Saturday, September 26, 2020

Small Challenges Amid a Plethora of Blessings

I am not a car salesman. I have nothing against car salesmen, but I am not one. That said, I have to marvel sometimes at the number of different skill sets required to be a country representative... accountant, pastor, IT specialist, chauffer, to name a few. This is not the first time I have had to buy or sell cars for MCC, but as an American in this context, it is not at all intuitive, and the experience bears little resemblance to the process in the US. 

As we have said before, the MCC Tanzania program is in the process of consolidating into the Nairobi Kenya MCC office and we are now at the point where we are disposing of assets. Figuring out the values and selling items is tricky. Arusha's economy is depressed as a result of low rates of tourism because of COVID. So people don't have a lot of money. As far as cars, I am realizing that people who have been answering ads for our Rav 4 seem to consider themselves duped if they do not get a price below the stated value in the ad. (I did check this out with our national staff and they confirmed that it is important to set the value over the amount we want to get because anyone paying the full price considers themselves to be cheated.) Even still, I struggle with showing the car to potential buyers who are extremely aggressive about getting a low price, wanting to pay cash, and then driving away with the car within 10 minutes of seeing it--like the car is a bolt of kitenge fabric. When I want to slow down to be sure that we go through the proper legal process with regard to title transfer, they balk. I think there is the hope that they will be able to drive around as long as possible with the current registration and insurance and only re-register when absolutely necessary. It has an air of desperation about it that makes even having a car to sell and insisting on a proper transfer seem privileged and immoral.

Work in the past two weeks has been full of meetings with our staff Chrispin and Lucia, our Area Directors in Nairobi, lawyers, and even auditors who came in two weeks ago to do our 2019 audit (delayed because of COVID). Closing down is at least as complicated as registering, I believe, and we don't want to finish off with a huge fine from the Revenue Authority for failing to cross a 'T' or dot an 'i'. 

I don't want to sound too much that I am complaining about the routine of life these days. The truth is, it has been mercifully normal. No one has been sick for several weeks, the kids are in school all day so Rebecca and I can be in the office after a work out at our club. We were even more thrilled to see the pool has been refilled and we have re-established our Friday after-school family activities at Gymkhana including squash and swimming. 

The return to a sense of normality does have a certain eeriness and sense of impermanence about it, like an eddy of calm in a fast-moving stream of chaotic change. This is particularly true as we read about the second wave of COVID hitting Europe, the slow-motion train wreck of COVID management in the US, and recent outbreaks in Kenya. By contrast, Arusha seems to have very low prevalence, and in fact, our doctor friends who track respiratory infections in area hospitals are reporting that there have been none this month. I still find it surreal to see everyone walking around without masks, and spurning social distancing. We still maintain stricter protocols in our office, but the kids have given up on mask-wearing in school at this point since they are the only ones doing so.

Low prevalence in a number of African countries is still not well-understood but does seem to be happening. I think it is possible that there may have been some high levels of cross-immunity, and an outbreak that came close to providing herd immunity in April-June, as there were many deaths in that period here. I think this will be an interesting research topic in the years ahead. For the time being, we are thankful, but weary of a sudden change and return to strict isolation protocol. (I really really don't want to home school again!)

Some of the rewarding work we have had the chance to do in our job is visiting partners. Rebecca and I went over to MWANGAZA, one of our education partners this week who have been doing a very effective project in Lutheran schools to eliminate the practice of corporal punishment. It is very challenging to change the culture of discipline in schools, even with strict govt. limitations on it because all teachers grew up with it, and even parents judge the rigor of a school and quality of education by the number of times the cane is applied. Sadly, this is one of the projects that had to end early, but during our visit to their office, they told us that they found another donor to continue supporting their work. I admit that these visits to partners we have had to cut with our program reduction is bittersweet. It is good to be able to sit together and appreciate our mutual work and learning together, but I feel a jolt of fresh regret that we are not able to continue to work here in the capacity we have been for many years. 

Another life-giving routine is restarting Sunday School. While our church has not reopened yet, (It will in October), Rebecca and I have gone for the past 3 weeks to the kids' school St.Constantines, to do Sunday school in an outdoor space. The kids who attend are boarders and had been coming by bus to our church in the past. It has been fun to see their faces again and continue doing lessons with them the past few weeks. There is no plan to restart Sunday school at our church since the Sunday school was always very crowded in cramped rooms and we would not be able to control social distancing in our church setting. 

We also continue to meet with our small group and it has been good to see a number of families returning. Oren and David finally got to get together with their friends Harry and Sammy T. as their family returned from Australia and finished quarantine about a week ago. We all met up at the birthday of one of our small group members at a club called TGT on the West side of Arusha. The 4 boys enjoyed spending hours together catching up. I am grateful they have close friends here, even after many months apart. 

We have also been able to resume our Thursday dinners every fortnight with the team here on our compound where we live. It is good to catch up with others who live with us here. In fact, life on the compound has been quite satisfying after school, particularly for David who considers the 3 guard dogs his pets, and often helps them escape from their pen in the late afternoon to play with him. He has also been avidly riding his bike around the compound, a return to this activity after nearly a year and a half hiatus because of an accident he had which really put him off bike riding. Now he and I take a ride around the compound and into the neighboring village on a regular basis. (It is kind of like off-road biking since all the roads here are not paved and very rough.)

