Word pictures of Moshi

Although it may seem from my blog that all I do in Tanzania is write, take photos, hang out at Woodland, and go on adventures, I’ve actually been teaching or helping teach four classes during the last week. Today was the last day of the term, which ended with an assembly in the gym to give awards and say goodbye. I’ve gotten to know quite a few of the students, so it was nice to see them honored for their work. I got an award for completing outdoor level 1. If I complete four more levels, I can summit Kilimanjaro. At this rate I’ll be on top in 250 years.

It was the last day of school, and Sarah’s last day with her students, so I shot some photos of her in school. There was also an Easter egg hunt for the primary kids and an assembly in the gym for everyone.

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After school I had two things to do today: tell Manwel I can’t go to church with him Sunday because I’m going on safari (Swahili for journey), and go to town to look for a dictionary.

My roomies decided to come along, so we set off through Shanty Town, getting plenty of funny looks along the way.

I walked right past Manwel’s house, but I asked around, and the owner of a bar knew him. He told us he’s been to Minnesota because he ran Grandma’s Maraton in 1999. He also ran New York and Boston.

He hailed another old guy who led us to Manwel’s. Manwel wasn’t there, so I told his family in Swahili that I came to tell him I was sorry that I can’t go to church with him on Sunday because I’m going on safari tomorrow. I said I would come to find him in two weeks.

One the way to town, we saw the usual exotic sights. I don’t feel comfortable taking photos, so I’ll have to describe some of the things I’ve seen along the roads over two-plus weeks:

Many children in school uniforms, white shirts, blue skirts, khaki shorts for the boys and blue sweaters that look too hot. Other kids in American clothes bought used on the street — Green Bay Packers shirts, Mickey Mouse shirts, and shirts with the usual stupid slogans.

Young men with a checkerboard balanced on a stump, playing with bottle caps. Muslim men in pillbox hats.

Two guys trying to balance a log — six feet long and a foot in diameter — on the head of a smiling woman. Fruit stands everywhere.

Women selling shoes, walking around with a shoe balanced on their heads. Other women balancing huge trays of bananas, or groceries, or baskets, or giant bags of who knows what.

Masai men in shawls and sandals, walking with sticks. Young men pushing loaded wheelbarrows at a jog. (Pole na kazi, I tell them.) Boys hawking newspapers, and men hawking everything from bracelets to paintings to hats.

A small parade: Two pretty women in a fancy convertible followed by a pickup truck full of musicians — five horns and two drums — playing African jazz like they’re saving a life.

African hornbills, and dozens of raptors circling together, and giant bats, and all manner of colorful songbirds. Doves, black-and-white crows, swifts and swallows, ibises crashing into trees. Stray dogs, stray cats, and a hedgehog. Lots of chickens.

A cobbler fixing shoes on the side of the road. A fat woman barbecuing small fish on a charcoal fire.

Motorbikes, three-wheeled taxis, and dala-dalas, the local transportation vans packed to the gills with men hanging out the side, names like “Glory to God” across the top of the windshield.

No one saying an unkind word to the old Mzungu walking through their neighborhoods.

We made it to town eventually, and I bought a couple soccer shirts to keep me cool. The blue pocket t’s aren’t the best choice for the humid weather. I didn’t find a dictionary because many of the stores were closed in some kind of general strike to protest taxes.

We bought some supplies, stopped for a treat, and took a taxi home.



Tonight we out for Indian food with Sarah, our German roommate, to wish her farewell,at 10to10 pizzeria, which serves Italian, Indian, Chinese and American food prepared by the Indian chef I met the other night at Woodland. I had too much gosht vindaloo.

After supper we stopped by the local nightclub, Glacier, to listen to music. We thought we might see some friends there, but we didn’t. Since Madalena and I have to leave at 7:45 a.m., we walked home early and were back by 11:30.

As I was waiting to go, I talked to Samwel. He had a big smile and asked me to sit in his chair. “Yesterday,” he said, “is very good day. I … How you say ‘kula’?”

