Rob is in Africa.


The end of an "odyssey"

I apologize for the nearly two-month gap between posts. My final few days in Dar Es Salaam before coming home were fairly hectic (I became seriously ill, nearly hospitalized). I'd written a "final" post to give a sense of closure, but the computer crashed as I was finishing it, and I was too frustrated and tired to write another. Sorry!

As things stand now, I've just moved in with my brother in Ashland, Oregon (home of the regionally-famous Shakespeare Festival). The previous two weeks were a whirlwind of travel, friends, family, and food. Seriously, I could not believe how much fudge was all over the place around Christmas time. What's up with that? Can anyone eat so much fudge..? Anyway, it was amazing to see everyone again after such a long hiatus. A week back home and a week in Seattle ensured that I had a chance to catch up with nearly everyone I'd been missing (notable exceptions aside: Kent Naegeli and Brandon Schaefer, who were in Tokyo which is a bit too far away).

It's a good feeling to finally have a solid ground to stand on, though. It will be fantastic for me to live here with my brother, whom I haven't seen that often for the past...7 or 8 years. I'll commence looking for an interim job in Ashland while I eagerly await hearing back from business schools (update: I'm a fellowship finalist at the Moore School of U. South Carolina; wish me luck!). My goal is to become an apprentice baker for the next six months. I'd dig that.

That's about all I have left to say. To everyone who has read my posts, whether you made it known or not, thanks. I really appreciate those of you who've told me how you enjoyed what I wrote. It wasn't always positive, but what a great means of expression! I wish you all the best, and feel free to email me whenever you'd like:
(since I'm no longer in Africa, I thought a change might be prudent).




Bad Education

Scott Boyd came. He conquered, and then he left us in awe. Honestly, having such a great friend come here and see the life I’ve been living was as good as making a stew and then realizing you have enough stew to eat for two days instead of one. Maybe it was even better than that… I would write a post about his visit but for two reasons. First, words will never do Scott Boyd justice. Second, pictures always tell the story more vividly. Look at what he decides to post, you’ll find yourself satiated. Scott Boyd, you rock.

In lieu of Scott/Rob adventure tales, I want to drop one more about the education system here. I’ve almost filled my invective-quota; hopefully this will be the last. Several weeks ago, my headmaster invited to his office and presented me with an honor: I had been chosen to write the governmental mock examination for the entire Kagera region (of which Bukoba is the chief town). This exam is given to the form six students three months before they finish secondary school and take their final exams, and is meant to prepare them by showing them where they need to focus their studies. Last year’s physics mock was garbage and I often railed against my students relying on it. I kept telling my boys, “If I could write this test, I would make it much better” by making it less erroneous and more representative of the final physics test. Now, I was being given the chance to put up or shut up.

Several days later, I’d produced a massive test of which I was proud. Honestly, I believe it good enough to be used even as the final national exam. I’d researched nearly twenty physical constants (acceleration due to gravity, speed of sound in air, and so on) which would be necessary to answer many of my questions. This had been a major problem area in the previous year’s mock exam- no constants were given, yet it was impossible to answer some questions without them. Imagine being a capable physics student, frustrated and unable to answer problems which you comprehend because of an error in the test itself. I wanted to be sure that this wouldn’t happen again. With the advent of Scott Boyd, I knew I would be otherwise occupied and so I passed the completed test- constants and all- to my friend Mr. Omali, the academic master here at Ihungo.

Two weeks later, I went to visit my headmaster and to pay sympathies to his wife (she had surgery and is fine, but Tanzanians like to give their condolences for the surgery itself). Over a beer, he told me that the mock exam coordinator called him to say that the physics test I’d written was missing an instruction page. The coordinator had then talked with the other physics teacher at my school (more on this champ in a bit) who advised him to use last year’s instruction page. Why is the instruction page important? It contains the necessary physical constants. This was the most critical part of the test, the page without which the test would be impossible to complete. And my exhaustive instructions had been replaced by those of last year, those which I had repeatedly condemned. Ultimately, this means that throughout the entire Kagera region, not a single student will be able to successfully complete my test. Despite my efforts, despite doing everything I could to avoid it, my test is now the same as last year’s.

