Please look around and continue visiting my blog so that I can keep you up to date about everything having to do with my serving in Tanzania ! Feel free to email me with questions and please keep me in your prayers!
Matthew Sroka

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

My Summer in Tanzania

            I could have spent my summer playing video games, trying to get the Orioles to the World Series in MLB the Show. I could have taken care of my goats, reinforced the fence they are so prone to escape through. I could have worked on my vegetable garden; spent my summer pulling weeds. I could have gone on several two and three day adventures with my wife visiting old friends and new places. I could have gone to family vacation and spent time with family. All of these "could haves" is what my summer would have been if I had decided not to go to Africa.
            As I sit at home now back in America reflecting on my summer in Tanzania, I would like first to send out my love and gratitude to all those who made it possible for me to spend the past two months teaching in Tanzania. First and foremost my wife Emily who never wavered in her support of me leaving knowing full well what it would mean for her: increased yard work, taking care of the goats, chasing goats when they escape, taking care of any issues that come up around the house (I'm looking at you dryer!),and just not having my pleasant, charming, hilarious, and humble presence around her at all times. Secondly, I would like to thank my family who have made this trip so much easier with their financial support, a mother who never stops praying, parents and siblings who send me encouraging messages (and Oriole updates!) and a father-in-law who can take down a door jamb cause sometimes you just need to take down a door jamb (again, I'm looking at you dryer!). Thirdly, I would like to thank all of my friends who have supported me both financially and with prayer. I know there are many of you and your prayers are felt and appreciated. Thank you.
            Tanzania is a country still developing and facing many obstacles. One of the most serious obstacles is education. The government in recent years has worked very hard to make sure more people are getting more education; the problem with this is though people are getting more education, they are not getting a quality education. The most significant detriment to a quality education is the lack of qualified teachers. (Do you see this cycle? Inadequate teachers teach children who in turn become inadequate teachers and teach more children and the cycle of inadequacies continues.) I worked at Village Schools International's college this summer in an effort to change that. I, along with others, guided 37 students in not only how to improve their knowledge in content areas like English, Math, Physics, and Chemistry, but also showing them teaching strategies that will make them more effective teachers. Right now, I'm convinced after teaching these Tanzanians, who are in the middle or just the beginning of getting their degrees, if we put them right now in Tanzanian schools they would be by far the best teachers in the school. And as these young men and women become quality teachers, they will produce better educated students who will then become better teachers, better engineers, better scientists, better supervisors, better professionals who will in turn help the development of Tanzania making a lasting difference here. Village Schools International has never been about changing just one life (though that happens all the time), they've been about making a lasting change for villages and the thousands of people in those villages. Their goal and vision is lofty but as their over thirty schools now stretching into 3 different countries show, they have a system that works and that is in fact currently changing thousands of lives. This college will play a significant role in making sure that the currently 30+ schools (the list seems to grow every time I look at it) will have a steady flow of qualified teachers to produce qualified students.
            So yeah, I could have spent my summer playing video games (and goodness knows the only way the Orioles are getting to the World Series is if I take them there in my virtual world!). However Emily and I understand, or rather we believe, that a Christian is someone who cares and does something about it. And all of you who supported me in this trip spiritually, financially, and in a multitude of other ways like hanging out with my wife, or sharing with others about what God is doing through Village Schools International, or finding a way to get me sports updates (Durant to the Warriors, really?!), you also played your part in being a Christian, or just a human being, who cares about this world and feels called to make it a better place.
Mungu Awabariki!

(God Bless!)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

We remember you.

