“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” ― Ghandi

Saturday, July 7, 2012

To teach, or be free

On our first day visiting the orphanage with Deb, Lucy, the Director, asked us if we wanted to “teach” or “be free”. As I explained in a previous blog, since we did not understand the question and we are not teachers, we chose the “be free” option. That lasted until the next day, when we learned that the “be free” option meant doing chores, which is not really what we signed up for. So, we became teachers to ten 3-6 year olds.
Despite two storerooms full of books and other donations from around the world, we had virtually no supplies. Bear in mind, this is not a school, but an orphanage where one of the activities was to provide a pre-school education to children who had no access to a public or private education. One room was filled with donated books of all kinds, from preschool books to Harry Potter novels and out-of-date encyclopedias. This room was locked and the only person with a key was Lucy, who, throughout our stay, was frequently not at the orphanage. The main storeroom consisted of boxes and boxes of (mostly unpacked) donations of crayons, colored pencils, workbooks and blank notebooks, coloring books, chalk, modeling clay, paints….all kinds of goodies. Nothing was sorted and I doubt anyone even knew what was in the boxes. One day I tried to make some sense out of all of it, but since I had no shelf space or smaller storage boxes to sort things into, I quickly abandoned the idea of trying to make order out of chaos. Instead, I chose some items I thought we could use and took them out of storage. The only person with a key to this room, besides Lucy, was an Italian man who seemed to be a business intern, who spent all of his time in the office on his laptop, and who guarded the key as if it protected gold bars.
Needless to say, we lacked supplies. Getting my hands on a box of new pencils that still had erasers on the ends (the kids loved to chew the erasers off the pencils, and then did not want to use a ‘broken’ pencil) was a huge success, until I went to look for the one and only pencil sharpener, only to learn that it was locked in Lucy’s private room, and she was gone for the day. They never threw anything out……piles of used workbooks stood in stacks all over the place, with names of children long gone written on the front, and the pages torn and tattered, with every line filled. We used pieces of broken chalk that were so small we could barely hold it in our fingers, while boxes of brand new chalk sat in the storeroom. Finally, I absconded with a small box of chalk and hid it on a top shelf of the classroom. Finding an eraser for the chalkboard never happened, and even keeping a dirty old rag around to wipe the board off was a daily challenge. It made me wonder who needed that old dirty rag every day after we left, and for what.
Our afternoons became a time for creating lesson plans for the kids. One day, Rebecca hand drew 10 connect-the-dot pages filled with diagrams for the kids to make their numbers. On another day, she wrote out sheets with math problems, we stopped at a photocopy shop in Moshi, and had enough copies made for each kid to get one. We found stacks of new, unused workbooks in the storeroom one day, and took them home to label them with their name, month, and subject (Math or English). We did not discard the old ones, since it was clear nothing got thrown out, but we did put them aside and used the new ones. We started taking them home at night to write lessons in them, but were scolded by Lucy for not leaving them at the orphanage at night.
One day, in our third week, some other volunteers were in the book storeroom, with all the books spread out all over the floor, trying to arrange them in some fashion. I found a couple of early-reader books that I thought would make nice storybooks for our kids, and I hid them on the top shelf of the bookcase in our classroom. The next day they were gone; I have no idea to where, but the kids never did get to hear the Dr. Seuss story, or the Wheels on the Bus. Alphabet and number flash cards disappeared the same way. It was as if they had all this stuff, but had to save it for a rainy day. I had heard about this when volunteers bring donations to an orphanage or school, but here, since they had so much stuff, I thought it would be easier to make use of some of it. This turned out not to be the case. Desperate for erasers one day (all the pencils had no erasers and the kids NEEDED their erasers) I found a packet of erasers in the storeroom. I took out two of the erasers and pocketed the rest for another day. Within a half hour, one of the two erasers went missing, surely into the pocket of one of the kids. My inquiries as to the whereabouts of the MIA eraser went unanswered.
In all fairness, these kids have NO toys. They played with sticks, blades of grass, the metal caps to soda bottles or plastic water bottles we would occasionally leave behind, the gravel that filled their courtyard, the rare lollipop stick, or empty candy wrappers. Reminiscent of my childhood, when my brother and I made dirt roads in the spot on the side of our house where no grass could grow, they needed no toys to entertain themselves (we did have little matchbox cars to drive on the dirt roads we made). Everything and anything was a toy in the making for these kids. I found it rewarding to see that kids could still be kids without the adornments of expensive toys, gadgets, video games and cell phones. I felt like I was witnessing some purity of childhood or something, a time when imagination ruled and kids did not need to be entertained by “stuff”. It was certainly a “back to basics” experience. The day we gave them modeling clay to fashion the alphabet out of, they all tried to eat it. I cringed many times when I saw the stuff they put in their mouths, filthy things from the ground, in a place with no sanitation, no soap, indeed, little water. Is it any wonder they (and eventually we) were always sick?

