Sunday, January 17, 2021

Dancing in the Promised Land, and a Repose in Zanzibar

Another update is long overdue if I am going to get two entries in this month. Truthfully, the events in the larger world, particularly in the US post-election have dwarfed our events and seem to be claiming a ton of our mental space. The insurrection at the US Capital (and that expresses my political point of view on the matter) was shocking. It seems surreal to witness the level of delusion around the outcome of a free and fair election--especially having lived in many countries where there is never a presumption of 'free and fair' in an election. 

By comparison, life for us has seemed almost mundane in the past 2 weeks, despite several adventures we have had since Christmas. I believe I wrote the last blog during our first or second day in Kenya where our family had gone to join other MCC Representatives from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel along with our Area leaders in a regional gathering. This meeting was one of the first in person meetings we have had since COVID, and it was actually scheduled well before the recent surge of cases in Kenya. In hindsite it seemed higher risk than we expected it to be, and the cost of COVID tests to cross and return across international borders became a significant cost factor. 

Nonetheless, despite a need to observe strict protocols and having all of our meetings in an outdoor pavilion and all of our meals outdoors, it was a very productive and enjoyable time. We were able to share quite a few experiences and help new reps. find their way. The meeting place, a large resort/camp, gave us all separate bungalows but plenty of common outdoor meeting space. It was located in the middle of a small game preserve so one could see a number of antelope and giraffe within walking distance of the entrance to the resort. (The only slightly dangerous animals were hyenas who came out at dusk.) There were many fascinating birds to see and bushbabies and tree hyraxes in the branches above the campsite. 

There were several highlights including a socially distanced social dance organized by Rebecca and I. To be safe we taught several line dances that could be done at a safe distance from each other. The most popular one was "Jerusalema"-- Master KG's viral hit of the past year. Our team did it pretty well, and I have put some footage of it here. 

We also did 'Cotton-eyed Joe' and 'Pata Pata'. All of them were popular with the adults and kids who were in attendance. Actually the kids program was great while the adults were in meetings. David and Oren participated in organized games, hikes, visits to the giraffe sanctuary, did archery, and other activities. Adults also had a chance to test their analytic and practical skills in Team Building activities organized by a group that came in and led us through them. 

Our last night was New Years Eve and we had a great time socializing with our group. We even did a spontaneous performance of 'Jerusalemu' when the hired keyboardist for the resort restaurant played it at about 9pm. I was surprised to find that our family and the staff were the only ones who made it until Midnight. Although in fairness, most of the other MCC team members were parents of young children. 

The next day we had a final meeting and then went our separate ways. Our family drove back down to Arusha. It was a lot faster than coming up because we left earlier in the day and arrived well before dark. The border was better despite a small hassle about not having a receipt with our new COVID tests to show we paid for them and they were not forgeries. We worked it all out though without much delay.

We wanted to get back relatively early because we had an ambitious plan of going to Zanzibar early the next morning. We wanted to have a short vacation because the Nairobi meeting had taken all of our normal vacation time between Christmas and New Years. We repacked our bags with swim stuff and warm weather clothes (Nairobi had been quite cool). We left our house at 6am the next morning for the airport. It always seems amazing that we arrived at our hotel in Zanzibar by 10am. The flught is less than an hour from Arusha. In fact the drive to the airport is much longer than the flight.

Zanzibar, a Swahili tropical paradise which we try to visit at least once per year, is one of the hardest perks of living in Tanzania to give up. I say this because having residence permit to live here means we don't need to purchase a visa to travel, and we can usually get residence rates at hotels. 

We had chosen a fairly economical hotel called Ananda Guest House in Bwejuu, on the East Coast of the Island. We knew beaches around there would be good for snorkeling in low tide. Since Zanzibar sits on a coral reef shelf the tide goes out about 2 kilometers every day, so you can walk out quite far to see tide pools of tropical fish, anemones, starfish, etc. It is great to snorkel out there in a few feet of water and you are never disappointed by what you see. (Warning: One must always wear beach shoes as the tide pools are full of sea urchins which can deliver a painful venomous stick if you step on one.)

One thing we were not sure of was how busy the island would be during high tourist season during COVID. We were actually pretty surprised to find most hotels fully booked with Russian tourists who flock to the island in winter and were not deterred by any travel warnings. (Consequently Zanzibar has seen surging COVID cases in the past few weeks). We did our best to stay away from crowds and fortunately the restaurant where we ate was outdoors. 

