Remembering My African Bebe: Mama Mwasamwaja

Pottery Workshop

Mama Mwasamwaja teaching a pottery workshop in Morogoro in 1977.

I have been meaning to write this for a few months now. It was my intention to post it over Thanksgiving break, a celebration that will always remind me of Mama Mwasamwaja, my African bebe. Those of you who read my stories from Manow, Tanzania in 2011 will remember stories about Mama and her vibrant sense of humor. When I told her Katelyn and I had killed the chickens that were being served at Thanksgiving dinner she chuckled and said, “You don’t kill a chicken. You CUT a chicken, you KILL a cow.” I learned of her passing last August, just before moving away from Olympia, WA. She passed away on August 20 after receiving medical care in Morogoro.

 

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Grandma Dot and Mama preparing rice for pilau on her back porch

It is especially hard to understand the death of a close friend when you have not seen them in some time. In making plans after graduating and after my cousin Darryl began serving in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, I looked forward to visiting Mama Mwasamwaja on her back porch and drinking tea while she taught me a new mkeka pattern. The only comfort I had during my overly dramatic, tearful farewell to the Mwasamwajas in 2011 was that I would see her again someday. Being so far from Manow, I cannot imagine the community with out her laughter or her porch without the piles of reeds she was using to make large woven mats. I’ll never forget when I nervously walked up to her back porch, after frantically buying the first two bunches of brightly colored reeds I saw in Lwangwa. I was determined to learn to weave mkeka and she had promised to teach me.

mkeka2

Weaving on the porch together

Learning to make pilau, a deliciously spiced rice and meat dish. This was just after I fell on the road in front of her house. Having run out of hydrogen peroxide she dabbed some salt in the bloody scrapes on my palms. She laughed as I howled in pain and told me her own grandchildren know not to come to her when something hurts!

I stepped onto her porch timidly and she took the reeds out of my hand and after one brief look told me they were far too dirty, that I hadn’t picked good ones, she would use them for her kitchen mat or something. She sent the girl that worked in the kitchen to find reeds that were of a better quality and thus, our friendship began. For me, she is still there on her porch, greeting visitors on their way to the market in Lwangwa and making rich milk tea in the her new kitchen in the back.

 

To honor the lives of two of our favorite teachers, Adam and I (with the help of our friend Sherry) set up an altar for Dia de los Muertos in Mesilla, NM after we arrived in the southwest. For Mama Mwasamwaja, I brought a banana, an avocado, the mat she helped me weave, coconut powder, a photo of the peas she gave me from her garden, and a bag of sugar (a common gift given to grieving families in Tanzania after they have lost a loved one). For Lynn, Adam’s mother, he brought her sketchbook, a wooden figure, and her well-used paintbrushes. It was a colorful way to celebrate the memories we have of two incredible women in our lives and to share their lives with other people.

Dia de los Muertos

Our altar for Lynn and Mama Mwasamwaja in Mesilla, NM

 

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Kwaheri

We’re leaving Manow in less than three hours. We went to Klaus and Carina Dinkel’s for dinner tonight in Itete. It felt weird leaving in a car as the sun set on our last night here. I think I would have liked to stay in Manow and say goodbye but at the end of the evening I felt more adjusted to the thought of leaving and to the western world we’ll be reentering.

Leaving a place where you have lived is so difficult. You know that life will continue as normal even though you have left the pattern. I’ll miss the things we do everyday here. Listening to our water tank overflow outside my window as I fall asleep, waving to our students playing football with the village team as the sun sets, buying vibama from Frank’s mom on the way to Lwangwa, watching the men playing mancala outside of Whitey’s duka, hearing shrill voices scream “Madame! Good Morn’!” from in the maize. I can’t believe I won’t see this all everyday.

This last week was both slow and chaotic as we anticipated and prepared for leaving. Monday and Tuesday we reviewed for the final. They took the final on Wednesday. We were very happy to have a classroom at MLJS, instead of the church where half the class usually takes the weekly exam on benches. We graded the exams on Wednesday evening and determined who would win the scholarships to MLJS starting Form 1 next year. I also made cards for each student. It was really fun to think of a personal message and memory to write to everyone. It reminded me of why I will miss each of them. They have been my first class and they have taught me so much while I figured out how to be a teacher. This was a very difficult job. This being my first time teaching I quickly became aware of the challenges of being such a young teacher (who is really still a student herself). It was also a challenge to be working in a system that is almost totally unknown. My biggest struggle was finding a balance between authority and friend. Being very close in age to some of our students, and being a student myself, it was very easy to relate to their experience. At times this was helpful, allowing me to remember and use my recent experiences in high school language classes. Other times I really had to fight to be taken seriously and get their cooperation. When I played soccer with the boys during break I was excited to be accepted into their games. This also made me job more difficult as I was the only teammate who could end break and decide that class needed to begin again. Everyday I was met with protests as they all dragged their feet back to class. Sometimes I would get so frustrated and yell. I couldn’t understand why, after I was so close with them, they would still make things so difficult. I started to wonder if maybe I was part of a very unfamiliar relationship between teacher and students.

