Kwangu anakula keki afuate nini kwako we hafkeki” which translates to “By having me he gets to eat a real cake, that’s why he doesn’t come to you as you are just a half-cake”. Sassy, eh? And here’s another one for a girl who recently got engaged, “Hodi hodi naikome mwaka ujao naolewa” which means “Knock, knock, should stop, as I’m getting married next year.”

Back to Bebe’s house…

We heard some strange noises coming from a small wooden hut in the corner of the yard, and Bebe introduced us to her family’s collection of no less than 6 grunting hogs! *lol* Next to her house was an orchard of trees laden with ripe mango & jackfruit. Bebe sent us home with a gift of a couple of mangoes and requested we come back to visit soon. A very gracious hostess…

After returning back to home-base, we had our first Swahili class. Only one person on our program had really studied the language prior to our arrival, so we were in sore need of a few key phrases for survival. I figure you never want to be without, “where is the nearest toilet”, right?

One we could stumble through some basic greetings, we were put to the test. Contacts from our various volunteer placements arrived for lunch. Surprisingly, there were not one but two contacts from WEECE there… John (an English teacher) and Jane (pronounced Jenny; a computer & sewing teacher). They both had very limited English (even though one was the English teacher *lol*), so it was difficult to communicate. This was to foreshadow the next few weeks ahead. They were enthusiastic and sweet, though, and we bid farewell knowing we’d see each other again tomorrow at WEECE.

After lunch, we piled back in the van and headed off to visit our first orphanage… (to be continued)

African Adventure – a day in Moshi-town

It was 6 a.m. on day 3, and it was hard to believe that I was wide awake. I’m not much of a morning person – which is probably the understatement of the century. 😉

I decided to take a shower, and thankfully, someone had turned on the hot water heater early enough that it wasn’t a cold one. In Tanzania, they have switches on the walls, just like light switches, for the water heaters (if you’re lucky enough to own one). It’s a great idea for energy conservation.

My roommate hadn’t arrived yet. She was dating a local, so she spent a lot of time off-site. I sauntered into the general area for breakfast and had juice, a boiled egg, some fruit, and porridge. Eventually, the other volunteers joined me, and we began a brief orientation. We hit the CCS bus to go into town for a mini-tour. “Here’s the bank.” “There’s a restaurant that won’t give you diarrhea for 5 days.” “Here’s a craft market with some local souvenirs. “ And so on…

As we drove towards the marketplace, we saw dozens of women with all sorts of things perched on their heads; never skipping a beat as they walked through the crowds. Now, how many of you can do this?!

When we drove by the main marketplace, I was mesmerized by all the bright colors. There were heaping carts of produce sitting next to piles of trash and mounds of used clothing for sale.

In Tanzania, the high cost of new manufactured clothing has no place in the marketplace. People either wear used clothing from abroad (yes, I actually saw someone with a “Dunder Mifflin” shirt on), or they have their clothes hand-made from local fabrics.

Africa is home to some of the most beautiful fabrics in the world. The colors are bold and vivid, and the patterns (think batik) are gorgeous. Rather than purchasing already-made clothing, Tanzanians often buy & sell fabrics, then have the local street tailors sew them into traditional skirts, dresses, and suits. In fact, certain streets in Moshi-town are completely lined with sewing machines; the tailors busy at work at their foot pedals. Since electricity is unreliable, sewing machines are manual. It reminds me of the ol’ Singer my grandma had in her house for years.

At the end of our city tour, we asked the driver to let us explore a few of the local area fabric stores. I knew before I came to Tanzania that the culture is conservative (women wear skirts 90% of the time and must always cover their shoulders and knees). Several of the female volunteers had already decided that we’d pick up some fabric and have clothes made.

Picture a group of 5 naïve, Caucasian women walking through a busy African marketplace. We immediately began to hear shouts of “Mzungu! Mzungu!” which literally translates to “White person! White person!” Little did I know that would become my second name over the next few weeks. *lol*

The Tanzanians are fascinated with Mzungus – partially because of our pale skin that is so different from their own, and partially because they believe Mzungus have unlimited wealth (which of course, is not the case!)

What does this mean for 5 women walking into a fabric store for the first time? We were about to get taken. *lol*

The store we entered tried to sell us a couple of yards of Batik fabric for 50,000 Tanzanian shillings (this equates to around $35 USD). We laughed. They dropped it to 25,000. We started leaving and someone from our group said – no more than 15k. Done. I bought two pieces. We learned later we should have paid no more than 10K, but it’s worth the investment in the local economy. Plus, it provided a great opportunity to practice our fledgling negotiating skills.

One of the only places you don’t negotiate in Tanzania is the small food supermarkets. We stopped at one on our way home. I found it funny how many British biscuits and chocolates were on-hand. It was Cadbury heaven. (I’m partial to the Cadbury Fruit & Nuts chocolate bars. How about you?)

The supermarket also sold Coke, Sprite & a local fav, Fanta, packaged in old-fashioned glass bottles. Some sodas came in cans shipped from Dubai with foreign characters on the side. We stocked up on snacks and biscuits and headed back to home-base.

Lunch was served and we had time to relax the rest of the day. I met my roommate and watched some wonderful videos of her volunteer placement at a local nursery school. These kids were so amazing that you just wanted to wrap them up and take them home with you. More on that later…

After dinner, I began to prepare for meeting our volunteer placements the next day. I was assigned to work with a women’s empowerment organization in the community called WEECE (the Women’s Education & Economic Centre). I wasn’t sure what capacity I’d be volunteering in since their vocational school was closed for the holidays. Volunteers at the school normally teach young women sewing, computer, & English skills. As I drifted off to sleep, though, I held onto the hope that I’d find a small way to make a difference…

African Adventure – Karanga Homebase

After exiting the van, we took in the front view of our new home.

