Saturday, February 15, 2020

More Successes, Celebrations, and Adventures

Oren, ready for Valentines
Perhaps my 'kvetching' on this blog is really a case of 'from this computer to God's ears'. In the last two entries, I have complained about bureaucratic inefficiencies and the weather, both of which have resolved themselves satisfactorily in the past 2 weeks. I did, in fact, eventually have my NIDA ID number sent to me and was able to register my phone number (albeit 13 months after I began the pursuit), and in the last 10 days, the weather has been clear and warm, the way one would expect this season to be. I dare not test this theory too intensely though, for fear of losing readers who would tire of my many complaints.

There has been a two-week gap between entries because early February can be a slow time of year at work. We are right between reporting periods and the time of actively developing new concept papers for the coming fiscal year is still a month or so away. Despite that, a number of things have happened, primarily around kids and school, but I want to note one major success for me at work which could be a follow-on to my Anatomy of a Success entry. After a long and sometimes arduous process, I have succeeded in getting an article published based on research I did with some colleagues on one of our projects. The citation and link are below in case you would like to see it:

The problem that led to the eventual publication of this study, came from the work in our maternal and child health project in a Maasai community in Ngorongoro. Our partner was trying to promote the practice of attending ante-natal care (ANC) for pregnant women, and getting them to go to a facility for a safe skilled delivery. While there was acceptance and uptake of the former, women really preferred to have a birth at home with a traditional birth attendant. We wanted to better understand what aspects of a home delivery made it preferable to a facility and whether those benefits could be duplicated at a facility. 

To pursue the question we began by writing out a proposal to address these research questions and submitted it to a funder around Jan of 2018. By April 2018 we were approved for funding. From there we sought ethical approval from the government of Tanzania ethics board (National Institute of Medical Research) who took about 7 months to approve us (end of Nov. 2018). We did the surveys in December of 2018 and had them all transcribed and translated by Jan 2019. I did the data analysis in Feb. 2019 and began the process of coding and sharing results with key stakeholders until the end of April 2019. I submitted the first manuscript to BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth in June 2019. Over the next 7 months I went back and forth through 4 revisions requested by peer reviewers and editors. In Jan. 2020, the manuscript was accepted for publication and it came out on Feb. 12, 2020. From start to finish, it took a little over 2 years. There were times during the revision process that I could barely stand to look at the paper again and almost wanted to just give up. (There were times in our prayer group that I just prayed for the perseverance to even dive back in again when a major revision, like rewriting the results section was requested). The accomplishment does feel good though and is quite humbling when you have to listen to extensive criticism of your hard work. 

Among the major activities of the past two weeks, was participation in Chinese New Year which was celebrated as a school-wide event on a Saturday at St. Constantines. The school uses a 'round-square' approach which embraces a number of values, including 'internationalism' and this day was an example. It was designed to give participants a taste of what celebrations in China of the new year is like. (This is the Year of the Rat and Rebecca, David, and I are all Rats!). 

The celebration was huge and well attended by members of the community, despite some irrational fear that such a celebration would spread the coronavirus. Sadly, a number of Chinese special guests were not in attendance, perhaps from fear of creating some anxiety among attenders that they may be infected. Despite that, there were many Chinese themed activities including a parade, dragon dance, fireworks display, martial arts demonstration, 'dragon boat' races (which I will elaborate on), and in the evening a karaoke-style music performances by a number of students. 

The weather was miraculously clear as it had been pouring right up until the event opened at noon, then began pouring again just at it ended around 8pm. I took many pictures, but the highlight event that I enjoyed most was the dragon boats. For those not familiar, these are wood and cardboard constructed 'vessels' that look like long boats with a dragon head prow. There is no bottom, so 7 people can get inside and walk in single file carrying it while they are inside. The real challenge is that they wear a long set of skis with 7 loops on each side so they must all slide their feet together left, then right, without getting out of step. It does not sound too hard, but some found it nearly impossible. There were also a number of spectacularly funny capsizings when people got out of stip, tripped up and keeled over sideways. 

They had races for every age group, then a race of faculty vs. 'fundis' (maintenance crew). The fundis won by a nose, but it was really quite a spectacle and passionate cheering from everyone watching. We had a very good time, and Rebecca is sort of a celebrity as a member of the leadership of the parents' association. I am also well known by many of the kids who come to Sunday school at our church. We definitely feel a part of that community.

Speaking of church, we had our Annual General Meeting last week after church on Sunday. It seems that every non-governmental institution of Tanzania must have an annual general meeting of members at least once a year, and our church is one of those. It also serves other purposes for us of course including getting new people on our Church Council (elders groups) as well as recruiting new committee members. It is a bit dull for the kids though and fortunately our friends the Taylors took our kids home with them so Rebecca and I could participate fully. We had our small group later that day which continues to be a blessing in helping all of cope with challenges of life here. Quite a number of prayer requests are around successfully completing and being approved for work and residence permits so people aren't kicked out of the country in the middle of their jobs.

David had a number of activities in the past 2 weeks including an assembly where his class did a skit about one of the round/square school values, followed by a swim meet. David continues to accel in swimming particularly the backstroke where he easily took first place in his race. 

