Cue the Queen: I Want to Ride my Bicycle

One of our daily joys (or nuisances, depending on the day) is biking. Our house is situated a smidgeon outside of Mlandizi, so even if we aren’t biking to the villages, we usually have to head to town to pick up veg at the market. We have come a long way from that first day the whole team headed out on our fleet of cruisers. They’ve picked up names along the way: Pink Lady, Ricky Ross, Cash Money, Red Rocket, Fromage (aka: Cheese), Cyclisme, and Greased Lightning (or the Bright White Sports Car…it’s a working name).

Raphia Red Rocket
Raphia Red Rocket

We came to Tanzania with ample warning of the potholes, sand patches, pikipiki’s jetting by uncomfortably close, and the ominous Mwanabwito hill. While mentally prepared for what was ahead, our physical skills took time to catch up. The first ride was accompanied by a string of curses as we rattled along the roads. The team has had only a few minor spills and as our confidence increases, we are able to enjoy our daily rides and the entertainment that follows suit.

My favourite bike experience came yesterday, on our third day of bed net sales. Myself, our translator Issa, and Margaret (a member of MEC, a local CBO that will be taking the reigns of bed net sales) were stationed in Kidai. Lunch was had in Mwanabwito, a 10-minute bike ride away. I was on my own, as Issa was fasting for Ramadan and Margaret had to pop into town. After a hearty meal of fish, at least 3 cups of rice, and mchicha I was set to bike back to Mwanabwito. We toyed with different options for getting lunch to Margaret, all relatively unviable: Stella packing it in a bucket and riding side-saddle on a my bike; putting it in a plastic bag (none were to be found); riding one hand on the handle bars, one hand with lunch (not public health).

The handy man’s secret weapon held the answer and we opted for duct taping it to the rattrap on the back of the bike. Some met the idea with hesitation, but I watched Red Green as a child and had faith that, if fastened securely, Margaret would receive her lunch in one piece. How wrong I was.


The road to Kidai was a lovely route: smooth dirt roads, relatively few sand patches, and small dips you can coast along. A few weeks ago, they took advantage of a bout of rain and tore up the road leaving a jagged, rocky, and sandy road in its place. The perfect route to bounce along with a tinfoil container full of rice taped to your bike.

I don’t blame the roads. I don’t even blame my reckless biking. I blame a flimsy lid compromised by a banana. Had it been a cardboard lid rather than a piece of shoddy tinfoil, the banana wouldn’t have entered into the equation.

Our presence while walking or biking through the villages is widely exclaimed by children and adults alike. “Hi” “How are you?” “What’s my name?” or “Mzunugu!” follow us everywhere. Cruising along I noticed two things: I was getting a significant amount of particulates in my shoe and what they were yelling at me wasn’t our customary greeting. After a few bouts of responding “Poah!” to confused looks and my curiosity regarding the particularly sticky dirt in my shoe growing, I looked back to see rice and mchicha spraying out of the doggy bag strapped to my bike. The lumps and bumps had cause the banana to indent the structurally unsound lid, letting the contents squeak out the sides. It was in the wheel well, the spokes, and the chain. The backs of my legs were covered in tomato sauce. I’m not even sure I want to know what happened to the fish.

Morally opposed to ditching the package on the side of the road I had to keep on keepin’ on, hoping

Kuku in Town
Kuku in Town

Margaret wasn’t there when I got back. Fortunately she was still gone and Issa engrossed by other work. I subtly tried to pull the container off the back of my bike while some children sat nearby, perplexed by my actions. The duct taped proved that it was an effective means of fusing the container to the bike, despite being void of it’s former contents. I opted to scrunch it up and pretend nothing happened.

Then the chickens came. Chicken’s run around about pretty willy-nilly. A bike covered in rice, tomato sauce, and veg gave the chicken’s purpose. They flocked to my bike, sitting on the pedals, rattrap, and seat. It’s very had to play it cool that there isn’t anything going on with your bike when it’s become a feeding frenzy for rogue birds. Needless to say, my cover was blown.