“Eat,” I said.

“I … eat food. I … drink beer. I … go home with … motorcycle!” and he laughed at his good fortune.

Earlier in the afternoon I had given him a dictionary to borrow (it belongs to the volunteer coordinator at ISM), and he was reading it by flashlight when I came out to say goodnight. “Dictionary … is … beautiful,” he said.

End-of-term assembly

Here are some photos from the end-of-quarter-3 assembly at International School Moshi. It was a nice morning, opening with the National Anthem and including price-giving for a variety of things and performances by primary and secondary music clubs.

Siku nzuri sana — a very good day


Samwel, the star of the show

Today was my day to go to town (kuenda mjini) with my night watchman Samwel (which I’ve been spelling wrong). He was to come at two, but he came at 3 (African time). By then, my three housemates were ready to go to town, so the five of us walked the three miles to the city center.

Last night it was raining, and Samwel came in and sang us some songs: two gospel songs in Swahili, the Tanzanian national anthem, and an old school song in English. I recorded them on my phone and will post the videos to Facebook.

This afternoon, I walked with Samwel the whole way, and between his limited English and my limited Swahili, we talked the entire time. At one point, out of the blue, he said, “Glory to God,” and the Swahili translation, “something something Mungu.” He’s a good Christian, with a gentle spirit that would make old Jesus proud.

The five of us went to a souvenir shop in the basement of a shopping center so Sarah could buy some things before heading home next Monday. Sarah is a 22-yar-old ray of sunshine, who looks you in the eye with the expression of a happy puppy and always speaks straight from the heart.

We split up there because Samwel wanted to show me the office of his company, Security Group Afrika. I told his boss in a mixture of English and Swahili that Samwel is a good guard and a good man. I said we help each other learn language. He was glad to hear it and left me with “Karibu sana tena,” “You are very welcome again.”

From there we headed to Union Café, a hangout for Europeans in the city center. They sell cooperatively grown Tanzanian coffee (I’m taking orders) and overpriced Western-style food and drinks. I told Samwel, “Wazingu wanapenda Union Café” — white people like Union Café. He laughed.

We met up with Sarah, Alfred, and Madalena and decided to take a taxi to Woodland for supper, but Samwel said he’d take the bus home. I said if he came with us, I’d get him a motorcycle taxi (bota bota) back to his place, and he agreed. We shared a feast of chicken, goat, salad, chips, and ugali — the staple of East Africa, a white mush made from ground corn. For Samwel, who hails from Mbulu district, a night out at a restaurant and a ride in a taxi were probably akin to a flight on a private jet with a catered meal. We had a lot of great conversation and laughs (I tried to translate for Samwel) and got home by 9:30.

I sat outside with Madalena, who commented on our festival of friends (to borrow a cheesy old Bruce Cockburn line). Sarah and Alfred, the yang to Sarah’s yin, full moon to her bright sun, melt both our cynical old hearts.

When you’re on your own in a strange place, like the five of us are, friendship and laughter come easy. “Nafurahi sana,” Samwel said. “I am very happy.”

“Leo siku nzuri sana,” I replied. “Today is a very good day.”

Unemployed at 50, a reflection on regret

At 50, I quit my job as editor of a small-town weekly newspaper, hoping to find something I was more suited to, like a communications position with an environmental organization or a job teaching English at community college. After sending out dozens of resumes and cover letters, I got nowhere. I was unemployed with no prospects, trying to imagine a better future, but finding it hard.

I was in good company. Back in the 1970s, a friend of my dad’s named Bill Smalley was working at a toy store on the east coast. “Uncle Bill,” known to some as William A. Smalley, was a linguist of great renown, underemployed with no prospects. He was 55, and his resume was better than mine: a Ph.D from Columbia, a long list of publications, a book that was a classic in his field (“Manual of Articulatory Phonetics”) and a lifetime of adventure behind him.

