TALLY BANDY: Safari of the Soul: Two Learn Much While Teaching in Africa
With our unique national Thanksgiving holiday almost upon us, I have many reasons to feel grateful.
One of them is the unknown road that my good friend Jessie Mackay and I stepped upon last July, leading us to Tanzania and a transformational experience.
If it wasn't surprise enough to be given the opportunity to glimpse God's world in a far different place from Southern Pines or Pinehurst, the greatest surprise was that two ordinary American women discovered what is really important in the very short time that we are given on this earth.
Jessie and I came face to face with extreme poverty -- but also face to face with extraordinarily generous and loving people.
There comes a time in our lives, what Jessie calls the last third of our lives, when we know that we have all or even more than we need and we know somewhere deep within our souls that it is time to change direction and give thanks by giving back.
Jessie, a professional artist from Pinehurst, moved into the totally unknown world of teaching art to primary students in a village school 10 kilometers from the Tanzanian capital of Dodoma.
She walked a dirt path each morning past mud huts, encountering chickens, sheep, goats and children along the way.
I, a lay hospital chaplain for many years and later an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church, taught pastoral care and pastoral theology at the Msalato Theological College in the same location, with major doubts about teaching adult students in a tongue that is most often their third or fourth language and in a totally different culture.
Many of my students were already ordained priests in the Anglican Church, all with little or no income, but all of them committed to the Christian way. I was to learn that to Africans, life is suffering and that it brings them closer and closer to Christ.
In spite of their poverty and difficulties, they were able to sing and dance with joy and to put their trust in a loving God. All were eager to learn, and I often deviated from my carefully laid-out lesson plans. They had not heard of Martin Luther King or Desmond Tutu, which led to a history lesson.
It was an arduous journey. Tanzania is a long way away. With layovers in New York and Dubai, it took close to 37 hours to get there, including a 10-hour road trip from Dar Es Salaam to Dodoma. More than that, it was moving from the 21st century to medieval life with cell phones.
Yes, one of the funniest or strangest sights was to see a Maasai herdsman walking the dusty plains of northern Tanzania with a cell phone held to his ear. Cell phones are changing lives in one of the poorest countries in Africa.
I was stunned by the poverty and the daily bombardment to my senses, but there is something magical and timeless about this vast and different country that called us by name to come and see.
The stars and the moon are just as beautiful and magnificent there as they are here -- perhaps more so because there is no ambient light. But it is the people who tell the story. It is the people we came to love. It is the people who taught us.
"The children -- the beautiful children!" Jessie wrote in her journal. "Skin the color of brown ocher. Incredible smiles. There would be no work for orthodontists here. I have never seen such beautiful teeth. The children at Bishop Stanway Primary School had never had an art lesson. In one day I became a very popular teacher, with plenty of play time and no grades."
In the beginning, the students wanted to use rulers, compasses, protractors. Those were quickly banned, and the students learned about
"I was out of my depth, having never taught children," Jessie wrote.
"At the end of the first day, the regular teacher walked around the class with me, looking at their work. She stopped by one boy and said with amazement: 'Did you help him with this?' I said no. It was the best drawing in the class and quite sophisticated.
"She had tears in her eyes and told me he was mentally retarded, the worst student in the school, and hadn't made a success of any of his subjects. The only reason he was still there was that his parents had begged the headmaster to keep him for socializing, and of course they were able to pay his tuition. She went off to show the other teachers and the headmaster."
This was an "aha" moment for the headmaster and other teachers. This school was taught the old-fashioned way, by rote learning. None of the teachers had heard of dyslexia, ADD or ADHD; they lovingly followed a curriculum used by the British in colonial days.
"After lunch," Jessie said, "I gave this boy -- his name was Safe -- his own set of watercolor paints, brushes, pencils and paper and showed him how to use paint. His teacher wanted the other children to see him receive the gift, to recognize that he did have a talent and was being rewarded. A week later, he had a pad full of new pictures. Interestingly, the worst students in the school were the best in art class."
Through Different Eyes
Jessie and I adapted quickly to a different way of life, living with far less than we were accustomed to but recognizing early on that we had all that we needed -- maybe not all that we wanted, but all that we needed. Two months later, we re-entered our world of abundance, and I am staggered by too much. Don't get me wrong. I like nice things. I like comfort. But something inside of me changed. I saw the world through new and different eyes.
