Mambo! Harbari za asubhi. Jino langu ni nani Caryn. Nina toka Chicago. Ninajifunza kiswahili Polé Polé. Nitakuwa Taznania Kwa wiki tatu. (Hello! What’s the news this morning?/Good morning. My name is Caryn. I am from Chicago. I am learning Swahili slowly slowly. I’ll be in Tanzania 3 weeks.)
I had learned enough Swahili by my first day to be able to introduce myself to my class.
I went to Tanzania with a program called Cross Cultural Solutions to fulfill my dream of volunteering and teaching in an impoverished country. They set me up with my placement at Karanga Catholic Nursery, in Moshi, Kilimanjaro, where I taught mainly 5 & 6 year olds English, math, animals, emotions, family, shapes, body parts, colors, the ABC’s, and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (see adorable video below).
Imagine your school when you were that age. Your teacher probably always had a lesson planned. There was structure and bountiful resources. You had kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc. grade levels divided by age and a set curriculum. You had lights, desks, a chalk board, cubbies for your backpacks, and maybe a TV in the room or school. You had whatever school supplies you needed, building blocks, toys, and the room probably even had carpet (handy for nap time). Your mom put you in a car seat and drove you to school. You get the picture. There, in Moshi, they had absolutely none of that. Moms didn’t even walk them to school.
Going in, I knew to set my expectations low and not to compare it to what I was used to back home. The chalk board was cracked and so worn that parts of it were glassy and didn’t write anymore. The chalk was so poorly made it crumbled upon contact. There was no electricity in the room; we opened the glassless windows for light. There was absolutely no educational structure, nor any obvious progression of curriculum. The curriculum was entirely up to me. There was no nap time, they learned straight through with only one “recess” break. I brought tiny plastic pencil sharpeners for my class, but one of the other volunteers said his 3 year olds used razor blades! To count they used sharp beer and soda bottle caps. (Can you imagine the American mothers if they saw their kids counting with rusty and sharp bottle caps?) The kids had only one swing set, no jungle gym or soccer field to play in, just stones and a dirt road. They entertained themselves with used dolls and the straw basket that the dolls were kept in. The kids all sat 3 to a single bench until end of 2nd week when used desks were donated. I presume from a previous volunteer. Of all the volunteer placements, I was the only one whose students had real desks. The whole time I was there, I only met one mother, one father and one brother. All the other kids, even as young as 2, walked to school on their own.
Although I never went in the bathroom to confirm, there was no running water in the actual school. The only time I saw the kids wash their hands was when I brought in peanut butter sandwich snacks. Bibi (generic & respectful term for all women of grandmother age) rinsed their hands by scooping water from a bucket and pouring it over their hands. After praying, Bibi served the porridge which was also scooped out of an old (cleaned out) paint bucket. Many of the students come from families who can’t afford the tuition and the only food they got all day was the porridge we fed them after break.
Despite it being 90 degrees outside, the kids all wore the same thing everyday, day in and day out, which included a green sweater as part of the uniform. A sweater in 90 degree heat! They had safety pins as buttons on their pants, holes in their clothing and shoes that didn’t fit.
My school was very privileged to have some educational posters on the wall. We had two classrooms, and the second room looked like a Montessori class. It was nicer than any of the other volunteers’ classrooms combined, especially once the desks were donated. See? I was lucky with my placement. My teacher, Sister Mary, once mentioned to me that if she needed supplies, she had to buy them herself. I figured it out and I think it came out that the teachers only make about $150 USD a year!
When I arrived, all 40+ kids aged 2-7 were in the same little classroom. The material was too complex for the little ones but too easy for most of the older ones. Since there were two teachers and two volunteers, I suggested we split them up into an older class and a younger class. Can you imagine a classroom with all ages trying to learn the same material? Why had this not been done before?
As soon as I started, I became a full-time head teacher. While every school varied, class for my school was from about 830am -12n. Some days my teacher would should show up at 930am and other days, not at all. My first day the teachers arrived about 45 minutes late. I quickly realized, time was of no concern to Tanzanians. In fact, they have Tanzanian Flex Time (TFT), which means some people show up to appointments 4 hours late (without calling usually) and it is perfectly acceptable, people will wait. No one is in a rush, everyone is worry-free. Hakuna Matata, right?
I was given no direction, guidance or curriculum to teach. Occasionally, when my teacher was there, she would help with translation but I had to make do on my own when she was MIA. By the end of the 2nd week, I noticed I was in the room a majority of the time, teaching completely on my own. Every day after class, I had to do all the lesson planning for the following day. The home-base had very little resources and since the school had even less, I had to bring any needed school supplies with me for the day.
In over-crowded classrooms like this, the kids often don’t get the one-on-one attention and support they need to be successful. As a volunteer, it was so humbling to be able to provide that extra attention to help them learn and understand the material. I was a role model and provided inspiration for both the children and local educators.Whereas most volunteers, even by the end, seemed to only know a handful of kids, maybe the devil kids or their favorites, I took pride in the fact that by the second or third day, I knew all 20 kids in my class by name (and some of the younger ones, too). I made an effort to know each kid and to give them all individual one-on-one attention possible. This helped me get to know them on a personal level, enabled me to be a better teacher and to have a stronger impact on them. I think because of this, the kids looked out for me. They would sit on the ground to play (which is dirt, not cement) and be content being dirty. But as soon as I stood up from sitting in the dirt with them, they would take their cute tiny little hands and brush the dirt off my skirt until it was gone. And in the mornings when I got dropped off, some of the kids would run up smiling to greet the bus, grab my hand and hold it as we walked to the classroom. It was enough to melt your heart. Every time.
The thing about the kids was the amount of love and joy they exhibited every single day. When they weren’t being kids and arguing, they were all smiles. They couldn’t seem to get close enough to me, always climbing on me, playing with me, hugging me, sitting on my lap, and fiddling with my watch. Every day I went home with dirty handprints on my shirt from their little hands. One day, I decided to let Devota play with my hair. She clearly had never played with a Mzungu’s hair before and had a blast running her fingers through it as she giggled and tried to put it in a pony tail.
Despite the serious lack of resources available, I loved my school and was very lucky with my placement. The thing about having limited resources is that it is all a matter of perspective. To us it seemed like very little, but they were used to it and get my with what they have. So that is exactly what we, volunteers, had to do, too; make do with what we had.
Between being a full-time teacher, trying to communicate & teach through the language barrier, and doing my own creative lesson plans every night, I was wiped out by dinner. The 3 weeks I spent teaching was anything but a vacation. It was exhausting but extremely fulfilling and rewarding.
Stay tuned for Part 2…