The Animated African Church Service

In case you didn’t go to church on this Sunday, I have just the thing.

On May 4th of this year, I was given the chance to document one of Iringa’s liveliest, most intense congregations. I suspect that the photos and footage these next three weeks will be met with a mixture of disturbance, intrigue, and perhaps genuine appreciation for the work this church is doing.

I leave the reaction up to you.

***

Sundays mornings were always a peaceful time in the ordinarily-active city, Iringa. Since my arrival in January, I took advantage of this lull each weekend by working on my blog at the town’s Internet cafe, Iringanet. There, I’d park myself on the patio, set my laptop on the tabletop, and type away.  

Sunday afternoons, however, became a different story.

At around one o ‘clock, loud, booming music erupted from somewhere across and street. I got used to it and didn’t pay too much attention while concentrating on my writing. But then began a raspy-voiced man declaring his speech in revolution-style. With his declarations and screams and an audience’s resultant cheer, I thought it was a political rally. As interesting as this would be, it was not a political rally, but a spiritual one.

The cheering and speeches and singing would go on for hours all afternoon, each Sunday week in and week out. I eventually discovered that directly across the street was a church housed in the warehouse space making up the bulk of a sheet-metal roofed complex fronted by many small businesses.

A large church within

If this was their weekly routine, there was no use trying to fight against it by hoping for some sudden peace and quiet to write. Interestingly, their activity would become an inspiration and an experience from which to write about.

One Sunday I walked across the street and found the church entrance between two of the small business that fronted the building. The music ever-louder as I approached, I made my way past some attendees dressed in their Sunday best standing just outside. Over a cement step and around a wood pillar, I poked my head into the already-open door to discover the church in full swing.

It was a large, open room packed with a sea of 300–men in slacks and button-ups and even suits and women in either similar Western church-style or their traditional, brightly colored, thin fabric shawls, skirt wraps, and headscarves. Everyone stood at their chairs probably three dozen rows deep, facing a smooth, cement stage where a Western-suited, middle-aged preacher stood alongside an eight-person chorus belting loud singing and praise. 

It lifted my spirits; I enjoyed the experience being here with all the energy. People in the back looked at me, but no one did so unfriendly. I simply stood back near the entrance without saying a word, a fly on the wall. I flew away after a few minutes.

I returned the next week to witness attendees involved in intense prayer. They weren’t bowing, but standing and even moving about in such a way that I can imagine athletes might pump themselves up before a big game. I watched a thin man in his thirties and in his white button-up, pumping his fists at his side, his eyes clenched as hard as his hands with head cocked down while mouthing words with tight intensity.

My third visit offered something I’d only ever previously seen on TV: the two-handed, head-touching, immediate faint-inducer. I watched a few women fall for the preacher’s touch and into the arms of waiting people behind her. This third visit was the charm, motivating me to return with camera to catch these interesting aspects to their worship. While there, I asked around and met one of the assistant pastors. Eventually, I was introduced to the the middle-aged preacher, and man in charge, Bishop Boaz.

He welcomed me to come photograph his church. I did so the following Sunday.

***

I arrived in my own Sunday best at 1:45 to find the room 3/4 full and Bishop Boaz sitting silently and straight-faced in back while his people led the way for the first hour. The service lasted from 2-6pm. 

Things started off with a white top, black bottomed six-member dance/singing troop walking out on stage with the sounds of the first drum beats/keyboard chords/bass notes out the large, black cube speakers off stage left. 

The half dozen didn’t just sing and look good, they had choreography for each song.

Yet they were just the backup for the lead singer who changed from song to song.

Meanwhile,  a team of dancers did their thing on the floor.

It was all in Swahili, but I knew the words Amen and Hallelujah. And a Tanzanian teacher friend of mine from my school would later tell me that the man in the picture above sang, “There’s a fire.” This meant, there’s a fire from Satan if you don’t watch out. Despite the dire warning, he sang it in a light, upbeat fashion. 

During this time, Bishop Boaz calmly remained in the back.

And while adults worshiped, children all sat to the left of the stage.

The audience mostly stood and moved–some modestly, some eagerly–with the music. An evermore-snugly packed 300-person crowd made for a warm energy.

After a couple of songs, I realized I was smiling. Sounds corny, but I felt a lot of love in that room. And the love uplifted me–not just in mood, but in spirit and outlook. I wanted to be a better man; I wanted to do more with my life.

I even started to dance a little.  

And then I was struck by the contrast with which I entered this hall. I came in wanting to capture the parts of the service that were the most interesting, the shows of praise that had caught my eyes before, that separated it from worship as I knew it back home. It was academic at best and even “look at them” at worst.

Now feeling the positivity from the crowd, I felt guilty for having had such motives. There was nothing here to scrutinize. This was a gathering of people to celebrate life and improve themselves, and I dug every minute of it. The assistant pastor had asked me prior to the service if I’d be willing to say some words to the audience when Bishop asked me up on stage to do so. I said sure but didn’t know what I was going to say. ”Nice to meet you all”, or something. Now I knew what I was going to share, and I was eager to do so. Before I had that chance, however, things would take an interesting turn.

After 45 minutes of music and praise, Bishop took the mic and led some words of prayer. Though the audience listened, they also took it upon themselves to engage in their own praying. And soon this took over as Bishop quieted. With no music and no one at the mic, all there was–though it wasn’t insignificant–were the murmurs and speaking of 300 people with hands lifted and eyes closed.

This, too, was a show of spiritual power and uplift. And like the singing, had me straddling the fence between observer and participant. Yet this very session of prayer straddled a fence itself, starting from a prayer and meditation eliciting calm, peace, and spiritual oneness; then graduating into ever-quickening voicing and emotional outbursts from the people.

 

Bishop and company helped lead the escalation.

And things were kicked up a notch.

I didn’t feel what these subjects were feeling, but from the energy and high I felt from the worship beforehand, I could better empathize with how they got here.

Empathy though, would be tough to muster for the next scene.

Next, there was an eruption.

And I’ll share that with you next week. 

What I Learned About Race by Living in Africa

Obviously, there are many lessons to be taken away from living in a place as different as East Africa.

I’ve gained insight and a more nuanced view on topics such as development, education, the meaning and importance of home, and the magnificence of mother nature.

Above all these, however, was one issue I felt was particularly interesting and important. So much so, that I drafted a piece on it and sent it to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The topic was race.

I began writing the article simply as a survey of where we as a society have come from and are now on the issue. I was going to offer a brief history of eugenics at the turn of the last century, how we’ve reacted after WWII to dismiss any notion of biological distinctions between groups of humans, and now how today we’re in a tug-o-war between those who maintain no biological divide vs. those who do with new evidence from the human genome.

I wrote this inspired by my placement–being the only white man in an African community–and so plainly seeing the similarities and differences between their ways and my own. And I was going to write the article as a argument in this “tug-o-war.”

But then I realized something.

As I was making my case in this article, which was becoming less a human interest story and more the kind of essay one would have offered to their college professor, I thought about the controversy surrounding this topic in the U.S.–and how misplaced it is.  Watching boys in my village playing soccer, I realized that research on whether or not athletic ability is a natural gift more readily bestowed on black humans is not a statement of how we value them.

I thought about my job teaching Tanzanian students computers. And it hit me that in practically all the ways we interact with one another, it doesn’t matter who’s right in this debate. In other words, whether race is real or a social construct is irrelevant when I’m sitting down with a student to show them how to save a Word document.

In all, I realized that more concerning than where anyone stands on the issue of biological vs. cultural differences and race, is the loudness of the debate in the U.S.

That’s the article I sent to the Star Tribune, and that’s the article I’m proud to say is in today’s paper. If you get or have a copy, check it out in the Opinion section. Or, just click this link: http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentaries/278863001.html

I look forward to sharing more lessons and experiences from East Africa on this blog each Sunday.

