…of a volunteer in “the-middle-of-nowhere”, Tanzania. I’ve gotten to a point in my re-adaptation to the Western world where I can finally write about the amazing children I taught for almost five weeks. I must say I have an extremely hard time saying the word “goodbye”: I’ve said it too many times, to too many people and it just never gets any easier (I guess that’s the downside to being a global nomad!). So leaving the children I pretty much fell in love with, in their small Maasai village was probably the second hardest thing I’ve had to do (first hardest was saying good-bye to the Maasai girls two years ago). Therefore I’ve had a difficult time handling my feelings: I miss them a lot, and so I’ve delayed writing about them. Now I’m strong enough to stand up to my feelings and (what seemed like) endless crying, to describe a day in the life at the Maasai Project in “the middle-of-nowhere”, Tanzania. As always, here’s a song to accompany the read: One Tribe by the Black Eyed Peas.
At the crack of dawn, with our very own rooster outside the window and quite often torrential rains, my roommate volunteers and I would wake up, rush for a bucket shower and meet the family for breakfast. Savouring our white-bread, Blue Band and hot chai we’d sit at the table planning individual lessons for that day, for the three different classes at the school. Our school had no name: the Maasai Project, as we called it, was 1 hour and 45 minutes away on our famed dalla dallas, quite literally in the middle-of-nowhere, in an abandoned church. The project itself was created by volunteers and Projects Abroad, therefore it only functions when there are enough volunteers to sustain it. During the time I was there we figured out that the project could only run on the minimum of four volunteers but unfortunately in the off-season (normally the months of a typical school year) there aren’t even four working there. Luckily, I was one of seven during the month of May and there was an increased improvement rate for the children. A little more about that later…
By 7:30 we were out the door, walking to get our bus, being swamped by street children and Maasai men asking for pens, money and chocolate, and waking up to the smells and dust of Arusha town! Our arrival at Samora (what I call the middle of nowhere) was never at a determined time: some days 9am, others 9:15 and even at 9:45, but we were always greeted with an absolutely incredible, overwhelming joy from the children: singing (their favorite pastime) clapping, dancing, jumping. Most songs we had taught them so they loved showing us how much they’d remembered and understood.
What I must mention before I go on is that probably 1 out of 10 children had been to school prior to this project starting in March of this year…let alone learned English before. We basically started from nothing: disciplining them, making them understand basic school “student/teacher” rules and relationships and building our way up from there. It was not an easy task, especially since they spoke only Maa (the Maasai language), no Swahili and absolutely no English: our mode of communication was through gestures and the body. If there is one thing I learned from them was the importance of body language — in our western world it’s often taken for granted. The children fed off of how I stood, my slants, my eye motions, my facial expressions and learned to distinguish the tones and pitches of my voice: they knew the difference when I was happy/enthusiastic or when I was angry or upset with a student for being stubborn or naughty.
There was approximately 50 students and we split them up by level of comprehension, meaning that we’d draw a circle and ask them to copy it, then by looking at all the drawings we’d group them based on the skill shown. It was a very rough measure of their level of schooling, but there was no other way at the time that could have worked better. We ended up with three classes: the “babies”, the Middle class and Advanced class.
The children were between the ages of 3 and 10. Each one was incredibly special in his or her own way: some were the class clowns, others the little terrors, some angelic in nature and others appeared simply to be in their own world. Nonetheless, they were all enthusiastic about learning, being in school and the company of us “mzungus”. I can’t remember one individual that looked at us with hollow eyes, or anyone who fell asleep during class. I had the privilege of teaching the middle class: the children who could draw a round circle. I had an incredible teaching partner, a French girl named Alice, and together we managed to get the children (in a matter of weeks) to write numbers 1 through 10, identify and draw letters A through G and the basic shapes (square, circle, triangle and rectangle). Slowly we introduced words to match the letters and they learned them, through much repetition, almost flawlessly. We had many ups and downs, many doubts as to whether our students were understanding anything and actually retaining it. But one day, one of my last days actually, it was as if they had had an ephiphany: in the words of Alice, it was “freaking awesome” because it was evident they knew it. “It” being everything we had taught them: numbers were easy, letters, shapes and pictures were impeccably memorized and number 100 was reached verbally!
There aren’t words to describe the drastic improvement of those children. After three hours of class a day since March, they were almost unrecognizable: there was a magical bond between my students, Alice and I, they understood us and responded so well to our leadership. When we smiled, they’d smile. When we clapped, they’d clap. When we gave them a high five, they’d tap us back. When they got something correct, their pride shone like the sunbeams exploding through the glassless windows.
At 1pm, our day at school would end in a circle: all three classes, volunteers, cook and driver would join in hands and sing. Singing songs like “head, shoulders, knees and toes”, “The Hokey Pokey” and my favorite, “Elephant Come to the Bus” we’d say “see you tomorrow” and clap the kids home. It’s a ritual that I’ll never forget, nor their gleaming smiles on their faces!