Wednesday, January 29, 2014

My Triumphant Return, Part 1

After a somewhat rocky start during which I felt both the highs of elation and the lows of deflation, I can now safely say that I am back at Msaranga Primary School, droppin' knowledge and wrappin' knuckles.

I think it was a good move to wait a few weeks into the new school year before making my triumphant return in order that the regular teachers register all the newbies and learn their names.  Then, me and Vumi could go in more easily to pick up with the special needs group where we left off last year....Though of course, she was with them more recently than myself, so it wasn't really such a return for her....

I must confess that the very first day back was tough and when the bell rang 2:30pm, I was outta there faster than a Tanzanian off a bus ride from Moshi to Iringa (i.e. VERY fast).  It was an exhausting day, hot as all get-out, with the sun just bearing down on us and when we were lucky enough to get the relief of a breeze, it would blow all the red dust of the dirt road and the school yard over everything, up our noses and in our eyes.  When I got home and before I toweled off, you could have planted a line of potatoes in my neck with the amount of dirt clinging to me.  I was so grumpy and grumbly that Yohana, my gardener, with whom I usually chat about the events of the day, later admitted that he was terrified to speak to me that afternoon!  Poor Yohana, almost one year of living in this house in Moshi and he still doesn't understand my mercurial ways....

Anyhoo, Vumi and I had two goals to accomplish in this last week of January prior to beginning the Kipindi cha Utafiti (Observation Period) for the new Standard One students next month: 1) to re-test the students in our special ed tuition sessions from last year, 19 kids total, and 2) to gather testimonials from those children, their parents, and the teachers at Msaranga Primary concerning their thoughts on the Project thus far.  Amazingly enough, we are now three days into the week, and what I had thought would be kazi kubwa (big work) has been relatively pain-free (aside from that first EXTREMELY painful day....).

We finished the re-testing on Tuesday and gathered the testimonials from all the parents today.  The kazi remaining for tomorrow and Friday is to talk to the kids and the teachers for their testimonials.  So, Part 2 of this blog entry will concern their thoughts and feelings and, hopefully, I'll have some decent video to show you.

We also need to return to Brenda at Gabriella to iron out the details for the students who will not be continuing at the regular school in Msaranga.  We finally did get a chance to go over the results from the first Week of Therapy with her over last weekend, but now decisions need to be made about who will go to Gabriella and who will stay, who will be a day student and who will board, and the way forward for all including the new group of kids who we will know more about after the Observation and Assessment periods are completed, probably in April.

One very important thing is already in the works: the little girl who was the victim of repeated sexual abuse last year is going to board at Gabriella as soon as we get all the paperwork done.  I believe she may move there as early as next week, which will be a PHENOMENAL step in the right direction for her.  She has already seen a doctor and been tested for illnesses and, while her body is obviously not that of a typical six-year-old, she is okay and she will thrive, at least physically.  As for the case against her abusers (yes, there's more than just the one baba, he seemed to enjoy "sharing" her), I am out of the loop; I don't see how justice can be achieved here, so there's no point in getting all work up over it.

Another big leap for this young girl?  Her second round of test scores!  She has improved by leaps and bounds, and I am hugely gratified by this progress.  See the protocols below concerning the identification of letters and numbers, the first from May and the second from yesterday.  A check indicates a correct answer and a zero indicates an error.  By no means is she ready to be captain of the Mathletes or join the debate team, but for her with her more severe intellectual impairment, this is REALLY good work.
See, I think that one of the things that made Monday so hard (aside from being re-introduced to the school's less-than-sanitary squatty potties again) was that I wasn't seeing the results that I had been hoping for on the tests.  The kids didn't seem to have made much headway, and at first, I couldn't tell whether we really weren't getting anywhere with them, or whether they were shocked by my sudden re-appearance and distracted into testing poorly.  Or if it was maybe just because it's so bloody hot these days.  And, honestly, I may never know more than that, overall, the second round results were pretty dismal, and for me, the consummate perfectionist, the New Yorker who wants it done yesterday, this was really frustrating.

But then, for a couple of them, like this one little girl, it was clear that at least some progress had been made and we haven't been doing kazi bure (free work) all this time.  Plus, I should know better than to put all my eggs in the testing basket.  That these kids don't necessarily test well is par for the course; that that means that they don't know things or cannot excel in other ways, well that's what Toa Nafasi is supposed to be about.  And it's early still.  To affect a change takes time, and I can't rush development, only urge it along and nurture it as best I can.  Sometimes I suppose I need a reminder of all these things myself!