The room we had was a suite, and enormous. It was in the Swahili style with a made bed covered with flower petals and towels twisted in swans. I love coming into a clean room here! The hotel also featured a large pool that felt great after hours in the salty tepid ocean water. While the hotel was not on the first row of beach hotels, it was only about 50 feet away from the beach, so not inconvenient. 

David is always in paradise on the beach and spent hours collecting shells and identifying marine life. He also knocked down coconuts out of trees on the beach and brought them back to the hotel gardner to split open with his machete. 

We did several special snorkeling trips, one of the best was on a beach in Michumvi, a town up the road where we had stayed at a hotel with my brother's family the year before. There were a number of very accessible coral formations not far from the beach. Our family took a cab up to the hotel and got permission to snorkel there and use their pool. We were out for about 3 hours snorkeling and saw some very unusual fish. Notably there are quite a number of eels and sea snakes along with venomous lion fish, beautiful and dangerous. We saw at least a dozen lion fish around several reefs. We took a swim then had a fabulous dinner featuring a mountainous seafood platter. 

The last day we took an excursion up to the north side of the island where we had never been. We had heard that it is quite popular with Western tourists and now I see why. At the first stop we took a boat out to Mnemba island, about 25 minutes off shore. We were in a small boat and the swell was huge. We were headed for a coral atoll off Mnemba's coast where people like to snorkel. It is fun to snorkel off a boat because the water is deeper so the coral and fish are bigger. There was also an impressive 'drop off' that we swam along. We were in about 12 feet of water on the high side but could look down 50- 75 feet where it dropped down. I am quite adept and snorkel diving and can go down about 30 feet to see some of the bigger fish and coral up close. It was enjoyable, but also challenging at times because of the swell. 

From snorkeling we continued to two towns on the north shore. They were much more like large European resorts full of tourists and options to take boat excursions, kite board, jet ski, deep sea fish, etc. Much less rustic than the side of the island we are on which is dominated by local fishermen. Hookahs also seem to be quite the craze at most of these resorts, probably an Eastern European touch. 

We got back in the evening from our excursion had a late dinner then went to bed before waking up the early the next morning for our return flight. We were home by noon without incident. It was Wednesday by then and the kids had missed two days of school to allow for our Zanzibar trip. We took the afternoon Wednesday to prepare for the return to school the next day. 

By Thursday morning we were back into what could be called a 'normal' routine again with us dropping the kids at schol then going to Gymkhana for a workout before beginning our work day. The big difference, however, is that we no longer have an office. That is very disorienting and we spent the first part of the day doing work on the computer at Gymkhana as the lounge there has nice tables to work at. Later we returned home and have been working to set up some ways of normalizing our officeless life. 

We are close to closing out our role as Reps for Tanzania and next week we will be cut off from the Tanzania email as the Kenya Reps. take it over. We will be starting our work as Ethiopia Reps in training at about the same time. The next two weeks are tranistion weeks with Kenya Reps coming to visit us on Monday for five days, then me traveling to Ethiopia the following week and staying for about 6 weeks. It all sounds very stressful when I write it out like that. 

As part of getting ready to transition out of Tanzania, I have been doing some last minute work on the Sunday School program at our church where I am coordinator. I have been trying to recruit a replacement, and yesterday ran a half day teacher training seminar to get some new teachers ready. We are hoping to relaunch in Feburary after a 10 month hiatus due to COVID. The logistics of restarting safely is tricky, and it is very hard to not be able to be a part of re-visioning. At this point I am still looking for a person to step up and take this on. 

I will stop here and will probably be writing the next entry from Addis Ababa in about two weeks. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Closing, Closure, Christmas

An update is long overdue if I am going to get two entries in the month of December. I don’t know what has happened to life these days. It just seems that there is very little time to sit down and reflect on the recent past, much less write it down.

I am currently sitting in a restaurant at a hotel outside Nairobi. Our family is here for an East Africa MCC Representative gathering—something between a retreat and a team meeting. We have been here for two days. It is a stark contrast to Tanzania where we never wear a mask. Kenya is experiencing a COVID spike and mask requirements are extremely rigid. You can even be ticketed for driving in your car with another person while not wearing a mask. I am grateful for the policy because one of our group actually recently tested positive just prior to arriving here. The threat is real!

