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 naïve.  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.

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