Rebecca and I were at the office alone last week as both Chrispin and Lucia have been out of the office for different activities. We usually take a day off per week one at a time, but this week, since we were alone, we took off Thursday together and went to a resort called Ngare Sero (on the foothills of Mt. Meru) that offered a special 'family day' deal to spend the day including, swimming, boating, hiking, bird-watching, even horseback riding, and a full meal all included for about $25 per person. Rebecca and I splurged on it while the kids were at school. We had a great swim in their 30-meter pool (narrow but long), then had a fabulous breakfast, followed by hiking and bird watching. It was a very welcome Sabbath days after a lot of busy administrative work at the office. We saw a number of very cool birds including a fish eagle perched on the small lake near the lodge. Very similar to the American bald eagle as you can see. 

We have much to be thankful for, in our remaining months here, one of the greatest blessings is seeing the kids really enjoy their school here and succeed academically. Oren is particularly good with the Cambridge system aced his prep. tests for O levels at the end of the year. According to him, he is glad he is smart because he hates to study:-) 

Even with the many blessings here we cannot be fully at rest. We are already making preparations for our next role and a big move next year. Once the program here is closed, and the kids are out of school, we will be moving to Addis Ababa to begin our work as Reps. in Ethiopia. I am supposed to start in Feb, followed by the family in June when school ends. Getting documents ready for the visa process there needs to be prepared nearly 6 months in advance. So we are working on that and while we are grateful for a new opportunity, it seems to cast an uncertain shadow over our life here and now. This is the season of jacarandas in full bloom. I know Ethiopia has much to offer, but I feel melancholic knowing this may be the last time I live in a place where these majestic trees burst into bloom everywhere in town, and cover the ground with a lilac carpet under their spreading boughs.

Bonus postscript: I preached for our church several weeks ago (online) and recorded the sermon. If you are interested in listening, here is the link: sermon link

Sunday, September 6, 2020

A Budget Safari in Maramboi

We have now enjoyed two full weeks of in-person school here in Arusha. I (Rebecca) say “Enjoyed” because it has honestly felt a lot like a vacation to go into the MCC office these past weeks, and to be able to focus solely on the work we needed to do there. No need to educate or entertain our kids. No need to worry about cooking or cleaning or taking care of household tasks. There was something refreshing even in the full day I spent going over all the financials in our office and making sure that everything was formally approved and signed off, after the past five months of director absence.

Our schedule is a little different and more compressed in this COVID era. We have realized that the crowded school bus (minivan) is an excellent setting for transmission and so we are driving the kids to school. We need to leave a few minutes later (6:50 am), which feels like we’re really relaxing in the mornings! We take the new bypass road (slowly now, because of so many traffic police out looking for speeders) and then drop the kids off just before 7:30 to wash their hands and get their temperatures checked. They are part of a very small minority of students who are wearing masks. On the good side, their school has great ventilation. All the walkways in secondary are open-air and classrooms have windows on either side. Desks are placed with moderate social distancing (1.5 meters). Students are required to follow one-way walking patterns to avoid crowding or bunching and there are now 5 shifts in the lunch hall, to reduce the number of kids inside. Still, it’s very difficult for kids to stop touching, hugging, and getting in each other’s faces. According to Oren, the school has a ways to go in enforcing its precautions and that if there is someone with COVID coming to school, everyone is going to get it. We remain somewhat nervous about all of this.

In fact, we are experiencing a worse sort of culture shock than anything we’ve ever felt before in crossing international boundaries: COVID culture shock. Back in the USA, we lived in a state where everyone understands that good citizenship involves wearing a face-covering out in public. You can go into a store and feel ok because all the other customers are also wearing masks. We have had a common understanding of the risks and how to mitigate them – at least with the friends we met up with.

Here in Tanzania, “Corona is finished.” People are going about their business as normal. You see virtually no one wearing masks, and you are liable to be mocked and heckled if you wear a mask in some places. People are shaking hands, giving hugs and happy to meet indoors in enclosed spaces. The narrative that the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror is strengthened by both political power and religious persuasion. It does indeed seem that prevalence is low here, although it's not clear why or how long it will last. We hope and pray that this is indeed the case. But if you happen to suggest that you believe that the virus is still out there, you are viewed as one of "ye of little faith."

All of this makes social and professional interactions rather complicated. At work, all of us have separate rooms to work in, but when we need to go into each other’s offices, we should be wearing masks to protect each other. We intend to enforce the same protocol with visitors to our office and we set up a space for meetings that allows more than 2 meters of space between people with open windows. But not all visitors come with masks. It is very awkward to wear a mask when others didn’t bring them along. We brought disposable masks to offer to visitors, but we had not anticipated how culturally disruptive that might be. We now have 4 plastic chairs at the office so that we can meet people outdoors, but that’s also difficult with sensitive conversations. Anyway, we and the kids are living daily with a sense of angst and cognitive dissonance around what we know to be true about this virus, and the way things appear here in this culture.

So, back to school: David has now started his first year of Secondary School with Year 7 (6th grade). So far, he seems to be taking the changes and higher expectations seriously. He’s been pretty good about getting into a routine of doing his homework promptly after school. For his electives, he’s going to swim team practice twice a week as well as one afternoon of badminton – hopefully, all the extra activity will help him with the weight he gained in lockdown (like all of us!!).

Oren has been having a pretty demanding start to school – his postponed Year 10 exams will start Monday, so he’s had a ton of studying to do, to recall the material from last school year. I’m so thankful Paul is not afraid of chemistry and has been going through 175 pages of a review packet systematically with him. That’s the tough one, but there’s also a lot of review for Geography, Math and History. Hopefully, it won’t be too tough for him.

