Monday, May 26, 2014

Do a Little Dance

Sometimes, life is best expressed without, let's....GET DOWN TONIGHT!
The Msaranga girls showing them how it's done at the Gabriella Center.
Vumi and a parent bust a move.
Gabriella's resident mbonge (chubster, meant in jest and affection) shakes his thang.
Twins are double the trouble!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Greetings all, here's hoping everyone is having a great week.  The rain continues to fall here in Kilimanjaro, but I'm told it will make the grasses grow, so I should quit my complainin'!

At any rate, the wet weather hasn't slowed things down much at school and we are still hard at work, tutoring both this year's students and those of 2013.  We are preparing the former for their various referral appointments at KCMC Hospital for vision testing and pediatric check-ups and the latter to be set free and fly solo towards the end of June.

Here, I should note that for those students from last year who continue to struggle with their studies, we will NOT just drop them because they have received a year of Toa Nafasi services.  NO.  Rather, we will continue to work with them and when Angi, Mary Gale, and the SPED lot from the States come in July, we can try to figure out a longer-term solution for those guys.

Case in point: Saidi Salehe, an adorable little guy who this year is repeating Standard One but is still having problems in the classroom.  We will not be able to discontinue his lessons come June because he is really having a hard time and, truth be told, has made very little progress despite Vumi's attentive efforts to get him up-to-speed.  Just the other day, I sat in on his reading/writing lesson with her and watched as he wrote his name from right to left and totally backward.

It was perfect in my compact, but alas, not so perfect on the page.

After further investigation in his notebook, I saw that the day before and the day before that, he had written his name correctly (and presumably from left to right), so this is not a clear-cut case of dyslexia, but maybe something else at play.

Since Saidi is Muslim, Vumi suggested he had recently been to mosque and this was the reason for his "dyslexarabica," but I don't know....I've not heard of many Tanzanian Muslims reading and writing Arabic in these parts!  We must talk to mama and baba and find out what's the deali-o so that, inshallah, we can help little Saidi to fly straight....or at least, from left to right....

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Straggle Rock


verb: to move along slowly so as to remain some distance behind the person or people in front 

noun: an untidy or irregularly arranged mass or group 


noun: a small anthropomorphic creature, about 22 inches tall that comes in a wide variety of colors and has a tail bearing a tuft of fur on the end; lives a very carefree life, spending most of its time playing, exploring, and generally enjoying itself


It is with nothing but absolute affection and steadfast devotion that I title this week's blog entry "Straggle Rock," both as an homage to to the 2014 class of Standard One students at Msaranga Primary School as well as to the famed Jim Henson puppet production.  And I think it can be noted that the two groups kind of have a lot in common....tuft-bearing tails aside....

So, I've been back at school for nearly three weeks now, and Vumi and I have started working in earnest with this year's Straggle of Fraggles while Yacinta continues with last year's kids.  We are following the same M.O. that we did last year, but Vumi and Yacinta have worked out a new system of tutoring literacy and numeracy whereby they teach both lessons to the kids every day rather than one week letters and one week numbers.  The Friday play-day still stands and we have assembled a selection of fun games that test motor skills as well as other activities that help with cognition and critical thinking.

As one would think, starting with the new class has been a bit daunting, but while I whimper with fear and worry (Can we do this?  Is it too much?  Will we fail?  Will these kids end up any better off than they started?), Vumi approaches the work as a challenge (What am I afraid of?  Nothing!!  Shrug, shrug, shrug....she is so nonchalant!!), so the two of us plod on together, sitting with the newbies and evaluating their capabilities.

Out of 131 students, we have now identified 23 children whom we know for sure need an intervention of some sort, 25 who would benefit from tuition from the Standard One teacher but who do not require special one-on-one attention, and 18 who fall in the middle somewhere.  This data is all based on our own findings because we have yet to receive Angi's thoughts on the assessment results.  Once she sends us her information, we can cross-check the two and make the necessary adjustments.  In addition, we can then start to plan the referral appointments during which we will take children for vision testing, hearing testing, speech therapy, and pediatric care, and to Gabriella for those with more severe intellectual impairments or behavioral issues.

So far, there have been no big surprises.  Most of the kids seem like they are simply "slow learners," meaning that for whatever reason, they are not catching on in the regular classroom and we hope that by working in small groups with Vumi and Yacinta, we can get them up-to-speed.  I do not think any of these kids has a quantifiable LD though, of course, I am still just a layman in these parts.  When Angi and the rest of the SPED people come in July, we will know more.  Sure, some of the children do display signs of dyslexia or dyscalculia, others show hints of ADHD or hyperactivity, and still others present further issues (we have discovered another little girl who has been the victim of repeated sexual abuse at least partially due to her intellectual impairment), but for the most part, these children are just a Straggle of Straggling Fraggles (if you will!).

Now, a peek back at the Fraggle Stragglers of 2013.

Here's Vumi giving Godi a literacy lesson.  Godi was one of those kids who was initially totally written off by the regular classroom teachers.  Now, after a year of working with him, Vumi has him reading words with mwambatano syllables (those with more than one consonant sound like "sha," "mwa," and "tha") and even short sentences.  Here, he masters the mwambatano "nya" by sounding out various simple words: nyeupe (black), nyumba (house), and nyoka (snake).  At the end, he reads the sentence: Mama ameleta nyanya (Mama has brought tomatoes), but he mis-reads nyanya for nyasi (grass), eliciting a chuckle from Vumi and I.  Nevertheless, he self-corrects and the former "lost cause" is found!

