The Case for Ugali

When I first saw ugali, I was less than enthusiastic about it. I mean, I had been told; no, warned about ugali. WARNING: When the Tanzanian students get here, you can still cook American food, but they are going to want to eat ugali and you are just going to have to compromise. It is rather bland and flavorless but they love it anyway.

Ugali (oo-gah-lee) is a product of corn meal boiled in water until it congeals into a thick paste. Then it is eaten by rolling it in between the fingers and palm with and dipping in sauce, or pressing a bit of greens or meat into a dent with the thumb. Eating it in any other way is simply wrong, and if you do try to eat incorrectly, you may be chastised or at the very least be stared at. As a main source of carbohydrates, ugali is very filling.

Rolling ugali

As a Malagasy, the only carbohydrate we eat is rice, rice, and more rice. There’s a joke my Dad tells about Mom when she first came to the U.S. After every meal, no matter what they ate, she would always say “I’m full, but I’m still hungry for rice”. Anyway, for a Malagasy, eating anything other than rice is almost unheard of, so I was a bit skeptical of ugali. Rice is widely available here in Tanzania too, so I could have avoided ugali, but where is the fun in that? And despite all the warnings, I enjoy eating ugali. It can be prepared quickly and easily, and with meat and mchicha (local greens), you have a full meal!

Lunch from our favorite spot in Tengeru Market. From clockwise from bottom left: mchicha, meat, ugali, beans, and avocado.

Don’t get me wrong, I will not be abandoning rice anytime soon. However, I think that everyone should at least give new foods a try at least once, no matter how scary other people make them sound.

Give the People What They Want

“What do you want me to bring you back from Tanzania?”

“I don’t know, something really African!”

I cringe a little at the words and sigh omgbutlikewhatdoesthatmean to myself.  I remind myself that a white woman marrying a Black man does not equate to culturally aware, she didn’t mean to turn the continent of Africa into an amorphous cultural blob.  Something unique, I translate, something that represents your trip.

I call and ask my Black father, who will surely give a better, more culturally appropriate response.  “A mask,” he says, “something really African.”

Nope.

I stare at the piles of kitschy souvenirs in the Zanazibari shop that I am standing in and have a slight panic attack.  It’s hard to decide what is “African” when you realize how hollow the word is in this context. I am on Zanzibar, an island very culturally distinct from the larger country of Tanzania, which is distinct from other countries in East Africa, all of which are completely different from the rest of the continent. In this shop—one of many identical ones lining the winding roads in this touristy neighborhood—there are carvings of Maasai warriors (who typically inhabit Northern Tanzania, not Zanzibar) and masks in a dusty pile, some of which my teacher suspects are of Congolese design.  When I ask the shop keep for clarification on where a mask is from he can’t tell me, just assures me it’s “antique.”  I’m annoyed and then realize it doesn’t matter, this man is just trying to make a living.

Buying souvenirs shouldn’t be this big of a deal but getting a piece of meaningless Africana seems wrong, (vaguely) akin to spending a summer in New York and bringing back an “I <3 NYC” shirt.  It says nothing about my time here.  Even for a learned senior, coming to Tanzania was an education on the cultural diversity of Africa in general and East Africa in particular.  I don’t want to perpetuate the global commodification of Black and brown culture, yet here it is so easy and seemingly inevitable.

After contemplation (and another, panic attack), I decide.  For my father, two masks and a rosewood bowl, carved with various animals.  For my mother a small replica of a Maasai warrior’s shield (for her work desk?) and a kitenge (a long cloth that can be worn or sewn into clothing), covered in in a Zanzibari print which I will have made into a skirt for her on the mainland. I tell myself that I am making the best of a weird situation.  The masks and bowl were all carved here on Zanzibar, so I convince myself that I’m supporting local artists (which isn’t untrue and they are skillfully made).  Any sort of Africana to break up the monotony of oppressive whiteness will be good, I promise myself.  Besides, giving my father, who has never left the country, the chance to feel connected to “Africa” is important.