There are few things in this life more precious than to be remembered. Of course sometimes in life we are remembered for the wrong things. Every person who has ever volunteered with Village Schools International within the last 9 years knows who I am, if not by name then at least by reputation. My tale of getting lost on Bongoyo island is repeated at every training session as a cautionary tale to future travelers (though I do suspect more subtly that the story is told to laugh at the foolishness of my experience). So with this in mind, let me clarify my initial statement: There are few things in this life more precious than to be remembered for the right reasons.
Last weekend I had the unique privilege of visiting the village where in 2010 Emily and I lived and taught for a year. In the six years that had elapsed between visits, the school had changed in almost unrecognizable ways. The four classrooms had turned into twenty classrooms. The four teachers houses had turned into nine teacher houses. And of course with the increase in buildings came the increase in students, teachers, animals and noise. Our little school of Bukimau in just six years had more than doubled in size causing me to barely remember the school where Emily and I taught. It was a weird feeling. To stand in front of the school where you and your wife dedicated a year of your life to teaching and not to even recognize the school. But school goes on, people move on, life happens, things change quickly.
As I stood contemplating these things and pondering if Emily and my year here made any lasting difference at all, I started to regret even returning to this spot. It was like returning to your childhood home and realizing that the epic hill you used to sled down and tell all your friends about was in fact not an epic hill but a small mound. Memories can be fickled things...
In the midst of this depressing stroll down memory lane, a student walked by me. I, in an effort to distract myself from these negative thoughts, called out to the student to inquire about Bukimau and how things were at the school. He told me he his name and that he was in Form 4 (when I taught at Bukimau it only went up to Form 2). I then told him that I in fact used to live and teach here a long time ago ("a long time ago" as if I was some ancient wizard returned from the past after hundreds of years... I had been gone for just six years, but whatever). When I told him this his eyes got really large and a smile crept across his face and he asked in what appeared to be almost disbelief "Are you Mr. Matt?". Well yes, in fact I am. I was surprised that he knew my name as I had not introduced myself to anyone yet and then I asked him how he knew who I was. He responded, "People tell me. We remember you."
The young man could not have buoyed my spirits anymore if he tried. With his words "we remember you" echoing in my mind I went into the village to retrace the steps Emily and I had walked hundred of times before, years ago. It was not long before I encountered my old pastor who after a brief introduction (for an introduction was necessary because as we know, all white people look alike) he realized who I was and gave me a strong embrace. He then invited me into his home, and we reminisced about many of the students that I had taught and how grateful he, and the village, was for mine and my wife's work. I then walked around the village and word quickly spread that I had returned. Older woman, who in no way were related to the school came up with huge smiles and greeted me when they realized who I was. I was able to visit former students who immediately recognized me and their faces beamed with delight.
It was not all good news. Atu, a young student who worked for Emily and I and who possessed an incredibly good heart, always looking out for Emily and I's best interest; always happy and cheery; Atu was one of those humans whose kind soul is contagious and you just feel compelled to be brighter and happier just because you were near her. Atu's grandmother had died. And as she was living with her grandmother at the time she was forced to move back in with her mother at the lumber yard, a very far distance from Bukimau.
Despite my disappointment at not seeing Atu, I was on cloud nine because I was clearly remembered (and remember for the right things!). Which brings me to the larger point of why Emily and I were remembered.  We were remembered less because of what we did at Bukimau Secondary School and more for how we did it. Village Schools is adamant that... Wait for it... That American missionaries are inherently no better than Tanzanians. As result Emily and I lived in the village; we invited Tanzanians into our home as our guests; we ate what everyone else ate; we slept in the same beds (well not actually the same exact bed, I mean Emily and I had our own bed, but you get the point), we spoke their language (anyone can pick up a few lines of Swahili, but we took it a step further and learned the greetings of the tribal language Hehe), in short we lived with and like our neighbors. I am convinced that this is the reason why were remembered. We did not come as the saviors of Bukimau; we came as children wanting to learn how to live from them and in return we taught them English and shared the Gospel.
My weekend at Bukimau is one of the highlights of my work this summer. It served as a reminder that my work here is making a difference, and it will be remembered. Speaking of my work here being remembered, is opening up new schools at such a rate (I think it's over thirty schools now) that it is having trouble getting enough missionaries at every school. Let me say it again, VSI needs more missionary teachers to dedicate a few months, a year, or a few years to teaching at these schools. Just saying...