Our first impression of our living quarters was that they were dismal, though they were far superior to those of the villagers. We never knew when we would have water or electricity. And if we did have water, we could only take bucket baths or get a thin stream of cold water to wash our dishes.
The baths became quite enjoyable and acceptable, and this is coming from one who thinks that a hot shower is one of life's greatest luxuries.
It may be hard to understand why we cried when we left, why Jessie wept on her last day as her beautiful little children hung onto her crying and saying: "Teacher, please don't go." They loved her so much, and how can one resist the trusting love of a child?
"Madam Jessie" had brought them color and joy and an opportunity to express themselves with crayons, paints and chalk. These children had never seen a watercolor paint box; some thought it was something to be eaten.
It was equally sad for me to leave my adult students, all of them struggling to feed their families and pay their school fees. I learned after my return that one of my students had gone to one of the teachers begging for 5,000 Tanzanian shillings (less than $5) to take his child to the hospital. There had been a drought in our area two years before, and we were told that as many as 400 beggars a day came to the college doors (some professors) begging for food for their starving children. Beggars came daily to our door.
One afternoon it was a mother and three little children with buckets, asking for water.
We always gave what we had -- an egg, a piece of bread, once a box of oatmeal, quite a treasure. We just cannot wrap our minds around this kind of need and poverty in our own world of abundance, but something in the deepest parts of our souls knows that it isn't right. People should not be starving to death or begging for water.
Baby Martin Mazengo, who was baptized in April, was buried June 10, dead of malaria. I wonder if the world is mad to allow this sort of injustice. Would we not have cured malaria in this country by now if it was our children dying?
It's hard to know what to do. Money from large foundations or NGOs often gets into the hands of corrupt government officials. We want to help, want to share our own resources and money. But how? Jessie and I came to the conclusion that our giving is best done at the grassroots level. We know where it goes and see the results of even a small amount of money. What we call "peanuts," they would call a fortune.
Learning While Teaching
We had a hunch that we would learn more than we taught, and that was true. All that we knew of what is important in this life was reinforced.
The journey took a lot of physical as well as emotional energy, and sometimes in the evening we would just talk and reflect on the day past.
Instinctively we said that life is about love, care, relationships, friendships and sharing, not about how many houses or cars we own or how many pairs of shoes are in our closets. I look now and think my closet is obscene with abundance, while Africa breaks my heart every day.
It is customary at the college where I taught for visitors or new teachers to be fed each night for the first two weeks in the homes of staff and other teachers.
Each of those nights, there would be a knock at our door at 7 o'clock, and we would be escorted to the appointed home. Upon our entry, the host would reverently wash our hands by pouring precious water on them as we held them over a dented bowl.
We were then welcomed into the living area, where we would meet the entire family, including cousins, daughters-in-law, babies, everyone who lived nearby. They were formal but cordial and gracious, with many questions about America and our own families.
The meal was simple but plentiful, always including rice and potatoes, tomatoes and onions, bananas cooked in myriad ways, once wild deer, chicken -- and, best of all, black beans with the rice. There was little else in the home. The cooking was done outside on small charcoal braziers nothing like our large outdoor grills.
How on earth they prepared such sumptuous meals on such primitive grills was beyond us. It must have taken days to prepare and cost more money than any of them could afford. We learned about true hospitality and generosity. We so often give out of our abundance, while they gave out of nothing -- and always with the word "karibu," welcome.
Sadly, my camera and laptop containing all of my pictures and my journal were stolen on a 16-hour bus trip from Arusha to Dar. My travel agent who has lived in Africa said that he hoped my love for the people was not tarnished by this unfortunate experience. "Absolutely not," I replied. "It could have happened in New York or Raleigh or just about any place."
Journey Only Beginning
The experience of living and working with these wonderful people is so embedded in my heart that I don't need pictures, but I am grateful that Jessie's are intact, allowing us to put together a PowerPoint present-ation that we would be happy to share anywhere. We are going to Wyoming to speak of this journey to an Episcopal Church in Pinedale in January. It's a message that we are eager to share with any who will listen.
At our last morning chapel service, the students sang a song of blessing to us in Kiswahili. I can still hear their soft, mellifluous voices. And I can see their very black hands in my very white hand as we said goodbye with tears running down our faces.
Where will this new road -- this road taken -- lead? The word "safari" simply means journey. On this Thanksgiving, I'm grateful that our safari has just begun.
Tally Bandy is the ordained deacon at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Southern Pines.
More like this story