For Paul and me, the slightly later drop off of kids means that we are really squeezed for time to do a morning workout before going to the office. We certainly wouldn’t have enough time to swim, but coincidentally, our club’s pool is also not currently functional (that is another story that we might tell sometime). One of the unexpected side effects of 5 months of lockdown was that we learned how to exercise on land, using online workout videos, a 2m space, with rocks as dumbbells in just 30 minutes. This now comes in handy, and we are still able to do a good rigorous fitness routine in the gym at our club, grab a shower, and get to the office by 8:45. We still maintain that daily physical activity is the number one key to mental wellbeing.

Three days a week, we are both in the office. But these days, now that Paul and I share the job equally at 1.5 time total, each of us also has one day a week to be away from the office. This had been my habit in the past anyway, but it’s a first for Paul. I think he has really enjoyed and been refreshed by the opportunity to spend a day each week, doing what is important to him. For two weeks in a row, he has played a round of golf. He’s had time to think about our church Sunday school program going forward, write a sermon, and even take a midday nap.

I have a little more of a dilemma: I had become accustomed to having two days out of the office per week. On one day, I had a true Sabbath and day of solitude. On the other day, I attended a women’s bible study and did my non-work work: church responsibilities, Parents’ association stuff, etc.   – I was very spoiled! Now I have just one day a week for Sabbath and all those other involvements. It’s a little bit tricky to figure out how to prioritize. The women’s bible study was somewhat decimated by the exodus of a lot of families in the past few months and needs some tending to get going again in a good rhythm. And I really enjoy sharing prayer, spiritual reflection, and practical conversation with those women. I also really need some time of solitude to stay on an even keel. The day out of the office is also quite a bit shorter since it involves doing the school pick up at 3:30. (In the past, I could be home for a long stretch of time all by myself until 5 pm when Paul would come home with the kids, who had taken the bus to the office). I’ll have to see where all this shakes out.

Last weekend, we celebrated our return to Tanzania with a weekend outing to a fancy safari lodge. Although rates of COVID seem low here, the tourism industry which powers the economy of the Arusha region has been devastated. Big safari hotels in the national parks have literally been overrun by impala, giraffes and vervet monkeys because there is absolutely no one going to stay there. The human toll of this economic devastation is very heavy and hard to see. It also has meant that some lodges are doing everything possible to entice the local market. And thus, we were able to stay at Maramboi Tented Lodge on a resident special for two nights, full board (I mean FULL board), for all 4 of us, including wildlife management area fees, for $210 total. It was an unbelievable deal, and even though I knew very little about the place, just what I’d heard from women’s bible study, I felt like we just had to go and enjoy a little more of Tanzania in the short time we have left.

Paul and I took a half-day off last Friday so that we could go home, pack the truck, and then go pick up the kids directly from school. It was an easy 90-minute drive from school down to the wildlife management area (WMA), a sort of wildlife corridor between three huge national parks. We reached Maramboi as evening was coming and were able to watch the sunset from the pool deck directly across Lake Manyara to the escarpment surrounding Ngorongoro crater. The pool area was actually surrounded by the lake on two sides, with a bit of savannah on the other two, and beautifully built. We were able to watch and identify a wide variety of waterfowl as well as all kinds of land birds. A pair of zebras grazed to one side and basically seemed to live at the lodge. Our “tent” was enormous, spaciously accommodating one huge king bed and two full-sized beds, several lounge chairs and lots of space, with a solidly build bath area at one end, all under a high-quality thatched roof. We had our own private veranda, from which we could observe the wanderings of wildebeests.

The staff was very much COVID aware and masked up anytime we were near. Meals were all served at our private table, family style. There was so much food! And you know, when you go to a nice hotel, it’s interesting how the kids even eat salad! Butternut soup! Eggplant! And they declare it delicious and so much better than what you make at home! (and it was really good, but not that different).

Seeing animals in the WMA was a little hair-raising– there were no rangers available to walk with us into the bush. So, on Saturday morning, we were advised to just walk around on the paths leading out to various tents and see what we could see. As we walked, we did see plenty of wildebeest, giraffe, warthogs, impala, Thompson’s gazelles and a few more wild zebras. All these herbivores seemed quite at peace. But then we found a warthog skull and scattered bones. The kids were really involved in getting some teeth out of a jawbone. We started asking ourselves, “Now how did this skull end up so very close to the tented lodge? Clearly, someone has hunted and had a nice dinner.” We walked out a bit further into the savannah and found two more skulls and decided that we had had enough of walking around without an armed ranger! All the while, we definitely were keeping an eye on the plentiful grazers, to follow their lead if they got nervous, but still…

The pool was lovely to splash in, and we had time to rest and play a few games together. Oren and I have been listening to Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and I’m really glad he’s so interested in hearing about her life. Later, David talked me into going out for another walk along the lakeshore. We found ourselves absolutely surrounded by a family of giraffes – there must have been 30 altogether – but they just kept appearing as we would walk around these little clusters of palmettos. We were probably too close to them, but it was as if we were just tripping over them! And the birdlife – I must have added at least 10 species to my life list in one weekend. It was great!

On Sunday morning, after a leisurely breakfast and another little walk, we packed up and drove back to Arusha. We had just enough time to turn around and head out again to attend our family Bible study, for the first time in person since early March. We were really delighted to be together again and have the time to share our prayer needs with each other –which are still quite considerable. Lots of people are facing lots of uncertainties these days. Still, it’s really a mark of God’s provision that we are able to be back here together physically at all with these dear friends, and we’re still praying one last family back this coming week.

