Compassionate Education in Tanzania

As someone at the beginning of my teaching career (I began teaching full time in 2010), I am always looking to other teachers for ideas on how I can become a better educator. I love observing teachers. I love learning from them, and I love witnessing the unique relationships between teachers and students. In a world with darkness that can sometimes feel insurmountable, teachers provide dedication, inspiration, and love. Around the world, across oceans and cultures, teachers shine a light that guides future generations and creates positive change in communities. The team of dedicated teachers at the Queen Elizabeth Academy in Mlali, Tanzania. It was in a meeting with the teachers at the Queen Elizabeth Academy in Mlali, Tanzania, when a teacher asked me what I do to help “slow learners” in my classes. Neale, in your classes in the U.S., how do you accommodate ‘slow learners?’ The term “slow learners” may sound offensive to you. Some people would call it politically incorrect, start a lawsuit if it were used to describe their child, be insulted or hurt or angry. But here in Mlali, Tanzania, it is the accepted term used to describe students who are significantly behind academically, many of whom would qualify for special education services if they lived in the United States. He might as well have asked me to write an equation for quantum physics, because I didn’t have an answer that would translate from my urban classroom in the United States to this rural school in Tanzania. “Oh, you know, we talk to the special education team about getting the child evaluated! They may call the school psychologist, and we might advise the parents to make appointments with the child’s doctor, and maybe consult with a behavioral analyst, and then we gather all of this information and create a plan for the student! And sometimes additional teachers are assigned to help the student, and to help the teachers create assignments for the student in each class. Does that sound like a plan?” At the Queen Elizabeth Academy in rural Tanzania, there isn’t yet a special education department. There are no doctors or psychologists or behavioral analysts who regularly visit the school to evaluate the children. There are no laws and requirements telling the teachers what they have to do, or what they should be doing, to better accommodate differently-abled students. The students don’t have access to colorful manipulatives or iPads or audiobooks. But there are teachers. Hard working, loving, compassionate teachers. Whether a school is in New Orleans or Paris or Mlali, whether it has SMARTboards or blackboards, theteachers who dedicate themselves to the next generation are every school’s greatest asset. Classroom at the Queen Elizabeth Academy in Mlali, Tanzania. Photo credit: Tom Kubik. At the Queen Elizabeth Academy, we are working to establish a special education program to ensure that all students receive a quality education. It is a lot of work, and not something that is required in Tanzania, so these teachers are putting in extra time, love and energy to make a greater impact on their community. It is humbling and inspiring. Teacher Jane is an example of an exceptional teacher. In observing her classes, it is clear that she loves her job and she loves her students. Last week, she came over one evening to do some washing. She wasn’t washing her clothes, though, she was washing her students’ uniforms so they would have clean clothes to wear to school. No one asked her to do it, and she wasn’t being paid overtime; she saw an opportunity to help and she did. As I write this, it is 8 o’clock at night, and Jane has been here for the last hour and a half because she wanted to continue to work on creating an academic plan for a student. Of the special education program, she says, I like to know how to help slow learners because it is a good step for changing their future one step at a time. I want them to feel good and to feel confident. Teacher Magomba often spends his planning periods working on the special education program, evaluating students and creating individualized education programs for them. His dedication to the special education program belies the fact that he has many other responsibilities within the school. He has become a true leader of the program, and has collaborated and assisted his colleagues to make sure it is a success. This program isn’t perfect, but it is a significant step forward in achieving parity in education. I feel honored to work with the teachers at the Queen Elizabeth Academy, who are so dedicated to their students and to becoming better educators, and I am happy to have found this kinship thousands of miles away. Because of these teachers the students at QEA will flourish and thrive in the world beyond their classroom. Students celebrating winning a game during recess at the Queen Elizabeth Academy in Mlali, Tanzania. Photo credit:Ike Edeani. Neale Mahoney is a Mama Hope Global Advocate Fellow from Vermont. To learn more about her work with the Queen Elizabeth Academy, click here. To experience life in Mlali, visit Under the Tree: Volume 2.

