Friday, August 24, 2012

Kwaheri Tanzania

A long lost Safari picture with some great friends
Somewhere over the Mediterranean Sea....

I'm writing this on the second of leg of my three part journey home, a 17 hour flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Washington D.C. My total flight time is over 24 hours, a whirlwind of plane changes, long security lines, and total exhaustion.

Though I am desperately tired, I can't sleep on the plane. To make matters worse, the in-flight touchscreen at my seat isn't working (NOOOOOOOOOO!!!). While everyone around me entertains themselves with movies and games, I'm staring at a frozen screen. And I just finished my only book. Though I know the screen isn't working, I still keep pressing at it angrily, hoping that it will somehow magically repair itself. I wish I had a screwdriver and a multimeter so I could take the damn thing apart and fix it, anything to keep my mind occupied. Yeah, I'm going crazy. Only 16 more hours to go....

But if Tanzania has taught me anything, it's to brush off little mishaps such as these. I find myself surprised when everything goes exactly as planned, pleased at my good fortune. Ideal situations are a novelty, something I no longer come to expect or take for granted.

On the bright side, my technology troubles forced me to begin work on this blog post, something I was dreading doing because I have so much to say but still haven't figured out how to say it. The reality that I am no longer in Africa, a place that I have called my home for two months, has yet to sink in. I can't quite comprehend the fact that I just said goodbye to 22 people who have been my family here, and the harsh truth that I will probably never see many of them ever again. Saying goodbye was anticlimactic, it didn't feel like "goodbye forever," more like "goodbye, see you next week."

For the past month, as the end of my journey grew closer and closer, I found myself longing for home, being ever more critical of Africa and all it's inconveniences. But something strange happened in the last few days. Suddenly, the thought of leaving made me really sad. Though I was excited to return home, I was already starting to really miss Tanzania and felt nostalgic towards things that used to annoy me greatly. On our last dala dala ride, a task I usually dreaded, I felt sad that this would be the last time I would be crammed into this tiny mini bus, filled to the brim with women wrapped in colorful fabrics, holding baskets of potatoes, men wearing ridiculous second-hand outfits and beanies despite the hot weather, goats, chickens, and conductors hanging precariously out the open doors and the bus sped down the busy street. I already missed hearing locals speaking Swahili, so fast it seemed to roll off their tongues. Even the noisy roosters, the mystery meat stew, and the overly friendly drunk who lived on our street didn't seem to bother me as much, for these were all funny experiences that I had come to cherish.

Proud of our newly installed fan in the women's
surgery ward
The last few days at the hospital were, in a word, busy. Charlotte, Inka and I scrambled to finish up our secondary project, installing wall fans in the surgical wards. The rooms are all in the center of the hospital, with no direct windows to the outside, so they become sticky and smelly in the afternoon heat. We had to turn the power off in the building in order to wire the fans into the electrical grid, though our fundi seemed to have no problem working on a live outlet, an action that horrified me. But Jonas was not a man to be argued with, he was set in his ways. I simply refused to be a part of such a dangerous (stupid?) practice. When I asked the nurse where the nearest defibrillator was, planning to have it ready if Jonas should electrocute himself, she replied, "we don't have a defibrillator."

Jonas had been hinting that he really wanted a riveting tool, something we knew the hospital could not afford, despite it costing only about $10. So on our last day, armed with the last of our funding from EWH, we set out to town to find Jonas a riveter, along with 15 extra fluorescent tube lights and ballasts for the hospital. We had already replaced several of them, which kept blowing out because of the frequent power surges. We also bought a wall clock for the office at Ithna Asheri hospital, who reported timeliness a problem with the staff (how can you be on time if there are no clocks?). When we brought our loot back to Jonas's shipping container office, he was absolutely thrilled. "Ahaa!! Asante sana rafiki yangu!" 