My dad was his old colleague, friend, and writing partner, and he talked the administration at Bethel College into expanding the linguistics program, so Bill and his wife Jane moved to Minnesota, where Bill was able to finish his career doing what he loved — teaching and studying in the field of linguistics. Dad and Bill had written a book together in the 1960s, “Becoming Bilingual,” and they ran the Toronto Institute of Linguistics with colleagues Linn Barney and Tom and Betty Sue Brewster.

Bill was a gentle giant, so tall that my brother and sister and I called him “Bill Talley.” When Dad and Bill visited a remote tribe in New Zealand in the 1960s, the chief said to Bill, “You are the tallest man I have ever seen.” Then he looked at Dad and said, “You are the fattest man I have ever seen.”

Bill and Dad worked in a small circle of linguists (Barney, the Brewsters, Smalley, Gene Nida, Ken Pike and others) who helped tens of thousands of missionaries and translators move to foreign cultures, learn the language, and translate the Bible. Dad and Bill were a little dubious about the idea of imposing Western ideas and values on traditional tribes around the world, but they were great believers in the inherent value of cross-cultural communication. The older Dad got, the more he questioned the practice of “preaching the Gospel” and instead encouraged missionaries to bring real skills in medicine, agriculture, engineering, or education to the developing world.

Only a few strands of a once-strong rope still tie me to the faith of my fathers and mothers, but I still admire those who devoted their lives to language learning and teaching, to cultural exchange and respect, and to promotion of literacy through development of written languages for people who had none.

Bill was one of those people, and he’s something of a hero among the hill tribes of Southeast Asia, as his New York Times obituary explains: ”I cannot value his work,” said Yang Dao, assistant director of the English Language Learner Project of the St. Paul Public Schools. ”It is invaluable. This writing system helped us to preserve our culture and tradition and history. Now it is used by Hmong all over the world.”

Bill was one of my favorite teachers in college. He approached the art of teaching with the same creativity and the same fertile mind he brought to his extensive scholarship. I did some of my best college writing for Bill, because his assignments brought out the best in me.

After college I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was interested in sociology. My Dad was much more convinced of the value of anthropology and its sister science, linguistics, and through his influence (or my fear of letting him down) I applied and was accepted to the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.

I quit after three weeks, for a combination of reasons:

  • I realized as soon as I walked into my first class that I was doing what my dad wanted, not what I wanted.
  • I was compelled to read theology at the time because I had to make sense of my religious upbringing, which had made me a little crazy.
  • I had a novel to write that would make me rich and famous and the talk of the literary world.
  • I was afraid of failure.
  • I preferred drinking beer and singing country songs with my friends across the bay to sitting in a class full of whiz kids discussing Bronislaw Malinowski.

I’ve regretted the decision many times since.

Fast-forward eight years to International Falls, where I was married to Diane and teaching community college English, the fulfillment of “plan B.” I had pursued a Master’s in English from the North Dakota State University of Agricultural and Applied Sciences — known by some as “The Berkeley of Fargo.” I had been lucky to land the first job I applied for. When I proudly told a former teacher (not Bill) that I had a teaching job in “The Icebox of the Nation,” he replied, “I’m sorry to hear of your exile.”

At graduation my first or second year, the president of the college accomplished a coup: U.S. Rep. Rod Grams was scheduled to speak at our little Rainy River Community College. Rod Grams was from the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party (but would be considered liberal today), and I despised him and everything he stood for. I had fallen in with the wrong crowd — the teachers union — and we decided to protest by handing out leaflets listing Grams’ voting record. I volunteered to write it, and I also passed it out before graduation, wearing my robe and my NDSU Master’s hood.

There’s two kinds of people, a wise man once said: Those who piss out of the circle, and those who piss in. You can guess which one I am, and I can tell you I took after my father in that respect. Thanks to my dad, that’s what I thought teaching at college was: Making the students think by pissing off (or pissing on) The Man.