Melkiory get’s phone calls when we do stupid things. I can only imagine this one: “The silly mzungu was riding through the village, spraying rice higgledy-piggledy about. There was rice everywhere you hear me, EVERYWHERE! And you know what she had to say for herself? ‘Poah!’ ”.

Project Food Security

It is high time for a post about what many of you lovely souls donated time, money, or a listening ear to support.

Our projects focus on several different health topics. In the winter, each team member picked which projects they wished to focus on. We have 2-3 projects each and are expected to advise/rally when the call to arms comes in from other team members. I’ll provide some insights (or at the very least, information) on the variety of projects over the coming weeks, starting with those that I am focusing on.

First up: Food Security—a topic rather dear to my heart.

Food security exists when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life. The concept of food security is defined as including both physical and economic access to food that meets people’s dietary needs as well as their food preferences. Food security is a complex sustainable development issue that affects health, economic development, the environment, and trade.

In 2013-2014, a community assessment determined that over 90% of the community experienced some form of food insecurity (based on a metric set out by the Canadian government). Despite high rates, community members did not see food insecurity as a primary concern. A number of speculations could explain why, including: habituation to malnutrition, not understanding the connection between malnutrition and health, impact being extended over the lifecourse, other health concerns taking priority, and misunderstanding between getting enough calories and proper nutrition (among others).

Last year, the opportunity arose to include farmers in a workshop on sustainable agriculture that was being held for another one of our partners. Sustainable agriculture is an important component of food sovereignty, which includes both the right to food and access to resources such as land, water, seeds, and biodiversity, as well as having a voice in the food economy. This concept ultimately affects the food security of a community.

The 2015 team has been tasked with taking an evaluatory approach, examining the implementation and appropriateness of our projects. Our first few weeks were spent conducting a context analysis. We held focus groups with farmers and met with the local Agriculture Extension Officer (AEO) to gain an understanding of the needs and concerns of both community members and government. Partially, our analysis revealed that farmers greatest concerns were regarding market access, resources, and lack of governmental assistance (essentially that the AEO wasn’t doing his job). The AEO implied we should give farmers tractors.

Ultimately, our analysis determined that the needs of the community were beyond the scope of 7 university students, none with a background in agriculture. It is challenging to let go. To accept the realization that despite best efforts, you will not be able to address community needs. However, the process of health promotion is not cut and dry. We may poke fun at the adages “start where the people are” and “empower from within” but they ring true. We cannot ensure that Kikongo and Mwanabwito become food sovereign but we can work with farmers to connect them to resources that will ultimately impact food security.

Over the coming weeks, we will be putting the pressure on the AEO to connect with organizations that provide mentorship and training in the areas farmers identified as priority. We hope that involving farmers and government in the conversation will increase accountability for assistance and application on both sides. While it wasn’t what I expected it to be, this project is shaping up to be a good experience of taking a back-seat approach to a health issue.

Riddle Me This: What Do Toast, Knees, and Hot Water Have in Common?

I like to think I’m fairly adaptable: I spent a summer living in a van; have moved to cities without an established roof to call home; bucket showers and squat toilets are not strangers to me. Generally speaking, I reckon I’m decent at taking new situations in stride. Culture shock has never been something I felt strongly impacted by. Based off accounts from friends, I anticipated culture shock would come into play on this adventure. Where it manifested, however, has surprised me.

It was neither the infrastructure, the facilities, nor the food. The burning piles of rubbish (and the holes, in which you could see land built up over multiple layers of plastics) were concerning. But where things really hit was in Zanzibar.Beach

I’ll save the history lesson for another post, but Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania. The white sand beaches and turquoise waters deem it ‘paradise’ in many a person’s book. We took a trip to the archipelago last weekend for some well-earned R&R.

