Thursday, January 21, 2016

Update from the Other Side

Hello.  It's me.  I must have called a thousand times.
Just kidding, enough with that darn song!  (But it's soooo gooood!!)  Here I am, back again with an update from Moshi, Tanzania.
Busy these last couple weeks with the requisite chores in order to make my house once again habitable, car drivable, and life generally livable, I have finally cleared my schedule to be able to spend more time at school, meeting the new teachers and seeing all my former students.  It's definitely more fun than renewing car insurance.
However, my most prideful achievement during this "settling in" period has definitely been the set-up of my new printer (well, it had been sitting in its box since I got it last year!) and I sense a real life-changer in this little HP 3-in-1; I'm feeling extremely satisfied with myself, working away in the early mornings and late afternoons at my dining table and spending the middle of the days at school and then in town running errands.  With, of course, time for a proper workout on my Tanzanian elliptical machine, still functional after all these years.  It's a nice, simple life that I'm enjoying with a sense of calm and contentment.  We shall see how long this lasts!!

After greetings and introductions to the new teachers, I have started (with Hyasinta) to observe their work and make notes on their strengths and weaknesses.  So far, I am impressed!  They have been with the Project since October as teachers-in-training (during my absence) and January is the first month of their appointments as true Toa Nafasi teachers, so I was curious to see how it would go, but Hyasinta has stepped up and trained them well.  Which means Vumi trained her well.  Which means this Project has a future and our little team is flourishing into a real workforce.  It is very exciting to watch!!
Since the school year has just started here in Tanzania and the climate is a bit chaotic, we are waiting until the beginning of next month to start working with any new students.  We will continue these next two weeks to tutor the 2015 cohort and then to test them for the second time.  The second test was meant to happen in August before I left, but we were all too exhausted from the events of last year to carry on and so must do that now.  It's actually working out well as we can use these guys as a sort of practice for the new teachers to get used to the assessment period.  We can work out the kinks on these guys and then be ready to test in earnest the 2016 groups once we get the go-ahead from the schools.

Our hope is to enter into three neighboring public primary schools and start the process of replicating the program.  The work will be substantial and laborious, but we now have the manpower, and if we can keep our hopes high and our stamina strong, I do believe we can succeed.  Which is not to say there won't be hiccups and snafus along the way – I expect to be writing some very interesting blog entries this year!  Check out the original "girl squad" below.
On the administrative side, my right-hand man, Gasto Lekule continues to be a vital member of our team, handling the local aspects of running the organization: the Tanzanian board of directors, financial accounts, governmental powers-that-be, etc.  But my Gal Friday, Rhiannon Chainey, has left Toa Nafasi in order to head up another organization here in Moshi and we wish her well with that.  Unfortunately that means I'm down another staff member and in need of a new hire.  So, anyone out there looking to do grantwriting/fundraising and publicity/social media for a tiny NGO in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, send me your resume!  I'm also starting to think about recruiting some Western volunteers to help the teachers make learning materials for each of the new schools (perhaps I will be brave and pull my laminator out the box this year, as well as the printer!!), but what with the new Tanzanian government just settling into place, there are some immigration issues to be dealt with first.

Speaking of visitors, Carla is set to arrive at the end of the month for her second year of service with Toa Nafasi and I am excited to have my mama back in the Motherland!  We had such a great time last year and it was so gratifying to be able to share my Tanzanian life with her….  And for her to really "get" the way things work here: the good, the bad, and everything in between.  She will stay for one month during which her friend and former colleague at the University of Maryland, Barbara Finkelstein, will be joining us as well for the last two weeks.  Both Barbara and my mother have places on the Toa Nafasi board in the U.S., so it's important that they see firsthand the way the Project works and can explain to others back at home.  Their endorsement will help to entice other friends and donors to the Project, and also to document our evolution and improvement.  Karibuni sana, Carla and Barbara!
Last but not least, I thought I'd share some video from the classroom.  These will give you an idea of the conditions we are working under.  The first video is barely audible due to the massive rains we've been having in Moshi this year.  They are very early and quite torrential.  I am terrified of another car-in-ditch-sitch (, but what can I do in the face of Mother Nature?
The second video however gives another example of how the teacher's voice can get muffled.  Next door, the chekechea (nursery school) kids go nuts until about 11am when they close up shop.  In addition, today, on the other side of our classroom, someone had decided to keep a pair of goats for the day, so we could hear alternately a deep-voiced BAAAAH and a higher-pitched baaaah, and thank the good Lord that Mother Nature did not spur those two on to doing their goat thang!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Bucket List

Well, I've been back just over a week and I've already forgotten what it was like to live in New York!  Africa will do that to you, it's all very full-on, all at once, both the personal and the professional, the strategical and the logistical, it's.... a lot....

