Sunday, June 27, 2010



Starting tomorrow I go on my 2 week vacation.  For many volunteers, the ENTIRE TWO YEARS is like an extended vacation, doing work half-time or quarter-time, taking really long breaks, traveling every possible damn corner of Tanzania. 

What a life!  Well, for me, it's a bit different.  I'm doing doing volunteer service instead of my mandatory military service, so I have a zillion restrictions.  One of them is that I am not permitted to exit my "work place" without a holiday or work-related-trip, much like a soldier in a barrack.  What the hell, I work at the school, and it's 200m away from my house.  I'm supposed to not leave a 200m radius?  How am I supposed to go buy food?

Oh, don't worry, the KOICA has been generous enough to expand the definition of the "work place" to the Mtwara region.  Well, thanks because Newala and Masasi are really must-see places, and they are really related to my job here.

Well, it's still a vacation.  So good bye for now.

Friday, June 25, 2010

National Identity.... and Soccer!

It's the World Cup season!  But the games are lackluster, and the French team is knocked out so that drama is over.  I wish they actually had qualified for the second round so that their implosion could implode again.

With the World Cup all about country vs. country, the question of national identity has attacked my life again.  Earlier, North Korea lost to Portugal by 7-0, and I received so many condolences.  So I had to tell them one by one that I'm from South, and kill the conversation.  And then they tell me how happy I must be that South Korea qualified.  A bit, but not so much.  It was just mildly pleasant. 

Having lived in so many places in my life, I have no national identity.  I was actually interviewed about this in my college newspaper.  Being glad about the attention I got, I sent my parents a copy, only for them to give me a worrying phone call. Here's the in-house-controversial article: 

Anyways, back to national identity and soccer, I've just read an article that shows how it's quite of a jungle.  It lists all these players who must have confused national identities.  Two thirds of the Swiss team are second-generation immigrants.  Four years ago, the Kalou brothers were about to play each other in different national teams, until Saloman's Dutch citizenship request was denied.  But to no avail, only four years later, the Boateng brothers have achieved it.  Just when the world thought, what an anomaly, it only took one more tournament for it to happen.  One of my favorite example is Owen Hargreaves, who was born in Canada, rose to fame in Germany, but plays for England because of parental heritage.

This globalization of soccer is multiplied by a ridiculous amount when we consider club football.  The money, sponsors, owners, viewers, not enough English players in England, Tanzanians fighting over who's going to win the top four, etc.  And now, globalization is deeply embedded in the sphere of national soccer teams, who are often the symbol of national pride.  It seems that Luis Figo complaining that the Brazilian born Deco was in the Portugese side, or Harry Redknapp vehemently opposing the chance of Manuel Almunia in the English national squad is anachronistic and absurd.

Being who I am, without a clear national identity, this is one of the most exciting part about the rather boring 2010 World Cup: finding out who is the product of globalization.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Familiarity is a very important concept for a volunteer.  It sometimes feels as if an overseas volunteer is abruptly placed at one of the most unnatural settings in the world.  They are separated from their normal lives, including: family, friends, casual acquaintances, etc., and are placed where they know no one, and no very little about local customs nor language.

But as time passes by most manage, and most get accustomed to their lives.  They make new relations.  Looking back, the key concept of this rather mystical process of escaping the unnatural setting is familiarity.  At first, nothing is familiar.  The people and the places are all novel and rather strange.  But as time passes, things begin to be more familiar.  The onion seller at the market, the fruit stand on the road, Dubai restaurant after Sunday church, teaching routine, the office tea, the neighbors; the list goes on.  Thus, in the process of the unfamiliar becoming familiar, a volunteer begins to feel the unnatural turn natural.  Familiarity is perhaps the most important concept for a volunteer.

Okay whatever, picture time.

The entire school staff minus three or four, plus three student government representatives.  This was taken during Kyungbok's farewell party, a rather interesting event indeed.  The above staff take care of 750 students.  Or more precisely, the above staff have a hard time taking care of 750 students

This is Dubai, the most popular restaurant among the Korean volunteers, and the weekly gathering place after church.  Quick service, friendly, cheap price, and decent quality makes this place the "Best Restaurant of Mtwara 2010."  It probably has retained the title since 1991, and will continue to do so until 2037, when Armageddon comes.

Inside Dubai.  I often talk about how it would be interesting to open a Dubai in Korea, or wherever.  The business will definitely tank, but the imagination of it thriving is a rather fun thought.

A highlight location for those touring Mtwara.  The Msemo / Southern Cross Hotel is the most luxurious place in Mtwara, offering meals that cost up to..... $10!! What a rip off!  The hotel and its restaurant does boast a remarkable beach view, along with high quality painting and sculpture shop.  It's also the only place to see Masai (a.k.a. cow thieves) in Mtwara.

My wonderful neighbor.  Oh my neighbors.  My neighborhood is rather dysfunctional.  All the fathers are poor fathers, most of them neglecting family duties, asking for divorces, going out without letting their families know, and in one extreme case, wife-beating!  Mr. Ninje is one of the milder cases, who has an angelic glow when he talks about how he buys meat for his three boys, or how they love to hear his stories (I've seen this in action, him sitting on a stool with the two older boys being absorbed in his stories, rather remarkable sight of father-sons relationship).  But to be honest, he's just another irresponsible Tanzanian father.  The mom is an angel too, being a wonderful neighbor.  And the boys are just so cute.  The first born, Lama, is pretty much a second mom.  He does all the chores, and even cooked for the family, including his dad, while his mom was away for a month.  The second, Ashlaf, is just like his dad, playful and cute.  And the last one, Daufiki, is the baby of the neighborhood.  Two months ago he could barely stand, but now he walks up to the stove and picks up the charcoal to eat it.  My favorite neighbors, but unfortunately, they'll be moving out soon, as their house will be occupied by the next Japanese volunteer.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Doing good

The thought that I am doing a good deed here is a powerful motivation.  To come here as someone totally different from the local population, and to serve them with whatever I have is something that makes me proud to be here.  The idea of “doing good” keeps me intact and to a certain degree sane, and the primacy of this thought is even multiplied when my friends and family express their pride in me, or even envy of what I do.