You might be asking yourself several questions, such as “why doesn’t Rob call the coordinator and give him a proper instruction page?” or “who is this other physics teacher who gave such terrible advice to the coordinator?” Let me tell you: the physics test was proctored this afternoon, and I only found out about the full extent of this problem this morning. As much as I wanted to do something to change the outcome, there was no way I would have time to get the proper instruction page to every A-level school in the entire region. Hello, helplessness.

The second half of this story has to do with this other physics teacher, whose background is necessary here. I’ve written a bit about him before, but let me refresh you. He came to Ihungo last year and began teaching conjointly with me. After several months, it became evident that he was an incorrigible drunk who would often miss class to sleep off his benders. In the evenings, he would force our students to pay him to attend tutoring in which he would cover the material which he had failed to teach during the day. Upon learning this, I resumed full responsibility for physics, and he eventually found a job elsewhere. It’s important to note that he wasn’t fired, but left on his own volition to pursue a position with a larger salary. A year passed, and he came back. He returned fresh-faced with assurances that his binge-drinking days were behind him. In retrospect, I believe he only made this claim because at the time he couldn’t afford that enough liquor for binging. Since coming back, he’s been slowly and surreptitiously returning to his former habits. I told him early on that I wouldn’t tolerate his making the students pay extra for their educations, but he still often skips class. In short, this is a man who would last roughly eight minutes as a teacher in any Western education system, but due to the severe lack of teachers here in Tanzania, he and his predilections are in high demand.

So now that we are familiar with my fellow teacher, let me continue the story. I said that he had advised the mock exam coordinator to use last year’s instruction page. As frustratingly stupid as this was, it pales in comparison to the second trick he had up his sleeve. Due to the difficulty of writing such a comprehensive and important examination, there is remuneration available to the mock exam authors. Volunteers are not allowed to receive any additional financial support outside of their salaries, so I requested that mine go towards the Positive Reinforcement Project which I initiated last year. While I was busy severely rocking the world with Scott Boyd, this other teacher was asked to proofread my test to ensure there were no mistakes. At this point, he was given the monetary reward for my work. What then followed was ajabu-ajabu kabisa (completely freaking ridiculous). Dude took the money intended for the school and went on a drinking spree to end all sprees. Two days passed and he hadn’t returned to the school. The following morning, a staff member who commutes from town told the headmaster that he saw someone resembling our wayward drunk. This person he saw was passed out on the side of the road with no shoes on, covered in bruises and reeking of alcohol. Yes, it turned out to be our physics teacher. Eventually, he made it home and slept for at least five days. When I saw him for the first time yesterday, his face still looked like hell and it was more than a week after his triumphant return. I asked him what happened, and he told me “I had an accident.” I’m sure you did bro, I’m sure you did.

To me, the most amazing thing in all of this is the fact that he is not going to lose his job. Can you believe it? The headmaster told me that he would “sit him down and counsel him to drink less.” Oh, good idea. I guess we can forget that upon my departure, all 140 physics students will have to rely on this champ. It’s a tragic truth that Ihungo would simply not be able to find another A-level physics teacher and so they can’t fire him, even if he is a drunken, corrupt thief. Welcome to the developing world…

As a final note, remember that this is a (fairly) unique situation with a particularly unreliable teacher. There are other teachers at my school, such as Mr. Omali, who inspire me on a daily basis. There are my students, who persevere despite the bad tests and the drunks. There is good in the education system here, really, but some days it just seems hard to find.


Armageddon Is Coming...

...and its called "Scott Boyd".

He'll be here in t-minus 2 hours, and then we go immediately to a Halloween party. I'm sure being the fancy pants blogger that he is, he'll upload some high-def streaming video nonsense for you all to enjoy.

I think Scott Boyd and I are about to ruin this town.


