A Place Where No One Should Have to Live: Remembering Kibera (Part 4)

A few days ago Kibera was mentioned at an event I attended and the name sounded so familiar. After a moment I realized it sounded familiar because I had been there three years ago.  I went on a volunteer trip to Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, with my dad and a group called Cross-Cultural Thresholds. How did I manage to completely forget about an experience that shook me to the core? Forgetting Kibera was a coping mechanism, because if I thought about it all the time I would never be able to do anything. How do I work on a novel when I know that there are 2 million people living in a slum with no electricity or running water? How do I enjoy time with my friends when I know kids are starving to death? While it serves no one to put my life on hold because there is suffering in the world, I do believe I have a responsibility to remember and share what I saw. I am reposting some of the emails I sent to Mike while I was there:

I heard the most incredible story from one of the local volunteers today. Jimmy grew up in a poor, rural area outside of Nairobi. The planes of Wilson Airport flew directly over his village and he dreamed of flying one of those planes. He found a magazine about flying and wrote a letter to every address listed in the directory. He kept doing that for years until finally he got one letter back from a man named David in Connecticut.

David encouraged Jimmie to study hard and follow his dreams, and they began a pen-pal relationship that lasted years. When Jimmy graduated from high school with great grades, David paid for him to go to college in Michigan. He trained to be a pilot there and then got a job in Arizona as a private pilot for the Mayo Clinic. The clinic offered to pay for his Masters but he really wanted to go back to Kenya and be a pilot at Wilson airport. He’s been flying for Air Kenya for 4 years now.

David is a volunteer on our trip and he asked Jimmy to meet us on the first day and share his story. He asked if he could help us in Kibira because he had never been there before. He immediately fell in love with the project. He’s joining the board of the daycare center and is going to become our liaison. He doesn’t have much money but he realized he was given a great gift from a man who encouraged him to study and now he wants to help hundreds of young kids study as well.

Jimmy’s story became our slogan for the trip. When someone said we couldn’t finish digging the foundation that day, another person said, “Well if Jimmy can fly…” Whenever something seemed hard, we just kept saying “Jimmy can fly.”

In other news, this morning we dispensed 200 pairs of Crocs to the kids at the daycare center. The kids went crazy for them. It was amazing to see their joy in receiving such ugly shoes but it was it was also gut wrenching to see the kids outside the daycare center watching this giveaway, barefoot and hungry. They stood outside the gate, hoping to get an extra pair but we didn’t have enough. Well it felt great to give these shoes away, it was a reminder that the gift of schools, wells and roads do a lot more good than finite, material goods. Despite how ugly they are, there will never be enough crocs to go around.


A little girl receiving her first pair of shoes.

Afterward, Marina and I finished the mural. It’s really cheerful and the construction workers kept taking breaks to look at it and give us the thumbs up. In art school, the idea that art is supposed to be challenging and serious was crammed down our throats. Today was a nice reminder that art can also cheer people up and be pretty.

Last night at dinner we were talking about the book Many Lives, Many Masters. It’s by a professor who did a lot of research into past lives. As I was walking out of Kibera today, I thought  about that book and almost vomited. I had absolutely no control over where I was born, and I just as easily could have been born in Kibera. The thought that past and future lives could be real, freaked me out because as long as there’s the chance of being reborn, there’s the chance of being reborn in Kibera. I think a lot more people would do volunteer work, and donate money if they thought there was a chance they could be reborn on the other end of the lucky spectrum.

