St. Agnes Monastery

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

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!