Day 301: Teaching in Tanzanian School
I never found out why the little boy was crying once we got out of class. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.
THERE'S blood on my hands. It's my blood. The god-damn mosquito's dead body is stuck in the mesh of the netting around my bed. She's – they're always shes – is one of many fatalities since the morning light started to creep into where I'm sleeping in Joseph's living room.
At this point, I might as well get out of bed, as there is no chance I'll be getting back to sleep. Instead, stay inside the netting that covers the bed and continue with the revenge killings. I press the mosquitoes up against the net, as a MMA fighter would push a nearly defeated opponent: slap, clap, smack – whatever it takes to kill them.
I'm not sure if I slept last night. I'm sure I must have drifted off for an hour or two, but it was another night of restless sleep when I was blessed with any sleep at all. It was cooler last night, but still my mind was thumping along at the speed of a humming bird's heart. Compulsively, I checked Tinder, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The door would creek loudly as I attempted to step outside to use the restroom.
I thought a quick, uninspired wank might do the trick. However, it didn't.
Then, at some point in the night, I'd become too careless with the netting and the itching started. I didn't hear them buzzing in my ears. I wondered if I was going crazy, maybe there was no reason to be itching at all I thought. But I did itch.
This morning, my suspicions were confirmed – the net was full of mosquitoes.
It's my first day of teaching. I've not really prepared, but it's supposed to be conversational English, which should be easy enough.
School starts at 8am. However, Joseph explained that it runs on African time, so I could show up at 9am and it would be no problem.
My magic light bulb, which I'd hoped to begin class with is broken. The batteries are dead. So, I fish out four silver rings for a linking rings routine. If you want to see how nearly bombproof linking rings are, watch me attempt them.
“Here, Joseph, take a look at this: four rings,” I say showing him all four of the thin metal rings.
Awkwardly, I manage to link them together, then hand a set to Joseph, pretending to show him how to unlink them. Though people know that counting to three will never be the key to getting them to come apart, they can't help, but follow a magician's instructions as we count together.
At “three” mine usually will separate – when I'm not being clumsy and daft – Joseph's never do.
“This is so cool. I think I am very lucky to have you here. I have learned something new yesterday and now I learn something new today,” he says with total delight, his mind turning with a new puzzle.
I put a foam ball in my left hand and one in his right hand. Magically, the one in my hand disappears from my closed fists and appears inside his.
“You can learn it all on YouTube,” I say, knowing full-well that Joseph is a champion of figuring things out from YouTube, as he taught himself to fix computers and cellphones through his own abilities to puzzle out solutions and what information was available on YouTube.
“No, I think you can't learn on YouTube,” he says. “You have a special talent.” I certainly don't, but the confidence boost will be nice to take into the classroom.
We have mandazi and tea in the living room. An older man, who I've not met before, joins us. At first I thought he was selling something, as he kept calling into the room as if asking permission to join. He and Joseph spoke this way, him outside and Joseph inside, for a little while before he joined us for tea.
A woman walks by the window, a blue bucket balanced on her head. She yells something in Swahili.
“She's selling fresh fish,” Joseph tells me. “They come to the houses to selling things.”
The old man, wearing a baseball cap about racing, says something about cabbages.
There's an email from Elizabeth of Adventure Rider Radio, who are doing a show about Dice Travels.
(LISTEN: Adventure Rider Radio Show HERE!)
It's Friday, which is a short day, because many of the students are Muslim and need to pray. There's also no school this weekend. By Monday, I'll be nearly halfway done with my week-long volunteer commitment which seems impossible.
Though I've not been up in front of a class since university, when I taught a one credit-hour billards course for the Indian University HYPER School, I'm not nervous at all about teaching the children.
A head teacher, a honey-toned man, awkwardly introduces me to the class in Swahili. I hand out a black note book for them to write their names in, so I can learn who is who. It's important to learn their names, even if I'm only here for a week.
The pupils, dressed in white tops, sit on narrow wooden benches. Though it might not seem like it, the school is fairly well equipped: there are chalk boards and plenty of chalk and the kids have pens and notebooks.
There's a little awkwardness as I get settled in.
