I taught summer school for five weeks in Tanzania last summer and I don’t know who learned more about themselves and the world: me or my students? I have been teaching abroad on and off for eight years and have learned many things about life, cultures, and people from each experience. Yet, after my trip to Tanzania my worldview has completely and drastically changed. So what was so different about this African country that got me reevaluating my way of life back home? Everything.
It started with seeing the classrooms in Kirua. The broken cement floors had huge potholes of uneven and rocky red earth throughout, while the desks were rickety, too small for their students, and crammed each of the rooms. If you had the unfortunate luck of sitting in the back few rows there were no aisles, so you would have to clamber over your desk in order to get to and from your seat. The walls were comparable to the floors, and although the chalkboard was in working order, chalk was a rare commodity. Just months ago I had been complaining about having to use an overhead projector and not having a Smart Board in my classroom. Things I now shake my head at and am lucky to have.
When I first saw the students and what they were wearing I was shocked. The majority of their uniforms were ripped and tattered, some of them even having holes in the arms all the way from the cuff link to just above the elbow. A few uniforms were so dirty I think they may never have even been washed. Students’ sole pair of shoes, that were already secondhand, were either too big for them or shoes that were not appropriate to be walking to and from school in, playing with their friends in or completing their chores in. One afternoon I was chatting with a young thirteen year-old girl named Jenny. She told me that she had to get up at 4 am so she could walk the two and a half miles up and down rolling hills in order to be on time for school. I looked down at her feet and saw she was wearing high heels. I thought of how many clothes and how many pairs of shoes I owned back home and I felt disgusted because I had so many of both. Some of which I had barely even worn; all of which would have been used and valued more by these students, their families, and their teachers.
One afternoon we went for a hike, and as we passed a small house on top of a hill a mother emerged holding her newborn. We waved, smiled, and exchanged pleasantries in Swahili, but as she walked closer I noticed how severely crossed her eyes were. Given how rocky the paths and how steep the hills were that led to her house, I could not imagine trying to navigate them without proper vision. As someone who has been wearing glasses since I was eighteen months old and have had to have three eye operations to try to correct my vision, the fact that she has probably never and will never see an eye doctor left me speechless and overwhelmed with guilt. How can having proper vision, something our society considers everyone entitled to, be denied this woman? How can something our society wouldn’t even think twice about if they were in her position, not be an option for her?
When it came time for recess, like all children, the Tanzanian students ran as fast as they could to their field. Except it wasn’t a field. It was a slanted, hard, rocky, dust pit with deep rivets scattered throughout that if you lost your footing on you risked breaking something. But the students didn’t think twice about that and started chasing one another, laughing, smiling, and kicking a soccer ball. Except it wasn’t a soccer ball. When I looked closer it was several plastic bags bunched together with a string tied around them to hold in a quasi ball formation. Later that day I found a group of students between the ages of 12 and 14 playing keep ups with a pink balloon. At first I was surprised by how happy they were with something as simplistic as a balloon, especially given their ages, but then their genuine joy and elation tore that away and made me feel honoured to be witnessing such pure happiness. These students made me realize how much I and how much our society takes for granted. The children didn’t need a perfectly manicured grass field with the appropriate little white lines or a playground to have fun; all they needed was the space and the time to run around. They didn’t need a brand new Nike soccer ball to play a game; all they needed were some bags and a rope so they could create their own ball. They didn’t need the newest iPhone, gaming system, or 50 inch flat screen to make them happy; all they needed was a balloon.
I really didn’t know what to expect when going to Tanzania, but from my previous travels I did know that sometimes the world is not like what you see on TV or read in the newspaper. Yes, I saw immense poverty and undernourished children, but I also I saw a country in a continent, which is generally depicted as scary in the media, as a very friendly and welcoming one. I saw locals of all ages smiling, laughing, and waving as we drove or walked passed. I met parents who worked very hard every day of the week so they could provide for their families, and I met children who valued and appreciated the importance of education. I truly realized how much I have taken for granted and I would not have come to that realization had I not seen it first hand in Tanzania, because it is incomparable to what is shown in the media. Tanzania is an absolutely beautiful country with an absolutely beautiful culture and people. While there I saw such an authentic happiness in its people, who have far less than we do and because of this and everything else I learned, I will forever be indebted to the people of Tanzania and what they taught me.