Some thoughts on leaving

Two months. That’s pretty much all that I’ve had on my mind lately- how close I am to coming home. Over the last few weeks, Jodi and I have gone to two school graduation ceremonies (this is a bit of masochism, seeing that they tend to be six hours of bad speeches and kids trying to emulate Akon or Beyonce) and each time I found myself daydreaming about coming to America. No, not the Eddie Murphy movie, although I can dig it. Maybe I should move to Queens..? With such a short amount of time left, I feel like I’m almost in two places at once: my heart and mind are eating pizza with Andrew, while my body is still taking cold bucket showers. I try to remind myself of the aspects of life here that I’ll miss upon my return, but I find it hard not to take everything for granted when I stand on the precipice of such a drastic life change. It was the same before I left the States, I focused solely where I was going and not on what I was leaving behind. Perhaps that makes it easier to leave?

One part of my life here that I’m sure to miss is my site mate- Jodi. She teaches ordinary level (the first four years of secondary school; I teach the advanced levels which follow these), and her school term will end shortly. This means she’ll be able to head home a month prior to me, as I’ll still be in session. Jodi and I have been together since day one- we were in the same training group in Morogoro, and then we were stationed together here in Bukoba. Despite Andrew’s occasional idiosyncrasies, I’ve never known what it would be like to have a sister. I suppose I think of Jodi as I would a sister; she’s been my rock for a lot during these past few years. During the hard times, it was great knowing she was in my corner. We’ve developed all sorts of routines to make Bukoba feel like home: spicy Indian food on Tuesdays, playing cribbage on the beach, trying to ride our bikes up our respective hills. Knowing that she heads out in a few weeks is a bittersweet thought- I’m excited for both of us to be back among family and friends, but the bonds which are fostered through adversity tend to be the strongest ones (a lesson I learned by watching Vin Diesel movies) and I’ll miss my sis.

When I was asked what I’ll remember about Tanzania during that conference a few months ago, I immediately thought of my students. Even if I have profound, fundamental issues with the system of education here, even if I never truly adapted to my role as a teacher, even if I can’t stand them at times, I know how much I will miss my boys. Its ironic, but now that I’m on the cusp on leaving, I’ve begun to impart as much of my knowledge as I possibly can to them. Yesterday in class, they were complaining about an poorly made administrative decision (in their eyes, of course), and I spent half of my lesson making an impromptu speech about how they have every right to stand up for what they see as right. Since I’m not prone to being long-winded (excepting this blog, naturally), my students actually listened. They nodded, they smiled, and maybe they felt inspired. Or maybe it was that empty smile that they do when I ask them if they understand about how the terminals of an operational amplifier act as a differential input. “Sure, Mr. Masanja, we understand completely…*cough cough*” I’ve said it before, but the students at this school, and probably country-wide, really get the short end of the stick. If nothing else, I want to leave them feeling proud of themselves for how far they’ve come. I guess that means more Mr. Masanja diatribes are soon to be delivered.

By the way, one thing I know I’ll miss about my students, and about most Tanzanians, is how mellow they can be. Granted, at times the laissez-faire attitude can be frustrating as hell, but sometimes it was their saving grace. Picture this: I’m in front of the class teaching, and it’s a rainy day. There is a hole in the corner of the roof that’s leaking, and my boys are all shivering from the brisk wind coming through the broken windows. All of a sudden BAM! out of the hole comes a bat. I’ve never had any problem with bats, but many people do (especially Americans, probably thanks to legends inspired by Bram Stoker). I wasn’t sure how my students would react to this disease-bomb swooping over their heads. When I paused the lesson to see what they would do, they looked at me like “why are you stopping, is it too cold to teach or something?” They had hardly noticed the bat. I chuckled to myself and continued lecturing as the bat kept swooping and they kept taking notes. Imagine what reaction this would inspire in an American high school. I can picture the screams, mainly coming from the teacher… What a difference! The bat made several repeat appearances, and I thought about adding him to the attendance roster. Anyway, its this mellowness that I tend to take for granted. I know there are other parts to life here that I don’t appreciate as much as I ought to, and I’ll try to enjoy life here as much as I can for the next two months. But good grief, I’m so damn excited to have a cheeseburger and a porter.