Monday I went to school as planned and met up with Hyasinta, Mwalimu Mshiu, Mwalimu Temba, Headmaster Kennedy, and the whole Msaranga Primary crew.  I also got to meet my six (!!) new hires, a bevy of beauties who have been in training with Hyasinta since October.  This will be the first month they are full-time Toa teachers, and we have planned to observe them next week as well as to show them how the assessments are done.

Since the 2015 Toa kids were only tested once last year, we have to do their second assessment so we can see their progress.  Hyasinta assures me they are all doing great, so we can use this small cohort, maybe 50 kids or so, to help the new teachers practice assessing.  Then the real work will come next month when we test the new class of Standard One students at Msaranga, probably about 150 if past years stand as example.  After Msaranga, there's Kiboriloni, Mnazi, and Msandaka, the three additional schools.  Hyasinta has already created teams of the teachers so we know who will go where.  She and I will float from site to site, keeping things under control (as if!).  Already we have a slight problem at Msandaka which is both a bit far and also in quite a poor state.  For instance, we don't have a classroom to use there!  The headmaster suggested chini ya mti (under a tree), but when the rains come, that ain't gonna fly either.  Not entirely sure what we'll do, but that bridge seems far in the future, we'll cross it then.

The rest of the week, I was here, there, and everywhere!  The bank (multiple times), bureau de change, motor vehicle department, car insurance office, and other delightful places like that.  I actually accomplished quite a lot although of course, quite a lot still remains to be done.  My mother will be here in two weeks, so I'm saving the really crappy tasks for when she gets here!!  Tanzania Revenue Authority, here we come!!

On Wednesday, I met up with Mongi, Vumi's husband, and we had a tender moment.  He admitted it has been hard without her and he is planning to move from Msaranga to Mjohoroni so as not to be reminded of her constantly.  I also saw Grace, Vumi's daughter, who just turned five years old.  She got tall these past four months while I was gone!  She looks like a little lady, so much like Vumi, it's scary, with her upside-down teardrop-shaped face and wide-set eyes.

My mom and I had ordered a doll for her when I was in the States and I brought it with me in the box and everything.  (Rarely do Tanzanian kids get brand-new toys or books here, so I wanted G to know that this gift was especially picked out just for her.)  We had gone back and forth about the doll for a long time.  If you Google "dolls for children of color," you get a wide array of variously offensive objects.  I thought about an American Girl doll and I know they have brown and black ones, but to bring something of that size over, I probably would have had to buy it an actual plane ticket!  My mother was adamant that the doll be soft so G could cuddle it and she was keen on a teddy bear, but I thought Tanzanians don't really know what bears are, so I nixed that idea.  We finally settled on a Madame Alexander doll with a soft plastic face and lots of black curly hair.  Her body is pillowy and brown and she is wearing an Isaac Mizrahi leopard print outfit (oh, how the mighty have fallen, Isaac!) and Rayban sunglasses.  She kind of looks like me, actually.  G loved her at once and named her Angel.

The following day, I returned to Mongi's house in order to escort G to her new boarding school in Holili, near the Kenyan border.  I had suggested we keep G in Kilimanjaro rather than send her to Dar es Salaam, which was the original plan, where she would have lived with Mongi's relatives.  I don't know what kind of school she would have gone to but certainly not one as nice as the one we found for her here.  I also felt (rather strongly) that she should remain where we are: her dad, me, Hyasinta, everyone in Msaranga who knew her mother.  Grace now knows that Vumi is gone, but I don't want that to signal the end of her relationship with her.  I have so many photos and videos and funny stories from these past 8+ years to share with G when she is ready.  I want to keep Vumi alive; for Grace, for me....