Gone Fishin’ (the Tanzanian vs. the Minnesota way)

When I was 12, my brothers and I would go fishing using our grandfather’s pale green, 14-foot aluminum boat. We’d haul it in the back to our father’s tiny S10 Chevy pickup. When we got to our northern Minnesotan lake of choice, my older brother would take one side of the boat, my little brothers Anthony, Joseph, and I would take the other, and we’d hoist that boat shell out of the bed of the truck. After setting it on the ground and then sliding it into the water, we’d then grab the 7.5 horsepower engine, mount it to the back of the boat, grab our rods, tackle, bait, snacks, load everything up, and hop in. Then my older brother would yank on the engine cord a few times, get the engine purring, and off we’d putt-putt-putter along the water to our favorite fishing spot.

Twenty years later, I’m walking along the edge of giant Lake Nyasa in southwestern Tanzania, East Africa. I’m watching the men prepare their boats for hauling in a catch of freshwater fish. But the similarities between them and my experiences end here.

Tanzanian men of varied age prepare nets—not fishing poles. They ready their boats—not of aluminum or fiberglass, but wood. And it’s a single piece of wood—a section of a large tree trunk hollowed out with manually-operated tools. Chip, chip, chip, goes the man tap-hacking away slices and slivers to hollow-out and shape the body of the vessel.

I saw this man making a toy boat with the same method:

The fact that they actually make the boat represents the biggest schism between the life I know and this life on display.

To me, an aluminum boat would be advantageous in every way–stronger, lighter, longer lasting. I was told their boats only go a few years before starting to look like the one in the picture above.

Water damage means patchwork.

But I also thought about how this method and craft is a vital a part of this fishing culture. And for these guys to start using an industrially-made boat would mean undercutting their tradition–a system they’ve had in place for who knows how many generations and one that casts a wide net to include such aspects of culture as the time-consuming creation of the boat itself, their appearance and style like how American men might compare cars, and the methods for locomotion and fishing. As inefficient as I might consider their system, all this would need to be forfeited. I had to appreciate that development would come at the expense of this way of life.

This way of life includes net-making, too. (Though they do use industrial material–nylon–for it.)

I also appreciated and better understood, by comparison, the “American way,” where immigrants from all over arrived from their own boats for a fresh start, and with that, a willingness and ability to set aside tradition and custom in favor of efficiency and productivity. The culture was still in the method, but not in a static ways of farming, cooking, clothes-making, etc. The method was in ever-changing the methods for quicker, stronger, more output. Culture became disconnected from the task and attached to the result.

That being said, and inspired by the example of the fisherman before me here at Lake Nyasa, I realized we Americans do appreciate that the task can become a precious aspect as well, despite it not being the most efficient. We don’t carve our boats or sew out own clothes, but many American families prefer to take the hours necessary to prepare their Thanksgiving meals. Buy my mother all the pre-made food from the store, and I’m not so sure she would be happy come Thanksgiving morning. There’s a pull to finding meaning and comfort in tradition. There’s a warmth to connecting history and ancestry and culture to a task. Having these tasks suddenly done by machine or hiring out supplants that warmth in favor of cool efficiency.

That’s not so much the case in southwest Tanzania.

Another difference between fishing here and what I know is that the men here go out late at night and return in the early morning. Thus, when I awoke my final morning in the village of Matema Beach on shores of Lake Nyasa, I was able to step out of my guesthouse and see the results of a hard night’s work.

Rise and shine.

I walked along the shore past scenes of post-catch activity.

Fishing gear on the rocky beach

The equipment worked to bring in a haul.

Some fisherman sold to gathering villagers by the heaping five-gallon bucketload. Other fisherman laid their catch out in the morning light.

The smaller fish were laid out to dry.

Not all were laid out on nets.

While parents took care of business, children hung out with one another.

The homes of these villagers sat just beyond the beach.

This village of Matema Beach is a product of the fishing and small-scale farming producing income and bringing people together. As discussed, tradition and productivity can run counter to one another. And as evident here, the traditional ways are dominant.

Americans have been ones—by situation and character, I think—to favor productivity regardless of what might be lost in the process. As a result, we’ve gotten rich, but wage a constant cultural battle with critics pointing our how apt profits come before people.

We are a people who do put less meaning in tradition than other societies. Though I fondly look back at our childhood fishing routine, there’s no way we’d fish that way today. Just this last summer in fact, my older brother bought a fancy new fishing boat for his family. The fishing tradition continues. It’s just nice to be able to not have to lift the boat out of the back of the truck to do so.

***

After this morning, I packed up and readied to leave Lake Nyasa. My week-long excursion to southwest Tanzania was over. Time to get back to my “real” life. School break was ending; students would be returning; I had to get ready for daily life teaching computers back in the village.

 

On the Shores of a Huge African Lake

What do you say we plan a day at the lake?

Sounds nice, right?

Since I was a boy, I’ve loved going to the lake—to swim, to fish, to picnic, all of it done with the water, the waves, the shore, the breeze, and the loon’s call setting this scene of peaceful invigoration.

Now how about a day at the lake—in Africa?

Tropical fish, tropical plant life, tropical people.

This we gotta see.

After last week’s piece describing the natural splendor around Tanzanian’s southwestern city, Tukuyu, we now follow my journey in early July as I headed a bit further south. I planned for a couple of nights in a village called Matema Beach right on the northern tip of giant Lake Nyasa.

Along the two hour ride via minibus and then switching to a van, the tropical aspect made itself known. Tukuyu had been heavily forested hills. Nearing the lake, one the other hand, things flattened out with palms whose fronds were so enormous, they resembled giant bushes.

We stopped frequently, once me needing to switch rides. Another time there was a lengthy pause for reasons I still don’t know. No matter. When you’re traveling like this, the journey is just as big a part of the experience as the destination.

I hopped out to greet children and adults in the roadside village. Their tribal tongue and the brew I discovered them cooking were perhaps the only two variables in these typical Tanzanian small-town conditions.

Also typical, the boys wanted something from the foreigner. But they did give me pose, so I complied with cookies.

Different group of boys, same excitement for the camera.

The one there had a condition I hadn’t seen before–had never heard off. Half albino. His pigment-less half split him right in two.

And I think I bumped into his mom and sis behind the roadside buildings. I wanted a closer look at what I’d been seeing on this van trip south: 30-gallon barrels over a fire and filled to the brim boiling with some pasty white concoction.

They told me it was made of maize. Not sure if it was alcoholic.

We hopped back in the van and drove on for a short while before entering another village for which I was told to exit. This village was indeed the one I sought, Matema Beach. I couldn’t yet see the lake in the village center. There were wooden stands of produce and a few small shops and one-room restaurants. Before I could take in too much of this, I was approached by a man as I stood there with my suitcase. “Hello!” said the friendly, young, hefty man. “My name is Moyo.”

Not surprising, he was looking for a little cash for his guidance. But in this case, I was grateful because he took me to a guesthome my guidebook hadn’t mentioned and was only a couple hundred yards from where we were.

Off we went:

The plain leading to the lake from the north runs into the Livingstone Mountains running along the lake’s east coast.

The guesthouse was also half the price of the other lodgings and had everything I needed—and yes, it was right on the beach.

Another benefit of this guesthouse was that it was away from the others—away from the other tourists, that is, but in the middle of village activity. I put my things away, and the next thing I did was what I’d come all this way to do: take a walk on the beach.

It was equal parts natural beauty and local living:

It wasn’t all fun and games. The lake is where clothes get washed.

Scrub them clothes in the coarse sand.

Black grains in the sand

The lake also makes for a giant bathtub.