That said, here are a couple more successful before-and-after results, the first set concerning the reading of simple Swahili words and the second, math problems appropriate for student this age.  (The problems that have been crossed out were deemed by us last year to be too difficult for Standard One and we have corrected this for the new students we'll be testing, but we figured we should use the same test as we did the first time for the initial group.)  Not too shabby, methinks....
Finally, I took these two videos of one of our students concentrating VERY HARD on the exam.  In the first video, the boy uses bottle caps to count his sums and I am distracted by a *visitor* in the room.  And in the second, Vumi and I have a chuckle at the absolute intensity and supreme powers of concentration he uses to write a few words.  But who knows, maybe he'll be the one having the last laugh and one day he'll be penning a novel, composing a symphony, or writing set of legal briefs with the same intensity?  (Btw, this kid was one about whom Mama T at this same time last year, said "Yeye, hajui yuko wapi." or "This one, he doesn't know where he is."  Well, he does now!  He's with Toa Nafasi!!)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Proposal

Hello dear readers, and pole sana for the late post this week.  I have been busy getting back into the swing of things work-wise and not had much time for blogging.

Here's a quick summation of what has transpired the past few weeks since I have been back in TZ:

1.) I had a nice meeting with Baba and Vumi about all that went on while I was in the U.S. and all that we are planning for the first few months of this year.

2.) Vumi and I went out to Kibosho to check in with Brenda at the Gabriella Centre on the results from the Week of Therapy in October.  In typical Tanzanian style, Brenda was called away on an emergency and neglected to tell us, so we had to re-schedule, but two of my kids were there with their guardians for a follow-up Week of Therapy (again, typically Tanzanian, no one thought to tell me about this turn of events and I got a pole from Vumi for being in the dark).  It was a little awkward not having prepared anything to say to them, but I took this pic of the happy quartet with Vumi and a younger sibling and we went on our way.

3.) After the Kibosho meeting fell through, Vumi and I went into town and had our own little conference about the way forward.  Topics discussed were: scheduling, and how we are going to follow up with last year's kids as we start working with the new group this year; how to use the new materials I brought back with me from the States like puzzles, mix and match games, and other goodies from Barnes and Noble; who to hire as support staff to help with assessment and tutorial and when to do so; and various other business-related issues.

4.) I met with a lovely Australian speech pathologist named Julia Mchawala (she's married to a Tanzanian) and had the chance to discuss possible points of collaboration with her.  We have only a couple kids with minor speech issues so I'm not sure we are in need of Julia's services just yet, but it's great to be able to add her to our referral network for the future.
5.) Checks are still coming in post-Friend-Raiser (thank you, donors!!), and my folks in DC and NYC have been manning the post office boxes and bank accounts (thank you, parents!!), keeping Toa Nafasi finances on the up-and-up.  From my end, I am fully up-to-date with my thank-you notes to contributors and everything is in order budget-wise for the new fiscal year....which, as you might imagine, is a huge relief.
6.) And, finally, I am THRILLED to be able to say that I have submitted the first LOI (letter of interest) for a possible grant on behalf of The Toa Nafasi Project!  I don't want to jinx myself, so I won't spill too many beans about the source of the funding but suffice it to say that it is a family foundation (Jewish!) which has funded similarly sized and structured projects in TZ in the past.  Methinks, it is the PERFECT next step in terms of raising funds for Toa Nafasi, after having successfully captured the attention of individual donors.  Below, please find a snippet from the LOI section about impact and what I am most proud of:

I am most gratified to fill a need where there is no other NGO presence.  Others are working on disability, but none support students with learning difficulties, thus my work is not redundant.

In Msaranga, I am uniquely positioned for success having volunteered there in 2007 and maintained close ties since; this village is the heart of the Project.

That this program does not depend upon me is another source of pride: once it catches on, as it did in Msaranga, it is easily maintainable by the local community.

African commitment is vital to our success and few Westerners are directly involved except those with specific professional expertise.  The Tanzanians we work with grasp the importance of helping children with learning difficulties and see that success can happen with only a few simple, effective interventions.

The Toa Nafasi Project is proud to work with not one but two marginalized communities - children and disabled - and to be a part of an authentic community-wide effort.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Twas the Night Before an IEP

Okay, so this is not quite timely since Christmas is already in our rearviews, and being here in Moshi feels more like the tropics than a snowy winter's eve, but it's so cute and the blog where it's posted, and which I just stumbled upon this morning, is so informative, I had to post it ASAP.

The name of the blog is Special Education Advisor and I randomly found it on my Google alerts set to "special education."  I don't recall ever having come across it before, but I can tell that it is going to be a valuable resource in the months to come.  According to the "About" tab, Special Education Advisor is "a community of parents, educators, and special education service providers dedicated to helping families with special education needs children understand their special education rights and receive appropriate special education services."