On Monday, I plan to travel to Dodoma with our Food Security Coordinator, Chrispin. I’d never had the chance to meet with our agriculture partner down their or see their work (in fact, I spent most of the first 3 years here in our Arusha office), and I’m really grateful for this one last chance. We will also go to bid farewell to an education partner, Dodoma School for the Deaf, and to greet Mennonite church partners down there. It will be a challenging week for Paul while I’m gone, especially as Oren is going through his exams. So please do be praying for his stamina. And for safety in travel for Chrispin and I.

And now for an amusing anecdote apropos to nothing:

When we were packing our suitcases to return to Arusha, as usual I used every available space, packing spices into thermos mugs and bottles of allergy meds into the bottoms of Oren’s sneakers. When we arrived home here, I unpacked the spices and pulled the meds out of the shoes and then realized that there was still something in the sneaker. I shook it out upside down, and out emerged the dessicated corpse of a large toad! How had the toad met his doom? Well, Oren hadn’t worn those shoes for months, and they had been sitting in the garage, a favorite haunt of toads. So, probably a toad hopped in there one day and then found itself trapped.

It was quite startling to see the dried out little creature and I was hysterically amused, running downstairs to show Oren what was in his sneaker. Apparently, I then tossed the shoes into the shoe pile near the door.

Two weeks later, I was taking an evening walk with Oren, who had just started school again, wearing school uniform including sneakers. At one point I looked down at the driveway and exclaimed! “Why, there’s a dried out toad!” Oren said, “Yes, Mommy, it’s the same one you NEVER TOOK OUT OF MY SHOE!” Apparently, Paul had driven them to school without me that morning. Oren was putting on his sneakers in the car and found that his foot would not fit into the left one. He shook it out and – voila! Toad! He had to open his door and shake it out onto the driveway where we found it. I guess that’s one of my worst absent-minded motherhood moments, failing to remove the dead toad I had already discovered, but leaving it there to startle us another day!






Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Back to the New Normal in Arusha

Air travel in the age of COVID certainly changes the hierarchy of anxieties. Whereas once one might entertain vague worries in the back of the mind of a hijacking or some bizarre mechanical failure, the overwhelming fear of flying nowadays lies in the possibility of inhaling something lethal circulating in the closed air of the plane cabin. Dauntless, however, our family committed to returning to Tanzania in August to continue our work with MCC despite the risks.

But overcoming fear is not even the biggest obstacle to overcome in order to make the trip. Our Airline, QATAR, on which we bought tickets in March, just resumed international travel to Kilimanjaro airport a week before our scheduled departure. Then there was the consideration of which countries in the world will let passengers embarking from the United States to enter. Only about a dozen are open to US travelers given the prevalence of CVD-19 in the US right now. Fortunately, Tanzania is one of them, although they had just begun requiring proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of departure. (I wrote about the challenges of getting that in the last entry.)

After a last night with all of our parents which included a final croquet match dominated by the Grandfathers, we went to bed, packed into 8 suitcases and 4 carryons, about 10 Kgs overweight all told.

The next day, Dave and Jean drove us in their minivan to Dulles airport. Traffic was surprisingly light on a midday Monday in DC, but it was even more shocking to see how few people were at the airport. Dave and Jean dropped us outside the QATAR departure terminal where we were about the only ones checking in. We were fully masked but social distance was not really a problem as the gates and hallways were nearly empty. Very few stores were open either.

We were 4 of what looked to be about 40 people on the Airbus A-350 900, a very new wide body plane very much like the Boeing Dreamliner. It was actually more comfortable in my opinion. We were nearly alone in our section and each of were able to stretch out fully on separate rows of 3 seats, which was great for the 12.5 hour flight. One challenge was keeping a mask and airline issued face shield on at all times during the flight except when eating.

We arrived in Doha in the evening and had a 9-hour layover. We were able to find a nice lounge that charged a per person fee to stay but had very comfortable seats and free food and beverages, there were even showers in the bathrooms! It was very relaxing despite having to wear masks at all times, and again, the airport was not very crowded.

We did the last leg of the flight which takes about 5 hours from Doha to Kilimanjaro airport. This flight was a bit more full, although they did create a socially distant pattern of seat assignments. We got to Arusha at about 6 in the morning, and I am glad we had our negative COVID tests as they were collected as we came in the door of the airport. (Anecdotally we heard about someone who did not have one when he told the health officer the officer apparently said; “Just bring it next time.”) We did also get a temperature screening.

Out cabbie, Japheth was there to drive us back to the house. He told us he had not had a single airport run since we left 5 months ago because tourism had been so devastated by the virus.

We got back to the house at about 9 am and despite our plan to stay awake until evening to get readjusted, we all fell asleep until 3 in the afternoon.

One of the big adjustments to coming from a place where everyone is wearing masks and observing rigid social distancing is to come to a place where virtually no one is doing so. There are some handwashing stations set up in front of some businesses, but for the most part, the streets and stores look like when we left them. People are out and about and everyone tells us there is no COVID here now.

This was very unnerving and we did call some medical friends to find out what the situation was with respiratory cases in the region, and apparently, they are seeing very few cases.

I don’t know if I am ready to fully attribute it to faith and prayer, but the prevalence in Arusha seems to be very low right now for not entirely explainable reasons. (Some have suggested the young age structure of the population or the TB vaccine that is given that might have some cross-protection.)

We are not fully ready to abandon our mask protocols, but it is hard to know what good our face clothes are doing if others are not using them. We do use the surgical masks now when we go out shopping since the protection is more for us than them.