Update: after writing this, I was going around town and had an opportunity to be reminded of what I'm not going to miss. I was just walking, minding my own business and a man came up to me. Somehow he knew I am teaching at Ihungo, and since he teaches at a nearby school, we are best friends. Now, since I'm white, he assumed I would give him money for his hospital bills. Of course he'll pay it back tomorrow, being my best friend and all. And when I said "no, sorry" the fifth time, he got pissed and told me how he is a good Christian and I'm going to hell. Yeeeeesh...not gonna miss that at all.


At Long Last...!

Well, it finally happened. Push-reel mowers are now in action at Ihungo Secondary! It took more than six months of planning, fund-raising, and hoop jumping, but at long last, this project has reached an end. The Ihungo students now have ten new push mowers they can use to maintain our expansive grounds. We are giving them names of animals found in Tanzania: Simba (lion), Tembo (elephant), Twiga (giraffe), Kifaro (rhino), Naegeli (dogg), and so on.

Once more, let me extend a profound thanks to everyone who helped us out on this. I gave a "big speech" to the boys before presenting the mowers to them, in which I explained where the funding came from. I wish you all could have been here to hear their cheers and whoops of appreciation.

Look on the pictures page to see some pictures of the mowers that I've taken over the last few days.


Two Hundred Roads Diverged...

Before my volunteer training group came to Tanzania, we were asked to name reasons why we chose to sign up. Some people came for the altruism, some as a career move, but a surprising number claimed that they’d signed up in order to have two more years to figure out what they wanted to do with their lives. Its interesting, the decisions we make based on the fact that we have nothing better to do (this was my rationale for co-inventing drinking Scrabble in college). While hangovers only last a day, or two at the worst, a Peace Corps contract lasts twenty-seven long months. It’s not really one of those “nothing better to do” type of choices, and yet so many of us found that to be our primary reason for volunteering. Ironically, while the past two years that we’ve been here have helped us to grow as people, they have not helped us decide what direction we choose for our lives.

Case in point: my graduate school application process. Over the last six months or so, I have spent a horrid amount of time on Bukoba’s lethargic internet researching viable options for pursuing a master’s degree. Initially I opted away from physics, remembering the grueling late-night study sessions with Ivan; physics made me want to cry. At some point, I found that Peace Corps offers fellowships opportunities with a number of universities. The only problem is that each university has its own specific degree program to be followed in conjunction with the fellowship; I had my choice from education to engineering to public service management. While variety is the spice of life, what I found during my time poring over these programs is that they were too diverse and too many. I couldn’t choose. I’m not sure I joined Peace Corps to “find myself” or to put off deciding what path my life should take, but as I neared the end of my tenure, I realized that the path in front of me is still hazy. The programs which appealed to me included political science, urban studies, international studies, and international business. It took me two months to narrow down my choices to a top five.

Then a friend clued me in to a fellowship program offered through the National Science Foundation which offers unbeatable benefits and a chance to study cutting edge technology. For example, nanotechnology has held my interest since I was in my early teens and read sci-fi stories about its possibilities. Through this NSF program, I could try to manifest those inchoate dreams into a semblance of reality. Again, there were numerous schools and programs which I had to spend weeks sifting through. By this point, I’d used about four months researching all these graduate school options, and I was pretty burnt out. Trust me, trying to find all the logistical information for these programs with limited internet access and time was an unmitigated frustration. Whenever I see tourists in the internet cafés here, I try to guess how many minutes it will take before they begin complaining of the sluggishness of our networks. The average is around five minutes. At least I had some ten schools that I planned on applying to. Now here is the true indicator that I have no idea what I really want to do- the programs I plan to apply towards are remarkably disparate. In my final listing, I have an international business school, an advanced physics laboratory with emphasis on terahertz technology, several political science choices, and a program through MIT that focuses on integrating emerging technologies. Yikes.