Anyway, Diane and I didn’t want to be exiled forever, so we moved to a sort of hippie commune in Bogus Brook Township, where there weren’t a lot of community college teaching options. In ensuing years, I applied for many community college jobs in Minnesota and came close several times. Once, a community college president told me he was going to hire me if my former college president gave me a good recommendation. Three times, I was a finalist at another school where the president was a former colleague of my old boss.

For many years, pissing off the college president by dissing Rod Grams was one of my greatest regrets.

I also regretted quitting my job as editor of the paper after my failure to find a job made me decide to pursue a teaching license as an act of desperation. During a long year-plus of challenging grad classes, B.S. licensure requirements, being the oldest student in the room, and student teaching kindergartners (even though I had no desire to teach at that level), I regretted and regretted and regretted.

Now I’m almost done, and I have too many options, and things are looking up for ol’ Brett.

When I return, I’ll have a great job as a writer for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, contributing to their paper and helping to manage the website and Facebook page.

In the fall I’ll teach a little English and journalism at the Mille Lacs Reservation college campus, through Central Lakes College in Brainerd.

A partner and I are considering a publishing project that would fulfill another old dream of mine.

If none of that works out, I’ll have a teaching license that will open doors around the world.

If I’d stayed in graduate school in 1987, I probably wouldn’t have married Diane and had my two beautiful kids, who make me feel so proud and rich in love every day.

If I hadn’t dissed Rod Grams, I probably would’ve been an English teacher all my life — never learned journalism, never gone to New Zealand, never lived in a hippie commune surrounded by good friends and kids and animals

If I hadn’t quit my job, I wouldn’t be in Tanzania, missing my family, learning Swahili, having the time of my life, and thinking about regret.

Bike club

On Wednesday, Alfred and Sarah and I rode bikes with science teacher Geoff Buck and his bike club. We circled around north of campus, uphill toward the mountain via dirt walking paths along cultivated fields. We came back down to the west through some villages of Chagga people, the tribe that inhabits the slopes of Kilimanjaro. My bike only had two gears (high and higher) so it was a good workout, and fun to see to outskirts of Moshi. We rented the bikes at a place called “The Bikers Bar” about a mile from campus.

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Maisha ni magumu

I taught some classes today, introducing students to blogging, which was great fun. I also had some a nice chat with Isaac Foya, the former rugby player who guides trips for the school and on his own. We’re planning to go exploring some weekend after I get back from my two-week holiday.

I went to Woodland to meet a friend, but he wasn’t there, so I talked to a fellow who is a chef at another nearby restaurant, the 10 to 10 pizzeria. He didn’t speak much English, but I was able to learn in Swahili that he has four kids and a wife in India. He’s been here 10 years and hopes to go to India in two or three.

Prior to that I met a young man who is unemployed and discouraged. He has a business degree from the university in Dar Es Salaam, but he can’t find a job. His English is good, so I thought he would be able to work in Moshi, but no. He would like to start a business delivering food to local markets, but he doesn’t have the capital to start. He’s under the impression that anyone can find a job in America, and that life is good there. I tried to explain that for poor people and immigrants, life is hard.

I had him remind me of a sentence Samuel taught me last night: Maisha ni magumu. Life is hard. He taught me “hard” and “easy,” “smart” and “stupid,” and I ate mbuzi na kachumbari — goat and salad.

As I was leaving, I ran into my friend who no-showed last night. Frank is the doctor from the local hospital I met one of my first nights here. He introduced me to his childhood friend, another Kilimanjaro guide. They were going to drive me home, but just as they were leaving, my housemates came and we all sat down for a drink. It was great to visit: two Tanzanians, and the four of us from the U.S., Germany, Portugal, and Uganda/Italy/London.

John drove Frank home then came back to give us a ride, which was nice, considering the rain. We asked if we could pay him, since we’d have to hire a taxi anyway. He said, “You don’t need a taxi, because you have a friend.” A song was playing on his car stereo, a Tanzanian gospel song in English. It moved me. I told my housemates that Samuel had sung for me, and Sarah said she wants to hear him sing before she goes home.