A Place Where No One Should Have to Live: Remembering Kibera (Part 3)

A few days ago Kibera was mentioned at an event I attended and the name sounded so familiar. After a moment I realized it sounded familiar because I had been there three years ago.  I went on a volunteer trip to Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, with my dad and a group called Cross-Cultural Thresholds. How did I manage to completely forget about an experience that shook me to the core? Forgetting Kibera was a coping mechanism, because if I thought about it all the time I would never be able to do anything. How do I work on a novel when I know that there are 2 million people living in a slum with no electricity or running water? How do I enjoy time with my friends when I know kids are starving to death? While it serves no one to put my life on hold because there is suffering in the world, I do believe I have a responsibility to remember and share what I saw. I am reposting some of the emails I sent to Mike while I was there:

So I was having a really hard time picking out a souvenir for you. I didn’t want to get a tacky trinket, and so I got you a son! There was an adorable boy at the daycare center who needed to be sponsored. He has big, white teeth and a dimple just like you! It’s just a dollar a day and it pays for three meals a day and all his school supplies.

Shwaib Ayub, the young boy I sponsored

Shwaib Ayub, the young boy I sponsored

[In a tragic turn of events, two weeks after I left Kibera, Schwaib was hit by a car and died instantly. I shared this terrible news with my friends and family, and together we raised over $1,500 to donate to his daycare center.  What happened to him was a tragedy, but there are still so many kids who need help there. Click here if you would like to make a donation in honor of Schwaib.]

Today it poured. And you don’t want to be in Kibera when it rains. There were streams of fecal waste, plastic bags and old shoes running past us. The smell is horrific. The pathways are just piles of slippery mud, and you have to hold onto the sides of the houses so you don’t fall down. When you touch the houses, the walls crumble apart.

Some pretty clever, make-shift umbrellas.

Some pretty clever, make-shift umbrellas.


A Place Where No One Should Have to Live: Remembering Kibera (Part 2)

A few days ago Kibera was mentioned at an event I attended and the name sounded so familiar. After a moment I realized it sounded familiar because I had been there three years ago.  I went on a volunteer trip to Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, with my dad and a group called Cross-Cultural Thresholds. How did I manage to completely forget about an experience that shook me to the core? Forgetting Kibera was a coping mechanism, because if I thought about it all the time I would never be able to do anything. How do I work on a novel when I know that there are 2 million people living in a slum with no electricity or running water? How do I enjoy time with my friends when I know kids are starving to death? While it serves no one to put my life on hold because there is suffering in the world, I do believe I have a responsibility to remember and share what I saw. I am reposting some of the emails I sent to Mike while I was there:


Still not enough space, this is a vast improvement from classrooms in the streets.

Today we visited Drug Fighters, the daycare center that’s the influence for the daycare we’re building. Agnes started the school 15 years ago. She couldn’t afford to feed her own 4 kids, but whenever she heard about kids getting abused, abandoned, or exposed to drugs and or prostitution, she would find them and take them home with her. Soon she had over a hundred kids and she would get donations to feed them. She didn’t have a classroom so she would just teach them outside in the alleyways.


Some of the happy kids at Drug Fighters. This is right before their assembly to greet us.

Eventually, Carter [the organizer of the group I was volunteering with] got involved and helped build the school for her. Now they have 284 students and feed them 2 meals a day. That’s typically the only food they get. The building is bright blue and there’s a courtyard in
the middle for kids to play safely play in. When we visited, we all noticed that it was the first time we saw the kids really being kids. They were jumping ropes, playing with balls, and chasing each other. It was a complete contrast to the children outside of the school who look lifeless, and too worried for their young ages.


The kids could be entertained by a camera for hours. As soon as I took a picture of them, they would look at the little screen of themselves and then shriek at the image.

The kids sang songs for us and performed some poems they wrote. One girl, named Cynthia, was so articulate, charismatic and talented we all felt this terrible feeling that she
deserved so much more. If she had the opportunities we have in America, she would be the next Beyonce, but in Kibera her greatest opportunity is to get two meals a day.


