Monday, July 30, 2012

Photo Opps Galore

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and I am truly hoping that this is the case today.  The Toa Nafasi Project continues to thrive, but at a decidedly slower pace than I am accustomed to or had expected.  Implementation is still a long way off as we are just in the process of registration both in Tanzania and in the United States.  In a few short weeks, I will head back to New York to finish my paperwork for the IRS (lawyers) and to revise my logic model, SWOT analysis, and general timeline of activities based on my findings from this trip (consultants).  Still, since I’ve been in Tanzania this go-around, we have managed to accomplish a lot, namely setting up a board of directors, appointing a few employees, garnering community support, filing papers at the district and regional levels, and getting in the door at the Social Welfare Office in Dar to register at the national level.  That’s where we are a bit stymied at the moment however.  It seems that this time of year is a tough one to get the attention of government authorities as the new fiscal year has just begun and, in fact, 2012-2013 in particular is a doozy.  The two main political parties (and everyone in between) are arguing about the disbursement of funds for the national budget, which places a heavy emphasis on expenditures and much less on actual development activities.  It also carries loaded meaning for NGOs, which the government now wants to tax unless they are religiously affiliated – perhaps I should consider changing my name to The Hillel Project??  That said, I am still hoping that, before I go, I will receive the two most important documents needed for The Toa Nafasi Project to begin work in January 2013: the Certificate of Registration and the Certificate of Compliance.  And as I sit by and squirm with anticipation and anxiety, I can just hear Baba Ngowi’s voice saying with baba-like authority, “We’ll see to it.”  Indeed.
In the meantime….pictures!  I was able to locate a bunch of photos of Msaranga by poaching the Facebook pages of some friends who came to visit me in 2010 and 2011.  Any further back is not particularly useful since those kids are practically in college now (though I myself somehow have managed not to have aged a day!)  But I think you can get a good idea of the environment, the people, and the general way of life in this small village in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro where I have been ingratiating myself for the past five years.  Enjoy!
Here are a few shots of me teaching at the nursery school at the Pentecostal church where I work with Mwalimu Vumi.


And some of the kids doing kid-like things such as picking pencils and rollin' with their homies.

The materials they have available are pretty rudimentary to say the least (razor blades as pencil sharpeners which the kids promptly put in their mouths??  Western parents would have conniption fits!!)

These are my famous “herufi” cards.  Herufi basically means “syllable” in Swahili, which is a phonetic language.  Everything is a, e, i, o, u followed by ba, be, bi, bo, bu and cha, che, chi, cho, chu and so on.  In order to help the kids discern the different sounds and associate them with the letters (reading skills), I devised a lesson plan where I pick simple and common Swahili words (for instance, kidole meaning “finger”) and then they have to find the herufi ki, the herufi do, and the herufi le and put them in proper order to spell the word.  They do it in teams so it’s more participatory and the competition spurs them on.  The stronger students are also able to help the weaker students.  Plus, they love anything they can put their grubby little hands on and squeeze and chew and demolish, so it’s great fun for everyone.

This bibi (grandmother) works at the school cleaning the grounds and making uji (porridge) and I think she is utterly amazed that I still come round.

Of course, recess is the best part of any school day….

As is walking home knowing Mama is waiting with lunch….

It’s also fun when visitors come and want to take your picture (as opposed to Mwalimu Vumi and Mwalimu Sarah who are just ruthless taskmasters!!)

Here are some shots of the village itself as you walk through.  As I once remarked on Legally Tanzanian, I always feel a bit like Indiana Jones when I go out there.  There’s monkeys swinging from the trees, goats bleating in the near distance, and always a chicken somewhere within foot’s reach.  You sometimes wonder if you’re going to accidentally trip a switch and a giant stone ball is going to roll out at you or an ancient aboriginal tribe is awaiting you round the next bend, machetes drawn.

And last but not least, the soccer field at Msaranga Primary School where The Toa Nafasi Project will begin implementation hopefully next year.  Lots of my former nursery students attend this school and love to pass the ball to me on my way by.  Hence, the perpetual red tinge of my Converse!

