My isiZulu teachers demonstrating their "Itsy Bitsy Spider" skills.

My isiZulu teachers demonstrating their “Itsy Bitsy Spider” skills.

We teach in English, so our isiZulu training consisted of only one session learning greetings.  While the teachers speak very good English and the students hypothetically should be able to communicate in English, many of their parents are illiterate.  Moving around the community, it’s fun to be able to speak with old ladies and small children, so I’m trying to carve out some time to learn more isiZulu.

I have found that the best teachers of foreign languages are four-year-olds.  Their vocabulary is simple, they won’t hesitate to correct you, and they don’t judge you when you make a mistake.  About once a week, I go into the pre-school classroom, teach them a song in English, and ask them to teach me some isiZulu.  They’re pretty proficient in “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Six Little Ducklings.”  I’m less proficient in numbers, groceries, and animal names.

When first applying to the Peace Corps in 1998, my heart wanted to go to the region near the Kalahari Desert, mostly because I loved the clicks.  Lucky for me, isiZulu is a Bantu language peppered with clicks.  There are three types; “q” is a hard click like a cork coming out of a bottle, “x” is on the side of your mouth as if you were urging your horse along, and “c” is like a “tsk.”  My clicks are improving, but they don’t quite have the purcussive pop that locals have.  There’s other fun consonants, too.  Notably “hl” is supposed to be like the Welsh “ll.”  I have no idea what that means.  To me, it kind of feels like the receiving end of a zrbrt.

As a volunter in Kenya, I spoke Kiswahili, another Bantu language.  Because Kiswahili developed as a trading language between the Bantu tribes in the interior and the Arabs on the coast, both its pronunciation and structure seem simpler than that of isiZulu.  For fun, let’s look at numbers (I claim no expertise in spelling–my dictionary and the pre-schoolers are sometimes at odds; also, forgive my formatting).

Kiswahili     isiZulu
1    mmoja     unye
2    mbili        ubili
3    tatu        uthathu
4    nne        une
5    tano        uhlanu
6    sita        isithupa
7    saba        isikhombisa
8    nane        isishiyagalombili
9    tisa        isihiyagalolunye
10    kumi        ishumi

So, for 1 – 5 and 10, they pretty much follow the same root.  Then things get interesting in isiZulu from 6 – 9.  Eight and nine are literally “ten minus 2” and “ten minus one.”  I wonder if in East Africa the Arab traders were perfectly happy with 1 – 5, but then decided “Heck, no!” for 6 – 9 and used the more elegant Arabic words instead.

A side note on my isiZulu teachers; they are adorable.  Sometimes I hang out with them during their lunch time just to enjoy their company.  I’m constantly tying shoes, tucking shirts, and fixing ties.  One little girl I refer to as “the Dove” likes to sit quietly next to me.  When a bully comes to steal her lunch, she wordlessly hands her sandwich over to me.  “The Squirrel” is a little boy with high highs and low lows.  He thinks we’re in a perpetual game of tag, so he likes running away for me to chase him.  Lots of fun, but difficult to start a conversation.

The Squirrel and his BFF.

The Squirrel and his BFF.

The kindergarten at Sambasha

In May, Dr. Moshi sent me an email from Tanzania.  The UGA Service Learning class had visited a Maasai school in Sambasha (near Arusha).  It was an open wooden structure with a roof and a concrete floor.  That’s it.  The kids were sitting on the floor trying to write and learn.   Their situation moved Dr. Moshi and she decided to make it one of her many projects.

We collected money from our friends at Just Faith at the UGA Catholic Center, and the teachers in our GPA program  donated their own money with money they collected from friends.  Dr. Moshi inquired from local carpenters about the price, so she could announce in front of the local officials, teachers, students, and community members the number of desks we could expect to see next year (15-20 desks, transparency at all levels).

Me presenting the gift from Just Faith to Mama Hindu

I was watching one woman in particular while Dr. Moshi announced in Kiswahili the goals of Just Faith and GPA and the gift we were giving them.  Her face lit up and she clapped her hands in joy.  Her gratitude brought me to tears.  As President Nyerere said, development should be of people, not things, and education is key to the development of people.  People cannot make choices about their lives unless they know what their choices are.  Education is social justice.

Ululations from the local Maasai women

And I’m glad the donation was given publicly, so everybody knows what should be coming, and this mama who was so happy to receive our gift (and any mama, teacher and child) can get on the local officials’ cases if they drag their feet in getting the desks or don’t get their money’s worth.