Conservative dress is key in Tanzania, as there is a significant Muslim population— ladies, this means keepin’ those knees covered! At home (in Mlandizi), we joke that the knees are the breasts of the leg. When you catch glimpse of a knobby knee peaking out when someone zooms past on a pikipiki (moto), it’s scandalous. Despite being ~99% Muslim, Zanzibar has a bit more leeway with bare knees, primarily due to the high tourist population. Unless a formal situation, we would rarely bat an eye at a bare leg in Canada. Affronted by thigh, we encountered a reverse culture shock, of sorts, remarking on the floozies striding past in their shorts and sundresses.

Respecting local customs should be on everyone’s radar when afraid from home (or you risk getting detained in Malaysia for your antics being the cause of an earthquake, and some Saskatchewan folks already took care of that for me). Needless to say, our team still has very pale legs.

IMG_4788 IMG_4846

A second oddity was water-based. Not due to complications with access or treatment (important note: we treat all our water), the oddity was temperature: our hostels had hot showers. We reveled the final hot shower in Lushoto before coming to Mlandizi but the temperature there was much cooler. When I typically think of cold showers I think of frigid, hose water bucket baths at the Farm in Northern Sask. Cold showers in Mlandizi are a different story. The water is warmed slightly by the sun and, when coupled with well-timed shower following a 12km bike ride in 30-degree heat, is fantastically refreshing. Showering in Paje began as a cool shower until the boiler kicked in. Soon I was bailing out of a hot stream trying to figure out what in the Sam Hill was wrong with the shower. After many a ball tournament in equal heat/red dirt/sweat, I always averted cold showers. While I wouldn’t say I’m a cold-water convert, there’s a time, a place, and an acceptable temperature level.

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 11.03.50 AM IMG_4862

Finally, the last thing isn’t so much about culture shock as it is an appreciation for things we take for granted. In this case, it’s about toast. I’m a firm believer that things are better toasted. Properly toasted. None of that warmed and dried out bread some toasters try to pawn off as toast. Bread itself is something of a novelty. Gummy loaves of white bread or sweet buns can be found in the village (and consumed, in haste, before mold sets in) but a hearty whole-wheat loaf is unheard of (not surprising). Chapati (unleavened flat bread) for brekkie is how we take our bread. It’s tasty, but it’s not toast.

To my delight, our hostel in Stone Town gave us toast! It was white bread but toasted (and mold free, unlike the gummy white bread at the YMCA in Dar). Better still – the Paje hostel gave us homemade bread and provided a toaster so we could choose the degree of toasty good-ness. I’ve never been so stoked on toast in my life (as much as I’m talking this up, I eat toast maybe once a week).

No matter how adaptable you may be, your perceptions and what you deem “the norm” is influenced by what you are exposed to. Small things like bare knees, hot water, and toast make you realize how much people really are products of their environment. It’s a reminder to think about what is going on around you; to appreciate the small things; and to be considerate (but also question) things you may not understand.

Life along the Road to Kikongo

Road to Mwanabwito
Road to Mwanabwito

The last entry concludes pre-travels leading up to my eleven-week stint in Mlandizi. Despite a few eventful journeys, the whole team made it to Dar es Salaam relatively unscathed. After errands, our chariot (a rented bus decked out with photos of the rapper Rick Ross) took us to our lovely new abode. Our house is situated a few km outside of the Mlandizi town centre.

Our first week was spent in introductions – orienting ourselves to town, finding our way to the villages, and meeting with village leaders and local government to ensure we had their blessings to carry on our projects.A typical day is one in which you must be prepared for plans to change. Two weeks in and I remain perplexed by the systems in which plans are set. Meetings are organized by our in-country representative (ICR), who seems to have a wealth of connections (or knows a guy, who knows the guy). He often asks us for the day we want to schedule a meeting then proceeds to make it happen. On the flip side, short notice for “planned” meetings being cancelled also happens, folks are late, or just don’t show up. It keeps us on our toes, for certain!

