Saturday, October 2, 2010

Slummin' It in Iringa

I never thought a half dozen of slightly poop-covered eggs could make my day, but as started on the 20 minute walk home from town on Thursday afternoon with my little bag of eggs, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I’d asked a random person where I could buy fresh eggs, understood his directions well enough to find the shop, bargained with the shopkeeper, and successfully purchased 6 eggs for a local price. All in Kiswahili.


After almost a week here in Iringa, I think I’m starting to figure out how things work. I’ve found a cute little house just outside of town and staked out the quickest walking routes between home, school, and town. I’ve found a restaurant that serves American-style hamburgers with actual mustard, figured out how much vegetables and things SHOULD cost at the market (prices for everything except bananas are negotiable), and successfully purchased a 3 month supply of things like sugar, salt, and rice by the kilo from random little shops. I’ve mastered the art of the squat toilet (even when wearing pants!) and, after a ridiculously difficult application process, secured a membership to the Iringa Branch of the Tanzania Public Library Service and established myself as a regular in their study room. And I’ve FINALLY stopped saying “sanibonani” and “yebo” to people and started speaking Kiswahili with confidence.

Little bits of confusion (and the popularity of green and pink toilet paper) aside, I’m really starting to like this place.

Iringa is a strange little town. Strategically built on a mountaintop by the Germans in the early 1900s (so they could protect themselves from the rebellions of the colonized peoples below), it’s now the provincial capital for the Southern Highlands of Tanzania, a stop-over for bus-loads of Wazungu (white people) en route to Ruaha National Park, and home to three relatively new universities. Counting college students, the town has a population of about 120,000, but most of those people must live in dorms or slums because the town itself is tiny; I can walk from one side of town to the other in 20 minutes. The town’s population is half Christian and half Muslim (mostly Omani and Yemeni families), which means that I am both awakened by the morning call to prayer and badgered to attend church, and that shops and restaurants are confusingly closed on EITHER Friday or Sunday, depending on the owner’s religious preference. There’s also a sizeable population of Wazungu who all seem to speak Kiswahili proficiently and who hang out at the local internet café all day with their laptops and eat lunch at the cleverly-named Hasty Tasty. I mostly stay away from them because I still find large groups of white people overwhelming…

Lucky for me where I live, I’m the only Mzungu for miles. With the help of my Kiswahili teachers, I found a cute little house about 20 minutes walk from the city center in a township (aka slum) called Frelimo. (Frelimo is the name of the revolutionary party in Mozambique, but I haven’t yet figured out if there’s any connection.) My little hovel is a brand new, freshly painted addition to a family’s existing house, enclosed inside the family’s walled compound. I have my own bedroom, bathroom, partially-enclosed sitting room, and bathroom, and my own burglar gate-covered door. (And my electricity and water are supposed to be connected this week…) It’s a great location—a 12 minute walk to class, a 5 minute walk to the local butcher and vegetable market, and about 2 minutes to my teacher’s house—and I’m enjoying living with a host family again…even if the children just laugh at me when I try to talk to them. I’m still settling in, trying to get used to the blaring music from the neighboring bar and the insistence of the family’s maid who wants to scrub my floor every day, but it’s starting to feel like home. There are, however, two drawbacks to my new location: (1) I have to step over two constantly-flowing streams of sewage to get to my house, including the one connected to my house, and (2) I only have a squat toilet. Personally, I think the extra Kiswahili practice I’ll get from living with a host family is worth the ever-present danger of stepping in human waste.

And my Kiswahili class (the reason I’m here in the first place) is FANTASTIC. I have two very experienced and very patient teachers, Steward and Upendo, and I’m the only student for the time being so it’s really intensive and interactive. Every day I do 2 hours with Upendo and 2 hours with Steward, plus “language out” sessions some afternoons when they follow me around and judge my use of Kiswahili with non-teachers. In my first week of class I had an introduction and orientation to Iringa, took a placement test (I scored a 58%, which I was very happy with), and did an intensive review of everything I learned in Zanzibar to practice conversation and hone in on weaknesses before moving on to more complex grammatical things. I’ve got a solid foundation of grammar and vocabulary, so now I just have to figure out how to use all of it! In addition to the lengthy writing and “research” assignments (mostly I have to interview people and write up the interviews) given to me by Upendo and Steward, I’ve started keeping a journal in Kiswahili and writing short stories in Kiswahili to practice the usage of the various noun classes, and it’s really helping. And I talk to myself a lot in Kiswahili. I’m not crazy, I’m practicing.