At the same time I feel very proud of my teaching. It’s a really amazing feeling to see them all looking up at you, paying attention, and answering honestly when you ask if they understand. That was one of my favorite parts of class, having them say “Madame Hannah, we don’t understand.” It was the best part of teaching. It helped me find some way to reexplain or redraw a concept and in the end, I think, gave me a better understanding of how people learn.

I did have a few students who I especially loved working with one-on-one. After the final one boy, who had struggled in the course and failed the final, was sitting alone in the back of our classroom. I sat next to him and he hugged me while he fought back tears. He seemed disappointed and embarrassed about his exam as well as sad to know we were leaving so soon. It broke my heart. While we’ve been here he has loved teaching me about his home. To me, he was the kindest and most creative student in the class. I hated that he had done so poorly because he was always so enthusiastic and excited when I worked with him writing his stories. Getting to know him was the highlight of my time in Manow.

Today, our last day, was full of goodbyes. We said goodbye and thank you to the congregation at church this morning, both for our classroom and for welcoming us into their lives. I was excited to see some of our students there to say goodbye one last time. Dot and I went to Isaac’s to meet his family before we left. He has four boys and a very sweet wife, Neema. We also stopped by the Mwasamwaja’s one last time. Their porch feels like a second home here and their family, my new extended family. I feel so comfortable there and it was very difficult to say goodbye. I hope I will see them all again and drink Mama’s sweet, milky tea with her on her porch.

It was a sad day. It came and went too quickly and tomorrow feels so unknown. I feel sad knowing that we will leave before the sun rises and miss the sun coming up over the mountains. We did have an exciting treat tonight though. In addition to cheese that the Dinkels shared, we watched a beautiful thunderstorm across the valley over Lake Nyasa from their porch in Itete. Each bolt of lightning lit the dark sky to reveal the layers of watery clouds. It was a strange end but I suppose I can’t think of how it could be different. I’ll be back again.

“You CUT a chicken, you KILL a cow”

This was our last week of teaching! We taught sex education and STD prevention. I was a little nervous but it was actually a lot of fun. I really enjoyed teaching the reproductive biology lessons and drawing all of the organs on the board, although penises aren’t that fun to draw from any direction. Another highlight was the banana and condom lab on Thanksgiving. Dot took the day off to work on dinner so Katelyn taught the girls and I taught the boys. It went surprisingly well. Only one boy, Bliss, absolutely refused to touch the slimy, lubricated rubber. Yesaya called me over to help him at one point. He was having trouble stretching the condom over his banana. I smiled and said “You just have really big banana!” He grinned. The only misbehavior was from Frank, of course, who wanted to know how many liters of water or sperm a condom could hold so he snuck one outside to test at the spigot.

After the lab, Mwakaje came to our class to translate some the ideas we’d taught all week. He opened it up for questions and reassured the students that it was safe place to ask anything. The kids just went crazy. They asked so many questions, both funny and thoughtful, that they wouldn’t have been able to ask in English. It was great. One girl asked what she should do if she wanted to have sex with a boy but his penis wouldn’t become erect. A boy asked how he can tell if the sperm is in the woman. Another boy asked if a boy can ejaculate without a woman. We said yes and he just asked how…There were also a lot of questions about how HIV/AIDS is spread and how soon you will test positive after contracting it. Later Mwakaje said he had a lot of fun helping us. He said some of the students in form six didn’t even know the things we were teaching to our students. It was exciting to hear that we were really doing something different.

That night we celebrated Thanksgiving with some of our closest friends here. Katelyn and I killed two skinny chickens earlier in the week with a lot of help and emotional support from Martin. Apparently Tanzanians don’t chop off chicken heads with an axe but instead you stand with your legs spread, one foot on the wings and the other on the feet, while you cut the head off with a knife. Katelyn let go of hers after cutting through just part of the neck and I went to get it out of the bushes after it bled to death. I kept my feet still but had to beg Martin to finish cutting through the neck bone. Then together we held its body down until the heart stopped pumping. Martin taught us how pluck, gut, and clean the bodies, although he’d never gutted a whole chicken before. He was making some great facial expressions as he pulled all of the insides out of a small slit in its butt.

For dinner we had the two chickens, roasted carrots,, mashed potatoes, stuffing (made from both Dot and Mama Mwasamwaja’s bread), gravy, beans, avocados, mango salsa (to replace the cranberry sauce), and apple dumplings for dessert. It was a beautiful and colorful Thanksgiving table with a green and white striped sheet as a table cloth. Ngwitika, her son Godlove, Martin, and the Mwasamwajas were our guests. Katelyn, the youngest, washed everyone’s hands with a pitcher and a basin as is the Tazanian custom. Katelyn and I boasted that we had killed the chickens and Mama Mwasamwaja laughed and said, “You mean you cut them? You CUT and chicken, you KILL a cow.” Very cool lady.

