St. Agnes Monastery

St. Agnes Monastery
Benedictine Sisters of St. Agnes | photo found at

Give to the Max!

Hello Everyone.

November 16th is Give to the Max Day in Minnesota.  This is a great opportunity for you to support the work we are doing and our program the Benedictine Women’s Service Corp.  Any donations made today will help the programs in both Tanzania and Puerto Rico where four graduates of the College of St. Benedict are working to bring justice to their host communities through education and building sustainable relationships.  Thank you for all the support we have received thus far. Please stay tuned for more blog posts!  Here is the link to donate:

Nature Walks

When I think of me being a kid, something I’ll claim to always be, my mind leads me to memories of outdoor adventures across southern Idaho and central Minnesota. Chels and I would play Tom and Huck or Pocahontas for hours and tell my dad, “Don’t worry. If we get lost and have to ‘live off the land’ for awhile, we’ve got it covered.” I am pretty impressed by the confidence in survival ability we had at such a young age! However, as we got older and make-believe adventures weren’t so amusing, we began to take our “nature walks”. Now, nature “walk” has a wide meaning. “Walk”, of course, means to walk but it can also include modes like hiking, biking, or driving as long as your main agenda is to get outside to be in nature and create your own adventure. So nature walks with my mom are usually less-strenuous, scenic strolls that double as dendrology lessons and end with a picnic. Now nature walks with my dad, on the other hand, are more of an adventure challenge usually beginning with us trekking up mountains—packs full of Cliff bars—and ending with us humbly admitting that we underestimated yet another hike. Both are wonderful just the same and one of the things I miss most from home. So last week I decided to incorporate a nature walk into one of our English classes. Lately the girls have been working on personal projects—writing letters, stories, poems, or plays. Some had finished early so Mag and I decided to split the class into two—those who were finished and those who needed more time to work. While Mag helped the ones in class, I took a group of nine girls outside on our nature walk.

I quickly gave up my rank as “leader” and let the girls navigate through the grounds of the school, gardens, farms, and fruit trees. To practice English, I had them narrate as we walked. We all learned a lot that day! I learned about the farm animals, the plants they grow, the things they cook (i.e. How to make ugali!), the traditional games they play, and my absolute favorite: the different fruit trees they grow. I sampled mangos, suku, buni, and avocados. The mangos were the best, although they weren’t ripe, and I let the girls know that they are one of my favorite fruits. After this bit of information, they made it their principle objective to find me the ripest mango they could. I’ll try to explain their fruit-picking strategy:

First, you must find a mango tree. Easy enough, there are mango trees all around the school. Then, search the ground underneath the tree for stones. Collect the biggest ones you can find and put them into your pocket. After everyone has enough ammunition, you line up around the tree and start haphazardly chucking your stones into the air with hopes of hitting a mango on the head or rattling the branches they cling to. As an extra challenge you have to dodge the falling rocks that the girls on the opposite side have sent up. The goal is to hit the ripest mangos… or in my case any at all… to make them fall from the tree. My first attempt was awkward. I threw my stone straight up into the air and missed the entire tree. The girls thought it was the funniest thing they had seen all day and laughed and laughed. Of course, I took it in stride and tried again (I had to redeem myself). On the second try I hit the branches but no mangos fell. I think finally by the fifth throw I was successful. One tiny, absolutely bitter mango fell! Everyone cheered. We continued until everyone had enough mangos to satisfy them for the rest of the walk.

Although this nature walk was short, for me it was full of adventure. I felt like I was little again and in a make believe story about living off the land—this time in the African bush. For the girls it was maybe just another day of picking mangos. They shared a part of their everyday life with me, something they wouldn’t necessarily classify as adventurous or even interesting. However, I think when you share something like this with a visitor and can see their excitement and interest in the experience, it gives you a sense of pride and enjoyment as well. It turns ordinary walks into adventures that you can enjoy together.

A few of my favorite things

[6:00 p.m.]
Maggie and I have gotten into a routine of watering our “bit of earth” every day around 6:00 p.m. It is a surreal time of the day because the liveliness that normally distinguishes Chipole during the daytime slows. I definitely enjoy walking around Chipole with all of the activity—interacting with anyone and everyone I meet—but the stillness and solitude of 6:00 p.m. are what I need to refresh my spirit. It feels almost deserted so Mag and I act like we have the whole place to ourselves. We pull up our skirts, play with the goats, and sometimes peak into the places we aren’t really supposed to be. But the biggest refresher of them all comes around 6:28 p.m. these days. From any high spot we have front row seats to the African sunset each night. Sometimes contemplative Maggie asks solid “life questions” and we watch it set while we try to untangle our thoughts. But more often we just watch it set in silence. I think it’s because it takes our breath away.

