Earlier in this trip we went to the School of St. Jude, a private school for Tanzanian children that is virtually free! We started off the day by visiting the Smith Campus (the very same Smiths who have donated money to OWU, hence Smith Hall!), which is the secondary school. We were welcomed by a British woman named Jo and a group of the students. She explained that we would be taking a tour of the Secondary School and then have morning tea. Walking into this room I was overwhelmed and a little nervous being left alone with a couple of the students but this was my element- I love children and I love school so I kept an open mind! I was joined by 3 girls who were either 17 or 18 years old, something I was not ready for! I work with younger kids every summer and avoid working with the older kids because they often turn out to be much cooler than me- something I again noticed with this group but was pleasantly surprised. These girls were amazing- they are academically driven, knowing exactly what they want to be when they grow up (a doctor, an accountant and a scientist of some sort). This was mind blowing because they have not even started college yet- I kept telling them that I still have no idea what I am going to be when I grow up! I was also impressed with the intense curriculum: these students are taking physics, economics, art, music, business, etc. etc. Along with their intense curriculum they have updated equipment and have many opportunities to involve yourself in all your interests.
While they took me around I was continually amazed by them and the school. The school is nothing you’ve heard of before! Coming into this visit I thought that this was going to be another school run by Westerners trying to help the poor, uneducated children. I was so wrong. This school was created about 12 years ago by an Australian woman named Gemma. Her vision was to start a free, private school for the brightest and poorest children of Tanzania. Many people laughed at her asking her how she was going to have a free private school and her response was finding enough sponsors to cover the cost of tuition, food and boarding for each child. Her vision was met with much skepticism and she proved them wrong. She was able to get enough money to begin the school, starting with only 3 students. Another amazing thing about the School of St. Jude is that she is working to employ all Tanzanian staff members-a goal that is close to being achieved! All the teachers at both the primary and secondary schools are all natives from Tanzania! She is working on weaning out all the Western volunteers within the next few years.
After saying goodbye to the best tour guides I will ever have, I had time to really catch my breath and gather my thoughts. I was amazed by all that I had seen and witnessed, but I was also ashamed. Amazed because I was surprised to find that these students are just like us, they hang out with their friends, like movies, they like boys and countless other things, but they are cooler. They are cooler because they have so many interests and so many talents and they are confident about them, not cocky but confident! They also really know how to appreciate things, and they know that education is a privilege, not a right. And that’s why I was ashamed; I began to realize how much I take for granted, and how much I need to rethink my ways and my priorities. They all had big dreams and were selfless with these dreams: almost every child at the School of Saint Jude is working so hard for their education so that they can provide for their families one day. It’s a lot of pressure, but to put it simply, it’s noble.
When we were finished visiting the Smith campus we all took a drive to the primary school all the way across town. Not only was the location different, but it was like walking into another world. We started off eating lunch with some of the students and it was really spectacular. Their eyes lit up at the sight of us, and they kept leaning over and whispering things to me and touching my hair, some even tried to peel off my tattoo! After they were dismissed from lunch they all attached to us and dragged us to their playground. When one would leave us, another child was sure to fill their space, and quickly! I was so happy to be at the primary school and was excited to see what the rest of the day would bring.
After playing with the kids, we took a small tour of the school and then sat in on an art class, and this is where the dream started to become a shocking reality. The students at the primary school were taught that visitors were the most important thing at school. As soon as we walked into the door we were greeted with “Welcome visitor” in a very robotic way and you then were supposed to answer with “Thank you students. How are you today?” they would reply “I am fine.” I understand that welcoming visitors is an essential part of the institution because more often than not the visitors are sponsors and donors, not college students from America. But I found it to be awkward and too rehearsed. I felt bad for interrupting their class because you could tell that they wanted to continue with their art projects and you could feel the awkwardness radiating throughout the room.
We then went back to the visitor center and watched a video about St. Jude- it was campy, but you could definitely see the elements of business promotion. The video was informative and was aimed at future donors and took on the “White Savior” angle that I hadn’t seen at the secondary school. After watching this video we got to talk to Gemma and it was not what I expected. It tainted my experience of the whole day. She was a business woman first and foremost, and I understand that. But with a program like this I was expecting and was painted a picture of this great humanitarian who was compassionate and driven and had a dream to give the children a chance in life. She kept talking in terms of her “products” and that she didn’t care about the “tomato sellers” on the side of the street- she was only interested in the future leaders, doctors and engineers. I get that she took exceptionally smart students, because I get that she needs to have a fair cut off somewhere, but the way she talked about the common tomato sellers was disheartening and definitely not giving every individual a chance. Maybe that’s the dreamer in me.
At the end of our brief discussion with Gemma, we were briefed for our home visit-something that we did not know we were going to go on. I paired up with Kelli and we were taught about common things of the culture like only eat with your right hand and then we met our interpreter. After exchanging our names and some brief information about ourselves we then me the student we were going to go home with. We went home with Oliva, a sweet little girl who was shy but was always smiling. The encounter and situation was awkward because we met Oliva about 5 minutes before leaving with her and she could not speak English very well because she had just started school.
