Teaching in Tanzania – Part 1

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…

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star from Caryn Levy on Vimeo.

Tanzania photos

Leave your first world expectations at home.

1) View of Mt. Kilimanjaro peeking over the clouds from our home-base balcony 2) Bunk beds & mosquito nets 3) Dining shelter and home-base 4) laundry


The whole flying time was about 22 hours from Chicago to  Tanzania. Somewhere during this time, I realized I enjoy flying alone. I enjoy the peaceful “me time” that I get. It is nice not having to answer to anyone, to get away from it all, to get lost in thought and just be disconnected for those hours of solitude. I even enjoy finding my way around a foreign airport or city on my own. To me, solo exploration is liberating and empowering and builds independence. Excuse me while I daydream about this now…

Okay, I’m back. So it finally hit me when I was landing in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania that I was actually about to step foot in Africa! I’m not going to lie, it was so exhilarating that I definitely shed a few tears of pure elation and joy knowing that 20 years of dreaming was over. Within seconds of stepping foot on the tarmac at Kilimanjaro International Airport and before I could enter the doors, the power went out. I knew my luggage hadn’t made the layover from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro, so when I arrived,  I gave my information and they recorded it manually by hand, not by computer.When I got to the home base that first night, like the airport, the power was out there too. I quickly realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore and that I’d have to adjust to the power frequently going out. I learned to appreciate it (and the fan, too) when it was on.

It was two full days before I had clean clothes other than what I had in my carry-on. I knew my luggage was out of my control and I’d get it eventually. So why stress? Immediately, I embraced the Hakuna Matata mantra (Think Lion King – yes it really does mean no worries/problems) that the Tanzanians live by. Like the power, there were several things that I had to adjust to. Things you use daily and don’t think twice about at home, are luxuries or even foreign concepts in other places of the world. When you travel to a third world country, first world expectations need to be left at home. 

Luxuries & things we take for granted

  • CCS Home-base living accommodations: There were about 30 volunteers all living in one house together. We were extremely privileged with our accommodations. It was nothing like a 4 star hotel or anything, not even close, but compared to locals, we lived like kings.
  • Running water– while we had running water, we were instructed not to use the tap water for any reason other than showering and washing our hands because we could get sick from the un-purified water or catch a water-born illness. The home-base staff provided us with filtered water tanks to fill our water bottles and to brush our teeth.
  • Indoor plumbing – although I got really good at ‘popping a squat,’ especially on the mountain, we were lucky the home-base had toilets with actual toilet seats, rather than holes in the ground.
  • Clean water – Every time I saw Brenda, the little neighbor girl, squat down and drink directly from the stream, my heart would break a little. The kids would drink directly from the same dirt-filled stream that they washed their clothes in. Without clean water, it is easy to understand why the kids were always so dirty.
  • Being clean – even being clean was a luxury. Every day we would get filthy dirty. Most of the roads are rocky and covered in red dirt. It was nearly impossible to stay clean. Just from walking around, my feet would get so dirty that when I took my Keens off, I had deep dirt lines that looked like I was still wearing sandals. I constantly had hand prints on my shirt from my students.
  • Shower- yes, having running water and a shower was more than what some of the locals had. I’d see people cleaning their arms and feet in the nearby streams.
  • Hot water – we had to turn on the hot water heater with a switch before showering but that didn’t guarantee that the hot water (or power) wouldn’t run out before you were finished.
  • Laundry – My mom asked me when I returned if they had washing machines and I couldn’t help but laugh. No, there were no washing machines or dryers. We had to hand wash all of our clothes and put them out on the line to dry, just like the locals. At least we were lucky enough to have clean running water to rinse our clothes in. I would frequently see women washing their clothes in the dirt-filled streams. Once dry, we had to iron everything to kill any Mango Fly eggs that might be nested on our clothes. The heat from the iron kills the eggs. Some people said it wasn’t Mango Fly season and didn’t iron their stuff but having Mango Flies in my underwear and vajayjay was not a risk I was willing to take. My question remains, what do the locals do during season? I don’t think they all own irons.
  • Room situation-I shared a small room with 4 other volunteers and we each had our own bed with mosquito net. Each room even had its own shower, sink and toilet. See? We lived in luxury like kings. Guilty.
  • Electricity – As I learned early on, power was very sporadic. It frequently went out leaving us to write in our journals or shower by flashlight. The school had no electricity at all. The windows provided the lighting for the room.
  • Clothing- We take for granted that we have clothes that fit and options to choose from. The kids often had shoes that didn’t fit or safety pins where buttons should be to keep their pants up, and they wore the same thing every.single.day. The kids wore the same thing every single day, so rotating between 3 skirts for 3 weeks was totally acceptable.
  • Language- we take being able to communicate for granted. I give teachers credit. It’s hard work, especially when you can’t explain the directions because they don’t understand english or if a kid comes to you crying. You helpless when this happens because you don’t know what happened and you know that whatever you say to comfort the kid, doesn’t matter because to them you are speaking gibberish.
  • Air Conditioning –  It was usually about 90 degrees but it was a pleasant and comfortable heat. There was no A/C, only fans at the home-base. And that fan only worked when the power was on. The first time I felt A/C was at a hotel in Zanzibar. I was like, “What is this cold air!?!” I had forgotten what it felt like after 2 weeks without it.
  • Paved streets –Most of the main roads are paved but the side streets are not. They are so rocky, you are pretty much off-roading every time you get in the car. I considered seeing a chiropractor upon my return because of all the bouncing.
  • Sidewalks – There are none. Locals walk or ride their bike everywhere and they do so on the side of the street. This is by no means safe because cars don’t seem to abide by any traffic laws. Like London, they drive on the left but there were plenty of times where we drove on the right side of what would be presumed to be the shoulder, even with oncoming traffic heading right towards us.
  • School Resources – Or seriously lack thereof. You are probably imagining your elementary school with school supplies galore: chairs, art decorations, lights, paper, a whiteboard, toys, crayons, and a playground. The schools in Tanzania have none of that. I was lucky in that my school had more resources than others. I had pencils, desks and a barely functioning chalkboard. One of the volunteers said that his school of three to seven year olds used razor blades as pencil sharpeners. Razor blades! The chalk is so cheap it crumbles upon contact and the kids use sharp bottle caps to help them count for math.  People complained that they didn’t have enough supplies, but at the end of the day, You really just need to make do with what you have. That is what the community does, and they survive. So did we. Future CCS volunteers BRING SUPPLIES WITH YOU to Africa. They are not considered donations if you use it to help you teach and the school doesn’t become dependent on it. I will talk more about school in a later post.
  • Internet access To have internet at your fingertips is a first world luxury. We were lucky that the home-base had a wi-fi connection, although it was dodgy and only worked a handful of times. The lack of wi-fi turned out to be an interesting social experiment. When the internet was down, the volunteers actually held conversations and took an interest in each other at the dining tables. It was obvious when the wi-fi was working because people would be silently staring into their lap. We had wi-fi for a day before it went out and that was enough to make people complain and feel entitled to need have it. I think many volunteers forgot they were in Africa, a third world country, and would complain incessantly when the Internet went out. #Firstworldproblems I didn’t expect to have any Internet at the home-base so I had mentally prepared myself to do as the locals do, and only get Internet from the Internet Cafe’s in town, so to me, it was a privilege to have it at all (when it worked).