This particular entry was written by a guy named Doug Goldberg, but there appear to be various contributors, all in some way committed to special education.  Other recent entries include "De-escalating Conflict in the Classroom," "Dyslexia IEP Flow Chart," and "Music, Magic, and Our 'Emotional Brains.'"

The principal founder of SEA is one Dennise Goldberg who, as a mother to a child with special needs, was moved to start this website.  You can read more about her story here:


Twas the night before an IEP meeting when all through the house every creature was stirring and running about.  The assessments were filed in a notebook with care, in the hope that we'd get a one-on-one aide.

My son was having another tantrum in his bed, while visions of ABA therapy danced in my head.  And I knew that I was out of my element since I'd never been taught any behavior strategies when up in the attic arose such a clatter, I sprang from the room to see what was the matter.

Away to the attic I flew like a flash, tore up the ladder and then fell with a crash.  I picked myself up, just as the light from above gave luster to my wife holding her stash.  And what to my wandering eyes did she have but the behavior analysis thought lost long ago.

With this new data in hand, I ran like a flash, scanned the info and sent out an email blast.  The email was sent to the IEP team to consider the findings and help manage my son's needs.  My hands were both trembling and flailing about as thoughts of receiving help were brandied about.

Then came a knock at the door from below and I knew in a moment it must be Steve Nick.  The advocate we hired had arrived at the door and more rapid than eagles, he started pacing the floor.  He discussed all our options, and then he whistled and shouted and called out their names.

Now OT!  Now PT!  Now Speech and Behavior Plan!  On Counseling!  On Parent Training!  On Assistive Technology and Recreation Therapy!  To the front of the classroom!  To the use of an aide!  Oh, there are still more options to be heard!

As we finished discussing his needs, we moved on to possible goal ideas.  Then, a wink of his eye and a twist of his head soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.  He then spoke not a word, but went straight to his work and filled up a graph plotting the bell curve.  As soon as he finished he turned with a jerk and, laying a finger aside of his nose and giving a nod, he screamed "EUREKA!" and rose. 

He sprang to his feet and showed us the data which proved our concerns were more than valid.  When everyone was happy and thought we had a good strategy, Steve Nick left our house with a bound.  As he sprang to his car, he gave me a whistle; and, as he drove out of sight, I heard him exclaim, "A FREE APPROPRIATE PUBLIC EDUCATION FOR ALL, AND TO ALL, A GOOD NIGHT!"

Saturday, January 4, 2014

You Say SEKOMU, I Say SEKUCO, Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

Check out this article I just peeped from a recent issue of The Guardian.  Methinks SEKOMU (formerly SEKUCO) might be an excellent place to recruit Tanzanian teachers for Toa Nafasi.  God knows, with the second rollout of the Project right around the corner, I'm gonna need the help....

Fortunately, this lil' chickie is hooked up!!  Both Angi and Mary Gale have extensive contacts at SEKUCO and other institutions dealing with intellectual impairment and special needs in Lushoto, and even I made a visit up there in 2009.  Hopefully, the powers-that-be will look kindly upon TTNP!!


Tanga offers rare 'Bachelor in Special Needs'

December 7, 2013, was an historical day in the community living on mountain hillside of the Usambaras in Lushoto district, Tanga region. 

It was a special occasion in the sense that the Sebastian Kolowa Memorial University (SEKOMU), in the area was marking the first graduation for its undergraduate students since it became a fully fledged university in October, last year.

Prior to achieving its present status, SEKOMU, was a constituent college of Tumaini University, which is based in Arusha, in the northern part of Tanzania.

SEKOMU is the first university in the country to establish a Bachelor of Special Needs under the Faculty of Science.  It is also the pioneer of another equally important department: Bachelor of Science in Mental Health and Rehabilitation, which took off last year.

Presently SEKOMU operates three faculties which are law, education, and science, but the university has future plans to establish faculties of medicine, theology, and business administration, both at the Diploma and Certificate levels.

The great occasion of the first graduating class was hosted at the university's newly built modern conference complex where the chief guest, SEKOMU Chancellor, Rt. Rev. Dr. Stephen Munga presented certificates to a total of 349 undergraduates.

Describing the uniqueness of the university, Dr. Munga told the crowd that, initially, SEKOMU was a diaconic institution in that its mission was based on the provision of services morally, spiritually, mentally, and bodily.

"The North Eastern Diocese (NED) has vast knowledge and experience in the  provision of diaconic services for over 125 years," said Dr. Munga in a detailed speech which covered the history of diaconia, this spiritual undertaking pioneered by early German missionaries from 1898.

"What we are doing now has roots from many years ago having been done in collaboration with our sisters in centers in Bethel, Germany," he said.

After Tanzania's independence, professionals from several sectors gradually left the country creating a large academic vacuum in the provision of social services.  Dr. Munga said that, noticing the scenario, NED, one of the key service providers even before independence, found out that of the areas it aimed to provide services within, special needs, had a severe shortage of professionals.