So, back to teaching… we had no teaching materials and no books, but we coped with what we had. The children could say their alphabet, but when it came to naming a letter out of order, they could not do it. This was true for their numbers, as well. Rote memorization was what they knew, so we worked hard at getting them to actually learn the letters and numbers. It was a challenging process for two non-teachers. Another example of rote memorization was when the children performed the “head, shoulders, knees and toes” song, wherein you point to each part of the body as you sing the song. If I took the words out of order and asked them first to show me their toes, they would point to the head. Practicing addition was another challenge: Lucy had them drawing circles to count and add. She would draw, for example: 00000 + 0000 = which was supposed to represent 5 + 4. They could count that there were nine circles, but the concept that they were adding four to the existing 5 never did sink in for most of the kids, even the ones who seemed to “get it”. Not being teachers, we had no idea how to go about teaching the concepts behind math. One day we did an internet search to look up basic math lessons, and found suggestions to use objects of daily living to have them count and then add them together. We had nothing like that, except maybe pieces of gravel. No coins, or buttons, or poker chips, not even enough bottle caps. Besides, they just would have played with them anyway.
However, with all the challenges and the language barriers that existed between us, we loved our time spent with these precious children. They always had a smile for us, and always greeted us with a loud and clear “Good Morning, Teacher, How are you today, Teacher?” chanted in unison. They wanted to hold hands with us, or sit in our laps, and would usually “fight” with each other over who got the honors first. They loved Rebecca, and could not get enough of being with her. Bisuni developed a game with Rebecca wherein when Rebecca would ask her, in Swahili, what her (Bisuni’s) name was, she would answer Rebecca. Then when Rebecca asked her what her own name was, Bisuni would answer Bisuni, and point to Rebecca. This child is three years old, and could not speak English, but they had this game they played together and Bisuni knew she was being funny!
One of my favorites (it is very hard NOT to develop a favorite) was the little girl named Bright. She is four years old, and is HIV positive. Just prior to the end of our four weeks, she started on a course of anti-retrovirals (ARVs) to treat the HIV. She had waited FOUR months to start treatment. This despite the fact that a retired US physician oversees the medical care of the children at KOC. It is a lengthy and costly process to obtain the medications needed to treat this awful disease, one that Bright was born with. The first day after her first treatment, she was not in class, and I later found her sleeping on the floor. However, after the second day, she was back, full of energy and with a bounce and liveliness to her that I had not previously seen. Despite not feeling well, this beautiful little girl always had a smile for me.
            Bright’s little body was covered in scars and what looked like mosquito bites. She loved sitting on my lap on the swing, and as we moved in unison she would hum a song, and occasionally add the words. I have no idea what the song was about, but it was mesmerizing, and I can still hear her little voice singing in my head. I do not know her story, why she is an orphan living at KOC, if she has any family at all who could care for her, or if her treatments will continue.
In a way, I do not want to know the back-story for any of these children, as it would most certainly break my heart. I have heard enough stories of other children at the many orphanages to know that their young lives have been riddled with heartbreak, loss, and difficulties beyond our grasp. That is enough for me, and is what calls me back to Tanzania. The past is behind them, but their hope lies in the future.

“Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.”    ~ Emily Dickinson.

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