Let me take you back in time, to 2009 when I first experienced Africa. Since the sixth grade when I first heard about my high school’s Tanzania Exchange Program I knew that I had to go…I was four years too young and probably didn’t know exactly where Tanzania was but I had what some describe as a calling. I knew that not going to Tanzania was not an option- I needed to get there. For five and a half years I kept Tanzania in the back of my mind, waiting for the day when I’d be 17, in grade 11, and eligible to participate. I got the necessary GPA, I got the recommendations from too many teachers and talked to all the girls I knew who had gone in previous years. I made, if one could say, too much of an effort, but I knew there was no way I’d miss out on this chance.

Me back at MGLSS, 2011

This chance changed my life (but I’ll get to that in a minute)! My high school, the International School of Amsterdam (ISA), has for the past 15 years sponsored the MaaSae Girls Lutheran Secondary School (MGLSS) in the small town of Monduli in Tanzania. MGLSS houses and teaches approximately 500 Maasai girls who have had a very basic Elementary education in the public school systems, and are selected for further education. They rely heavily on sponsorship for their placement at MGLSS, but this is now in the hands of Operation Bootstrap Africa to arrange. In traditional Masai tribes, females get very limited education and are married off by the age of 15 to create a family, cook and care for animals. MGLSS is one of few opportunities that give females the opportunity to pursue a greater education. Although not all girls are originally from Maasai tribes, many have run away from home to be educated since the Maasai (men) don’t support female education. Personally, as a huge advocate of female education, I’m inspired by the girls’ perseverance and dedication to their own education that they’d run away from family to a school, place, city, future they’re not even familiar with. It’s a risk I’d like to think I was courageous enough to take…

Every year (now, every other year) ISA arranges a summer program where a group of female students travel to MGLSS for three weeks to teach regular classes in English. The reason it’s called an exchange program is because we, as teachers, learn just as much or even more from the Maasae girls as they learn from us. Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources to physically bring the girls back to Amsterdam with us.
For three weeks we lived, taught, traveled, ate, played, laughed, sang and prayed together. A lot of preparation took place in the months leading up to our departure on June 16th at 8am. Supplies were fundraised for, packed, divided and carefully kept. Many afternoons witnessed our discussions and planning sessions: lesson plans and teaching techniques were covered, arts & crafts ideas were brainstormed, packing lists were created and Tanzanian culture lessons were given.  Individually we each created a project about our country of origin (in my case I choose Portugal since I know more about it than Norway) and took time to carefully prepare that: it was one of the most successful parts of my teaching, since the girls loved hearing about my family, country, animals and life!

We were a group of 12 very diverse, international, ambitious and enthusiastic girls from ISA with four incredibly qualified and loving chaperones. We lived on campus in three four-person huts/tents and bathed with a bucket in a concrete cubicle in the open air. Plenty of opportunities to bond and experience Tanzania together.  Each of us was given a group of MGLSS girls to personally teach. It was easier to split 46 girls between 12 of us, not only for organizational purposes but for teaching purposes. The bonus was that we got very close with them, developing great friendships and enjoying our own special moments. My group was called the Elephants and there was one particular girl I bonded with, Esupat “Esu” Samson — a girl passionate about learning, theatre (!), singing and the future. Much like me, she dreamed of becoming a singer/actress, on stage and screen…but I knew from the second I met her that my dream changed: my dream turned to wanting to make her dream come true and ever since I’ve been dedicated to making that happen! I’m now, more than ever, dedicated to girls’ education and making more of these girls’ dreams come true!

Esu and I, 2011

Our day-to-day routine included waking up at 6am, going to morning devotion, breakfast (the famed white bread/butter and chai mix), class 1,  chai time, class 2, lunch, class 3 and then evening arts and crafts, dinner and games. It was a jam-packed day everyday, but luckily I got to pick the subjects I felt most comfortable teaching for the next day of class. At one point our supervisors knew what I wanted to teach: English, geography/history and physical education.  Luckily the 12 of us we were all rather balanced: 6 preferred the humanities, 6 preferred maths and sciences.

On the weekends we’d travel with the girls, exploring the Tanzania they may not have had any other opportunity to know. One weekend safari to Tarangire national park, a weekend to Arusha to the markets and one weekend on campus, doing what they normally do. We learned their chores, their life on campus and if anything I learned so much about them from the day I saw them working on campus. Dedication, happiness and love are not missing with them. And I couldn’t end this post without a word about their singing: angelic voices singing in harmony their religious, tribal and pop songs. It was a joy in their voices that set life to that campus…and even on the day we left, their songs accompanied us to the airport. There was never a silence or a frown. Just pure joy and happiness that I’ll never forget. It was that joy and happiness that brought me to Tanzania the second time, and it will be that that brings me the third time.