Thursday, December 23, 2010


Sanibonani! I'm back in Swaziland and LOVING it. Nothing has changed in the four months I've been gone. The babies still reek of pee, the men still make inappropriate inquiries into my sexual preferences, the kombi drivers still drive WAY too fast, and it still feels like home to me.

I arrived on Tuesday and made my way to my homestead on Wednesday morning to find Eliza (my dog) in good health, baby Mpendulo Siyabonga walking and pantsless, and everybody else super happy to see me. I've spent the last 2 days watching Disney movies with the kids and visiting homesteads of old friends, where they offer me chicken intestines to snack on and beg me for Christmas presents.

It's good to be home. :)

Now I'm on my way to Pasture Valley Children's Home for Thurs/Fri/Sat for their Christmas festivities, then I'll be back to my homestead on Saturday to celebrate with the family. I'll write a more comprehensive, less scatter-brained blog later this week, too.

Happy holidays to everyone in the US, and I'll be back in a couple weeks!!

Love from the Swaz!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Nitaondoka!! (I'm leaving!!)

My much anticipated return to Swaziland is rapidly approaching, and as I wrap up loose ends in Iringa I thought I'd post a blog with lots of fun pictures of my last 2 weeks. I went hiking, visited an orphanage, went hiking again, cooked lots of delicious Tanzanian food, and took more pictures of Obama things and the vermin with which I cohabitate. Unfortunately, the internet is SUPER slow today and I can't post any of them, so the hour of internet that I bought will now be spent reading instead of posting an amazing blog and downloading NPR podcasts as I had originally anticipated.

But TOMORROW I will begin my long-awaited 2 days of travel with an early morning bus to Dar, an overnight in the airport, a 5 hour flight, and another bus. Then, the next day, more buses and one kombi to get back to my homestead. I've never been so excited to sit idle for 36 straight hours...

Anyway, the next time I write I'll be in Swaziland again!! And in just a few weeks, I'll be home! Woot woot!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bribery, unemployment, and other consequences of bathing

Saturday morning I woke up mostly deaf in my left ear. At first I thought it was just residual water from some reckless bucket bathing the previous evening, but after failing at all attempts to empty my ear canal I began to worry that it was a side effect of the malaria prophylaxis I’ve been on for the past 2.5 years—a very real and very frightening possibility. (It wasn’t.)

An hour later I found myself in the waiting room at Aga Khan Regional Medical Center in Iringa, my brand new Tanzanian Government Medical Card in one hand and To Kill a Mockingbird in the other. The nurse called my name (“Chestina Amosi” according to my medical card) and escorted me down the hall into Doctors Room 1. The room looked strangely like my dormitory at UKZN in South Africa—the one where I could touch all 4 walls from the comfort of my half-twin-sized bed. There was a cot-like green plastic-coated bed attached to the wall, a broken-down desk at its foot, a built-in wardrobe/closet, a rust-stained sink, and a tiny barred window mostly devoid of glass. A white coat-clad doctor sat at the desk, so fully engaged in some horrible Nigerian soap opera that he didn’t acknowledge my presence for a good 30 seconds after I sat down. Finally he got around to the normal “what’s wrong with you?” doctor questions and scribbled my answers illegibly inside my patient file. He looked into my ear with an ear thingy of questionable cleanliness, petted my hair quite inappropriately while whispering things that in the US would result in a sexual harassment lawsuit, and said “Yes, there’s something in your ear. Give me 30,000 Shillings and I’ll get it out for you.” (30,000/= is $20.)

Me: “Excuse me?” I’d been told that the 1500/= I’d paid at reception was the only charge.

Him: “The fee for the procedure you need is 30,000/=.” He sat back down at his desk and tucked his ear thingy back into its case without cleaning it.

Me: “I don’t even HAVE 30,000/=!” This was absolutely true—I’m on a budget for my last week in Tanzania, and I hadn’t budgeted for an ear debris removal.

Him: “Well then how much can you pay?”

