All of November we have been working hard on setting up a library in the village of Tungamalenga. We found a small room in the village office that we decided to rent for our library. I was a little doubtful at first when I saw what bad shape the room was in. It smelled strongly of bat (and possibly human) feces, the paint was faded and chipped, there were cobwebs and insects everywhere, and large chunks of the walls were just missing. But we put a lot of work into fixing the place up and it’s really starting to come together. We spent the last few weeks scrubbing everything down, building bookshelves and benches, painting, making blackboards, making signs, decorating, and taking inventory of the books.
From the first day we started work, our library drew a crowd. I wish I could say that everyone just couldn’t wait to get their hands on a book…but I think they were mostly just curious to watch some white people attempt to build bookshelves. But when people saw the piles of books we had stacked up outside, they really were interested in them. Word spread among the villagers that everyone is allowed to come read books for free at the “mzungu” place. People of all ages stop by, but so far our main customers are kids. At least 15 or 20 kids come a day. Some stay just long enough to see what we are up to. But many stay for hours. They sit out on the patio and read while we work inside. They usually start out reading our small supply of Swahili language books and when their reading attention span wears down they move on to looking at the pictures in the English picture books. Once we get the library up and running, we are hoping to help teach the kids to actually read the English books.
One day last week we were painting the bookshelves and benches with green oil paint out on the patio of the library when a large group of kids came up. Despite putting up a huge warning sign that said “Rangi Mbichi” (“Wet Paint”) and telling them multiple times not to touch anything we were painting, I’m pretty sure every kid that was there that day left with incriminating green on their hands, feet, or clothes. And now there will forever be tiny green fingerprints and footprints all over the patio.
Although the library is miniscule by American standards (we only have two bookshelves, neither of which is full), there is nothing else like it in Tungamalenga or any of the other villages here. Even the concept of a library is foreign to nearly everyone. Because secondary school is a luxury that very few people here can afford, formal education stops at about 7th grade for most people. Books are also a luxury that few people can afford. I hope that the library will give people of all ages the opportunity to continue educating themselves. In addition to giving community members access to books, the library will also provide other opportunities. We have crayons, markers, colored pencils, and coloring books that anyone can use at the library…yet another luxury that few people can afford. We also have word games, math flashcards, maps from all over the world, and photos of animals found in this region. In the future we are hoping to also provide computers and internet access in the library. We also want to start holding workshops and classes there.
We are nearly done getting the library all set up. The next important task is to find a librarian. Since we are only in Tungamalenga half the time and we have so many other projects going on, we are looking to hire a local community member to actually run the library for us. The librarian hunt begins tomorrow…
When I initially read the Wildlife Connection volunteer orientation packet and, particularly, the waiver form, I was almost overcome with fear about my impending trip. The forms mention seeing snakes and even a crocodile or two! How would I possibly manage to avoid these creatures that – at least in my imagination – would be waiting for me around every turn? Would I ever be comfortable in the place that was to be my home for almost three months? Or would I always be scared and waiting for the next creepy, crawling creature to appear? But even though I was afraid, my desire to see Africa – and most importantly, elephants – and to contribute in some small way to their conservation far outweighed my fear.
So I set out for Iringa and beyond. Within the first week of my arrival in Tanzania, all my fears dissipated. Living here is not at all as I had expected, and there have been many times when I have been pleasantly surprised. Sure, sometimes we see a baby snake or a mysterious looking bug, but it has been wonderful to spend almost all of my time outside and to be so connected with the environment around me. For example, on days when we have a few hours of downtime, I often head out for a walk. Seeing Tanzania by foot is a treat. In addition to taking in the beautiful scenery, I often share friendly greetings with Tanzanians as they go about their days. When the other volunteers and myself walk through the villages, many of the children run out to greet us, waving their arms frantically, huge smiles on their little faces. No matter where you are, Tanzania and its people always make you feel welcome.
At our camp in Pawaga, sunrise walks are almost as peaceful as those at sunset. The clouds are painted in striking colors, and because it is the rainy season, I have seen a handful of beautiful rainbows. And while the days are hot, the river that runs right by camp is a perfect way to cool off as well as a great place to play frisbee. My absolute favorite part about spending most of my time outside is the night. Since I come from a large city, it is very difficult to see more than a dozen stars at night. But the first time I walked out into the night in Tanzania and looked up to a clear sky, I caught my breath. Hundreds, if not thousands, of stars light up the sky each night. And there are many nights when all the volunteers eat and laugh under the stars.
For me, Tanzania has changed from an intimidating land of unknown creatures to a place full of beautiful surprises. I feel lucky everyday to be able to see so many new things and to be able to spend so much of my time connected to and learning about the environment around me. Although new places can be daunting at first, my experience so far has taught me a lot, not only about the environment of the Southern Highlands in Tanzania, but about myself. And I know that once I return home, every time I look up at the sky at night, I will miss my time here.
I watched the sun rise over the African bush today. It started as a pink band and began to overtake the dark night sky. Acacias in silhouette dotted the landscape. We rattled along in a beat up land rover bouncing over the dirt roads and kicking up dust in our path. We arrived in the village of Kisanga in the early morning light. 10 villagers clambered into the car with greetings of “habari ya asabuihi!” (good morning). Then we headed for Ruaha National Park.
After rattling along the roads for a few more hours we arrived at the park entrance. It’s the dry season which means the ground is sunbaked and the trees are bare, except for a few acacias. This setting is prime for wildlife viewing. We stopped at a bridge next to the Great Ruaha River for breakfast and watched hippos and crocodiles as we ate bread and tea. The villagers were very excited to watch the snorting hippos and so was I. As we drove through the park we passed a few other cars. I realized that we were the only car of Tanzanians on safari. I was happy to be in the park with Tanzanians and to share this experience with them.
The animals were all clustered around the few remaining water sources in the park. You could see herd a elephants, giraffes, buffalo, impala and zebra all at once. We watched giraffe grazing on high acacias, saw zebras plodding along, and spotted ostriches running through the grass. The animals didn’t even seem to notice the car and carried along with their business in front of us. The villagers were excited to use the cameras to take pictures of the animals as well as themselves. They helped me to learn the Swahili names of the animals like twiga (giraffe), tembo (elephant), and kiboko (hippopotamus). One of the highlights of the trip was watching an elephant browse an acacia. He would stand up on his hind legs, grab the branch with his trunk, and pull the branch away from the tree until it snapped off. Every time a branch snapped off the whole car would burst out laughing.
In addition to the destructive elephants the lions were also a highlight. All of the lions we saw were lazing around in the shade with full bellies. These ferocious beasts didn’t look very intimidating while they were sleeping. They looked more like house cats. As soon as they opened their mouths and exposed their teeth we remembered why they are called the kings of the savanna. The villagers were most excited to see the lions. I think this is because they are the ultimate symbol of the wild.
I felt like I was in an episode of planet earth and was in complete awe of what I witnessed, but the most rewarding part of the trip wasn’t watching the amazing animals. It was watching the villagers as they watched the animals.