Perhaps these boys could have used a rubber ducky:

Some young guys got my attention. They were the rare adults who invited their picture taken:

This first day was just a walk on the beach. The next was a dive into the lake’s biggest impact on the villager’s lives: fishing.

Next week I show you the tree-trunk-carved canoes and the hauls they bring in each morning.

 

Attachment to the Vikings is Harming Our State

Over the past couple of years, I’ve read the headlines and stories of misplays, misappropriations, and malfeasance concerning the Vikings stadium and Vikings players—and then I’ve read the complaints from the public regarding each individual episode.

All taken together, however, one can see that such disappointments are simply exploits of a more fundamental cause.

But first…

Minnesota sports fans, take a joyously torturous trip down memory lane with me, will you?

I was a senior in high school when the Vikings with new starting quarterback, Randall Cunningham, and exciting new wide out, Randy Moss, kicked off the 1998 season. Me and the Minnesota fandom watched the first couple of games and realized the team was onto something.

We won a lot of exciting games that season. My personal favorite being the Monday Night Football match in week 5 when we went into Lambeau. National TV and the voice of Al Michaels. When this guy talked about my team, I felt special. And when he yelled “And Randy Moss!” after his second touchdown versus the Packers, I was elated and proud. Proud? Yes, proud. (Non-sports fans, I know this sounds crazy.)

Each Monday morning, my friends in second hour agriculture class would gather around a school copy of the Star Tribune and analyze the stats of the game the day before. It was almost always a victory to celebrate. Did Robert Smith get his hundred yards? Did John Randle get a couple sacks? Where’s he at for the season, anyway? I’d watch NFL Primetime each Sunday evening, and my girlfriend, Wendy, would roll her eyes as I watched the replays of the games I had already seen. “You already know who won,” she’d say.

But we know how this season ends.

Our high school was planning a ski trip the Sunday of the NFC Championship Game. I planned to go, but then I saw that the bus was leaving at 3:00 p.m. So I approached Mr. Merrill, the school extra-curricular advisor, and told him that that might run into the end of the game. He pushed back the start of the trip to 3:30.

On the day of the game we sat to watch. John Madden, the patriarchal voice of the NFL, would honor my club. I still remember the line (crazy how this stuff sticks with you), “The Vikings are starting to establish some dominance,” he said as the Vikings were driving toward the end of the game to finish it off. But we missed the field goal, and Atlanta was able to tie it up. The game into overtime, and before it ended, I had to go catch the bus for the ski trip.  Driving to school, I got to hear over the radio Atlanta kicking the field goal to win it.

I was crushed.

I skied, and I cried. (And I smile with embarrassment as I type this, looking back on how much it hurt me.) Wendy was annoyed at me acting this way. But she just didn’t understand.

Through college, I was similarly hooked, though I don’t think I cried ever again. I watched a lot of football on TV and spent a lot of time on the new frontier of sports media: the internet, a goldmine of 24–hour coverage and statistics. My team’s and my team’s players’ accomplishments were my own nuggets of personal pride. Mondays I’d come back from the dining hall after lunch knowing this was when to read the NFL weekend wrap-up on CNNSI.com. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Power Rankings were posted on ESPN.com and CBSSports.com. Where would “I” stand on their rankings? Would these articles talk about “me”? And this was just the coverage. The games themselves had me glued to every snap—or pitch or shot depending on the season. The action and drama one seeks in life I sought through men in jerseys.

I don’t know if my experience is extreme or simply well-articulated. What I do know is that sometime in my early 20s I recognized my own personal impairment due to the quantity and quality of time I invested into sports. So I worked to detach.

For me, this meant turning off the television and planning other activities. It wasn’t quitting smoking, but it also wasn’t easy. I had been tutoring some high school siblings at the time and planned our sessions at their home for Sunday afternoons. Even so, I’d stop helping them with their math lessons at around 2:30 and ask to turn their TV on to see how the Vikings’ game was ending.

I also began to travel more during the football season. I remember watching two plays of the Philadelphia Eagles playoff game in 2008 as I was about to board a plane. A couple of years later, I was living in China for the season. (Within that time, the Brett Favre year admittedly sucked me back in, but with a new perspective. I tried to watch that NFC Championship Game without going crazy. My turning stomach and clammy, clenched fists told me I failed. But I viewed such reactions with some objectivity from which to learn.)

Then after getting back from China, my detachment from sports was boosted in a big way by seeing what sports attachment was doing to inflict bad policy on the state and city.

The Twins’ stadium had already been approved and built in part due to subverting the legal obligation to put such a financial approval to democratic vote. That kind of rule-changing isn’t just annoying; for those who didn’t approve of the spending, it was a slap in the face. But once passed, we were all told to get over it and move on. Sour grapes be smashed. And indeed, people came out in droves to bask in the glow of a sunny opening day at Target Field, April 12, 2010. I went myself just to check out the activity and was admittedly impressed by the energy in the air.

My friends have Twins season tickets to this day, and I’ve gone to a few of these games. To the degree that they are enjoyable—and I’ve seen some great games there—the experiences are always held in check by the knowledge of how this complex came to be. Turns out, though, the Twins’ stadium was just a warm-up, a practice run for how to really exploit people’s attachment to sports, contorting the morals of everyone in the state from Average Joe to Mayor to Governor.

***

My father is a good American conservative. He likes his Bill O’Reilly. He goes to church each Sunday. He taught me how to shoot a rifle, how to work on my car, how to throw a football. He demonstrated how to be reasonable man, how to work hard, how to put family first, and how to cheer like crazy for the Vikings.

When the debate for the stadium was up in the air, I wondered where he’d lean. Making people pay for something they don’t want—particularly a superfluous expense like a stadium—is a pretty clear violation of the morals I was taught by him.

But it’s the Vikings we’re talking here.

He thinking of the palatial new stadium and his enjoyment during his annual Vikings game trip down to “The Cities” from our rural home, he spoke with me on the phone with complete conviction about how the new stadium would create jobs and how the ticket sales and tax revenues would help the state.

“Dad? Is that you on the phone?”

Indeed it was him as well as countless others suddenly seeing the light for why we needed to help pay for the home of a privately-owned enterprise.

My dad and company didn’t come up with these justifications for no reason. They had good cause. The threat was tossed out there that if Minnesotans didn’t pay up—and didn’t force their fellows to—the Vikings might find someplace that will.

“What?!” was the collective reaction. Red Alert! AHHHHHH!! No Vikings?! NO!!! ( I can hear this last expression in Paul Allen’s famous Vikings vs. Cardinals game call.)

Suddenly, the state’s politicians began to support the offer they were getting from the Vikings owners and came up with a way to help pay for Minnesota’s part by relying on people to gamble.

I believe gambling should be a choice anyone should be able to make on his own accord. But now we’re encouraging  it—institutionally.

This is a true moral hazard: rooting for people to blow their money gambling so we can cheer for touchdowns.

And for many Vikings’ fans, this is a true moral warp. Those who go to church each Sunday and learn that it’s a sin to gamble are now hoping others do so.

But the proposed gambling (the electronic pull tabs) didn’t pan out. (As bad as that might seem to some, people not gambling is probably a good thing.) And the “deal” the state got from the owners—by comparison to others made in other cities since—reveal that it might not have been such a good deal after all. Well, bad for the state, but good for the owners. After the stadium deal went through, the team’s value shot up $200 million.

The cause of this situation is deeper than bad negotiating from our politicians or not being more creative or due diligent in trying to come up with a way to pay for a stadium. This was about coming to the table from a position of weakness. The owners and the NFL didn’t just have something Minnesota wanted. They had something Minnesota thought they needed. I can only believe that Minneapolis Mayor Rybak thought that getting the stadium in Minneapolis would be his swan song upon leaving the mayor’s chair and that Minnesota Governor Dayton was thinking “Not on my watch!” when afraid the team would leave.

