Friday, August 30, 2013

New York, New York

Start spreadin' the news!!  I am back taking a bite outta the Big Apple after 24+ hours of grueling travel followed by a couple days of much-needed vegetation on the couch.

I'm about to head down to DC for the holiday weekend and some work meetings next week, one with my web designer and another with Africa Grantmakers' Affinity Group.  Hopefully, I'll be able to iron out the details of the Toa Nafasi website and the rest of the identity kit (brochures!  pens!!  t-shirts!!!  boxer shorts....?!) as well as to put my fundraising plans into motion.  More on all that and then some next week after the holiday is over.

Until then, enjoy this gorgeous photo of the NYC skyline taken yesterday by city enthusiast Inga Sarda-Sorensen - glad to see it on my Twitter feed as I didn't leave the house even once all day!!

Happy Labor Day, y'all!!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Samaki Mtu

In an effort to lighten the mood from last week's super-serious post, today's will just be short and sweet.

I finished up at school for this year on Thursday and was gifted with this drawing from my little boyfriend, Ema.

It's a samaki mtu or "fish person," directly translated.  I'm not sure if there's a real word for mermaid in Swahili, but samaki mtu makes sense enough, I guess.  And I love that it reflects the whimsy and imagination of childhood.  Anyway, like the proud mama I am, I hung it up on the fridge and it makes me happy to think that I'll be greeted by my fish person when I return to Tanzania at the end of the year.

In the meantime, I've left the case of the little girl in the hands of Vumi, Baba Ngowi, and the headmaster at Msaranga Primary School.  I've been told they are going to go to the village authorities after talking to the child's grandparents.  Hopefully, they will also engage Godfrey's services as social worker because she is deeply in need of counseling.  Baba and Vumi have promised to give me updates via email and I'll share what transpires here on the blog.
My next post will come at you from good old New York City, so until then, kwa heri to my readers, to my Tanzanian friends, and to life in the Tee-Zed.  It's time to go home!!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

*WARNING: This blog entry is disturbing and graphic in nature.

Continuing the nautical theme from last week's entry, today's post will be framed by this well-known nursery rhyme that I've been told is an allegory for life's difficult choices. 


I guess some scholarly types say the boat refers to oneself or to a group with which one identifies.  The act of rowing is a tedious practice that yet requires skill and directs the vessel. 


The idea that human beings travel along a certain stream suggests the path we all take in life and the rules we are bound by. 


The challenges we meet along the way should be taken in stride and greeted with optimism. 


Some have questioned the song's implied necessity to row one's boat downstream but this may be a commentary on the paradox of the passage of time with man's free will in a world of causality.  Especially if you take into account this last line.

Okay.  So much for deep thoughts.

I am troubled, my friends.

I am about one week away from returning to New York for a three-month respite during which my plan has always been to finish up the website and identity kit as well as to start fundraising fo' realz.  I feel very ready for this break; I am tired and in need of some Western comforts.  But....  It is hard to leave....  Especially given the events of the past week.

Last Tuesday, Vumi and I discovered that one of our students, an intellectually impaired six-year-old girl, was raped.  It was obviously an extremely disturbing discovery, but what makes it even more heartbreaking is that it seems to be a habitual occurrence rather than a one-time thing.

We extracted the details of her case very slowly and carefully as it is hard to know if she is telling the truth; she sometimes changes her story or forgets things she has already said.  What we have established is that she has been sexually molested more than once by an older man, maybe around 50 years of age, a fundi or handyman who does work near the school.  He lures her into a dilapidated house with the promise of some sort of gift, a few coins or chips, soda, candy.  And it is clear that this behavior has been going on for some time now as the child is so accustomed to it that she has no fear nor pain, neither emotional nor physical.  In fact, in explaining it to us, she was giggling and seemed thrilled to share her sexual adventures with us.

It has not gone unnoticed by me that not only is this rape and pedophilia, but also, *technically,* it is a form of prostitution since it has become transactional at this point.  Of course, the onus is on the man, not the child, particularly as she is quite developmentally delayed.

In further questioning, we found that this child has engaged in sexual activity with others beside this older man.  We uncovered a whole network of children with whom she has been having sex, it seems, for quite some time: her agemates in Standard One, older boys in higher levels of primary school, neighbors at home, youths in the street.  She does it in these old abandoned houses, school toilets, neighbors' beds, shambas or fields.  She is not discriminating and at this point I am not clear why she does it with all these others.  From the older man, she gets gifts, but from the little boys only, "kidude chake" ("his little thing," in her words).  She lives fairly unsupervised with her grandparents and her baba who does not work and is known to be a drunk, so her activities are unbeknownst to her family.