When I saw that he was willing to bargain I knew he was lying. I showed him the lone 4000/= in my wallet, asked him if he could write me a receipt, explained to him that I was a lowly student/volunteer and tried to impress him with my Kiswahili in hopes that he’d help me without paying a bribe…you know, like he’s paid to do. I was polite but confident, and firm in my refusal to pay for anything I wouldn’t get a receipt for.

When he saw that bribery wasn’t going to work, he changed tactics. He got mean. “That is the fee when I treat Wazungu,” he told me. “If you want to be treated like everyone else, you should go to Arusha where all the other Wazungu live and you can see an Mzungu doctor. Or go back to your own country because we don’t want you here.” Then he insulted me by saying, amongst other things, that I was a bad person and a liar, that I was dressed like a man, and that my family should be ashamed of me for wearing jeans and not covering my hair.

I’m stared at him in disbelief, trying to read the nametag clipped to his jacket. He noticed and threw it in his desk drawer. “You’re wasting my time,” he said, resuming his Nigerian soap on his computer and tossing my medical chart into a pile on the window sill. “Leave.”

The Kiswahili word he used to tell me to leave is a vulgar word generally reserved for animals or attempted pickpockets, and would more accurately translate as “f*** off.” I was angry. “What’s your name?” I asked. He ignored me. “I would like to know your name so that I can report your behavior to your boss.”

Him: “I have things to do. You are wasting my time. Leave.”

I found my way down the hallway to the Hospital Administrator’s Office and barged in on a Board Meeting full of Italian(?) nuns and brownish non-Tanzanian men most likely of Yemeni descent. (Iringa is full of Yemenis.) I was given a seat at the table and relayed my list of complaints in impressively fluent Kiswahili while the woman at the head of the table shook her head in disbelief. Apparently, they’d had lots of complaints about this particular doctor, especially from foreigners, and this was going to be the last one. They handed me some paper and asked me to write a formal letter of complaint (in English) while they finished their meeting.

Four hours and a lengthy discussion with the Hospital Administrator later, I left the hospital no less deaf than I’d arrived. Instead, I’d gotten a formal apology, a free bottle of completely ineffectual ear drops, and the satisfaction of knowing that the rude, dishonest, extortionist of a doctor had been fired. Booyah.

If you’re keeping score, that’s Justine: 2, Tanzanian Corruption: 0.

Economists say that the cost of corruption in African countries is as much as 50% of GDP. If my experiences thus far in Tanzania are in any way representative of the country (or continent?) as a whole, I believe it. Another example:

In November TANESCO, the government-run electricity company, began rationing electricity by instituting scheduled power blackouts throughout the Iringa region. My neighborhood had no electricity between 8am and 8pm on Sundays and Thursdays, there was no power in town on Tuesdays and Fridays, and the local radio station (when it had power) announced additional power cuts for other days and evenings on a daily basis. It was extremely inconvenient, both for my computer- and internet-loving self and for every business in town. Government offices were closed on blackout days, butchers’ meat rotted, restaurants stopped selling dairy products and frozen things, and every other business in town was either dark or closed.

Then, last week, the blackouts suddenly stopped after one of the local newspapers exposed the corruption behind the whole ordeal. Apparently the head TANESCO office in Dodoma (the capital city) didn’t even know about these supposedly government-sanctioned blackouts. The fake power shortage had been created by the dishonest employees of the Iringa Regional TANESCO who were looking for unofficial year-end bonuses: any business willing to pay a couple hundred thousand Shillings to the brilliant scheming TANESCO employees flipping the switches wasn’t subject to the power cuts. For the big tobacco, clothing, cooking oil, and candy factories just outside of town, a couple million shillings in bribe money was considerable savings compared to lost days of production at the peak of the consumer season. But while the employees of TANESCO were lining their pockets every other business in town was losing money.