Also last week was David's turn to go on a school activities week adventure. His class went to a place in Kenya called Savage Wilderness, which is basically an adventure camp with ropes and rock climbing, ziplines, mountain biking, white water rafting, paddleboarding and other water activities. I took him to the bus at 5am last Monday and he returned this past Friday afternoon. While he was gone we did some activities with Oren that were special to him, including playing different board games in the evening, and went and saw the film 1917, as Oren is quite a World War I and II buff. It was very interesting, and he liked it. 

Oren also went to a Valentine's day formal dance at his school this past Thursday. It was a mixer for year 10-13 (high school). He did not take a date, but hung out with friends. While he was at the dance, Rebecca and I were able to have a date night of our own and went to coffee lodge for a very nice Valentine's dinner. We picked up Oren after the dance and he gave us a middling report saying that there were not many kids from his class and he felt like a bit of a wallflower. I told him it would probably get easier each year when he is more of an upperclassman in that context rather than a freshman. He did look good in his black suit though. (I went out and bought him the black jacket for about $7 at a store in town for the occasion.)

David came back on Friday completely enthusiastic about what a great place Savage Wilderness was. He loved white water rafting the most and really wants to do it again sometime. We were very happy to see him back and this week the kids will have their one week mid-term break. That is always a bit challenging for parents as we negotiate child care and work. 

We came home from work on Friday to an exciting construction project on our property as a leaky water tank on our water tower meant a group of men lowering down a 10,000 liter tank from our very high tower, and raising up a 5000 liter one. It was quite a project and took many workers, rope, and sticks. Happily we have running water again. We are also getting a covering over our front porch which should make it more usable in the rainy season. It will be nice to be able to put some furniture out there. 

Bonus Photos:

Me trying out early Birthday gift,(more later.)

Oren getting icecream at Chinese New Year festival

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Anatomy of a Success (between the rain clouds)

I remember my first year of graduate school in Seattle. It was the only time I ever lived there, and in the winter of 1999 it rained for 90 days straight. It was the most continuous rain they had had from what I understood. I remember a weatherman saying that the following year could be worse! (I was trying to imagine what could be worse than 90 straight days of rain?..90 straight days of tornadoes??)

I am recalling that time now because we are experiencing something similar in what is normally the dry summer season here in Tanzania. I reported on the unusual weather over a month ago, and I am sorry I have to bring it up again. It is unnerving at this point, and most unwelcome, even for farmers who are now completely confused about when to plant corn. Normally the planting season is mid-February just before the big rains in March and April. But we have had no pause at all between the short October rains and the expected rains of March. Usually the rain starts in the evening and falls heavily through the night. There are brief showers during the days as well.

Sadly, the rain has interfered with the work of some of our partners. Step-by-Step Learning Center, the school for severely disabled children where our volunteer Jessica works as an OT has not been reachable by bus because the road going into it is a muddy swamp. They have had to cancel many days of school or try to get the children there with great difficulty. Last week teachers actually piggy-backed children over the muck to get to the schoolhouse. (See photo)

I am currently sitting in a hotel room in Karatu. I am up here for a training being done by one of our health partners. The training is for health promoters for our EbOO project in the Ngorongoro crater region. The topics are focused on early childhood development, to be shared with the aid of flip-cards by care group volunteers who will, in turn, teach mothers in their neighborhoods. The women gathered here are a mixture of traditional birth attendants, nurse midwives, and a few men from the partner NGO as well. There was an amusing discussion around the role of men in early childhood development.

The men who are participating seem quite open to male involvement in child-rearing, but the women generally complained that most of the traditional Maasai men in the community do not participate actively in the development of their young children, (often of several wives). During a hands-on demonstration of how to stimulate a young child, the men, taking turns with a bundle in a blanket brought peels of laughter from the onlooking women. I will be here for two days before returning to Arusha tomorrow night.

The past two weeks have been fraught at times, but not because of any further frustration with government bureaucracies. (for those who read the last entry). In fact, I have titled this entry Anatomy of a Success, because of Oren's accomplishment last week.

Many of you know that Oren went on a trek to summit Kilimanjaro as an option for his school activity week. Despite some reservations from Rebecca and me, as he is only 14, we did give him permission to go and encouraged him in his choice to try it. He was back by last Thursday and we asked him to recount the experience. Here is his story:
(as recounted to his mom)

To get us ready for the trip, they had us take a practice hike up a mountain called Longido which would only take one day. They claimed that the one-day hike would be harder than any single individual day on Kilimanjaro (except for the summitting day). Their score on that is 0% correct. Every single day on Kilimanjaro was worse than that day.

An accurate description of climbing Kilimanjaro would be the physical strain of a soldier combined with the stress of being sent to the gallows, combined with the hunger of a peasant farmer, combined with hospital-worthy illness and a normal winter’s day. In addition, you’re miles away from civilization.

The first day, we had to hike through a wet rain forest. It was a pretty steep incline. We started off all cheerful and happy – little did we know what was coming. Me and da boyz stayed in a cabin and laughed until very late at night. And then we went to sleep. And then someone woke up in the middle of the night and started yelling because he was cold.