Crossing the border with valid COVID tests could be a story unto itself. Suffice it to say, trying to get a test in Arusha during the Christmas season that is ready on time for departure but not done too early was very tricky. We actually picked up our results only hours before we left. I was very happy to get four negative results back because Rebecca, Oren, and David, have been fighting a respiratory illness for the last 10 days, and it was worrying.

I will say less about what we are doing in Kenya and talk about the weeks leading up to our departure. It has been a very busy holiday season and a time of several ‘closure’ events around the official closing of our MCC Tanzania office.

The most memorable event of the past 3 weeks was definitely a Tanzania team retreat we did with our colleagues Chrispin and Lucia. As we approached the imminent closing of our office, Rebecca and I really wanted to have a last chance to spend some non-work time with our national staff and their families. With the decrease in tourism these days, it was not difficult to book a safari lodge. We booked one in the town of Mtu wa Mbu (means ‘mosquito river’) which is next to the entrance to Lake Manyara Game Park. This is a park Rebecca and I have been to once before. Not typical as game parks go in that it is along the side of a large lake and has a ‘rain forest’ appearance thanks to an underground aquafer that keeps a forest watered year-round. Because of this, it is not uncommon to see tree-climbing lions, who have adapted to this habitat.

We traveled in two cars. Chrispin drove Lucia and her family (husband Nicolas, and two girls, Esperanza and Novella) in the Landrover, our family drove our Harrier. We left in the afternoon and got to the hotel after dark. Chrispin was ahead of us and fortunately found the place first, because our family got lost in the town and had to be met at a gas station and led to the gate. (This is not uncommon because there are never road signs and most resorts are off on small dirt roads.)

We went to bed shortly after arrival since it was late, but did wake up to find the hotel charming in daylight. All of us had our own bungalows but met for meals in a common lodge/restaurant. There was also a small swimming pool that provided several hours of entertainment during the two days we were there.

The safari was the highlight though. Lucia and her kids had never been on safari in a game park. We rented a safari vehicle and spent the day driving around the park. I think it was especially fun for the girls who sat in the front seat next to the guide who gave them a lot of extra information about the flora and fauna we were seeing. He told us he had enjoyed seeing more Tanzanian tourists during the time of COVID because many could take advantage of lower fares to go on safari.

Although we did not see lions on the day we went on safari, that was about the only thing we did not see. One of the highlights of the Lake Manyara park is the astounding variety of birds. Rebecca, being a birder, was particularly enthralled. I was amazed that we saw at least 4 very different species of hornbill from the great hornbill that had a toucan like snout to the giant red-headed ground hornbill, big enough to devour small monitor lizards, as well as smaller varieties of these large beaked birds.

The big game included elephants, cape buffalo and giraffe, and every kind of antelope there is. We stopped for lunch by a hot spring and were amazed that boiling water could come straight out of the ground. Lake Manyara is very high this year because of last year’s rains so we could see many areas which had been flooded out and had to take several detours to keep from driving into the lake.

We spent most of the day in the park and returned in the early evening to spend at the pool. David has a great rapport with Lucia’s kids and they always enjoy playing together at team retreats.

We spent the last morning together with a devotional, singing, and prayer, (as it was a Sunday). We had a good time together and exchanged some gifts before heading down the road back to Arusha. It was a very meaningful time, and I felt the weight of finality as we remembered retreats in previous years—in Zanzibar the past two.

By this time we were fully into the Christmas season and there were a number of events around the holiday. We set up our tree the weekend after Thanksgiving as is our tradition. This is our fourth year of doing this in Tanzania so we have a way of decorating our house that we like. We are also big on Advent so we have an Advent wreath with calendars, an Advent calendar with chocolate, and a daily reading that we share each evening. We enjoyed setting up our tree together for the last time in Arusha.

One Saturday, we went to a Christmas fair at the school of our friends the Taylors. These Christmas fairs are a great place to pick up gifts for family, as they are loaded with boutiques. With COVID, this is the first year that we have no visitors arriving from the US to bring gifts from relatives. That usually makes Christmas quite extravagant. We all went with money and bought each other several gifts which meant we were able to make the Christmas tree look quite full once they were all wrapped. We could also buy gifts for the family in the US through Amazon, so exchanging gifts for the season was not entirely lost.