Teaching is a performance art. A good teacher, like a good performer, engages and commands the attention of their audience without raising their voice.
I open with the lesson with rings.
They like it. They might not love it, but they like it.
“What did you study in your last English class?” I ask.
I'm greeted by silence.
I'm okay with silence. I've stood in a room full of adults waiting for someone to answer a question before. It's easy if you're relaxed.
However, in this case, it's unclear if they understood the question.
Fanny, the French woman I met two days ago, taught them English for three weeks. She explained that they were fairly good at reading and writing, but were very unsure of speaking the language.
Like a renegade teacher in a prep-school, I immediately disregard the curriculum – after all the headmaster didn't seem to really care what I taught.
Shoot, I'm not even sure they care if I'm teaching.
A renegade teacher, or an unprepared, uneducated one – take your pick.
“Why are we learning English?” I ask.
I am greeted by what has already become a familiar silence.
“We learn because English is spoken all over the world. If we want to go to America or England, we need to speak English,” I say. “And because Americans are stupid we don't know Swahili, so if you want to help us when we come to your country and make us feel more at home, you need to speak some English.”
A couple kids smile when I mention Americans being stupid – cracks in the ice.
We launch in with a greeting: Hello.
I know it's standard to learn “good morning”, “good afternoon” and “good night”, but such language, especially when spoken in a developing country sounds static and overly formal. A simple “hello” does the trick.
One by one, I go through the students, having them say “hello” to me. When one of them mumbles or speaks too softly, my faces contorts and I have them say it again, louder.
Toward the end, one of the little boys – I'm nowhere close to learning their names yet – says “hi” instead of hello.
“Yes, excellent!” I say. “We can also just say 'hi'.”
The word goes up on the chalk board with the word “hello”.
I try to think of the sort of general sentences we use in conversations with people for the first time:
Where are you from?
Where are you going?
What are you doing?
A group of girls with white hijab aren't paying attention. They're interested in what's happening on the other side of the room of the big, barn-like schoolhouse. It's loud from the sounds of other classes on the opposite side of thin, low partition.
I stop talking. I wait. It takes a few minutes, but they return to paying attention.
“So when I was in school, I learned French: Je m'applle Isaac,” I say. “But I was very bad at French, so instead of saying: je m'applle Isaac, I would say, Jmamplle”
I say it the first time, clearly enunciating my words. The second time I mumble through it. A couple of the kids don't know what's going on, they try to repeat after me. I say it again and again mumbling more and more and more.
“When you speak English, we need to speak loud and clear,” I say. “Speak each word alone.”
To allow them to practice speaking, I pair them up to do a mock conversation with the questions. I purposely don't give them the answers to the questions: up to them.
There's a bit of silent confusion, but as I go around encouraging pairs to run through the series of questions, we start making some progress.
One of the students with a pink Hijab, is clearly the star English student of the class. She speaks clearly, her mind is sharp. Her partner asks her, “Where are you going?”
“I'm going to America,” she says with a sly, clever smile.
After a few rounds of this, we move on.
I draw some clocks on the board so we can practice telling time.
I do the first two, then have one of the boys up front come to the board to draw the hands on the clock's face. He neatly does so. It's 12:30.
“What time is it class?”
“Twelve, thirty-teen,” they reply in chorus.
Damn me if I can get them to stop saying thirty-teen. We go over the pronunciation over and over again, but it's unclear if they can't hear the difference or say the difference between thirty and thirty-teen. I enunciate thirty with more and more of a hard “D” sound, but to no avail.
The group of girls who were not paying attention earlier is now fussing about pens.
Striding toward them, I take all the pens and one of the girls notebooks, where there's a hand drawn picture of a microscope – a good hand-drawn picture of a microscope.
“I will not waste my time,” I say sharply. It's the second time, I've had to use my sharp teacher voice. “I flew all the way from America to be here and teach you all. You will pay attention. If you're talking to each other, I know it's not in English. During my class, you will only speak English.”
My voice is stern and sharp. I feel like some of the boys nearly applaud the girls getting in trouble.
We return to telling time. I pull an older girl in the back, the least confident in her English, up front to write the time on the clock. She keeps peeking over her shoulder at a boy in the first row, erasing the hands on her clock and trying again – though she's welcome to write any time she wants.
