Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world! This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Tanzania.
Branden Ryan – Age 23
Where are you from?
I’m a military brat, but I call Georgia my most recent home!
What country and program do you serve in?
I currently serve as a Volunteer in Tanzania, working at a secondary school as a part of Tanzania’s education sector. Peace Corps Tanzania has four sectors: education, health, agriculture, and Global Health. Of the four, education is the largest, but we PCVs have a lot of overlap in the types of projects we do across sectors. Education Volunteers come to teach English, math, biology, chemistry, physics, ICT, or any combination of those subjects. Within our project framework of educating both students and teachers, we are required to do work with malaria awareness, HIV/AIDS, gender equality and women’s empowerment, or food security.
I came to Tanzania to teach English, but have ended up teaching math, physics, and ICT as my primary project. My secondary projects revolve around health-related issues, including youth health, reproductive health (particularly for females), and malaria work. Aside from that, I love introducing my students to art in order to expand their creativity, and I coach our school volleyball team, which recently won top prize at regional competition in May! I arrived in country in 2013, so my class of PCVs is starting to get ready to leave the country. I’ll begin working as a third-year extension volunteer in October, where I’ll relocate to Dar es Salaam and work in our office as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader under the Programming and Training unit.
What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
My site is nestled on top of the Rondo Plateau in the Lindi region of southern Tanzania. I’m a bit far from the main, paved road, which is about 45 km away and also where the closest Volunteer lives. However, my village is along the dirt road to the district capital, so I have a wide variety of transportation options available! My house is located on secondary school grounds. I have three rooms – a kitchen, a storage/laundry drying room, my bedroom, and a large living room. Behind my house I have an enclosed courtyard in which I have grown a small garden. Across the garden is my choo (toilet) and bath and a few other small, open storage rooms. I have electricity, though it goes out frequently during the rainy season. I have access to two popular cellular networks at my site and, with one, I can even get a decent internet connection. We don’t have water problems here like some other areas, but the water sources are a bit far from the school – about a kilometer away (half a mile). As of writing this, I have killed 38 rats in my house. And two scorpions. And three snakes.
In southern Tanzania, food availability is seasonal and variety is not abundant. Tomatoes and onions are available year-round, as are potatoes, but things like green peppers, carrots, and fruits are seasonal. Spaghetti and rice can be found in local shops, but more pricey items like milk powder, eggs, and other “imports” must be bought in Ruangwa, my district town, or in larger, regional capitals. I usually cook with charcoal and kerosene, though I do have electric burners and I’ve regularly cook with firewood as well. A lot of my food exploits can be found on my blog and I was featured in a Peace Corps cooking blog here. My main staples, though, are rice, beans, pasta, potatoes, and variations of tomato sauces and vegetables that I try to be creative in cooking! Tanzanians also eat these items, but the main Tanzanian staple is a stiff porridge called “ugali” which is cooked using boiling water and corn flour. Meats and fish are sometimes available, but since I do not have a fridge, I don’t have these things very often. If I want meat, I usually slaughter a chicken!
What are Tanzanians like?
When a guest comes to Tanzania, one of the first Kiswahili phrases he/she will hear will be “Karibu, Tanzania!” Karibu translates to welcome, and indeed, this word summarizes Tanzanian culture in general. Tanzanians are extremely open and welcoming as a whole; while walking down a path at evening time, it isn’t uncommon to be welcomed to share in dinner, “Karibu, chakula!”
Due to its history under Julius Nyerere, Tanzania has experienced the blurring of tribal lines, though tribes still very-much exist today, though the propagation of Kiswahili. Language has been a unifying force in Tanzania, so unlike many other African nations, it is linguistically uniform and relatively peaceful. Talking with people is an integral aspect of daily life: greetings are important socially and culturally. This sometimes means a typically American notion of work ethic takes second-fiddle to building relationships through greeting and talking with others.