The fair ended with a pantomime play (in the British style) at the end of the evening. It was based on Aladdin and one of our friends, a teacher at the school named Ruth was in it. (She was the genie). It was quite funny. The only uncomfortable part was that it was indoors without masks or social distancing. Although we have not had COVID here in the past 4 months, it was definitely out of my comfort zone and I sat by a window.

The weekdays have been very busy with packing our office into boxes. This has involved going through many files and folders to decide what to keep and what to throw away. We hauled several boxes of records to our home, and I was able to read up on a number of archived items on the history of MCC in Tanzania. We have been here since the 1930s which makes our departure even sadder.

The fact that we have had to be closing our office has made home life difficult because our kids have been off school since the first week of December. Normally we can take some time off as well, but with the end so near we have needed to be at the office every day, all day—leaving them to their own devices (literally). Fortunately, they have been able to get together with friends from time to time.

The last day in the office was December 22nd. We had made arrangements with the Tanzania Mennonite Church (KMT) to bring a truck to pick up all of our furniture and two vehicles (as our Constitution made them the beneficiaries of our assets in the event of dissolution.) They were able to clear the office and we signed over the vehicles in half a day. It was a surprisingly unemotional event, as we had been going the process of grieving for several months at this point. We did manage to get our lawyer to notarize all of the proper documents to make the dissolution legal. We still have some issues to resolve with the Revenue Authority (TRA) but we effectively closed on that day.

This was not a moment too soon for several holiday functions. Rebecca and I are active in our church and I preached the Sunday before, then me, Rebecca and David participated in a Christmas lessons and carols service at our church on the 23rd. David, who can be quite fickle about participation, agreed to sing ‘Gabriel's Message’ with the choir humming in the background. It sounded great and you can see it on Rebecca’s Facebook page.

Other Christmas preparations included making Christmas cookies and cinnamon rolls for friends (a Sack family tradition). On Christmas eve we watched the Polar Express, which has been a family tradition the last few years since we usually do our Lessons and Carols on the 23rd.

Christmas finally arrived. We had a very nice family Christmas morning with gift exchanges. We then headed off to church as Rebecca was leading music for the Christmas day service. I helped with singing as well, and Katie Taylor played flute. It was a very nice service.

The best gift of Christmas was a waffle iron for David. David loves to cook and make elaborate meals for himself and others. He also loves waffles, so there was a recipe included. Needless to say, we had waffles made by David on Christmas morning.

Last year we started a tradition of going to a resort in Usa River called River Trees for Christmas day dinner. We were joined by many friends from our small group including the Taylors and Ruth (the genie from the pantomime’s family). It was really fun, and the place had a Christmas dinner with real turkey and many activities for kids.

We had the day after Christmas for packing and picking up COVID test results, so it was a fairly undramatic day. We left the following morning in our Harrier and drove across the border to Kenya. The border crossing takes a lot more time with COVID checks. We got across and stopped at a mall in Nairobi on the way to the place where we were retreating. We picked up a few things and headed to the hotel. Driving after dark to a new place in Africa is always a challenge and one of my least favorite things, but we made it here safely. (Google maps is almost never right about the location or route.)

We will be here for about 5 days then drive back and finally get a short vacation in Zanzibar. More about that later.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Thanksgiving and Advent in the Midst of Change

It has been a while since the last entry and more news from the field is overdue. In truth, the delay is in no small part the result of a pang of guilt I feel about writing and posting photos of activities we are engaging in that appear to flaunt all wisdom and common sense around protecting oneself and others from COVID-19, especially in this tragically fraught time in the US where our families are. But to date, we have not had any significant spike in cases in Arusha, which has remained at zero for about 5 months now. We warily wait for a change, as neighboring Kenya is spiking again, but also enjoy the small reprieve we have experienced here to live a more or less ‘normal’ life here.

 Normal might be a bit of an exaggeration at MCC these days as we are entering the final two weeks of our office being open. The last days have been very full with extensive interactions with the government revenue authority as we prepare severance for our national staff, and make sure we are legally fulfilling all obligations related to dissolution. We are also going through many old files to decide what things need to archived and what should be jettisoned. It is a melancholic process as we discover many interesting tib-bits, old letters, documentation of crises, strategic plans dating back to the 1960s that have formed MCC’s history here. A bit going through the files of a recently deceased grandparent.