Cynthia and Carter

And then we met another Cynthia. She was chained to her bed for three years because she is autistic and there is a stigma against any sort of disabilities – they see it as the devil possessing the child . When Agnes rescued the little girl, Cynthia couldn’t see because she had been in darkness for so long her eyes hadn’t developed. She couldn’t speak and her muscles atrophied so she couldn’t even sit up. Agnes took Cynthia back to her school and found her a foster home. She made sure Cynthia got three meals a day and lots of hugs. Cynthia is now 9 years old and greeted us when we visited the school. She’s a ball of energy and loves to hug people. She can speak and she has complete vision. She’s great with rhythm so when the students want to sing a song they ask Cynthia to stand in the middle and clap the rhythm. This little person who was chained to a bed for three years has become a source of pride for the school.


The inner courtyard felt like a safe haven in the middle of Kibera; a burst of happy blue midst all the rusting brown.

I forgot to tell you about the flying latrines. At first people were digging pits for the latrines. When the latrines were full, people would cover them with dirt and build a house on top of it. Now there’s no more free space for the pits so people poop into plastic bags and leave
them in their house until night time. Then when it’s dark they go out and throw the bags as far as they can. The man who we’re working with at the new school told us that one night he was hit in the face by one of these bags and that’s when he decided he needed to change Kibera. I would think a lot of things if I were hit by a bag of shit, and I don’t think one of them would be: how can I stay here longer?

In the afternoon, I helped dig the foundation for the daycare center. After a few hours I  was happy to trade in the shovel for a paint brush. Mariana and I started a mural for the new center, and we painted the gates of Drug Fighters.

The new gate for Drug Fighters.

The new gate for Drug Fighters.


Defy Ventures

Do you think you could ever hug a man who has killed someone? Could you look him in the eye and feel a connection? Would you care about him and want the best for him? You’re probably shaking your head no, and I thought so too…until I volunteered with Defy Ventures.

Catherine Rohr, founder of Defy Ventures, with some of her ex-con students. (Photo credit: CSMonitor.com)

What does it take to become a successful entrepreneur?  Leadership, vision, guts, and drive (just to name a few traits). What would it take to become a powerful drug dealer? Leadership, vision, guts, and drive.  The clever folks at Defy Ventures realized that a lot of the people in jail have what it takes to become successful business leaders they just never had positive role models. They never had a chance. Defy offers an MBA-like course for ambitious former criminals in the hopes that they can turn their lives around and use their skills for the greater good.

Last month I signed up to be a judge for their business pitch competition. The students in the program, who have all gone through intensive business training as well as deep self-reflection about their pasts, have all come up with ideas for their future businesses and it was our job to listen, give feedback, and then decide which businesses we would back if we were venture capitalists. All of the judges were extremely successful business people: the guy sitting next to me had just flown in on his private jet! I must admit I was intimidated to be in the same room as them, so I can’t imagine how it must have felt to be one of the students pitching a business idea to them.

The competition was so much fun because I felt like I was on Shark Tank, but I was also in tears for most of the day because their stories were so hard to hear. One man talked about how angry he used to be that his father wasn’t around to look after him, and then he realized he was doing exactly the same thing to his sons by living a life of crime and ending up in jail. He swore to do whatever it takes to be a positive role model for them and completely turned his life around. Another man told us how the only people who treated him with respect and took care of him were the gang leaders in his neighborhood. When they realized how driven and smart he was they kept promoting him and eventually he became the leader of the gang. How different would his life have been if those gang leaders who saw potential in him were successful business leaders instead?

After that experience I signed up to be a mentor. It’s a 6 month commitment and I get to work with one of these amazingly motivated individuals and try to help them win the final competition. At the end of the year, they all present their business plan to win actual money for start-up capital. The winner can take in as much as $100 grand!

The winners of last year’s competition are running highly successful businesses and employing other hard-working individuals from the program. They went from making minimum wage and not being able to support their families to supporting several families. More importantly, they are representing an alternative lifestyle in their communities. In an interview with Oprah, Jay-Z said,

“The drug dealers were my role models. Rappers weren’t successful yet. I remember the first time I saw the Sugarhill Gang on Soul Train. I was 11 or 12. I was like, “What’s going on? How did those guys get on national TV?” And then, when I was a little older, a rapper from the neighborhood got a record deal. I was shocked. “They’re giving you money to do that?” Because by this time, the music had taken hold of the entire neighborhood. Just like crack had before, now this music had taken hold. Everyone was either DJ-ing or rapping.”