Me with some of the students of Sambasha Kindergarten

Okala shows us how to farm algae

Algae farm on Jambiani beach

Dried algae at the Seaweed Center

Okala started his own non-governmental organization (NGO), Jamabeco. Totally home-grown with no foreign interest, his NGO focuses on marine conservation and education in Zanzibar. He doesn’t have a high school diploma, but he does have life-long experience with the ocean, ecological intuition, and the desire to preserve the habitat he loves and the people it supports.

One of Okala’s interests is mwani (seaweed) farming. In addition to its ecological awesomeness, algae is used in products ranging from ice cream to pharmaceuticals. People in Zanzibar have been using algae for ages, but have depleted much of the native populations. In the 90’s, a Danish group brought Eucheuma spinosum to Zanzibar in order to establish seaweed farming.

It’s hard work. Your day has to work around the tidal schedule, you’re working in hot sun, and much of it is spent bent over. Initially, the algae only brought 40 Tsh per dry kilogram (less than 3 cents). With multiple buyers, the price has increased to 450 Tsh per kilo, but that’s still only $0.30.

The Seaweed Center in Paje increases the return on seaweed farming by eliminating the middle man and processing the seaweed locally themselves. Dried seaweed (you should check out their solar dryer!) is ground to a powder and used to make soap. The soap also contains locally grown herbs and spices.

Local leaders like Okala and local industries like the Seaweed Center provide Zanzibari solutions to Zanzibari problems. Folks like me can provide expertise when needed (if you need a phycologist, give me a call!) and consume their products.

By the way, any porifera experts out there? Okala needs a sponge hook-up for his next venture.

I bet Jan wishes Kiswahili could build this bridge.

Poleni sana! Sorry, everybody!  This post was supposed to go out last week, but we’ve had some wireless issues (the issue is that we had none).  Hakuna haraka katika Tanzania (no hurry in Tanzania).

It’s been about 9 years since I have spoken Kiswahili in a serious way.  I found a few Kenyans while I was at MIT, but didn’t want to impose on them.  When my adopted sister Wavinya returned to Kenya, I no longer had a Kiswahili phone buddy in the States.  In Georgia I’ve tried a little with Dr. Moshi and this guy from Lake Victoria who works on placental malaria, but I mostly just stutter.  Sometimes random people will say, “Speak some Swahili,” just to hear it, but it feels silly, talking to people I know can’t understand.

Now that we have arrived in Tanzani, the context is right, and it’s coming back to me.  My vocabulary is a little spotty.  I will often remember one word and then forget its opposite.  I remember front (mbele), but not back.  I remember right (kulia), but not left.   I remember expensive (ghali), but not cheap.  Some times I mix things up like next week and last week.

Even my spotty child-level Kiswahili is a huge advantage. Kiswahili builds bridges. It’s easier to communicate with kids and little old ladies, it shows respect for my host country, and it gives me a nice variety of ways to tell hawkers and conmen to buzz off.

Sisahau sana (I haven’t forgotten completely).  Nimefurahi sana kukumbuka kidogo (I’m happy to have remembered a little).

Statistics from the World Health Organization

The thirtieth anniversary of the first reported case of AIDS was on Sunday. As local reporters reflected on the history of AIDS in America, I remembered the fear and uncertainty of the cause, the stigma associated with AIDS as a “gay” disease, and the discrimination faced by Ryan White, a boy only two years older than myself. But there was a deafening silence in many of these reports. They focused only on the United States and failed to acknowledge the present state of HIV infection as a pandemic.

Ukimwi (AIDS) has decimated sub-Saharan African populations.  People in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s are being wiped out, leaving orphans to be cared for by elderly grandparents and leaving economies with holes where the most productive demographic should be.  Thesis after thesis could be written about the spread of HIV in East Africa.  I’d like to make only three points.

  • Most of the people infected with HIV in East Africa are women.  It is easier to transmit the virus from man to woman than from woman to man.  Whether her partner is her husband, a boyfriend, or someone imposing himself on her, it is very difficult for an African woman to ask him to wear a condom.  There is also a large number of children living with HIV who have contracted the virus from their mothers.  Looking at the graph, you can see that in America, most of the cases are men, but heterosexual infections are on the rise.
  • While the total number of HIV infections among these four countries appears to the same, keep in mind that the total population of the United States is about 10 times that of each of these East African countries.  HIV infection rates in the U.S. are about 0.4%.  In East Africa, they range from 2.7 – 4.2%.  If you consider only the adult population, then the infection rates are closer to 7%.  Botswana in Southern Africa has rates as high as 24.8%.
  • The number of people living with HIV is relatively steady.  With prevention, fewer people are becoming infected.  With health care and antiretroviral drugs, people can live longer, more productive lives.  HIV doesn’t have to be a death sentence.