The  second day, we hiked through a hilly area with large shrubbery. That day was worse than the day before because we had to walk for a longer time (more than 8 hours). It was cold and that was the last day I was able to eat an adequate amount of food. That was the day I learned that if you sit stationary, the temperature seems to drop by half within the first five minutes. It was much, much colder than the day before. We passed the time walking by talking to the people in the immediate vicinity because we were pretty spread out.

We stayed in cabins at Horombo Hut. It is one thing to lose one’s keys; it is another thing to lose one’s keys to one’s cabin on Kilimanjaro, with wet socks on, during the rain. The possession of the key was given to me by my cabin mates because they claimed I was the most “responsible.” In the end, people had to break the latch to the door because, if the spare key existed, it was part-way down the mountain and had to have a permission form to have it be carried up the mountain to our camp. Due to altitude sickness, I was unable to eat well that night. There was good cooked food on the trip – I was just too sick to eat much of it. Bear in mind, we were still only two days in.

The third day was walking through a cold, depressing unending hellscape of rocky ground and cliffs. Kilimanjaro was so huge it could have declared its independence as a country. It contains massive valleys, smaller mountains upon the central mountain, hills, deserts, rainforests, savannahs. On this day, however, we were going through the desert, and not the happy, fun, yellow and red, bright colored sand kind of desert. Oh no, no, no. This was the communist-grey color scheme kind of desert, containing rocks and rocks and rocks and rocks. This was the day that we learned, even if something was only ¾ of a km away, it could take the best part of an hour to get to it. The incline was not even that steep. I have no idea why it took us so long to reach our goals. We had to take frequent breaks. And by this time, my back (which had given me trouble on the second day) was really getting to me. By this point we still had enough positive morale in us to have some conversation with other human beings. It is truly amazing what just three days on a mountain could do to some happy people – how it could completely turn around some unknowing happy person’s spirits. By this time, my appetite was almost dead and I was walking on a completely empty stomach. I barely even wanted any of the Hershey’s chocolate which was packed for me.

This hut (Kibo) was the highest hut we were going to get to before the summit. It was an entire 1,100 below the summit, which would be a 6 km walk, going at a 45-degree angle from where we were. That night, we were told that we were going to be woken up at 3 am and had to depart at 4 am.

Day 4: We were woken up at 3 am, got on our heavy layers and went to breakfast. The only breakfast I was able to eat was a cup of hot chocolate and a single biscuit, before climbing to the top. In the end, I started to ascend the highest peak in pitch darkness, with an empty stomach, nausea, recurring throbbing headaches, very low spirits, a heavy daypack, cold weather and very low energy to talk to anyone. The landscape between the third hut and the top of the mountain is even worse than the previous desert landscape. Unlike the desert landscape, there is not even a single scrap of grass in existence. It is just grey rocks for kilometers. I was in the front group and spent 3 or 4 hours walking up the mountain. After the three or four hours, at 5,150 m (16,800 ft), I decided it was not a wise idea to go all the way to the top.

The descent of the mountain was much, much faster. The 3 – 4 hours of hiking up was all undone in about 20 minutes of descending. Everyone in the second group was thoroughly scattered in different places up the mountain and I passed them on the way down. When I returned to the third hut, I packed my bag, and with two other people, hiked down to the second hut. The descent was kind of fun because of how fast it was in comparison to all the other days of climbing. When I returned to the second hut, I got to ride in the back of a pickup and get down to the gate. I was then taken back to school by a school car. My parents picked me up that evening and took me to Pizza Hut, where I had a large pepperoni pizza and a soda. After being in a completely barren oblivion for a few days, it was very nice to go back to civilization and see things like buildings, roads, people, vegetation that reached over a meter high. And breathing in oxygen which you don’t have to struggle with.

If you want some logistics, we had two bags –our daypacks (the stuff we would need during each day) and another big bag (containing everything else we needed for the week). We carried our daypacks, while the porters carried our big bags. You would be wrong to think that the hikers, the guides and the porters would all walk in the same group. The porters walked at their own pace, usually arriving way ahead of time. The hikers and guides hiked in a different group. The guides were very nice people, helping us and making us keep going along up the mountain. We had food prepared for us at each hut – it wasn’t bad food, but it’s just that I couldn’t eat much of it due to altitude.

I don’t feel much different about my life – I’m pretty unchanged. It didn’t really change me much in terms of confidence. I wish I could have submitted, but you know. I did what I could do. 

We were quite proud of Oren's effort and his ability to tell it as a ripping yarn! About half of his school group made it up. I was a bit concerned that they had taken a route that reaches the summit in about 3.5 days which gave little time for acclimatization. He is not a huge fan of 'the great outdoors' so it was a big step out of his comfort zone. (sorry, no photos, but he said his hands were too cold to take off his gloves to try to get the camera out of the bag and operate it. Hopefully his teacher/chaperones will send some later.)

I talked to him about the success of shooting beyond your reach. I remember doing that on a trek in the Himalayas in High School. We were hoping to summit a very high peek (Bundar Punch) but were not properly equipped to summit. We stopped at about 18,000 feet. I realized though that I had surpassed many lofty goals of others who would not even attempt such an ascent, even in failing to reach my final point. I would always encourage anyone to fail upwards, rather than downwards.