Sometimes you just need to see something before you can imagine becoming it. I grew up knowing that I could do anything. Both of my parents own their own businesses, and I knew people in all sorts of professions. Until I volunteered with Defy I didn’t know how lucky I was just to have that sort of exposure. The amazing people who go through the Defy program end up showing a little kid on the street that they don’t have to be a criminal to make money. That makes everyone safer.

Top 10 Most Amazing Places: #9 Mozambique

Ok, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been super spoiled. I’ve traveled everywhere and there’s not a day that I don’t reminisce and recognize how lucky I am. Here are some of the most amazing places I’ve visited:via. Wikipedia

Inhambane, Mozambique

Although I went to Mozambique to be a volunteer and expected my time there to be a great sacrifice I actually had a lot of fun. Inhambane (pronounced In-yum-bonni)  is about an 8 hour bus ride from the capital, or a 45 minute plane ride from Johannasberg, South Africa. The bus ride shouldn’t take so long, but the border passing can take 3-4 hours and the roads are terrible. Sometimes we drove in the ditch along the road because that had less potholes.

My neighborhood for 7 months.

I lived in the bush for 7 months with a few other volunteers. We had a little turquoise house with chickens running everywhere. Electricity was rare, and there was no running water. We used an outhouse and bucket showers. To get water, we either used the dirty rainwater well (which made me sick for a month) or walk a half mile to the well. Everyone in the community knew me, and when I’d go for walks and get lost even strangers knew where I lived, and were able to walk me home.

Me with two of my students.

I went to Africa thinking I would need to be on guard all the time, but I’ve never felt safer in my life. I hitch hiked everywhere I went, something that I would never do anywhere else. I met amazing people while I was hitch hiking and even visited two different families in South Africa after they gave me a lift. When I’d tell people my reason for being in the middle of the bush (I was a volunteer teacher at a teacher training school) they’d usually buy me lunch and offer to let me use their beach house for the week. I was constantly surprised by people’s kindness and hospitality. If you don’t feel like hitch hiking you can also take a chappa but you can’t be claustrophobic or sensitive to smell.

I was at the beach whenever I was free.

The two beaches of Inhambane, Tofo and Barra, are insanely beautiful. It was only after I arrived that I learned these beaches are internationally renowned for the scuba diving, and people come from all over the world to see the Whale Sharks. My great regret is not taking a scuba diving lesson while I was there. It was about $500 which was my stipend for 6 months so I couldn’t justify doing it, but now that I look back that seems really cheap for a once and a lifetime experience. Oh well, you live and you learn.

The peaceful beach!


The beach was along the Indian Ocean and the water was always warm. The sand was soft and white and on most days I was the only person for miles. One of my fondest memories was running along the beach at sunrise with my friend, Pricila. The colors of the sky reflected on the wet sand and it felt like we were standing inside a rainbow.

The laid back, friendly night life.



During the busy season there were 200-300 people tops. It was mostly Australians, South Africans, Germans and Swiss. Since the area was pretty small everyone got to know each other really fast and it always felt like a giant party with all your friends.

The city of Inhambane was an hour long drive from the beach. Again it could be faster but the pot holes are so bad. This is where I’d go everyday to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables. At the time I was reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and I realized that all you need to do to escape poor health is not live in a developed country. The food was really fresh and healthy there.

The colorful details!


Inhambane city was adorable. Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony (they speak Portuguese, if you were wondering), and you can really see the influence in the architectural features of this city. The building’s were all bright colors, and there were blue and white tiles everywhere. When I visited town, I felt like I could be anywhere in the world. the restaurants were delicious, the Indian ocean was always in view, the people were friendly, and the market place was exciting and unique.