For the past three weeks St. Agnes has had a visitor, Benedict, from Dar es Salaam here helping the sisters revitalize their choir. His main focus? Drums. Throughout the day (and night actually), Benedictdrills the sisters on different beats and doesn’t rest until they are mastered. The “meeting room”, which is just across the courtyard from my bedroom, now doubles as the “music room”. So I am sitting here at my desk while listening to the newest beats which seem to be getting more and more advanced. Have I mentioned the constant singing? My room is conveniently positioned between the chapel and, thanks to Benedict’s arrival, new courtyard band. The combination of the two means there is either a constant hum in the background or a good sized concert outside my window throughout the day and night. Sometimes they are still going at 11:00 p.m. It is one of my favorite things that I now find it strange when there is NO music playing. Today Benedict has some extra time. After lunch, I am going to get my first lesson in drumming!

[Mandatory Tea Time]
Sister Thawabu is the new guesthouse keeper. As Mag and I are the only “guests” staying here now days, we get a lot of Thawabu time and have become comfortable and friendly with her. It’s the best feeling when we can let our true personalities and colors shine and is a clear indicator that we are all becoming closer in our relationships with each other. Of course, there is a flip side to this new level of comfort. Because we are not so “new” anymore, we don’t get cut as much slack. So if my feet are too dirty, Sister Jackie will scold me. If I sleep through morning prayer, Sister Lightness will make sure I am there at noon. If my nails aren’t short, Sister Diana will call me to remind me to cut them. Each is a stickler about her own thing but I appreciate that they care enough and are comfortable enough to tell me. The BEST stickler, though, is Sister Thawabu. And what bothers/worries her the most is when Mag and I skip morning or afternoon tea. She will not hear that we are not hungry, that we are too busy, that it is too hot, or that we are just not accustomed to so much tea. These are illegitimate excuses in her book and we better start thinking of new ones… maybe over a cup of tea. There have been a few times that she has sought us out half way across Chipole in order to escort us back for tea time. So Mag and I have slowly adapted to tea at 10 a.m. and tea again at 4 p.m. and will most likely be sad when we return home to find that it’s not the standard (and definitely not mandatory) to stop everything we are doing in order to enjoy a cup of tea.

[Our Students]
The semester at St. Agnes Secondary School for Girls where Mag and I do most of our work is quickly coming to a close. We have a little less than a month left before our students begin their final exams and then head home for Christmas break. So we decided to put all of our effort plus more into our classes and into the time we spend with the girls until then. Unfortunately, computer class has been on pause for the past week due to heavy rain and power supply but we have found new and fun ways to teach them when things don’t go according to plan. Last Saturday we went out with a bag full of surprises—Mary Poppins style. Mag brought Bananagrams, Memory, and a few storybooks. I brought Crazy Eights, Left Right Center, and a jump rope. It was a hit. I really enjoy being around the students whether I am teaching, playing games, or just having conversations with them. I think it makes all the difference in my experience here and I would like to think it is making a difference in their experience at school this year.

Layer by layer the best parts of Chipole are being peeled back as our time here rolls on. I have a feeling that some of the greatest parts won’t even be revealed to me until I am home—with the perspective of time and distance. But the fact that even the day to day things have become some of my favorites is really important for me to realize while I am still here.

Ruvuma Dam

About five years ago, the monastery along with a Swiss investor constructed a hydroelectric dam on the Ruvuma River. Today, the dam powers the entire community of Chipole and some of the surrounding villages. I can’t imagine how different life was here only five years ago. The way I know the world is with electricity. Even when I try to “rough it” in the mountains back home I rely on some sort of power. So I literally cannot imagine how drastically different it would have been.

The dam itself is a sight to see. I have found it so interesting the
things I marvel at here. Back home I would probably pass by Ruvuma Dam without a second glance. However a project as big as this is hard to go unnoticed here. And I actually stop to think about how such things came to be. And then I marvel some more. It’s great.