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Here is a little update from Matt about the organization he is serving with, and more specifically, the Teachers College God has called him to serve at this summer-Emily

Village Schools International (VSI) is a rapidly growing Christian missions organization that is centered around building high schools in villages where there are no high schools so that kids who would normally never have the opportunity to go to high school are given that chance. Six years ago Emily and I taught at one of these high schools, Bukimau Secondary School in the rural village of Bumilayinga, Tanzania. This time around I have a unique opportunity to teach at the newly opened Teacher's College. This is a game changer for VSI because one of the biggest problem's with starting high schools is finding adequate teachers to teach at all of these schools. Often the teachers have never been to college or their experiences at college did not adequately prepare them to teach. By training their own teachers VSI can then have their own qualified teachers filter down into their schools.
Currently the Teacher's College has been open for two years. I have the task of preparing year one students to teach pre-form English. In two months students will go out to various VSI schools and teach pre-form to get on-field practice with teaching. They will then return for their second year of college. There are only 12 students in this class, but literally every week we get at least one new student.
Meanwhile, when I'm not teaching the year one students how to teach English, I am helping to prepare the 25 year two students for their college exams. They are required to take an exam in English, Math, Physics, Chemistry and Computer. This involves working with them on practice tests and a lot of one on one tutoring.
VSI's teacher's college is small at only 37 total students, but it's also new, and if it's anything like any of the schools that VSI has been a part of building, it will grow rapidly. And the founders of VSI truly believe that this school will grow as evidenced by the already built library, professor's quarters, multiple classrooms, several large dormitories, cafeteria, administrations building and many other buildings. Though some of these buildings currently lie empty, they display the belief that VSI has that soon the number of students will grow into the hundreds.
I am honored to be a part of VSI's Teacher's College. I'm honored because I've seen the work of the leadership of VSI (made up mostly of Tanzanians) and I've seen them time and time be led by God to overcome impossible odds. I'm honored because I have the opportunity to teach young people who want to learn and who genuinely appreciate what a great opportunity this is for them. I'm honored because I get to work with Americans and Tanzanians who are just as passionate as I am about education in Africa.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

I heard from Matt this morning! He arrived at the college today. It is rather remote and beautiful.  It sounds like it is a short drive from the main secondary school, Madisi, where Matt and I trained and spent Christmas. There is no internet, but people have told him cell service is good. 
 He is one of three American teachers at the college right now. Also teaching is Mr. Justin, who is Godfrey's brother, the Tanzanian in charge of VSI. He lived next door to us  and taught at Bukimau when we were there 2010. Mr. Justin's wife still lives and teaches at Bukimau so Matt hopes to visit with him some weekend when Mr. Justin goes. Steve Vinton also teaches when he is in town.
Matt is sharing a room with a Tanzanian who is like the grounds keeper at the college, and is next door to the two female american teachers. There are 9 Tanzanian students there this summer, and Matt is meeting with the American teachers tomorrow to go over curriculum. He said there is a cook that the students pay, so he will either plan to participate in that or share cooking with the other teachers.