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Village People

Not much of note has happened since I wrote last week, so I wanted to take this moment of calm and clarity to fill in some of blanks concerning the “who” and “where” of The Toa Nafasi Project since I’ve already addressed the “what” and the “why” in my last post.
Of course, since I was recently disassociated from my camera, I can’t offer you any current photos of the key players and the stage itself, but I’ve searched my computer (which I still have, by the grace of God) and come up with a few images to give you an idea.
The pilot project that Toa Nafasi aims to implement (the aforementioned three-tiered program of assessment, referral, and curriculum modification) will take place just outside of Moshi town, in a village called Msaranga.  I don’t have any pictures of Msaranga itself so I hope you will settle for a.) a photo of downtown Moshi with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background, and b.) a photo of a daladala, the common means of public transportation by which I will get to Msaranga.

Speaking of me, I don’t have any appropriate pictures of myself to share (which isn’t to say that I am an inappropriate person as such, just that I suppose I don’t take many photos of myself on my own camera).  Anyway, here’s me on safari in Ngorongoro Crater which has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the project nor on Msaranga, but which is a lovely place.  I guess we can go ahead and call me the Founder and Director of The Toa Nafasi Project.

Next, we come to one Harrison Ngowi, more generally known as Baba.  The word baba means “father” in Swahili and Baba is nothing if not my father here.  He has provided counsel (sometimes unsolicited) to me on everything from my career to my wardrobe to my romantic adventures.  He is the Project Officer for Toa Nafasi.

A very important person in my own Tanzanian timeline and in the naissance of Toa Nafasi is Mr. Genesis Kiwelu.  He is the diwani or councilman of Msaranga, and because it is his ward that we aim to help, he has been highly involved in the set-up and registration process.  In fact, he is currently in Dar es Salaam dealing with the Social Welfare Office, trying to get our paperwork sorted, and hopefully in my next entry, I will have an update on his success.  Before he became diwani, I knew Mr. Kiwelu as Program Manager at WODEF or Widows, Orphans, and Disabled Development Foundation, the local NGO in Moshi where I first worked when I came to Tanzania.  It was because of Mr. Kiwelu, himself a resident of Msaranga, that I first got to know and teach in that village.  Here, Mr. Kiwelu is taking a turn as teacher….

In Msaranga, there were three different nursery schools at which I originally taught in 2007.  One was affiliated with the Lutheran church, another with the Pentecostal church, and the third was without religious orientation.  The Lutheran church is a huge deal in Tanzania and very influential in terms of programming and development.  Here is Pastor Lyatuu of the Lutheran church in Msaranga talking to some villagers.  I am expecting that he will be helpful in garnering community support.

Formerly of the stand-alone school and now at the Pentecostal one, Mwalimu Vumi is one of the most compassionate and caring people whom I have met since coming to Tanzania.  Mwalimu means “teacher” in Swahili and unlike a lot of the people in the profession and given the moniker, Vumi actually embodies it.  She is kindhearted, patient (her name itself, Vumilia, means “patience”), and creative when it comes to teaching.  She just had a baby herself about a year ago, so she has not been at school on a regular basis for some time, but she often holds impromptu after-school tutorial sessions in her living room, complete with Fanta and fried bananas.

Baba’s wife, Mama Ngowi, is another important person in my life and I am hoping that she will also be integral to the success of the project.  Like Baba, I have known her on intimate terms for the past five years and we have often exchanged ideas on everything from work to relationships to politics.  She recently went back to school for an advanced degree in counseling, so I am thinking that when we come to the referral phase of the pilot project, her knowledge and expertise will be vital.  She doesn’t usually dress like this (or smile so big) but she was part of a wedding party in this photo.