In front of St. Elizabeth hospital, with Miguel and some random lady on
the street who wanted to be in the picture.
Wiring the fans into the wall outlets
Jonas replaces yet another light bulb
Some highlights of the last week:

Last weekend, we went on an amazing 7 hour day hike to a waterfall, starting from the Sanawari bus stop. We hiked through the forested hills just outside of Arusha, with quaint villages, lots of farm fields, and beautiful views. We had a cute little troop of kids that followed us the entire way, that started being less cute once they began harassing us for money.

Our group, stopping for a pumzika
We're here! 

Lauren finds a chameleon
On Tuesday, it was Zodina's birthday! Naturally, we had to escape the house dinner and find some real food.

On Wednesday after work, Oriane, Zodina, and I went to stay the night with Lauren and Raelyn. We cooked an amazing Mexican meal (which is hard to do here) complete with Oriane's homemade applesauce. We also visited the orphanage next door to their house. The orphanage was one of the most heart-wrenching experiences I had in Tanzania. Imagine over 30 kids of all ages, from tiny babies to 9-year-olds, all running around, screaming and unsupervised, starved for attention and affection. The moment they saw you walk in the door, they would attack you, begging you to play with them, to hold them, to love them. It was clear that they weren't getting the attention every child needs, and I was yet another inconsistency in their lives. Another person to come in, play with them for an hour and then leave, never to be seen again. It was more than I could handle emotionally.

On Thursday, we piled way too many people into one cab (as is tradition) and went to Via Via nightclub, one last time....

On Friday, Mama threw us one of her famous parties, a sort of going-away/ happy birthday to Charlotte and Zodina thing. There must have been some communication breakdown, because there were chairs set up outside and tons of food for about 50 people.... there was maybe 20, including the 9 of us. The other people she invited we had never met before. I think we were supposed to invite our friends, but we had no idea. It was thoroughly awkward. But with some drinks in our system and dancing, we were able to spice it up a bit.

Saturday was EWH end of summer conference, where each of the groups gave a presentation about their experiences at the hospital. The director of EWH, a group from Texas A&M, the Zanzibar Minister of Health, and a handful of other important people all came to watch. It was amazing to see all the incredible work we did in just a month. We all agreed that the experience had been life-changing. I know many of us, including myself, are planning on coming back to Tanzania someday. I still need to climb Kilimanjaro...

Because I have no clean clothes, I am wearing this ridiculous t-shirt on the plane given to us by Mama with animals and Kiswahili phrases on it. I look like such a dork.

My laptop battery is dying, so I guess this is my stopping point. I'm hoping to make one more blog post after this, I still have quite a few things to say about the hospital and the reverse-culture shock that will inevitably hit me when I make it home. For now, I want to thank everyone for all the wonderful support and encouragement I have received throughout my adventure. All your comments and emails and kind words are deeply appreciated. It feels great to talk about something so close to my heart and know that people are listening. Thank you.

Now for a random collection of pictures.

Dinner time at Mama Macarine's house.... notice the chicken foot Oriane
found in our stew :)
Another old pic from the Safari. Our unexpected after dinner show.
Around Arusha Town
Getting stuff done at Ithna Asheri Hospital
View of Ngorogoro Crater
The Torch! Lit from the top of Kilimanjaro, it is carried ceremoniously around the entire
country for a year, as a symbol of peace. Lucky us, it came to our hospital. 

Losika Guest House, where we ate lunch almost every day at work. 
Typical lunch at Losika, for a grand total of about $2/person
View from the front door of Mama Macarine's house
On Safari
Tembo crossing
Our first party experience at Mama Mac's, Marco's going away party
Our family at Mama Macarine's. And enough stuffed animals for everyone. 
Uh, cute.
Spotted a simba in the grass
Visit to a lake near Tengeru
View from the top of a new hotel. The road we walk to
get to  St. Elizabeth every day, in the process of being

Friday, August 10, 2012


Photo cred Charlotte Sorensen
I’ve been in Tanzania for almost seven weeks now, and though I’m a little ashamed to admit it, homesickness is hitting me pretty hard.