And the costs of corruption aren’t purely economic. Police officers who take bribes in exchange for allowing un-roadworthy and overcrowded public buses and dala-dalas (mini-buses) to continue operating are endangering the lives of everyone taking public transportation. Driving schools that “pass” students in exchange for 100,000/= without any instruction at all fill the roads with horribly unsafe, unlicensed drivers who endanger everyone. In the local police force, the most coveted job is that of traffic patrol on the Ipogoro Highway that connects Dar Es Salaam with the southern parts of Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia, because the bribes paid by drug smugglers, human traffickers, and overloaded 18-wheelers in a single day can amount to more than an average police officer’s annual salary. Plus, government employees, doctors, and other persons of official capacity who become accustomed to being bribed end up refusing to do their job unless they’re paid a bribe, meaning that law-abiding citizens refusing (or unable) to pay bribes can’t get passports or electricity or debris removed from their ear canals by paying the official price.

In my most recent semi-victory, the non-monetary cost of corruption at the Aga Khan Regional Medical Center is my hearing. After my whole ordeal on Saturday, I learned that the hospital doesn’t even have the tools to remove foreign objects from ear canals, so I actually wouldn’t be any better off had I paid the doctor his 30,000/=. Monday I visited a very friendly non-extortionist doctor at the local public hospital, who helped me for FREE despite the fact that he’s paid about 90% less than the doctors at Aga Khan. He said it was probably just wax (or possibly a dead bug) and gave me some other ear drops and an excuse to lie in bed all afternoon and watch re-run episodes of Scrubs on my computer with my ear full of medicine. (And he assured me that it’s not from the malaria meds, which means it’s not permanent. That’s important to me.) So far, though, nothing’s changed. And it’s super frustrating being half-deaf in a country where, under the best circumstances, I only understand about 50% of what’s going on.

It couldn’t have come at a worse time, either. Since this is my last week in Tanzania, I’ve got a 3-hour oral exam on Thursday which will be recorded and kept on file by the school in case I ever need proof that I speak/understand Kiswahili. Hopefully by then I’ll at least be able to tell how loudly I’m talking and understand all of the examiner’s questions. We’ll see…

Other than my Thursday exam, my last week in Tanzania is shaping up to be just like each of the past 11 weeks. I’ve got 2 days of classroom time, 1 afternoon trip to a local children’s home where a bunch of German doctors are repairing cleft palates (maybe they can fix my ear?), and 2 Tanzanian cooking classes. Then, Sunday morning, I’ll begin a 2-day trip consisting of a 10-hour bus ride to Dar Es Salaam, an overnight in the airport, a red-eye flight to Jo’burg, and a 6-hour bus ride ending in my glorious return to Swaziland.

I’m so excited to be back in the Swaz that I’m already packed for the trip (except for my computer, my Kiswahili books, and 6 meters of wax print fabric that I have yet to buy), and I’ve already sold all of my clothes, blankets, furniture, and other non-essentials that I’ll be leaving behind. I’m giddily eager to see my host family and friends and Eliza, to see the result of my big Partnership Project 4 months later, to visit Jenn and the kids at Pasture Valley Children’s Home, and just to be Phindile Simelane again. I’m going to eat cream cheese and multi-grain Cheerios, drink cheap red wine, and ride 15-passenger mini-buses with less than 30 people on them. Compared to Iringa, Swaziland is a veritable land land of plenty. (Maybe I’ll even find an honest doctor to remove the debris from my ear!)

Then, in 24 short days I’ll be home!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My week in pictures, followed by THREE blogs in one day. Rain makes me productive.

An "Obama Smoothline" ballpoint pen.
Mwajombe Duka La Vitambaa Bora (Mwajombe Fabric Shop Deluxe) apparently thought it necessary to have a big picture of Obama on their sign. They don't even sell fabric for suits...but they DO sell linoleum and carpet and candy.
Can you find the pretty lizard? He has a blue body and bright red head and stares at me through the window during class sometimes. This is as close as I can get to him before he runs away, though.
 I know I post lots of pictures of vermin, but that's because I spend a huge portion of my life dealing with them. This guy I found in my shoe when I wanted to go for a run the other day. Instead I took this picture, squashed him, and watched TV. My Kiswahili teacher says he's poisonous, so I don't feel bad about killing him.
Every time it rains, my house becomes infested with slugs. This one I found in my kitchen on a bag of sugar. Gross.