On my grand tour around Iringa last week, I asked Upendo if there was a public library in town. “A what?” I explained to her that a public library was a place people could go to borrow books for free for a week or two, just to read. She looked at me incredulously and assured me that NOWHERE in Iringa would I find a place to borrow books for free because only Wazungu read novels, and that the only library that existed in town was just a big room full of tables where high school students did their homework in the afternoons. Unconvinced, I asked the owner of the local internet café about it. He pointed across the street to a big building marked “Maktaba ya Iringa” (Library of Iringa). Bingo! After a complicated application process (I have no address, no school, no employer, and no Tanzanian ID number, plus I’m a single woman without a father or husband to sign the form for me, so it took much negotiation to get a library card), I am now a proud lifetime member of the Tanzania National Library Service.

In the afternoons, after class, I lock myself away in the library’s study hall for a few hours of uninterrupted Kiswahili homework, and peruse the small section of adult fiction mostly donated by the US Embassy. I’m really excited to have a temperature-controlled building full of tables, chairs, and free books within walking distance of my house, which makes me a huge dork (but I’m okay with that). I’ve decided to re-read a lot of the “classics” I hated reading in high school to see if 8 years passing has changed my perspective on them. So far I’ve re-read Animal Farm and Wuthering Heights, and started One Hundred Years of Solitude. Aside from being irritated by how whiney, sickly, and dramatic women are in early 19th Century literature, I’ve so far had a more favorable opinion of the books this second time around. Mrs. Davis, my AP English teacher, would be so proud.

(I feel a little bit like Belle in the opening sequence of “Beauty and the Beast” because everybody here, including the librarian, thinks I’m crazy for wanting to read so much: “Look there she goes, that girl is so peculiar. I wonder if she’s feeling well. With a dreamy far-off look, and her nose stuck in a book. What a puzzle to the rest of us is Belle…”)

Other than class and the library and my little everyday triumphs, my life is pretty uneventful. I’ve been looking for an NGO or children’s home or something else in need of some free labor where I could volunteer in the afternoons/weekends, but so far everybody either wants me to have a $1200 work permit or is located too far outside of town to be a convenient daily commute. So, for now, I’m spending my afternoons doing fake homework I assign myself, reading classic literature, applying for scholarships for grad school (any suggestions?), and wandering around Frelimo with an affected sense of purpose, surreptitiously taking pictures of things I find entertaining and trying not to step in feces.

And using the super fast, super cheap internet at IringaNET every day. $14 for 20 hours. It’s glorious.


My house! The door on the left is my bathroom (I have to go outside to get there, but hey), and the yellow-ish burglar gate is the one leading into my house. The curtain on the left, inside the little "foyer" is my bedroom, and the one straight ahead of the entrance is my kitchen. To the right of my house (in the picture) is my host family's house.

A standard squat toilet. My favorite part about my toilet is how crooked it is in relation to the wall...see the lines of the tiles? Those are square with the wall. I don't understand why it's like that... Until I get my water hooked up (they say "this week" but this is Africa so who knows when it will actually happen), I'm using a bucket to flush. In my first week at my house, I've only used 25 liters of water, counting bathing, cooking, drinking, and toilet flushing! (The toilet flushing water is re-purposed bathing water.) Considering that the average American uses 250+ liters of water per day, I'm pretty proud of that.
And all of that water I used ended up here, in river of sewage number two. When I took this picture, I was standing in the gate leading to my house, so you can see how I physically have to step OVER this. And it smells.

This is, hands down, the WORST thing I have ever tasted in my life--even worse than the cappuccino flavored cola I bought in Zanzibar. The can is in Kiswahili, but it says "Made with the finest hops, malt, and lactose for a rich, creamy taste" or something like that, and then says "Non-Alcoholic" on the top. Had I known what it was prior to purchasing it, I would've bought a Fanta Apple instead. I think if you were to drink a beer and eat a piece of heavily cream-covered pumpkin pie, and then vomit, it would taste like Grand Malt. Why it is so popular, and so expensive, is completely beyond me. I'm nauseated just thinking about it.

(And, yes, I am aware of how much I write in my Blog about food and toilets.)

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