While Oren was gone, Rebecca and I took a day off from work together and had a very nice afternoon taking a hike to a place just outside of Arusha, heading up Mt. Meru called Themi Falls. It is the source of the Themi River and there is a very nice restaurant at a point just above the falls. It was a bit easier to take care of stuff at home with only one child going off to school each morning. It seemed like a fairly relaxing week for us, although admittedly on the day Oren was summitting I got up at 4am myself and found myself worrying and praying until late afternoon when we got the call he was coming down.

The weekend following Oren's return we had a huge game of ultimate frisbee. We try to do this monthly with moderate success, but this week there was a fairly large group of guys from New Zealand staying on the compound for a short-term mission trip and they all joined in, as well as 3 families who were with us at the Brackenhurst retreat. It was a very exciting and aggressive round-robin with three teams rotating in 15-minute heats for an hour and a half. Amazingly, we did not get rained out! After the game, several families stayed around to play board games. Oren and David traded sleep-overs with our friends the Taylors that night as well.

Despite the rain, we are kept spiritually buoyed by our small group and involvement in the church. I am still leading the Sunday School program which is quite rewarding. Also many of us at MCC are involved in music, both in the choir or leading morning worship. Sharon our Country Director and Jessica led worship last Sunday as you can see.

Bonus Frisbee Photos

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Anatomy of a Failure (and the start of an adventure)

Eagle owl sleeping outside our porch window.
It has been a full two weeks since my last entry, and honestly, after over a month of nearly continuous news of adventures during the holidays, we have hit the nadir of early January and returning to work and school. I am happy to say that the second term began without incident and the kids went back to school last Tuesday.

Work also started routinely enough although we have been mired once again in a bureaucratic morass of trying to get national identity cards. The quest has, once again, all the trappings of Kafka's 'The Trial' and really began 12 months ago, in January 2019, innocently enough, with a new national govt. requirement that everyone get a 'biometrically' registered sim card. That is to say, there was to be a requirement to put one's thumbprint on record with one's sim card for their mobile number. That seemed simple enough and I remember going in Jan 2019 to the phone office to complete the task. I was told there, though, that the only acceptable form of identity to add the biometric data was a 'National ID card.' It was a bit perplexing that our passports were not considered sufficient ID as we are not citizens of TZ.

There is no mechanism for asking for an explanation of the thinking behind this requirment for non-citizens. So we began the process of getting a national ID at that time. Our first attempt later that month, when Rebecca searched out and went to the national identity office (NIDA), was to be rebuffed because she was told we must have at least 6 months left on our residence permits. (We had 5.5 months left). This meant we had to table the issue until we completed the process of renewing our permits later that year. As it turned out the process of getting a new residence permit, which requires a renewal of the work permit took about 6 months. We started in April and finished at the end of September. The fact that the residence permit is separate from the work permit is a bit of an anomaly in TZ, and some can find themselves in the ironic situation of getting a work permit (through an elaborate process of providing extensive documentation to the Labor office) only to be rejected by the Immigration office for a residence permit (after providing the exact same extensive documentation to them along with a valid work permit). In fact, it took us an extra 2 months to get the residence permit after the work permit because they had switched to an online process, but the website was not up to speed when we started to apply.

Matching outfits from Christmas gift kitenge.
All that finally done, we started the national ID process at the beginning of October. This was now 3 months from a scary deadline, as January 1st was D day for registering one's sim card or your phone number would be canceled and you could not get a new one without an ID.) The process of the national ID also required extensive documentation, several trips to the NIDA office, a visit to and signature of the ward officer, a visit and signature of the neighborhood officer, a payment at the bank, submission of all paperwork at the NIDA office that now had lines several hours long to turn in paperwork and get a picture taken.

Rebecca got her paper work completed and turned in on Oct, 31 and me on Nov. 1. We were told the IDs would take 4 weeks to make. In the meantime, we had been hearing that there was a national budget shortage to buy laminating paper for IDs but we were assured that we would be issued the number without the card which we could use to register our phones. (the card itself may never be issued a this point.)

The first week of January, after hearing nothing, Rebecca went back to the NIDA office and was happy to find her number was ready, but mine was not. She was able to register her phone number with the biometric ID. I went back to NIDA a week later and was told that the payment receipt was missing when they sent in my application to the Dar Es Salaam office. They had a copy of the receipt and re-sent it from the Arusha office and 'promised' that it would be done in the next 24 hours. (I knew it was a lie, but I could tell that it was told of compassion and a desire for me not to lose hope.) In the meantime, it was becoming clear that the NIDA office was utterly overwhelmed with the national ID crunch for citizens and non-citizens and the govt. moved the phone shut-off deadline to Jan. 20th.

To make a long story short, I realized on Friday, Jan 17th this year (2 weeks of waiting for 24 hours), that they were not going to process and give me my NIDA number by the deadline. We had a plan B. Rebecca would register my phone and internet sim cards in her name with her NIDA number. We set off to do that this past Friday, 3 days before the deadline. The lines were long at the phone company and when we got to the front the woman let Rebecca scan her thumb print, then told us the NIDA verification network was down so it probably did not work. Sure enough later we got an SMS saying the registration had failed. We tried again and were told to come back later that evening or the next day to see if the NIDA network was up.