My favorite part of living in Mozambique was having three distinctly different lifestyles; The cosmopolitan city life, the modest rural life, and the fun nightlife of the beach. Inhambane is definitely a place to visit.

If you can't afford to stay at Flamingo Bay you should definitely go there for lunch!


If you’re on a budget rent a bungalow on the beach at Fatima’s. It’s only about $10 a day. If you want real luxury, stay at Flamingo Bay (that’s where I took the header picture for my blog). It cost about $500 a night but your hut is on stilts in the water and when you wake up you’re surrounded by millions of flamingos. Don’t miss the full moon party at Dino’s. Verdino’s and Sem Ceremonia are excellent restaurants in the city. And don’t forget to drink a 2M beer!

The rest of the top 10 list:

Nothing better than drinking from a coconut on the beach1

The Catskills
St. Petersburg

Only 2 more days to make a difference!

I think it’s everyone responsibility to help others and give when you can. One of my most rewarding personal experiences has been when I volunteered in Nicaragua, Kenya and Mozambique. However, I’ve witnessed some terrible abuses of donations and some very lazy, or incompetent international volunteers.

Caitlin with Desmond Tutu

My friend, Caitlin Kelley, was similarly frustrated by the volunteer situation while she was in Tanzania. She noticed that there were so many talented, motivated locals who wanted nothing more than to help their people. At the same time, there were numerous international volunteers who had to spend months learning the language and culture before they could do anything.

While these volunteers had the best intentions, they were also taking away volunteer opportunities from these locals who wanted to do good. Caitlin teamed up with her friend, Jafari Msaki, and started Africa Volunteer Corps to help train local leaders and secure volunteer positions with local NGOs.

You can get a set of these beautiful, beaded nesting boxes with a donation of $115 or more!

They have their first group of Tanzanian volunteers and Caitlin is trying to raise $5,000 to pay their living stipend. They only need to raise another $400, but the deadline is FRIDAY! Please visit the fundraising site and give what you can. Make sure to watch the video – she explains the mission beautifully. 

p.s. If you’d like to read the post I wrote about the need for local volunteers, check out her blog!

Top 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth #8: Nicaragua

Ok, I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been super spoiled. I’ve traveled everywhere and there’s not a day that I don’t reminisce and recognize how lucky I am. Here are some of the most amazing places I’ve visited:

Top 10 Most Amazing Places #8: Nicaragua

I first visited Nicaragua when I was 12 years old on an international volunteer trip with Bridges to Community. We went as a family, and before leaving, my mom made sure to tell us that we would have to use outhouses, we would eat rice and beans for every meal, and tarantulas and scorpions would be hiding in every dark corner. We cried and begged to go to Disneyland instead, but my parents thought it would be better to expose us to a lifestyle so different from Westchester, New York.

Some of the many cute kids in the villages.

Little did I know that that 8 day trip would change my life forever. I went back 9 more times (four of those times were trips I organized with my college) to help build schools, wells, orphanages and homes. It’s the reason why I went on to volunteer in Mozambique and Kenya.

Our first trip was to Bajo De Los Ramirez. You can only visit this town during the dry season because the “roads” were all dried up river beds. We were the first white people they had ever seen, and I remember the kids kept running up to touch my skin, and then would scream and run away laughing. When we arrived the whole town got together to greet us and sing and dance for us. I even got to use some of my 7th grade Spanish to introduce myself, “Me IIamo Tracy. Soy de Ustados Unidos. Muchos Gustos!”


We slept on the floor of a church and in the morning pigs would come in and wake us up by licking our faces. We bathed by getting a bucket from the well and taking it to a makeshift shower that was obviously made by men because the plastic wrap only went up to our belly buttons. It didn’t help that it was downhill and the only road was at the top of the hill. I’ll never forget when my sister was taking a shower and a bus full of men drove by and they all started cheering and hanging out the window to get a better look. She made their day!

We spent most of our time building a brick school house, and taking the first census the town had ever had. I think I was the only kid in my middle school who came back from Spring Break knowing how to lay brick!