So what is this good thing that I do?  Well, in government documents, academic books, and economic theory, I am here to raise math literacy here.  There is a shortage of quantity and quality of mathematics teachers in Tanzania, and thus, I have been chosen to fill this gap.  On every single KOICA document I sign, I am labeled as a Math Educator.  In the eyes of politicians / economists, I am improving human capital by teaching math, and one day, they may show the development of Tanzania by transforming themselves into dollars and digits in certain statistical measurements.  Yet, if my doing good is evaluated in the language of the government, politicians, and economists, they might as well haven’t sent me at all.  As I grade my students' terminal exam, I am shocked at how miserably failing I am doing in terms for the language I have just mentioned.  It is rare that I see a student with a double digit score, with 100 being the maximum.  The students are simply in the same disgusting level as they were when I first came.  I have always thought and was confident in that I could improve some of these scores.  I didn't think it would be too hard.  I even had the arrogance to have a small "Dead Poet's Society" or "Stand Up and Deliver" moment.  I even made my students recite "a negative times a negative is positive," hoping that one day, one of them would come late to class, see the word “calculus” written on the board, and ask "what is this? Calcooloos?"

In the midst of this extremely depressing thought, I try to remind myself of what my friend Erica told me (as I have mentioned it before in this blog).  And to really butcher her words and paraphrase her a lot, I do think that the extent of the good that I do here is neither measurable nor observable.  Although some of the interactions that I have with my students may be just trivial daily matters, with me being both foreign and well, good-intended, I have a hunch that some of these interactions may mean more than they seem to be.  And if this hunch is true, there are very few ways that I can actually see and observe what I achieve, and thus the only thing I can do is hope that it is true.  Of course, all this thought, in the eyes of certain cynics, is level with sheer imagination.  And in their fairness, I have nothing concrete to substantiate my claims.  Yet, I cling on to them, because without them, I would feel miserable, desperate, and depressed. 
And thus to conclude, I am a hopeless romantic, clinging on to the belief that I am doing good here.  To confess, this joins the ranks with my other important personal convictions: the good, global citizenship, love, and Michael Jackson.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


I was in presence of a grand defeat today. 

Francisco John – a stellar student, well-behaved, class monitor, and most of all, friendly – was finishing up his exam and on his way out.  Madam Mambo – an interesting figure, rarely enters class to teach, flamboyant, and noticeably in love with enforcing discipline – was going to various classes to cut the hairs of students that were too long.  This is in fact a rather odd disciplinary rule, since all Tanzanians have woolly hair, meaning that they get natural afros, and that their hairs are rarely 1cm away from their scalp.  Just as the two met at the door, a tussle began.  Mambo, using her large body and equally loud voice, told him to sit so that she could cut his hair.  He, in response, tried to sweet talk his way, although his hands were in great motion to deter the attacking scissors of Mambo.  The tussle intensified, and it was as if a malicious knight and a noble peasant were in a clash that would eventually be the village’s legendary gossip.  But to no avail, Francisco succumbed to the mighty force of discipline and the giant asymmetry of teacher-student relation, and did as he was told.  As ordered, he knelt with one knee on the ground, but he also had his head bowed, his right hand holding on to a table, and his left covering his eyes.  It wasn’t so obvious at first but eventually it was clear that he was crying, but in such silence that he seemed more like a statue titled: the crying man.  The smell of his defeat spread throughout the class, and the students were in awe of this great battle that was eventually lost by their village man.  Mambo left the classroom, and Francisco remained a statue despite the condolences from his fellows who narrowly escaped Mambo only because Francisco was an unlucky sacrifice.

I let all this happen because the work of discipline does not belong to me.  I have neither the skills nor the will.  While I believe it is not my right to intervene, I wish that Mambo had just let him go and just teach all the damn classes she’s supposed to.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Kids at Saba Saba are real kind souls.  They have low grades and low expectations on life, but most are angels.  On one of my first weeks, Yasin constantly skipped my class.  In fact, he skipped many many classes. In response to his claim that he wants to be a police officer, I asked a rhetorical question: do you think the head of the police is a dumb shit?  His change in attitude since then has been rather impressive.

Yesterday, I was about to proctor an exam, but once the students were seated, four didn't have seats.  It turns out they were the perennial skippers, and thus, had no chair nor table.  Bartazaly, unfortunately, had to join these students because Francesca only had a table, and Bartazaly only had a chair, and I asked him to be a gentleman and offer Francesca the chair.  As I was trying to figure out what to do with the seatless students, I eventually asked the help of Madam Mambo.  She is a keen enforcer of discipline, and manages to whip the students with vigor that comes from her rather large body and despite the flashy, lacy, tailor made dresses she wears.  She saw these students, and scolded them for being terrible students, and told them to take the exam on the floor.  A rather simple solution, I thought, but Bartazaly was obviously upset for being wrongfully accused, and all of this happened because of Mr. Kim who speaks like a five year old!  Bartazaly eventually got his chair back and the exam commenced.  I felt bad for Bartazaly, so I went over to him, fixed his collar, and gave him a pat on the back and a little squeeze on the shoulder just to feel a little less guilty.  As I was walking away, he called me, and handed me my small bag that holds a my blackboard eraser and a couple of chalks.

I was a bit upset that he stole my stuff, but was more shocked at the promptness of its return.  Bartazaly is a good egg.