Rebecca and I continue to active in church life here, as I have said before. However, because we have not reopened the Sunday School at church, we usually spend our Sunday morning time in different places. I have continued to go over to the kids’ school to teach Sunday School to the boarders there who used to come to our church, while Rebecca has been active in Sunday worship as music leader, and often helping with logistics of making sure the zoom link is working for those who are still avoiding the resumed services in the sanctuary. As of this week, the kids’ school is out so boarders have returned home, so I will be able to join the Sunday services for the next month.

We had a number of big social events as we come into the ‘holiday season’ (at least in the North American conception of the season). For us the holiday season really begins in the week leading up to Thanksgiving as we prepare for the annual feast. This year we celebrated on Saturday actually, since the Thursday of Thanksgiving is obviously not a national holiday here and everyone was at work and school.

In the past several years, we have enjoyed hosting and especially inviting Tanzanian friends to share in this unique cultural event. This year, however, we decided to invite friends from our Bible study which includes an American couple (Vance and Beth Marie), the Taylors, an Australian family with their 4 kids, and Ellen’s family with 6 kids. Ellen is American, but her husband and kids are Tanzanian, so we still had the chance to share the experience with those who have not experienced it most of their lives.

Oren and David participated in preparations more than they ever have this year. All of us worked together on an apple rhubarb pie. I made the crust, Rebecca and David cut up the apple and rhubarb and Oren made the crumble topping. Oren also prepared the sweet potatoes while Rebecca prepared stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy and other side dishes. I roasted 4 large chickens in our enormous oven.

All the other guests brought other side dishes as well including pumpkin pie, biscuits, mashed potatoes, etc. All in all the food definitely had the taste of a traditional Thanksgiving. Although eating in the warm outdoors of our back porch was definitely different from the cold weather we would be used to in the US during this season.

 As school drew to a close we went to a number of school programs including a swim meet, as David does swim team as one of his extra curriculars. He has become quite fast but this year was moved into a higher age group as he began lower secondary this year. Consequently he did not do as well as he usually does in his events. Rebecca went and spent the afternoon there. It was also a chance to see friends again as two of the Taylor kids (from our Bible study) are on the swim team from a competing school, and Katie, their mom usually comes as well.

I have been playing golf with Mike Taylor several times in the past month. We alternate between going to Gymkhana and the more exotic Kiligolf course. The last time I was there, I wrote that my caddie almost stepped on a puff adder. This time some gardeners near the 17th hole were gathered around a 15 foot python that had a huge lump in it-- almost certainly a 'dik-dik' it had consumed, (one of the antelope that run around the course).

 David has been involved in a number of musical events as well as he is taking voice lessons at school. There was an end of term recital in which he sung Puff the Magic Dragon as a solo. He has a very good voice so it sounded good. There were a number of other pieces, mainly on piano, featuring music from John Thompson’s Piano book 1. (Swans on the Lake was performed at least 4 times--for those who used that book when they were young.)

David’s voice teacher is also one of the music leaders at church and asked David to sing on Sunday to lead congregational singing. It was great to see him willing to do so and he did it well according to Rebecca who was there. This also led to David singing two solos at a Lessons and Carols Service at his school. The concept was definitely better than the execution for this event. St. Cons. is a multi-faith school and they have made efforts to recognize a number of religious holidays including a week of Diwali celebrations last month. The Christmas event was held outdoors in the evening and featured traditional lessons followed by a number of carols, more about Santa Claus than the baby Jesus. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah was probably the most sacred song after David’s two selections: O Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night. It was also quite long, but I do applaud the school for its effort to be inclusive of all faiths.

Life at home has been eventful as well, as we had an owl family, who have shown up every year about this time for the past 3 years, return once again. This year, however, one of the fledglings came out of its nest in a tree and ended up on our second-floor balcony outside our bedroom. We all enjoyed seeing him bobbing his head around as he stared through our glass door. Rebecca made some fun videos of him and posted them on Facebook. He hung out for about a week before disappearing. (I don’t think anything bad happened to him, but just eventually flew away.) Our cat took no interest, nor did the compound dogs. (Who continue to come to greet us every evening they are let out of the barn for their night sentry duty.)