So, Hyasinta, Mongi, Mongi's sister Christina, G, and Angel the doll all piled into the Roller Skate (nickname for my tiny Suzuki) and we headed off to St. Ritaliza, a boarding school about an hour north of Moshi near Taveta, Kenya.  The place was actually quite beautiful with well-kept grounds and good buildings.  I had pre-paid everything in full from school fees to the dorm stuff she would need, so I thought we would be in and out fairly quickly.  Not so....

Typically, there was no formal registration process and so we waited perhaps an hour and a half to enlist G.  Hyasinta knows me well enough to know I don't do the Tanzanian version of a queue - pushing and sweating amongst the masses in utter chaos - so she was good enough to do the dirty work.  Below, you can see a sliver of Hyasinta as she got close to the front of the "line": she's the flowered pattern between the two stripes.  I had anticipated some back-and-forth over money, and so had steeled myself to fight the good fight, but actually there was no shida with that at all.

The real shida came with the matron who we had to see after registration.  She needed to go through G's things to make sure she had everything she was supposed to have.  Fine, fine, until.... the bucket.  Oh, the bucket and its many issues.  Apparently, girls were supposed to come with blue buckets, but on the forms we had received from the school, it was just listed "1 ndoo" or "1 bucket."  No mention of color, shape, size, etc.  Just a bucket.

I had been standing off to the side rather than being all up in the matron's business, so I missed the initial part of the conversation that Hyasinta, Baba G, and Baba G's sister were having with her.  Playing with Grace just seemed more fun.  However, once it was clear that there was some problem and having witnessed some words being exchanged, I came over to check out the situation.  It took me a moment to process: Grace can't go to school because her bucket is the wrong color?  Yes.  But, it's just written "1 ndoo" with no mention of color, how were we supposed to know?  Ask other parents.  But, this is our first year, Grace just turned five and is starting nursery, there's no precedent, and we don't know other parents yet!  Arms crossed in signal of resignation, tutafanyeje?  (What will we do?)  I started to raise my voice to say we'd bring the right color bucket another day, for the moment orange would do, but of course I knew this wouldn't fly.  Unwavering adherence to the smallest rule is the Tanzanian way!

Just when I thought we were gonna have to turn around and head back to Moshi with our shameful orange bucket and our tails between our legs, Baba G's temper started to flare.  I'd never seen him this way!  I liked it!!  I mean, the poor man has been widowed six months, he's just trying to do right by his kid, we had paid EVERYTHING in full, could this crazy matron lady not work with us to solve the all-important bucket issue?  We were ten minutes from the Kenyan border with nothing around us but tumbleweeds and the blowing wind, no bucket shops to speak of.  If the matron had her way, we would still be sitting there, staring at each other unable to come to a conclusion.

But after some strong words, Baba G went running down the hill, presumably got a ride all the way back to Moshi to get the requisite blue bucket.  I actually didn't stick around for the exciting conclusion to this storyline because the crowds for Grace to get a uniform, mattress, sheets, etc were crazy, and I would not have returned to Moshi until nighttime so I left shortly after Baba G peaced out and Christina stayed to wait with G and settle her in....  So truthfully, I don't know if the bucket was actually procured and was the right shade of blue....

At any rate, G is now a nursery student at The School of St. Ritaliza of Mt. Carmel, and I'm just praying I made the right choice in keeping her here as opposed to sending her to Dar.  I really just wanted to do right by Vumi and give G the best possible chance for a successful future.  That I am able to do this financially is obviously hugely gratifying to me, but I do hope I'm not applying my mzungu sensibility to a Tanzanian problem.  Mongi and Grace are not the first father/daughter team to lose their matriarch but I hope I'm handling the situation appropriately.  It's a fine line to walk, but I feel Vumi would give me a sign if she was displeased.  She is ever-present.

