Days 216 to 219 - Preschool Life in Lukobe, Mwanza

Trip Start Jan 10, 2011
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149
221
Trip End Jan 08, 2012


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Flag of Tanzania  , Mwanza,
Thursday, August 18, 2011

We spent 4 full days in Mwanza and more specifically the village of Lukobe, which is literally at the end of the road. The population is home to a few thousand people and is only accessible by four wheel drive vehicle or motorcycle (and of course the local means of bicycle though most people walk where they need to go).  

The principal reason we travelled to this region was to help support a fellow Canadian actively working to make the world a better place.  We'd heard about the organization Dawn started, called 'The Lukobe Project’ (TLP), from Eli’s aunt who is a nurse.  She had travelled here last year as part of a medical clinic TLP had put on.  As Dawn described it, Aunt Mary was a real trooper: as the oldest volunteer TLP has ever had, she worked and bunked alongside the more typical teens & twenty-somethings. 

We came to help in any way that we could with the community development projects that TLP is managing while also making a donation which will help local needy families well after we are gone.  We hoped we would be able to create some positive impact through our actual actions but were measured in our expectations given the short timeframe.

We started off our first day with a bang; sleeping in until 11 o’clock apparently still recovering from the ordeal of getting here! 

Shortly afterwards we met with Patrice, who is the director of the new Lukobe pre-school which was built (administratively and literally) by Dawn, Isaac and ‘The Lukobe Project’.  The director of the local primary school also came along curious to meet the new volunteers. 

We chatted about the community, the needs and how we could help.  Their expectation of what we were willing or even able to do seemed a bit grandiose but we chalked it up to cultural differences and did our best to explain what we had in mind.  Later that afternoon, after a lunch of chopped veggies, soup and sandwiches, we met a young man whom Dawn & Isaac are supporting named Sipi.  He was a polite (and tall) 20 year old who was working towards finishing his schooling.  Within the first 24hrs of us being here it had quickly became apparent that this community has come to rely on the assistance of The Lukobe Project which sometime turns in to personal assistance from Dawn & Isaac.

After speaking with Dawn, she confirmed this impression.  She shared with us true life stories of mothers bringing their children to TLP orphanage because that environment was providing a better life than they were able to themselves!  Another telling example was when a single mother of 5 knocked on their door late at night (on Christmas Eve no less) after having just delivered her baby 2 months premature (6th child) and needing to go to the hospital.  It was this same woman who they personally helped rebuild her single room ‘house’, with solid construction, after it literally collapsed in a rainstorm.

Through a devoted personal commitment and The Lukobe Project organization they are doing incredible work for a community that defines the definition of ‘in need’.  Their remarkably low overhead ensures donations have maximum impact directly where the NEED is and making a radical difference in the current and future lives of many men, women and children.

On Day 2, we got an early start meeting Patrice at the pre-school at 8am which was a 2 minute walk from where we were staying.  It was quite a sight to see 90 toddlers running toward us in a melange of local, modern and hand-me-down clothing styles which were in various states of (dis)repair.  They obediently left their shoes outside and filed into the class.  TLP had expected an enrolment of about 30 children but were initially met with 80 registrants and almost every day another 1 or 2 literally just show up!  The catch is that there is only 1 teacher and certainly not enough desks.  So about half of them squeeze 4 to a desk and the rest take a seat on the concrete floor at the front of the class.  More desks are in production at a local place in town but haven’t been completed due to frequent power outages – such is the reality of Africa…

When we were introduced to the class we were met with wide eyes and a deafening silence.  Most of the kids had seen westerners before but many had not had any interaction.  In fact a few were literally scared of us ‘Mzungos’. 

The typical challenges of ‘teaching‘ a group of 5 and 6 year olds, anywhere in the world, were aggravated by the cultural and language barriers.  Most of these kids only spoke their local tribal language so even our monosyllabic Swahili was ineffectual.

Patrice wrangled their attention away from the ‘foreign curiosity’ at the front of the class and began reviewing their previous day’s lesson of counting to 5 in Swahili.  As Mia wrote the English words on the other side of the numbers along with Patrice’s written Swahili Eli took over the lesson from Patrice.  He took cues from the (actual) teacher on pointing to the number, saying the word out loud and having the class repeat.  Repetition was a learning style that had already been ingrained in them only after a few weeks at the pre-school.  They were eager to please (as many children are) in fact, repeating everything said by the instructor including the questions – to the class – asked by both Patrice and Eli (who quickly learned 2 short questions in the local tribal tongue from Patrice).