So Ruvuma Dam has become a special, marvelous spot. This week I visited the dam with Maggie and Claudine (our redhead Italian friend). We went by foot as we were feeling extra adventurous from watching Into the Wild during our Sunday Movie Night. We started right after breakfast in order to beat the heat that has become increasingly hotter the past few weeks. The river is about 8 kilometers from Chipole but the view of AFRICA kept us occupied the entire time. It’s indescribable. We reached the dam around 11:30 ready to dig into the feast we packed for a picnic. But first we scoped out the perfect picnic spot. We climbed down below the dam onto the rocks along the river—close enough to feel the mist from the waterfall. Wow. It may have been the coolest picnic spot I’ve been to (or a close tie with Picnic Point campground in ID). There we enjoyed pb and j’s, fresh fruit, and homemade cookies. It was the perfect day. We all agreed to make it a ritual during our time here. Afterwards we walked down the river for awhile and found what would be a great swimming hole. It was so tempting to jump in but we all remembered Father Domus’ last words to us before we left: “Don’t go in the water. There are crocodiles.” We skipped out on the afternoon swim even though Alexander Supertramp (from Into the Wild) would have done it in spite of the danger.


I forget if I mentioned this in the previous posts, but I am teaching a computer class at St. Agnes Chipole Secondary School twice a week.  The secondary school is an all girls private school that was built and is run by the sisters of St. Agnes.  The girls come from all over Tanzania to receive their education and spend about 9 months of the year here.  So they live, eat, study, attend class, work, and play together.  It seems so fun.  The school is about a mile and a half from the convent so Maggie and I walk the red dirt road 4 times a week.  Mag teaches English Mondays and Tuesdays and I teach Computers Wednesdays and Fridays.  For moral support, we attend each others’ classes and give feedback at the end in order to make our lessons better for the students.  It has been challenging work so far but both Maggie and I feel that our presence and time spent at the school will be the best work we can offer here.  
The challenges.  Like I said, so far it has been a big challenge teaching the students about the computer.  However, here the challenges are wrapped in different packages.  I have absolutely no trouble getting the students to listen or excited about learning.  Actually, their eagerness to learn is almost intimidating.  What is most difficult is the lack of resources.  There are around 15 computers in the lab, easily enough to share between the 20 students that rotate in 4 times.  However, most of the machines do not work or are missing vital parts in order to function.  Extension cords go missing and I can spend up to half of the class period trying to track them down.  Lately, we have had one computer to 20 students.  So I have had to modify my lessons and get creative.  Another challenge is the wide spectrum of knowledge the students have with computers.  Some of the girls come from families where they have seen and/or used a computer many times.  Others have had no experience with them.  So teaching things like how to hold and move a mouse are extremely important for some and extremely redundant for others.  Finding that balance is my next goal.  
Teaching, for me, is going to be more about learning it seems.  I am definitely learning how to be patient with and respond to all of the technical difficulties.  However, even more than that I am learning how to be patient with myself and do as much as I can each day with what I am given.  I am learning about my confidence, diving right into something that I don’t feel qualified for but have enough knowledge to share.  I am learning, also, that at the very least I can be a positive presence in the classroom and around the school.  I do not think encouragement is lacking here but it never hurts to add to that encouragement and show the students that they have someone who admires them and someone who will give their time to them.  
The girls are wonderful.  Maggie and I teach Form 1 which is equivalent to 7th and 8th graders I believe.  They are extremely shy but very welcoming.  The Form 4 girls, however, are the furthest thing from shy.  They love to walk and chat with Maggie and I about movies, music, sports, travelling…  and their favorite subject:  boys.  We don’t have the From 4 girls in class but we see them on our way in and out from the school.  We have been on a midterm break for about two weeks now.  I am eager to get back to school and see all of the students and get down to business on these computers.  We will start on Monday.  Thanks for reading, I will update you more soon!

Masters in Swahili

Our cab driver from the airport told us in three weeks we would be masters in Swahili. I was not convinced but his confidence in us was pretty encouraging. Two days later I am completely lost and only the “master” of about two and a half words. Also, I unknowingly switch to speaking Spanish sometimes. Not helpful. Swahili sounds nothing like Spanish. In order to become a “master” I plan on dedicating about an hour a day to studying. At the moment, I have the discipline and enthusiasm. Hopefully it lasts and hopefully I make some progress. I have a trusty dictionary with a beginning chapter on grammar that I will be turning to in times of need. Along with that, practically anyone you come into contact with during a day is willing to give you a few tips in the language. Most of the time they laugh at any attempt you make to use what you have just learned… but its all part of learning. As we get further away from Chipole we start to feel the pressure to learn and speak Swahili. Quite a lot of sisters at St. Agnes speak English so it doesn’t seem as pertinent to learn as it does in the surrounding villages or travelling to Songea. Those trips double as language lessons. The lesson we learned during our first trip was “How to order three beers and three dishes of potatoes and eggs”. I definitely failed the lesson. But Tyler (the BVC volunteer in Hanga) pulled through and after about 20 minutes of trial and error we were eating Chipsy Mayai and drinking Castle Light. It was well worth the struggle. We have found that some of the keys to learning are:

