Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Meet the Parents

Greetings everyone, and here's hoping all of you are well.  March has come in like a lion over here in these parts with the rains starting to fall and the heat of the "winter" sun finally abating somewhat.

We at The Toa Nafasi Project have been extremely busy since the beginning of the year, expanding the program into three additional schools as well as Msaranga Primary which remains our home base.

In all four schools, our work is in various stages of progress, with Msaranga leading the way as the teachers, parents, and community at large are already familiar with what we are trying to do.  We have finished observing and testing all the Standard One kids and divided them into preliminary groupings so we know who we will be working with.  The real findings will come once Angi gets her hands on the tests and can manipulate the results into hardcore data, but she does not arrive in Tanzania until May.  So, in order as to not lose momentum, Hyasinta and I have gone over each observation form and test, and formed what we call vikundi or groups whereby those with no problems whatsoever continue on as they were; those with mild issues, we will start with a general tuition and see how they come along; and those who lack any foundation of the basic concepts whatsoever, we will enroll in Toa Nafasi and work with in small clusters or one-on-one.

We have done the same for the Standard One students at Msandaka and Mnazi Primary Schools as well, and at all three schools we have created teams of teachers to begin the process of tuition with these preliminary vikundi we've made up.

The teacher teams we also took care in devising with longer tenured teachers paired with newbies, and strengths and weaknesses divided.  For instance, Teacher Dorcas is not a great assessor as she tends to extract the answers from the students and the whole purpose of the test is to discover the child's true capabilities.  But she is AMAZING with the kids and they love to learn from her playful spirit in the classroom.  So, we paired her with Mama Mshiu in order to offset Dorcas's young cheerfulness with some good old-fashioned ukali or severity which Mama has in spades!

The only school at which we have not even begun our work is Kiboriloni and that is because there was a delay in receiving the all-important kibali (permit) from the Moshi Municipal Council.  We now have it but are still missing the even more all-important stamp on it so in due course, we will begin the same process there.

This past Monday at Msaranga, Hyasinta and I began the time-consuming and sometimes sensitive task of conducting parent interviews for those kids in our third kikundi, those whom we want to enroll at Toa.  We have just under 40 children, by far the most out of all the schools, and sent letters home with the kids asking that the parents come the following day.  This part of the task always takes extra time as many of the parents are reluctant to come to school, perhaps thinking that they will be asked for overdue fees or there is some other shida that they would rather avoid.  In addition, to get a parent to take time off from work to deal with their kids' school issues is tough, especially now in the time of planting crops.  Then, there is a sense that teachers handle the responsibility of raising a child at school and the parents do the same at home and that those two veins don't have much crossover.  Toa Nafasi is trying to change this, but it's slow-going.

During the interview process, Hyasinta does the bulk of the talking while I take notes.  (In past years, it was Vumi, who had developed a certain uncanny knack for the job, but Hyasinta is coming along nicely and we make a good team.)  The questionnaire itself (also developed by Angi in addition to the assessment and various teaching methodologies that we use in the classroom) is a mishmash of inquiries ranging from whether the child can see, hear, and talk as well as use the bathroom, dress, and tell the weather unassisted.  We then move on to how high the child can count, if he/she write or just scribble, and whether he/she can read.  Next is the knowledge and avoidance of dangerous situations, ability to do various common household chores, and whether the child prefers to play with friends or alone.  Finally, we come to some really interesting questions, which I find are often left unanswered in this Swahili context.  Can the child engage in self-stimulating activities?  Can he/she initiate conversation?  Does he/she get frustrated easily?  Does he/she show more than one emotion?  Will he/she explore new environments?  Good stuff like that.

This is the part I find most difficult because Tanzanians tend not to really think about these kinds of thing and are so literal that when you provide an example, they latch onto that rather than to the behavior behind it.  Point in case: For the question regarding new environments, Hyasinta usually says something about if the mama buys a new pot for the house, will the child notice and say "Hey, where'd that pot come from?"  Ummmm....  Then, the parent will respond, "Of course my child will ask about a new pot!  IT'S A NEW POT!!"  Errrr....  Then, I have to try to think of other, less literal ways of trying to get the message across, ones that have little to do with new pots as this example seems to really make imaginations run away.  Plus, there's the fact that a pot is not really an environment, new or not.... unless you are a potato.

Another toughie is the question about whether the child can follow two-step instructions.  Vumi used to say as example, "If you send your child to the store to buy salt and onions, will he/she come back with both, or only just one?"  No-kay, but I was too tired/uninspired to ever really correct her.  Now, with Hyasinta, I told her to try an example of a task whereby the child must accomplish Step 1 before even attempting Step 2.  "Like what?" Hyasinta asks.  I had a hard time thinking of something appropriate and mentioned following a recipe, like to cook beans, you gotta boil them first, then add oil, spices, and vegetables.  "But kids don't cook beans," Hyasinta says.  This is true.  So, how about this: does the child know, when getting dressed, to start with his/her underwear and then work outwards to sweater, socks, and shoes?  "OF COURSE MY CHILD PUTS ON HIS UNDERWEAR FIRST!  OBVI!!" the parent will exclaim, looking around with a nervous chuckle as if we've discovered a whole gang of kids who wear their underwear on the outside.  Again.... lost in translation....

The idea that the mfano (example) becomes the actual meat of the question is a telltale sign of how Tanzanian minds (at least in this tiny, remote village) have been programmed to work.  There is very little exploration of connotation; rather, everything is taken at face value with no analysis, no discussion of meaning.  This makes it tough for a champion expounder like me, who could go on for eons about the meaning of pretty much anything from the plot of Game of Thrones to the effect of a potential Trump presidency.  (Actually, those two mifano are probably more closely linked than we all think....  "You know nothing, American public....")

Anyway, you get my drift.  These kinds of mushy-gushy, touchy-feely questions are really tough to translate and it will take time for Hyasinta and I to develop a proper set of examples that will carry us through the years.  For now, however, pots and panties will do just fine.

Lastly on the questionnaire, there is a space for the delicate questions regarding the mama's pregnancy and delivery, the child's milestones, life at home, and any other things the parent might want to bring to our attention.  It's here where we find out whether Mama drinks, whether Baba beats her, if they're still together, if there's any illness in the family, and whether the child has any other atypical habits such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking (NO JUDGMENT HERE: I sucked my own left thumb for ages, so I fully understand how delicious and hard it is to give up that short, stubby, opposable digit!)

Generally, the parents are cooperative and appreciative and usually I find that they think their kids know more than they do, so it's really good to show the parents the child's assessment and explain where exactly they are falling behind and could use our support.  We also get a lot of good information about the kids.  For EXAMPLE: This one is an orphan, left by her HIV+ mama and drunkard baba and being raised by bibi (grandmother); that one fell out of his crib at three months and was never the same after.  Things like that.  This information helps us to know what next steps to take.

Once all the interviews are done, we will know if there are any students who need referral appointments, whether it be at KCMC for eyesight or hearing or Gabriella for further special education assessment or behavior modification.  We tell the parents that all costs associated with their child's care will be covered by Toa Nafasi but that they must communicate and cooperate with us if they want their child to receive our services.  Hence, the slow and steady welding together of "school" and "home" in order to raise some healthy, happy kids!

Below, check out the hojaji (questionnaire) in Swahili and also our Swahili language brochure, which we give to each parent to take with them.  All in a day's work!

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