The children enjoyed the rhythm of counting and were remarkably capable of alternating between Kiswahili (Swahili) and Kiingereza (English) as they were labeled in the tribal language.  The kids eagerly mimicked signing the numbers extending their arms either up or out in front with the appropriate amount of fingers poking out.  Soon the 90 strong preschoolers were eagerly shouting in response to Eli’s instructions.  Eli’s mom is a now retired teacher and would have been proud!

When we finished a round of counting they revelled in the chance to clap their hands, often having to be calmed by Patrice.   After the 2hr class they had learned to count to 5 (sort of…) in English though the latent style of learning didn’t translate to them actually counting independent of the teaching structure.

We followed the path the children ran down after being dismissed for their morning porridge – for many their first food of the day and a clear incentive to attend class!  After the pre-school had eaten, slightly older children arrived from the primary school and we were again the center of attention.  These children were obsessed with shaking our hands, saying ‘hello sir’ or ‘hello madam’ with the girls often doing a curtsy.  Many of the children lingered over our touch, seeming to be enthralled with our lighter skin.

After their morning meal we went over to the primary school with Patrice and met the teachers.  We chatted with them in deceivingly fluid English only to run aground over an unexpected phrase or question.  We tried to make sense of the schedule and who was teaching what grade and even when the classes would start and stop but really struggled to grasp the organization of the schedule.  When we asked if the classes were starting late (all the teachers were with us in the staff room) they seemed to imply that WE were late!  The conversation segued into which classes we were going to teach.  We told them that we were not actually teachers and clarified that we were only staying for a few days (and not a number of weeks like they thought).  Their assumptions were curious and then frustrating as we were happy to help but didn’t understand how they did things or really where to begin.  We ended up observing a grade 4 math class, that inexplicably started when it was apparently supposed to end.  The kids learned to add, subtract and multiply decimals.

With this as our primer and eager to help, we suggested that we assist in the next English class.  We followed the grade 4 math teacher to his grade 3 class.  He introduced us and some of the kids addressed Mia with a Hello Sir!  It was explained that she was wearing pants and that based on these children’s worldview she was not possibly a woman and therefore a Sir.  All of the local woman wore some sort of wrap/dress.  The teacher said something to the class that we thought sounded like ‘these people are here to help today’ and abruptly turned to the blackboard and began drawing a diagram for the lesson. 

The awkwardness in the classroom, as the 70 or so 8 year olds stared at us was overwhelming, certainly to us, and Eli jumped into a lesson on how to introduce yourself an say ‘hello, my name is _____ and I am ____ years old’.

This proved to be a little advanced for them.  They were not used to the teaching style particularly the expectation of them to answer instead of repeating.  Of course a red headed (and bearded) fellow animatingly speaking ‘in jibberish’ with a few recognizable mzungo words thrown in for good measure must have added to the distraction.

With the diagram complete we took turns explaining the English prepositions: in front, behind, on and below.   Eli used the visual aids and pointing a lot more while the teacher occasionally interjected, often falling back on his written description on the blackboard.  The kids seemed to respond (of course some more than others) and Eli experienced the challenge of engaging ALL of 70+ students, not just the ones with their hands raised.  Mia took over for the second half of the class running the kids through a myriad of examples moving from one to the next, not allowing them time to think about being self-conscious or not participating. 

It was a challenging hour and one that was a tremendous experience we will never forget.    

The next day we rode on picky pickies,( motorcycle taxis similar to those in Bangkok), to meet Dawn in Mwanza.

We spent the good part of the day with Dawn shopping for classroom supplies.  We stowed the stuff in a safe place and walked a couple of blocks to dinner.  We walked in the dark (feeling comfortable with Dawn’s comfort level) to a very local roadside bar that was bright and lively.  We had eaten some decent thin crust pizza in town but before her dinner arrived, the hostess brought over soap, a bowl and a pitcher of warm water.  The indulgent service of washing your hands at the table seemed a world apart to notions of sanitation and service we had thus far experienced in Tanzania.  It seemed to be standard fare for this type of place in this neck of the woods.

It was nice having a few drinks and chatting about both of our experiences in Africa, about our trip and of course about OUR homeland.  The ride back ‘home’ in the dark on the bumpy road went surprisingly fast despite the contours having changed a lot with the first big rain in months.  We hit the hay ready for sleep but were kept up by their dogs barking up a storm outside.  It was probably just the moon but is possible it was a snake or a wild animal…

We spent the next morning doing an arts and craft activity with the pre-schoolers.  At first it seemed really weird to them but their curiosity soon overcame any apprehension.  We traced each kid’s hand with crayon and Patrice wrote their names (they spoke so quietly with many having local or multiple names that he was the only one who could decipher).  It took the entire 2hr class to cover each child including an auditing period near the end that got a bit complicated as a couple of kids had literally joined the class for the first time part way through the class. Patrice had never seen them before!