Oren and David have also been making more effort to connect with friends. They had three friends over for a sleepover--Gavin, Harry, and Sammy stayed at our house a few weekends ago. We followed it up with an ultimate frisbee game the next day that was one of the most fiercely competitive I have played. There were far more kids than adults that day.  The next weekend all of us went to Oren's friend Harry's Birthday and spent time with the same group of friends again. It is great to see our kids making these close connections, even with the inevitable prospect of our departure in June. From my own experience as a third culture kid, these friendships can be maintained and continued for years into the future with reunions even decades later. 

The Sunday after Thanksgiving is also the day we traditionally set up Christmas decorations, so we got the tree out of storage and other decorations, set up lights, creche sets, hung ornaments, set up an advent wreath and our Advent devotional readings. We really appreciate Advent as a time or preparation and Rebecca and I usually fast during the week days until evening during this season. It is nice to use our lunchtime at work to take a walk together around the picturesque Gymkhana golf course just up the road from our office. 

We are also preparing for Christmas gift-giving and hope to go to some Christmas fairs that feature local arts and crafts this week. It will be a fairly sparse Christmas this year as no family is visiting from the US---A first since our arrival. (Rebecca’s parents have been here the past two Christmases). COVID has really changed the ability to travel this year as everyone knows.  

All in all the preparations carry a tinge of melancholia as we are aware this is our final Christmas in Arusha. Next year we will be celebrating in Addis Ababa (Mungo akipenda!—God willing! as we always qualify here in Tanzania) With the upheavals of the past year, it is good to take nothing for granted. 

Bonus Photos:

Mt. Meru with snow on it behind Gymkhana

Rebecca and David at Christmas concert

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The first profession and other stories from Dodoma

Lead farmers in Dodoma
Lead farmers in Dodoma

Chrispin Mirambo, MCC Tanzania’s Food and Water Security Coordinator, has been working with small-scale farmers for more than twenty years, with the Lutheran Church, Heifer Project, and now MCC for the past 8 years. And so, when I was finally able to observe a training session for lead farmers last week in Dodoma (my first time as a new MCC Representative), I was expecting to learn a lot about low-tillage agriculture. Instead, I witnessed the process of empowering local farmers with confidence that they could move forward themselves as experts in climate-smart agriculture.

Role playing with lead farmers

The Anglican Diocese of Central Tanganyika started working with MCC about 5 years ago, promoting conservation agriculture in the arid regions around Tanzania’s new capital city, Dodoma. They began by offering some initial technical training in low tillage for soil quality improvement, mulching for water retention, and crop rotation for nitrogen-fixing. Next, local community members selected lead farmers – people who were passionate about trying out a new system of agriculture, with a good reputation in the community and were moderately literate. This current project has been going for two and a half years already, and so we met with six established lead farmers. Three newly appointed lead farmers were joining their ranks in this training, along with two government extension officers and two project field officers (two women and two men in their 20s).

a younger farmer in training!

The typical lead farmer in this community is a married woman with several children (a few with a nursing child along for the training), ready to take notes, think, discuss, and offer opinions. These seven women were joined by a Mzee, a venerable older man with a gorgeous twinkle in his eye whenever he smiled (which was often) and a younger man.

When we finished our introductions, I was expecting a review of agricultural methodology, but instead, Chrispin dove right in, and started to ask them about how the community was doing with conservation agriculture. What successes had they observed? What challenges were they facing? Each lead farmer was given the chance to talk about their experiences. There were definitely some things that were working – harvest yields were up in fields with established CA. People were appreciating the approach. But there were challenges. For example, a lot of community members would come to the trainings, but then go home and never do anything with their new knowledge. Something was wrong with the seeds this year: seeds were planted and replanted this season and sometimes never germinated. There was too much rain last season. People’s fields had been destroyed by fires or ravaged by livestock passing through. It was hard work to dig all those holes, instead of plowing. And generally, people had a tendency towards just showing up in hopes of a travel allowance or free lunch.