Our cozy home (we only live in the back portion)
Our cozy home (we only live in the back portion)

We are surrounded by a cacophony of sounds. Mornings are marked by a banging of the gates as Mama Arnoldi arrives to make breakfast (occasionally forgetting her key or rousing my housemates at 5:30am to mop), the neighbours fiddling with the radio (did you know, max is the only acceptable volume level to make an informed decision about what channel you want to listen to? Once that’s decided, you’re free to turn it down), and roosters crooning.


There is no solitude outside of the house, if that is what you’re looking for. Nearly every passerby has something to say, whether it be a simple “hello”, “what’s my name?” (seemingly, “my” and “your” are mixed up), or yelling “mzungu” (both a term that roughly translates to “white person” and an Aussie rules footballer. The former makes more sense to yell at the herd of white people on bicycles).

While it can be overwhelming (especially while struggling through the sandy portions on the last leg of a 12km bike ride and someone on a moto slows beside you to yell pedal harder) we are made to feel most welcome in the community. We have a lovely home, complete with an army of bugs/lizards, and the most wonderful and supportive team members and partners.

Mango Tree and (sometimes) Pile of Flaming Garbage
Mango Tree and (sometimes) Pile of Flaming Garbage

I am very grateful to have the opportunity to put my Public Health education to practice and to work with individuals that are passionate about population health. It’s been a slow-go of this whole blog thing but now that we’re settled and in the thick of it all, I will be able to provide more insight as our projects unfold and life on the road to Kikongo.


All of the Gluten

Having been in Mlandizi for over two weeks, insight into our daily life/work is called for. But tonight, I’ve got jam on the brain so I’m going to re-live our week in Lushoto.

24 hours in Dar had proved sufficient and we headed North to the Usambara mountains. The Usamabaras are one of the Conservation International’s World Biodiversity Hotspots!! That is, it is recognized as an area with an exceptional diversity of species. The area is chalk full of wide vistas, winding paths, and picturesque villages.

Usambara Mountains
Usambara Mountains

Lushoto (formerly Wilhelmstal) is one of eight districts of Tanga Region. During the Germancolonial period (1890-1918), the area was popular with settlers. Large farms and plantations were created, one of which being Irente Biod iversity Reserve, where we took our lodgings. Irente Farm was an experimental coffee estate in the late 1800s – the aim was to test coffee as a crop; the idea was abandoned due to soil infertility. The Germans lost the colony to the Brits in 1918 and the farm was passed off to a Greek farmer until the 1960s when it was sold to the Luthern Church. Years of different managers have developed the infrastructure of the area. The area houses three institutions: the Irente School for the Blind, Irente Children’s Home, and Rainbow School. Irente has found a niche in nature-based tourism, food processing, biodiversity protection, and farming. I would add “feeding guests” and “story-telling” into the mix.

The landscape was gorgeous: the reserve was tucked into the greenery of the mountains (1450m above sea level), surrounded by palms and bordered by eucalyptus trees. We hiked through villages and stumbled upon magnificent views, as clouds lifted to reveal layers of rocky cliffs. Hornbills andblue monkeys traipsed about in trees; lizards and slugs clung to the walls of our room (or in our shoes); and a creature that could only have been a dinosaur called to us from far off. In the mornings, you could listen to village children singing and playing drums on their way to school.

As magical as all that sounds, the food and the company really took the cake. Ute, Richard, and the staff ensure you are full up with a hardy breakfast of homemade bread (either rye or Weizenbrot), jams (we were usually given plum or loquat but on our final morning they gave us a smorgasburg of

Klaus (aka: Fluffy)
Klaus (aka: Fluffy)

variety: passion fruit, raspberry, mulberry, and ‘chill loquat’ with chili pepper and spelling err), tomatoes and cucumbers that shame anything grown in Canada, cheeses (a herbed soft cheese and Tilsit, both made on site – we also were able to visit the cheesery!), fresh milk, and occasionally yogurt and crunchy museli (made on site, of course).