In the second month of my stay, I’ve discovered that living and working in Africa is an entirely different thing than being just a tourist, when everything is new and exciting. The novelty of Africa has worn off. I’ve been on my safari, I’ve climbed my mountain, I’ve bargained at the Masai market, I’ve swam in the crystal clear pools at the maji moto, I’ve crammed myself into a crowded dala dala and navigated through the streets of Arusha every day to get to work. Being in Tanzania is no longer a vacation, this is real life. And it’s not always fun. But I wanted that life-changing mind-opening other-worldly reborn again kind of experience; I think I got it.

Last week was a low point for me. I don’t have a lot to write about, because I spent most of the week very sick and miserable in bed with food poisoning, and the worst stomach pain of my life. I’m happy to report that after several days of heavy pills, disgusting hydration drinks and lots of rest, I am feeling much better now. I went back to work on Monday this week.

In an effort to not make this blog post one big complaint about Africa, I’ve decided to focus instead on the extreme sense of gratitude and appreciation living and working in Tanzania has given me. It’s hard to truly understand how good you have it until you experience first-hand how the rest of the world lives. Tanzania is one of the world’s poorest countries, with more than half the population living on less than $2 a day. Disease and poverty are widespread. Technology and quality healthcare suffer at the expense of more critical needs such as food and housing. The economy depends heavily on agriculture, though very little of the land is suitable for farming. Judging by these facts alone, life sounds pretty bleak for Tanzania.

Yet, despite all these hardships, Tanzanians are genuinely happy people. “Tanzanian Hospitality” is known all over the world. Though they have very little, they are always welcoming and friendly, inviting you to their home for chai and to meet their family. People on the street greet you constantly; perfect strangers want to know how your day is going and how your family is doing. They go out of their way to make sure you are happy and comfortable in their country. They are prideful people and traditional culture is well celebrated. Relationships are of the upmost importance. Tanzanians have mastered the art of enjoying life just as it is, being perfectly happy and thankful for what they have, no matter how little.

If Tanzanians can be this appreciative of the life they’ve been given, so can I.

In light of this, I’ve begun keeping a list of all the things I’m thankful for in my journal, and adding to it every day. I know it sounds really corny, but it helps a lot with the homesickness and keeps the depression away. Once I started writing everything down, I quickly realized how many things I have to feel good about. It’s a very long list, but I’d like to share with you some of the highlights.

I wouldn’t blame you if you would rather skip over this part and get to the good pictures of the Maji Moto…..but maybe, just maybe, reading this will encourage you to practice a little more gratitude in your own life. Trust me, it feels great.

Laura’s Gratitude List (the short version)

1.)    I am thankful to have a truly incredible family who would do anything for me. My mom and dad have never failed to be supportive of me throughout my life. They have pushed me and encouraged me every step of the way, given me opportunities they never had. The same is true of my grandparents. Thank you.
My family. Photo cred Roxanne Russel
2.)    I am thankful for the very close relationship I have with my dad. We have always shared a connection through our love of running, something he inspired in me from a very young age. I’m proud to say that with my dad’s support, I ran my first marathon at age 14 (some might call this child abuse, but I promise you it was 100% my idea). I’m thankful that even as he gets older, he is still in good enough health to kick my 22-year-old ass on the track. My dad is the most resourceful, hard-working, inventive, creative, inspirational, self-sacrificing, intelligent, crazy man I know. And I love him to death.

