This morning over porridge Amani, whose name means Peace
, taught me the Swahili word for goosebumps: msisimko
. I needed that word to describe to him - and to you - the past 24 hours. Amani graduated from a local school before joining Shepherds for secondary. Local primary schools are taught in Swahili, while all secondary schools - including government schools - are taught in English. Imagine 13- & 14-year-olds who've never learned in English suddenly making the difficult transition to learning every subject - math, science, social studies and all - in English. This is the position in which Amani finds himself, surrounded by children whose English is now nearly fluent, and yet he is neither shy nor quiet, but has made fast friends with the others who serve as his human dictionaries when he urgently needs to find the right English words to communicate to me what is so clear to him in Swahili. I wish my Swahili was good enough to keep up with him, so sometimes he teaches me to sprinkle in the the important words, like msisimko
, that make my English feel more like home.
I spent last night with Amani and his eighth-grade (known here as Form 1) classmates in Manyire, the small quiet village in whose fertile soil the secondary school has now been planted. Yesterday afternoon, the students and I sorted, organized, numbered and labelled the over 1,000 books that have been collected in the secondary school's makeshift library - a small room that also now serves as a second classroom, a lunch room, the teachers' offices, and, at night, a room where students can gather to read and socialize. Mr. Hussein, the science & math teacher, has also made a temporary home for the television and his own DVD player here so that the children can watch cartoons or current events when electricity allows. Leah, the library prefect, organized her class into three teams that finished the work in only a few hours. Albert, the class artist and a brilliant boy who skipped the seventh grade to move directly to the top of this secondary class, used a six-inch ruler to carefully construct a library poster on which each and every letter was perfectly straight.
While we sorted, Lossim, the budding zoologist, older brother of Oltesh, and one of the tallest in his class, disappeared for a moment. Soon, he was back with his new pet, a chameleon he named Jupo, for whom he'd fashioned a small cage out of rusty chicken wire he'd found nearby and a plush nest of fresh grass. The day before, I'd found Lossim with a nameless pigeon sitting on his shoulder - a young one, he said, whose family had flown away. He would feed it for a few days in the nest he'd made - until surely enough the downy bird grew stronger and flew away on his own. Now, Lossim shared that he'd studied Jupo for awhile before catching the hissing creature by grabbing the back of his neck. He learned the chameleon preferred butterflies and, sure enough, Lossim caught those too and Jupo gobbled them up. We studied Jupo for a bit, placing him on plants and watching him turn from concrete gray to bright leafy green. "Jupo," Lossim explained, "means an animal who likes other animals." Lossim, I think, believes he is the other animal. From inquiring from the other students, though I'm not entirely sure, "jupo" doesn't seem to be a Swahili word, but one instead whose definition Lossim created himself especially for his new pet.
When the library was finished, we opened a deck of brain bender cards and the self-named "smarties" fought off the "geniuses" to win a heated intellectual battle. Remsome, a quiet, unassuming boy of 13 who sits in the back right corner of the room, led his team to victory by quickly and correctly answering critical thinking questions like these by Gary Gruber, PhD:
- I am four times as old as my daughter. In 20 years I shall be twice as old as her. How old are we now?
- In the subtraction problem ABA - CA = AB, each letter uniquely identifies one digit from 0 to 9. Find the values of A, B, and C.