When we arrived to the last part that we could drive, we saw Oliva’s father and little brother waiting for us. As soon as they saw us they were ecstatic. We began walking down this mud hill littered with trash and both Kelli and I slipped, and all the while this father was beaming. We were soon met by their neighbors who were chanting, singing and were celebratory screaming and welcoming us. It was so beautiful and exciting, the sense of love and respect for us was very apparent. The mother was beautiful and quiet and was a very good homemaker. The father was someone whom I would love to talk to for hours. He was passionate in a quiet way, was the most grateful man I have ever met and he has truly absorbed the Catholic teachings- he praised Jesus for all of his blessings. His blessings included his beautiful family- his wife Blanda, his oldest daughter Oliva, Obedia (Obama) and Shedhrock and it also included their two room house that had no running water and no electricity, his daughter’s education and his great fortune. This man really understands happiness. He literally has nothing and he was thanking Jesus for his life, his family and their amazing lives. If that didn’t put me to shame then I don’t have a soul. I was welcomed by the neighborhood and they sang this beautiful song of gratitude and respect, I was in tears when the translator explained the meaning. I also was in tears when I first walked into their home-you see these homes on TV, you know they exist but then you really don’t know until you walk into one. They would have been given a brand new house by Ty Pennington or Oprah if they lived in America. This house is below the lowest standard of living in America-next to being homeless. But the kicker was that they were proud, they were grateful and they didn’t complain and didn’t blame anyone for their “misfortune”. To me, they didn’t seem poor; they seemed rich because of their happiness. I wish I could capture their happiness in a jar and share it because it was infectious, but this kind of happiness only comes from someone who truly lives for others and who lives not for money, but more for relationships and for God. I am Catholic, and I have never connected with God more than my short time with this family. They are truly inspiring. No, they are not the only poor people in Africa. No, they are not the poorest family either. They haven’t had a serious accident, or horrible disease plague their family. They are just good people. And that’s why they are inspiring.
After getting over the shock of the house, we settled down and Agapita, the father, began to speak and asked Kelli and I questions about our lives. We asked about theres and he soon was digging in the only drawer of the house for pictures of him on top of Kilimanjaro (we also saw baby pictures of Oliva). They were also very interested in what foods we liked from Tanzania and specifically asked about Ugali, a traditional dish made of corn flower and water. They were asking with knowing smiles on their faces-for those who have not had Ugali, it is not the best; it has a weird texture and tastes funky, but it fills you up. They asked me if I would make Ugali back at home and I promised them I would, and I fully intend on keeping that promise. After the initial small talk he became quiet and this look of pure love and admiration came over his face. He began speaking to the interpreter with tears in his eyes and you could tell that he was saying something from the deepest depths of his heart. Listening to him speak was breathtaking, even if I couldn’t understand a single word he was saying. The interpreter turned to us and told us that he was thanking us for sponsoring his child and that he will forever be grateful to us. This made me cringe. Here I was a well-off college student from America studying abroad and never have I ever gone hungry or been cold and this man was thanking me for sponsoring his child. I hated myself. I have never felt so ashamed- I am not sponsoring this child. Up until today I had never even heard of St. Jude and here is this man, thanking me for doing absolutely nothing. We let this fact slide, because how do you tell a man like this that you were just following your agenda and had no idea that you would be going on a home visit? After this they served us an entire meal which killed me because I knew that this cost them so much and I knew that they were not going to let me, a well-fed American, go hungry. It would also have been very rude if I refused to eat, I know that I was told beforehand that I could refuse, but it was an unwritten rule that I would definitely not be able to refuse. They served us tea, and put three bananas fried with spices onto my plate (they used their best china for this) and then apologized for it being cold. I couldn’t believe they did that, but I assured them that they were delicious whatever temperature they served it at. Although I told them I loved them, and I ate 2 of them (I wanted to leave as much for them as possible) they were not my cup of tea as they say. But at that point I was grateful because they fed me, a universal sign of love and respect. I thought that after we were finished with that then we would be done, but no, they then gave us huge scoops of peanuts and told us that we were not allowed to leave until all the peanuts were gone. Kelli and I both looked at each other and had the same look; we did not want them 1 because we were not hungry and 2 because we had already eaten so much of their food. We attempted to finish them but then couldn’t and the interpreter told us that they could pack it up for us, so we said sure! But then I regretted it because he gave Oliva a coin to go and buy an envelope. It killed me; he was giving money so we could comfortably snack on the peanuts later. We tried to say it was fine, that we didn’t need them, but they wouldn’t hear any of it. So after feeling doubly guilty, they gave us even more food. It was fresh fruit. Even in America we know that fresh fruit is expensive. I don’t want you to think that I was only worried about the money and that I was only worried about the money because they were poor, I want you to understand that these people didn’t just talk the talk, they walked the walked. They were trying to give back what we supposedly were giving them in the best way they knew how, and that was feeding us. While we were eating the mother looked at the father and quietly asked about the driver and if he was hungry. The interpreter tried to assure them that it wasn’t a big deal and they didn’t have to feed him but they insisted and sent him a plate of food and some tea. Another example of their selfless hearts. We finished our meals and soon got up to leave, and they looked at us and with a smile and tears asked us to come back and visit again, and I immediately told them I would. I really do hope to go back and visit them, but I am also nervous and feel unworthy because I have done nothing for them. Before leaving, we presented them with a gift basket (purchased by Dr. Quaye during the briefing because we didn’t know to bring one) and they were so thankful. On the surface I felt like I was doing something by presenting these gifts but just under the surface I was dying- I didn’t even pay for this basket. They walked us out and Agapita grabbed my hand and motioned that he would help me up the muddy hill and all too soon we were waving goodbye from the back of the bus.
To sum up all of my feelings (I know there’s a lot) I loved this visit. It was exactly what I needed for so many reasons: my faith, my way of life, my thoughts, my actions, my priorities, etc. etc. But I also hated this visit because I was not the sponsor of Oliva and I never will be, a thought that breaks my heart.