Scrambled Links

IMG_1234This month of May finds counseling cases go up and up. Some students at UDOM (University of Dodoma)  are feeling the ramifications of national student loans that have not yet arrived even though there are only 6 weeks left for the semester and the academic year. Those who had money have shared a bulk of it in personal loans and are now also suffering until others can pay them back. There’s a growing tension as cafeterias sit half empty.

Graduating students are starting to feel the pressure of life after school with no jobs, no student loans. Essentially, the reality of the poverty they somewhat escaped for a few years is all too real as they peek around the corner. Despair increases.

Those graduating students are also now crunched between trying to attend seminars on ‘how to start a business, write a business plan, apply for funding’ and dealing with ever mounting final papers and mid-term tests. People are scrambling and losing overall focus.

Others  plan to get married because there is strong, strong pressure to do so after completing higher education (average age of 24). Some are caught between family expectations and personal desires. Some are trying desperately to go on to higher education but know that they cannot find the funds to do so. Wedding invites are starting to pop up everywhere.

Some are reaching for an escape plan. Anything IMG_1187to give them an alternative to going back to the village with nothing in their pocket and no job. The extensive families and in some cases, the whole village is preparing for the return of their hero, believing that the one in the family/village to have achieved a university degree will now improve life for everyone. Shame is growing.

A chronic and acute shortage of teachers means that “Extreme Courses” abound at this time. In some colleges, such as Health Sciences that may mean 2 weeks of daily 8 hour classes followed by an exam. In Social Sciences that may mean 3 weeks of daily lectures finishing just before regular exams. Mental fatigue is noticeable where ever students sit.

Some are in shock realizing that 6 weeks before graduation they have never really made any plans for July and beyond.

Some IMG_1277are in choirs and choirs are busy trying to complete video shoots for DVD’s, a booming business in Dodoma with many institutions of higher learning and all the accompanying music. The impact of days of shooting on academics is yet to be seen.

I do not pretend to know what it is like to live in the world these students have. I work very hard not to judge the situation. However, I am aware that my own Protestant Work Ethic and my ability to plan and organize given goals and dreams (all of which have a dark side to them as well), these make me see links that tie these glimpses together.

The key link, I have come to see, comes from growing up in deep poverty. That level of poverty that my immigrant parents knew of briefly, but I do not. That level of poverty which makes life fragile and largely undependable. Life is only today. Tomorrow belongs to God. True. A very good perspective for a person like me to adopt with more authenticity.

But what happens to a young child, a teen, a young adult where first day baby mortality is 10th highest in the world? Where 33% of the children under the age of 5 die of malaria? Where 8,000 mothers die every year giving birth? Where 37% of the rural population is under the povertyIMG_1293 line and 33% nationally ($1.00 per day= 1,600Tsh;  in Dodoma where I live, 1 kg of stewing beef costs 5,500Tsh, 1 mango in season costs 500Tsh, a kilo of carrots costs 1,500Tsh). Death and hunger are constant companions of the moments of life in a way that I cannot begin to absorb.

The impact? Students largely live for today. There is a persuasive attitude that the future is not worth looking at with much seriousness for it is useless to expect or even hope for much. Furthermore, life continues to teach them that try as you want, there are no future certainties. Even a university degree becomes widely useless, especially for UDOM graduates. The business world is becoming familiar with the educational outcomes from a lack of teachers and of practical training. Whispers of blacklisting UDOM students in hiring processes are heard every once in awhile.  So why dream anything into reality? So why plan? If today you have an opportunity to be happy by thinking or doing something, be it/do it!  Let God take care of tomorrow.

This deep poveIMG_0999rty also links to the fundamental human need to make meaning in life and find a purpose to one’s life. In poverty,  life is so fragile it is beyond belief to a person such as I. But the reality of the global empire adds another layer to this link. I believe that our global empire creates a reality where fundamental human value lies only in its potential for productivity in the mechanism of making wealth. Those is deep poverty, those without a job, those who cannot contribute to the economic welfare of the country, those people have no value. It is meaningless to the system should one of them die. In an ironic twist, their death may give them more value than their life – in death they are just one less burden to society, which improves the ability of others to be units of production.

Though the students do not have the language or knowledge to explain the darkness that creeps within them, those few who have the courage to examine that darkness ask me questions like “Why does my life not seem to matter like your life?” “Why did God want me to be born into such a poor family?” “Why do you people not care if half my family dies?”  “Why do the students my age in Canada seem to be so successful and we here in Tanzania fail?” “What have we done wrong that life should be like this?” “Is God punishing us?”