With clearer heads, these politicians actually had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something truly courageous and great. The state could have stood up to the league and made a statement:

We love the Vikings. They are part of our history, social fabric, and economy, and we are here to cheer for them. We are a good market for this franchise. We will go to games and buy jerseys and watch on television. We will be loyal. We have all this to offer you should you choose to stay here and build your stadium. If you leave, we’ll be here to cheer on another franchise should they choose to come and take advantage of all we offer.    

We are not going to force people to pay a king’s ransom for something many people don’t want and via gambling revenue. We are not going to use tax money to pay for a private business—especially one shown time and again to be a bad investment. We are not going to cross that ethical line just because of our love of sports. 

It is hard to conceive of the benefit of making such a decision just as it’s hard to imagine the benefit of saying no to a party where everyone’s having a ball but you really should go home and get ready for work the next day. Right away, all you think about is the lost opportunity. But we know the benefit is there. As we sometimes say: short term pain is long term gain.

Indeed, on the other side of such a stand would have been a better economy—money not tied up in a stadium, less gambling—and a statewide self-confidence for not being bullied and not giving into our fear of being Viking-less. On an individual level, such an established line prioritizes those things which are more important. In all, we’d not be under the weight of bad precedent that we’ve now established, which now tells us that yes, our morals and character are for sale.

Be we are under that weight.

And like a lie to cover up a lie or a poker player’s bad defeat putting him on tilt to perpetuate more failure, the stadium deal—which was sold in part to taxpayers with the promise of a Super Bowl—set up state representatives to sign the under-the-table Superbowl agreement giving the NFL an array of freebies amounting into the millions that will come from the pockets of citizens.

As Warren Buffett says, “It’s easier to stay out of trouble than get out of trouble.”

***

To complain about disappointments with the Vikings stadium or the Superbowl deal proves hollow when we ignore what it is that got us here and keeps us coming back. To simply get angry at the players who commit crimes and let us down misses the point that we put them and football on this pedestal.

Supporters of the stadium have the convenient fallback of saying—as they did with the Twins’ stadium: Water under the bridge. Get over it. Move on. The best solution isn’t living in the past and complaining, it’s finding a solution for problems at hand. They’re right. We do need to look forward. But rather than a solution to the problem being ways to further enable the attachment, truly moving forward means rooting out the cause of all these problems. And that root cause is this:

Minnesota is too attached to the Vikings.

As long as Minnesotans think that they need the Vikings like food and air, the opportunity for being taken advantage of will always be present. All one could do when the stadium was being talked about was hope that a benevolent owner would choose to sacrifice his own business gain and not exploit this opportunity. That the Wilf family was able to take money given to them from Minnesotans is simply a symptom of people’s over-attachment.

Other symptoms were the ignoring of numerous economic studies showing no growth from a new stadium or from hosting a Super Bowl; the ignoring of the recent buildings of two championship-winning franchise professional sports stadiums built entirely with private cash (New England Patriots, San Francisco Giants); and the ignoring of what most of us were taught and know to be right and wrong.

These things were missed because what isn’t is what defines a person, what he finds meaning in. And when we invest these existential elements into harmful things (drugs or alcohol) or to an extreme degree (too attached to sports), we cultivate grounds (or break ground on structures) that reap problems.

A huge part of the marketing effort for the stadium was Adrian Peterson. As a ticker-seller, as the face of the franchise, as the player most helping the Vikings win games, he probably owned the largest individual piece of responsibility for selling the stadium to the public. For the sake of the owners and the league, it’s a good thing he was caught disciplining his kids too hard after the stadium was approved.

***

It may be too late to say no to the stadium; it might be too late to take back the Super Bowl deal. Minnesota might have lackluster teams in shiny new stadiums to boot—another kick in our shorts.

But it’s never too late to learn from mistakes and realize what should be done to correct the trajectory. And though I’ve referred to this as problem as belonging to the state of Minnesota, the solution starts with the individual.

Detach.

Start now while the team in losing. Break away—if just a little. Watch, and cheer/groan depending on the outcome, but then go about your day. Or ignore the games altogether if you have something better to do. Perhaps treat football like you would the Minnesota soccer club. Get some apathy for the Vikings.

Today I’m in East Africa, where I’m wrapping up a nine-month project at a village school. Having gotten into the city on weekends, I’ve caught the headlines regarding this year’s NFL drama around player misconduct and the league’s responsibility to be the parent and judge for their players. The way I see it, the pressure for the NFL to assume this role and the hyper-attention on the players’ off-the-field activity are products of an entire nation’s attachment to the game.

I’m preferring my perspective of being outside-looking-in.

But I come back to Minnesota in one week. Then I’ll see how magnetic the television is on Sunday afternoons, whether I need to schedule a jog or trip to my great Aunt’s house.

All this said, there’s a deep part of me that will always be a Vikings fan. I got nostalgia thinking about and looking up the information for the past seasons mentioned above. But even the diehard fan needs to recognize when their attachment begins to warp their perspective and positions. Clutch too hard to something and shenanigans can go on behind your back. It’s up to Minnesotans to lighten their grip so as to pay more attention to what’s happening. This has to do with preventing abuse and harm at the state level, but also to potentially wake up to one’s own life and realize the beauty being missed out on because we’re too focused on an athletic club.

Waterfalls, Geologic Wonders, and Adventure Travel

I’m writing this the morning of Sunday, September 21 from a rundown motel room in Bukoba, Tanzania. This is not where I am supposed to be today.

That being said, I am supposed to be on the road.

My time teaching at the Magulilwa village school outside of Iringa, Tanzania has come to its end. So I end my time in Africa the way I ended it in China: with a tour around this part of the world before heading home. I’m nearing the halfway point of a two-week journey around Lake Victoria, taking me to north and northwestern Tanzania (my present location), up to and through Uganda, and then into Kenya, where I fly back home to Minnesota from Nairobi on September 30.

Only six days into journey, and I’ve already been exposed to breathtaking scenery along the bouldered coast of Lake Victoria, views of Africa’s tallest mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro, rode a camel, saw a bunch of snakes and crocodiles, and even toured a university.

On the other hand, I’ve had my luggage get soaked; suffered through egregiously late, bumpy, cramped bus rides; and now that plans fell through for a boat ride to Uganda (the whole reason I took the terribly uncomfortable bus ride to Bukoba in the first place), I find myself sitting here unsure what my next step will be–probably having to take yet another bus.

I’ve learned a distinction in travel styles from wandering East Africa.

In one mode of travel, you have your itinerary, your reservations, and the comfort, stability, and predictability that comes along with things being planned out and official.

Then you have your anti-planned travel. It’s not as if you leave yourself out to dry; you have an idea of where to stay and your next step when you get off the bus. But while out and about, you maintain only a soft, malleable idea of where you want to go/what you want to do. You stay open to, and even rely upon, the forces at work in the universe creating and presenting opportunities. (This is how I ended up on camel and toured the college.)

I call this adventure tourism. Bump into a guy who knows a guy who captains a cargo ship? Great, let’s hop aboard!

This travel philosophy is what I’ve decided to embody on this trek—for a couple of reasons. It presents random and exciting opportunities, ones that tend  to burrow into the “real” life in these places. Riding on the cramped public transport to ride the camels and interact with the Maasai tribe, I saw a safari Land Rover fly by us with European tourists who may never be so exposed.

Indeed, this part of the world has comfortable travel options. But they floats way above the normal ways of life here. And they’re not cheap. I’d love to go on more safaris and even climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. But such official tourist activities have been secured by the Tanzanian government as cash cows, and the prices are high. The fees for climbing Kilimanjaro, for instance, will run you about $1,500. If you have that ability, then you can entertain the mindset of convenience and comfort and customer service.

For most people, though, this is not the place for such expectations.