Mlali

Mlali is a very small town in the middle of Tanzania.  It lies on a plateau at the base of Mt. Mlali, overlooking an iconic and stunning savannah.  The roads are made of red dust, which finds its way onto every inch of my body by the end of the day.  The sun sinks down peacefully every day beyond the horizon of acacia trees, then gives way to a moon that looks red each night when it rises.  I believe it’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I was welcomed to Mlali by Mama Faith, who is married to Athanas Sekwiha.  Athanas’s sister, Kilines, started the Queen Elizabeth Academy.  Athanas is a teacher at the school, and Mama Faith is the school cook.  It’s sort of like a family band, except instead of forming a band, they started a school.  I live in a lovely little apartment on the family compound, which also houses Athanas and Kili’s parents, Babu and Bibi, as well as other nieces, nephews, and relatives, all of whom play a role at QEA. The Queen Elizabeth Academy is sort of like The Little Engine That Could: in spite of countless setbacks, it has persevered.  The team of people who run the school are change-makers with heart and grit that are extraordinary.  There are dozens of times when it would have been far easier for them to bow down to the status quo as something acceptable, yet their love-driven work is turning their dream into a reality, one piece at a time. In addition to the school’s strong academic standing (it was ranked #7 in the district last year), QEA is a beautiful little microcosm in its community.  The school farm began three months ago and employs a parent as the head gardener.  In addition to providing food for school lunches, the farm has already sold enough produce to pay the salary for the gardener and the watchman.  Over 2,000 trees have been planted on the 36 acres of land, which were granted to QEA by the town of Mlali.  These trees will provide additional income as the delicious bananas, papayas, and mangoes grow and sell.  Equally as important, other trees have been planted specifically to help prevent erosion. The foundation for the boarding house is coming along very nicely!  I do believe the boarders at QEA will have the nicest view in all of Mlali!  The masons are working very hard each day to make sure the kids have a safe and beautiful home. I feel happy and whole here in Mlali.  In the two short weeks that I’ve been here, I’ve had laughs that made my belly hurt and heard stories of grace and beauty and inspiration.  I am grateful to be a part of this meaningful work, and blessed to have such wonderful friends and family who have supported this project.  With love from here to there….    

Daily Life at Glorious

With 300+ students, 30 teachers and staff members, community members stopping by to meet with Alice about the community housing project or the microfinance project, the campus is always bustling with people and there is always something going on (even during school breaks!).     Over the break, the kids loved watching movies, especially Tarzan!     Rebecca, one of the three caretakers that live with and care for the kids living in the Orphan’s Home, is one of the most loving and welcoming people I know. “There are always more than a dozen extra kids at Alice’s house — from the 11 children living at the Orphan’s Home to the many neighbors who simply want a safe place to play. Everyone is welcome. So here’s to overflowing dinner tables and a generous kind of love.” – Glorious Volunteer, Erin Brennan-Burke     Ebenizer and Amar pose for the camera!  

Shop Units Update

The team has made so much progress on the shop units over the past two weeks! I can’t believe that, in such a short amount of time, the foundation for the shop units is almost done! As discussed in the first shop units update, the shop units will provide rent-free space for QEA to sell their surplus from the school farm and fish pond. Not only will the school shops be income generating for QEA, but they will also provide many other benefits to the greater community. Due to the shop units prime location, they will be able to service people from all over the region who come to the area to visit the church, secondary school and hospital. Here are just a few examples of how the shop units will positively impact the community of Mlali and surrounding region: 1) Kids will be able to stop at the shop to pick up supplies on their way to school. 2) Typically, family members of those in the hospital stay outside the hospital for the duration of the patients stay. During this time, the family members are responsible for bathing them and providing them with meals. The shop units will the perfect place for families to pick up supplies and food while their family member is recovering in the hospital. 3) Right now, Mlali is going through what is called the “season of hunger”. What this means is that the community is waiting for their next harvest to be ready, which causes there to be less produce available to be sold, less food available to be purchased, and ultimately, leaves many people unable to bring an income into their home and many people searching for other ways to find work to make money. The shop unit project has employed a team of builders for this long term project which allows the builders to make enough money to provide for their families during the season of hunger. As you may know by now, today was my last day in Mlali, and I will be heading to Arusha to work with Glorious School for the next few months. Even though I won’t be in Mlali to track the progress of the shops, my fellow global advocate, Barbara Bemer, will be keeping us updated every step of the way! Stay tuned!   Take a look at all of the exciting work that’s been done on the shop units in the past two weeks!   Builders working hard to finish the foundation.     Irene and Felista showing off their dance moves!     Foundation all ready for cement!     Finished product!  As the foundation is the hardest part, now that it is nearly done, the walls and roof will go up in no time!  Can’t wait to see the progress we make in the next two weeks!     Before saying goodbye, I had to snap a picture with Babu and the head builder!

