Saturday, November 04, 2006

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to go to a celebration to commemorate the 45th anniversary of Peace Corps. This was such an important event the vice president of Tanzania was invited and expected to attend. (For some reason he did not attend.) Tanzania was the second country to request Peace Corps volunteers back in 1961. (Ghana was the first country to request volunteers). Around 20 volunteers from the first two groups of volunteers flew returned to reminisce and share their stories. Their first group of volunteers was made up of geologists, engineers and surveyors. They aided Tanzania in developing some of its first major interstate roads. The second group was made up of nurses that worked in understaffed hospitals in heavy populated areas. When the returned volunteers were asked what changes have taken place since they worked here they responded that there are more people, more houses, more schools and more roads but other than that little else had changed. The standard of living and way of life is very similar to the way it was 45 years ago. People are still making their houses out of mud bricks and straw, only a fraction of the population has a high school education and availability of water and food still plague the nation.
The lifestyle of the original volunteers and current volunteers has dramatically changed. The original volunteers were only living and working in major cities. As a result, their homes had such luxuries as electricity, running water, and a flush toilet. Current volunteers are only placed out in rural villages to live and work and very few of us have such luxuries. As a consequence of living out in the bush, I feel that we get a better idea about what life is like for the average Tanzanian and we come to understand the country and culture to a greater degree than the original volunteers. Most of our work deals with Tanzanians. Many of the original volunteers worked along side British and very few Tanzanians. The original volunteers maintained an American work load (12 hours days six days a week for nurses) whereas current volunteers maintain a Tanzanian work load (around 20 manpower hours a week but is subject to seasons, weather conditions, unscheduled holidays and “barazas” (meetings) etc.)
I was able to talk to a nurse who volunteered in the second group. She told me that when she was here women were only allowed to go to the hospital if they were dying. Even when they were allowed to come to the hospital they were treated on the second floor away from the first floor of the hospital where the men where treated. She recalled one night a women came to the hospital crawling up the stairs since she was so sick. When they checked her hemoglobin level it was 3 which means she should have been dead (normal hemoglobin is around 7). She knew that many babies were dying in the villages while she was here but there was little she could do about it since she was not allowed to work in the villages. This fact inspired her to become a midwife when she returned to the USA. Only a handful of medicines were available for use and needles had to be boiled, resharpened and reused. As a result, she learned the power of the body to heal itself if it is only given time, clean water and decent food. Her boss was a British woman and she felt that she was more concerned with the cleanliness and appearance of the hospital than with the care of the patients. On one occasion she draped sheets on a patient’s window (as curtains) since he was getting hot from the sun. Her boss demanded that the sheets be removed since they looked like Chinese laundry.
One of the most inspirational parts of the celebration was when some of the current PC staff members (Tanzanians) talked about how they had been taught by PCVs. They explained how much of an impact it had on their lives since they were able to learn more about American Culture from their teachers. Their teachers were also some of the first Americans they had ever met. The bond that they formed with these teachers would be one so strong that later on some of them contacted Peace Corps directly to find out what happened to their old teachers. Some of them were sad to find out that some of their teachers were shipped off to Vietnam shortly after returning to America and ended up dead. They complained that they wished Peace Corps would provide a way for them to get in touch with those teachers they were not able to reach. This would be difficult for PC to do but it made me realize how much of an impact we volunteers have on those around us. If we do nothing more than teach them about our culture (and that Americans are more than just sources of money) and learn about their culture, than, in their eyes, our time spent here was more than worthwhile.

One of the original volunteer nurses said that Tanzania is for Tanzanians. She meant that Tanzanians must solve the developmental problems that Tanzania faces. We as PCVs, can offer our manpower in order to assist them where they request our help but their problems are so complex that many times when we try to help them we do more damage than good. A few weeks ago, the Clinton Foundation donated new, state of the art laboratory diagnostic equipment to the public hospital in my closest town. Thinking they were still in America, they provided the hospital staff with only a week training on how to use the equipment. They didn’t realize that lab techs here (the ones that use the machines) have very little education compared to their counterparts in America who have college degrees in laboratory techniques. As a result, the hospital staff is using the machines and getting very few correct results but not seeing the results as incorrect since they see the machines as calculators and that can never be wrong.

While I was in the capital city for the celebration, I had a chance to meet my counterpart teacher’s boyfriend. He lives on a small island near the city center and it can only be reached by boat. From the island you can see the skyline of the city center but the life on the island itself is similar to that in the village. There are farm animals like chickens and goats running around and people are farming the land. He lives in a typical Tanzanian one-room home made out of mud bricks but has a really nice home theatre system. While I was eating the omelet with potatoes and cooked banana soup (typical Tanzanians dishes) that he prepared for me, he switched the tv to a channel that showed a symphony engulfed in one of Mozart’s great symphonies. He quickly become fascinated by the music (you might be surprised to know that most Tanzanians think very highly of western classical music) and so we started talking about the different instruments that make up the orchestra, the life of Mozart etc. At one point in our conversation, I realized that here I was on a small island, eating Tanzanian food in a small hut, surrounded by sounds of farm animals and listening to classical music. This realization caused me to have one of those indescribable (maybe surreal) feel good moments. This wasn’t the first time that I had experienced one of those moments and I know it would be the last. These moments normally are the result of two people of different cultures coming together and sharing the beauty that is in their culture. These are the types of things that make my time here worthwhile!