When I expect schedules to be maintained or a refund for the bus company’s leaky undercarriage ruining the books in my suitcase, I will get upset. The mindset of this being an adventure rather than a “relaxing getaway” has been a coping mechanism and has allowed me to permit (and even embrace) the challenge.

This is a land of adventure—of randomness, of living for the day, of being okay when things don’t go your way or when things aren’t all nice and comfy. And so I write this blog from rundown motel in Bukoba, Tanzania. I had to switch rooms this morning, because I woke to find ants in my bed.

(If you’d like to keep up with my current journey—and beyond, follow or friend me on Facebook, where I’m posting my latest pictures (and even some video—bandwidth permitting).

This week’s blog takes this adventure theme back back to July when I had a brief adventure in the southwest corner of the country. Last week, I shared my interview with the witch doctor. This time, I’ll offer you the overview of the natural sights seen on this day.

***

Following the medicine man, my guide, Michael, and I hopped back on our rented motorcyle and set off for the first of three natural wonders, The Bridge of God.

After a short while of lush green hills with warm air rushing by, we slowed as we came to a manmade bridge crossing the river the new-fashioned way. Just down river from it was natures own, old-fashioned, river crossing:

Bridge of God

Approaching, we took this path down:

So we could enjoy this view:

The part about this bridge that really impressed me wasn’t its huge size or rugged texture or even its beauty. It was imagining how the heck it was created.

With a long enough time frame, water will win vs. rock.

Then I looked the other way, back toward the metal bridge.

I decided to climb out on those rocks.

Then I saw a local man. He was barefoot and in the water himself.

He was fishing.

He showed Michael and I his catch of the day. I bought it from him.

He had his boy there with him.

With my dinner in hand and after saying goodbye, Michael and I were off for the next of the day’s three stops.

First enjoy a bit of video from the Bridge of God, including the fisherman:

Michael and I hopped back on the bike for what I thought, by the name of it, would be a gimmicky next stop along the river. Boy was I wrong.

It was called The Cooking Pot and was described to me as a place where the river resembles a pot of water. I imagined the river widening into a bowl shape. In this case, lowered expectations proved beneficial as I ended up being quite surprised.

We stopped at a point on the road where we couldn’t see the river anymore. We had to walk down along a steep, high bank for several steps along a dirt path though tall grass. We came out below onto a rocky edge with the river rushing before us. Well, first it rushed, then it “boiled”, then it spurt out downriver.

The river actually flowed along quite ordinary. But then the waters met this point where a sudden drop-off made for a small falls. Its base, however, didn’t simply meet a lower portion of the river. The water went beneath the surface.

Another natural bridge, though not as big as the Bridge of God so perhaps a “Bridge of Angels” or something, spanned to the other side of the river just beyond this little falls. To the left side of the bridge was pool of water that at first sight had me thinking this was the base pool of the falls. But the amount of water surfacing in this pool was nowhere near the amount rushing below.  It dawned on me that this was simply a surfacing of a portion of the now-underground river.

The surfacing offered this effect of water boiling. This was The Cooking Pot.

Both sides taken together looked like this:

Finally, just a bit further downriver had some more of that underground water spurting to the surface:

The incredible geological phenomena that was this Cooking Pot actually made the upcoming magnificent waterfall, the last stop of the day, seem ho-hum.

We drove on past woods and fields and hills—all green. At the bottom of one woodsy slope, Michael parked the bike and took off his helmet. Again, I looked around to see no river, no rushing water. Again, we had to walk down a steep bank, this time through the trees for a good 100 yards.

At the base was the river, and walking its rocky flat, broad bank to its edge revealed just 100 more yards upriver, the reason for our visit.

Back in Minneapolis, Minnehaha Falls gets its own five-star park treatment as a gem of natural beauty within the city limits. Such a falls here wouldn’t even have made us stop our bike. The world is big, folks. Outside of our “worlds” are those that change our scales. This day, my gauge of natural beauty and wonder was broadened to include the incredible earth along this one measly river in southwest Tanzania.

If I ever have a day with as much variety of natural beauty and wonder, I’ll be pleasantly surprised once again.

And I have an adventurous travel mode to thank for making my way down here to Tukuyu via a rattletrap bus.

Next week we go to the enormous freshwater lake in this region: Lake Nyasa.

Interview with a Witch Doctor

On our motorcycle ride over and around lushly vegetated rolling terrain, beyond small farms of coffee and cocoa, I was being driven to a destination that on one hand had nothing to do with this amazing nature, but on the other, was quite tied to it. We were visiting a man–not a waterfall or the famous natural stone bridge nearby. Yet he was the area medicine man, or, if you wish, a witch doctor.

After several miles on motorbike and another mile or two on foot, we met a compound of wood, mud, and brick structures. Inside the last building of the compound sat the old man…

***

This is what my mother warned me about.

“Brandon, they do voodoo over there!” was one of the things she said in protest of me coming to Tanzania.

Since arriving, I had inquired whenever someone brought up the subject of witch doctors. I was more curious than unnerved by the topic. I figured most of the eeriness people have about these healers is wrapped up in the unknown. Either way, I didn’t think I’d be able to find out for myself.

Then in July I came visiting to Tukuyu in the southwest corner of the country. While eyeing tourism outing packages from my guesthouse bulletin board, one caught my eye. It included plenty of the usual hikes and rides to the various geological splendors, but also started off with the chance to visit a witch doctor.

I called the agency and planned the tour early the next day.

This morning, I greeted a stunning Tukuyu sunrise walking from my guesthouse to meet my guide at the bus stand.

My tour guide, Michael, was a well-put-together man of 40 in a blue windbreaker and white Dallas Cowboys baseball cap. He was the owner of the tour company. I was lucky to get him and his English skills to take my smallest-of-possible groups out for a tour. We hopped on a rented motorcycle after a breakfast of tea and bread and readied to ride.

We were off for one of the richest nature-tourism extravaganzas I could imagine, seeing rushing rivers, immense natural rock structures, a gorgeous waterfall, and yes, that witch doctor with whom we spent most of the morning heading out to and interviewing.

Leaving the hilly city center, we cruised by outer neighborhoods:

After a few miles, we slowed it up for Tukuyu’s dirt road edges.

Dirt roads became little more than wide paths interrupting crops of banana and then coffee. (For this, I asked we stop for a coffee break.)

Coffee fruit on stem, coffee bean inside

Women picked and hoed. Children played and posed.

Just past the coffee trees, we parked the bike.

We were at the witch doctor?

Nope.

Time to walk. But it was a beautiful stroll.

Following my guide, Michael

Meeting and greeting a local

After the ups and downs of a steep hill or two, things leveled out.

And up here a driveway met our path. We took the left into the witch doctor’s property.

It wasn’t ooky or scary or even strange. With a variety of old to older buildings—some brick/plaster, some cement—wooden fence for a cow, a couple of trees growing in the dirt yard, and a couple of children around, it looked to me like the Tanzanian version of some tucked-in-the-woods rural properties of my native northern Minnesota.

Walking in the middle of it past two decaying building structures to our left, was a two-room building caked in off-white plaster and topped with a red corrugated metal roof. Outside it was an old man waiting on a chair and then a young woman with baby. Both patients in waiting, the old man was in no hurry and the lady went inside to make an appointment for a later time. We were free to enter.

We walked through the curtain for a front door to a space with little light, but much decoration. Clutter some might call it. Furniture, coffee table, shelving, and most of it with items–cups, books–atop. It spoke of a person who’s been here for some time, collecting their goods in ways only they would know the combination for which to find any certain item.