My worry about saving her before this conduct had taken hold is obviously a moot point now.  She has become, unknowingly, (and really, how could she know any better??) a tiny prostitute who does not have the ability to decide for herself or protect herself.  I had planned to take her to the Gabriella Center and enroll her there so she could grow up learning basic literacy and numeracy in order that she become a self-sufficient adolescent and adult, but I don't know if they will take her now.  Her behavior is so entrenched that I worry she might act out there and I don't want to bring problems to others.  The issue here is that previously she was being called by others to do these things, but now she is the solicitor: she has learned that when she feels hungry or lonely, she can seek out a patron and her needs are fulfilled.  She even propositioned Vumi right in front of me which shows either that she is extraordinarily indiscriminate or that she does not know the difference between men and women.

I guess my point in writing about this issue on the blog and bringing it to light is to address openly and without rose-colored glasses the social dangers that mentally challenged children face, anywhere in the world, but particularly in developing countries where support systems are limited and education and awareness is lacking.  This thing that has happened to this child was my fear for her from the very beginning, even upon first meeting her, and I went to great lengths to prevent it not knowing that the whole time, she was already deeply ensconced in it.  Vumi thinks I'm psychic for saying so, but the truth is that culturally I was prepared to see the big picture while many Tanzanians (particularly in the smaller villages) generally take things one day at a time, not able to anticipate the consequences of certain actions.  I was hoping that we would catch this child early enough and put in place a safety net for her, and perhaps it is not too late to try to force a behavior change, but I would like in the future for Toa Nafasi to address the issue of sex abuse and other communal threats to which intellectually impaired children are highly susceptible (dropping out of school, running away, drug abuse, pregnancy, and disease).  This will certainly entail a gathering-together of the community to take collective responsibility for these concerns and to find constructive solutions.  The only alternative is the subsequent impossibility of these children performing well in school and growing up to be self-sufficient members of society.

I think I'll stop here because it's probably a lot for most of my readers to digest and I apologize for the disturbing and graphic nature of this post.  It is the last thing I would have wanted to deal with in my final week in Tanzania and, while it scares me to leave with this situation looming, it also scares me to stay and discover more.  Better that I lay down my oars now and let my boat drift a little, so that I can get some distance and some insight into this ugly side of life that I really never could have guessed existed.  Hopefully, by the time I return in December, Vumi and the teachers and the Ofisi ya Kata in Msaranga (local authorities) will have come to some resolution about how to deal with this problem, hopefully a resolution more active than just sweeping it all under the proverbial rug.

At any rate, this is certainly not the first challenge I have faced in this work nor will it be the last, but it is a bitter pill to swallow: the abuse of any kind of any child anywhere in the world, but particularly of the most vulnerable - young, intellectually impaired, living without proper parental support and in abject poverty.  It is a challenge that will take me some time to take it in stride or meet it with any kind of optimism.  As for life being "but a dream," it feels more like a nightmare right now.  It's time to go home, rest my head, hold my heart, and save my soul.  I'm not a super-religious gal, but I believe in God and I pray for this child and for the people of Msaranga.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Swimming Mainstream

Hey everybody.  It's been another busy and, quite frankly, exhausting week in Msaranga, but I wanted to get an entry up quickly for your delectation.  Too much is going on (both good and not-so-good) to give you the lowdown right now, but I will post about all that very shortly.  Warning: some of the stuff I've recently uncovered is not for the faint of heart, but I think it's important to at least put the broad strokes out there.

In the meantime, I found a really interesting article online about the debate over mainstreaming/inclusion in American schools.  Peep the op-ed below from a recent Wall Street Journal written by Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, a school attorney in Boston and the author of Fixing Special Education: 12 Steps to Transform a Broken System.  The idea that the push for inclusion is often more about civil liberties than best education practices is pretty controversial as is the notion that while it may indeed positively impact disabled students' social qualities, it might not necessarily advance them scholastically.  What do YOU think: Does inclusion benefit the minority at the expense of the majority??

Americans tend to be a vocal people, sharing their views about almost any issue in the public sphere loudly and frequently.  Yet on the question of how to provide special education services to students who need them - while not compromising the interests of children who don't - many parents of regular education students have opted out of any public discourse.

Nationwide, about 60% of students with disabilities spend at least 80% of their instructional time in regular classrooms.  Many parents of other children in public schools understand that when teachers focus on students who need more attention, their kids may get shortchanged.  Yet most parents opt out of any discussion and don't complain.

The special education system in the U.S. is highly regulated by law, expensive, and sometimes marked by litigiousness.  Those working to reform the system are almost exclusively people with a direct stake in it - including school representatives, parents of students with disabilities, advocates, lawyers, special educators, academics and government officials.  Since members of the general public and parents of regular education students (who account for 86% of students) rarely weigh in, the interests of regular education school-age students are not sufficiently explored.