I bargain for the items but not as well as I should. I feel guilty not paying for what I’ve done.

 

“Slang is a weapon”: Positionality and Language

Walking through an open-air market in Arusha, we, a group of conspicuous foreigners trying our hardest not to get separated, caught the eye of a few young men who began walking along side us as “protection”. Noticing that we were uncomfortable, Professor Wairungu (our Northwestern Swahili teacher) talked to the young men and they left us alone. Upon regrouping on the street outside of the market area, Professor Wairungu explained to us that all he had to do was to talk to them in Swahili slang. “Slang is a weapon”. Professor Wairungu’s position in this situation is interesting because he is Kenyan, not Tanzanian. He knows street vernacular because as a linguistic anthropologist he studies slang usage among urban Kenyan youth (Sheng), and that knowledge gives him an advantage in situations such as the one we dealt with in the market.

Posing with Professor Wairungu (Mwalimu)

In every language, slang is the ultimate sign of insider status. In Madagascar, what ultimately made me an insider and accepted (to an extent) within the community was my usage of the Malagasy language. Everywhere I go I am called a foreigner until I speak. “Mahay gasy izy!” “She knows Malagasy!” She’s one of us. I am also unique because I did not learn Malagasy in a formal setting, but I picked up in the streets, so I know a lot of (old) colloquialisms. This has been advantageous to me while living in Madagascar, but it also carries a lot of negative baggage, as slang tends to do. Because I don’t speak formal Malagasy, I do not have the benefit of being recognized as a Malagasy speaker academically. I am marked as low-status, like many other speakers of slang. Professor Wairungu’s quip stuck with me because it was one of the few times that someone, especially in an academic context, validated slang usage. I used to be ashamed of my informal Malagasy, since being a speaker is one of the things that “proves” I am Malagasy enough. While in the future I will learn formal Malagasy, I will always remember that slang in every culture is important, valid, and does not make the speaker any less intelligent or worthy of respect.

Difference

You are studying abroad; you must prepare yourself to be confronted by vast difference from what you are familiar with. You will feel overwhelmed. You may experience culture shock. That is what the pre-departure materials tell me. This is what I signed up for.

Despite these warnings of difference, all I can think about are the similarities. Going through pre-orientation with Professor Sullivan, I expected to be excited by the prospect of new experiences. However, looking at a slideshow of pictures capturing dusty streets and open markets, a wave of nostalgia swept over me. It looked exactly like Antsiranana, the city in which I was born and Tananbao V, where many of my family members currently live.

My grandparents’ new house in Bemoko

Many study abroad students are excited to experience difference, but I am excited to re-experience old childhood memories. I cannot wait to navigate the markets, to eat street food, to ride in over-crowded buses. While these things may seem foreign to other people, I am comforted by their familiarity. It reminds me of my time in Madagascar. While in Tanzania, I want to focus on these similarities instead of the differences.

Even though Swahili is a completely new language to me, Malagasy words keep coming to mind, words I have not spoken in a long time. Unfortunately for me, Swahili and Malagasy have very little in common. However, a lot of Malagasy and Tanzanian manners are similar: respect your elders, don’t use your left hand, always offer your visitor food, be a courteous host, pretend you don’t have news when you do, and every time you greet someone go through an elaborate set of phrases with predetermined responses. I am curious to see what other similarities I can find in between these two different cultures, and reflect on my identity not only as an African, but an American as well.

Back at home

Stepping into the windowless, spotless, and crowded Turkey airport lit just as brightly as a Tanzanian midday, I marveled at the change. Shops with untouched merchandise twinkled under the steady brilliance of manmade lights. Although I expected the lights to putter out, they never did during the two-hour layover.