Until now, Rebecca went back to the phone offices 3 times over the weekend and failed to register my main number because the NIDA network is overwhelmed and cannot process the many requests it currently has. I don't know, but I will most likely lose my phone number, Whatsapp, etc. tomorrow. I do have a backup number that she did manage to register by luck, but will have to re-establish all my contacts. Or maybe the govt. will extend the deadline. Or more likely, millions of people will have their phones shut off tomorrow and there will be a national uproar and they will be turned back on again.

I feel somewhat philosophical about this abject failure to get a national ID over a period of 13 months despite all of our due diligence to protect my phone number. It is hard, from the perspective of a person from a 'customer service' oriented culture to see so many ways in which a bureaucracy can so completely work against itself. It is not corruption, it is a pathological inefficiency coupled with massive redundancies, arbitrary deadlines without thoughtful planning, that make it nearly impossible to complete a task. And worst of all, if something goes akimbo there is almost no way to correct the problem. I don't know if they will ever resolve the problem with my application now stuck in NIDA office purgatory, but I do not have access to anyone who can help. I can present myself to the low-level functionaries who have no authority to do anything but falsely assure me optimistically that they are aware of the matter and it is being processed and I should have a successful resolution in the next 24 hours. The frustration leaves more sad than angry, because I want it to work, and can see so many solutions to the problem, the most simple being let us use our passports to register our sim cards with biometric data.

Despite this, I do have some pending, very exciting good news from work that I will save for the next entry!

Oren trying on summitting gear.
On the good side:
One of the exciting things that happen in this term, which is supposedly summer weather here in Tanzania, is school activity weeks. In past years Oren and David have had week-long adventures organized by their classes. Every year it is different, and the activity weeks do not happen at the same time for the two kids.

Selection can be a challenge because there are several offerings for each class. This year, Oren surprisingly chose one of the most difficult challenges: summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was a bold choice for him, and we were surprised but encouraging. Since his decision, Rebecca and I have been looking out for hiking gear, which is available here used, as many former climbers sell it off when they complete the trek. It is also available for rent. We found most everything he needed over the last month, the trip to Kenya over Christmas was helpful for some specialty items like gators, and gloves.

Oren photo from Mt. Longido.
Oren was told to wear his boots with his uniform at school the past two weeks to break them in. Last weekend, the group that was going to climb did a practice trip up Mt. Longido to test out gear. Oren was gone all day last Saturday on the trip. Rebecca and I were very keen to go with him as we wanted to climb it as well. (It can be summited in a day). Oren was mortified that we wanted to come along and the prospect of being the only kid with his parents coming along. We respected his wishes and realize that at 14 he is differentiating and does have independent social relations with friends. (I remember being that way at his age as well.)

Oren came back satisfied with the trip and did not seem to think it was too hard, and liked his companions and chaperones. They did not summit as they ran out of time, but that was not the point, it was mainly to test out boots, backpacks, etc.

The climb up Kilimanjaro will include a caravan of porters and guides and Oren will only need to carry a day pack on his back. It is a 6-day hike to the summit and return on the Marangu route. So this morning at 7am we drove Oren to the pick-up point at his school, before church. It rained hard all night, but in the morning the sky was clear and we could see Meru and Kilimanjaro clearly on our way to school.

Loading up for Kilimanjaro.
So he is off. We are a bit nervous, mainly about the amount of waterproofing he has. This is supposed to be the middle of the dry season. Dusty and dry, but we are still in the midst of heavy nightly rains, which can make hiking more treacherous. Surprisingly, when I looked a Kilimanjaro this morning there was not a lot of snow on the top, so maybe the rains are lower.

We are praying for him and will report on his experience (or let him do that in the next entry.) I am expecting the next entry to be more positive overall. Until then...

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Christmas and a Brackenhurst Retreat

Puppies born on our
compound this month.
Looking back on the December 21 entry I realize it will take a while and some mental gymnastics to recount everything that has happened in the past 12 days. It could easily fill two posts, but in the moment, time did not allow any opportunity to sit down and write anything down before now.

We are back in Arusha, the first weekend after the Christmas/New Year's holidays. The kids are starting school again on Tuesday and they are doing the last of their homework assignments they were given over the break. I am a bit sympathetic to their complaints as I do not remember getting much homework over Christmas break in the past, but they get about a month off, so I guess it is necessary. David had a long math test and 5 essays, and Oren had Maths, Geography and a number of paintings and drawings to complete for Art.

Looking back from the last entry, I would note some of the highlights of the days leading up to and through Christmas. One of the big ones that took quite a bit of time as the day approached (Dec 23rd) was our Christmas choir concert, a lessons and carols service two days before Christmas. Despite practicing weekly since September, we still required several extra rehearsals in the last couple of days, particularly since one of the pieces involved a cello, trumpet, piano, speaker, and soprano soloist, none of whom had been able to practice with the choir until 2 days before we were presenting. Despite the fact that it felt a bit stressful and required a lot of extra work, it really seemed to pay off at the end. The music really sounded quite good. My particular favorite was a piece called "O Come Redeemer of the Earth" which had a Celtic sound, very haunting and beautiful.

Our involvement with the adult choir was only the beginning of our responsibilities in the service as Rebecca was also invited to preach. She did a powerful sermon on the Incarnation: "God was born!" a mantra she repeated numerous times in the sermon. It was a joyful message as well, and she began a light-heartedly recounting that she had told Oren she was preaching for this service and wanted his input. Oren responded by saying "Mom, most of the people coming to this service may only go to church once per year. So you'd better not be boring!!"