After the game, we sat down for a supper of ugali (a stiff porridge made of maize), lentils and cabbage - all cooked patiently by the matron over a wood fire in the small shack-kitchen. Ugali and beans are on the menu for nearly every meal at the secondary school. Sometimes rice replaces the ugali, and - on the one day per week many children like best - they have chapati, a warm, flat bread that the matron rolls individually by hand. On Wednesdays, another favorite, pilau, is on the menu - it's the one meal per week that includes a bit of meat. We dined outside under the tree listening to the Manchester United-Newcastle football (er, soccer) match on a radio that is literally only a radio - not a CD, mp3, cassette or even an 8-track player in sight. Aside from Silas, whose wide charming smile is broken only to occasionally nervously bite his bottom lip, everyone seemed to be hoping Manchester would win. We sat literally in the dark. The school is not on the electrical grid, and there is no generator, so the children have learned to carefully conserve the limited power produced by the two solar panels. On a sunny day, the two panels provide light nearly until morning - which in the stark and total darkness of the nights here is necessary to guide the children safely across the stony field in front of their classrooms-turned-dormitories to the toilets. Last night, the children were conserving energy so that the electricity would last long enough to watch a movie on Mr. Hussein's DVD player. We'd arranged for a very special movie night: I'd brought popcorn the matron, with her sidekick Gideon, popped fresh over the fire, and Jolly Ranchers I'd carried from the US. Together, we watched Finding Nemo
and Alice in Wonderland
. Afterward, I asked if anyone had ever seen Alice
before. A few had read the story, but not one had seen the film. Of those who read the book, each confirmed that they never imagined wonderland to look quite like Disney's version.
After the movie, I followed the girls back to their dormitory to get ready for bed. We laid down on pink-sheeted bunks, and while the girls on the top bunks complained they were too hot, the girls on the bottom bunks said they were too cold. Eventually, to my delight, the windows were all opened and a cool breeze blew into the room...and the girls started to sing themselves - and me - to sleep. Glory began by asking me if I remembered the songs I taught them years ago in primary school: Ain't No Mountain High Enough
and One Moment in Time
. Of course. They sang those for a bit, then broke into the song LaLaLove
which my friend Robbie wrote last year as part of our LaLaLove
effort that helped to build this school out of song. I texted it to him from the bottom bunk, and he wrote back words of love that I read to the girls. As I did, I heard the boys singing next door, and went next door to record them when my phone died for the night. I tiptoed back into the girls room, and we began to whisper to one another. When I asked their favorite songs, Salma giggled about Justin Beiber (yes, even here!), and the girls continued to sing popular Swahili songs, songs by Adele, and then, as we drifted to sleep, Leah sang us a lullaby in her tribal language. We went to bed at 9, but didn't fall asleep until well after 11.
This morning, the matron woke each girl by name just after 5:30am: "Aziza, Glory, Leah, Anna, Irene, Deborah, Salma...wake up!" The girls quickly wrapped themselves in khangas (local cloth wrap skirts), and hurried with the Matron to the classroom to meet the boys who were already there. Immediately, Leah began to sing and, in harmony, the whole class joined in as loudly as I've ever heard them - singing to God. While the school is not religiously affiliated, spirituality in Tanzania is deeply woven even into the most secular spaces. Here, God is everywhere: business meetings, government ceremonies, and every school I've visited. I've approached the question in every way I know how - and it seems from every answer I've received culturally infathomable not to infuse spiritual practice (regardless of religion) into the daily life of children - so both a Christian pastor and a Muslim Shaikh consult and provide spiritual guidance and instruction. When they finished singing, the kids all simultaneously began having an individual conversation aloud with whatever God they worship. Everyone spoke independently at the same time - none of the memorized prayers I remember from my own youth, but instead personalized reflections from each child spoken all at once. Only a divine being could have made sense of this sacred symphony, so I asked them later what they prayed for. Allen responded that he was asking God about a dream he had last night about their upcoming exam competition with another local secondary school. Then others chimed in: "I prayed for God to be with me today;" "I asked for forgiveness;" "I prayed for God to bless our school;" "I prayed for you to stay with us until December."
After prayers, each child rushed off to do chores. Each one made his or her own bed by perfectly rolling up his or her blanket, then each did their community responsibility. I saw Allen outside waving around a toilet brush as he made his way to the teachers' toilets. Salma & Phineas each fetched a bucket of water to mop the floors of their respective dormitories with nothing more than a bucket of water and a towel. Leah led a cleaning crew in the girls' bathrooms, where I found Glory doing a bit of laundry in a bucket on the porch. I caught Aziza shining her shoes in the dormitory - they buff them incessantly to keep their school shoes spotless, even in the endless dust. I saw Lossim and Albert helping the watchman to prime the water pump before they joined Silas to clean the classroom. No one complained. In fact, they sang while they worked. I asked later and while they admitted they sometimes don't like to do chores, they feel "responsible" and well-prepared for daily life as adults - they also said "it's not so hard." (Quick, tell your kids!) Today, when school is done, they'll each go and work in their own small garden plot on which the school's vegetables are grown.