Coming back to said “developed” countries I noticed many habitual aspects of life: waking up and groggily and turning on the electricity without considering that the lights might not work; turning on the hot water for a bath everyday; walking across a pedestrian walkway; knowing I can have food delivered to my door if I don’t cook a meal; knowing that pushing the refresh button will ensure that the webpage will reload; putting clothes into the washer and dryer. I realized that at home, I had a lot more reliability and convenience in terms of electricity, appliances, and clean sources of water and bathroom.

Yet these aspects of life that I thought would restore comfort surprisingly did not. Rather, I missed going out to the supermarket to bargain for a pile of tomatoes. I also missed the simple “shikamoo” and “mambo” greetings that were considered a courtesy in Tanzania. Back at home, man made noises and objects seemed to have replaced a lot of nature’s sounds and pictures that I loved in Tanzania. At night, as I listened to the whirring of the car engines rushing by on the highway, I thought of the crickets and bullfrog symphonies that kept me up at night. Looking across the brightly lit city, I reminisced of the twinkling starry nights that nature gifted us in Usa River. As I thought back to the parts of Tanzania I missed, I realized that I learned to love a country that had a culture, language, and people that differed from my own.

 

The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword

Post by Jacob Sherman

jacobchickenIn the first episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, Ned Stark imparts upon his sons a piece of fatherly wisdom that stuck both with the characters, and with me: “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” He proceeds to chop off the head of a man found guilty for deserting his position as a member of the Night’s Watch. Ned Stark and his parable on death and responsibility was the reason I felt compelled to slaughter a chicken while I was here in Tanzania – something absolutely routine and benign in every Tanzanian household, but a gross and shocking idea for me. My task, in absurdly hyperbolic fashion, was to either take responsibility for the deaths I passively take part in everyday with my protein consumption or fail to swing the sword and never again eat meat.

So now, I will present a technical guide on how you can slaughter a chicken with none of the grace or power of Ned Stark. First, you should have your Tanzanian research partner (Filbert) accompany you to the market to buy a chicken. In order to avoid the wazungu (white people) price, your Tanzanian friend should do the bartering; even my presence with Filbert at the market was enough to drive up the price. It’s also useful to have a Tanzanian accompany you to the market because holding a chicken can be scary at first. They can help ease you into contact with the chicken and even help you comfortably take a selfie with it on your walk home.

chickenpan

 

From here on out, it’s absolutely necessary to have a Tanzanian friend assist you. Slaughtering a chicken is one among many useful life-skills held by every Tanzanian but stolen away from us device-dependent, soft-stomached Americans by the Capitalist Machine (maybe I’m being too harsh since a lot of hip people are raising chickens these days). After perhaps debating with your Tanzanian partner that that knife looks too small and it would be more humane to use a bigger knife to get the job done faster, you should probably just listen to him because like he’s said, he’s done this a thousand times. Try not to get lightheaded. Pin the chicken down on its stomach. With one foot on its legs, draw its wings together and place them firmly under your other foot (the chicken wasn’t necessarily comfortable but I wasn’t breaking its bones and I’m not sure it was even in pain, yet). Pull its head out to extend its neck. Pick a few feathers off its throat to create a point where you can easily access skin. Try to make that first cut – take a deep breath and try again. When your knife connects and you hear that terrible sound of tearing flesh, don’t take your feet off of its flailing body and don’t stop sawing (the word sounds so cruel to my American ears but that’s what it was, and that’s how I was told to do it) until you’re holding its head in one hand and a bloody knife that looks too small in the other. Drop the head because it’s still moving. Keep your feet on its body because that’s moving too. After a minute it will stop shaking.