We finished the week with a fractured arm. Frank, usually so loud and chatty, was very quiet while we reviewed for the exam. He’d fallen from a tree the day before and his arm was very swollen. He said he wanted to take the exam but sat there, icing his arm, with giant tears rolling down his cheeks one by one. After the exam I walked him to the clinic where the doctor tied probably the worst sling I’ve ever seen. It was a strip of gauze tied around the break and then straight up around his neck. He told Frank that he needed to go to the district hospital in Tukuyu for an x-ray and gave him a report to give to the doctor on duty. Katelyn rewrapped his arm and tied a new sling. I walked him home and he asked for me to stay a while because his mom was still selling food to the students at Manow. It was awful to see Frank so hurt. He has the biggest tears I’ve ever seen.

Now we are preparing for the busy week we have ahead.

Berry Tarts and More Curried Peas

I’ve decided to post twice this week. It’s Wednesday and I have the day off! We’ve set it up so each week on of us will take a day off each week and rotate through for the rest of our time here. Katelyn was off last week. For my day off I am cleaning the house, listening to the Talking Heads (And She Was), weaving mkeka, and eventually walking to Lwangwa for onion and to visit Mama Mwasamwaja (Mwakaje told us her brother died this week). Madame Katelyn and Mama Dot are teaching more on paragraphs today. The students will have to rearrange cut up sentences in the correct order to make a paragraph. They love puzzles so I think they will love it.

It’s week five, which means we are half way through our curriculum. On Friday, we will send home letters to all the parents or guardians just to let them know how things are going and to remind them about the scholarships we will award to the best girl and best boy. We taught TONS of past tense verbs this week. It must be so frustrating to learn all of the irregular past tense verbs in English. Some of the boys in the class are getting very rowdy. We starting keeping students after class if we hear them speaking Swahili in the classroom. I think it’s kind of working. They’re all trying to say things in English more often. I like to listen to Frank and Mponjoli trying to speak only English. They were telling me through the window during chai that in Tanzania they speak Swahili and that I needed to go to Morogoro to learn. It’s funny that they know where Swahili is taught to volunteers (the Peace Corps volunteers learn Swahili in a three month program in Morogoro before going to their individual sites).

Yusuphu is another boy in our class that cracks me up. We’re pretty sure he has some severe ADD. He just can’t stop moving and is always distracted. He has these enormous buck teeth and is just overall a really goofy kid. I almost starting crying I was laughing to hard in class yesterday. We were playing this game where we have everyone line up in two lines and then rotate through the line so each student must say the past tense of the present tense verb we give them. It helps them hear English as well as practice pronunciation (L’s and R’s are very difficult…we even saw signs in Tukuyu that said “Liblaly” and one of our student’s primary school teacher wrote her name “Grolia” instead of “Gloria”). We give candy (peepee) to the winning line. Anyways, Katelyn was working one line and I was listening to the other and it seemed like Katelyn was letting her line go faster so my line was freaking out asking for Katelyn to come back to their line. I though Yusuphu was going to pass out he was so worked up. He made this ridiculous face, opening his eyes really wide and shouting at the top of his lung “TEACHER! NO CHANGE! NO CHANGE!” His urgency and panic were hysterical. Even the good, quiet girls started slapping each other and yelling. Needless to say they love candy.

This weekend we went on a hike with Mwaikema “The Professor.” He’s a teacher at MLJS and the father of one of our students. He’s very smart and seemed very happy to show off his village. He was born in a house in the village along with his six brothers and three sisters. His father fought with the British in WWII and when he came home he decided that all of his children needed to be educated. We’ve met a few of his brothers (Freddy, who is the supervisor and the CO2 plant, and the Mwaikema that drove us to Matema). Another brother works for a tea company and lives in Tukuyu (but still has a very nice white and blue house here). His sisters are in all in Mbeya working too. He comes from a very interesting family.

We walked to the top of this small ridge where there were lots of cyress trees. Along the way he showed us some coffee that this man was growing and the tree that this ugly fruit grows on. It was an amazing hike. We could see Matema and the Livingstone mountains stretching down to the lake. He told us that they go all the way up to Morogoro. We could also see the villages that surround us, Ndembo, Lwangwa, and the one to the west that I can’t ever remember. Tukuyu is also to the west and actually not as far away as I thought. He said before the roads or when the roads were bad people would walk over the hills to the west to Tukuyu. The road is actually a longer route because it goes around the hills.

Yesterday after class, Katelyn and I went back to some berries that Mwaikema had showed us. I can’t remember now what they were called but we picked enough to make a small tart last night. Every time we make something new it is very exciting.

Another very exciting thing we heard this week was about another teaching opportunity. Our next door neighbor, Mr. Malanga, approached Katelyn and me about finding young teachers from the US who might be able to come teach at a school in Malawi. I asked him about art classes since I didn’t think secondary schools had many art programs and he said he would love to integrate it into the curriculum. He seemed excited about any additions we could make to help improve the school. We’re not sure of all the details but I was excited to think about returning and teaching art!

That’s all the news today I think. I still wish I could convey everything that is happening here. I did visit Emily’s blog from last year and saw that she posted photos so I will try to do the same. Also, if anyone wants to write to any of us we would love it! My email is quahan03@evergreen.edu We would all love to hear from everyone.