Sunday, August 25, 2013


I hate having that really depressing "readjustment is hard" post as the top post here, so I thought I'd throw out a quick life update and also a poem that one of my Tanzanian counterparts wrote for me as a going away present.

Quick life update: I'm getting a Master of Public Health degree at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, where I was lucky enough to receive a Paul D. Coverdell Peace Corps Fellowship. I'm studying Global Epidemiology. Classes start Wednesday and I'm super excited.

I'm also in the process of applying for part-time jobs at CDC. As I was looking through my Peace Corps stuff searching for inspiration for my resume and cover letter, I came across this poem from my going away party at the secondary school.

This poem was written by my counterpart, Mwalimu Sultan. He was one of few people who spoke English in my village, and one of my closest friends. I can only imagine how much effort went into this poem... it means so much to me. Enjoy, friends!

Mwalimu Sultan is on the left here, working on inventory for the library project with Mwalimu Zakaria.

Farewell Poem to Lauren Fink (PCV)
Today 15th June, 2012

The birds fly,
High in the sky,
It is already morning,
They enjoy sun rising.

I wake up and listen,
My body I straighten,
Suddenly a voice tells,
And high and high it goes.

To me it is telling,
And it is reminding,
That on this day,
I am going to say.

And it is forcing me to say,
And I ask, "Why should I say?"
It answers, "Because you will never see."
"What will I not see?"

It replies, "The Friend you used to see,
She is going to flee."
I can remember now,
It is Lauren who will go.

Lauren I will miss you,
The Headmistress too! O,
Even all teachers,
Including students and villagers.

You are very kind,
And we are going to mind,
Cause behind you leave us,
But no one will curse.

As you helped with heart,
And we say bye with heart,
For you were shining,
Like a star in the morning.

Now water we can harvest,
And books we can get,
You deserve this farewell,
To you our prayers tell.

With goodbye, all the best we wish you!!!

By: Mwalimu Yussuph Nassoro Sultan

My students also wrote me some poems and songs, but they were mostly in Swahili so I need to translate them before I can share. The student "rap" ended with this English gem that still worries me a bit: "Madam Lauren we love you baby."

Friday, February 8, 2013

what they don't tell you

What they don’t tell you about readjustment is that one day you will wake up and look at the things that were “normal” during your time in Peace Corps—malnourished kids that you came to view as annoying rather than heartbreaking, clinics without medicine and schools without books, women reciting the names of the babies they’ve buried, days spent watching the sky and knowing that if the rains don’t come, your friends might starve. 

What they don’t tell you about readjustment is that one day you will wake up, after you’ve been in America for a few months, after you’ve started to think like an American again… one day you will wake up and you will realize that the emotional calluses you formed in order to preserve your sanity have begun to heal.  With a raw heart, you will look back at the last two years and think about the things you thought were normal.

And it will hurt like hell. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Coming Home: Part 1

A few months ago, in a small Senegalese village, I was lying on the floor in a mud hut trying to avoid movement in order to minimize potential for heatstroke. Even at this remote corner of the world, accessible only by bicycle or foot, I was able to talk to my dad on a cell phone. As long as I didn’t sweat so much that the phone broke. In the course of this particular conversation I made a provocative leftist political comment, as I am wont to do, and in exasperation Dad responded, “I can’t wait until you come back home to the real world.”

An awkward pause later, my brain started to explode. With over half of the world’s population living on less than $2.50 a day, it’s obviously impossible to call West Bloomfield, Michigan—with a median family income of over $100,000 a year (as of 2007)—the “real world.” But then, it was my real world for the first 21 years of my life. So if Michigan is, in some way at least, my “real world,” but my Peace Corps life is the “real world” for the actual majority of people on this planet, then… whose reality…what’s really …what does it mean for a world or an experience to be “real” anyway?


And now here I am again. A week and a half ago I finally came home… to my former real world… to West Bloomfield, Michigan.  I’m currently stretched out in my queen size bed, listening to the whistling winds of the outskirts of Frankenstorm Sandy, still awake at 3am trying to wrap my head around what it means to be home. People keep asking me what the strangest part about being home is. I’m never quite sure how to respond. Sometimes I talk about the magic of flush toilets or the miracle of microwaves. Sometimes I mention hot showers, potable tap water, or the ease with which I can do suddenly do pretty much anything my heart desires.

That’s all part of it, of course. But there’s something deeper I’ve been struggling to explain and haven’t quite found the words. Maybe I can get it out here…  

Sometimes it’s like waking up in an alternate reality where I’m the only one who sees anything alternative about it. Other times it’s like stepping into a play halfway through, terrified that I don’t know my lines, only to realize that deep down in a part of me I didn’t even realize existed, I already know the script by heart.