The rest isn’t pretty but your color should come back and you can probably stop holding your breath. Put the chicken (head too, because a Tanzanian or a brave American might want to eat that) in a bath of scalding water. Have some friends help you pluck the feathers off. Lay it out on a tray and have a Tanzanian assist you in cutting a large slit down its chest. Widen it until you have access to all of its guts and stuff. Carefully remove said guts and stuff, taking caution not to burst the little sac by its liver holding its sour, gastric juices. Save the liver and the legs because someone will eat those too. From this point, most everyone can figure out what to do. It tasted good but noticeably different from any chicken I’ve had before, just like the Tanzanians said it would (if I’ve learned anything from the experience, it’s that in these kind of contexts, our Tanzanian friends are always right).

 

chickengroup

 

Now back to the larger, existential themes that lurk at the edges of my how-to-guide. I passed the task I gave myself. I was able to look the meat that I regularly consume in the eyes and take responsibility for ending its life. I felt I had earned the right to eat my dinner that night, and by some faulty logic, I even earned the right to keep eating meat in the future that I hadn’t slaughtered? I think I’ll try to not think too much about that one. But maybe it’s a problem that it’s usually so easy for me to not think about where my meat comes from. It’s comforting to hide behind the facelessness of the supermarket chicken breast, but being the one to step-by-step turn a live chicken into a meal adds a sense of immediacy to the question: where does your meat come from and is that ok? A girl on our program stopped eating chicken (for a week) after this episode. While I thought that was a tad dramatic, maybe her reaction is also telling; if we all saw where the meat we eat comes from on a daily basis, we might think twice about eating that meat and endorsing the way those animals were treated. In case this blogpost took too preachy of a turn, let me be clear that I can only be so self-righteous in my support for the ethical treatment of animals while I continue to eat them. So for now I’ll accept my faulty logic, thinking a little bit more (but not too much) about where my meat comes from and knowing that at least for a day, I would have made Ned Stark proud.

Back to Basics

Post by Rachel Onders

I’ve been reading a lot here. I usually read a lot over the summers, but here, in Tanzania, it somehow feels different. Perhaps it has to do with the unreliability of electricity – it’s hard to watch a movie or television when the electricity could be out or the wifi might not be working. Instead, I’ve been reading.

I’ve always been a bit of a book nerd. I grew up with Harry Potter and other adventure novels, playing pretend in the backyard with my brother. I had re-read the series countless times by the release of the seventh and last book. I hadn’t read them in a while until this summer, when I decided to read the whole series again, from the very beginning, since I had so much time for reading here.

Returning back to the books I had loved so much when I was younger is a different experience than I expected. Reading them here, with limited electricity and Internet, emphasizes the feeling of being a child again when I read them. It’s a back-to-basics type of experience, where fun and leisure comes from books and the people around you instead of the Internet or a television. My roommate even joined me in re-reading the Harry Potter series, so we can talk about each part with each other as we read through them. It amazes me how much joy I can still find in reading this series, supposedly meant for “children.” There is something simple and pure about the things that can amuse a child, and being here is reminding me of that.

Watching the kids run around the compound where we’re staying, or chase each other on their way to school, inspires me. They take the greatest fun out of the simplest things: running with each other, playing with an old bike tire and a stick, or seeing us “wazungu” – white people – and saying “Hi!” with a wide grin on their faces. This type of unadulterated excitement can feel nonexistent at times, under the pressure of school, responsibilities, or looming “adulthood.” After this summer in Tanzania, remembering my childhood through books, and playing with the happiest of children, I know that I’ll be able to recall the unabashed joy we felt and saw here for the rest of my life, and help others rediscover that feeling as well. `

The Words Behind All The Numbers

Post by Udita Persaud

Emmanuel motions for the mother to bring her young child to get weighed. The mother, modestly draped in a royal blue kanga with vibrant hibiscuses, approaches the hanging scale. She tenderly secures the matching kanga around her little boy. After tying two sturdy knots in the cloth, she hangs the kanga on the scale. As he dangles from the scale, the little boy with his big, dark brown eyes stares curiously at the contraption above him. Dr. Emmanuel meticulously pencils in the weight of the boy in the patient card and nods at the mother.