Me and my beautiful brick wall. Unfortunately I was going through a chubby, awkward phase.

On our last day, the villagers roasted a giant pig for us. It was a startling experience for me because I had just started eating meat after being a vegetarian for 5 years, and now I was eating something that was oinking at me a few hours prior. However, the taste quickly overwhelmed my conscience.

If you go to Nicaragua, you must visit Lake Nicaragua. There is an island for every day of the year, and each island has something unique. One island we swam to was inhabited by wild monkeys. There was no way to get on the island so we just floated around in the water. The monkeys thought we looked funny so they hung from the tree branches and bobbed our heads like it was a game of whack-a-mole (and we were the moles). Eventually we had to leave once the moneys started throwing coconuts at us.

Beautiful Volcano Masaya.

Volcano Masaya is also a must see. There’s a constant haze of sulfuric gases coming out of the imploded crater. It is active, so you need to be carefull. If you climb to the top of the hill there’s an enormous cross because early settlers thought this was the mouth of hell. I saw a porcupine up there!

The cloud forest.


And if you have time, take a hike in the cloud forest. It’s so high up you walk through the clouds, and everything gets soaked because of the condensation. This moisture makes for some of the lushest greenery I’ve ever seen. The car ride to the trail is horrifying – they use left over Soviet Union hummers, and they can hardly handle the steep incline and the slippery mud. There’s nothing like watching the car in front of you sliding back towards you. But at least there’s a great view of the coffee fields to distract you from the many near-death moments.

The mural we painted!

And if you have extra time, you should definitely visit the Museum of Archaeology in Ticuantepe! There you can see the mural my classmates and I painted!

On one trip, when we went on a walk through the jungle, I was bitten by a poisonous ant and went into Anaphylactic shock. They gave me three Epi-pens but nothing was working. Through my convulsions I begged the team leader not to bring me to the emergency clinic because I was afraid if my parents found out they would never let me go back to Nicaragua. Yep, that’s how much I love the place.

Eventually my tongue swelled up to the point where I could hardly breath anymore, and they took me to the clinic. It’s a good thing because the doctor said the skin on my ears almost split open! If anyone’s ever seen Hitch, I was twice as swollen as Will Smith after he eats the shellfish. But I’d still do it all over again!

The Old Cathedral

Nicaragua’s one of the friendliest places I’ve ever visited, and it has all the natural beauty of Costa Rica except for half the cost! For some Spanish culture, you can visit Granada. Or for military history, visit the old, national prison where you can still see the blood stains on the walls. Or for some local flavor, visit one of the many market places, and hire one of the young boys to help you. It will only cost about a dollar, and he’ll be one of your best tour guides! No matter what you like to see when you travel, Nicaragua has a taste of everything.

My Most Embarrassing Story

(This was originally posted in December of 2007. I am consolidating my two blogs.)

This is quite embarrassing, and if you’re easily grossed out skip this post. The malaria pills I was prescribed for my time in Mozambique causes yeast infections in 2% of the women who take it. I found out I am one of the unlucky 2%. Of course the damn yeast infection struck during my investigation period, when I was with 18 of my male students in an isolated region of Mozambique. There was no way I was going to tell them about my feminine problem.

The cockroaches in our shower. Would you feel clean?

I’ve never had a yeast infection before or after, but I’m going to guess that walking an average of 10 miles a day in 100 degree weather made it much more painful than usual. I came back to our abandoned schoolhouse almost in tears every night. I tried to get treatment at the hospital, but they had no idea what I was talking about. I even went to the local witchdoctor, but she didn’t understand either. Since the word for yeast and bread are the same in Portuguese, they thought I was saying that I had a bread infection.

I had treatment for yeast infections in the emergency kit back at my house in Inhambane, but I had to wait two days to get permission from the school director to go back by myself to get the medicine. Those were the most miserable days of my life. And the worst part was that no one believed that I was sick because I couldn’t tell them what was really wrong.