I know it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that I’ll never forget how to be the person I was for the first twenty one years of my life, but its somehow mind-boggling to feel how, even after all I’ve been through, I can step right back into my old shoes—or rather my brand-new Ugg boots—and I’m back to being a plain old American again. Or at least I’m able to pass for one in public.

I keep expecting someone to read it in my face in line at Starbucks. To see it in my terrified expression as I flee Target after an aborted attempt at shopping. I keep fearing—or maybe hoping—that someone will call me out on my bullshit attempt to pass as a “real” American when up until a week ago I had never heard of Honey Boo Boo and I still don’t know the words to Call Me Maybe.  

And then sometimes, maybe even most of the time, everything feels totally normal. Which makes the switch to unnormal feel even crazier. The borderline moments, the real insanity, comes when I look at myself in the mirror, spick and span wearing fresh new clothes, and get the eerie feeling that I’m staring at an avatar of myself.  Who is this person and why does she look like she belongs here?

There’s so much more I want to tell you folks, but it’s late and I’m exhausted… and I also want to take a moment for a quick disclaimer. A lot of you have been following my blog because you like hearing about life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I don’t know where life’s about to take me, but for the foreseeable future this is going to turn into a blog about something very different from Peace Corps life. Along with my friends, the Zain calling plan, excessive amounts of yoga, running, reading, cooking and baking, Blogging kept me sane for the past two years. I don’t know why it can’t do the same as I take on the final and what many say is the hardest challenge of Peace Corps --  coming home. So, I guess what I’m saying is, after a long break during my travels (which I’ll try to come up with a re-cap of soon) I’m back if you’ll have me. And the glory of self-publishing on the internet is that I’m back even if you won’t have me.

Friday, July 27, 2012

peace-ing out

Happy Kikwa drags her mouse over the tab next to my name that says Active and changes it to Departed. Reason for leaving? the screen prompts. Happy clicks: Completion of Service. We cheer and high-five. And just like that, I have joined the ranks of the bold, the glorious, the wacky, the famous, and the utterly confused about the future… I am a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. I am Lauren Fink, RPCV Tanzania 2010-2012. (Nevermind that I won't be "returning" for another 4 months. Fancy titles don't have to make sense to be awesome.)

Tomorrow at 2:50pm, I’m boarding a plane to Dakar, Senegal. Waiting for me there is the boy I love, languages I don’t (yet?) know, friends I haven’t yet made, a new culture to explore, heat and humidity galore, and all the fish, peanuts, and French bread I can eat.

But today I'm thinking more about the things I leave behind. A country that has adopted me as one of its own. The poetic rattle of fast consonants, Swahili rolling off my tongue and weaving its way through my dreams. A two year old boy who calls me fiancĂ© and loves me with a tenderness and simplicity no adult could match. The regal village women who have taught me more than I learned in sixteen years of formal education, holding their heads high as they carry baskets and buckets and babies and the future of the village in their hearts and their laughs. 

And of course, a list of things I leave behind wouldn’t be complete without a list of the lost, the broken, the stolen—the things that have reunited with the great Tanzanian ether, or perhaps are being bartered over in a sketchy alley market in Arusha. Anyone who’s traveled with me knows that I have an almost impressive habit of leaving personal items like a trail of bread crumbs wherever I go, and I also seem to be a favorite target of pickpockets and thieves. Must be my winning smile. So, dear friends, let’s take a moment of silence to remember the wallet (stolen), two debit cards (stolen), three cell phones (stolen, left on a bus, took a swim), one iPod (stolen), one earring (stolen rather artfully out of my ear while I was wearing it), pajama pants (disappeared into thin air), two solar lanterns (broken, stolen), running shoes (left at a hotel), two flash-drives (disappeared into thin air), Teva sandals (left at a hotel), headlamp (broken), several boxes full of American goodies (lost in the mail), uncountable tee-shirts (forgotten on hotel laundry lines), bathing suit (somewhere in the vast Indian Ocean), khanga fabric (no idea where that one went), and of course, the awkward bag of underwear and bras (left on a bus for some lucky driver’s girlfriend to enjoy).

This list is probably incomplete, so let’s take an extra moment of silence in remembrance of all the things I’ve already forgotten.

Before you judge, remember that two years is a long time. Then go ahead and judge because it’s really kind of dumb.