Emily <3 font="">

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Man vs. Ants

As I sat outside, watching the sun make it’s slow descent over the African horizon, I noticed a black mass covering the ground about 20 yards from the house.  Confused by the oddity of the mass, I got up and walked towards it.  The black mass had just begun to enter our yard.  As I walked closer, curiously squinting in an effort to discover what it was, I saw that the mass was alive.  I jumped back when I realized what it was.  Ants.  It was an army of siafu, biting ants.  I ran into the house and grabbed Emily. 
We had heard of these ants before.  There were many stories from other missionaries about how they were walking at night and accidently stepped in a line of siafu. Within seconds they would crawl all over you. Biting you.  Not painful bites, more like obnoxious mosquito bites, but to have all these pinching ants crawling over you can make for a painful time. 
One ant couldn’t do much damage, but the key to the siafu was their numbers. And on this occasion I had never seen so many ants in one spot and much to my horror the ants were on the move, the mass slowly inching inevitably closer to our house. I did what I always do when there is a problem in Africa; I ran to my neighbors.
“Atu! Musef!” I screamed as I ran to their door. I knew time was of the essence as very soon the siafu would overrun our house; moreover, the sun was setting and night would soon arrive which would make this battle all the more difficult.  Atu and Musef ran outside to see what was the matter. I explained and showed them what the problem was.  They didn’t seem as concerned as I thought they should have been.  Musef said, “Mr. Matt, you must leave.” 
“Leave?  What do you mean?” I responded rapidly, panicking enough for the both of us. 
Musef answered coolly, “You cannot stop the siafu.  You must just wait till they have passed.  Take the food from your house and let them come in your house and they will soon pass through.” 
With this blasé answer my mood immediately changed from panicky to angry.  “Musef!” I said, “We do not have time to remove all of the food and I will not let the siafu just come through and destroy my house. We must stop them.”
Musef saw my determination said, “ok”, and then took off running in the opposite direction grabbing his sister Atu as he went.  “I am coming!” He shouted as he ran away from me. 
The siafu were now about ten yards away from the house.  If they entered the house the battle would be lost.  In vain I tried stomping the siafu, but I was not even making a dent and all the while I was getting bit.  Then after about a two-minute absence, my neighbors returned wielding branches.  They arrived panting and sweating but smelling like fresh mint.  Atu handed me some of these branches that emanated a minty smell.  I watched and then followed suit as Musef lined the outside of our house with these branches.  Meanwhile Emily and Atu spread corn flour across the doorway and the windows.  Atu explained to Emily how the siafu do not like the corn flour nor do they like the branches that her and her brother had retrieved from the forest. 
After lining the house with branches, Musef grabbed the largest of the branches and much to my dismay, ran right into the middle of the mass of siafu.  I watched in disbelief as like a mad man he yelled and slammed his branch on the siafu.  Killing many and making many others disperse. He was able to take about four big whacks before sprinting back to the safety of my porch. His sister quickly went to work pulling the siafu off her brother as he writhed and wiggled with every siafu bite.  Atu laughed loudly at all his brother’s squirming and told him to hold still.
It’s moments like these where I couldn’t help but step back and ask myself where am I and how did I get here.  Our house is about to be overrun by a swarm of black biting ants. My neighbor is fighting these ants like a warrior battling his arch nemesis. However, every three minutes he must take a break from this battle to run to his sister who picks these tiny foes off his body.  As Atu laughs, I can’t help but laugh with her, and then I grab my branch and following Musef into the masses yelling for Emily to be ready to pick siafu off me in a couple minutes.  Well, Musef lasted a couple minutes. I lasted about 30 seconds before I ran back to Emily to help pluck of the siafu. Our house may have been in danger and the siafu bites did sting, but Emily and Atu could not help but laugh at the contortions we made as ants literarily ran up our pants. Soon Musef and I were laughing too*. The siafu bites had become more mundane as over and over again we ran out and reigned blows on the small beasts then raced back to our sister and wife to recover from the battle. 
By nightfall, the ants had not left, but they had also not entered our house.  We had stopped their march, but they remained a large ominous mass in our front yard.  Our corn meal and minty branch barriers appeared to have done the trick.  Occasionally, a brave, poor ant would break through the barriers and run into our kitchen just to meet its quick end at the bottom of a shoe.  However, this was not the time to celebrate because we weren’t sure the war was over.  Every hour we would scan our flashlights out the window onto the black masses to see if they had left us; they had not. Emily and I lay in bed in what was one of our longest nights in Africa, too frightened to go to sleep.  Whenever we closed our eyes we imagined waking up to sight of siafu covering every inch and crawling in every orifice of our bodies.  There was little sleep had the night, but eventually in the wee hours of the morning we both found uneasy rest.
We woke early the next day to the find the ants had left.  Besides the white powder and countless branches that lined our house, there were no signs that there was even a battle the night before.  The siafu had vanished leaving no trace behind.  Emily and I feeling more fatigued then victorious, returned to bed, where we remained for a long time.