Once the floors and toilets sparkled from their elbow grease, the children (and I) moved on to our showers. They were cold, but not ice cold - more like "fresh spring on a warm day" cold. It actually (and I'm not even sugar coating here) felt great after a warm night. Again, the children sang - every one with his or her own song, with others joining in when they heard someone in the next stall.
Then, at breakfast, as I mentioned, Amani taught me the word for goosebumps. As were sipping our porridge, he said he had a question, and then asked Silas to translate for him from Swahili. Amani relayed a story that apparently was reported in the news and rumor mills here about five years ago. He said there had been a very clever, but very poor, villager who had invented some type of aircraft - and it worked. As a result, Amani relayed, the villager was falsely accused by the government of counterfeiting money (after all, how could one do something so brilliant without riches?), and he was imprisoned. In prison, the villager was killed. Then, Silas translated Amani's next sentence: "I am frightened." Amani and Silas worked together to explain that they were scared to do great things - scared of the possibilities inside them. They are scared they will be silenced, or imprisoned, even killed if they have the audacity to do something amazing. In front of his classmates, Amani said again, simply and clearly, in English and Swahili: "I am scared." And his fear laid there bare as I tried to find English words that were no easier for me in that moment than they would have been for Amani. He had spoken a fear so real and so true that many of us find it ineffable. I swallowed an ocean of tears that welled in happiness for his insight and honesty, and in sadness for a world that insidiously teaches us that we should be afraid of offering the very best of ourselves to one another. I told him he'd given me goosebumps, and I described them, to which he responded by translating my English into his own Swahili: "msisimko."
Just then, Lossim rang the school bell calling the children the morning assembly, where they sang their national anthem and, under Silas' leadership, the students offered one another their morning announcements, and then began their morning parade - a practice that the teachers say encourages class unity by making them march in time with one another. The parade ended with the students marching off into their classroom for first period: Mr Hussein's math class. His lesson covered profit, loss and calculating simple interest. I sat in class for a bit, then moved into the office/library/break room/TV room/... to write this note to you.
When I heard the students being dismissed for morning break, I entered the classroom again to ask the kids two questions:
- Are you scared in the same way as Amani?
- What gives you goosebumps?
Before I asked the first question, I invited Amani to share his story & his fear with the class in Swahili. Leah translated for me, and when I asked who was frightened like Amani, three brave children immediately raised their hands: Albert, Anna and Nathaniel. Nathaniel was clear and concise. He worried: "Because we are from a poor country, I fear people may assume our ideas are poor and not give us a chance." Albert followed: "Mine is a bit different. Last year, at my other school, when I did well in class or on an exam, I thought my teachers would be proud. Instead, I was accused of cheating. It is almost as if I was punished for doing too well." Finally, Anna wondered whether the rich might suppress the ideas of the poor in order to maintain their own power. She thought the rich may silence, imprison, steal ideas from or even kill the poor who have good ideas or inventions. I followed up by asking the class why they thought their classmates might be afraid, and Lossim responded very simply: “envy.”
Amani then asked: "What's your advice on how to change our country?" I replied only: "Don't be afraid." I remember once teaching Gideon to swim. Those three small words were the only lesson I had to offer him, too. If I have only one lesson to offer these children, let it be that one. I then read to them this short passage by Marianne Williamson:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Finally, I told the class that their insightfulness and thoughtfulness gave me msisimko
(goosebumps), and I wondered what gave them the same. "When the electricity goes out and it's very dark," said Gideon. "When I'm praying," said Phineas. "When I've just found out I've done well on exams," said Albert. And then, perhaps my favorite of all, from Allen, whose chipped-tooth smile could light up an entire room, "Maybe when I see my mom after so long a time."
And then, my msisimko returned.
So I leave you with the same two questions:
- Are you scared in the same way as Amani?
- What gives you goosebumps?