I walk over to a nearby table, where one of the four or so teachers appears to be coming up with a test schedule.
“When is class over?” I ask.
Given the random start time, it's really unclear to me when this all wraps up.
“They will ring the bell,” he says, checking the time. “You have seven more minutes.”
What to do with seven minutes?
“Tell me what you like so we can figure out what to talk about,” I tell the class.
Slowly, one by one, I go through the class pulling out an example of what they like. All the boys would answer football if I let them. The words go up on the board. The especially bright student says: Auditor General.
“What? Nobody likes the Auditor General,” I say. However, her English to Swahili dictionary is open to Auditor General.
Apparently, she does like the Auditor General for some reason – maybe he's a relative.
There's the sound of clanging metal, more like a cow bell then a chime.
I join the teachers at a nearby table for a cup of tea, without milk, and chapati. With one hand, I've learned to fold the chapati into eighths so it can be dipped in tea, as they do in Tanzania.
The honey-colored man speaks with a thick tongue. It's exhausting trying to understand him. I thought I only had to teach one class today. However, he makes it sound as if I could teach more if want to.
“I've only prepared one class,” I say, trying to sound professional.
“Okay, so when they come back afterward, you can teach,” he says, missing the point.
He then suggests I join him at the field to watch the kids play football, so I can take pictures.
The boys played football on a dirt pitch. Some had boos, others shared. Most had nothing. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
We sit on a wooden bench as the kids warm up for a match. The boys have one, while the girls use the other as a volleyball. There are some fantastic dribbling skills on the pitch once the pick-up game gets underway.
“Some of them have boots,” I point out. Only a few of the kids have cleats. A couple of them are sharing sets of shoes, each getting one.
“That is a very big problem here,” he says. “Sometimes volunteers and sponsors help with buying.”
The conversation goes on, and it's hard not to feel a like he's trying to hit me up for a donation.
It seems, to me, that it would be better if nobody had boots since they all can't have boots. Lord help the barefooted player who gets challenged by some boasting spikes on their souls.
The lack of sleep and heat of the day hits me.
“I'm going to head back to the classroom,” I say after having wandered around the pitch with my camera for a little while.
The youngest students are running down the dirt path toward me, one rolling a tire with a stick. A little boy, perhaps four years old, approaches me and my camera. Big tears are glued to his cheeks, snot in his bubbling in his nose.
He looks deep into the lens.
Another one of the four-year-old boys reaches out for the camera. I give it to him.
The kids loved playing with the camera. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
He's a total pro once I show him what button to press. There's something undeniably adorable about children with the pose of adults. This little guy is already a professional photographer, all he needs is a camera.
Snap, snap, snap goes the camera as he points it at people. Though you can't see the pictures in the display unless you press the play button, he turns the camera to his fellow students, as if showing them pictures. He puts the strap over his head and continues to shoot the rest of the kids as they crowd in.
I wonder who I'm supposed to credit for the photos he's taking should they ever sell for millions
I found myself on the other side of the lens for a while. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Back in the school, I greet Ben, the owner.
He's a happy, round-faced man with narrow spectacles. He's re-explains that it's only a half-day of school on Fridays and gives me permission to head out.
I slide out to the main road the back way to avoid the football pitch and the teacher who said it was okay for me to teach more today.
Before leaving, I did agree to start teaching two different classes. They really don't care what I do. I can teach one class or all the classes – it's apparently up to me.
My body is wet from sweat as a gentle headache eases in. With a single finger, I press deep into my temples, courting a pleasant pain.
I need water and sleep.
Compulsively, I scroll through my phone.
Things outside the window stop looking familiar.
“I'm going to throw up,” my mind mumbles.
I don't, but I do get off the bus and take another bus going the other direction – I missed my stop.
Back in Joseph's house, Ruth is in tears about something, but her mother's there to take care of her.
I pull the curtain across my bed in the living room and crawl in, switching to shorts.
Nearly two hours later, I wake from my nap in a hot sweat, the sun is sneaking in through the window, catching me in the eye. However, I feel a little better. I can at least head into town for food and then KCC to get some work done.