Oddly enough, I’ve found myself drawn more and more towards the business school option. My closest high school friends were incredulous and stunned when I told them I’d joined a fraternity. I’d imagine most people who know me will be just as flabbergasted by this new propensity of mine. Why business school? To be honest, I suppose the main reason would be to ensure that I’ll be able to support a family when I need to. I once asked my longtime roommate and great friend Nate Fisher what he thought were some of my character flaws (long story…). His first answer was that I am too prone towards wanderlust. I know that about myself, and I know that at some point I will have to choose between my desire to inveterately jump from one job to another, one country to another, and the demands of raising children. When the time comes that I settle down, I don’t want to be in a position where I am unable to provide for my family due to my past choices. Hence, business school. To be honest, I’m eager to try my hand at business, economics, and management.

With this in mind, last weekend I went to Kampala to take my GMAT, the test required for admissions into business school. For those of you planning to take the GMAT, study hard; it was one of the hardest tests I’ve taken in a long time, much more so than the GRE. Fortunately, ever since those Iowa Tests of Basic Skills which we had to take back in elementary school to prove that the American education system works, I’ve had an uncanny ability to do well on standardized tests. The GMAT was no exception, and my score was in the 99th percentile. This means that I should be able to get some scholarship offers! Or at least, my high GMAT score will offset my low GPA (thanks a lot, fraternity). As soon as I got my results, I went to a fancy Indian restaurant where I drank cold beer and ate palak korma (that’s Hindi for “bombastic creamy spinach creation”) in celebration.

I’m still planning on applying to some of the other programs I mentioned, but at this point it looks like business school is in my cards. My hope is to be accepted to an international MBA program so I can combine my inclination towards travel with such a useful degree. Wish me luck in admissions huh…?

One last thing…while I was in Kampala, I found a Mexican restaurant. Jodi and I made fish tacos once, and I’ve created some sort of burritos, but I haven’t had true Mexican food in a long time, and I miss it. The restaurant was called “Fat Boyz,” how great is that? Fajitas were on the menu, and I was getting pumped up to have some legitimate delicious food. When I ordered, the waiter looked at me for a while, then looked at the menu, then back at me. After a full minute or so, the light turned on and he said, “Oh you are wanting the chicken fajitas then!” However, I had pronounced “fajita” as fa-hee-ta. The waiter said fa-jite-uh. As soon as he spoke, my hopes for deliciousness began to ebb. When the food came, he proudly announced the arrival of my fa-jite-uhs. At this point, I tried explaining that in Spanish the “j” is pronounced more like an “h”, to which he responded, “This is a Mexican food called fa-jite-uh. In English, it is called The Sizzler.” Wow, awesome. The next time you go to a Mexican food joint, try ordering The Sizzler and see what happens. If you get slapped, blame it on the guy in Kampala.



Why triumph? I don’t know, really. Today, I decided to write to title before the post. Apparently, “triumph” is my current state of mind, albeit with due cause. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had some major and minor victories which seem to have put me in a triumphant mood.

When Joseph (ex-volunteer at Ihungo) visited about a month ago, we discussed transportation around Bukoba. You see, my school is situation at the top of a fairly steep hill, overlooking the town and some five kilometers from it (Davis, five kilometers is still three miles; you stopped reading didn’t you, you fair-weather friend?). To walk to my school from town takes a little over an hour, taxis are outrageously expensive, and public transport is unscheduled and unreliable. Where does that leave those of us who are not only stingy, but also in a hurry? Velocipedes. Beautiful, 21-speed machines. Every volunteer is outfitted with a (mostly) new bike when installed at site, as my Trek 820 proves. I haven’t bought a bike since I was around 10, when I got some grey Japanese hybrid at a shop in Eugene. It’s been a comfort to have this Trek, though for a long time, I didn’t take advantage of it. You see, since my arrival at school, I’d been regaled with the legend of Joseph, Biker of the Gods. According to the tales, this man-beast was born with his feet clipped into pedals, and could bike across Lake Victoria if he so desired (he didn’t desire; too banal). For real though, I have heard the story about Joseph biking from here to Karagwe (some 120 kilometers distant) at least ten times. Let me tell you, being slammed with the exploits of another like that has one immediate effect- I stopped wanting to ride my bike after only a few weeks at site.