At any rate, what's done is done.  Mongi is VERY happy, says I'm Grace's mama now, but we know better, I'm just her crazy auntie!!  G is in school until vacation in March, so we shall see what her first term brings.  As for me, I'm back to Msaranga Primary, doin' the down and dirty with the village kids.  More to come on that next post.  Until then, have a peek at G's new digs!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Dear Joyce

This is FANTASTIC.  Please take a minute to check out this open letter to the new Education Minister, Professor Joyce Ndalichako, written by the media consultant for the Daily News.  I've never once in my nearly nine years in Tanzania read a piece this candid nor articulate.  Hongera sana!
Dear Prof. Ndalichako,

Allow me to congratulate you on your appointment as the Minister in charge of Education in the 5th phase government of the United Republic of Tanzania.

This is no normal appointment as you have just been thrust from the world of a mere educationist into the world of managing a nation's transformation via education.

In normal circumstances, there would be congratulations and champagne on your appointment but in this case, there shall not be.  There is no other way of referring to this new appointment other than as "baptism by fire."

It goes without saying that you earned yourself much respect when you refused to be party to a decision that was to affect the results to the benefit of the ruling class and detriment of the masses.

We know you are aware of the brick-and-mortar problems facing this sector in addition to shortage of teachers; lack of teaching aids, desks, and even classrooms; long distances from villages to schools; and general apathy of educators.  But the biggest challenge to this sector is the lack of skills imparted to the learners.

As for education curriculum reform, it has been obvious for a long time, not just in Tanzania but in East Africa in general, that growth in quantity has not translated into improved quality of our education system.

As a consequence, we have university graduates who are either underemployed or completely unemployed on the one hand, or on the other hand and even more worrisome, graduates who are not worthy of the piece of paper on which their qualification is certified.

In relative terms, it can be easy to deal with unemployment in and of itself, but it is very difficult to deal with the reasons that cause our graduates in their millions to be unattractive to the employment market.

The thing is that ever since East Africa became independent, we have failed to find the much needed political courage and goodwill to reform our education.

As a consequence, our education in 2016 still serves the needs of the colonial government.  It still produces card-carrying loyal chaps who roam our cities in search of someone to empathize and give a blue-collar clerical job.

Our education still produces rote machines who want to be led rather than thinkers who want to provide solutions.  Are we surprised that our universities are more famous for strikes over food provisions than for producing solutions to our water problems?  It is not too difficult to establish how bad the situation is if one is an employer.

The responses one receives and, even worse, the obvious lack of depth in the candidates leaves one breathless.  Dr. Ndalichako, that you chose to visit both Tanzania Education Authority (TEA) and National Council for Technical Education (NACTE), is a clear indication that you know where the problem is.

It is not the numbers of candidates who pass Grade 7 at the end of primary school, or Grade 12, or even Grade 14 that matters.  It is the skills that candidates gain when they exit at whatever stage of formal schooling that ought to matter.  Where we went wrong in the past was to allow political interests to dominate the discourse about education.  The 2013 results which resulted in your resignation is such a case in point.

When politicians step into the fray, the argument gets lost in partisan interests.  Such interests are normally myopic, short-term, and meant to serve interest of none other the politician's ill will.

It is a disgrace to a nation to have to sit down and readjust pass mark percentages in order to look good in the eyes of the public.  Times have changed, Dr. Ndalichako.

There was Tanzania that was myopic, inward-looking, and obsessed with the self.  Then there is Tanzania today.  We are confronted with all manner of challenges, most of which we have no control over, seeing as how the world is a global village since the advent of the World Wide Web (WWW).

Our education must give our learners skills to match the very best globally while meeting the national interests of our local technocrats, technologists, craftsmen, and agriculturalists.

The era of clerks and messengers is long over.  No one is better placed than yourself to etch your name into the annals of Tanzania's modern-day history by doing what is right (and what should have been done three decades ago but was not).

To reform what we teach, how it's taught, and by whom it's done, and evaluating the success of education not on numbers alone, but on the outcomes of the learners and their capability to cope with modern-day challenges, this is the challenge waiting for you to confront.

There will be many more challenges, not least of all answering to those who have benefited from the inadequacies of the past.  But to the masses, take heart, there is a new sheriff in town.  At the end of the tunnel is some light.

You are in luck that in the State House, there is a new President in Dr. John Magufuli who is neither interested in fame nor obsessed with looking good.