Slugs! Ew.
Apparently December is the beginning of "fly season," and that's no joke. At any given time, I can clap my hands and kill at least one fly.

Girls and Boys

Growing up in the US, I’ve always been told I can be anything I want to be. As a kid, I played soccer and learned karate and took piano lessons. I made a self-toothpasting toothbrush for the 4th grade invention fair and competed against boys in history day and debate competitions. I learned how to drive a car and went to college. And I did most of it while wearing pants, despite the fact that I’m a girl.

American women of my generation don’t generally see their gender as a handicap. Sure, statistically women still make less money than men in the corporate world, and there’s that whole biological baby-making thing that separates us from men, but most Americans women don’t view themselves as inherently inferior to men. Most American MEN don’t assume they’re inherently superior to women. We don’t define ourselves in relation to our fathers or our husbands, we sign our own official documents, and it’s been several decades since any woman has happily been called “Mrs. [husband’s name].”

But here in Africa it’s a different story…

When I tell Africans that I’m 24, single, and childless, they pity me. They don’t care that I graduated college with honors, that I’ve accomplished a lot of things professionally, or that I’m happy with my life. I am a childless, husbandless failure of a woman—a failure who insists on wearing the clothes of men and refuses to cover her hair. When I enrolled for my courses abroad in South Africa, because I’m female the university enrollment forms required the signature of my father or, in the case that my father was dead, my paternal grandfather or brother—NOT my mother or the gender neutral “parent or guardian.” (Sorry Dad, I forged your signature…but technically I, too, am J. Amos.)

I’ve written before about the frustration of gender inequalities in both Swaziland and Tanzania. I’ve told stories of spousal abuse and corporal punishment, of girls who have no time for homework because their fathers and brothers expect them to wash clothes and cook meals for them, of smart girls whose post-graduation plans are limited to marriage and motherhood, and of a hundred other manifestations of gender inequality that I witness every day.

Now, as I spend my every morning studying the intricacies of the Swahili language, I’m realizing that even the language is sexist. Sure, Romance languages have masculine and feminine nouns, and there are gender-specific words in English, too, that have somewhat sexist connotations. Feminist linguists argue that words like “human,” “mankind,” and even “woman” are sexist, and at weddings the bride is still symbolically “given away” by her father to her new husband. But Kiswahili takes it to a whole new level, particularly as the language relates to marriage and relationships.

For example, when asking someone if they’re married in Kiswahili, the question depends on the gender of the person you’re asking. To a man, you ask, “Umeoa?” which literally means “Are you married?” To a woman, you ask, “Umeolewa?” which translates to “Have you been married by someone?” The verb that means “to marry” is active for men and passive for women, so men marry and women are the victims of marriage. If someone asks an unmarried woman if she is married, her answer translates as “I am not yet married,” and it’s improper to answer without the “yet” part. But men are simply “not married.”

In divorce, the language is similarly one-sided. The verb “kuacha” means to throw out, to drop, or to leave behind. It also describes what a man does to a woman when he no longer wants to be married to her (aka divorce), but it cannot be done by a woman. Essentially, when a couple divorces in Kiswahili, the man throws away his wife and the woman is thrown away by her husband—even if the woman legally initiates the divorce proceeding, which is rare but allowed in all of East Africa. The woman then becomes an “mke aliyeachewa,” or “woman who has been thrown away by someone” (aka divorcee), but the man simply becomes single again—there is no word to describe a man who is no longer married.