Back to the house…  It was good to find it in very good condition on arrival, thanks to our housekeeper Nai. We were able to move right back into our rooms. Our cat Tramp was ecstatic to see us and looked as good as ever. The 3 dogs on the compound also found us the first evening and were over the moon to see David. They had been small puppies when we left, but are now pretty much full size.

Jet lag has been very hard and I was glad we had 2 weeks before school started because it took quite a bit of time to adjust. We had told our office staff that we would quarantine in our home for 10 days after arrival just to be safe before beginning work back at the office. We did have a meeting on our back porch with our 2 national staff: Lucia our finance officer, and Chrispin our Ag. Coordinator. It was very good to see them and they were happy to have us back. We made plans for the months ahead which are daunting in terms of closing the program. It was good to see them though, and we agreed to begin working back in the office in 2 weeks. (Mainly because each of us has our own large office space so we do not have to be in the same space together. We agreed to wear masks when we move around though.)

Besides work, getting the kids set up for school was also important. The school is set to reopen with new social distancing guidelines. The headmaster invited Rebecca and me to see the precautions they are taking. St. Cons has the advantage of being in a mild climate. All the hallways between classes are outdoors and all classrooms are open-air with no AC or heat. They had set all desks 2 meters apart and had all traffic in outdoor corridors going one way. Lunch is eaten outside, etc. It was actually very encouraging, although we were disappointed that they were making masks optional. Although I can see that here in Arusha it would have been a huge battle to enforce with no one seeing cases around here. David and Oren both planned to wear masks and today, day one, they went with them.

There are significant changes to our daily routine as we have decided not to use a school bus this term. We are driving the kids to school which means we have a shorter time for exercise before the workday begins. We drove to Gymkhana this past weekend and saw to our disappointment that it has not fared well in the past 5 months. Most notably, the pool is mostly empty and they dismissed the pool staff. I don’t know how long it will be inactive, but it is a painful eyesore to see it in that condition at a nice club. Rebecca and I are using a studio next to the gym to do our HIIT workouts for the time being.

We have met a few friends since our return, Kay who live on the base where we live, and was one of our cat sitters, gave us news about what was happening on the compound. Many folks who had left were still not able to return from New Zealand. But it generally looks in very good repair.

We continue to meet on Zoom with our small group but this past Sunday we were treated to our friends Vance and Beth Marie coming over to our house. They are here as teachers at one of the International Christian schools and members of our church. We have been friends since we moved here. They updated us on the challenges of restarting school, and like everyone, had stories of difficulties with work and residence permits. We watched a Zoom church service together then had lunch and prayed with them. They were our first official guests at the house.

Fortunately, we did not get sick during our time of quarantine. We were diligent on the plane, but you never know. We did have one scare when on night 7 I came down with a low fever. I moved into a different bedroom and Rebecca and I began talking about steps for isolation, but the next morning I was fine. Apparently, I was just run down, but we certainly had many people praying for us from afar that night. 

We have done an excursion since the end of our quarantine this weekend. We went to Lake Duluti, a place not far out of town where one can walk, see birds, and other wildlife, fish for tilapia, and even sit in a nice outdoor restaurant. We decided that Rebecca and Oren would walk around the lake while David and I fished. I was wondering if it would have changed from the last time we were there and it had flooded and was about a meter higher than it should have been. We shocked to see it had risen another meter! The picnic area and boat docks where we would fish was completely underwater. I don't exactly understand why, since I think it is mostly fed from underground sources and the dry season has begun. We were still able to fish and walk, but it was quite a shocking change. 

This week was the official start of school! David began Monday and Oren joined on Tuesday. I cannot even describe to you the sublime pleasure of being back in this routine where we have about 7 hours per day away from the children, able to focus on our work, or anything else. It has been about 6 months! Oren and David both came home from school genuinely happy to be back, despite trepidation about restarting. They really missed their friends and routines as well.

So we are back and finally in a routine that feels somewhat ‘normal’ albeit with some anxiety that things could change very quickly again. We are praying that we can stay safe in this situation where it is hard to know just how much risk we are taking. We are thankful that things seem pretty good right now and Rebecca and I have enjoyed taking walks and seeing the flora and fauna was have missed since our departure.  

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Recap Before Return to Tanzania

Just like that another month is coming to an end. Rebecca wrote the last time 3 weeks ago and left us at a short vacation during our official home leave in Virginia where we spent about a week with my brother Jonathan's family. We did finish that vacation together which was a highlight of our break. We are down to the last 36 hours in the US as I write this entry, and I will run through a few highlights of the last several weeks and reflect a bit on the return and some of the unusual preparations we have done to get ready. 

 Among the celebrations we have had in the past weeks,  was Rebecca's Birthday. We had a small celebration at the cabin we were staying with Jon and Emma in Virginia, which included a 'corn hole' tournament on the back porch. (Corn hole is a kind of horseshoes only using beanbags--quite popular in the Southern US). Cousin Fletcher also baked a kind of chocolate chip cookie/brownie confection (called a brookie?) We said goodbye to my brother's family the next day and headed back to Baltimore. 

We did stop in for a visit on the drive home, with a former MCCer from our Burundi days who lives in Virginia as well. We spent about an hour outdoors chatting with Melody and her husband Alexis (and their one-year-old son). We are now used to the new protocol of not visiting indoors because of COVID which is ravaging the Southern US. The precaution was apparently warranted as we got a call from Melody about 4 days later saying Alexis who is a health worker tested positive for the virus after getting a test result 5 days after he took the test. (One of the insane challenges we are facing here in the US is the inability to get tests back quickly enough to do any contact tracing or isolation). By the time Rebecca and I had been told we were exposed (albeit minimally as we had taken precautions), we had been staying with Rebecca's parents for 4 more days and had attended a socially distant church picnic.