The number written in the patient card will travel from document to document. The information flows through a specific system: from the patient card, to the report book, to the national database, to the donor reports, and into the hands of a representative of a nongovernmental organization. As the number funnels through the different stages, it loses its personal value. The representative does not know the circumstances to obtain that single statistic. Little is known about the doctor, who attends to all the patients at the health center, and how severely overworked he is with little supplies and staff to aid his work. Information is lost on how mothers and children are sometimes not able to make it to the center due to transportation issues. On the flip side, the health workers don’t realize the potential that these numbers have in respect to their health center. The value of statistics at a large scale in respect to donors sometimes does not get translated for the workers.

Most people recognize that data is really important. However, data is not necessarily a “glamorous” thing to be worried about. At face value for health workers abroad, it is a bunch of numbers that have to get recorded and reported for the government and various organizations. However, a deep understanding of data reveals that these numbers have the potential to change how aid and support are allocated. Data is a type of currency. One gets the right to speak when there is data to back him or her up.

Alternatively, big governments and organizations sometimes lack to connect the people behind the numbers. When goals or targets are not met in summary reports, there are explanations for the downfall that do come to the surface. People and situations surrounding these people seem to become invisible when connected to data. Donors are not aware of the extenuating circumstances that hinder and sway data. As a result, sometimes even the final reports are not accurate.

I feel that no one really understands what data means on either side of the partnership. Donors are not aware of the true meaning of the numbers in practice, and health care workers are not aware of the value of data reports. After six weeks of research on data and its burden, I feel that I also do not have a complete understanding of data. Maybe the next step for data collection is not to get more or better data, but to actually understand the data we already have.

The hanging scale that is used to weigh babies in the Reproductive and Child Health  (RCH) department

The hanging scale that is used to weigh babies in the Reproductive and Child Health (RCH) department.

 

Exotic Animals

Post by Elizabeth Kelly

I love animals, and ever since I was little they have fascinated me. Any shape, size, color, or species sparks my interest. At home, we get so accustomed to the sight of certain animals that we only really notice them when they do something extraordinary. I find a squirrel interesting, but I will really only take time out of my day to notice it if it does something like carrying a whole pizza slice in it’s mouth, because if not it appears just average. When there are 10 deer in my backyard, I may watch for a bit, but they are not as interesting considering they are there almost every day.

Here, the “average” animals are far from average for me. It doesn’t matter what I have to do or where I need to go, if there is a monkey sitting in the tree near me, I’m going to stop and watch it until it decides to move out of my sight. Some of the locals recognize that as foreigners, these average animals are exotic. We saw our first monkey during the first week of Swahili lessons, where a big one dropped from the roof and sat right by the window. Mwalimu (“teacher”) let us take a break to run outside and watch as he swung through the trees to join his friends. The second weekend on the coffee tour, our guide went out of his way to catch a chameleon he had spotted so that we could hold it. It was tiny, but we fussed over it for about thirty minutes. The next time we saw one we were prepared, and picked it up and passed it around as if we did that all the time, but it was still so exciting to have a lizard the size of a stick of gum sit on your shoulder.

As he began to relax, he started getting some of his green color back.

As he began to relax, he started getting some of his green color back.

When we ventured to a lodge near Lake Diluti one weekend, we found ourselves surrounded by trees packed with Vervet monkeys. Vervet monkeys are the most common in Tanzania, and I’ve now seen them on a stump near the road, stealing food from the tables of numerous picnic areas and hanging out in trees by the highway, but I still want to see more. This time at the lodge was special, and as we sat in the grass under the trees where they were, we watched mothers jump around with babies clinging to their chests, teenagers play around, a few clean each other, and even one who ventured to the ground to investigate us.

The next time we saw these monkeys were on our safari, which obviously involved views of plains and fields of exotic animals. I’ve seen most of them in a zoo, but it is different to see them wild and in their natural habitat. The giraffes and zebras, lions and elephants and hippos were fascinating to everyone there, and it was very special to appreciate them there.