*Authors Note:
At the conclusion of writing all of my blogs I give them to my wife to read to see if my memory agrees with hers and it also offers us a chance to reminiscence about some of our past adventures. Let the record show that after she read this particular entry she remarked that I failed to accurately capture the horror of the incident. She recalls less laughing and more cowering. It’s been duly noted Emily.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

What Africa Taught Me about Friendship

I am not a very gregarious person. I have many acquaintances, I am on friendly terms with everyone I know, but I have very few close intimate friends. This is a direct result of my personality. At times, I can be anti-social and often takes me a long time to feel comfortable opening up to people I don’t know. It is not a coincidence, that my closest friends are people I have known for many many years. With all of this said however, one of my friendship and connection happened to be with two people that I spent a mere six months with several years ago, and since then we have a hung out a mere two times.  Yet, the profoundness and depth of our relationship (at least from my perspective) has been rarely matched.
When I had first set out for Tanzania I had little international travelling experience. I say ‘little’ only to be factually correct, though I think it would be more accurate to say I had no experience.  The little experience I had of leaving my homeland involved a cruise trip with my family to the Bahamas and a one-week church youth mission’s trip to Toronto, Canada. This was the extent of my international travels before I decided to go by myself to live in Tanzania, Africa for six months not knowing a soul in Tanzania, or in all of Africa for that matter.
Physically, I was 23 years old, in good health, and I was up for the challenge. Spiritually, I felt this where God wanted me and I was in a good place. Mentally and emotionally, I was as ill-prepared as it is possible for someone to be. 
            I arrived in Tanzania and met all of my fellow missionaries who had also decided to dedicate 6-months, a year or two years of their lives to teaching middle school and high school in poor villages. As I was introducing myself to this group of 9 young men and women it hit me; I thought to myself “What kind of weird person (myself included) would just leave whatever they were doing in America to come work for free in Africa?”  At this moment, I immediately decided that I could not be friends with any of these people because they were either: A) religious fanatics who one could not have a real conversation with because they were too busy meditating on God, talking about God or praying to God or B) mentally unstable. 
            The small group of us went through training together.  Training for Village Schools International (VSI) is intense and extremely stressful. It is fascinating to see how people react to stressful situations and few things in my life have ever matched the stress level of VSI’s training program. Being introduced to a brand new culture, being surrounded by a an unfamiliar language, suffering from a lack of sleep, and having a bad case of homesickness, all adds up to an amalgam of frustration causing oneself to second-guess life decisions that have led you to this point. Some people in the group responded with tears, some anger most remained positive despite the hardships (lending further credence that they were in fact emotionally unstable as hypothesized in the previous paragraph). As for myself, I responded to this stressful situation by retreating into quiet thoughtfulness and contemplation (very close to but not akin to brooding) about how I ended up here. And then there were David and Rachel…