A year and a half passed, and then came my conversation with Joseph about getting around Bukoba. He told me it used to take him about 15 minutes to ride home from town and, more importantly, that he could bike the entire hill without stopping, wheezing, crying a little, and then falling over. By the time he told me this, I had attempted to bike up the hill, that sloped demon, only once. I stopped, wheezed, and I swear I never cried but I did fall over. Hearing his dismissal of the hill as “easy to climb” flipped the that’s-it-I’m-gonna-do-it-too switch in my brain, and I geared up for the challenge. Get it, “geared up”? That’s a joke. It’s funny because bikes have gears.

Since his departure, I have made the attempt to surmount this monster of a hill twice or three times a week. On two occasions, I’ve passed out from exertion. On others, when I arrive home, I flop onto my bed and lay inert for hours, too tired to do anything but stare at the American flag waving majestically in my window. On all occasions, I could not get past this one stretch that is like a 20-percent uphill grade for a kilometer; it was too steep, too long. Note I used past tense in that last sentence, and here comes the method behind the mayhem of my “Triumph” title- last week, I conquered that son of a bitch. I deserve to call the hill that, after being beaten by it so many times. Here’s how my victory came about: Jodi and I were hanging in town the other day, cruisin’ around on our bikes like a two-person gang (by definition, the smallest possible gang). We reached this one area with a bit of a climb, and I shifted down to 3/1. I asked Jodi what gear she was in, assuming she was rolling 3/1 also. She replied “1/1, and it feels like I’m just walking.” What’s this..? 1/1? In all my attempts of scaling the son of a bitch, I had never shifted below 3/1. I don’t know why, it just never occurred to me. The next time I reached that diabolically difficult stretch, I kept it at 3/1 until my quads exploded, then dropped down to 1/1. Ha-HA, hill! When I reached the apex and neared my house, I cheered wildly for myself in between ragged and desperate intakes of oxygen. Sweet satisfaction. Since that day, I have only had two other opportunities to try again. On one, I was in a state of minimal sobriety and I’m fairly certain that I was secreting vodka through my pores. I didn’t quite make it that day, and I do not recommend rigorous exercise after beer and vodka. The other time, I breezed up the hill in a solid twenty minutes. Rad.

Since I’ve already written a lot, I’ll try to be brief about my other triumph- climbing a tree. Don’t laugh, I’m scared of heights. Don’t laugh, lots of people have vertigo. I’d bungee jump, would you? Anyway, the rainy season is-a comin’ here in Bukoba, and if old hillbillies lived here, they would be in rocking chairs on the front porch talking about feeling in their bones the changin’ weather. So in a fit of unusual preparation and planning, I decided to clean my gutters. Recall, roughly 50-percent of the water I use is rainwater. Dirty gutters equals dirty water for washing, cooking, and bathing. I don’t have a ladder, and my roof is high (this seems to be a common trait of roofs). I had to get onto my roof to clean off all the leaves and debris, but how? Well, one of my big avocado trees has a branch which abuts the edge of the roof. I’ve seen students get up there when stealing my avocados. Again, that’s-it-I’m-gonna-do-it-too came into my mind. Having long arms is a blessing for climbing trees, but weighing 190 pounds is not. Halfway to the roof, the branch I was on started cracking. I performed a monkey-like swing grab onto a higher branch and dangled there, twenty-five feet up. Hand-over-hand I managed to secure the roof and drop to relative safety. Then I sat and trembled for a good ten minutes. Don’t laugh. Two hours later, I’d accumulated an enormous pile of dirt, leaves and fear. But mission accomplished, my gutters are now clean. I think the last time they were cleaned was during the days of German colonialism. That was another joke. This time, it’s funny because Germans colonized Tanzania over a hundred years ago. To descend from the roof, I had the opportunity to utilize all my lankiness and monkey skills. I crouched on the edge, stretched out one arm to its maximum, then leapt, soared, and grabbed a branch five feet away. It was terrifying. I wish someone would have been here to take a video, I’m sure it was the most awkward attempt to be agile, ever. Triumph.