We spent the afternoon preparing for our final day with the class, where we are going to register the kids.  We constructed a "Waving Wall" from the traced hands.  In many of these rural communities, children are commonly treated as part of the background and are often only spoken to when they need to do or stop doing something.  The lack of ‘interaction’ and cultivated social skills on the home front helped explain how, incredibly to us, some kids literally didn’t even know their name or were unsure which name to use while others were uncomfortable responding to being called by it.  It is astounding to think about 5 year olds at home who not only know their name and their birthday but are capable of proudly (and loudly) telling you the same.

We also decorated the classroom with the maps as well as number and alphabet posters we purchased in town.  As we were putting them up Eli noticed a few children looking towards the doorway.  Eli assumed they were curious about the posters until he saw the snake!  It was a brightly coloured green snake about 1.5m long.  Not sure of its nature, he was very cautious in ushering it away from the school where the kids took over chasing it across the field hurling rocks in its direction.  Evidently word spread fast as multitudes of children from the primary school came to see the classroom before we had even finished.  It was amazing to see the immediate and unprompted impact of such basic stimulation among the children who were eagerly pointing and taking in the new images some even asking us questions.  Colour in the classroom is not the norm here. 

Soon after the children, the staff of the primary school came to see what the fuss was about.  With a kindly man named Mr. Kandy, Eli examined the maps and discussed geography as well as the differences in government set up between Canada & Tanzania.  It became obvious the intent of the primary school was to inspect the improvements NOT at their school but it took them a little while to get to their question of ‘where the primary school donations’ were.  We politely explained we were focusing on the pre-school.

That evening we hung out with Sipi a bit at the house and he made us popcorn (popped in a pot with a bit of oil) and made us a tasty dinner of rice and beans – seriously it was good!

On our final day with the class we set about registering the children.  We took a picture of each one and correlated it with a student list we’d reorganized in soft copy the previous evening.  Some of the children were very shy and Mia did a great job making them feel at ease.  More often then not when she said ‘Cheka’ (local language for smile) the kids would oblige.  We also took a class picture providing all of the files to Dawn for TLP to manage with.

Since it was our last day with the class, Patrice gathered the children and had them count to 5 in English.  Remarkably they were able to do it basically on their own - without exact repetition.  Even after only 3 days we had gained some familiarity with the children and them with us.  We imagine long term volunteers would generate much more severe attachment on all sides.

It was very rewarding helping The Lukobe Project.  The class learned some English, increased their comfort with foreigners (future volunteers, tourists etc) and we were able to provide some support for the classroom and the teacher (a kindly man who incredibly was fully mobile despite clubbed feet).  In fact, Patrice walked with us and a couple of the primary teachers down to the village well which is in fact a spring and literally provides fresh water for the entire village of approximately 2000 people! 

If was fascinating and illuminating to observe the teaching tactics, the approach of the teachers themselves, the conditions of the schools and the sheer number of kids in the classrooms.  The teachers seemed a cross section of good, bad, friendly and standoffish.  They are in a critical position of preparing the next generation of Tanzanians.  However, they are remarkably understaffed, undertrained, required to work with very limited resources and intermittently paid though required to continue working by law (we have many friends who are teachers that must be shaking their heads).

Even after such a short time being here in Mwanza/Lukobe we were thrilled that we came. Even though we only spent a few days with the children they left an indelible impression with us and more importantly we were able to see an immediate positive (although small) impact of our interaction and teachings. 

We were also pleased to not only observe but interact with ‘real’ Tanzanians in an environment that is starkly juxtaposed to the tourist meccas we had previously visited.  Our time in this East African community also revealed the contrasts between the rural area where we slept & worked with urban life.   Most villagers only visit the city of Mwanza once a month.    

We managed comfortably without any ‘city infrastructure’ whatsoever though we did have the assistance of western technology.  Reliable, though reasonably conserved electricity was supplied by solar power with running water – not hot unless heated per pot on the stove – came from a rain collection system supplemented by water trucked in from town and pumped up to the gravity reservoir.  Most villagers do not have nearly this level of western luxury.  Ironically, we experienced much better local (and western) food, though overall the cuisine in Tanzania has not overwhelmed us.

The town of Mwanza itself sits on the shores of Lake Victoria and possesses the potential to be among the ‘mandatory’ destinations in East Africa.  There is a nice park downtown that we walked through pausing to take in the scenic view including ‘Pinnacle Rock’ (so Eli named it) which has serious postcard potential.
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