At the finish of the Las Vegas Marathon, December 2010
3.)    I am thankful to have a mother who I feel like I can tell anything to. We share a love for adventure and travel. Some of my fondest memories of my mom are on our past family vacations to Hawaii. I have never seen her happier than when she is snorkeling with the fish, and she turns giddy like a little kid in the botanical garden. My mom has an appreciation for nature and the outdoors that many people will never know. I love how passionate she is in her garden, a hobby I hope will one day carry over to me. And have you seen my mom play tennis? Be very afraid.
At the top of Bishops's Peak, Mother's Day
4.)    I am thankful to have a beautiful and intelligent little sister, who will be starting computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon in the fall, one of the best programs in the nation (she turned down Purdue, Cornell, and UCLA, among many others). She has such a great future ahead of her, and I’m so excited to see what she becomes.

5.)    I am thankful to have a boyfriend who is also my best friend. I could go on and on about Andy, but to summarize, I cannot imagine life without him.
6.)    I am thankful to be attending a great engineering school, and succeeding in a challenging field I never imagined I would survive. It was hard work, but it’s almost over, and having an EE degree already has opened endless doors of opportunity for me. Thanks again dad. You told me I could do it. Touché.

7.)    I am thankful for my good health and youth. I’m thankful for my strong body that can carry me 26.2 miles in a marathon, or to the top of Mt. Meru. I’m thankful that I can run, jump, swim, climb, lift, and everything in between, that I can push my physical limits to the extreme. So many people aren’t so lucky. It’s great to feel ALIVE!

8.)    I am thankful to live in a beautiful place, in a nice home. I’m convinced that there is no better place to live than the California Coast.

Another day in Paradise. Memorial Day at Avila Beach, CA
9.)    I am thankful for my dogs.

10.) I am thankful for my many friends and all the wonderful people I’ve met throughout my life, with whom I’ve shared many laughs, experiences, and adventures.

11.)  I am thankful that great fresh food is easily accessible, in overwhelming variety, and I can afford to walk into a large grocery store in America (this is quite the novelty, there are no real grocery stores in Tanzania), by any food I could ever want, and cook a delicious meal for myself. This is one of the things I am missing most in Africa.

12.)  I am thankful that I live in an area where I can walk outside my door, turn on my GPS watch, and run alone, where ever my heart desires, without worrying about be attacked or kidnapped or robbed. Another thing I’m really missing here.

13.)  I am thankful for well-enforced traffic laws, maintained roads and safe/ reliable transportation.

14.)  I am thankful that I have access to affordable, high-quality healthcare.

15.)  I am thankful that I’ve always lived within a short driving distance to the beach.

16.)  I am thankful for hot showers and toilets you can sit on.

17.)  I am thankful that my parents don’t choose who I marry, for the fine price of 10 cows and 5 goats. Arranged marriages suck.

18.)  I am thankful to live in the land of opportunity. I strongly believe that in America, if you are truly willing to work hard, and I mean REALLY work hard, you will be successful and achieve anything. It might take a long time, and some people might have to work harder than others, but the possibility is always there. Unfortunately, that sense of possibility and endless opportunity is lacking in Africa. For the first time in my life, I feel like I can say this and really mean it: God bless the USA.

19.)  I am thankful that I have a long, wonderful, happy life ahead of me. I’m thankful for the blank slate, the opportunity to determine and control my own destiny. My life is mine and mine alone.  

And now, for pictures of the Maji Moto (“hot water”).

Photo Cred Inka Johnson & Tugce Capraz

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Kwanza Kazi Hospitalini

My blog has hit over 1000 views!! Woohooo! Thank you everyone, I’m feeling the love.

I’m over 5 weeks into my stay here. And once again, I’m slacking on this blog. Since my last post, Swahili and engineering classes at TCDC have ended. Our group has split up and moved to new homes to begin individual work at our hospitals. I am staying in a home with eight girls from EWH, on the outskirts of Arusha. Saying goodbye to our friends was difficult, but we made plans to hang out on the weekends, always the highlight of my week. Leaving Mama Gaude’s house and the comfort of TCDC brought about an unnerving uncertainty; I was just starting to feel at home there and didn’t want to leave. After saying our goodbyes, we boarded the bus and stared silently out the windows, unsure of what to expect the second month. I began to feel my first pangs of homesickness.