Oren was right. The church was packed to the rafters thanks to many general announcements through local community web forums and social media.

I had agreed to have our Sunday School children sing 2 songs as well and we had been practicing during Sunday School for the past 4 weeks. It is always a bit risky to know whether the kids would show up for an evening service with their parents, but I did give parents a lot of warning about the evening and the kids' participation. We prepared 2 songs: One Swahili one called Kristo Kazalewa (Christ is born). The other was a Calypso called "See Him Lying on a Bed of Straw". I took a chance on the second with two kids singing solos on two verses (David and his friend Sammy) and a small trio of girls singing on another verse. On the evening of the service they were all there without a minute to spare, so did not get to run through, but sung it beautifully none the less. (Here is a web link. Sorry my voice is a bit loud because I am right next to the camera).

Our final contribution to the evening was a large gingerbread church, we had made the prior afternoon. I am happy to say it was completely demolished and eaten within 15 minutes after the service. (It is great to make them but they are too big to keep around the house and nibble on through the holidays, especially with the ants.)

Making a gingerbread structure of some kind is a tradition for us. Last year we tried a train, but decided to go back to the more traditional building as sugar in the tropics tends to melt over time and run, and eventually fall apart. We made a very solid church and steeple using magnet blocks as templates for our patterns. I found a very good construction gingerbread recipe which made a good solid, non-leavening building material. We also improved the royal icing by mixing it with an electric mixer which stiffened it up very nicely. I made some improvements, the main one was the addition of treacle, instead of brown sugar, and chai spice instead of ginger, so there was cardamon, clove, and cinnamon as well in the mix. The gingerbread was actually delicious. We also use a trick to epoxy the sides together by using molten sugar for construction (a bit dangerous) but much sturdier than using icing for bonding the sides. David helped with the construction and all of us decorated it. It really looked great and we had a great time working together to do it.

 I was still going into the office even on the 24th, and there is a fair amount to do in December, unfortunately, because we receive reports about mid-month that need to be reviewed and processed. We also helped Jessica recover some things, like buying a new phone after her theft ordeal that was detailed in the last blog.

But by late afternoon we started our Christmas eve ritual. Rebecca worked with the kids to bake cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning and many to give away. She made several dozen with David and Oren's help. We also listened to the Festival of 9 Lessons and Carols by the Kings College Choir on the BBC. It was perfect timing for us, in the late afternoon. We also called family in the US to wish them Merry Christmas. When we had put all of our gifts under the tree it looked pretty full thanks to the visit of Grandma Jean and Papa Dave earlier in December who sherpa'd over gifts from family in the US.

The last thing before bed was to watch The Polar Express. I think the appeal is the look of a cold snowy Christmas. It is quite a contrast to the warm weather here. Although we continued to have heavy rains through the month of December.

Christmas morning was fabulous as always. Somehow I was the first down and awake, but David followed shortly thereafter. We had a great time opening gifts as a family and felt very blessed to have family members send us a number of excellent board games that we really wanted to play here including Bohnanza, Quacks of Quedlinburg, and Castles of Mad King Ludwig. We had played several rounds of each by the end of the day.

Christmas dinner was unique this year in that we did not go to anyone's house. Instead, our Bible study small group all met at a safari resort called Rivertrees. It has beautiful grounds and offered a buffet. A group of about 20 of us gathered on a table set on the lawn under a large tree. The scene was completed by a troop of colobus monkeys that decided to pass through above us. It was a great time to be together and it is amazing how much time you have to talk and do things with the kids when you are not spending hours preparing or cleaning up for a meal. It was a real treat and a great time of fellowship.

Oren and David's best friends are Harry and Sammy Their family is from Australia, and Mike and Katie are good friends of ours. It was great to see them having a good time together. Oren and David gave them a book of poetry by Shel Silverstein (A Light in the Attic) which they all sat around in twos and read at different times during the day.

This was not the last we were to see of our Australian friends over the holidays though. Thanks to their recommendation, we decided to go to a retreat week at a place outside of Nairobi called Brackenhurst. It is a large campus/convention center with places to stay, eat and meet. It also has beautiful grounds and lush flowering gardens. The whole place sits amidst a large tea plantation which is quite picturesque.

Our family left for the retreat a day early so we could spend a day in Nairobi. We had nostalgia for staying at the Amani Gardens (formerly Mennonite Guest House) which was a frequent waypoint when we traveled back and forth to Burundi and other places. We also wanted to see some of the new malls in Nairobi.

We decided to take a chance and drive. It would be our first time crossing an international border by private car since moving to Tanzania. We did some advance prep to be sure we had all the right documentation and only had a small issue at the border as we did not have the original registration document but instead a certified copy. they did let us through though. The time at the border took less than an hour. The whole trip to Nairobi takes about 6 from Arusha. We arrived in the afternoon and made our first stop at a mall called "the hub". It was actually very nice and our favorite place was the bookstore where we bought about $100 worth of books. Oren got most of the rest of the Tintin collection we were missing, and David got Diary of a Wimpy Kid series books. I picked up a copy of Hemmingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro". (I had just finished Delia Owens "Where the Crawdads Sing", a great read!)