For more information, go to UNAIDS or the World Health Organization.

The bounty from Athens knitters and crocheters!

As a part of GPA Tanzania, we will be interacting with local schools, including an orphanage in Moshi.  Dr. Moshi (yes, I think the names are connected) gave me a challenge–teach some of the orphans to crochet.

I have taught very few newbies to crochet.  My dear friend asked me to teach her once, so I bought her a book and a hook and offered to help once she taught herself the basics.  She has since made a lovely baby blanket.  The tiny little newbie details are difficult for me to convey.  How do I hold a hook?  How do I hold the yarn?  Where the heck does this thing go?

But I firmly believe in the power of crochet.  It is an outlet for creative energy as well as the nervous fidgety energy some of us have when sitting still for too long.  It enables people to clothe their family and furnish their homes with their own creations.  It can provide a source of income.  I am inspired by the work Krochet Kids has done in Uganda–I don’t aspire to create a self-supporting women’s group selling items internationally, but I think their success story shows what crochet can do.

Language will be interesting.   I know that “to crochet” in Kiswahili is kushona.  So is “to knit,” “to sew,” and “to weave.”  There’s a bounty of names for “hook”–hangue, kingoe, kiopoo, kombo, kota, and kulabu.  I’m not sure which is appropriate (I hope it’s kiopoo; I like the way it sounds).  Never mind the vocabulary for yarn over, single crochet, slip stitch, etc.  Depending on their age, many of the kids will have some English.  But then there are the discrepancies between American and British crochet terminology when they start to read patterns.

I’m not sure about the availability of tools or yarn.  There’s tons of crocheters in Kenya, but I don’t think knitting and crocheting permeated the culture in Tanzania as much since the British were not as present. The local machine-knitters import their yarn from Kenya.  Hooks could be carved, but I won’t have time for that.  Through the generosity of the knitting and crocheting community in Athens, GA, I will have ample hooks and yarn to get the kids started. Asanteni sana, marafiki zangu!  Thank you so much, my friends!  I hope my suitcase is big enough!

I accept this challenge.  I once taught a 10-year-old Kenyan boy to play Uno Hearts with my minimal Kiswahili and his minimal English.  It just takes a sense of humor and some love.  I can’t wait to meet the kids and share my love for crochet.  We’ll all try our level best and we’ll have some yarn fun.

A stream of safari ants near Kyalavo, Kenya.

Every culture has their own sayings and proverbs.  They usually come with a cultural context that might not be translated literally, but that context gives insight into the culture.  In Kenya and Tanzania you will find proverbs everywhere–on kangas, in children’s stories, and in everyday conversation.  I thought I’d share a few inspired by the natural world.

  • Macho ya chura hayamzuii ng’ombe kunyua maji  (the eyes of the frog won’t stop the cow from drinking water).  This is one of my favorites.  Probably because of the cartoon image that comes to mind.  My own take on this saying is that people will do what they need to do, regardless of frog eyes.
  • Wingi wa siafu ndio nguvu yao (the multitude of ants is their strength).  Siafu (safari ants) are eating machines.  They will eat anything organic in their path so hide your babies, your chickens, and anything else you value that can’t run away.  They freak me out.  They did me a service once, though.  The outhouse I had during my Peace Corps service was notoriously infested with cockroaches.  The siafu came through and then, no roaches!  One little bitty single ant won’t do much more than draw a little blood, but a stream of ants is a force to reckon with.
  • Bahari itatufikisha popote (the ocean leads us anywhere).  This saying inspires both a feeling of helplessness from the overwhelming power of the ocean and of adventure or possibility from the vastness and wonder oceans have to offer.
Trichodesmium colony

My puffy friend, Trichodesmium thiebautii strain VI-1

I need a stage name.  I love the ocean and I love East Africa, so I thought I would try to find a Swahili name for the tiny little plant-like critters I spend so much time studying–phytoplankton.  Through some friends, I’ve found some words and through a kamusi (dictionary), I have found some double meanings.

  • kijimea – phytoplankton/microscopic algae.  I think it’s a cute word.  But it can also refer to bacteria in general, which invokes sort of a yucky feeling in many people.  I don’t speak German, but kijimea appears to be some sort of immunity-boosting supplement in Germany as well.  Spirulina, anyone?
  • ngai – red algae.  Also “God” in many Bantu languages.  Must be a mighty alga!
  • ugozi – green algae, especially the scum that grows in stagnant water.  Also racism.  There’s a story there somewhere, or at least a very interesting metaphor.