We contacted our doctor with whom we had an appointment for an annual physical the next day. She told us we could not come in if we had been exposed to someone and ordered COVID tests for us. That was the first COVID test Rebecca and I had and it was a strange experience, profoundly unpleasant, but not exactly painful. Like having a moth fly up into your sinus cavity. (Happily, we were negative and were able to go for our physicals two weeks later.) 

While we waited for results we did have one more chance to spend a weekend at Charter Hall. This was the place we had spent two months in March and April upon our arrival from Arusha to isolate during the lockdown. It was quite a contrast from the early spring days when things were just coming to life. The bay at this time is very lush and overgrown at this time. This is particularly notable in the water which is so overgrown with milfoil that it is hard to fish or canoe in many places. Despite this, we did go up to our favorite fishing spot under a railroad bridge about a mile paddle away from shore and David caught two large striped bass which we brought back and ate, and shared with Dave and Jean and my parents. (Dave and Jean stayed with us over the weekend and my parents visited us outdoors for a day.) 

 The deal we made to stay was that our family would clean the larger lodge when the group that was staying there left. We did so with the help of the kids on Sunday afternoon, then Dave, Jean took the kids and returned to their house, where we were staying. Rebecca and I had one more long canoe trip before returning ourselves which was a nice time to reflect on the many months we had spent by the bay. It was certainly an unforgettable time, even though the circumstances that led up to it were so catastrophic in terms of disrupting our normal life. 

Another interesting socially distant adventure was a family trip to the Potomac river in Southern Maryland near Calvert Cliffs, a place that draws visitors who want to dig for fossilized sharks teeth along its sandy banks. This had at one time been a shallow sea about 50 million years before. It is not hard to find these teeth with some digging and sifting of sand. Our family spent about half a day there and came home with about 120 of them of various sizes. Needless to say, this was a huge adventure for David who loves to find things in nature. 

The next week, we had another change of scenery. As part of taking our new MCC assignment as Country Representatives, Rebecca and I had a short leadership orientation in Akron, PA, about 2 hours away from where we were staying in Maryland with Rebecca's parents. We took the kids as well, as MCC had made accommodations available at The Welcoming Place, a charming residential and meeting facility in a campus-like setting. There are a number of guesthouses on the property, and this year most of the participants were joining by Zoom and not meeting in person. They did, however, offer some limited, socially distant, options to stay there for a few couples that were in the US. 

 Our family stayed in one entire wing of one of the guesthouses and had a kitchen to ourselves. No one ate in the cafeteria, but once a day we were allowed to go in and pick up food for dinner. Breakfast and lunch were left in the kitchen or in brown bags at the meeting building. For the actual meetings, all of us met through zoom and we sat in separate rooms in the large meeting center. It was a bit odd but nice to be back in the place where Rebecca and I had done several orientations in the past when we were Rwanda/Burundi reps. and service workers to Tanzania. 

Serendipitously, our successors to our Rwanda Burundi assignment were there as well, because they had accepted an assignment as Representatives to the Kenya program (and will be taking over Tanzania as well in Jan. 2021). Their successors to the Rwanda Burundi role were on campus as well! So three generations of MCC Reps were together at the same time. It was very nice to reminisce with them and also talk a bit about their new assignments and changes to the Kenya/Tanzania programs because of the consolidation. Scott and Anne-Marie's kids were there as well (Sam and Luke) which was good because there was a kids orientation as well, and Oren and David finally had some friends to hang out with. 

We did have time between meetings and in the afternoons for leisure during the 3 days we were there and enjoyed going to the park in Akron which we remembered from many previous visits. On the last day, our whole family went on a zip-line and ropes course that was offered as an adventure to the kids. It was quite a challenge with 5 ziplines that went from tree to tree in the forest. Happily, we all survived! Afterwards we went out for ice cream before getting back on the road to Dave and Jean's house for our last week. 

Finding socially distant activities for social events has been an interesting challenge. It seems we finally settled on croquet, which allows one to be in proximity close enough to talk without being out of breath, but is outdoors and does not involve sharing common equipment. We have had several games with friends and family. Rebecca's brother's family most frequently. 

We have also made several return trips to the Gunpowder river for swimming and inner-tubing, again another opportunity for socially distant interaction, and much less crowded than a swimming pool. Most recently we were with Chris, a high-school friend of Rebecca's and Ella his daughter who is a good friend of David. 

Getting ready to return has challenges of its own. We have several friends who have asked us to bring quite a bit of 'swag' back from the US that is difficult to get in TZ. We might have to take an extra suitcase. More problematic, though is the ever-changing protocol for travel during this time of COVID-19. We have been in crisis mode when we found out that TZ is requiring a negative COVID test result to be presented on arrival taken within 72 hours of departure. This is extremely difficult to get in the US where there are virtually no facilities that offer rapid tests, and results for the other kind can take more than 7 days to get results. Getting a 72-hour test is next to impossible.

We spent days doing research and finally found a place in Baltimore that can give results in 3 to 5 days. We scheduled an appointment and hoped for the best, that it would come on the early side. The test site, in downtown Baltimore at the Convention Center, was quite an experience. It is all outdoors with dozens of stations for check-in and testing. Our whole family went through the process. I have to say again if you have not had the nasal swab test before, I hope you never have to get it. Profoundly uncomfortable. I was impressed that David and Oren handled it so well although they both said it was one of the most disgusting things they had experienced. (Less painful, but worse than a shot!) 