Chrispin resisted all temptation to jump right in and address these very real problems. Instead, he split the lead farmers up into groups to analyze these challenges themselves and work on solutions. (The young extension officers had their own group). After lunch, each group had a chance to present their thoughts. This might seem very basic, but in Tanzania, there has been an historical dependence on outside experts to tell farmers what is best for them. Chrispin firmly believes that farmers themselves best know their own context; by stepping back, he is doing his best to ensure that farmers will continue to practice conservation agriculture, even when MCC ends project funding next year and DCT stops active work in these villages.

lead farmers presenting on problems
It is true that at the end of the day, Chrispin did offer some technical advice. For example, he explained that there were certain unscrupulous seed merchants who were buying up sterile hybrid GMO grain and passing it off as viable seed to farmers. He advised them that they were better off using regular seed but practicing some basic genetic selection: close to harvest, they should identify the tallest, most healthy stalks of grain and save biggest grains from the center of each cob. Even the old Mzee had never thought of doing this – like most farmers, he had always just scooped a random kilo of seeds off the top of his harvest for next year’s planting. Chrispin also admitted than in a very rainy year, like 2019, people practicing traditional agriculture would probably get a better harvest than CA farmers (because the rain water would run off of their fields, rather than soaking in and water-logging the improved soil in a CA field). However, he asked them, how often in Dodoma do you have too much rain? Almost never, they admitted.  As for disinterested neighbors, he cautioned the project against ever paying out allowances. People need to have the right motivation to take a risk with something new in farming.

On the second day, Chrispin worked hard to help the lead farmers define and take ownership of their own role. First, he asked them to just describe what they thought they were there to do. Next,  he briefly showed a poster with two images, one of Monday and the other of Tuesday, depicting farmers and fields. Then he hid the poster and played memory: what did you see? Participants named things: a goat, a field, a house, a tree. I realized that along with the game, Chrispin was making sure than everyone could interpret the simple drawing and connect it to the intended story – it’s not a given that people from different communities give lines and colors the same meaning that the artist intended. Next, he showed the images again and then asked: What is going on? Over time, they worked it out. A male lead farmer was viewing his own disorganized and unproductive field on Monday. Tuesday found him at the beautiful, abundant field of a woman farmer, giving her orders about what she needed to do better. The image led good discussions about the need to be living examples of what we are teaching, having the best field or garden possible before we start critiquing or teaching others.

Chrispin teaching from images
Next Chrispin role-played a situation where he was a lead farmer visiting a neighbor. He approached the young man with the briefest of greetings, refused to sit down and visit, and then proceeded directly to the man’s field, and without stopping to hear explanations, offered a running critique of everything the young man was doing. And then he rushed off to visit the next farmer. I have never seen Chrispin behave so harshly in my life! We all had a lot of fun pointing out everything wrong with that scenario. Even a westerner like me could see that the proper approach would be to sit and talk with the neighbor for ten minutes and find out what was happening in his life, before going on to agriculture. Unfortunately, this “bossy expert” style is often seen among extension officers; some lead farmers have been known to abandon their own community’s culture of politeness and relationality, believing that they, too, are expected to boss everyone around. Chrispin helped the participants see clearly how the relational approach (the one that comes naturally in rural Tanzania) is far more appropriate and effective.

Other images, discussions and role-plays led to discussions of gender issues in serving as a lead farmer, and the need for cooperation and consistency between the whole team of lead farmers and extension officers. This also led to a discussion of potential conflicts between different NGO’s teaching different approaches to improved agriculture.

Chrispin ended by preaching the dignity of farming to the gathered group. He mentioned that he has heard people say, “Oh, I don’t have a job, I just farm my shamba (field).” But he countered that farming was the first profession blessed by God when he told Adam to plow the land. “Your field, your kitchen garden, is your office!” And he pressed the lead farmers to recognize that they already know enough to keep implementing the goals of the project, even when the “project” is over. They can use climate-smart methods to increase yields so that people have more food available at home, and they are ready to keep teaching and mentoring their neighbors.

DCT staff Lister and Happy, with Chrispin
This was our final official MCC visit to the Chamwino Conservation Agriculture project. Our office closes at the end of December, and the funding ends in March. But I found myself leaving with a lot of hope that the approach Chrispin promotes goes beyond teaching techniques and tools: he is working to change mindsets and empower people to improve their own lives.

The lead farmer training was our main objective in going to Dodoma, but we managed to fit in several other components to our visit to the capital.

On Tuesday morning, we walked from our guesthouse to the next-door Dodoma School for the Deaf. Again, it was my first time to visit this wonderful organization and finally meet students. Their primary school has progressed to the point where all their Standard 7 students are passing the national exams at the end of primary school. And it is ranked in the top 25% of ALL primary schools nationwide for exam results. 

year 2 students

The students are bright and have nice facilities – especially textbooks for every student (provided by MCC) so that they do not need to rely on teacher lectures for content. Lower primary teachers have learned to use tactile learning aids (like bottle caps for counting) and brightly colored visual aids. A large percentage of the teachers are deaf themselves, giving them extra empathy for their pupils.