Family Portrait: Rafia, Christine, Mama Gaude, and I
Our Kiswahili Mwalimu, Baba Kisanjii : "BOMBA BOMBA!"
Saying goodbye at TCDC: Lauren, Ray, our fearless leader Miguel Angel,
Rishab, and Aman
Our new home isn’t quite as nice as Mama Gaude’s, but it is still considered one of the wealthiest in the area. It is a large brick house owned by a cheerful lady named Mama Macarine, who runs a bed and breakfast style home for travelers. There is no hot water, but bucket showers with boiled water aren’t so bad. The food is your average African dishes: rice, meat stew, soup, chipati, cooked bananas, fried potatoes. They have amazing ginger tea waiting for us every day after work. For the first week, we were short three beds, so we had to share or sleep on the floor, but this week I have my own bed. All and all, not bad.

On the first day we arrived at our new home, it was Mama Macarine's 50th birthday. We had a large party (she's a popular lady), complete with dancing and huge feast. While unpacking, I heard an awful screech coming from right outside my bedroom window, so loud that I jumped in fear. I looked outside the window and watched as two men slaughtered a goat. So much blood. It was one of those things that was just so disgusting it made my stomach churn, but I couldn't seem to look away. We were served goat kabobs at the party later that night.

We began work at our assigned hospitals last week. My partners, Charlotte and Inka, and I were assigned two hospitals, both in the bustling city of Arusha: St. Elizabeth and Ithna Asheri. Both are comparatively “nice” hospitals, but still vastly below standards in the developed world. Let’s just say, I would never ever want to be treated at a Tanzanian hospital, except for something very minor. Seeing the operating room was plenty of motivation to not engage in risky activities here.

At St. Elizabeth, we work with a fundi (“technician”) named Jonas, a pleasant man who only speaks Swahili. Communicating with him is challenging, we do a lot of pointing and hand motioning and making up Swahili words. Jonas is very knowledgeable and resourceful, and we greatly appreciate his help. He has a workshop made out of a large shipping crate, with doors and windows cut out of it. It is filled with a shagalabagala (“mess”) of electronic parts and broken medical equipment, but he keeps his desk area very tidy, a great workspace for us. This reminds me of my dad, who in his workshop has mastered the art of the organized mess. A place for everything and everything in its place. 

Ithna Asheri does not have a technician, so our help seems to be more appreciated and needed there. There is no workshop, so the head doctor gave us the TB office to work in…. sketchy? The office is free during the day because the hospital only sees TB patients at night, in order to provide some kind of quarantine against the other patients, particularly those with HIV. I just try not to think about it. Good thing we all have vaccinations.

Now for a quick rant: sanitation at both hospitals is practically non-existent. You would think it would be fairly easy to find soap in a hospital, right? Wrong. In the staff bathroom, no soap. In the examination rooms, no soap. In the operating rooms, a tiny, very questionable bar of soap. Call me a germaphobe, but it should not be this difficult to find soap in a hospital. And don’t even get me started on toilet paper. The operating room is lined with open windows, and the “sterile zone” consists of a red line on the floor, which in order to cross you have to change your shoes. Well at least they’re trying…

On Friday we were called to fix an anesthesia machine in the OR. We were taught in our classes last month to avoid touching anything unnecessary in the OR, and that it is best to remove equipment from the room before beginning work. As soon as we walk in, Jonas goes to town, setting all our dirty tools right on the operating bed. It was a lost cause. A nurse came in and told us we had to leave momentarily because they needed to see a patient right away. A very pregnant woman calmly walked in and gave birth on that same operating table, just moments after we had used it as our tool bench. When she was done, we got back to work. Hakuna matata. 