This attic-like space didn’t see just the floor limited, but the wall space as well. Taped up like wallpaper were posters of an interesting variety. The ordinary yearly calendar poster hung near a poster of the “World’s Worst Dictators”, featuring portraits of Stalin and Idi Amin above statistics of the number they were responsible for killing. One politician seemed to be favored by the medicine man: U.S. President Obama, whose 2008 campaign post of Change hung above the couch along the back wall. To the left of this poster was a large display of The Last Supper.

Michael and I were invited to sit on the couch. The doctor took an old easy chair. And we began our interview.

The man dressed in clothing not traditional or tribal but more resembling something my grandfather would wear.

His name was Wilisoni Anyosisye Nyondo. He was born here in Tukuyu in 1922. In 1936, he started learning from his grandfather the ways of the healer.

What does he heal?

“Big stomach,” he said to Michael who translated for me. “Problems with urination, losing sexual ability for both men and women. Women having problem getting pregnant.”

Such a healer tackles more than the human body. People also come when they are “confused.” And “many people have problems with demons,” he added.

“That’s my job,” said Nyondo.

People come to him with a problem. Cures will come to him in his dreams, he said.

He said medicines can include liquids to drink or to put into a bath. For demons, he sometimes cuts the person’s arm and rubs a liquid into the wound.

He gets his medicines locally, or from Zanzibar Island off Tanzania’s coast, and also from the country just 100 miles from here, Malawi.

“What are some medicines you use?” I asked.

Fish oil, shark oil, crocodile oil, ginger, onions, he said listing a few.

Do you do surgery?

No.

Recalling what I’d heard from other about witch doctors, I asked about a more controversial practice, “Do you use body parts from others?”

“No,” his crackly voice said resolutely.

Tanzania has a culture of superstition regarding albino people—of which there are more here per capita than in most of other nations. Stronger in the past, beliefs still linger that albino body parts are useful in spells or that the act of killing an albino will lead to better fortune. A few such killings have been reported around Tanzania this year. Chances are, there are other deaths unreported.

“What do you think of albino people?”

He said he doesn’t like the killing of them.

“Have you ever assisted in the killing of an albino person?”

“No.”

“Do you know others who have?”

“No, because they do it in secret.”

If he does hear anything, though, he said he has the number for the police. He said the last case he heard of in Tukuyu was in 2005. And for that, the police arrested a local traditional healer.

“I spent many years—never did that,” said Nyondo while showing  me his grey hair under his hat with little laugh.

“Why do people kill albinos at all?”

The belief, he said, is that “if you kill an albino, you’ll be rich.” He said some miners believe this.

While Nyondo is adamantly against the harm to albino people, he’s not without his belief in monetary magic spells. Continuing to share, he said there is “medicine from a cobra to protect your money.” Keep the medicine in your pocket, and no one will steal your money. He told me he has some of this medicine.

Further, if you keep in your home “water retrieved from the waves of the Indian Ocean,” it will keep burglars away.

Finally there’s the millionaire spell, which he called the “work of wizards”–though I wasn’t sure if that was a disparaging or respectful acknowledgement. For this, you rip the corner off of a 10,000 shilling note (worth only about $6-$7).Then you put the corner piece in medicine—a powder, I surmised. You make change for the 10,000 note with a millionaire. The millionaire is now affected. “He will be bankrupt, and you get rich,” said the old doctor.

As a result of these spells and beliefs, he has many businessmen visit him to protect their money.

After discussing spells and such, we went outside to show me his “medicine cabinet.” In a building that seemed the outdoor version of the room in which we spoke, he enter a naturally-lit space just as cluttered, but this time with old boards beginning to moss over, a leg from a bed frame, and old paper—and then were the bags of herbs on top.

Nyondo in front of his medicine room

He grabbed the bags and his grandson who had arrived laid them out on a large reed platform.

Nyondo said these ingredients–leaves, bark, and more–are useful for drinks that help with sickness and lack of energy.

Though some of Wilisoni Anyosisye Nyondo’s ways may seem odd or deemed useless to outsiders, he serves a crucial role in the ways of life of the people here. I don’t know if people coming to Nyondo is a statement about the power of alternative medicines or the power of placebo and belief. I’m not writing this to “get to the bottom” of it. I’m interested in the life he leads, the part he plays in this world, and the staying power of such a culture.

About the religious culture in this part of the world: there is widespread belief in Africa about notions of spells, curses, sorcery, superstition, and the supernatural. A businesswoman whom I’ve met in the town of Iringa thinks that her brother with muscular degeneration in his legs was the victim of another person’s spell toward him and his business success. And she’s Christian.

Christianity is strong all over the country. But rather than replacing this belief system of spells–albeit while working to eliminate some of its more egregious aspects  such as killing albino people–Christianity here seems to be a blended version of these two spiritual practices like the assumption of a region’s particular version of an outside language. As such, a well-known female preacher famously declared a few years back that she was to raise a man from the dead on a given date. As the date approached, however, she backed out due to supposed security concerns. Today, she’s in politics.

***

With the beliefs in such practices strong and the need present, Nyondo currently works with his three grandsons to teach them the ways of being the Tukuyu medicine man.

 

To Tropical Tukuyu: The Bus Preacher and Other Highlights

School summer break in Minnesota is school winter break in Tanzania. But truth be told, a long break from school during warm weather holds the two in common. And with my time off of school in July, I took advantage by seeing a new part of the country: the tropical southwest down to monster Lake Nyasa.

Tukuyu would be my base for the week. Lake Nyasa is the body of water just southeast of it.

I had heard much about the lush green hills, the clear, crisp lake Nyasa, and the small villages that surround it. First I had to get there.

Here are the photos and video I took of life along the way…

***

Leaving my home, Iringa, early in the morning, I was all settled down into my comfy bus seat in the second row passenger’s side. The giant front window spread before me from which to view the Tanzanian terrain, and I was anticipating a pleasant six hour ride along one of Tanzania’s best corridors.

Yep just sit and relax…

.

.

“Yesu!”

“YESU!!”

Who was saying that? What is “yesu?”

A man started declaring this word and many more to all the bus. At first I thought it was just a guy talking loudly on his cell phone while standing to put his things away in the overhead compartment. He was directly behind me, and I looked back briefly to see his head cocked to his left. Yep, must be on his phone.

But the conversation was going on and on, and he was evidently the only one talking. The bus conductor (the guy who collects money and oversees all the exits and boardings on the bus) was sitting near me in the front. With the man continuing to shout like he was barking orders, I tapped the conductor on the shoulder and asked if he could tell that guy to be quiet.

A passenger directly in front of me said of the loud man, “He’s just preaching.”

“Just preaching?” I thought. Apparently, preaching is given quite a wide range of permissible outlets.

But I dropped it.

The preacher, however, continued his loud, million-words-a-minute rants without pause. After a few more minutes of this, I tapped that nearby passenger on the back. This middle aged man in a cream-colored suit turned to me, and I asked, “Could you tell him to be quieter?”

The passenger offered an empathetic look, but told me that the guy will only preach for about ten more minutes.

Disappointed but malleable, I changed my gears to take advantage of this unique slice of Tanzanian life. I got up and walked past the preacher to the rear of the bus and took some pictures and video of the guy.

My fellow passenger was right. The man stopped after about ten minutes. Then he put away his bible, said a few last words, and started to approach people with their hands reached out. I suddenly felt silly for my complaints as these folks were evidently happy the man was there, as they paid him for his service. The preacher collected a half-dozen offerings. Then almost as soon as I sat back down in my seat, the bus slowed and then stopped into a weigh station, the preacher exited, and I thought, “What the world was that?”

It was this:

Oh, and “Yesu” is Swahili for “Jesus.”

Twenty minutes into the several hour journey and one Swahili sermon later, we were back underway. Hilly terrain defined the route–sometimes through trees; sometimes through open hills.

We passed Mafinga and the way to Mafindi, where the paper mill is.

We stopped a few times for passengers/rest stops.