Afternoons were spent meandering along pathways, reading, or writing. It’s cool up in them there hills, and when the temperature dropped we would head into the farmhouse to sit by the fire and play cards or cuddle with Klaus (his real name was ‘Fluffy’ but Klaus seemed more appropriate). Dinners were three courses (likely the best food I’ve ever eaten, sorry Mom) and accompanied by entertaining conversation. Ute and Richard are a product of German efficiency yet molded by 20+ years of living in various African countries. Despite their frustration with systemic organization and the speed at which things get done here, neither have any desire to return to Germany.

Cozy fireplace
Cozy fireplace

On the third night, we were joined by another set of characters. Manou, a French Canadian with every sassy and stereotypical characteristic you attribute with Quebec and Julia, who held her own with her cheeky travel mate. Both women were hilarious and had amazing stories. Coincidentally, Julie had a MPH and was working on her PhD. Manou dropped everything in her life in Montreal, seven years prior, to start a non-profit for tortured children from the ground up. The organization blossomed and she was on her way back to Canada for new ventures. Together, our hosts and new friends taught us Swahili slang we’ve since been told to forget and a few lessons:

  • It’s all an illusion
  • Pole sana for this decade
  • If you can’t put jam on it, it’s not worth eating

DAR 101: Intro to Dar es Salaam

An entry visa is required to enter Tanzania. Upon arrival at the airport, you hand over your passport, visa application, and 50 USD. Fingerprints and photos are taken and your passport is handed off to a group of employees milling about in a room with half glass walls. You are then instructed to “go stand over there”. There appears to be no concrete system of organization as travelers flutter about in a group, trying to understand what the folks behind the glass are doing (while those behind the glass flutter about, trying to look busy with the passports of the watchers on the other side of the glass). The benefit of flying in at 3 a.m. is that this process goes relatively quickly.

The flip side is that you’re in Dar es Salaam at 3 a.m. It is unadvisable to traipse about Dar at night at the best of times, let alone with your worldly possessions. With a smooth talking security guard (I presume, he was speaking Swahili so for all I know he was talking smack about us) can rouse the security guard at the YMCA to let the three “mzungu’s” with the big bags in. Reception doesn’t open until 6 a.m. however, so we spent our first night camped out on wooden chairs, swatting mosquitoes, eating crackers and cream cheese (compliments of Turkish Air), and being squawked at by an obnoxious cat.

A solid nap later and I was roused by a knock on the door. Not yet awake, I struggled to comprehend why Jacqueline wasn’t in the room with us, where she had acquired a backpack, and why she strongly resembled Jamie. Turns out, it was Jamie! She had come early! We had a quick meeting with her and Melkiory, our In-Country Representative, before heading out to try to exchange some money and get some lunch. A shifty man outside the Bureau de Change attempted slight of hand (after a convincing act of legitimately exchanging money) but Jamie was too quick for him and we avoided a scam.

After a bajaj ride (some sort of three wheeled motorcycle contraption, we sandwiched five people onto – myself going halfsies with the driver in the front), an encounter with chickens, and making friends with a man chowing down on corn we had bus tickets in hand for the town of Lushoto, in the Usambara mountains.

Later, Dar – you’re a silly place.

I’d Have Obeyed the White Witch Too, Edmund

The long flight from YXE to DAR called for a stopover somewhere in Europe. Turkey beckoned and we answered her call. One week, split between Istanbul and Cappadocia.

Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) is a busy and beautiful place—an amalgamation of East and West. Littered with architectural triumphs, which manifest as imperial mosques, palaces, and towers, Istanbul has one of the most recognizable skylines. The locals had an endless supply of hospitality, good-humour, and insightful conversation (this took awhile to get used to but we soon learned that while they may also want us to come into their shop, Turkish people “help from the heart”, as one of our new friends told us).