Finally, I mentioned two children in last week’s entry who were significant to my starting up this organization: Salome and Daniel.  Both were vulnerable learners though in very different ways.  Salome was a poor student, but she was also behaviorally challenged and I am ashamed to say that not only did I not know how to help her, I probably added to her problems.  It is frustrating to work with kids who don’t “get it,” and it requires huge stores of vumilia in order to work with them.  Add on to that sheer naughtiness and you have a formula for disaster.  I can only hope that Salome is somewhere safe and that she has someone to love her and keep her protected.
Daniel was different.  He was also quite naughty (see his photo below; doesn't he look like the most menacing little thing?!), but it was in a more acceptable "that's how little boys will be" way.  However, it was his absolutely perfect dyscalculia that fascinated me.  So much so that I took a picture of it (also below), though it’s blurry so I don’t know if you can read it.  Basically it says:
2 = 1 + 1
8 = 1 + 7
16 = 7 + 9

But, if you can see, in addition to his equations being backward, all of the symbols are backward too; an unbelievable phenomenon in my eyes.  Of course, the teacher in that classroom didn’t realize that his math was actually correct and thought that he had just written a bunch of gibberish so she dismissed him as stupid, but I actually tried to work with him a little bit to see if we could get him turned around as it were.  Not having trained in special education, I was unsuccessful, but his is exactly the kind of affliction that Toa Nafasi aims to address.
I think I will end on this note of turning kids around and straightening them out, providing each one the chance to succeed on his or her own terms.  I’m not feeling quite as strong today as I was last week, but I still feel optimistic.  I think I can still say that nothing is impossible.
Oh yeah, and my small serendipitous moment of the day?  I walked the two kilometers from my house to the main road alone for the first time since the mugging.  Of course, I promptly slipped on the gravel and fell when I reached the small duka or shop I was going to, but what’s one more scrape or scratch?  I’m discovering that I'm quite patchable....

Friday, July 13, 2012

Hapo Mwanzo (In the Beginning)

Greetings and salutations!  Welcome to the inaugural entry of my new blog for The Toa Nafasi Project!!  I had meant to post it on the 4th of July, both as an homage to the independence of my native country as well as to my own independent spirit, and in celebration of my fifth (yes, FIFTH!!) year of living and working in Tanzania….but I got mugged that day, so I had to put it off.  (And trust me, the irony of posting my first entry in the aftermath of that debacle on a “Friday the 13th” is not lost on me….)

At any rate, two things of note before I get started: 1.) my other blog, Legally Tanzanian, is officially defunct as I begin this new (and decidedly more adult) chapter of my life, and 2.) I will try to write more frequently and more relevantly as well as to capitalize and punctuate properly.  You may still get random Sarah-ish musings such as “Why is there cat hair on this sweater which I bought here in Tanzania?” and “How long will this bus driver and this mama argue about whether her massive bundle of bananas counts as an extra passenger?” but there will be much less content about my private life and hopefully less griping and grousing than there was on LT.  My aim is to be irreverent but not profane, personal but not intimate.  And, as long as I don’t get robbed again and stay rabies, scabies, and babies-free, I expect the future to be bright.

For those readers who don’t know me from LT, my name is Sarah and I am originally from Washington D.C.  I went to college in New York and spent several years working as a publicist in the book publishing industry.  Fed up with the media-driven, consumer lifestyle and my own compliance and complacency with it, I migrated to Kilimanjaro in 2007 as a volunteer nursery school teacher.  I went on to work for a small, grassroots NGO in the health and education sectors until last year when I made the bold decision to again jump ship from comfortable circumstances and go it alone with my own project.

Enter Toa Nafasi, or in English, “Provide a Chance.”  (The name of the project went through several variations, by the way, starting with Tupeni Nafasi, "Give Us All a Chance," which I picked off the above kanga, typical Tanzanian cloth, usually worn by women over their Western clothes.)

To quote my Vision and Mission Statements:

“We envision a world in which every Tanzanian child is provided the chance to receive quality primary education that recognizes and fosters individual talent and celebrates uniqueness.”

“Each child is an individual who has diverse aptitudes and different learning styles.  Building on this fundamental concept, The Toa Nafasi Project addresses the needs of primary schoolchildren in Tanzania to assess their abilities, cultivate strengths, and resolve weaknesses.  We work with teachers, parents, and the community at large to enrich the classroom experience and devise innovative and inspiring teaching methodologies that encourage participation and critical thinking.  The goal of The Toa Nafasi Project is to elicit creativity and distinction in academic performance, extracurricular activities, and to provide each child with a chance to excel.”