"It was during this time that we of NED sat down and deliberated on how best we could save the situation, for most of the centers seriously lacked professionals."

He said eventually the decision was made to open a university which was officially launched in 2007, operating as a constituent college of Tumaini University.

"We have high expectations from you undergraduates. Remember, we did not establish SEKUCO, and now SEKOMU, as an act of imitation, but we did so for more powerful reasons," said the academic, sternly.

"We strongly believe that the education you obtain here will steer you towards change not only in Tanzanian society but also globally, through the skills you learned at SEKOMU."

"The aim of embarking on such higher education is to enable graduates to develop the capacity to think critically, to reach the top of one's learning ability.  In my view, there is a necessity for this country to invest more on quality education, education which would be available to beneficiaries and the community."

"We are aware of the government's efforts to improve the standard of education in various ways, but certainly, a lot more needs to be done, considering that several recommendations delivered to the education sector have yet to be worked on," he said.

In the words of Dr. Munga, the time has come for the Tanzanian government to initiate an overall rehabilitation of the entire education system in the country.

The rehabilitation should include the opportunity to look into the possibility of extending student loans to all Tanzanian students pursuing higher education.

Earlier, Rev. Dr. Anneth Munga, SEKOMU Vice Chancellor, congratulated the undergraduates for their diligence and hard work which enabled them to make this breakthrough in their careers. 

"What you have done is not enough, though.  You need to be ready for walking an extra mile, to work with compassion wherever you will be," said the university's chief executive.

She said, "Compassion breeds diligence in work performance as well as forbearance – an act of lowliness.  The wisdom to put yourself in other people's places in the performance of your various tasks is a quality that you should develop when you leave here."

Speaking to the undergraduates, she said that today's world has been dominated by barbarism, the exact opposite of compassion, and that in certain sections of the community in Tanzania and beyond, people have been branded as disadvantaged, and not supported.

"Today, people with disabilities in many communities are not regarded as humans.  In fact, where any services whatsoever are extended to them, it is often only regarded as favor."

Mama Munga said sustainable development can only be meaningful where the underprivileged in the community are given priority and allowed to be actors in various sectors. 

"It is the obligation of all of us to strive to ensure that people living with disabilities of various kinds do not continue to be recipients of charity.  The disabled should not be left to be dependent on their neighbors, instead they should be enabled to take their respective places as other people, given that they have the right to participate in whatever their fellow countrymen were doing."

"If you work with compassion in whatever you will do and whatever you will put your hands on, people will ask where you came from and you will say, without hesitation, that you came from the rocky hillside - SEKOMU - a magnificent area in Lushoto."

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Mo'Town, Mo'To Do

Habari zenu, dear readers??!!  I hope this post finds you all well and in fine form.  As for me, I'm doing okay though slightly under the weather as I navigate back into life in the Mosh.
I returned to town Christmas day with Mama and Baba in tow and we spent a lovely four days together seeing friends in town, visiting Msaranga, and shopping in Arusha.  They left just before New Year's and I was on my own again.  It's been pretty good so far, very few snafus in reintegration except for a rather dramatic sinus infection that has left one side of my face (nostril, ear, etc) fully clogged.  I feel like the Phantom of the Opera looks though no one but me can tell any difference....and if I'm talking loudly because of it, it's certainly not that much louder than my usual decibel....
New Year's Eve in Moshi was fairly uneventful, for me at least.  I skipped the bar scene, opting instead for dinner with friends.  We had planned on Scrabble/Boggle or movies afterward but we scrapped even that subdued plan for a good night's sleep.  Clearly, I am getting older....!  The desire to dance atop tables and make merry into the wee hours has lost any appeal whatsoever!!
Which is good, because now I am on the mend from this infection and gearing up to start my fieldwork again.  School starts on Monday, January 13th but Mama T wants time to register the new class before me and Vumi come in to observe them.  Sawa, I need the time to get myself together and prepare.  I've got to catch up with Baba Ngowi, Vumi wants me to go out to Gabriella Center and meet with Brenda about our last group of kids, I need to go through Angi's new version of the assessment and go to Arusha and print all the components.  Sigh.  Then, there's this blog and the website to keep up-to-date, emails to answer (don't even get me started, my inbox is full to the brim), and banking issues.  I think I'll be keeping busy this month while I'm waiting on school, don't you??!!
Anyhoo, I'm off to dig in to this ginormous to-do list now, but I will post again later this week.  For any of you who are waiting for an email or phone call from me, samahani sana!!  Just a lil' busy now, but I'll get in touch soon.
Be well all, and happy new year 2014!  May it be AMAZEBALLS!!