The city is a history nerds dream: over centuries the city has attracted many marauding armies each that left a unique imprint on the city. Greeks, Persians, Roman, Venetians, and Ottomans took turns ruling Istanbul. The city was also the end of the Silk Route, linking Asia and Europe. This diversity is reflected in a myriad of culture, architecture and cuisine.

We stayed at the Orient Hostel (lovely and helpful employees, clean rooms, and good location) in Sultanahmet. The neighbourhood is a showcase of the city’s glorious past, crammed full of mosques, palaces, churches, and houses dating from the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods.

THE Blue Mosque
THE Blue Mosque

A few full days were spent “mosque-paeding” about, visiting the tombs of Aya Sofya (and returning a few days later to see the actual Christian church, turned Mosque, turned museum that explained why people kept telling us it cost 30TL), checking off the Blue, Suleymaniye, Fatih, and Sultan Ahmed Mosques, and Topkapi Palace. The Blue Mosque became the “Spanish Steps” of Istanbul – in true wandering fashion, we weren’t quite sure of our location, in relation to our hostel. So every blue-ish Mosque was potentially the Blue Mosque. We succumbed to asking the volunteers indirect questions, hoping to deduce our location without appearing oblivious. Doing so, we learned that a UNESCO World Heritage Site’s criteria is vaguely defined as “outstanding universal value” – thanks UNESCO, your signs really cleared that up.

We ventured to the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, where no pockets were picked and no gaudy jewelry was purchased from shops emitting gold and silver auras from their windows.

New Art, Old City
New Art, Old City

I admit, the Grand Bazaar was much more modern than had been expected. I half expected stalls constructed with wood and fabric, run by men with monkeys dawning a fez and a vest. I blame Disney’s Aladdin and accept it as a totally unwarranted assumption.

What struck me the most about Istanbul were the people. From helping with directions (even if they were “Go 300m that way and ask again) and using a transport card (that was donated by a hostel staff for the day) to exchanging money when euros were accidentally paid instead of lira, everyone seemed incredibly willing to help, even if it wasn’t needed (and no, they didn’t ask for money, either). Folks in the street, buses, parks, and restaurants would come over to chat and give us their opinions on what we should see in the city.

To escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a few days, we ventured out to Göreme in Cappadocia. Our pension (Anatolia Cave) was, as the name hints, built into a cave!! Cappadocia has an incredible landscape shaped by volcanic eruptions, erosion, and man. From 1800 B.C., rival empires drove Göreme inhabitants underground. For the Hittites to the Christians, the honeycombed underground cities were sites of religious refuge. Carvings and frescoes span the caves, eight stories deep.


Our host was able to get some excellent deals on tours, while one “Rule of Thumb” I follow is to be wary of tours, taking advantage of his services paid off. One evening, we saw traditional Turkish dancing: the Whirling Dervishes, folk dances, and a belly dancer that could move body parts I’m not convinced I have. They fed us a plethora of food and tried to teach us to shake and shimmy, yet the old mates showed us up big time. We took part of the spectacle that is watching the sunrise from a hot air balloon. Viewing the rocky landscapes, shaped with cones, pillars, pinnacles, mushrooms, and chimneys from overhead, especially paired with 150 other balloons sky bound. The Aussie gals were spot on: if you have the chance, seize it.

Not Quite, Tatooine
Not Quite, Tatooine

Later in the day, we traipsed about on the Green Tour – taking us through Derinkuyu Underground City, Ihlara Valley, Selime Monastery, and a town considered as location for Tatooine (sorry Star Wars fans, it lost out to Tunsia).

I went in knowing very little, associating the country with Fez hats and Turkish Delight (which in turn, I associated with the dork Edmund from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe). I left with a plan to go back and a few important lessons learned: Turkish Delight is actually fantastic (provided it’s the fresh, not pre-packaged stuff) and that my future as a belly dancer is quite grim.