Take advantage of that and give Tanzanians something to smile about in a content-reformed education system.  It is the only weapon for prosperity in the Agriculture, Science, and Technology sectors, all of which make up the premise of a better Tanzania.

Happy New Year, Dr. Ndalichako, you have your job cut out for you, and many Tanzanians as well as this columnist, we not only have faith in you, but we also wish you all the best in this onerous task.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Hello from the Other Side

Greetings good people, and many salams from Moshi, Tanzania!  I arrived late Tuesday night after 24+ hours of travel to an electricity-less house but safe and sound and super-excited to be back "home."  (Everyone had been telling me that electricity has been a big problem here in Moshi since before the elections and now with Magufuli's austerity plan, I think it has continued into his first term, but – knock on wood – since that first night, it has actually been pretty good in my area, so you won't get any complaints out of me!)
I was definitely working the over-tired mania thing when I arrived, having slept very little in the days leading up to my departure from New York, and then not at all while in transit, so I was super-amped when my good friend picked me up at the airport.
After a wee bit of shida at customs (I needed to come up with a good reason why I had three pieces of luggage each about the size of my whole person and each weighing 50lbs), we made the dark drive from Kilimanjaro International Airport to my house in Moshi's "Shantytown," ironically named since it's actually one of the nicer neighborhoods.  I talked nonstop the whole ride, asking questions without waiting for answers, pausing only to take sips of my beer which my friends had thoughtfully stopped to get as a welcome-back libation.

After they left me at home, I was wide awake and wanted to start the major unpacking process (150lbs of luggage?  Shiiiida!), but it was pitch-black and even with candles lit and a torch strapped to my forehead, it was impossible.  Not to mention hot.  So, I went to "bed" around 11pm or so I'd say.  Wide awake.

At 1am, I heard that gorgeous click which signifies the electricity is back on and jumped out of bed.  It was like the starting gunshot and I was off to the races in an unpacking bacchanalia.  I had music going at top volume (mostly Taylor Swift), and my hair off my face with a bandanna Tupac-style, and was running back and forth the length of my house, putting things in their proper place, inspecting here and there, and just generally settling in.

I managed to stay up all night and into the next day, organizing and reclaiming my territory.  Wednesday afternoon, I was still wide awake so I went to Vodacom to hook up my phone and the bank to get some shillings.  I had dinner with my friend Shay and her friend Elena who is visiting from the States.  Still awake.  WIDE.  AWAKE.

Three glasses of red wine at dinner did nothing to wear me out.  I talked a blue streak and we had a very pleasant meal at one of our fave restaurants in Moshi.  Bear in mind that at this point I'd been sleepless for like two and a half days, but I was really hanging in there!  It was my new superpower – I don’t need sleep!!

Wednesday after dinner I came back home (electricity aplenty!) and watched some dvds while waiting for sleep to take over.  Hamna.  I had not the slightest bit of inclination to close my eyes.  I had planned to go to bed between 10pm and midnight, but I couldn't bear the thought of just lying there, so I decided to help nature along.  This was a mistake.

Two Advil PMs and I was out.  Like, oooouuuutttt!  Not only did I sleep Wednesday night, but also Thursday morning, afternoon, and evening, and all through Thursday night!!  I calculate I slept around 32hours, which for an anxiety-ridden, Type A/OCD, insomniac New Yorker is like an eternity.  It was like sols on Mars; I was in another dimension….

Today, Friday, I woke up around 6am and felt fine.  I still had electricity then and have it now at 5pm-ish.  THRILLED with that.  I met up with some dear friends in the morning, did shopping kidogo, and am off to dinner at Shay's in just a bit, where a whole group has gathered for Friday night dinner.  Not Shabbat, but still....
This weekend, I'll be getting myself together and hopefully onto a normal sleep track.  Come Monday, it's back to work in Msaranga for the first day of school.  It's gonna be utter chaos, so I better get a really good night's sleep on Sunday.  Pray for me....