The linguistic inequality, I think, stems from the centuries old legal arrangement of wives being the property of their husbands—a notion that very few modern American woman would agree with, but that still holds true in many developing countries. Similarly, children are the property of their fathers, not their mothers. (This also happens in the US when, by default, children are given their father’s last name, but today it’s really the choice of the mother.) In the Tanzanian National Anthem, the second verse thanks God for blessing Tanzania and for blessing “the wives of men and their children.” NOT women, men and children—the wives who belong to the men, and the children who belong to the men. Apparently nobody cares whether or not God blesses unmarried women.

And maybe this is something that will change in a generation’s time, like it did in the Western world, after girls start going to college and women start getting top jobs in the corporate world or government and start demonstrating their competency outside the realm of cooking, cleaning, and child rearing. Until then, I’ll be frustrating my Kiswahili teacher by making the language of marriage and divorce gender neutral by using a reciprocal verb suffix—“kuoana” (to marry one another) and “kuacha” (to divorce one another)—even though I know it’s technically incorrect. For now, at least. 

Mosquito nets, malaria prevention, and the challenge of public health.

PSI, a US-based NGO that promotes family planning and disease prevention internationally, set up a malaria education/prevention station a couple blocks from my house last week. With funding from the Global Fund to Prevent TB & Malaria and USAID (that’s YOUR tax dollars at work), they distributed free insecticide-treated bed nets to all families with children under the age of 5 and hundreds of malaria prevention pamphlets that are now half-buried in the muddy streets of the neighborhood. In the last decade, programs like this one have reduced the number of malaria-related deaths in children by the millions, but after several years of seeing these programs implemented in Africa, and after discussing the logistics of PSI’s campaign with my Kiswahili teachers, I can’t help but wonder how much more successful such programs would be if the people designing them had a better understanding of the culture of the country in which they’re working.

From an American perspective, we think that by giving people the education and resources they need to prevent themselves from getting a disease, they’ll do it. If we distribute mosquito nets to families and tell them these nets will keep their kids from dying of malaria, they’ll use them. Right? Unfortunately it’s not that simple, for a number of reasons:

1. Since the Global Fund is focusing on preventing disease in children, all the nets PSI distributes are for child-sized beds. This would work in the US, where babies sleep in bassinets and cribs and twin-sized beds, but most African under-5’s sleep in a full-sized bed with their parents or siblings. A crib-sized net is pretty much useless here.

2. Many African families sleep on foam mattresses or grass mats on the floor of a one-room house. During the day, the beds are stacked against the wall and these rooms are used for cooking, bathing, radio listening, tea drinking, homework doing, and a hundred other daily activities, so permanently installing a insecticide-stinking mosquito net in the middle of the room isn’t exactly practical. (In fact, it’s probably a fire hazard.) And taking it down and putting it back up every day gets old really quick.

3. The nets aren’t distributed with the hardware and/or ropes needed to hang them, and most families don’t have these things just lying around. Four little hooks and enough rope to hang a single net cost about 25% of an average family’s monthly income. Who can afford that?

4. There’s no way to ensure that the people receiving the nets actually need them. Families that received free nets last year collected new nets again this year, and there’s no way to prove that someone who says they have a 2-year-old doesn’t actually have a 2-year-old. Since many children are born at home, there’s no master list of all children under the age of 5, and many children aren’t counted by any government registry until they enroll in the first grade. Basically, anybody who wants a net gets a net. Or two.

5. Mosquito nets have considerable market value so many families sell them. Hotels constantly need new nets for their malaria-fearing foreign guests who expect clean, hole-less nets over their beds. Dress-makers use the tulle-like netting as a lining for dresses. Fishermen double up the netting to make low cost fishing nets. And others are just re-sold as is to the net-needing public at the local market, which is how I ended up with my not-free PSI/USAID mosquito net. 

6. Treatment for malaria is widely available and 100% free courtesy of USAID, WHO, and other organizations. At any hospital or clinic, children and adults with malaria or malaria-like symptoms gets chloroquine or primiquine, usually with a free overnight stay in a warm, comfy bed and a couple of meals. So why bother prevent it when you can treat it just as easily, plus perks? 