We definitely watched The Lion King after the safari weekend.

We definitely watched The Lion King after the safari weekend.

Our opportunities to hold different animals did not stop at the chameleon. Looking through pictures on Facebook, many of our photos are of us holding lizards, chicks, snakes and tortoises. I think best of all was the monkey named Chobi that we met in Zanzibar. It only cost us a small donation to “Chobi’s family,” but it was definitely worth it to have the monkey jump from person to person, sometimes stopping to sit and eat the fruit we had given him, or stopping on the boys to try to groom their arm hair. Monkeys are my favorite animals (if you couldn’t tell) and that definitely made my weekend.

Chobi preferred sitting on the tallest in the group.

Chobi preferred sitting on the tallest in the group.

Although the point of this trip has absolutely nothing to do with animals, it has really become a large aspect of it. Being the biology major that I am, the places I travel to are largely defined to me by the nature in my surroundings. But playing with the monkey, or even marveling over the geckos on our porch roof, has made me realize that there are many things here that are so simple but exotic, beyond average, and are really shaping the experience I have had here. Doing my laundry by hand is quite foreign but amazingly simple. Going to the market and bargaining for the price I want is so easy and not very novel at this point, but I still get the thrill of being in a foreign place and the sense of adventure.

When I go home, I’ll definitely miss these little things. I can do things such as make fresh fruit juice and go find a lizard in my yard, but they won’t have the same impact or impression as doing those things here has. I’ll appreciate the monkeys and chameleons even more, but I also look forward to the squirrels and deer that make the places I go special.

Excerpts from Tanzania

Post by Aislinn McMillan

“If you talk to a person in the language they understand, it enters the head. If you talk to a person in the language they were born with, it enters the heart”

My research team was visiting a local dispensary to inquire about the prices of their drugs and how they acquire them. We really only needed to speak to the pharmacist for a few minutes, but the doctor there was so welcoming and took us into his office to talk, that we ended up staying the afternoon at the facility for teatime. The other American and I began, as we always do, exchanging pleasantries with him using our limited Swahili. We asked if he would prefer to speak in Swahili or English, and at this point he delivered the above quote.

This quote sticks out to me as I find it characteristic of the way in which many perceive language in our interactions here. Greetings are an integral part of the culture here (you can see a classmate’s previous blog post on them), and you commonly greet strangers as you pass them by. I have frequently experienced how an elder’s face lights up when you greet them “Shikamoo” (how you greet someone older than you with respect). To me, such instances demonstrate how even small efforts at another’s language can be signs of respect.

“The diseases of Tanzania are love and peace”

OurGroupOnTheCoffeeTour

Our group on the coffee tour.

Our first weekend in the country our group went on a tour of a coffee plantation, and here is where our guide recited the above quote. I found this notable because it rejects many peoples’ sweeping perceptions concerning the state of Africa, and conveys the friendliness that I have encountered. Some expressed concerns for malaria or Ebola when they heard of my travels, even though malaria is not prevalent where we reside and Ebola is closer to London than it is to Arusha. This quote also illustrates the contagious nature of people’s kindness and generosity that I have experienced—including people inviting us to teatime or helping us with our Swahili as we try and barter at the markets.

 

“Laughter is life—it helps you live longer and better and happier”

One day during our first week of Swahili class, our teacher went off topic and reflected on her husband’s passing a few years ago and how it has affected her and her children. She spoke of how they live with constant laughter, and through it he can live on through them. She feels his spirit when she experiences happiness, and it makes her know that her husband is remembered well.

I was amazed by her candidness, energy, and positivity as she opened up to us. She holds a unique love and appreciation of life that I deeply admire—she demonstrates the happiness and comfort that can be found even in the face of misfortune and a recognition that life continues on.

Our Group and Mwalimu (“Teacher”)

Our Group and Mwalimu (“Teacher”)