Wazee

When it comes to international development we tend to set our sights on the future. Even in my work I have always been forward focused – building, developing, educating. By investing in the next generation we are helping provide access to the tools needed to bring change to a community. There is even a very noticeable trend in international giving; supporting organizations serving children and education. While this does bring amazing opportunity for future change, we are overlooking a population that exists in every community whose needs are often being left under-resourced. Two weeks ago, during an NGO fair, I struck up a conversation with the organization African Impact. Among many other projects African Impact is partnered with Langoni Old People’s Home, locally known as “Wazee” (pronounced Wah-zay, meaning “elderly person” in Swahili), an elderly care facility based here in Moshi. Intrigued by a program outside of my usual education/child-development work, I met with Gill, the program manager, to learn more about their partnership. Here in Tanzania, it is a part of the culture that as the elderly get older they are taken care of by their children, grandchildren, or other family members. However, due to conflict, injury, death, financial strains, and many other reasons, there are a number of individuals growing old and finding themselves without a family to help support them. Wazee is a government funded elderly care facility that was set up in the late 80s/early 90s and currently accommodates 15 residents. Staffed by 1 manager and 4 women, the employees work long hours tending to the basic needs of residents: cleaning and cooking. This leaves little to no time to focus their attention on community building and daytime activities for the elderly. After years of living as neighbors, many of the elderly didn’t even know each other’s names. Gill explained to me that when they first visited Wazee it was a dismal place, a place for the elderly to simply watch the final years of their lives pass by. In 2013 African Impact partnered with Wazee. Working to fill the need for community building programs, their time is focused on stimulating the residents physically, emotionally, and mentally. While the staff continues their work of general operations, African Impacts runs daily group activities such as Arts and Crafts, newspaper reading, seated exercise, ESL classes, a variety of games (yes bingo is a big hit here too), and a community garden (helping diversify the nutrition available to the residents). This past week I volunteered with African Impacts to get a better understanding of their program and impact. Starting our day by greeting each of the residents one by one, we slowly made our way from home to home chatting, sharing jokes, and discussing current events. Through the conversations I was hit with a wave of nostalgia. I was reminded of visiting my own grandfather at the home he stayed in before he passed away 2 years ago. I realized how important it was to my mother and me to choose a place for him that would exercise his mind and body, ensuring that the last years of his life were ones of value and joy. So why should this level of care be different for anyone else in the world? After greeting each of the residents at Wazee, the rest of the afternoon was spent doing seated exercise. A mix of stretches and aerobic games to get everyone moving. We were not only ensuring their bodies remain healthy and active, but also providing the space for the community to laugh, chat, and interact together.   Where before there was little to no interaction, now when you visit Wazee you will see all residents together chatting under the shade of a tree, sharing stories, and enjoying their final years together as a community. A few years ago a resident at Wazee passed away. With no funding for a funeral or a tombstone this person would have been buried in an unmarked grave, with no celebration or time for mourning. African Impact decided that they would pay for the funerals of the residents at Wazee. After this first funeral African Impacts was receiving feedback from the residents who stated, “you are here with us in life, you are also here with us in death, you are our family now. 0 0 0 Vulnerable communities come in all different shapes, sizes, and ages. When considering community development we must think of all members of the community. Yes, it is important to invest in the next generation, but it is important to not hold such a narrow focus on the future. There are individuals today that deserve equal attention. For centuries, cultures around the globe have respected the advice, wisdom, and guidance provided by the elderly. It is important we also respect their need for our support as they continue to age, ensuring their final years are ones of comfort and peace. Call to action One of the major issues found at Wazee is theft. With no wall surrounding their space, the residents are left unprotected from thieves coming to take advantage of the vulnerable residents. One woman’s three-year-old toothbrush was even stolen. African Impact is currently raising funds to help build a wall around Wazee. If you would like to support the their efforts please click here.

Familiar Feelings in the Unfamiliar

It wasn’t clear what exactly I was expecting to feel after landing in Tanzania, thirteen days ago, but as we sped along the dirt road, I gazed out the window into the unknown and found myself feeling comfort and certainty of a connection to this place. I woke up with a new mama and three sisters, a host family eager to invite me into their lives and kitchen (word is, best in the neighborhood)! Technically, I’m living with one family but quickly learned that everyone I meet becomes an immediate part of this inner circle, a source of constant support, unity and friendship, which makes for an incredibly strong community. This level of civic engagement courses through daily life in Arusha, building infrastructure and effective systems that I imagine, can only be seen by experiencing the relationships firsthand. Members of the community are trusted and held accountable, debts are paid, food is provided, tools are lent, knowledge is shared, education and healthcare covered, and a solid understanding of the importance for well being of all. The incentive? Survival. The most exciting way to travel through Arusha and commute to work everyday is by boda boda. Just hop on the back of almost any motorbike in town and hold on tight, not too tight because you’ll injury yourself if you don’t loosen up while on the rougher dirt roads, and enjoy the views of life happening all around you. Walking can also be extremely pleasant and at the same time overwhelming because you are greeted and acknowledged every step of the way. The eye contact and conversation are refreshing, energizing. The boda bodas may be fast but the pace of life in Tanzania is much slower than what I am used to. I have come to appreciate reducing my walking speed, staying for tea and sharing stories before getting down to business, becoming less dependent on power (electricity is not available 24hrs a day) and my regular need to check in. I have tapped into a new awareness of what surrounds me and my own participation in it all. I have spent my weekdays at Glorious, where I will be working, with the founders and most inspiring, loving couple, Alice and Julius. It is truly a dream to be able to work with this community centered organization and to be part of their future and family. Did I mention the 200 children attending the primary school who I get to spend my free time with? Well, they are ebullient small beings with a thirst for knowledge and experience who approach you with open arms and hearts, demanding your companionship throughout their school time adventures. The wealth in communities in Arusha, Tanzania is unlike any I have experienced before, yet it feels instinctual, familiar, an opportunity to explore what is foreign with a confidence that we are all in this together.