We are finishing packing today and are saying final goodbyes to parents and cousins. Surprisingly our test results came back last night, only 24 hours after we got them. We also got a message from the US embassy in TZ that said that they are no longer requiring a COVID negative test for entry into the country. So it looks like the barriers are clearing and we will be able to start our return trip tomorrow. We expect to be in Arusha on Wednesday morning. 

It has been a long, strange trip. It is possible to see the many blessings in the time of isolation by the bay, despite the very difficult news about the closing of our country program and the challenges of school and work done remotely. 

It has been a sad time to be in the US. Our country is in a profoundly bad place right now. The failure at the national level to aggressively address the coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy, largely because it became far worse than it ever needed to be. The false choice over addressing the seriousness of the virus, vs saving the economy, or the use of masks for prevention of spread vs.  'freedom' demonstrates the profound lack of vision and competent leadership we are currently facing here. Added to that has been the conflagration of the issue of racial injustice in policing long overdue for redress and represented by the Black Lives Matter movement, which is being treated as a senseless revolt by the current administration. Immigration is another issue that has impacted us in our work as the President's executive order to end J-1 visas during the pandemic has effectively ended MCCs one year abroad IVEP program for young people to spend a year in the US. (Ironically of course, the real risk of the virus is the one incurred by volunteers coming to the US and being exposed here where it is more prevalent than anywhere in the world.)

I won't lie, I am not sad to be leaving at this moment, although going back to Tanzania is not much better and the govt. response to the virus had been equally inept. The race issue has led me to do some reading in the past month through audio books on my morning runs. I finished a book by James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time), and Tanhesi Coates (Between the World and Me). The best so far, however is Michelle Obama's Becoming Me. If you have the chance to listen to her read it, it is beautifully written and a reminder of what we had, and can hopefully aspire to again. 

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Home Leave Proper

Rebecca here: This entry is being written from the southwest corner of Virginia, in a log cabin up in the Appalachian mountains. My brother-in-law Jonathan has African jazz playing on a portable speaker while he and my nephew Fletcher are playing whiffle ball in the yard. Everyone else is napping and resting after a very satisfying 6-mile hike around a mountain lake earlier today. This week is likely to be the apex of home leave vacation during our time in the USA this year.

But let me take a few steps back… Jonathan had to leave early from their stay with us in Maryland at the end of June, but his wife Emma and son Fletcher were able to stay for the first few days of July. Over those days, we enjoyed some very competitive games of croquet in the front yard of our Bay House. We also took the boys on a short hike to the Turkey Point Light House, part of Elk Neck State Park. We could almost see Charter Hall from there…but it was a hot day and the boys weren’t thrilled with a forced hike on a hot day. The other highlight activity was a visit to the National Aquarium. They had just reopened with very strict policies to reduce risk of COVID, including strict mask-wearing, one-way traffic flow, and 25% capacity. We have loved to go to the Aquarium in the past, thanks to my mom’s membership, and this time was even better because it was truly not crowded. We had a spectacular view of the octopus who must have gotten used to being alone and unobserved and was startled out in plain sight. Even the dolphins seemed pretty happy to come out into the main pool and greet a handful of visitors.  In the evenings we played a few good board games and watched silly slapstick films—all the things to celebrate the end of school and the beginning of summer, except that we really wished we had a pool to go to.

Emma and Fletcher departed for their 12-hour drive back to Nashville on Friday. That evening, we were able to finally arrange to see good friends from our Baltimore church. They have two boys who really love the outdoors, exploring, and finding creatures. David was just over the moon to finally have an agemate to explore with, and the two of them took off for a long beach walk while we adults caught up, the younger son tried fishing nearby, and their baby crawled around exploring the lawn. It was great to spend time with Ashley and Bill, and hear their views on politics, parenting in a pandemic, and the goings-on at church. Then there was swimming in the Bay (never mind the muck!), running through the sprinkler and even a little canoe paddle. The boys were industrious about lighting a bonfire after dinner and had a great time roasting marshmallows and making s’mores as masses of fireflies hovered in the trees.

That was the start of a very social weekend, all done with strict social distancing. On Saturday midday, my parents came out to join us for the July 4th holiday, joined by their close friends, the Ballards. Louise brought out a perfect picnic lunch and we stayed cool in the shade by the water for a while, before starting up a new round of croquet. My dad continued to beat all challengers! It was delightful to visit with these old friends as well. My parents stayed on for the evening and several of us went out for an evening canoe paddle. As the sun set, we were able to see fireworks lighting up the distant horizon in multiple directions across the water. We spotted at least 10 bald eagles, both mature and immature, soaring and screaming along the shoreline. We returned home for sparklers and a dessert of delicious mixed fresh berries.

Our final visitors that weekend were Chris Ballard (son of my parents’ friends, and my one good friend from high school) with his daughter. Again, David was delighted to have a good friend his age to enjoy the afternoon with. This time, we had to dodge inside to avoid a major thunderstorm, but it quickly passed, and then we went out again for more canoeing – this time through the marsh. I loved hearing the kids talk about gliding over the shallow water and peering down into the aquatic underwater vegetation: “It’s like looking down into a forest of Christmas trees!” David gleefully announced every time he spotted a tiny fish. I was thrilled to see a Northern Oriole at the end of the marsh, and for Ella, every Great blue heron was a new marvel (for us, they were just the next-door neighbors, so it was good to remember the wonder of the Bay through her eyes). Ella and David swam in the Bay afterwards for a really long time, and I was so thankful that he finally had healthy social time with another kid. This pandemic has been especially hard on him, emotionally.