Well into our way, I took out my map and asked the middle aged man in front of me where we were. We were nearing Mbeya, the capital city of my regional destination.

This man was a diminutive 50-ish guy with a dark brown fedora to top his cream colored suit. He looked to me like he was in education or mission work. I shared that I was headed to Tukuyu; he said he was as well. This was a pleasant surprise as now this gentle English speaker would be able to help me switch buses at Mbeya on my way to Tukuyu.

Indeed, we pulled into the main station at Mbeya–a large lot that lie just shy of the city itself. We disembarked, and my friend directed me to the correct dalla dalla (the vans that transport people on local routes).

Mbeya bus station

Dalla dallas at Mbeya bus station

Soon we found and boarded ours.

From locating to boarding our dalla dalla, and then even once we waited to leave the bus station while seated in our dalla dalla, several locals tried to sell us stuff–now through the windows. And this kind of aggressive salesmanship occurred the whole way down from Iringa to Tukuyu–first with our bus, and then with the upcoming dalla dalla stops.

Each time our transport slowed for a station, people there would run alongside to sell candy, drinks, and even produce to the passengers. For one such stop on our dalla dalla to Tukuyu, it was cabbages; the next stop, it was potatoes.

Salespeople at Mbeya bus station

It all looked something like this:

***

Now on our way to Tukyu, and despite the speeds at which the driver took us up and down hills and around corners, the views became evermore beautiful on this southbound road.

Tea hedges and banana trees

From open, dry highlands where I live; to the cool air and pine forests we drove through along the way; to the rich greens and warmer tropics of Tukuyu, Tanzania is known for its quick-changing climates. And we now entered one that had me feeling like I was in an entirely different country.

My friend got off at the stop just before mine. I got off at the Tukuyu main bus stand. Then I walked to a guesthouse whose signs directed me behind some of the buildings surrounding the bus stand square.

One of the businesses lining the Tukuyu bus station

My guesthouse, “Kivanga,” straight ahead

Down the alley and to the right, I walked down a couple steps to a dining area/bar. On the left side of the bar was the reception and hallway of rooms. On the right side of the bar was a hallway of more rooms. I got one of these. And for only 6,000 shillings (less than $4), I was delighted–though the bar would be noisy.

The next day I would hire a guide to show me around to three sites of Tukuyu’s famous geological splendor. My guide would throw in a fourth, an encounter I didn’t imagine I’d be making during my time in Africa–visiting a witch doctor.

Next week is all about that character.

For now, after getting my things put away, I walked about town. We end this post on some shots of Tukuyu, Tanzania:

Interracial Romance

Interracial dating is a topic with as much curiosity for some as attraction for others as distaste for yet some others. (And the distaste comes from those who ether don’t like the idea of taking part in such relationships OR from those who find the topic off-putting for even being brought up at all in 2014. “A mixed-race couple? So what? What’s the big deal?”)

While the topic in the U.S. isn’t the head-turner it used to be, I’ve yet found it an interesting area to write about in Tanzania if just because you’re dealing with a lot more than just differences in skin color. And, as I discovered right away, one gender seems to take part in dating the local Tanzanians a lot more than the other.

***

One Saturday evening way back in February, I was brand new to Tanzania and pleased to have made the acquaintances of four Peace Corps volunteers. I tagged along with these three women and one man all in their early-to-mid-twenties and each already several months into their two year volunteer commitments.

We walked into a sports bar and sat at one of the flimsy, plastic tables with plastic deck chairs. After several minutes of socializing, the wavy, dark-haired female volunteer said something along the lines of, “Yeah, my boyfriend can help get a phone working here.”

The topic of relationships in these volunteers’ circumstance is always interesting, because they’re away from home (so maybe in a long distance relationship with someone back home). Or they’ve partnered up with a fellow traveler in this unorthodox fashion of sharing in the experience of a new land. Or maybe they’ve met that special someone from the new land they now inhabit. The wavy-haired brunette was in the latter category. She had met her man from the village in which she works.

Later in the conversation, a different female volunteer with straight, dishwater blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail shared about her ex-boyfriend–also a local man. The combination of these two volunteers; my American colleague, Leah, who has herself a Tanzanian boyfriend; and the fact that I hadn’t yet met any foreign men who dated the local women got me to say, “hmm.”

And indeed, this lopsidedness in the dating game has been consistent throughout my time here in Tanzania.

As well, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the dating circumstances when I lived in China. Basically, things there were the opposite.

Spanning the summers from 2010-2011, I noticed in China a discrepancy between the sexes of the foreigners dating the locals. But there, almost all white men (and one black man I met) had active dating lives, whereas the foreign women had no interest. Of the dozens of single, straight, Western women I’d meet, only one all year dated (and then married) a Chinese man.

So based on these early observations in Tanzania and memories of China, here seemed to be the general deal: China (and all the other East Asian countries I visited) are to white men what Tanzania (and perhaps all of sub-Saharan Africa) is to white women.

The idea was interesting, but I needed to do some more investigation. So in April, while in Zanzibar, I started keeping track of the interracial couples I saw.

Here are the results leading up to the present day:

White Women/Black Men Couples – 22

White Men/Black Women Couples – 9

This was a lot more common in Zanzibar than the other way around.

And along with the numbers have been the general feelings expressed by young volunteers.

“Men here know how to dance,” said a 21-year-old female volunteer from Sweden.

There are many circumstantial factors at play in the numbers I accumulated. Perhaps I see fewer white men with local women because these men are more likely to take their partner back to their country. Conversely, maybe the foreign women are more apt to stay in Africa.

One Tanzanian safari guide married to a white American woman added to this notion by saying that, “men are safari guides” and “they know English.” Thus, they have an easier time meeting the foreign women. (It’s how he met his wife.) He then said that men tend to be the pursuers, that a local woman would likely not approach a foreign man.

And approach the men here do.

“I’m tired of being treated like some super model sex goddess!” said Jessica one day when venting with me about life here. The 24-year-old American woman with wavy, thick, light-brown hair wasn’t trying to be self-congratulatory. She’s comfortable knowing that she isn’t going to be on the cover of a men’s magazine back in the U.S.

“Curves and extra fat are celebrated here,” she said, adding that the local men were mad at her when she lost weight due to malaria.

I asked Jessica if the attention was nice.

“It’s flattering when you first get here,” she said. ”Now it’s like, ‘Shut up.’”

And more than the physical attraction, Jessica says that men try to pick her up because they want marriage and hope for money and a ticket to the U.S.

Chemistry, kindred spirits, bah.

“Very shallow”, said Jessica.

Superficiality has also seemed to be a factor in why more Western women go for the black men.

I met Lucy, a 27-year-old Dutch woman working in Dar es Salaam. The fair-skinned woman sat with me at a coffee shop near her work and shared her own personal explanation for liking African men and, relating to my experience in China, for not liking East Asian men.

“When I see a Chinese man. I’m not attracted to him, because he’s short and skinny. He doesn’t look like he can protect me.”

African men, generally speaking, she said, “have a little bit of this macho attitude.”

“And it is sexy?” I asked.

“Yeah, the macho thing is sexy.”

Then from our booth along the wall, Lucy looked off to the center of the coffee shop. She focused on a point in the room and then said, “See that man? The way he put his hand there on his leg?”

She noted how confident he looked.

“More confident than white men?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I then asked about her thoughts on why white men don’t go after the local women here.

“It took me a long time to find a man who said ‘Yes, I like African women,’” Lucy said. “If I ask [white guys] if they find [black women] attractive, they say ‘No I don’t like.’ They say they are too fat. They don’t like the way they act.”

Then explaining  why white men like Chinese girls, Lucy said, “Those women are easier to protect.”

Lucy believes in the evolutionary reasons for racial dating discrepancies, and said that such needs are “something which is inside a human being.”