It's time to think about what we are doing, rather than simply to continue with the current broken system.  That's the only way to help all students succeed.

Before 1975, more than a million students with disabilities were excluded from schools and some 3.5 million did not receive appropriate services.  That year, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, now called the Individuals With Disabilities Act of 1990.  Students identified as disabled have since been guaranteed access to what the law calls a "free appropriate public education," and their parents have the right to participate in (and dispute) the school's development of an annual "individualized education program" for their child.  No other group of students or parents enjoys such rights.

Today, six million students with disabilities (about 14% of all students) have the right to a free appropriate public education and an individualized education program.  Between 70% and 80% of these students have mild or moderate disabilities, including learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, social and emotional disabilities, and other conditions, such as ADHD.  Only 20% to 30% have more severe disabilities, such as cognitive impairments, multi-handicapping conditions, deafness or blindness.

Special education is expensive.  Estimates of its cost nationwide range between $80 billion and $110 billion per year, and the spending continues to rise faster than regular education spending.  The burden falls mostly on state and local governments.  Federal law drives special education, but the federal contribution is less than 20%.  The law has spawned an industry of parent attorneys and advocates, school attorneys (of which I am one), experts, mediators, hearing officers, administrative law judges and other dispute-resolution professionals.  This is in addition to educators and service providers in schools, and the many federal, state and local officials, evaluators and consultants who manage the system.

By law, students with disabilities have the right to be in the "least restrictive environment" to the maximum extent "appropriate," with added resources such as computers, large-print or recorded books, and personal aides, if needed.  The push to place these students in regular classes is called "inclusion" (or sometimes "mainstreaming").  The federal government has target indicators in state improvement plans, recording how many students with disabilities are in regular classes.

Look into the research on inclusion and you will find that this policy is generally based on notions of civil rights and social justice, not on "best education practices" for all students.  The effectiveness of inclusion for students with disabilities varies - some groups and individual students benefit; others don't.  This is one reason why inclusion remains controversial in some segments of the disability community.

Very little work has been done to establish how inclusion affects regular students - whether they are average, English-language learners, advanced, poor or homeless.  Studies seem to support the social benefits of mainstreaming for children with disabilities and possibly for regular education students, but what about the effect on their academic progress?

Teachers may tell you (privately) that inclusion often leads them to slow down and simplify classroom teaching.  Yet the system is entrenched and politically correct.  Many parents remain silent.  Some quietly remove their kids from public schools.

Can this be anything but very bad for America?  Our schools thrive only with a diverse student population and engaged parents - not with the departure of those who choose to leave.

None of this is about being anti- or pro-special or regular education.  The purpose is to focus on fairness and equity for all students in the nation's classrooms.  That goal can only be achieved by encouraging many more people, especially parents and educators, to come forward with their views and experiences.  The time for that robust, inclusive and frank national discussion is now.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


No, the title for this blog entry does not involve a fully articulating five-function robot who can read my mind, nor is it my new email address.  Rather it's a nod to my acronym-loving Tanzanian brethren regarding my most recent spate of work endeavors.

TX refers to "therapy" and OT stands for "occupational therapy."  KCMC is the shorthand for Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center where these delightful activities take place.  Got it?

In the last couple of weeks, as we've moved into the referral and curriculum modification phases of the pilot project, we have consulted with various other organizations in Moshi that work with children, education, and/or disability.  I have mentioned some of them before and will continue to keep all my readers posted on our growing relationships.  One of the most important affiliations we have established is with KCMC, the big referral hospital in Moshi that is considered one of the best medical environments in the country.  This is where we met Godfrey, the social worker who I mentioned in one of my last entries, and also Vivian, an occupational therapist who smiles like sunshine and is amaaaazing with the kids, so much so that even Vumi noticed.

On our first visit, Godfrey spent time with each child and his/her guardian individually while Vivi watched the rest as a group.  Check out the play-by-play below:

Vivi and some of the Msaranga kids sit at the table while another therapist works with an infant with cerebral palsy.

Parental involvement is CRUCIAL, so we encourage their participation in order that they understand everything that is going on.

OT activities are often tactile and physical in order to gauge the child's motor skills (Can he run a straight line?  Can he put a puzzle together?) and social skills (Does he prefer to play alone or with others?  Does he share?)

Haika fell in love with this doll and cared for her almost as well as this real mama and mtoto beside her!

Blocks are kinda a big deal for these kids.  I wish I could get excited about ANYTHING as much as these nuggets get excited about blocks.

All in all, I'd have to say it was a great day for psychosocial services in Moshi!