As I stepped off of the dala dala onto the red dirt of the Himo School’s courtyard, I knew immediately – this was where I was meant to be. I was in Rau, Tanzania, a 45-minute drive from anywhere close to being recognizable as a town. Fred, the school principal, greeted us and led our group of thirteen into the small, dank room he called an office. Even though I’d come with low expectations, I was taken aback by the lack of supplies, space, and even usable desks for the 1,400 students. Our orientation consisted of a quick visit to each class and an overview of what they were learning. Then Fred gave us our assignment: teach English for two hours every day. We were on our own to figure out what to teach and how to teach it.
Luckily, our mentors had prepared us to anticipate this lack of direction, so we had brainstormed lesson plans before arriving. I chose to teach the eight year old group, not realizing this meant their knowledge of even basic English would be so limited. What made it even harder was the lack of accuracy in what they had already been taught. Students were learning to speak in present continuous, saying things like “I will running,” and they were given misinformation, like the capital of the United States is New York. We were presented with the challenge of re-teaching the already complex rules of English grammar.
The first day of class, the sixty pairs of eyes staring attentively at me were daunting. My uneasiness was compounded by the absence of a teacher in the room, who had decided it was a good time to take a paid day off. I could have used her assistance as a translator, given that I’d only had two Swahili lessons at that point. My teaching buddy, Andrew, and I had to learn by trial and error. We figured out that the students loved to sing, so we taught nouns through songs like Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes and Old MacDonald. To our delight, the kids were engaged, smiling and understanding the material.
Our next challenge was to get the students to let us know when they did not understand something we were teaching. They were afraid to make a mistake, and would not raise their hands. Andrew and I had the idea to bring them paper from our letter writing stash, a luxury for many of them. We asked them to spell the words for animals, and common objects. They were happy to participate in this exercise because they didn’t feel put on the spot. By looking at their writing, we gained insight into which students understood the concepts…and some actually did! I was so proud to see we were getting through to them! It was even more rewarding to work with the struggling children because, when they finally understood something, they were encouraged to learn more. I certainly developed a greater appreciation for my teachers and the lessons they create for us every day.
My first exposure to this connection between education and reducing poverty in underdeveloped countries was from Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea. It inspired a group of us to start a branch of his program, Stones into Schools, at our own school. We raised money to send girls in South East Asia to school. I loved being involved with this, and wanted to do more. I saw some of my fellow students getting involved with their passions beyond our own school, and I wanted to be a part of it. This is how I ended up working with GLA in Tanzania. I decided to make a difference first-hand in someone’s education. Now that I am home, my enthusiasm for the Stones into Schools club is renewed. As an officer, I want to encourage more students to raise money or get involved in a bigger way by teaching, because it will change their lives and it is so rewarding.
As I prepare for college, I am excited to continue learning about underdeveloped countries and how I can make a difference. While I intend to study medicine, I plan to return to Tanzania to continue teaching, and also to pursue another dream of mine –making medical care more accessible in remote areas like Rau. I know it’s possible, and I am up for the challenge.