As a Chaplain, how do I hold these links in my head and heart?  Can I with all my white, western privilege make any informed comment that can touch their searching for a reality that means something for their lives, of their lives? What does it help to know the psychological impacts of deep poverty? I do not live it and so therefore my words come from theory and not reality. There is a deep and very wide schism between my students and I.  Yet, with a few brave ones, I have been given the privilege of seeing a glimpse or two of hearts that bleed and have hope trying to crowd out the hardened places within, minds that wrestle with the desire to hope in their own abilities to shape a future, and a will power to survive and be happy like I have never witnessed before.

I have grown to respect and value these students to a degree that I know not what to do with it. I, in turn, simply ask God to give me opportunitIMG_1177ies to open my eyes more to their world which is, after all, our world. The differences may scream out loudly in my life in Tanzania,  but the sound of the pain rising from the individuals that form the masses of people in poverty, that sound can resonate loudly in the universe if we choose to listen. That’s why the God we Christians claim to worship, hears what many of us cannot or will not and why our God always stands first with the ones like my students. I do not feel threatened by that reality. It gives me a purpose in my life.

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Reflections in the water

Hello again my friends. I honour your patience. I will try again to share my life and thoughts.

My meditation this morning raised a question…If I got the chance to ask Jesus for one thing knowing that it would be given, what would I ask for?

 “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” John 16:24 (NIV)

Yesterday I sat at the pool that I have found just outside the main urban area of Dodoma.  It is a Roman Catholic Conference Centre with a lovely pool for swimming laps. Most afternoons when I am there during the week, I am alone in this pool. It has become my place of frequent regeneration. Yesterday was an exception.  Many young mothers with many, many children ranging from 8 months to maybe 12 had gathered by the water under the hot African sun. These were white people, and judging from accents, perhaps from England.  (There are many international private schools in Dodoma which hire people from other countries to teach.)

Put water and children together and as many Canadians would expect , there was lots of laughter, splashing and jumping into the pool.  I got about half of my laps done when I concluded that I was the one likely to be injured when one of these children did a cannonball into the water on top of my head! So I got out and decided to just relax in the sun before going up to the University for the evening.

As I watched these children I came to see the toys that accompanied them…water guns, floaters, rubber duckies, various balls, remote control cars zooming around the perimeter….so many toys and so much quarrelling over who got to play with which toy when.  I also noticed in the far corner of the pool, 3 young boys, local children most likely, who just stayed by the ladder and watched all this “play”.  Before I knew it, tears rolled down my face. First because all these 15 or so children with many, many toys did not seem to notice or think to invite others to join them in the universal action of play; nor did their mothers.   Secondly, I looked at all these plastic toys in the pool area and suddenly recalled watching the children in the villages and in Dodoma playing with sticks and discarded water bottles, sometimes some rags wrapped as a ball and sometimes simply making shapes  in the dirt outside their humble homes. I also could see the endless parade of children with their yellow 5 litre jugs walking to find water in dry creek beds or at the university campus water tap.

The crash of worlds so visible in these children brought me to tears.  The privilege of being white, the privilege of being born into western culture, the privilege of being born into certain economic classes, the privilege of schooling, the privilege of accessibility to health care….these stood on one side.  On the other side were my students at UDOM and their lives since their birth in the 18th poorest country in the world.  Parents die of AIDS, grandmothers raise them in abject poverty, if at all.  In times of food scarcity, a handful of rice, maybe beans, or a banana is available to eat for the day; chai (tea) a staple for growling stomachs.  Going to school they face a massive teacher shortage and even less textbooks, with no “google” opportunities to teach themselves.  Fighting for every opportunity to learn and finding so few, only about 25% attain the opportunity to go to university. Fewer go because student loans are not able to provide all costs and families focus on primary and secondary education for other siblings.  Siblings die of malaria, typhoid, and tuberculosis. Unemployment makes health care access impossible for many…it goes on.

Children at the pool squabble over toys and children in the village fight for survival.  I am part of the cultural reality of the first group yet I have been given the privilege of listening to and seeing the cultural reality of the second group. Tears are an appropriate first response.  But tears are not sufficient, especially for anyone who dares to state that they try to follow Jesus with all their heart. The challenge is clear. How am I to recover sight from my blindness and how am I to see my poverty of spirit, heart and mind in such a way that it compels and equips me to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to all, including myself? (see Luke 4: 18)

Maybe my request to Jesus today is to see and engage life through His eyes.  May we all be blessed with that my friends.