By African standards, this place was a mansion. We were herded into the front living room that had decor reminiscent of the 1980s…

We gathered around & waited…Tanzania time. For those of you not familiar with Tanzania time, it basically means there is no clock. Everything is done “pole, pole” which translates to “slowly, slowly”. I think this is one of the biggest culture shocks you get coming from America where everything is done in double or triple-speed.

Eventually, the program manager introduced herself and some members of the staff, and we took a brief tour of the complex.

The front building had a living room, community computer, the kitchen, & CCS office. Behind that building was a covered area used for eating & group classes…

The covered area connected to a second building containing all volunteer bedrooms…

The surrounding gardens of the complex were lush & beautiful. I was especially excited to see avocado & mango trees on-site laden with fresh fruit that we would eat for the next month.

There was a nice covered table in the front garden to sit and have your afternoon tea…

Our bedrooms each had two bunk beds. Since there were fewer program participants at this time of year, there were only two volunteers per room. Mosquito nets hung over each bed… a necessity in malaria-infested areas. We were assured that the compound was sprayed regularly but we decided not to take any chances. The mosquito nets would be in use every night.

Each bedroom had an en suite shower and Western-style toilet (another luxury by Tanzanian standards). And for those that have already guessed…there was no A/C. Welcome to Africa, baby!

We took time to unpack, and I shot off an e-mail to let folks back home know I arrived safely. The community computer took no less than 30 minutes to send 1 message… I figured that internet cafes were probably the way to go from this point forward.

We ate our first home-cooked meal…standard African fare… something called Ugali (looks like mashed potatoes but is a stiff maize porridge) and cooked veggies.

Our group decided to go into town to check out the city (a.k.a. Moshi-town). We called a taxi and piled in for the ride, negotiating a $5 cab fare since we didn’t have any shillings yet.

Note about Tanzania: negotiating is a part of their culture. Everything is usually priced 2-3 times what it should cost and you are expected to negotiate the price down. It is part of the game and difficult for the Western mentality to grasp (back home – we negotiate buying a new car or getting a house loan – but generally pay the sticker price for everything else!)

The taxi dropped us off in the heart of town near the ATM where we were immediately accosted by several men wanting to sell us their wares and take us to their “sistah’s store”. There was no shaking these guys, so we asked them to escort us to a local internet café. We purchased 20 minutes of time for the equivalent of about $0.40 USD. Sadly, the internet was nearly as slow as at home-base. I started realizing just how spoiled I am with my hi-speed DSL back home and how dependent we are on getting our internet fix!

We were informed that the guys trailing us for the past hour were waiting outside the door and were bad news, so we called a taxi to pick us up outside the store and headed home. We had dinner together, and began planning for a weekend safari.

By 9 p.m., we called it a night & went straight to bed (that’s what a 13-hour time difference will do for you). I fell asleep almost immediately, oblivious to the sounds of chickens, cows, goats, and bush babies echoing in the hot, sticky night air. Pretty good considering bush babies sound a bit like pigs getting slaughtered. *lol* I was awoken at 5 a.m. with a Muslim call to prayer coming from a nearby farm’s radio. (The population in Tanzania is half Christian and half Muslim – so you hear the chanting and calls to prayer throughout the day.)

Day 3 in Tanzania was about to begin…

African Adventure – Waking up in Tanzania

I woke up the morning of my first day in Tanzania at 6 a.m. with the sun streaming through the windows of my cabana.


I took a much needed shower, then headed to the center of the compound for a fabulous buffet breakfast consisting of Spanish omelet, mini plums/bananas, passion fruit juice, & some of the best brown bread I’ve ever tasted (seriously, this stuff was amazing!)

The common area buildings were all open-air with thatched roofs.


How about the hotel bar? Gotta love those pillows…

With several hours left until our departure, I decided to throw on my cheesy safari hat (soon to be a staple) and hike around the gardens. There were dozens of paths leading from cabana to cabana; a virtual maze of vegetation.

Amidst the cacti, were bougainvillea in full bloom…


I came upon several trees bursting with red blossoms and large dangling bean pods. These trees, called Royal Poinciana, are native to Madagascar (a hop, skip & a jump away from Tanzania). They are considered one of the most beautiful flowering trees in the world, and their reputation is well-deserved. Pictures don’t do them justice. They are also known as “Flamboyant” trees or “Christmas trees” in Tanzania since they only bloom during the holiday season each year.


While winding through the paths, I caught my first glimpse of the snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance. Then, after returning to my cabana and packing up my bags, I walked out of my room to be greeted by this guy…


We were met at the hotel’s front door by John, the driver for Cross Cultural Solutions (my volunteer program) who would become our friend and companion for the next 3 1/2 weeks.


With all the van windows open and our hair blowing wildly in the wind…we made our way for the next hour to our home-base in Karanga. We passed fields of gaunt cows, Masaii leading them along diligently. Women carried large baskets on their heads, and were dressed in vivid, brightly-colored cloths.

As I viewed the passing landscape, I was filled with a familiar yet overwhelming sense of anticipation and excitement to be experiencing a completely different culture for the first time. Somehow, you get a sense that waking up on the other side of the world… things will never quite be the same.

Eventually, we turned off the paved highway onto a dirt road. Children waved from the street with bright smiles. We turned onto a side road next to a maize field and came to a stop at a large gate.


The driver honked and a security guard appeared to swing open the doors. We parked and stumbled out of the van. This was going to be our home for the next month.

(to be continued) 🙂