We continued on to the guesthouse and got there in the evening. Rebecca and I have both been there in the last year but it was the first time in over 5 years for the kids. David remembered nothing of it. Oren did remember the big swing. We enjoyed a relaxing evening and shot some baskets on the court they have, and had pizza from their pizza oven. We also played Bohnanza, one of our Christmas games.

The next day we got up and headed out to Brackenhurst. We did stop briefly at 2 Rivers mall to see how it compared. It was impressive because it has a large ferris wheel and other amusement park rides. We continued on to our final destination on got there around 3pm. We registered with many other arrivees and found our room.

There were about 4 families from Tanzania we knew as well as many other families with kids we did not know. Oren and David immediately found their own age-mates out on the main lawn and started hanging out and talking. They were thrilled to have so many new and old friends around. (They did not even miss having screens for the whole week!)

We made good connections with the adults as well. The retreat has programmed and free elements. There was a morning time of worship and hearing a guest speaker, then free time in the afternoons with optional activities. On day one, we participated in a high ropes course that was on the campus. Great fun and exercise. On day 2 we took a walk through the tea fields to the old plantation house and heard a lecture about the production of tea. It was fascinating and I was amazed how labor-intensive tea production is.

On the last day, the afternoon activity included camel rides and a giant blow-up water slide for kids. We also organized a great game of ultimate frisbee in the afternoon. That was new year's eve and we had a talent show, evening service, and then close to midnight we all went around a bonfire and roasted marshmallows. The fire was appropriate because the weather is quite cold in the morning and evening as Brackenhurst is at high altitude.

Rebecca and I really enjoyed all of it, especially because all of the lectures and times of reflection included a kids program, so we adults could have time away from them. That was probably one of the best parts of the retreat. Rebecca also brought her guitar and I brought my djembe and we participated in leading worship several times. It was great to have some adult interaction and serious spiritual reflection without having to parent at every moment. It was also great to be with our friends from Tanzania and to meet many other people doing similar things. It was a very encouraging experience.

We drove home on Friday, New Year's Day. We stopped at the Hub mall once more for some hiking boots, it has an amazing sports shop called Decatholon there where you can get very reasonably priced sports and camping equipment. Then we headed home. We hit the border in the early evening and there was no one going through at that time on New Year's day. It took us about 15 minutes to get through and we drove back to Arusha in the dark and got home by 8pm.

We will seriously have to decide if we want to make this an annual thing but it was appreciated and needed this year.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Beach Week and back to Advent in the Dark

David with giant tortoise.
Paul wrote the last blog while hanging out on the beach in Zanzibar. It seems appropriate to follow up by letting you know more about our team retreat there. In fact, I’m going to let Oren take over here. He wrote about the experience for his grandparents and was willing to let this be his debut in blog writing. So, without any edits or alterations, here are the impressions of our 14-year old son:

“The trip to Zanzibar was a truly fantastical experience. The climate was not too extreme and standing on the sandy ground overlooking the ocean is always an unforgettable sight. The place where we were staying was called Promised Land Lodge, it had very nice drinks and food but their beach was very rocky and not the best. It was still wonderful nonetheless.

The trip getting there, however, was not as enjoyable. We had to wake up very early in the morning, around four, to be taken by a taxi to the airport and to fly away at daybreak. I think I may have subconsciously developed a light phobia of flying in airplanes. Once we landed in Zanzibar we were met by our tour bus and were driven down to the Zanzibar harbor where we got into a small boat and were maneuvered the waves across to Prison Island, it earned that name because it was meant to be a quarantine. While on the island we saw the astonishingly large Giant Land Tortoises, they are an incredibly endangered species, only existing in Zanzibar and Galapagos.

Following the tortoises, we waded back to our craft to begin snorkeling. Jumping into the water again was very refreshing, the view of the water from beneath the surface was infinitely different from the view from above the surface. The coral reef was breathtaking, many different types of coral, fish, and many other things of astonishing colors and shapes. We were out for around an hour and a half before everyone returned to the boat.

We then returned to the main Zanzibar island and back onto our tour bus to be taken on a long drive to the lodge. At the lodge, we slept in bandas, thatched houses, which were very comfortable and had indoor bathrooms. They had a beach bar which served delicious watermelon juice and had very comfortable hammock seats. The place was constructed on a small cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean. There was a warm pool where I frequently swam, and a volleyball pitch where most of the people on our team retreat came together to play a non-competitive game of volleyball. The meals consisted of things such as chicken leg, grilled calamari, and fried octopus. The cliff that lodge was built on was covered in sand, giving the feeling of constantly being on a proper beach.

The most phenomenal part of the retreat was swimming in the open ocean with a pod of dolphins. It was so incredibly magnificent, they were not uncomfortable around humans at all, they just right past you on their way. The closest I managed to get to one was about one and a half meters, I was gaining on it and would have been able to touch it if it had not chosen to dive at that moment. In conclusion, it was an incredible trip.

Thank you for reading, --Oren.”