I can’t help but wonder if there’s a better way to prevent malaria in Africa. If PSI gave out full-sized nets, how many more malaria-related deaths would be prevented? If the nets came with a couple yards of rope, would more people hang them? If PSI distributed them door-to-door, would fewer nets be given to families that already have nets? If nets were given to new mothers at the hospital or clinic after birth or when the child is brought in for his first vaccinations, would the number of nets distributed more accurately match the number of infants in the country? If retailers found to be re-selling free nets were punished in some way, would they think twice about re-selling the nets? If parents had to pay for malaria treatment, would they try harder to protect their kids from it in the first place?

Most importantly, does the benefit of this kind of mosquito net distribution outweigh the faults of the program and warrant its continuation? I think so.

No public health program implemented in the developing world (or anywhere, really) is 100% effective. The eradication of polio is most often cited as an example of a successful public health initiative, but 10 minutes in any African city full of polio-crippled beggars will prove that polio hasn’t been eradicated. But if the alternative to a program that reduces new infections of HIV by 5% is no program at all, isn’t that 5% still worth working for?

I found myself asking a similar question a few years ago when I was working for A Wider Circle, a fantastic DC-based non-profit that provides nutrition education, after school programs, job training, and furniture to low-income families in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Day after day I taught low-income seniors how to make heart-healthy fruit smoothies and helped Hurricane Katrina refugees move free furniture from Bethesda demi-mansions into their tiny FEMA-subsidized apartments, and I felt like it was worth it.

But I remember one Saturday morning when a woman with a Baby Phat track suit and a fancy cell phone rolled up in her big black Escalade, a flock of Nike- and Roca Wear-clad children in tow. We helped her load her new bedroom set into her Escalade and strapped a brand new mattress to the roof, reserved for her a dining room set and big color TV, and sent her off with a big bag of day-old high end pastries from a Georgetown bakery. The other volunteers and I couldn’t help feeling taken advantage of. Were we giving up our Saturday mornings to give free things to selfish pseudo-poor people in expensive clothes? If a woman driving an Escalade could get a free queen-sized mattress from an NGO, why was I sleeping on a broken-down twin mattress on the floor of a walk-in closet?

Mark, the organization’s director, was the only one who was still smiling. He asked us, “If 99% of the families we help actually need the help we give them, is it worth putting up with the other 1% who are like that woman?” We agreed that it was. “What if 25% of the people we help are like her, and only 75% actually need the help. Should we keep working?” Sure, we said—those 75% of families are still better off than they would be without our help. “What if 95% of the people we help are like her and only 5% actually needs us?” By our own logic, that’s still 5% of families that are better off because of our work, so we should keep working. But what’s the threshold?

With any project intended to help people, there’s going to be failures. Selfish people who don’t need help will get free stuff, and people who actually need help will be overlooked. Mosquito nets that are intended to protect a child from malaria will be sold so his mother can buy new shoes or pay school fees, and when the child gets sick his new shoe-wearing mother will take him to the hospital for free treatment. Where there’s free stuff, there’s someone waiting to take advantage. But there are also people whose lives can be saved by free food, and children whose lives can be improved by free health care, so shouldn’t we keep providing it? The only alternative is to deny help to EVERYBODY, which punishes the freeloaders of the world by refusing to help people who actually need it. That’s not really fair either, is it?

Even if the world will never be FAIR, I hope that the work that NGOs and aid agencies and I myself do at least helps make life little less UNFAIR. That’s reason enough to keep distributing mosquito nets, to keep learning a seemingly useless African language, to keep trying, right? I think so.

Corruption and the clash of cultures at the Iringa Regional Immigration Office

94 days ago I got a 90 day visa for a 108 day long stay in Tanzania. Standing at the immigration counter in the Dar Es Salaam airport, sweating profusely and exhausted from fourteen hours of travel, this 18 day discrepancy seemed much less important than taking a cold shower and finding a horizontal place suitable for sleeping. I didn’t worry about it again until about a month ago, when I paid my first visit to the regional immigration office in Iringa.