IMG_1473This picture was taken in Mwanza which is a city on the south shore of Lake Victoria. These are my students who accompanied me to the wedding of the General Secretary of the Chaplains’ Council in October 2012.  I thirsted for the opportunity to walk along a lake; they came along.


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A Story

One morning a student came to me, a leader in the USCF-Chaplaincy.  Otoman broke into tears. Totally unexpected, I listened to the breaking of silence, a silence which had held immense burdens. Like others, this student was reeling under the pain of hunger.  He spoke of the sacrifices that his mother had made to make sure he could go to school as a young child, how she encouraged him. Like all those students who have been given a unique chance at higher education, this student knew that the outcomes of his rare opportunity was to be shared… he needed to help take care of the academic fees for his younger brother…he needed to remember that his whole community was expecting great benefit for having raised this child to be smart enough to have a university education. He spoke of their expectations, normal expectations of family and neighbours who live dependent on each other in the face of cruel poverty and uncertainty. He spoke of the love and gratitude he had for them all and his desire to share whatever good fortunes might come from his university degree.

Except there is a 3 fold problem looming which is creating great despair – first, a significantly growing unemployment rate for youth, currently at 11.7 % puts pressure on students to develop their own entrepreneurial options for employment because there is little available through the government anymore. Tanzania remains the 18th poorest country in the world.

Secondly, there is a mismatch between skills and job prospects because the World Bank and the Global Empire are shifting the long-term focus of the Tanzanian Government from the health and education sectors to resource development and agriculture.

Thirdly, there is an underlying panic that grows with more and more evidence that the University administration is pushing down the GPA’s (grades) to make sure that only 2/3 of the students will graduate in this changing employment picture. The impact of this artificially lowered GPA leaves the students at a gross disadvantage in competing for already reduced jobs.

I could only hold a hand and be there as this leader collapsed with a sense of hopelessness in the face of his reality and the looming shame it will bring him in the context of his family and village who need so much from him upon graduation. Yet, Otoman’s belief in God’s hand in all of his life did not waver. I sat and witnessed a deep struggle to remember each and every moment when the seemingly impossible happened in his life to move him one step closer to being a student at UDOM. The endless sacrifices of a mother. The challenges of sharing 1 textbook between 80 classmates in secondary school. The frustrations of having teachers come on the weekends, leaving students to teach themselves from the textbook.

I witnessed a young man recall the hand of God in each of these impossibilities, knowing that God had transformed the circumstances, God had given life to the impossible, God’s work was ongoing, in him and in each student. The struggles of the students on campus are deep but their hope is even deeper because their relationships with God are deep, personal and living. These young adults continue to smile, continue to encourage each other, continue to share whatever meager item they have, continue to lift their voices in prayer to God, continue to sing and dance their praises every night together as one people of God, rejoicing always at the real blessings they have received.

These students teach me much about faith lived in hope.

I am humbled by what I see on campus. I question how much longer will I struggle in the smallness of my abundant life before I let go to know the largeness of life in hope where each person is cast in the new light of the grace of Jesus Christ….it matters not if we can understand fully – it matters only that we choose to pour out our love to one another as the Creator, as Jesus and as the Spirit have done for us. 

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One of Life’s Joy Filled Events

Like in Canada, weddings have changed here in Tanzania over this last generation. I know in my previous context of officiating weddings in southern Ontario, I have seen the growing popularity of wedding planners with their choreographed events before, during and after ceremonies and celebrations.  I have seen bridal party attire and wedding cake designs taken up a notch or two since the 1980’s when I got married.  These days, grooms-to-be seem to be trying to outdo each other with spectacular or exotic ways to propose …rings hidden in a special box prearranged on the bottom of a pool where scuba diving lessons will be had by the potential couple; or having planes write the proposal in coloured smoke above a sports venue.  Things are different as varied cultures, media and affluence continue to mix within society.

Here in Tanzania, so I am told, that the same is true.  Western influences are mixing with traditional culture to create an interesting flow of events. I had one such experience from which I can share.

One day in the office, I received an invitation to a “send-off” party.  It was hoped that by accepting this invitation, I would give a certain amount for the bride’s family to be able to host this “send-off” event. As I retell this story, keep in mind that I am sharing now with the benefit of many discussions and explanations before, during and after this event.  As the experience was actually unfolding however, I was totally confused as seems to be my perpetual state of mind in this cross-cultural journey.

I received this pretty note asking for the contribution for the ‘Send-Off Party’.  The reason I was being asked was that the bride-to-be was the sister of Tukista, my helper in the home here in Dodoma. So the first question to my colleague was “how much should I be thinking of contributing that would seem appropriate for me?”  Second question was, “What’s a “send-off” party?