Shame aside, listing it all out like that makes me smile because in retrospect, I don’t ever think about that stuff anymore. Like the Buddhist concept of nonattachment teaches, possessions are more of a burden than a blessing most of the time. With the exception of the cell phones and the debit cards, most of the crap I’ve lost or had stolen was stuff I didn’t even need to replace, at least not at much cost. Sure, my Tevas were neat, but a pair of $1 sandals made out of tires suit the purpose just fine, and they look cooler.  The same goes for 50 cent tee-shirts I bought at the local market to replace $20 American Apparel shirts. When it came time to leave my village, the pile of things I was giving away or leaving behind ended up being about 5 times as large as the bag of things I decided to keep. The Buddha would have been proud of how my possessions and I parted ways so peacefully.

Fellow PCV Tyler and I stayed up late the other night making lists of all the things we thought we “needed” before we spent two years living in rural Tanzanian villages. I was pretty sure I could live without electricity, but I thought I would die without music. Then my iPod was stolen. Turns out that a bus-ride spent humming to myself is almost as enjoyable as one spent listening to the Mountain Goats, if you have the right attitude. We laughed at the idea that we would ever need running water. Sure, running out of water completely—which is a common problem in the dry season—sucks legitimately, but when there’s a full bucket readily available, I never once thought, “Damn, I wish this were coming out of a tap instead of being scooped up in a cup.”

I do have needs, of course, though beyond food, water, and shelter they are exclusively immaterial. I need community. I need neighbors to eat with, laugh with, and cry with. I need challenges to rise to and a feeling of purpose. I need the freedom and the forgiveness to make mistakes and learn from them. I need to believe in the goodness of humanity. I need to be heard and I need to hear what others have to say. I need love. I need the support of my family. 

I once wrote that I will never stop being an American. I will never stop being a village girl, either. Not as long as I remember the joy of a hot pot of ugali dipped in sticky green mlenda, or the way the sun burns out slowly behind the mountain at the end of each long day. Not as long as I remember the grin on Hawa’s face when she shows off an impressive piece of schoolwork, or Husseini’s half-giggle of anticipation when he hears my voice at the door. Not as long as I remember the hours spent in silence with Mama Hawa, because we don't have to say what we know the other knows. 

As long as I remember these things, the beat of the collective village heart will beat inside me, keeping pace with my own and reminding me of all the incredible people who have made me who I am today. 

So, good friends, I guess this is goodbye. Thank you all for taking this journey with me, giving me a place to share my thoughts and be heard. I’m off to West Africa and whatever challenges and adventures it will bring. I’ll keep writing and might even start another blog, but this chapter is officially closed.

The End.

Lauren Fink
RPCV Tanzania '10-'12 

Saturday, June 30, 2012

beginning of the end

Thank you so, so much to everyone who donated to the Education for Liberation library project. Our fundraising efforts exceeded my wildest hopes and dreams. Because of your donations, the students of Endagaw will be able to study out of textbooks for the first time ever. It’s magical.

I guess I’ve been avoiding writing this month’s blog entry because I’m not ready to start talking about the end. There’s no denying it, I’ve hit the two years mark and I booked a one-way plane ticket to Dakar, the first stop on my upcoming West African adventure. On July 28th, I am leaving Tanzania for the foreseeable future. My last month as a Peace Corps Volunteer starts now.

How do I begin to describe what this feels like? I’m spinning in emotional circles. Sometimes I look back over the past two years and wonder what superhero has been living my life. More often, I feel like a fraud in a gaudy cape. I spend hours just thinking about all the things I could have done differently, better, more sustainably. Sometimes I look at villagers whose names I don’t even know and see best friends I could have made if I just gave them a chance. I look at problems in the village with experienced eyes and simple solutions suddenly come to me-- projects that will never be.  

I know it’s pointless to think that way. Of course I have regrets, but I’ll learn from them, and my life will be better for it. I’ve already seen that happen in this most recently library project. I really feel like I’m doing it right this time. It’s a good feeling.

My computer battery’s dying so I can’t write more, but I just wanted to drop a note so everyone knows I’m alive and busily putting your donations to work. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Hey, you! Donate to the Education for Liberation Library Project. Karmic Rewards Guaranteed!

For those who aren't in the reading-a-blog mood and just want to give money and go on with their days, here's the punchline:  

And now, a little blog post that will hopefully inspire you to donate:

The other day, my friend Kim mentioned that she had been born with a deformity that was fixed by wearing leg braces during the first 6 months of life. I was pretty surprised to hear that—Kim is one of the best and most passionate athletes I know, finishing half marathons in less than 1.30 and competing in Iron Man races for fun. She commented that she doesn’t know what kind of person she would be if she had grown up in Tanzania, where her easily fixed deformity would have turned her into a life-long cripple. She can't imagine an alternative life where she wouldn't have been able to become an athlete.