Why have we become so reliant and dependent on technology? Why is it so hard to detach? Have we become so untrusting that no one can do our job as well as we can, so we have to check in constantly?  Is it out of fear we are missing something that we are always “checking in”? News flash, being in Africa is way cooler than whatever it is your friend made for dinner back at home. Yet, people can’t seem to disconnect.

  • Food – For most of us in The States, we are lucky that food is plentiful, we can go to the store whenever we want and we have grocery stores filled with endless options. For some of the students in Tanzania, the only food they would get for the whole day was the porridge we served them. It is a cornmeal based drink that looked white and chalky and reminded me of an oatmeal paper mache. It didn’t look appetizing but the kids drank it and were always grateful saying, “Thank you TEACHA!” And here were some of the volunteers complaining that they wanted more variety or spices at the home-base. I was appalled that they couldn’t just be appreciative that we being served food at all, let alone three delicious meals a day.

While the volunteers were complaining, they weren’t appreciating the quality and freshness of the food. It was wonderful to have such fresh and natural food that hasn’t been genetically modified. In East Africa, if you want fruit like an avocado, banana, or mango, you pick it from your tree or get it from the local store. You want beef? You either kill your own cow or the butcher kills his. You want pork? Same thing, kill your pig. The cows are not given hormones or steroids to fatten them up. You can actually taste the freshness in the food. Most families keep animals for food, not as pets. It was common to see animals everywhere. Some are acquired from dowry’s; cows for meat and milk, chickens for meat and eggs; and pigs for pork. Dogs are not pets, they roam free and like the chickens, they have to fend for themselves to find their own food. I know we have “free-range” chickens in The States, but in East Africa there are no chicken farms or cages. They are literally free-range. Even the yolk is not as dark yellow as it is here because supposedly the chickens are healthier and not as fatty.We were told that they know where they live and even after a day of roaming, they will always return home. Why did the chicken cross the road? To find food.

Outside the home-base, the rule was if you can’t peel it, don’t eat it.The bananas were mini and the watermelons were loaded with seeds. In America, sadly, even our fruit isn’t completely all-natural. Everything is bigger and the manufacturers genetically alter the fruit to have fewer seeds. Personally, I’d rather have more seeds than have my fruit doped up. In Tanzania, I knew it was all-natural whereas in The States, I don’t trust where the meat is coming from, how it is raised (or killed), or what genetically modified and unnatural substance it was given. Even the meat with flies swarming around it in the street market, is safer to eat than what we are buying in stores. This opened my eyes to GMO’s and I have decided to stop eating red meat and chicken. I feel that all these hormones and GMO’s that we are giving our animals, and then ingesting ourselves, is a large reason why cancer is so prevalent here. That isn’t a problem in Tanzania. One man told me his neighbor died at 114 and his father at 102. I think everything we put into our bodies matters and if the FDA isn’t going to protect us, I want to do everything in my power to take care of myself the best way I can.

The world is bigger than just one person or one culture. There is a special magic that happens when you leave the safety of your own comforts, your own culture, and step away from the privileges of the Westernized World to learn from people who don’t share your language, lifestyle, beliefs or religion. You might not agree with the traditions, but while you cannot change what has been done for centuries, you can allow yourself to learn and grow while exchanging bits of your culture as they share theirs with you. Travel exposes us to new experiences, lifestyles and cultures, introduces us to new ways of doing things, expands our mind, and makes us grateful for the things we take for granted. Just as I did my first day when I took on the Hakuna Matata mantra, it is important to embrace the local culture, try the local cuisine and disconnect from home. Experiencing new cultures allows us to step outside of our bubble and grow but we have to be willing to be flexible and leave our first world expectations at home.
Girl collecting water from a stream; pretty but stupid bird; typical “toilet”; beautiful wild flowers; truck covered in dirt; meals