There are certain things that simply make our lives better.  The love of a family is essential in order to grow, prosper and to become greater.  Whatever that “greater” is for someone, it is love from family that helps you achieve and become more.  One realization I came upon during my second trip here (a two month stay) is that to some of the children here I was a part of their support system, and a part of their family.  I never intended on living in Africa for longer than a year, being so serious about working at 25 or worrying about the well-being of a nine year old, but I guess God’s plan was different for me.  I have been urged by my friends and mentors Stan and Nathan who recently visited that I should write more about some of the trials or struggles I have as a result of my role.  They saw that what I write is not all that I do and that the situations of the children outside of school are sometimes more desperate than people understand.  I usually keep that to myself, but I realize now that it’s definitely worth sharing.

I recognized last summer that I needed to return here and to be serious about the care of these children.  In order to make a lasting and strong difference in the community or school I needed to commit more time.  Anyone can step in, buy gifts and then leave after a few months, but to truly be more for children I realized that I would have to do more than buying a pair of shoes or a new backpack.  I needed to go further than saying “I love you” and actually express it in my actions no matter the circumstances or consequences.  Because of my constant role here at the school I have known many families for a number of years now.  In some cases that is a blessing and in some cases it is a curse.  Some children are blessed with wonderful homes and others with horrible home lives.  Many of our children are often being cared for by grandparents or relatives, which sometimes means they are seen as a burden.  They are an extra mouth to feed and a costly investment of energy and money.  In some cases there is abuse, both mental and physical and extreme neglect.  This was the case with a special child in my heart, Catherine.  

From June to October I did my best to make it “profitable” and beneficial to her former caregivers to actually care for her.  Without going into too many details, I recognized that no matter what I did for them, it wasn’t enough and her home would eventually be her downfall.  After some time, many things that were intended to care for her were being withheld from her.  She was so close to having everything she deserved, but the abuse and neglect persisted. So, she began to run away.  The thought of going home was just too much.  So, to the best of my ability I took action despite the potential backlash.  

Many people will question, out of a school of 100+ why her?  How is it that I met 40 children years ago, but one of them calls me father?  Do I feel I am stepping out of my role as a teacher?  The truth is, I don’t know and I can’t really explain it.  It’s in my heart and mind so I act.  God blesses us with experiences to understand ourselves, our strengths, our limitations, and it is on us to act accordingly.  I am absolutely stepping out of my role as a teacher but I don’t hesitate or have any reservations.  Some people here have urged me to reconsider, be careful or tread lightly.  They told me it’s dangerous for a white man to take on an active role in the community and especially to care for children.  I am an outsider, an American and people may try to take advantage of me, they could make false accusations or try to hurt me simply because of my trying to help.  In general, African men, especially young men, don’t care for children here, so I am in a role that people will not understand.  The truth is, everyone with fears and worries are right.  There are so many bad things that could happen, but that has never been a good enough reason in my mind not to help.  If a child will be better off because of my caring, then I have a responsibility to do so.  There are always things that could happen, but that is life, if I was careful or logical I wouldn’t be here.  I wouldn’t be in Africa, working outside of a protected government NGO, taking non pay volunteer job after leaving a nice comfortable paying job. 

So when Catherine needed help I put myself into the middle of the problem and did my part to help her.  I spent a night typing documents detailing all of her possessions (all of which I had given to her) and spent weeks reminding the priests of my special girl that needed their help too.  Finally a family stepped up, and luckily for everyone involved it was a family I was familiar with.  They came to me with their concerns, and I assured them that I would remain an active and ever present role in her life and they would not have to support her financially, just give her a loving home.  So they took her from her old home, signed documents and gave her a new chance at life.  For the first time since I have met her, I know Catherine is safe.  She is in a loving home, with two older sisters and a brother Steven who is now her classmate at Stella Maris.  I text the grandparents every day and Catherine still visits me every day during the holiday, but now she is accompanied by her sisters and brother.  These days Catherine is flourishing like I always wished for her and she finally wears her beautiful smile without hesitation. 