            One of the things that scared me the most about going to Africa was I had to leave my then girlfriend (now wife) Emily. We had grown up going to the same church; friends since middle school, boyfriend and girlfriend since high school, and virtually inseparable since college. Our lives had become so intertwined that it was to the point that I did not know how to function in the world without her. This was actually an argument I told myself for leaving, that I’ve become too reliant on her and this would be a good experience to show and practice self-reliance… stupid.
Anyway, through training Emily was often (okay fine, always) on the front of my mind. And then there were Mr. and Mrs. David and Rachel Bryant. David and Rachel who were so damn in love and affectionate with one another you would have thought this was their honeymoon. And I resented the hell out of them.  Every time I looked at them it reminded me of Emily, or more specifically it reminded me of what I was missing.  And like one who has always enjoyed masochism, I found myself spending more and more time with them.  And the more time I spent with them the more I realized they were my exactly what I needed. Where I was homesick, insecure and lonely, not only did David and Rachel have each other, but also they were both well-travelled having lived in both Europe and America at different points in their lives. And where I was just trying to survive from one day to the next, they were setting up a home and preparing to make Africa their home. Soon, though they were only a few years older than myself, I had forced them to become my surrogate parents while in Africa.  I spent many nights at their house, eating dinner, talking about our pasts, and (most enjoyably) watching episodes of The Office on their laptop. We did not have a lot in common, but by (my) necessity we became the closest of friends. I felt alone and scared and homesick and they took me in and for a least a couple hours a day when I was at their house, I was in a home. And even if it wasn’t my home, it was enough to get me through.
Friendships originate for a variety of reasons. Some originate from common life histories, some originate from common experiences, some originate from convenience, and some originate from necessity. David and Rachel didn’t need me, but I needed them. And therefore, I clung to them with emotional attachment the like of which I had never clung to anyone else. I clung to them like a boy who is lost in a city, strangers everywhere, and then he sees his mother and runs to her and clutches her leg tight, not letting the grip go even for a second for fear of being swept away. David and Rachel were my anchor to sanity, to normalcy, to home, and because of that we now have a bond that is eternal, even if we never see each other again.
Since returning from Africa I’ve had the opportunity to see David and Rachel two times. The first time was at my and Emily’s wedding. The second time was in Hawaii, as we both happened to be vacationing there over the same week.  Both times we hung out there was something missing. I was married and I had my wife, and I had my home, I no longer needed them.  However, we talked and hung out and it was like hanging out with family.  Even though, the situation has changed and I no longer needed them, the bond that we shared was still there. A bond forged through trials and necessity is a bond that is not easily broken.  I haven’t seen or talked to David and Rachel in years, yet I still consider them some of my closest friends, and this will always remain true.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Mushroom Lady