Now, please don’t leave this webpage or go off thinking that it’s all a lot of hooey.  I realize that there’s a bit of rose-colored idealism in those words that borders on the sappy and/or na├»ve.  But believe me, I’m neither.  I’ve been through the ringer in these last five years; you name it, it’s happened to me (or in front of me, or next to me), so I’m fairly savvy at this point.  Yet, despite my various vicissitudes, my petty frustrations, my “stranger in a strange land” syndrome, I still believe in these kids.  Well, I believe in all kids really, but there is something so guileless and uncorrupted about Tanzanian children.  Unaffected by Nintendo and Chuck E. Cheese, most are happy playing with a bottle cap on a string.  They have boundless imaginations, unfettered by media imagery, and nearly inexhaustible stores of energy.  They are rarely bored and made contented by the simplest pleasures.

Where they are failing, however, is in the classroom and school settings at large.  And it is the older generation that is failing them.  No one can expect a child to succeed academically or in extracurricular subjects if the ones responsible for educating and encouraging him or her are not up to the task.  Whether we are talking about an individual teacher, a scholastic curriculum, or an educational system at large, it doesn’t matter.  The stage is set for failure, and all the beauty of the tabula rasa is soiled by ugly experiences (poverty, illness, mistreatment, discouragement) until the child becomes some swamp creature robbing hapless foreigners on the streets of Dar es Salaam.  (Sorry, I guess I’m still not over my mugging….  Though, you know, these words are true….who knows what my assailant’s circumstances were, what led him to mistreat me?  Let me be charitable and give him the benefit of the doubt; had he had a better upbringing, school experience, support system, might he not be gainfully employed somewhere rather than creeping out from under bridges to divest innocent citizens of their belongings?  Methinks, yes….?)

But I digress….

Coming from a background that placed a strong emphasis on education and its door-opening powers has led me to understand both how important access to quality education is, and how lucky I am to have had it.  These children here, they are lacking.  Big time.

While teaching nursery school, I noticed a disproportionate number of children making mistakes such as writing backward or upside-down.  These errors presented in both literacy and numeracy, and the students were slow to catch on and hard to correct.  Salome struggled with every subject in the classroom, and was ostracized by the other children on the playground.  Daniel was good at math, but the only way to know it was to hold his notebook up to a mirror!  He would write the equations correctly but entirely backward.  The teachers were at a loss, and simply regarded the kids as stupid or lazy.  I thought perhaps they might have learning difficulties that could, with a bit of extra attention, be corrected.

I began to research special education networks both in Tanzania and abroad.  I read articles, made contacts, collected data, and created a program involving a three-tiered approach: the first, to assess an entire primary school classroom to ascertain each student’s baseline aptitude; the second, to refer to health professionals those students who were under-performing due to reasons other than a learning difficulty, for example, medical or psycho-social causes; and the third, to modify the standard Tanzanian curriculum so that children with such learning difficulties could pass.

Thus, The Toa Nafasi Project was launched, though it has now has evolved into a more holistic entity; instead of focusing solely on supporting children with perceived problems, I also want to recognize and foster students’ hidden talents.  Not every Tanzanian child will be a superstar academically, but as it stands now, no one will ever know if he or she is exceptional in other ways.  I want to find out.

I think I will close this nascent blog entry with the immortal words of 50 Cent: “If I can’t do it, homie, then it can’t be done.”  I don’t mean to be a braggart or to suggest that I’m some Superwoman figure, but I’m not sure I’ll still feel this strong tomorrow or the next day, so why not celebrate it a little?  Writing is the chicken soup for my soul, and it feels good to put it out there.  When I was in Dar last month going about my meetings and getting mugged and such, one of the gentlemen I met with, Rakesh Rajani, formerly of HakiElimu and currently of Twaweza, told me not to forget those “small serendipitous moments” that we all experience and which make life and the living of it more bearable.  I am having a small serendipitous moment today.