Guest culture is also very important to Tanzania, and I personally think we PCVs hit the Peace Corps jackpot with our post. Because of places like the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, Mount Kilimanjaro, and Zanzibar, there is a strong tourism industry in Tanzania. There’s so much to do in see in our country of service that it is easy for PCVs to host their family members because it is easy to get to Tanzania and to see the sights. We’re able to share this culture of generosity with our families and friends. We’re able to show that happiness exists beyond material or financial success, that connections with others can be just as rewarding, and that a simple-yet-fulfilling life can be just as significant.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has PC service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
One of the best ways to approach Peace Corps service is with no expectations, and that’s how I’ve tried to approach my service. There have been a lot of difficult moments and hardships. Sometimes, navigating the bureaucracy of a system or dealing with inter-cultural issues can be frustrating. Sometimes, the failure of a project or a student can be tough to stomach. Sometimes, female PCVs have to deal with very high levels of verbal harassment. Sometimes, Asian-American Volunteers here have to deal with the perceptions of Chinese exploitation of Africa. Sometimes, the cravings for ice cream or a Chick-Fil-A sandwich consume all other thoughts. But there are so many things that I am thankful for and that have been rewarding.
Seeing the joy on students’ faces while doing fun art related projects, having the chance to exercise their creativity for once, enjoying a tiring session of volleyball practice, traveling with students to conferences and giving them chances to see new places, receiving a multitude of thank-yous for providing over 500 female students and community members re-usable sanitary pads and education of menstruation in partnership with Huru International, and sharing in the joy of a few students whose educations family and friends have agreed to sponsor have all been immensely rewarding.
The great thing about Tanzania is that it does not take a lot of establish meaningful relationships in the cultural context of the country. Greetings are extremely important and the majority of a walk through the village will involve greetings and telling stories to neighbors and friends. In the minds of Tanzanians, this is necessary and is a sign of a strong, healthy relationship. It is enough just to BE: be present, be engaged, and be open. Since my time in my village is wrapping up, I have had time to think about the merits of my service. I now understand that it is enough for me to have been told by students, fellow teachers, and villagers that they will never forget me or what I have done to try to help Tanzania; that is the ultimate reward in-and-of itself!
Why did you join Peace Corps?
Peace Corps has always been in the back of my mind as something I would love to do. Coming from a multi-racial family and living abroad for many years, I’ve always had worldly ambitions to travel and live abroad. Having studied International Affairs in college, the next logical step to get some working experience abroad while also engaging in a strong service ethic was Peace Corps. I applied during my senior year and came to Tanzania two months after graduating.
Though Peace Corps has been filled with ups and downs, I do not regret my decision to come whatsoever. So much so, in fact, that I am gearing up for a third extension year! I still have a strong desire to live abroad and to help both Tanzanians and Volunteers, so I am glad that I’m getting the opportunity to extend my time here in Tanzania.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
Peace Corps is a drop in the bucket in the context of the U.S.’s international aid budget, and even that is only 0.08% of the total national budget. To say that it isn’t worthwhile would be silly. Though our impacts as PCVs might be small, the importance in our work lies in relationships. We truly are ambassadors for peace, dispelling stereotypes or preconceptions that host country nationals have about Americans while extending a small sense of American goodwill to our countries of service. However, I’d say the most important aspect of Peace Corps is that it makes Volunteers better, more aware citizens themselves. RPCVs are able to go back to America and use their experiences for social engagement and work towards Third Goal activities to raise awareness of global issues in their communities back home. By using our first-hand experiences in our villages, we are change people’s ideas of the developing world. Increasing internet connectivity across the globe is helping Volunteers show how we live at our posts and the issues people in our countries face on a day-to-day basis.
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
Trust your guts, but not your farts! But in all seriousness, if you are applying for Peace Corps, do it! The application process has been simplified now. You have to evaluate whether or not it is a good time in your life to embark on a 27 month journey of self-discovery, but it is worth it. There is a saying in Kiswahili, “Maisha ni safari ya milima na mabonde,” which translates to, “Life is a journey of mountains and valleys.” This is very true of Peace Corps – it will be filled with ups and lows, good times and bad times, but ultimately, PCVs return having learned a lot about themselves and the world. If you are getting ready for staging, I would say congratulations! After working with several classes of Trainees during their Pre-Service Trainings here in Tanzania, I am constantly reminded that PST is an amazing time of service filled with tons of learning, even though the schedule is packed and it can be mentally overwhelming. Go in with open eyes, open ears, and an open mind!
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
I’ve put this question off a bit with my extension, but possibilities include graduate school, taking the Foreign Service Officer Test, or continuing work while abroad. I haven’t narrowed anything down and am open to any new opportunities. Right after my Close-of-Service (COS), I’ll probably do some traveling in South East Asia to my dad’s native Malaysia.
Want to read more about Branden’s service in Tanzania? Check out his blog!