“I want to do my own things,” she added as a statement of her independence, of her coming all the way to Tanzania by herself. But conceded that “in the end there’s this feeling inside me that I want a man to protect me when the lion comes.”

Superficiality seemed to have come at a price for Lucy, though.

She shared with me about her former boyfriend, an African whom she lived with for three months before finding out he had been seeing other women.

But even besides the fact that he wasn’t faithful, she was disappointed in their lack of personal connection.

“They don’t look for chemistry here,” she said. “When I asked my ex-boyfriend ‘Why do you love me?’ he said because I would be a good mother for his children. ”

“Did you like that answer?” I asked.

“No. I wanted him to say, ‘I love you because of my personality, qualities, or something.’”

This superficiality leads me to my final point, which starts with a concession that the numbers I presented above don’t tell the whole story. When broken down further, a different picture appears.

In the older crowd, middle-agers or older, perhaps here for a second path in life or simply some enjoyable post-career volunteer work, the interracial dating numbers even out. Despite such people being the definitive minority of foreigners I see around here, four of the nine white male/black female partnerships were of this demographic.

And I think this is because the search for love is a human desire with which we modern humans wrestle to raise the bar beyond the basic needs (in this case, relationships merely for sex and procreation.) And in the shedding of the superficial in search for a strong, emotional bond, people don’t consider as heavily how well someone dances or their posture when sitting. A desire for a lasting partnership and a kindred spirit supersedes the flash-in-the-pan physical relationships we might be more inclined to in youth. And in such a supersession, race, too, becomes irrelevant.

It’s just two people in love.

***

On consecutive days on July, I was sitting at my regular internet cafe in Iringa. Outside on the benches surrounding the patio wall, I looked up to see a mixed-race couple with child. I heard the mother speak German on the phone. And we were in Tanzania. So I assumed her to be from Germany and him from here.

I was wrong on both. They were each from the nations adjacent to the south of my guesses. She was Austrian; he was Malawian; their boy was “Malaustrian”, and the family was beautiful.

The very next day, I was typing and clicking away at the same café when an older couple down sat by me. Unsure and curious, I asked them if they were married. They said yes, asked why I asked, and I told them my interest in why I see fewer white men/black women couples. I suggested it was because the men take their wives back to their home countries.

“That actually what we did!” said the white-mustached man with a laugh. He shared that he met and married his Tanzanian wife back in the nineties, settled in Norway in 1999, and now were back here to visit.

Just two people in love.
til next week,

-Brandon

***This is one of those articles where I had offer just a sampling of pictures, stories, interviews, points of views, and research, data, and theories from outside sources. It’s a topic that exemplifies the benefit of writing a book about my experiences in Tanzania. Look for it down the road.

Down on the Farm: Picture Stories from an African Corn Harvest

The corn stalks are high;

The kernels are yellow.

Rainy season says bye;

Harvest time says hello.

This one’s for all the farmers out there. 

***
My time in Tanzania has coincided nicely with the growing season. I arrived about six weeks into the rainy season (late January). Seeds are placed into the earth soon after the rains start to fall. When I took my first walks around the village, the seeds had sprouted and were now bright green toddler crops.

Like in the U.S., corn is king in central Tanzania.

And like people, corn grows up so fast.

As the spring months came and passed, day by day by week, the stalks soon became taller than the people.

And taller than a home

Corn is like man. When it comes of age, hair grows from its ears.

Soon it was time to collect that which nature so generously provided.

The harvest moon was upon us.

Late April in southern hemisphere Tanzania means it’s time to reap what was sowed.

***

The morning of April 30th, I put on my jogging shoes to run down to the river and back. On my way down the rough road, though, my jog was interrupted by a group of young men loading a mountain of ears into the bed of a truck. I had been seeing these super-sized trucks driving by here and there and filled to the brim with what must have been thousands of cobs.

Call me a fan of fate (or lazy and looking for an excuse to not exercise), but curiosity with this frame of Tanzanian life took over, and I approached the gang. There were about eight young guys from 30-somethings up in the cab and bed of the truck arranging the cobs, down to a few adolescents loading up the haul.

I offered a couple “habari”s (Swahili for “what’s up?”) and smiles. Then without saying another word, I started for the pile of cobs, leaned over and grabbed a handful, and started throwing them into the truck. Figured I could help and exercise at the same time. I started loading in the way I thought would be best: placing several cobs under one arm with the opposite hand. But I often had one cob drop for everyone I added. Not getting too far, I looked at how some others were doing it and bundled 6-7 together in a little corn cob pyramid and hoisted them in crane fashion with my two hands over the tall, rear gate of the truck bed.

Hearing the word “picha” (picture) and “mzungu” (white person) about seven times each, I looked up to see that some of the guys stopped working and started snapping shots of me with their phones. Since they pictured me, I figured it was safe to do the same to them. Before we finished, I ran back to the school to grab my camera. Returning back down the hill ten minutes later, I saw the truck sooner than I hoped as it was already bouncing slowly along the bumpy uphill path toward me. 

“Shoot!” I said, having missed my chance to capture them during their work. They saw me standing alongside the road and stopped for their own greeting toward their mzungu corn cob carrying helper.

After snapping the shot, I walked to the back and hopped aboard.

On the way up the bumpy hill, I tried to communicate. One guy with an engorged hat and the right amount and right style of facial hair prompted me to ask him, “Rastafarian?”

“Yes” he indicated with a nodding smile.

I gave him a peace sign and he offered his own pleased reciprocation.

When we got to Magulilwa town center only a mile up the road, I was told this was the end of the line. So I hopped out, said goodbye, and took a few parting shots.

These guys had themselves a nice pile of corn, but I knew this was also just a foundation for the loads these trucks could boast. And just a day or two later, this one stopped right in front of my school.

***

After weeks of being stripped of what they worked all season to produce, the stalks transform as do the leaves in a Minnesota fall. All the green is drained, leaving behind the parched, pale-yellow remains.

What to do with all this?

Phase two of the harvest: collecting the stalks. This work has been conducted starting in July and leading up to the present day.

Once again, I was on my way to jog down to the river. This time it was July 25th, and I made it all the way to the T in the road, where beyond this point men and women were collecting the stalks into those teepee-looking piles. Again, I had my exercise interrupted for a workout of local culture and their daily labor.

There were three in this plot, a young woman and man and a middle-aged woman. The stalks already hacked and collected into piles, these three simply took these unwieldy piles into their arms and walked them to the ever-growing, shed-sized upright mounds.

I thought to get my hands dirty once more and started in. It’s honestly a pleasure to help as the locals invariably get a kick out of it. And it gives me an idea of what this life would be like. I have to extrapolate the effort as I didn’t stay for too long. In all, I helped collect maybe 15 piles. In the process, needle-like seeds peppered my clothing by poking into the fabric of my socks, shoelaces, and shorts.

It’s all just part of the life for these villagers.

Soon, the hacker man came by, needing to stay a step ahead of the collectors.

There was no daycare for the young woman. Turns out that the mound of blankets I had seen off to the edge of the field, tucked in near some bushes, had a baby in it.

At the end of my mini-shift, mom came over to see about her little boy.

Now that he was awake, she wrapped him to her back and went back to work. Being a mom doesn’t slow these women down.

The next day from my room, I looked out across the road from my window. A group of women labored away on their own corn stalk teepee.

***

Finally, these teepees are collected. I’m told they become cow food.

But first, there’s one last run-through to get every last ear. And just two days ago, August 22nd, I bumped into these guys doing just that.

So, I gave them a hand to lend to their ears.

***

I’ve now been here in Tanzania from sprout to finish.

It’s been a process little altered over the years. It’s how they live; it’s how they make a satisfying life.

It is their agri-culture.