Miguel, Inka, me, Charlotte, and Jonas, in the OR with our newly fixed anesthesia machine. Stoked!
On the bright side, we were able to successfully fix the anesthesia machine, despite being horribly intimidated by it at first. Miguel (our Peruvian engineering instructor from last month) rotates around all the hospitals, so we were fortunate to have him that day. He is incredible in the field, and always a constant source of humor. We found the problem in the ventilator, so as we always do when we don’t know the cause, we took it apart. After poking around and not finding anything suspicious, dejected and disheartened at our failed attempt, we put the ventilator back together… and it WORKED!! Electronics are always a mystery.

The pace of work in Tanzania is slow and frustrating. Finding parts that would normally just require a quick run to Home Depot is a tedious and tiring processes, moving from shop to shop, trying to explain in Swahili what you need. There are no big hardware stores, only small hole-in-the-wall shops that you walk up to and tell the person what you need. You can’t just look around and browse like stores in the U.S., you are forced to talk to people. We needed a small bracket to fix a dental amalgamator yesterday, and had to try about five different stalls before finding something that might work. I wish I had a picture of the local hardware shops, but I live in fear of showing my camera or anything else of value in public. Being an Mzungu (“white person”), especially in this part of town, we are walking targets for robbery. Wearing a money belt and leaving everything else at home is the way to go.

Despite these frustrations, we had a successful first week. We fixed two oxygen concentrators, a centrifuge, two anesthesia machines, a water heater, and a bedside monitor. We are still in the process of fixing the dental amalgamator, another monitor, a voltage regulator, two medicine vaporizers, a printer, and installing new lights around the hospital.

Not happy with this ventilator...
If you stick to traditional African food places and are willing to risk possible food poisoning, eating in Tanzania is dirt cheap. The less English they speak, the cheaper the prices. We discovered this place across the street from our hospital called Losika Guest House. We eat a full meal of Pilau rice and meat, complete with tea and chipati, for the equivalent of about $2. I always leave feeling stuffed. Of course, in the touristy areas you can find a few Western food places which attract all the Mzungu, but they are much more expensive.

Treating ourselves at Africafe, a very Mzungu place
On Thursday night, we went to a popular night club called Via Via. The club is outdoors, under cabanas. Thursday night is Mzungu night, so it was completely packed with a mix of about 50/50 local people and white tourists. Funny how all the white people in Tanzania magically congregate and find each other at this little club. We ran into a group of Canadian dental students that we met while climbing Mt. Meru. We danced until the early morning hours, but had so much fun that feeling exhausted the next day at work was totally worth it.

On Saturday, we met up with the rest of our group and went to visit a coffee farm. It was great to see everyone again, and the coffee was of course delicious. Our host Baba Steven took us through the entire process of Tanzanian coffee making, starting with picking. After filling several buckets with fresh coffee beans, we used a hand-cranked machine to pull the shells off. Next, the beans were crushed using a wooden bowl and a long log. We then took turns roasting the beans over a fire. After grinding the beans once more, we brewed coffee and drank it, while watching Juan attempt to climb a tall tree and pick parachichi (“avocado”). Great entertainment.

Picking coffee
Trying to find the red ones
Artsy Fartsy
Baba Steven shows us how it's done
Frankie, the most adorable kid I've ever met
Frankie took a liking to Aman
Removing the shells
Raelyn grinds the beans

That night we went to a sports bar called empire, drank cheap sangria, and watched the Olympics.

On Sunday, we visited a nearby lake. The place was deserted, since everyone was at church. We wanted to paddle out, but the man working wanted to charge us 45,000 tsh (approx. $30) to rent the crappiest looking canoe you’ve ever seen. We offered him 20,000 tsh, but he wouldn’t take it. Which was just silly, it wasn’t like he was going to get any other customers that day. Instead, we settled for sitting by the lake eating chipsi mayai (basically a French fry omelet). Later, we drank milkshakes at an amazing cafe called Tanz Hands. Beats rice and beans.

Despite all these incredible experiences and great people I am surrounded by, I am starting to really miss home. Three more weeks!