In many ways my role is different now and different than I ever imagined it would be as a “volunteer” or “teacher” or any other title I have tried to label myself.  The truth is none of those titles really fit.  I had to forfeit those titles and step outside of them in order to do what I thought was best.  As a family member, a father, or just someone who truly loves others, you have to make sacrifices.  We are put in uncomfortable situations and have to face adversity for the ones we love.  But God has prepared me for this, He made me stubborn, strong and persistent and I don’t think that is an accident.  I have the support of the priests here, the village chairman, but what is most important is little Catherine’s support, which is expressed daily through her hugs and smiles.  Every time Catherine squeezes my neck with a hug I know it is a reminder to trust my heart.  Now because of her, I am trying to become that “greater” that only the love of family helps you achieve.


All about food

Ugh… So I need to apologize for the delay in posting.  We wrapped up testing at the school, hosted two of our founding members Stan and Nathan, my girl Catherine got sick with malaria, we have had a steady stream of guests, we started a couple new meal plans and on top of it all I’m not the best communicator anyways!  But here goes my post about food.  On this Thanksgiving I found myself thankful for so many things, most of all food.  First off I am thankful for all the donors that have helped me get here to help with the food in Mailisita.  Every donor has made it possible for me to be here and then plan for and put into action what we all know is necessary to help our children. In some cases it is as basic as food.  

Thanks to Ed and Barb Walters, one of our continued dreams of improving the food at our school has come true.  The daily meals at Stella Maris have improved dramatically thanks to their generous donation to provide for more beans and twice a week Ugali (stiff porridge) and vegetables!  Though it took a while to get started, we finally saw it come to fruition the last 3 weeks.  One of our biggest concerns remains with the nutrition of our children and especially those entering puberty.  They all require more protein, and our adolescent children require more iron and nutrients than ever before.  After years of malnutrition at home, many are still under 60 lbs despite being 10 or 11 years old.  Many children will come to school after taking just a cup of tea and a heavy meal the night before.  Since their diet is almost exclusively carbohydrates they are not overly “hungry” but their bodies are lacking in nearly everything.    

I spent the first month of my trip trying to figure out the best way to economically and systematically provide better nutrition.  I came up with a nice plan of how to implement more protein and vitamins and also how much it will cost/fundraise for it.  Then our group from St. Joseph came and I explained my plan to Stan Taylor and the Walters family.  Within moments they said “How much will it take to help the children eat better… O ok… well why don’t we just take care of the whole school for a year?”  Now starting this past week our children are eating more beans and vegetables every day and will continue to all of next year!  Not enough can be said about the generosity of Ed and Barb Walters and how much the children are enjoying the new food.  Most of all, I look forward to seeing them grow taller and stronger in the coming year.

Adam and I also began a new tradition this year of properly celebrating Thanksgiving with the children in Africa!  I am now excited to continue that tradition for the coming years of my work here.  This Thanksgiving I didn’t eat any turkey, but I was able to spend the holiday with my African family feasting on Pilau courtesy of the St. Joseph’s Youth Group Souled Out!  Souled Out raised money to sponsor a pilau day, and what better way to connect our communities than through a Thanksgiving feast. 

In a matter of two days we put together all the food needed and bought all the things necessary to cook the pilau for the children.  I explained the whole idea of Thanksgiving and giving thanks, but I think they were all most thankful for the extra food they enjoyed!

The final recent change happened for children from the whole community.  I am always worried about trying to help more children as well as trying not to alienate ourselves in the community by not helping more families.  Some families simply feel that we don’t help their children which is a fair feeling.  So in the first step of trying to remedy this I started a weekend meal offered at the local church.  With a lot of help from a new young priest Fr. Lucas Riziki and our manager Teddy I was able to buy all the pots needed to cook, cups needed to drink from and ingredients to cook porridge on the weekend.  With a couple of very nice women volunteers we have been able to start a new way for our neediest children to find an extra meal on the weekends.  It is a simple meal, just porridge, but in the past few weeks Fr. Lucas has said the number of children attending classes at the church has climbed from 80-90 to nearly 150!  The children are all ages from 5 to 12 and many from Stella Maris as well as the other schools.  

It has been an incredible joy to take guests of the hotel on the weekends to see our children enjoying a meal that we have provided for them.  With each week and whole lot of persistence we are slowly helping feed these children better.  We have new meal plans at the school, more pilau then ever before and are now reaching the children around the community on the weekends.  There is nothing better than meeting new children and getting the opportunity to share a meal and a smile.  To let them know that even though they might not come to our school, we love them and care for them too. 