1. Open your mouth. You won’t make any progress with your head in a book. Talk to people and use what you have learned (no matter how little it may be).
2. Get over the embarrassment. You won’t speak well or even make sense most of the time. People will laugh at your accent and your crooked sentences. Don’t take it personal because the next thing they do is correct you and help you. You can’t be too busy feeling foolish and miss what they are saying.
3. Keep at it. Studying Spanish has taught me that you will make uphill progress and then reach a plateau at some point. It will seem like there is absolutely no more room for new vocabulary or grammar rules to fit into your brain. But the uphill slope will slowly begin again if you are patient and persistent.
I am eager to learn and excited to be able to communicate with more of the sisters and people around Chipole. Hopefully it will make traveling a lot less stressful and only take us 5 minutes rather than 20 to order a meal. I will keep a record of the time so we can track our progress!

African Ground

We have made it to Chipole!  After over 5 days of travel and a few minor setbacks, African ground was the only thing that could spark our enthusiasm.  And it has!  The cab drive alone to get from the airport to the Bethania  House (bishop’s guest house in Dar) was… total chaos.  Even the passengers have to be on the alert because you will surely get tossed around or thrust forward if you don’t brace yourself and check your peripheral vision.  Our driver was a pro.  We figure taxis must have the right of way here at any intersection because he did not stop for anything.  And miraculously…thankfully…the other cars, motors, trucks, bikes, and mobs of people stopped for us (when I say “stopped” I really mean they swerved and skidded around us).  No worries, in one piece we made it to the Bethania House where we stayed for two nights.  I must have been disoriented from travelling because I can’t really remember many details from those few days. 
What I do remember and will surly never forget is the bus ride we took from Dar es Salaam to Songea.  We were warned about the length, the limited space, the bathroom stops, and the bumps.  But honestly, nothing could have prepared me for that.  16 hours on a bus feels exactly like 16 hours on a bus.  Boredom, numbness, and agitation cycled through as I tried to conservatively sip water and nibble on food so that I wasn’t forced to participate in the two bathroom stops along the way where women depart on one side of the bus and men on the other.  The driver took the bus around corners as fast as a taxi would.  This time I purposefully did not pay attention to the traffic.  It would have added anxiety and pure fear to the cycle of emotions.  Mikumi Park was a saving grace.  We saw giraffes, buffalo, zebras, gazelle… supposedly I missed the monkeys and elephants.  I’m still upset about it.  The national park gave me a boost of energy and probably was the only thing that kept me from going completely insane by the time we pulled into the bus station in Songea. 
From Songea the monastery is about an hour and a half away.  I guess I did the impossible by falling asleep on this leg of the trip.  Maggie said she had to hold my head to stop it from banging against the glass on the window with every bump.  “I was actually concerned,” she told me.  I was really tired?  By 10 p.m. we pulled into the driveway at St. Agnes Convent.  So we are here and we are happy and it’s the best feeling in the world. 


The migration across the world begins tomorrow for Maggie and I.  We'll leave the monastery-our home-when the sun is rising and get to our intended destination as it is setting.... days later.  The trek is a long one.  The longest of our lives, no doubt.  The fact that we refuse to actually calculate the distance and time it will take is both telling of our horrible math skills (we were in Math Exploration together our second year... and it was bad) and our excitement for what will be one of the biggest, bumpiest, GREATEST road trips.  In a bus we'll drive through a few national parks and game reserves whose names I will surely know asap.  Honestly, I'd be content with one rhino and one giraffe.  They are my favorites and I know I'll switch to tourist mode if I get a chance to see one. 

Although it would make the hours of busing wild and entertaining, our intention is to arrive safely at St. Agnes Monastery in Chipole, Tanzania (not to be confused with ChipoTle) where we will be joining the Benedictine sisters in ten months of service.  Chipole is in southwestern Tanzania near Lake Nyasa.  You may try to google it or find it on a map but I haven't been able to find the exact location.  Daunting.  Exciting.  We are unsure of what it is exactly that we will be working in but know that there are numerous opportunities for us to grow, learn, and serve the local community. 

Thanks to all who have worked hard in creating such a unique program for the four BWSC volunteers to experience.  It is just the beginning but I am already so grateful for the encouragement and excitement that surrounds us and the program.  It has helped prepare us in big ways.