This one is hard to hear because they are both soft-spoken, but Yacinta is teaching Irene her numbers using a Standard Two math book.  Irene is still "straggling," but her mama is very engaged with the program and has attended several Weeks of Therapy at Gabriella to understand more about Irene's learning difficulties and ways of coping as well as bonding with other mamas and forming their own little support group.

The last time I went to Arusha, I stopped at a toy store which happened to have this bowling set and I thought it might be a good addition to the Toa Nafasi toy chest.  After all, bowling challenges hand-eye coordination and the kids have to play against each other which encourages a certain amount of healthy competition, not to mention the whole "sharing is caring" aspect of playing together.  But still, this lesson needs to be refined: one of my pet peeves in Tanzania (okay people, this is one of those hated generalizations but, fact is, it does hold true collectively for the culture) is that folks - young and old, rich and poor, men and women - do not take turns!!  The idea of waiting in line until it's your turn is just not a part of life here and it's something that I firmly believe in as a stepping stone to development.  Otherwise....chaos!  So, you'll pardon the little grunt of consternation I let out toward the end of the video when Geoffrey and Godlisten fail to successfully wait out each others' turns.  Drives me nuts....

Julius is one of those kids who probably does not have a serious learning disability, but who forgets quickly, so that each day, teaching him is like working with a patient with memory loss.  He must be reminded constantly.  Luckily, Toa Nafasi teachers are patient, kind, and up to the challenge, and the Toa Nafasi treasure trove includes games like this one which tests children's memory using pairs of cards which are flipped IN TURN by two or more players in order to find their matches.  This particular memory game is even more amazeballs because it features the faces of different children from around the world, so you've got your mzungu, your mmaasai, your mchina, etc. and the kids love to look at the different faces.  Here, Vumi challenges Juli to use his kumbukumbu (memory) in order to beat her at the game.  He didn't quite get there, but he did manage to draw!
I guess the moral of this week's story is that to be a Straggler isn't necessarily so bad.  You can catch up if you try hard and if you are lucky enough to be provided a boost up.  To be a Fraggle is also okay.  You are only 22 inches tall but you live a life "generally enjoying yourself."  To be a Straggle or part of a Straggle is not a travesty per se but, in my opinion, the least desirable of the three.  And that's only because I disdain the untidy; an irregular Straggle is still acceptable.

Off for now, until next week!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Old Man Is Snoring

It's raining, it's pouring, it must be the rainy season in Kilimanjaro....!!

I'm halfway through my second week back at school after my "Turkish delight" of a vacation and that refreshed, rejuvenated feeling still lingers.  But, though I'm happy to be back and ensconced once again in work, I am not totally feeling this year's rainy season.  Similar to last year, the months of April, May, and June are expected to bring buckets of much-needed rain to the area, but the cold and damp has a way of seeping into these old bones that just never really goes away until the seasons change again.  Which really means we're looking at August in New York when I will next be warm since here in the Southern Hemisphere, our seasons are flipped with that of the North, and July and August are the coldest months of the year.

Even the kids are feeling the wintry brrrr these days.  And they can usually play their way through any weather!  Now that we're working with the new group of Standard One students (more on how that's going to come), we're just starting to get used to their ways and eccentricities.  Peep Laura Leopold here who, like me, clearly has ice water running through her veins!  Freezing my mzungu buns off at school today, I soooo wanted to jack her for this fur-lined coat, but that would not have been very teacherly of me, would it??  Nor very mzungu-y of me either, come to think of it!!

In addition to the rain and cold, we have to contend with the copious amounts of mud in Msaranga.  In the dry season, it's dust up our nostrils and in our eyes; in the rain, it's mud at our feet, either making us slip and slide or caking to our shoes so that we walk like Teacher Terminators.  The kids usually just shuck their shoes and go barefoot, but I read too many guidebooks when I first came to TZ mentioning mud-lovin' parasites to even think about doing that.

So, walking is a challenge, but worse than moving by foot is moving by car.  Last year, I got stuck in the mud in my rental car, a RAV-4, which was actually much sturdier than the car I ended up buying.  Thankfully, luckily, and knock-on-wood it stays this way, I have not gotten stuck in my Suzuki (nicknamed the "Roller Skate" by my friends), and I have mastered the use of the four-wheel drive, but there have been a few touch-and-go situations where I've literally held my breath.  Today, Vumi, Yacinta, and I each prayed to our respective Gods to grant us safe passage from the dirt road up to the tarmac.  Our prayers were answered....

Anyhoo, all of this is to say, I am looking forward to complaining of the heat again rather than these frigid temperatures, which, let's keep it real, probably aren't really all that cold, but when you live in equatorial Africa, you do have certain expectations and none of them involve wool legwarmers!!  All righty then, enough of this; I'm working on a piece for next week about teaching the 2014 Standard One kids and I hope I'll have it ready for you all soon.  Until then, wherever you may be in this world: stay warm and stay dry!!