I do want to add a few observations myself. Our MCC team includes 6 adults and 4 kids. We invited Alang, a volunteer from Laos serving in Kenya, to come and join us. In addition, we invited a couple to help us with some spiritual reflections on loneliness and community. In the end, our group included 3 Canadians, 1 French woman, 4 Tanzanians, 1 Laotian and 4 Americans. As far as team bonding, I felt like we got a lot further during this retreat than we had before. It was awesome that David had spent time with Lucia’s daughters at Thanksgiving because they consider each other friends now after the retreat and played really well. The three of them were old enough this time to entertain themselves doing crafts and painting during the times of spiritual reflection. I was really happy that Oren decided to join the adults during those times and seemed to really appreciate Tim, our speaker, and the way he presented on the problem of loneliness.

We had some amazing times of snorkeling, as Oren already described above. I found myself full of wonder at two things simultaneously: the undersea world we were able to explore, and the capability of my children to handle snorkeling skillfully in the open ocean. It was especially remarkable to watch each of them just tumble off our boat into the ocean and swim hard chasing after dolphins, without even needing to surface to adjust a snorkel or a mask. We were in and out of the water at least 8 times – pretty exhausting! – but they kept up with it as well as any of the adults. And David is incredibly good at diving while snorkeling; in fact, I’ve been learning from him and growing in the courage to do that, not simply stay on the surface.

During the weekends on either end of the team retreat, we enjoyed some really lovely Advent times. Sharon, our MCC Representative, invited us all (including Jessica and Alang) to an Advent evening before the trip. We shared special foods as well as stories. We were all transfixed by some of the amazing stories Angelika told about her work with Maasai girls. And then we had some really good singing, including sight-reading a whole lot of new Christmas carols together.

On Friday after we returned from retreat, Jessica took Alang on a whirlwind tour of Arusha. Meanwhile, our boys welcomed their friends Harry and Sammy for a sleepover. Each set of boys mixed up and baked a batch of Christmas cookies – sugar cookies and ginger snaps. They played a bunch of long games. In the evening, we had a full house, with Jessica and Alang staying the night again. We introduced everyone to the stereotypical 60’s American Christmas gone awry in the movie “A Christmas Story.” After all the fun hosting, it was indeed a welcome change to have a quiet house by Saturday night.

This past week has offered its own challenges. The structural challenge is this: the kids are out of school, but we are not out of work! It is indeed a hardship for everyone concerned that the kids are not just on holiday, but also expected to do quite a lot of work. Oren has 3 major art pieces to work on, as well as math, geography and chemistry assignments. David has to write 5 different essays, along with several math worksheets. We have tried a lot of different approaches this week…bringing them to Gymkhana in the morning to exercise with us and then do homework and a golf lesson. Homework was not getting done. Leaving them at home in the morning to do work. Homework was also not really getting done. Finally, on Friday, we brought them to our office to plug away at homework under our watchful eyes while we also kept plugging away at reports and emails. Somewhat more successful.

The other challenge we faced was completely unexpected. After choir practice on Wednesday, we went out to dinner with Jessica at a favorite pizza restaurant near our office. We had a nice dinner with good conversation, and were just getting up to leave when Jessica said, “Where’s my bag?” She had been very careful not to leave her backpack containing her computer and 2 phones in the car but had brought it into the restaurant to keep it safe. (I must admit that we were not so vigilant and left our bags in the car). It had been sitting beside her the whole night, right at her feet, leaning up against a column.

The restaurant manager took the issue very seriously and allowed me to search the staff quarters and all around the edge of the restaurant, in case someone had slipped off with it and tried to hide it. But he assured me that there were CCTV cameras and that we would be able to find out what had happened. It took some time to figure out how to get the CCTV system to playback, and clearly a trip to the police station would be included in our evening. So I arranged for our trusted cab driver to come and get the kids and take them home. Meanwhile, a technician isolated a particular camera and was able playback the chilling 2 minutes in question: a young man entered the restaurant from the back and walked around the edge of the large group of foreigners gathered there that night, clearly casing the joint. He took the table next to ours and was joined by another young man. They sat there for just a minute, without ordering anything. And then, while all five of us were still seated at our table, somehow, unnoticed, one of them reached over, grabbed Jessica’s backpack, passed it under the table to his buddy, and then they got up and left. It was a completely professional job—it’s hard to see it happening on the camera, even when you know they’ve just done it.

We copied the footage and headed for the “Diplomatic and Tourism Police.” There was only one guy on duty and he couldn’t even find the form for us to fill in to file a police report. There was no way he was going to leave and do an investigation at the restaurant. We returned in the morning and made the report to a lady. We had heard that these police would be very professional, with the capacity to even speak multiple foreign languages. We discovered that this prediction was overly optimistic and I was glad that I had sufficient Swahili to explain the case to the woman officer because English wasn’t making sense to her. We remain skeptical that the police will pursue these thieves, even though there is good evidence available, and these guys are likely to be repeating the crime as often as possible. On the good side, Jessica emerged with a police report that allowed her to block her old sim cards and apply for new ones. She got a new phone and did a lot of work to protect her identify after the theft of her computer. It’s a very hard hit for her, especially during the holidays.

All that to say, it’s a reminder that we live in a dark world, involving poverty, crime, anger, frustration, incompetence and loss. We are still in need of a Savior, and thanks be to God, we celebrate the birth of the light next week. But we need more light. Even so, Lord Jesus, come.