It’s similar to how I feel about my passion for books and learning. In a lot of ways, I define myself by my love of school and my ability to get so lost in a book that hours go by like seconds. Being “book smart” is part of who I am. As is the fact that I was able to attend one of the best colleges in America and succeed there. But like Kim, I was born with a deformity—actually, a couple—that would have made me an entirely different person if I were raised in a Tanzanian village. I have imperfect eyesight, corrected with glasses, and I was born with a lazy eye that was corrected with surgery when I was a child. I have also struggled with attention deficit disorder for my entire life.

Combined, these abnormalities would have doomed me in a bookless Tanzanian classroom. I wouldn’t be able to see the board, and even if I could, I probably wouldn’t be able to pay attention long enough to copy down the information carefully and properly. I’ve always been the kind of student who needs to study at my own pace, which might be faster or slower than a teacher’s lecture. I succeeded in school because I was able to study out of books. Without books, I am sure I would have failed. Here in the village, students are lucky if they get to consult a book once during their time in school. There are so few copies of the textbooks that students will often end up sharing one book for 15 students, or just listen to the teachers read aloud from the only copy.

When I look at my students here in the village, I see kids failing not because they are stupid but because their learning style isn’t catered to in a place where close attention to a teacher's lecture is the only learning option. But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if we could provide enough textbooks that even ADD kids with crappy eyesight had a fighting chance at success?

Get excited, because that’s exactly what we’re going to do. And you’re going to help me. Yes, you. Click on the link below to see my fundraising page for Tanzania Reads, an organization that helps struggling schools like mine purchase textbooks and create reading spaces. We have until June 10th to raise as much money as we possible can. The sky is the limit—the need here is that great.

Don't take my word for it, though. Here's a quote from two teachers at my school, Mr. Yusufu and Mr. Shirima about the importance of textbooks: 

“Teaching has become a difficult task due to lack of teaching and learning resources including textbooks ... our teaching methods do not address all of the students’ learning styles. Many students cannot learn at all without seeing words, vocabulary, diagrams etc.”

A lot of you have been reading this blog for the past two years and wondering what you can do to help. This is the only chance you’re going to get. I’m leaving the village in 2 months and I want to leave behind something more than just the memory of a hyper white girl who likes to talk bluntly about awkward topics. I want to leave behind something that will help kids like me reach their full potential.

So go click on that link and give as much as you can, then treat yourself to a big ole pat on the back. Every little bit counts.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

birth day

Yesterday I showed up at the clinic to weigh babies, as I do every Wednesday. This week, the nurse on duty had a special surprise for me: she asked if I wanted to help her deliver a baby. It was a morning of firsts—Mama's first time giving birth, my first time attending a birth, the baby’s first time venturing out of the womb. The nurse laughed at how excited I was. To a Tanzanian woman, the fact that I had made it to the ripe age of 23 without having witnessed a birth was kind of ridiculous. 

Staring into the terrifying mess between the soon-to-be-Mama’s thighs, I saw oozing gooey whiteness, chunky dark redness, and, lower down, dripping out of a smaller hole, mucus-y yellow-brownness with a distinct and unpleasant smell. I know I’m supposed to use positive adjectives to describe such a miraculous event, but my first thought was: gross.

Then everything changed. Hiding shyly behind this curtain of deeply human fluids, I glimpsed the tiniest hint of curly black hair. That detail, extraordinary and dizzying, turned the scene from disgusting to indescribably beautiful.

A brand new life. A tiny, helpless, wrinkled being in the process of discovering that his cozy little home—all he’d ever known—was merely the prelude to a grand and tragic symphony. As the soft walls that had held him in a tight embrace for the entirety of his being began to contract, pushing downwards and outwards, the little dude began to hear epic chords, the music of a world he didn’t realize he’d been preparing to enter ever since the moment, about nine months ago, when, through a serendipitous mix of timing and the idiocy of the young, sperm from a commitment phobic taxi driver met with and entered the egg of a pretty village girl with very dark skin, chubby cheeks, and deep black eyes. The girl, Amina, had run away to the big city to find a new life. And so she did, through not in the sense she had hoped. Now, back in the village, the new life Amina found in the city was ready to make his debut, and I was there to cheer him on.