Amazed by our children again

I began this week thinking about how I could do better as a teacher.  What I could do to be more for the students and be a better example of patience and love.  I figured that I could write down specific actions that I can do for them every day and reflect on what I already do.  Then I could figure out how I could do more.  Of course this failed, because you cannot count loving actions, you just have to act.  You just have to be.  The week didn’t go without many realizations though and I started to take a lot of stock in the love around me.  About a day into my reflection time I realized how the people in my life shown me so many incredible examples.  So I decided to write about a few from last week and these truly are from the same week.  

My week started like any other, with me sitting down to my morning coffee before school, when I was interrupted by Teddy.  She was carrying a big bag.  She told me “Your children brought you a gift” and inside was a huge papaya.  She told me the children gave it to her to give to me.  I found myself pretty taken aback.  I was amazed at the generosity, that a family would give me food when food is such a precious commodity.  I was also amazed when I looked at the bag and the story it told.  The small white bag was stained with little reddish brown fingerprints and hand marks.  Their hands were dirty and sweaty from when they undoubtedly picked the Papaya and then carried it all the way to school.  There was no time or thought given to washing their hands.  They were just excited about sharing a nice papaya.  

Later in the week I had another gift delivered surprisingly.  This time they were freshly picked flowers.  The flowers came along with a note from a family that I have been helping.  They were thankful and they wanted to give me something I didn’t have.  They knew I wouldn’t have flowers in my room, so they thought it would be the best gift.  They picked the flowers from around their home, wrapped them in plastic bags and then put them into empty soda bottles filled with water for the vase.  I of course immediately put them on my desk to add some beauty to my room.

One of the many differences of working with children here is that they come from very different homes.  Of course their home lives are different, but their homes are too.  Many of the children deal with problems associated with cleanliness.  It is simply hard to keep clean when your home is made from the Earth.  Even homes with brick walls often times have a dirt floor and no running water.  Thus a very common problem (more than half of our students at any given time) is that they develop ring worm all over their bodies especially their head.  That is the reason why they are always cutting their hair, because they want to get rid of the ringworm.  Working with them daily I hold hands, have hands on my arms, give hugs and just end up with hands on my bare skin a lot.  I could change the way I interact with the children, but I know that is not what they need.  So I get ringworm too.  Though I wash diligently, I still get it occasionally on my arms, like I did last week.  Of course then I treat it and it goes away in a couple weeks.  

I was sitting with some of my students at recess and chatting about the day.  A student of mine from P2, Regina noticed my mark on my arm.   She asked me what my mark was, and I said it’s from a bug (I never want them to become self-conscious about their shillings on their heads).  She asked me if it was hurting me, I said “no, I just try to keep it clean”.  So we continued to talk and watch some children blow bubbles.  We then talked about how we use soap to make the bubbles and it’s ok if it gets on their clothes, because it’s just soap (they were worried about spilling the bubbles).  Then about a minute later without saying a word Regina started to rub her fingers on the spot on my arm.  She had covered her fingers with the soapy water from the bubbles.  I only got as far as saying “what…” when she said “I’m making it clean”.  

Each moment showed how just thinking of others and using the smallest things around us can make us better examples of love.  It is moments like Regina cleaning my arm that make me love Africa and have made me stride to be more caring.  Even though I am teaching English and sharing knowledge, I am learning so much more.  Never in a million years did I think that I would be so happy about someone trying to clean my arm with bubbles.  One of the biggest hurdles I faced when becoming an elementary school teacher was getting over the “space bubble” that children often lack.  When overcoming that I never thought it would invariably lead to cases of ringworm that I would just learn to accept.  But here I am, with a small orphan girl who weighs less than 50lbs, but has enough heart to teach all of us.  I cannot quantify the loving actions, but I am certain our school gives them the example.  They know they are loved and now they represent that every day.  It happens in the smallest things, and by focusing more on those around me, what they do and how they care, I have become so much happier.  The children taught me that we are all surrounded by love if we choose to recognize it. 


The Differences and Similarities

Since the “selection” and interview process for new students was delayed by a week, I will have to wait until next week to write on that.  Instead I will focus on some fun things.  Lots of people ask me what is so different about living in Africa.  Sometimes it’s hard to remember what I first struggled with years ago and what is now just a part of my life.  Even still there are plenty of differences and often times it is just the nature of each place that influences those differences.  But I thought it would be fun to share a few of the differences and similarities of day to day things.