Local customs for a very long time dictated a village wide event for the bride’s family to celebrate the pending marriage.  This event allowed the bride-to-be the opportunity to say good-bye to family and friends over several days.  The celebration lasted a long time for people would have travelled to the village from great distances and by foot.  Near the end of the celebration, the groom’s family would arrive and after certain ritual events, the bride-to-be would be ‘sent off’ with the groom’s family to their village.  I was told that certainly many generations ago, that “send-off” could literally mean that the bride-to-be and her family may never see each other again if the two families lived significantly apart.

Once the bride-to-be leaves her village, she now belongs to her new family and wedding preparations are made by the groom’s family.  Today, the concepts of the bride as property seem to be less obvious among the 20 year olds. However, the “bride price” still seems to be a reality that the young man must face before any wedding arrangements are made. (I watched a graduating student struggle in the midst of his poverty to come up with the bride price for the woman he wished to marry..educated women demand a higher price.)  The feminists around me would claim that this notion of women as property is still culturally existent and embedded in the male psyche generally.

The evening “send-off” party event was fast approaching.  I had no concept of what that would look like, what attire would be proper, what gift would be appropriate. I was coached on the things to do and Tukista helped me choose what was the best option from my limited wardrobe (you don’t learn about “send-off” party clothing requirements at one’s cross-cultural orientation sessions!)  I was comforted in knowing that all the staff at CCT  (Christian Council of Tanzania) were going to be there along with their significant others. Part of me was nervous, another part looking forward to my  first casual event with co-workers.

The big evening arrived.  Though the venue was quite close, it was dark when it was time to leave the house. I choose to take a taxi for the 10 min. drive to “African Dreams” Conference Centre.  The first thing to notice was a gathering of women on the steps of the Centre playing native drums and singing and dancing.  Men would join in from the sidelines for the dancing. I looked inside the hall and saw this splendid room.  Thinking I was in the wrong place,  I looked around and had a slight panic – no familiar faces!  How was I to know if I was even at the right place with the right people and little Kiswahili to communicate with!!  When in doubt, head to the corner and pull out one’s camera!!  That’s what I did until the moment I saw Lillian, Tukista’s daughter – she looked spectacular – don’t you agree?

After taking some pictures of her, she took my hand and led me inside to the other people from CCT – lots of people to hold this muzungu’s hand and steady her nerves!  The evening festivities moved from the traditional singing and drumming and dancing to the entrance of the bridal party minus the men. All looking like they stepped out of a fashion magazine.  I hardly recognized the usually smiling, casual Tukista who graces my home! (she is on the right)

As I listened to the increasing excitement outside, I looked around this conference room amazed at the space.  My concept of “send-off” party was shattered — chandeliers, wedding cake, camera and video set-up, white tables and covered chairs….everything I had come to know as the elements of the wedding in my context, and a fancy wedding at that! I was confused.  When people asked why, I realized that somehow in my mind I was thinking this would be a fancy shower because the gifts were mostly household items like dish towels, blankets, toaster and so forth. The African Dreams Conference venue was not the ‘shower’ environment I was expecting.

As the women danced their way to the front of the venue, the camera men set into furious action and closeups beamed onto the screens set up in the large room.  As the bridal party settled in, the groom-to-be and his parents were escorted to a side table to watch the festivities. At some point after all the introductions, the CCT staff were nudging me to stand up and join them in a dance to the front. Terror strikes again! What dance?  How? Can someone please make the power go out?!  Putting on the brave front that I have had to perfect, I joined the long line of CCT staff as they danced their gifts to the front and greeted the hosts and the bridal party. We muzungus (white people)  just don’t have much rhythm compared to our sisters and brothers in Tanzania!! I stand out in a crowd to begin with – oh what a long time to dance our gift to the front!!  And oh, such relief to sit at the back once again where life looked much safer from under the table (just the ego was under the table:))

Once all the presents were danced forward and presented, speeches made and the groom’s family introduced,  it was time for a delicious buffet of local food including cooked bananas and pilau with beef and chicken and vegetables and ugali and so forth.  I enjoyed the meal and the company and relaxed into the event itself.  My table companions began to explain all these customs that I was seeing and the adaptations of them for this younger generation.  They shared stories of their own weddings in the villages and it seemed at some points, that they were just amazed at some of the ways in which weddings were unfolding in their culture.  Like often it seems, change brings mixed blessings.  Some things really are the same in this big, complex world.

I hope you enjoy the pictures and my story of a “send-off” party in Dodoma!

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