“Hodi!” someone shouted from outside.  hodi is the Tanzanian form of knocking.  And the response, instead of opening the door, is to just answer “Karibu!”.  After shouting karibu, a young village girl stepped into our house carrying a basket. The basket was full of mushrooms. Different foods could be difficult to get in our village so we were always encouraging people to bring by different foods to our house to sell. (I mean there’s nothing wrong with rice and beans but trying eating this meal for lunch and dinner 7 times a week!) And when I say “different” foods I don’t mean exotic; I mean things like eggs or vegetables or on one particularly special occasion, lettuce; really anything to save us from the monotony of rice and beans.  Therefore, when anyone came to our house to sell food we almost always bought it and encouraged him or her to come again. So this was not our first experience buying from a villager who showed up at our doorstep; however, this was our first experience buying mushrooms, so we asked our neighbors how best to prepare them.  We prepared them as we were told, and they were delicious.  I am not a vegetarian, but at times Africa forced me to eat a vegetarian diet due to the lack of meat access (and often the meat that was available was… well let’s just say seeing meat for sale in the market was enough to turn the hungriest lion into a herbivore).  
            Now, I don’t need to tell you culinary experts that mushrooms are in fact not meat. However, when one goes months without meat, mushrooms have a texture that reminds one of what they have been missing.  Emily and I loved the mushrooms, and therefore we immediately asked where we could acquire some more.  We were told that few people sell mushrooms, but you can pick them yourselves in the local forest.
I think it is important at this point of my riveting tale to remind our dear readers that being ignorant in all things having to do with mushrooms, and more generally ignorant with most things having to do with forests, or really more generally being ignorant of most things having to do with the outdoors, it is not a good idea to go out into the forest and pick mushrooms for cooking.  I want the overall message of this blog to be focused on the beauty of the people and culture of Africa and lessons we learned from the village community of Africa; however, I do fear that this blog occasionally turns into “look at how stupid I can be”.  This, though it’s undoubtedly true that I am capable of doing some extremely foolish things, should not be the overall takeaway of this blog.  Besides, in my defense for this particular occasion, I did not go into the forest armed with nothing; I went in armed with my unbridled optimism that I would find edible mushrooms and (more importantly… or so I thought) with a survivor book, which identified different types of mushrooms with very detailed cartoon-like images of said mushrooms.  
After searching for about an hour in the forest, Emily and I came across a batch (briar? bushel? troupe?... help me out here people) of mushrooms. We picked the mushrooms, filled up our basket and triumphantly began our trek back to our house.  As we were walking home we came by a villager who looked at us quizzically. This was nothing new; yeah, yeah, we were a couple of white people in an all black village, keep it moving people.  However, she didn’t just stare curiously like a typical villager, she began to come closer and in fact she marched right up to us and took an unabashed look inside our basket. She stared in our basket and her faced changed from bewilderment to horror.  
She backed up and kept repeating the same thing over and over again. “Kama utakula, utakufa!” I apologized for not understanding her and tried to explain that I was still learning the language, and I did not recognize the phrase.  I knew kula meant eat, but the rest was gibberish to me.  Over and over again, she said “utakufa, utakufa, utakufa” till it became almost chant like, the words echoing in my head.  
Finally, one of our students heard all the commotion and ran over to lend assistance.  In her poor English she was able to tell us what the now ranting lady was saying. “Kama, utakula, utakufa… It means if you eat it, you will die.” 
“Die?!” I yelled and dropped the mushrooms on the ground as if the very act of holding the mushrooms could make me ill.  The student then said that the woman would like to show us where to find the edible mushrooms.  The lady searched with us for about 30 minutes until she found a group of mushrooms; she smiled and picked them for us, and we returned home with more edible mushrooms then we can carry. 
Often when I talk about Africa this recurring motif emerges of how neighbors helped us to survive. It is true that to attempt to survive in a village in Africa relying on your own skills and knowledge is asking for trouble.  I never learned the lady’s name so I will always refer to her affectionately as the mushroom lady.  She just happened to cross our path and what business of hers was it to tell us that there was something wrong with the mushrooms we picked? (Not to mention after talking to other people I determined that her whole utakufa, you will die, rant was a bit hyperbolic as others told us the mushrooms would have made us extremely ill, but death was highly unlikely… so take that mushroom lady!) 
However, in our village of Bumilayinga, your business is not your own business.  Not only did the mushroom lady warn us of the intestinal nightmare that we were about to put ourselves through, but she showed us where to find the edible mushrooms.  She stopped what she was doing and happily (maybe a bit too happily, as I felt as she may have been laughing at our foolishness) taught us how and where to look for these mushrooms.  Emily and I tried what I like to call the “American Way” to find mushrooms. We entered the forest armed with our own skills and intelligence (and my precious survivor book!) in search of the mushrooms, but once again we were reminded about how we shouldn’t and didn’t need to do this on our own.  Or rather the “African Way” of community and helping your neighbor trumped our own foolish attempts.  
- Matt 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