At any rate, that's all I got for the mo'.  Once again, happy new year one and all, and more Toa news to come shortly.  Oh, and a special asante to Adele whose hit song provided the title of this post.... ;)

Friday, January 1, 2016

Mathematically Minded

Pole sana, dear readers, I have no original content for you guys on this first day of the new year, 2016.  Having been delayed briefly in New York, I am waiting out the next three to four days until my new flight which is scheduled to have me in Kilimanjaro the evening of January 5th.  While I'm delighted to have a bit more time with family, friends, and food delivery, I'm also keenly aware of a now loudly ticking clock.  Must get back to Tanzania!  STAT!!
Until then, have a gander at this article from The Daily News titled "Bidding Farewell to 2015, Mathematically Lucky Year."  Kind of a cute little piece....

A lot of things have been said about mathematics over the years.  Some have found it a difficult subject and have gone to the extent of disliking it.  A number of people have found it useful when they need it to solve different types of problems such as monetary and economic, statistical and research-related, and geological.

Many professionals have seen mathematics as part and parcel of their occupations as engineers, scientists, and surveyors.  Yet there are people who like mathematics because of the joy it provides to them with patterns.  This year, 2015, people are saying something different.

They are seeing it as a special year for mathematics.  Not that the performance of mathematics has improved or deteriorated, but mathematics has produced a president of the country.  And it is a mathematics teacher who has been named President of the United Republic of Tanzania.

Dr. John Pombe Magufuli is the first mathematics teacher in Tanzania to become the head of the nation.  It is a very rare occasion for a mathematician to vie for the presidency and win, but Dr. Magufuli has broken the jinx.

While the late professor of mathematics, Leonard Shayo tried and failed miserably, a number of people have seen the new president as man of action with typical characteristics of many mathematicians.

The number of actions he has taken in the short time he has been in office is encouraging.  The Mathematical Association of Tanzania (MAT/CHAHITA) still remembers his prompt response in 2009 when the association invited him to be the guest of honor on Pi Day and he agreed.

The celebration was held at the Tanzania Institute of Education.  Dr. Magufuli expressed his love for mathematics and even told the crowd listening to his speech that he used mathematics to capture illegal fishermen.  By then, he was Minister of Livestock and Fishing.

At the end of the ceremony, journalists surrounded him asking him to disclose the formula but he declined to do so because the case was still in court.  Recently, the chairman of MAT/CHAHITA, Dr. Said Sima expressed his pleasure of Dr. John Magufuli being the fifth-phase president of the nation.

He congratulated the author of this article for involving government officials in Pi Day celebrations.  Apart from Dr. Magufuli, Dr. Sima cited the Hon. Kassim Majaliwa who was the guest of Honor in the 2012 Pi Day celebration held at Jangwani Girls Secondary School.  Hon. Majaliwa was Minister of State in the Prime Minister's office (TAMISEMI), responsible for education.

Another senior government official was Dr. Mohamed Bilal who was invited to the 10th Pi Day celebration held at Jangwani grounds in 2014.

At that time, Dr. Bilal was Vice President of the United Republic of Tanzania.  "It has been a lucky year for mathematics," claimed Dr. Sima.

"You have succeeded in inviting the current president and prime minister -- so far so good!  We hope for the best, and praise MAT/CHAHITA, the president, and all his ministers' hard work in making mathematics a subject liked by all.

We also hope that the Minister of the Ministry of Education, Science, Technology, and Vocational Training, Prof. Joyce Ndalichako and her Deputy Engineer, Stella Manyanya will support our activities."

This lucky year has also witnessed an increase of participation of primary schools in MAT/CHAHITA activities.  For example, in this year's annual seminar and general meeting (AGM), held in Moshi early in August, more than 80 primary school teachers attended.

This year has also witnessed a very special three-year-old child perform mathematical operations and algebra extraordinarily.  We have also been informed of a girl from the southern part of Tanzania (nicknamed makalkuleta), doing multiplication and division of large numbers quickly and accurately.

This luck has been completed by President John Magufuli appointing Prof. Joyce Ndalichako as Minister of Education, Science, Technology, and Vocational Training.

Prof. Joyce Ndalichako is a mathematics teacher.  She is among very few women mathematicians who have served the nation in various positions including that of Executive Secretary of the National Examinations Council of Tanzania (NECTA).

She has been set to work with Deputy Engineer, Stella Manyanya.  The year 2015 has certainly been a mathematics-lucky year!