We were there first to simply thank the DSD leadership for their partnership with MCC, and to grieve together the fact that this partnership is ending prematurely with the closure of our office next month. The principal, Kennedy, listed at least 20 aspects of MCC support that have helped students succeed and it is sad to see this work ending. Part of our support has included training and technical advice from Chrispin, helping students learn about chicken farming, fish farming, and vegetable gardening as vocational skills.

Chrispin offered them one more training session about the proper feeding of farmed fish. It was quite fascinating to experience a very engaged group of fifty 4th – 6th graders, responding and answering questions, begging to be called on, and all in almost complete silence! Chrispin’s training and questions were all translated by one of the staff, but it was not too hard to learn the signs for fish and food! They already knew quite a lot about fish farming and so much of the lesson was review for them, but still helpful, I believe. 

I found myself dreaming about the day when I could dig my own pond and raise fish. It was very inspiring! After learning about raising the tilapia called Sato all morning, Chrispin and I went to a nearby local restaurant and both ordered delicious plates of Sato stewed with vegetables.

Next, we went to give greetings to the Mennonite Bishop who is now serving in Dodoma – he had recently been transferred from Arusha, so we knew him well. It was interesting to visit the mother church in that city and meet a few of the workers in the church. On our way back to the hotel, Chrispin gave me a bit of a guided tour by car around Dodoma, taking me past Parliament and then up to the University. It is a massive campus, built with a much larger future student body in mind, all white buildings, hovering on the edge of an escarpment looking down over the town. There is certainly no land pressure in Dodoma, but I would not want to be a student that had to walk 5 km from my dorm to my classes on the other side of campus!

Our final activity that evening was to meet two younger Mennonite men – one had been sponsored by MCC to attend a month-long peace institute in South Africa. The other had served with MCC in Goshen, Indiana for a year. We shared dinner with them back at the tilapia restaurant (Kisasa Capetown) and I especially enjoyed seeing Deus become more comfortable about remembering his experiences as an IVEP volunteer at an organic farm in a Mennonite college town.

kestrel in church

We spent most of the next two days in the lead farmer training, as I have already said, which was held inside a beautiful and striking Anglican church. Dodoma gets hot, so the architects had built the building with lots of open brick for airflow. In fact, it did sometimes get quite windy indoors! And I quite enjoyed studying a pair of kestrels who had no problem diving through the holes in the bricks and roosting in the high rafters. The second day of training was a Thursday and we realized that we needed to leave by noon that day to get home. There were in fact no open hotel rooms left in Dodoma that evening because Thursday was the day the re-elected president was sworn in, and the capital was swamped with official visitors. So, we could not have stayed any longer, even if we wanted to!

On our drive home, I continued to learn so much from Chrispin – about beekeeping and the best hives to use, more about fish farming, about plants to use as hedges for gardens. And I also learned more about how he had developed his own style of training and printed his own training materials. He had lots of stories to tell about development projects that went badly when the wrong people were chosen as lead farmers (pastors, for example, who just wanted access to a motorbike to do their church ministry).

We made one significant stop on the 8-hour drive back to Arusha. On Monday, Chrispin had pointed out a strange grove of trees along the road. He had mentioned that it was the work of an old man, who had started planting a tree for every major world event, sometime in the late 60s. He had visited the place 15 years ago and had spoken to the man and noted the signs, commemorating the war with Idi Amin, the resignation of Nixon, and many events involving Mwalimu Nyerere. So, we stopped to see if there was anything there now. At first, we just found a few broken and rusty signs, but then some children arrived to tell us that Mzee was coming. We could not believe he was still alive! He must have been 90 or so, very thin, and lean, with an Islamic prayer cap on his head and a long robe. It is inspiring to see a man like him, with the imagination and energy to plant trees and recognize history as it is happening. We left, hoping that perhaps one of his grandchildren might feel inspired to protect and emulate this legacy.

I enjoyed the middle part of the drive home when Chrispin let me take the wheel and experience the sharp corners driving up through the mountains towards the agricultural area in Babati. After that, admittedly, the drive got a little long through the dry plains around Tarangire. We made it home around 8 pm, and just in time for a later dinner and time to catch up with family.

Bonus photos

fish pond at school

Dodoma church architecture