What was (am?!) I Thinking?

In 2007, at the age of 23, against my better judgment and the judgment of my friends and family, I decided to go to Tanzania, Africa as a missionary and teacher. Prior to this trip my international travel experience consisted of a weeklong church missions trip to Toronto and a weeklong cruise to the Bahamas (not exactly a world traveler!).  Moreover, I was an introvert who took enjoyment from spending time alone; yet at the same time, I have always been a very dependent person, dependent on friends and family for everyday survival. Whether it was signing up for classes at college, or making sure I had money to pay rent at the end of the month, or figuring out how to take out for a school loan, I relied heavily on family and friends, especially my girlfriend Emily, for my daily existence in this much too complicated world.  Furthermore, at this point in my life I was spiritually weak. Though I desired to read my Bible and pray every day and go to church every week, the reality of my life at 23 was I spent more time smoking than praying and more time reading the labels of beer bottles than reading the Bible, and if it weren’t for Emily my church attendance would have been nonexistent. In short, I was an inexperienced, reserved, needy young adult who struggled spiritually and on a whim decided to pick up and move to Tanzania, Africa for six months as a missionary teacher… What was I thinking?!
I don’t know what the quintessential missionary looks like (in fact, before arriving in Tanzania and meeting with my co-missionaries, I had already decided that I did not like them because what kind of young person would just pick up and go to Africa for 6 months or a year; certainly they would have to be extremely religious or have a few screws loose… of course it never occurred to me that I was in fact both extremely religious and I undoubtedly had (have?) more than a few screws loose), but I did know that I was about as far from what a missionary should look like as was possible. But I went anyway? Why?
At the time, I did not know the answer. And looking back it’s still all a bit foggy about what was going through my head.  I know God wanted me to go to Africa, and I know I wanted to serve God… but why exactly Tanzania and why at this point in my life, I’m still not sure. However, no matter what the answer is to why I went (for often I think we spend too much time asking why and not enough time just doing) the important thing is I went. And the result was life changing. I lack the time and frankly the eloquence to elaborate on all of the things I learned during my six months in Africa. My views of money, death, child rearing, role of government, missionary work, needs vs. wants, and a myriad of other life issues were altered by my time in Africa. In fact, my views on so many aspects of life were altered to the point that I knew I could not marry someone who did not understand what I now understood. One day I hope to better articulate the profundity of living in a rural village in Tanzania, but being unable to even articulate this to my wife, I knew (and more importantly she knew!) that she too would have to go to Tanzania. Therefore, in 2010 I returned with Emily to Tanzania, different village, but same life changing experiences. (Much of our experiences can be read about in the archives of this blog.)
Now in 2016, older, wiser, but just as inadequate in so many areas of my life, God has called me and I have committed to go to Tanzania for a third time. This will be my shortest trip, just 2 months. And instead of teaching at a secondary school, this time around I will be teaching at a teacher’s college, training future Tanzanian teachers. I will be returning with the same organization, Village Schools International (VSI). I should dedicate a thousand other blog posts just to discussing VSI, and how they do missions work differently. But at the very least, you should do yourself a favor and go to their website and sign up to receive their newsletters and after you read a few updates from VSI founders Steve and Susan Vinton you will begin to see what I’m talking about.                    
Speaking of VSI founder Steve Vinton, let me wrap up this blog entry with a story I’ve heard him tell, and I think it best encapsulates why I have gone to Tanzania in the past and will continue to go in the future. Steve was reading a book that belonged to his grandfather and the author of this book had written, “A Christian is someone who cares”. And in the margins Steve’s grandfather scribbled, “… and does something about it”.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Returning to Africa

After going once when I was 23, and then again three years later with my wife Emily, I have now once again committed to go to Tanzania for a third time. This will be my shortest trip, just 2 months, from June 21st to the middle of August. And instead of teaching at a secondary school like in previous trips, this time around I will be teaching at a teacher’s college, training future Tanzanian teachers. I will be returning with the same organization, Village Schools International (VSI). Though the length of my stay and the place I will be teaching has changed, my ultimate mission remains the same:
“We send missionary teachers to small villages in Africa to get so involved in the lives of their students that sharing the Gospel is the natural result of loving them.”

This is VSI’s mission statement. VSI’s mission is my mission. I will go and live in Tanzania amongst Tanzanians and build relationships with my students and peers. I will get to know them, and the more I know them, the more I will care about them.  And through these relationships, I will not only teach them English and how to teach well, but I will also share with them about the Gospel.

I would appreciate your support in this endeavor. For tangible ways you can help check out "How Can You Help" And be sure to check back often for updates on my trip. Thanks and God bless!