On Sunday morning my students walked me to the chappa stand (chappas are the main form of transportation in Mozambique. They are used minivans that fit up to 30 people). There were no direct chappas to Inhambane so I had to make four connections. My students talked to the first driver and told him to take care of me. Whenever the chappa arrived in the connecting town the driver would walk me to the next chappa and would speak in Portuguese, thinking that I didn’t understand. They would say, “this is our sister and she’s sick. Make sure she gets to Inhambane safely.” I never felt so well taken care of.

The trip should have only taken 4 hours but it ended up taking 7. On one of the longest rides, I was sharing the front seat with two ancient women who were sitting so closed to me that I could feel the peach fuzz on their cheeks. One asked me to hold two of her tied up live chickens on my lapSeriously? The chappa was from the former Soviet Union, and I’m pretty sure it was old enough to have driven Stalin around town. It stalled every time we got below twenty Kilometers an hour, and considering we stopped every ten minutes to pick up people, we had to get strangers to push the chappa and get it started again.

Celine Dion performing "Taking Chances&qu...

Image via Wikipedia

On this particular ride I went a little insane. I looked out the windows at the passing red roads, and the women carrying buckets of water on their heads. Celine Dion was crooning on the radio. Sweat was running down my face. The foul stench of twenty crushed people in the back seat was heavy in the air. The chickens were clucking in my lap, my lap that was burning more than my sun burnt face. I started crying, and I mean really crying. “Why am I here? This would never have happened if I stayed in America,” I cried. But then out of nowhere I just started cracking up. I started thinking about how I will tell my grandchildren about the time I got a yeast infection in Africa and I had to drive for 7 hours with chickens to get the medication. And then I couldn’t stop laughing. This time a huge smile broke across my face, and I thought, “yeah, this never would have happened if I stayed in America!” The two old ladies took note of my insanity and inched away from me which made the rest of the ride much more comfortable.

When I got to my house all of the kids in my village came running up to me to welcome me back. I don’t understand how they knew that I was coming back and that I was sick considering they don’t have phones, internet, or mail. They carried my bag in the house and even got water from the well for my shower. I took the medicine, took a shower, and then I slept like I never slept before.

Teaching in a one room school house.

The next morning I caught the chappa to Zavala and headed back to my students in a much better mood. My crotch was no longer on fire. When I got back to the school my students looked shocked. They thought I was lying about being sick, and that I was sneaking back to America without telling them. As soon as I walked in they all ran up to hug me and cried, “Mommy Tracy, you came back!” From that point on I won them all over. They still call me Mommy Tracy, which is funny because most of them are older than me. This is the first time I’ve been called “mommy” by twenty year olds without it being a come on.

The moral of the story is always carry Monistat with you when you travel. Or at least learn how to say “yeast infection” in the local language.

Investigating Zavala

The mango trees are everywhere!

Since I’m stuck in bed with a terrible cold, I’ve decided to take this time to consolidate my blog from when I was volunteering in Mozambique. For 7 months I taught at a teacher training school. This was originally posted on December 17, 2007.

The sun is a predator here. You can run under a tree to find asylum, but he can smell your smoky flesh. He pierces you through the gaps in the leaves until you admit defeat. He could easily kill you at any time, but has decided to torture you instead. And so, he hovers over his victim until you are nothing more than a melted soul in a charred body. This is not the same sun who brightens the day and supports life. It is his sinister brother who is only capable of withering, wilting and melting all that he sees.

My students!

Ok perhaps I’m being a little melodramatic, but it really is hot here. I wrote this while supervising my students while they interviewed farmers in a remote village in Zavala. Since none of the farmers speak Portuguese (there are five different tribal languages used here) I did a lot of smiling, nodding, and creative writing. The farmers are all very nice and they gave me armfuls of mangoes, bananas and coconuts. I’ve developed quite an addiction for mangoes. They only cost 1 medicais at the market (that means you can buy 25 mangoes for a dollar)!