The first thing I noticed after the nurse gently wiped away the blood and discharge was that Amina’s vagina seemed strangely one-dimensional. I saw what looked like two holes—the top one a few centimeters larger than the bottom one. The two holes were separated by an inch-and-a-half wide, half centimeter thick membrane. There was nothing else, just the holes. The baby’s head was now pushing against the membrane, stretching it and trying to rip it in two. The nurse tried to help the little dude get past this unnatural barrier. The membrane and the slit-like appearance of the woman's genitals is the result, the nurse explained, of a severe form of female circumcision that involves removal of the clitoris, inner and outer labia, and the sewing up of the remaining tissue. This form of female circumcision is fairly uncommon in Tanzania, and definitely against the law, but it continues to happen today, always in secret and usually to girls between ages 2 and 8. I fought the urge to go to the room next door where the woman’s mother was waiting and yell at her for letting her daughter go through that awful ritual however many years ago. The nurse seemed to think it more prudent to admonish the girl herself. 

“If you hadn’t been cut, the baby would have been born by now. Instead, it’s in distress and you’ve been in pain for almost 10 hours. If this baby is a girl, remember this moment when your mother tries to talk you into cutting her,” the matronly woman said with a disapproving scowl.

There was an awkward pause broken by another wave of contractions. More black hair came into view through the widening—but still not wide enough—top section of the woman’s unnaturally segmented vagina. The head floated into view. The area between Amina’s fleshy thighs began expanding outward, pushing… pushing… pushing… and then, suddenly, the baby’s head began to recede.

“I can’t do it,” Amina whispered as she collapsed back on the hard examination table. “I give up.”

“Not an option,” the nurse replied matter-of-factly. “Shut up and push.”

Unconvinced that this was a time for tough love, I moved to take the girl’s hand and tried to think of something encouraging to say.

“Your baby has a lot of hair,” I offered.  

Amina’s short laugh set another contraction in motion. As the baby’s hair slid back into view, Amina continued to whisper over and over again, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.”

I watched more and more hair slide into view and the head start squeezing into a cone-shape. The hint of a forehead peeked out uncertainly.

“You can, you can, you can,” I chanted in time with Amina’s protests.

“Shut up and push!” the nurse repeated sternly. I gave her a mean look and she grinned at me, then reached in with her hand to cup the awkwardly shaped head, twisting it like she was trying to unscrew a stubborn light bulb.

The unnatural membrane—leftover from a cruel needle stitching up a place that should never be stitched—began to stretch. Beads of blood appeared, much brighter red than the dark, chunky kind still oozing out from deep inside.

And then, suddenly, a face! A scrunchy, wrinkly, angry-looking face. Before I had time to fully register the bizarre sight of a squished head poking out between its mother’s thighs, the rest of the baby’s body flopped out and into the nurse’s practiced hands. I took a quick peek and informed Amina that she had given birth to a son. She smiled weakly. Three and a half kilograms of human being had suddenly joined the world, but something wasn’t right. The baby’s skin was rapidly turning yellow, chest and belly looking sickeningly deflated. I held my own breath as I waited, waited, and waited for the baby to inhale. He didn’t.

The nurse, unfazed by the infant’s terrifyingly lifeless presentation, worked quickly and quietly, placing the baby on Amina's chest, instructing her to hold him. Amina's lungs filled up with each breath as though she was trying to breathe for both herself and her baby. The nurse sucked out some yellowish goo from the baby’s mouth and nose and pumped gently against his chest. Tears began to spring to my eyes with the horrifying realization that the baby might be dead, and the nurse started blowing on his slack, yellow face. As she did this, she used both hands to tie off and cut the umbilical cord with a single graceful motion.

Suddenly, as though he had just remembered that he was supposed to breathe in order to survive, the little guy took the tiniest gulp of air and let out a strangled gasp. Tears of relief ran down my cheeks as the nurse kept up her regimen of blowing into his face and pumping his chest.

Once the baby seemed to have figured out the basics of survival in the world outside the womb, the nurse lifted the whimpering infant, wrapped him in a clean blue khanga, and placed him on a metal scale. His face turned from yellow to pink as she recorded his weight. Leaving the baby on the scale, she turned back to the mother to help remove the placenta.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the baby. Alone on the cold scale, he seemed impossibly small and helpless. He was breathing less deeply than he had been in his mother’s arms and the pinkness in his face was fading as quickly as it had appeared. I know absolutely nothing about newborns, but something told me he needed to be held. He had yet to open his eyes.  

“Can I pick him up?” I asked the nurse, both eager and terrified at the prospect that she’d say yes.

“Yes,” she said.

Carefully cupping his head, I lifted the baby boy and held him gently against my chest. I took a few deep breaths, hoping he would learn from my example. Color rushed back into his face and his big brown eyes shot open. He looked up at me and scrunched his nose as though he was trying to figure something out. Then he let out a loud, healthy cry.

“I’m here,” he announced in the ancient language of newborns.

“Karibu nymbani,” I replied. "Welcome home."