We had agreed with our landlord to use the Bay house through the July 4 weekend, but leave July 7. On Monday, we needed to pack up the house and do our best to fit as much stuff into my mom’s car as possible when she came to pick up the boys mid-afternoon. Even after they left, Paul and I found a remarkable amount of work to do to empty the house completely of our stuff and prepare it for a thorough cleaning. We finally decided to quit work and enjoy our quiet evening around 8 pm, watching more thunderstorms roll dramatically up the Bay.

On Tuesday, our last day, I woke up early as usual, but did something I’d never done before, taking a cup of coffee out to the beach to watch the sunrise, enjoy the fresh morning and birdsong, five eagles across the cove, two turtles on log, a heron perched on a snag, with all the assembled calls of our familiar, if unseen, avian neighbors: a bittersweet moment to savor this unique period of pause by the water for our family. Then I took one last walk up the farm lane, something I’ve been doing every morning since we arrived. I’ve watched every shrub and tree all spring and have learned which blossoms are roses and which are blackberries. I know the territories of the mockingbird, cardinals and chipping sparrows, respectively. I have rested in this peninsula and gotten to know it intimately. I’ve raised up so many dear friends in prayer every morning as I walked that gravel road. It was terribly difficult to think about leaving, and I’m afraid I took my time saying goodbye to each step of it that morning.

Our sister-in-law Emma gave us a tremendous gift for hosting them: she hired a cleaning service to come and thoroughly go through the house before we left. So, between 9 and noon that day, Paul and I were sort of pinned down to the house to supervise the cleaning, and yet we didn’t really have to do anything in particular. It was an incredibly restful time. I picked a quart of new, fresh wineberries and had a chance to sit and journal and give thanks for this time. And then Paul and I celebrated with one last canoe trip, finally making it up the Principio River together for the first time all year. As we were nearing the mouth of the river (almost 40 minutes of paddling), we marveled at the fact that we weren’t hearing any complaining! No bickering! No moaning of “I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m bored!” We realized that we have not ever done that trip alone, without kids, in the quiet of two adults who are fully capable of paddling the whole way without complaint. No offense to the kids, but it was truly one of the best dates! We went far up the river on the high tide and enjoyed the exploration together. And then we left the canoe back at Charter Hall before finally driving off to my parents’ house.

For the rest of the week, we had a bunch of administrative things to catch up on, including some medical appointments and things to prepare for Paul getting a new work permit for Ethiopia. We were a bit neglectful of the kids some days but had a couple of nice late afternoon outings. One day, all of us drove down to the nearby Gunpowder River. We have gotten to know a wonderful swimming hole there, which was a relief on a hot day. It’s deep enough to actually dive underwater with goggles and see the trout, or swim crawl against the current, running to stand still. On the next day, we took the kids out for a great hike at Cromwell Valley Park, one of my favorite spots from our Baltimore life. I was astonished by how sweet-spirited the kids were about hiking that afternoon. Oren insisted on taking the long version of the hike with me, leaving David and Paul and to take the short-cut and wander along the stream. He really likes walking and talking and I’m so glad to do that with him when we can.

On Saturday, I went out alone to visit a friend from our old nieghborhood. We had kids in the same elementary school class and developed a tradition of walking together every week, which we repeated that morning and then sat in her beautiful garden for a  long talk. She is a remarkable woman who is making the best of a lot of adversity, raising her older child, a young adult with autism. She’s truly a soul-mate, and we always have so many stimulating conversations together, and tease each other about using long vocabulary words. As I left her house, I spotted my brother out in his yard and had to stop by and say hi. I really miss those times of living on the same street with him and having spontaneous get-togethers. (We all returned on Sunday afternoon to try and play a little football and frisbee with Paul and Gabriel in a rainstorm).  I was grateful to my husband for letting me go off by myself for the first time in maybe three months!

In the evening we had a very special dinner to celebrate the 64th wedding anniversary of Paul’s parents (ours was the next day). Bunny and Henry came in the late afternoon to visit and reminisce. Then we set up some outdoor tables next to the new pollinating garden, the one we helped my parents to establish this spring. 
The variety of blooms are now exquisite there, and the air was lovely and cool in the evening. The Mosley’s contributed some really good steaks, and I made a fresh blueberry strawberry pie for dessert. The kids flew kites for a while when the wind picked up. It was great to celebrate in a special way.

On Sunday, we spent a fair bit of time packing for the trip that brought us to the Appalachians. In fact, last year, we had planned for a big Mosley family reunion in Chattanooga this week. However, the pandemic necessitated canceling that plan – too many families gathered at once, in a place with too many big attractions and high rates of COVID. We were still planning to drive down and see Jonathan’s family again at their home in Nashville, but the COVID rates there were climbing and making us nervous. In addition, Jonathan realized that he had been spending 24 hours a day in his home for the past 3 months and getting out of town would be a welcome relief. So, he hatched a plan to find a cabin in a remote location, halfway between Baltimore and Nashville. And here we are!

It has been very good to spend time with them here. We’ve been developing new versions of cornhole competitions. There are lots of trails on the hillsides for wandering around. Cows graze on the steep pastures around us. The silence in the mornings is stunning. The darkness of the night sky and the brilliance of the stars here is dazzling. It’s great to be here and to spend time with these family members who also feel like friends.

Post Script: Paul and Jonathan took an afternoon during the vacation to visit brother Mark in North Carolina. Here is a photo of them together for the afternoon. 

Bonus photos: