Our Tanzanian Lifestyles: Two spoiled Canadians

When we began to look for work internationally, we didn’t expect the level of comfort we’d eventually find ourselves. We have running water (though it’s not drinkable, we also have drinking water delivered regularly), a shower (though not always hot, who even wants a hot shower in this climate), flush toilets, and a fridge/freezer (that stay on most of the time). We have access to Tanzania food at the girls’ home and school and North American-style food at the restaurant.

dsc_0005In many ways, we are even better off here. There are house Mamas, women hired to care for the house and make meals for us (and the volunteers when they are here). They make lunches on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and they make dinners on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We can request whatever we like as long as the ingredients are purchasable or grown on the farm and we can explain how to make it. I haven’t had to sweep or wash dishes since arriving!

That doesn’t mean, we haven’t worked to improve our new home, which has been effectively empty for the past year. We’ve spent the weekends hard at work making our house into a home. We spent the first weekend scrubbing the tupperwarebathroom turning the mostly brown room back into its original yellow walls and white shower curtain. We scrubbed the walls in our room as well and then decorated it. We spent a weekend organizing our kitchen: figuring out the Tupperware, organizing the shelves, disposing of spoiled food, and washing the fridge and freezer. We’ve been down to the guest house to organize their storage space and I’ve even alphabetized the movie collection (though that was likely more just my OCD than anything).movies

teaIt’s hard to complain though as we’ve felt quite pampered. We have cold water regularly as we fill six 1.5 L water bottles every other day from the office water cooler and keep them in the freezer. We have milk and chocolate milk in small boxes that don’t need to be refrigerated, but always stay in the freezer nonetheless. We even have iced tea, as we make it every Sunday in six 1 L mason jars!

What we don’t have on campus, we can get in the city and this is where we get truly spoiled. In the city, there is a hotel and restaurant called Tilapia. The food and drinks are American prices if not better ($12 meals and $2 drinks) and for $10 you can use their outdoor swimming pool for as long as you want. That, with the high speed internet which I use to do work and download YouTube videos so I can keep up on my Colbert, makes it a paradise!

There’s even a movie theatre in town!

Last Friday, we spent the day in the city. We had an afternoon retreat at Tilipia, which was preceded by lunch at Salma Cone – an outdoor restaurant where we spent $5 for chicken, fries, three apps, and two sundaes – and followed by a night at the movies.

The movies are at Mwanza’s mall – the only one in Northern Tanzania I believe. Despite being built within the last couple of years, it’s in a bad state of affairs. There are few stores inside, other than the two grocery stores on the ground floor. There is poor natural lighting and worst electrical lighting. It’s built like a tire with stores around the empty space in the middle, and it goes up six floors.

canadian-harvestAt the grocery store though, we did have success! This is where we first were able to buy white milk, votive candles, zucchini, and a power bar that plugs into the walls here, but allows for North American plugs into the bar. We also discovered that “American Garden,” the poorly made, cheap brand of sauces found here has a Canadian cousin called “Canadian Harvest” (made in Dubai).

The movie theatre is on the top floor. We had been planning to see “XXX: The Return of Xander Cage,” but ended up arriving an hour early and didn’t want to wait around. So instead we chose to see an Indian movie. The plot, as we read online, involved a man who was blind finding love, facing tragedy, and then getting revenge. We were intrigued!

When I lived in Toronto there used to be $2 Tuesdays. I’d go every week and when I’d fun out of Hollywood movies to see, I’d go see foreign films. I watched French movies and Italian movies that I would have otherwise never bothered with. But you get use to subtitles pretty quickly, and a good story is a good story!

mallBy the intermission, Bethany had to use the bathroom and I went out to the snack bar to eye up the slushies. I’m a big fan of slushies, but recalled eating one from a gas station in Honduras and Bethany telling me a story about her sister having one internationally and being hospitalized since they had been made from local water. At the time, I looked at her for a moment and then continued eating it; if I was going to be hospitalized it was already too late (I turned out to be fine)! However, this time that concern was too much, so after Bethany came out of the bathroom I went in.

When I came out she was waiting for me with a slushy! She’d asked and it was made from bottled water. It was like home and I now want to go see bad movies all the time, just to get one!

So as you can see, we’re living pretty happily here in Tanzania! We’re a little spoiled and going back to sweeping will be a pretty big burden!

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Dreaming of Home

I don’t believe in interpreting dreams in the supernatural sense, but I do think that my dreams are often my subconscious exploring something that I’m not currently dealing with consciously. Last night I had two dreams.

One took place in a fictional world the day before we were supposed to leave for Africa. Bethany was pregnant and going into labor. I found myself climbing a large wooden plank into a tree house, which was where she wanted to give birth. She still intended for us to fly to Africa the next day with the newborn. This dream falls somewhere between me being for taking medicine and her wanting to ride things out whenever possible AND some giving birth in Africa fear. It seems pretty cut and dry.

The second dream took place in a fictional Yarmouth and I was driving by a building that had great importance to me. The fact I hadn’t been there in so long made me weep despite waking up and not recognizing the dream building at all.

I haven’t felt particularly homesick as of yet, though I think this dream was my subconscious missing the familiar. Throughout our busy days I do have pangs of “Wouldn’t it be nice to be home doing…”


Chinese food in Yarmouth, NS… best egg rolls ever!

So far they’ve included things like eating at Lotus Garden, an amazing Chinese restaurant, in Yarmouth or second-handing at the big Salvation Army in Spryfield. I miss having people over for board game nights or for any activity at all! I miss playing soccer every Sunday with the guys and regularly talking on the phone with my friends with vision loss.

However, it’s with great irony that most of what I find myself reminiscing about relates to summer activities: getting sushi with Jordan in St. Catharines, playing spike ball in the commons, or having friends over for a BBQ. This is at the same time that my parents – who are both teachers – have had their fourth snow day as they’re hit again and again with blizzards. Perhaps, I should just be thankful for the blue skies, the tropical temperatures, and the warm breeze!


BBQing in Cape Breton last summer

It’s funny the sort of feelings you have as you establish a new home for yourself. There are things I long for from Halifax: friends, a reliable internet connection, the ability to drive myself to any store I could ever want. But I know that when I get back to Canada, I’ll wistfully look out my window caked with snow and dream of Lake Victoria.

Home is like that. And as someone who has lived in many places and will likely live many more, I suspect my homes will increase at the same rate as my longings for the last one.

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A Tour of our New Home


The sign near the front of the campus

We are proud of our new home, so let me take you on a tour of our house and the JBFC campus! As you arrive on campus, you first come to two brick boxes on either side of the road that would typically have a gate locked in place.


The empty gate at the start of the campus

The gate has been removed because JBFC literally wants people to know that everyone is welcome!


To the left are two rectangular buildings positioned in the shape of an L. The bottom of the L is the science lab and library, while the height of the L is the Secondary School with four classrooms.


The library & lab on the left and secondary school on the right

As you continue along the road there is a path that goes left. Where these two meet, there is the dining hall, which is the size of a small gym (In the collage below: bottom two photos). It has a wall around the premises around 4 feet high and then columns hold up the tin roof a couple dozen feet in the air. It’s open to the outside as most things are here (with temperatures like this, you don’t always need walls). Beside the building is a large pile of wood that the staff uses to light fires that cook the rice. Bethany and I have both spent a day or two helping chop vegetables here and serve food to the students and staff who eat breakfast and lunch here. There aren’t tables or chairs (donations welcome!), so the younger students sit on the floor, while the older ones find a piece of wall to lean on.


As you continue along this path you pass an empty building, still under construction, which will eventually be the vocational school where future students will study tourism after graduating high school (In the collage above: center right photo).

The path ends at the administrative building, which is visible from the road (In the collage below: top two photos) . It is a square building with offices on the outside and a courtyard and fish pond in the middle. Staff, volunteer chaperones, and interns can come here for some occasional Wifi, and I have been spending my mornings here in a borrowed office writing and working on projects. Bethany has also been working here a lot over the last week, helping the nurse inventorying donated medications.


Joseph & Mary’s Primary School

Back to the road, it’s a couple minute walk to the Joseph & Mary Primary School. It’s built in the shape of a “U” with a court yard and a large tree in the centre.  The younger grades (pre-school and kindergarten) sit on a large carpet, while older children sit in desks built at JBFC. There are white boards and colorful art on the walls. Bethany and I sat in on classes here and were found to be novel with the children rubbing my beard and pulling out Bethany’s blond hair as souvenirs of our visit.



A little soccer behind Bibi Mimi’s

Another few minutes down the road and you’ll find yourself at Bibi Mimi’s – the girls’ home named after the founder’s grandmother. It is surrounded by a fence (because it legally has to be) with a garden of kale and peppers (which we planted!) in the front. It is three rectangle buildings that form a “U.” Each building has two dorms with 8 girls and a mama in each. In the centre is a fourth building, which acts as the girls’ kitchen and dining hall.


The carpenter’s tree

Not far from the entrance of the girls’ home is a large tree where you can usually find a few Maasai, a tribe of people that JBFC hires as security. They hang out in their red cloaks and occasionally make patrols down the main stretch. The tree is where the path divides. To the left are the farm storage shed, pig sty, and chicken coop with 400 baby chickens huddled under an iron stove. Behind this is the solar pump, which throughout the day pumps up to 50,000 liters of lake water up to the storage tank of water at the top of the hill.


The guest house in the bushes to the right; the Rock House to the left.

Just pass this on the left is where the carpenters work to build the furniture at JBFC. The road continues straight, but another path turns right up some cement stairs and to the top of the hill. Along this path is first the Guest House where volunteers stay and the campus director in training is temporarily staying before moving to JBFC’s new campus. Then it’s the “Rock House” where Melinda and Paula live. Finally it’s our house. As the road and path eventually become parallel, our house overlooks the road, farm, and lake!

When you first enter our house, there is the kitchen. We have a fridge and freezer (always stocked with bottled water), propane stove, and all the dishes we could need (we even have a coffee grinder and waffle maker)! Mamas, who are the women hired to make meals and keep these three houses in order, can often be found hanging out in our kitchen throughout the weekdays.

To the left, the kitchen opens up into our very large living room with vaulted ceilings and a wall of windows overlooking the often blue sky and bluer lake. There is a second door in the center of this wall, which is often left open and where dogs often lay, taking in the rays and overlooking their domain.

There is a long dining table, big enough for 12 people. There are three couches built by the carpenters at JBFC arranged in a semi-circle. And there is a large book shelf on the far wall with pictures and African trinkets. Every free space on the yellow walls is covered in African masks and paintings.

There are two spare bedrooms in the house, enough room to sleep another 7 people. They are currently mostly used for storage, though would house you (if you come to visit) or JBFC guests in certain circumstances.

Our room is to the back of the living room on the right-side. Its blue walls now have a collage of pictures from home hanging from string and clothespins. There’s a small bookshelf in the corner with books and trinkets (a small wooden fisherman I bought second-handing and my hula girl, who has followed me from job to job ever since working at the MS Society). The other corner has a much larger bookshelf/former TV stand with all of our clothing and electronics.  Our queen-sized bed and mosquito net are in the center of the room with a side-table on both sides: one has Bethany’s essential oil diffuser, while the other usually has my laptop as this is where we tend to watch movies most nights (we’re currently watching Penny Dreadful and Gavin & Stacey)!

There’s a long hall parallel to our room that comes off the living room, which leads to Seth’s room. This hall has a large shelving unit with JBFC’s collection of movies (alphabetized now to my pleasure) and three flags: one Tanzanian, one American, and one Canadian. Admittedly, the Canadian one is the biggest.


Jeff at Papa’s

If you go back to the road or exit out of our second door and walk down the hill to meet the road, it’s only a three minute walk to Papa’s Restaurant and the bungalows. The restaurant is a money generator for the campus, while feeding international staff and providing a future training ground for the vocational school. They serve a variety of dishes. My first day for lunch I tried my reigning favorite: Nile Perch in a coconut curry sauce (though the zucchini fries are a close second). There’s a great breeze at Papa’s, the internet works best there, and it too overlooks the lake. I can imagine trying to spend a lot of time there!

That’s the end of the tour! I hope you enjoyed it and will come out to see our home and us in real life! This blog can’t do how nice it is here any justice!

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The Farm: How I am Ill-prepared for manual labor


Jeff at the start of the day.

I am not a lazy person. I love work. I love being productive. I am energized by finishing a project. More than that, I seek out ways to improve companies I work for by taking on things outside of my job and in my spare time usually have at least one project on the go to keep me busy. It just so happens that those projects tend to be either events or based around the computer. So while I’m not lazy, I also tend to avoid doing actual hard work; shoveling the driveway, for example, is something I hate doing.

The first morning of our farming days was a classroom lesson on permaculture. The main principal of permaculture, as we were told to memorize, is “to create social and environmental designs that mimic Mother Nature.” Effectively, it’s doing things strategically so that the natural results of your plants together meet your long-term goals. This includes things like:

  • planting trees that act as a natural pesticide, cast shade, or replenish the soil with nutrients other plants are taking out
  • rather than planting one crop over and over and depleting the soil, varying your crop with annuals and perennials which has the added benefit that one bad drought or bug won’t kill everything
  • spacing your crops in rows and columns to take advantage of the natural flow of water

That’s definitely something I could get behind. Effectively, the idea is to work smart, creating systems that feed into each other, so you don’t have to do any extra in the long-run.

We were introduced to Edward, who manages the farm and is a favorite contact for our summer volunteers. He wore a ball cap, button-up long sleeve shirt, and jeans. He was soft spoken, but held up conversations on farming, Canada, winters, and crops.


Bethany digging holes

The first thing he got us to do was water some pre-dug holes to moisten the earth for planting we would be doing later. This involved holding a hose over the holes until there seemed like there was a bit too much water (it was never too much as the soil sucked up every last drop) and then moving to another hole. If anything it was a bit dull and made me have to pee.

How I would later long for that dullness! We took a long lunch after we were finished watering and met with Edward by Bibi Mimi’s (the girl’s home) in the afternoon. There’s a garden by the fence surrounding the home with eight rows of plants. Kale and some trees grew between every other row leaving lots of room for new plants. He handed both of us a hoe and demonstrated what we would be doing.

He lifted the hoe above a prospective hole and let gravity drop it into the hard dirt. He did this a few times, fluffing the soil and then used the front and back of the blade to create a hole around 2/3 of a foot in diameter. It looked easy enough. Bethany and I then proceeded to do this around 60 times each with Edward following behind us with a hose to moisten the dirt like we had done in the late morning.

The dirt was a bit heavy and a bit sandy, and the hoe’s blade wasn’t attached in any particular direction so would spin as you tried to thrust it into the dirt. It was also mid-afternoon with the sweltering African sun pelting down on us. I felt nauseous from the heat, work, and large lunch I instantly regretted. I kept going though, making the conscious decision that I would rather work so hard I threw up than have to quit because I couldn’t take it.


Bethany’s hands

Once we were finished the holes and they were all watered, we had to go around a second time to turn this now moist soil and make the holes bigger. I was in pretty desperate need of a shower and Bethany’s hands were turning into one big blister.

Luckily we didn’t have to dig these holes a third time. Instead, we headed back to the farm. There was a small plot with sticks weaved into a make-shift roof a foot above small seedlings. We were told to grab the larger seedlings from as close to the roots as possible and pull up 120 to plant in our holes. Back at the garden, we would stick a finger up to the knuckle into the wet soil, slip the roots of a seedling into the hole and then push it closed. When complete, we’d planted 120 small pepper plants!


Jeff at the end of the day

We washed out hands and then went home to fall asleep on our front porch.

The next day was all on the farm, but much easier. First we harvested around 15 plots of beans as their season had ended and we needed to make room for new plants. This was actually fun to do, finding the plants, and pulling them up a bunch at a time!

The dreaded hoes came out again, but this time the soil was much softer, the sun wasn’t yet at its brightest, and Edward helped dig. Before we knew it, we’d dug over 200 holes! We then had to water them, but someone else was using the holes, so we walked down to the lake with a bucket each, got water, and brought it up to the farm, pouring it over our holes. We did this over and over until each was wet.

It was certainly hard work, and I’m glad I don’t have to do it again soon. However, I’m also glad we got to do it. It gave us a new respect for all of the farm hands who – without even thinking much of it – go to work daily to grow most of the food we eat on campus.

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English is Certainly Harder: Tutoring Students at the Joseph & Mary’s Library

In addition to working in each department, we are also trying out the various roles that volunteers fill while they’re here.

jeff-and-johanaOne of the most important positions is assisting with the “Individual Education Plan” (IEP) program at the school. Joseph & Mary’s Schools are taught in English since that’s the language their National Exams are done in; strategically it’s best to teach in the language the students will be tested in so nothing is lost in translation.

However there are downsides to this and one of them is that some students transfer into the school with only a basic grasp of English. When this happens in pre-school or kindergarten, it doesn’t pose a huge obstacle. It happens often, as Bethany can attest; when she shadowed the teacher in the pre-school, the biggest challenge was that few of the 30+ children spoke English and some didn’t even know Swahili. They pick it up fast though at that age!

bethany-and-her-iep-partnerThe challenge is when the students transfer in higher grades and now are faced with the daunting task of learning their subjects, studying for the exam, AND picking up a second or even third language along the way.

That’s where IEP comes in. In this program, students replace their free periods with time in the library with a volunteer. The two can talk or read books to work on the basic building blocks of the language. The key is for the student to be spending time with a Native English speaker and practicing!

My students were both male: Johan and Sylvester. While the books are categorized by reading level and students can take out books from the level just above and just below their own, I think my boys were choosing books beyond their ability. Maybe it was their pride or maybe they liked a challenge… maybe it was my own pride that prevented me from encouraging them to pick an easier book. I was impressed that despite this, they were both more than willing to stop after every sentence to ask what certain words meant.

dsc_0003Techniques for explaining words ranged from funny “furious” faces, to “crawling” on the floor, to “scattering” books around the library.

There were words that I had trouble explaining though, despite knowing what they mean. “Certainly” and “hardly” were two that came up that I tried to explain, but struggled to avoid using bigger words that would only make the concepts more confusing. “Holy crap!” was another one. “It kind of means ‘Oh no!’ or ‘Wow!’” I explained, but knew it didn’t quite translate.

Then there were some words that I could easily explain. When Johan asked what “relief” meant, I paused before asking, “Do you know how you sometimes really have to go to the bathroom? Then when you finally get to pee you go ‘ahhhh.’ That ‘ahhhh…’ that’s relief.”

dsc_0004As they read, I started to recognize how complicated English is to learn. So many words mean similar, if not identical, things. How do you explain the difference between “hurried,” “fast,” and “quick”? Or reversely, there are so many words that are basically the same, that mean drastically different things. When one character described herself as “fired up” I had to explain that this didn’t mean they were on fire. I also had to explain that “to get fired” was also very different.

Then there are soft and hard consonants. In “bicycle” that first “c” sounds like an “s”, but the second sounds like a “k.” Why? Life’s kruel.

I met with the boys for an hour each day for the whole week to read in the library and on Friday they eagerly asked if we’d be reading again tomorrow. “Monday!” I told them.

While I’m certain I wasn’t able to convey the nuances of phrases like “Holy crap” I’m also certain they know a few more words than they did when we started and that’s certainly enough for now!

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Swahili is Hard: From Vowels to Vocabulary

It’s funny the difference between philosophy and practice. I’m one, who has said in the past, that there’s no reason to learn other languages. An app that can translate as you speak will soon become the practical answer to this problem. But after only a couple days in Tanzania, I was pledging to learn as much Swahili as I could while I’m here.

I came to Tanzania literally knowing no Swahili, except the little I gleamed from Disney: “Asantai Sana” (“Thank you very much”) and “Simba” (“Lion”) were a phrase and a word that came easily since they were familiar. But I didn’t even know how to say “Yes,” “No,” or “Hello” so unless I just wanted to thank the lions, I had work to do. It continues to be a work in progress, but a vital part of living in a country if for no other reason than to show people that you’re trying as they go above and beyond every day to treat you with the utmost respect.

We learned “Hello” quickly, though were curious to find some people saying, “Jumbo,” and others saying, “Mumbo.” We began to use them interchangeably, until I read in my basic Swahili phrasebook that, while “Mumbo” just means “News?” (as in “what’s the news” or “hey”), “Jumbo” is a tourist phrase that conveys, “Hey! I’m not a local and do not speak Swahili.” When learning a language, trial and error only gets you so far!

Vowels were easy enough to remember: A is ah, E is eh, I is ee, O is oh, and U is oo. From there reading words becomes a lot easier with most consonants being pronounced the same in English. Despite this, plenty (and I mean more often than not) of words are mispronounced. I try reassuring myself that my interpretation is close enough to get my message across, until I remember that “moan” and “moon” is a subtle difference in pronunciation, while meaning significantly different things!

It’s been fun to slowly piece together phrases. One song that the girls regularly sing at prayer goes “Mumbo Sawa Sawa.” Mumbo, as we knew, means “News”, while “Sawa” is slang for “sure” or figuratively “in the positive.” Thus Mumbo Sawa, very roughly translated, we deduced means “Good news.”

In addition to our phrasebook and flash cards, we’ve been generously offered Swahili lessons by one of the staff here. We’ve been taking advantage of it every chance we get!

If only more Disney movies had taught us Swahili!

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The Dining Hall: The Fall from Expert to Amateur


A huge line-up of students waiting for their lunch.

One of the things JBFC does early in new staff training is have each person work a few days in each department (farm, dining hall, school, etc.) My first assignment was the Dining Hall. I was sat on a bench sitting across from Paulo – who would guide me through the first opportunity I had to prove myself a productive member of the staff.

Two large barrels of rinsed kale were sat by us and he demonstrated the proper technique for slicing it. Four to five at a time you would slice off the stems and then finely shave it with the knife into thin long strips. He did it with finesse and on my turn I hacked it into strips. “Thinner” he encouraged, though after a few tries he shrugged and accepted it was close enough.

As I sat there, slicing a mountain of kale, I reflected back on the closest job experience I had to this current task. In high school, like many of my classmates, I had my first job cutting roe out of fish. It was a tedious job and included hours of picking up a fish, slicing down its stomach from its gills to its tail, scooping out the contents which went in a box and then throwing the rest of the fish down a trough. No one wore gloves, since they only slowed you down, but everyone had to wear hairnets. I was clean shaven for one of the last times in my life since I refused to wear a beard net. You left the plant stinking of seafood, seeing fish when you closed your eyes, and a little richer.

Specifically I was thinking of a time when I managed to cut the very tip of my thumb off with the knife. I went to the manager’s office to be bandaged up with clear intentions to quit. However when he held up his hand with three fingers, I decided to push through.

This was – ironically – what I was thinking about when I let the knife get too close to my hand for the second time in my life. It cut flesh and nail on the tip of my thumb and immediately started bleeding. Paulo looked at me a bit surprised (perhaps having given me too much credit) and I shrugged and went off to find a band aid as not to get any blood in children’s food.

I had to go to my supervisor, who had met me not three days before, and sheepishly tell him that I’d cut myself. After cutting more kale, I had to go back for a second Band-Aid since the first lost its stick and got unstuck.

Admittedly I was feeling pretty terrible about the whole thing. First, I was embarrassed. I would have joked about cutting myself, but never would have thought I’d make such a rookie mistake. Second, I was feeling pretty helpless. I was going from a job where I knew how to do everything – or at least had the know how to figure it out – to cutting myself with a knife like a child. I eventually consoled myself by remembering that I am the volunteer coordinator and failure at first just gives me that much more ammunition when a volunteer has trouble with their assigned tasks.

Then again, the volunteers are in high school; they probably know how to use a knife!


The ladies cooking rice in large pots over wood fires.

The process of the dining room was impressive. It’s a huge building with the back sixth acting as the kitchen. There’s one gas burner, but most of the food is cooked outside on wood fires in big metal pots held up by rocks. The two ladies cooking made enough rice this way to feed over 350 people in record time. They accomplished what would have taken expensive industrial size appliances in Canada with some basic tools.


The food is scooped by staff onto metal


Teachers handing out food.

plates and the teachers hand them out. Today’s menu was rice and cooked veggies including kale, tomatoes, and onions. I scooped rice. As I tried to make each scoop uniform, I was told “less” by staff and “more” by students. Despite my lack of consistency, everyone left with full stomachs.

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