On my first visit the official on duty told me I didn’t need another visa, despite the fact that my current one would expire 18 days before my flight back to Swaziland; he recommended that I overstay my visa and beg forgiveness at the airport. The next week I went back in search of a more legal answer and was told I could either get a $200 student visa or spend a weekend in Malawi and renew my multiple entry visa by default at the border. On my third visit, after explaining my situation the official launched into a tirade about the theft of culture, which I was clearly guilty of. I smiled, nodded, and pretended to be listening while contemplating the feasibility of a weekend trip to Malawi.

But it got me thinking about the export of culture. For better or worse the internet, cell phones, television, air travel, and technology in general have made the world a much smaller place than it was just a decade ago. Fashion trends, political systems, religion, language, music, cuisine— things once confined to a specific country or culture are now available throughout the world. Many African radio stations broadcast American Evangelists’ sermons and programs like “Focus on the Family,” and in the afternoon every TV in Tanzania is tuned into Spanish soap operas dubbed into English with Swahili subtitles. Muslim women in Zanzibar have Gmail accounts. Swazi grocery stores sell Danish butter cookies made in Dubai and Kellog’s Corn Flakes, and just about everybody wants to learn English. While accusing me of the intellectual theft of his mother tongue, the angry immigration official was wearing dark wash Levi’s with a big knock-off Calvin Klein belt buckle and making notes with a Bic pen imported from Thailand by a South African company.

But even more than dark wash jeans and corn flakes, what amazes (and sometimes appalls) me is the IDEAS that are exported together with all of these THINGS. In Swaziland, people who watch the TV broadcast of the American Bishop T.D. Jakes’ sermon think that America is full of racist Christian fundamentalists; Swazis who watch WWE wrestling think all American women have gigantic boobs encased in vinyl like big pornographic sausages, and that all American men have funny mustaches and fight each other with folding chairs while wearing spandex. A Tanzanian woman who had seen an episode of MTV’s “Cribs” featuring the ridiculous mansion and car collection of the rapper 50 Cent asked me how many Lamborghinis my parents owned, and I have a really hard time convincing people that not everybody in America is white and wealthy. A couple months ago, when walking down the street in wide leg jeans and a ribbed tank top, an older Muslim woman asked me why I was “wearing the uniform of the prostitute,” because clearly anyone who wears pants is a hooker. The understanding of American culture that’s exported around the world is that we’re all gluttonous, wasteful fatties with mattresses stuffed with Dollars where we sleep with a different partner every night and talk about how much we hate Black people.

Every day I spend in Africa I find myself fighting this perception of Americans. Countless times, I’ve explained that not all Americans are White or rich or wear suits to work every day. I’ve explained that not all Americans are Christian, and that American culture is not monolithic; that the US is a country of immigrants and diversity and multiple political parties and socio-economic classes. I’ve tried to explain that if I knew a bunch of multi-millionaires eager to fund the higher education of strangers I wouldn’t be spending my weekends writing essays for scholarship applications, and I try to dispel myths of selfishness and gluttony through my behavior. But as I compete with the TV shows like “Cops,” bags of free food labeled “Aid from the American people,” and the ridiculously short skirts of celebrities in the Entertainment section of the newspaper, sometimes it feels like a losing battle.

In my immigration office standoff, though, I was victorious. After several return trips and many hours of practicing the argumentative tense of Kiswahili, the Regional Immigration Director locked my passport in his desk drawer and demanded that I pay him $100 to get it back. I pulled my other passport out of my bag (I have 2—one that Peace Corps gave me and my personal one) and shrugged off his threat as I showed myself to the door. Ten minutes later, I had a free 30 day visa extension and a mug of sugary tea and biscuits. And now at least one immigration official in Tanzanian knows that Americans are smart, persistent and refuse to pay bribes. Even while wearing a prostitute uniform. That’s me doing my part.