For the last two weeks my students were on their investigation period. That is a time when they go into small villages, and talk to every person there asking questions about agriculture, education, health, and environment. We were staying in an abandoned school house ten kilometers from a road, and even if you walked there, the road led to nowhere. I felt so isolated.

Everyday we woke up at 5 in the morning to do chores. We were sleeping on the floor of the schoolhouse, with no electricity, or running water. Every morning, we thoroughly cleaned everything, did the laundry, showered with a bucket of water, ate breakfast and rushed to be out of the school by seven. We would start the day by talking to an administrator, but they never came to the office before 9. I couldn’t understand why we rushed to be there so early just to wait around for two hours. I tried to talk my students into sleeping in for an extra hour, but they were far too responsible. I’m starting to think they’ve evolved to not need sleep. They hang out until three or four in the morning and then wake up after an hour of sleep, looking so refreshed. It’s creepy.

I've never seen a bull in the sand.

After a slight snafu (which I will write about soon) the second week was amazing. Everyday the students wanted to show me something cool. They took me to a beach where they let the bulls run loose. I went to this huge sand dune and we slid on the sand all day long. They talked to farmers to let me plant some crops for them. It was quite an experience. Once everyone in the village heard that there was a white person visiting they all wanted to see me. Kids would follow me in huge groups. Sometimes a brave kid would run up and touch me and then run away laughing. A traditional dance tribe visited one night to teach me a dance. They made me perform it in front of everyone. There were a lot of hip thrusts, and moves that only dogs make when they are in heat. My students cheered and laughed the whole time. I was quite humiliated, but they seemed to enjoy it.

The street completed eroded after a rain storm

During my second week, the rainy season started. I have never witnessed rain like this. We had a tin roof, so every night I woke up because of the pounding rain. At night I would try to prepare myself for the roof collapsing, and I’m still shocked that it never did. There were so many holes in the roof so no matter where I slept I woke up drenched. And in the morning the land is completely transformed. Some roads were washed away. Everyone is outside repairing their houses. The air was so saturated with water I felt like I was swimming in a hot tub.

And now I must describe these visits to the farmers in more detail. First you need to find the tribal chief to get his permission to talk to his people. Next you walk for about an hour to find a house because everything is so spread out. One time we tried to talk to a family, but we got permission from the wrong chief and her son came out with an axe and we had to run away. I think he was just trying to scare us, but I wasn’t willing to stay and find out. Usually it’s much more calm. When you walk up to a house the people ignore you at first. After standing awkwardly for a few minutes they bring out their chairs and let you sit down. Then they do the introduction. They mutter a sentence in Bitonga, a local language, without making any eye contact. You are supposed to respond with a barely audible grunt, then they say another sentence and you grunt again and this goes on for quite a while. After that you can conduct the interview. If you are really lucky they will present you with water. Since they walk for hours to get water, they usually don’t offer, but if they do you should be very flattered.

One of the stoic farmers

Drinking water in the small villages is like a fine wine tasting. First the youngest child brings the bucket of water to show you the vintage. Then she scoops up a little bit and presents it to the oldest male visitor. He holds the water up to the light and swirls it around to make sure there is no sand or bugs. He takes a sip, swishes it around in his mouth, and gives a satisfied nod of the head. Then the child will fill the glass up all the way and everyone drinks from it. Fortunately there is no spitting; however there is no cheese either.

The happy beach trio.

When the two weeks were done I was happy I experienced it, but eager to go back home to Inhambane. As soon as Pricilla, Jerome, and I saw each other when we got back to the house we were so happy we started to cry. They were on investigation too. We went strait to the beach and stayed there for two days and slept on the beach. We met amazing people for those two days. A dance group came to perform and we told them about our school and they are going to perform for our students after the New Years. We met some people that do micro-financing and they really encourage us to do it as well, and they said they would give us guidance. It is so easy to make connections here.