When we got back tonight, Samuel was in the garage hiding from the rain, so we didn’t see him. I’ll look for him in the morning.

Samuel, it turns out, would like to go to driving school and get a license, but he doesn’t have enough money. It would cost 300,000 shillings — a month’s wages for a Tanzanian security guard, but about $165 American. For now, I’ll buy him a Swahili-English dictionary, and hopefully that will help him on his way.

More good things

samuel and brettGood things continue to happen in Tanzania. When I go to Woodlands, as I did yesterday with my housemates to watch Liverpool battle Manchester United, they greet me by name. Cheers to me; I am becoming the Norm of my local watering hole.

At school, I’m teaching students how to start a blog and create an online newspaper. I am taking photos of school events and sharing them with the community. I’m getting to know more and more students, who continue to impress me every day. They seem so much healthier — psychologically and physically — than the American students I’ve known. It makes me wonder if Americans are like rats in some kind of perverse laboratory, fed Doritoes and stationed in front of televisions by some cosmic sicko just to see what happens. One obvious difference: People here spend more time outdoors.

I traveled to the mountains this weekend with a group of students and staff and climbed through hillside villages to the top of the ridge, where I viewed Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya and Mt. Meru and a lake called House of God. Everyone was happy, and it reminded me once again that nothing pleases me more than introducing young people to the natural world. I feel fortunate to be able to participate in that here in Moshi.

I continue to meet new people every day, and to develop relationships with the guards, janitors, gardeners, and other teachers — Africans, Europeans, North Americans. With many, I practice Swahili every time I meet them, and it is clear what someone once told me: that the most beautiful sound in the world is the sound of one’s own name, spoken by another person.

The musician I met the other night emailed me, addressing me as “kaka mkubwa.” I looked it up on Google Translate, and it means “big brother.”

“Hi Brett,” he said, “was nice seeing you that day, hoped to see you later at the show, wondering what could stop you from attending a live concert with an invitation to jam.” I wrote back that it was the rain, and that we tried three taxis with no luck. He said he likes to make friends with positive people — a description few would apply to me back home. We agreed to meet at Woodland tomorrow. We may jam together yet.

Today after class I walked to town with Madalena, my Portuguese housemate, to pay for our upcoming safari. It was a great walk, my steps lightened by good conversation with a new friend. She helped me understand, through her own experience, why an introvert in one’s own culture can be an extrovert in a strange one.

Tonight, my friend stood me up again, but that’s okay because he’s a busy man with a job and a family. Instead I met another man, a world-traveling nurse from Denmark who believes in revolution, especially the revolution that occurs in one’s own heart. He said he wished someone would teach him basic Swahili grammar. I borrowed a pen and a small piece of paper from Neema (not Naima) and gave him a lesson. Something my father would’ve done.

I also saw the owner of Woodland, Genes, and introduced myself to his wife Charity and his friends. They were grateful and welcoming — in a way that my fellow Americans have so rarely been.

Samuel, the night watchman, met me at the gate, and we taught each other language once again. I asked if he has a dictionary to learn English, and he said he doesn’t, so I am determined to get him one — if I can find one in Moshi. He said if he has one he will learn English at home, and I believe him. I taught him “see, saw, will see,” and he was thrilled. I thanked him for protecting us, after teaching him the word “protect.” He remembered “stars” and I taught him “clouds.” He said once again, “I am happy for you,” by which I think he means “I am thankful for you.” I returned the compliment.

Last night he sang the Tanzanian national anthem, and a Swahili gospel song, and an English song he learned in school. I tried to sing The Star-Spangled Banner but forgot the words.

“Nina kaka mkubwa wako,” I said. “I am your big brother.”

“I am your younger brother,” he said.

We try to put so many difficult things into words, but it’s the easy things that matter.

International School Moshi, Pare Mountain trip, March 21-22, 2015