My lunch is most often taken at school in both Tanzania and America.  In America I sit down with the other teachers in Kindergarten, First Grade, Second Grade and Third Grade.  We all bring our own lunches, some big lunches and others are small lunches.  Mine was the same, everyday (Turkey sandwich, pretzel, almonds and an apple) because those are the only things I know how to make.  Insert your own 25 year old people should know how to cook joke here, but alas I still don’t know how to cook.  Either way we all sit down to enjoy our meals that are leftovers, lean cuisine meals, home cooked meals or a turkey sandwich.  Here in Tanzania we all sit down together, every teacher just like in America, to our freshly prepared meal.  Only here we all share from the same pots and eat the same food.  Here our lunches are most often Ugali with meat and vegetables or rice and beans with vegetables.  The food is very different from America, luckily I still don’t have to try to cook for myself.  Most of the time we eat ugali, which means we eat with our hands and share a big mound of ugali from a pot.  Ugali is a really stiff porridge you roll into a ball, poke a hole into and then use to scoop the meat and vegetables.  The vegetables are unlike anything you will find in America, because you can actually find them along the side of the road or a river growing wild.  They will cut them from the ground, boil them and then serve them.  They have a consistency most like spinach (although they taste nothing like spinach and sometimes can be very bitter).  Also the meat is very different because we almost always eat goat.  Goat is unlike most meats I have ever tasted, but what is most different is the fact that they also cook the stomach of the goat.  So every once in a while I will bite into a squishy piece of goat stomach.

The truth is I love both of my lunches, the one in America and the one in Tanzania.  In both lunches I am surrounded by teachers.  Most often I am the only male teacher eating, I was at St Joseph (except for the occasional Mr. Shute lunch) and I am again here because Mr. Adam often does not eat lunch because he is watching his figure (and now will probably punch me for writing that, oh well it was worth it).  All of the teachers have cared for me as a friend or in some cases as a mother would.  In both lunches we laugh about funny things students said or did or we talk about our concerns about how to help a student.  We talk about what we can do to be a better school or what we would change if only we had more resources.  The teachers will talk about their concerns for my relationships or ask about any dating prospects.  Mrs. Shute would urge me to settle down and get married to any girl so I wouldn’t leave America and the teachers here would talk about what tribe I should marry into so I won’t leave Tanzania.  In both homes, lunches are full of laughter and great memories surrounded by some of my favorite teachers.  Lunches are eaten by people that legitimately love their jobs and the people they serve.  

Students’ gifts
In both countries I often receive hand made gifts from students.  In America I would receive beautiful pictures, weather forecasts, pictures of me as a pirate, pictures of rainbows and hearts, wonderful notes and even bracelets (which I am still wearing Shannon, Katie and Livvy although they are getting a bit tattered).  I love the gifts, display them, wear them, collect them and cherish them.  In Tanzania my gifts are often similar, they are pictures, notes or other small things, like a shell I received from a boy yesterday who found it by a river.  They are little pieces of paper, sometimes ripped out of a notebook, yet they can express so much.  Though some may look nicer, have more colors, be bigger, might not be stained with red dirt from dirty hands preparing them, I love them all the same.  The words I always see in both countries, in all gifts, are “thank you” and “love”, because the children have already figured out what is most important. 
The students and teachers in both of my homes always bring me back to thinking about what is most significant in life, which I find to be relationships with others.  Relationships are the reason why I am a teacher and why even though I might get frustrated some days, why I love my life and my work.  Helping others is the reason why I am a teacher, why Mrs. Shute and the St. Joseph staff are teachers, why Mr. Adam and the Stella Maris staff are teachers.  We love being in a community, sharing meals and we love our students.  Sometimes we waste our time worrying about traffic, fantasy football and reality television, yet the students remind us of what is important.  It is not the insignificant daily tasks, it’s the intentions behind those tasks that are important.  It’s the intentions behind all the little things that sometimes bog us down or make us tired that we do for others that are most important.  We do those things to show love for others because we are thankful to God that we are in the position to care.  

Many prayers and love to my friends back home, I know many people are suffering because of hurricane Sandy.  I hope everyone is safe and well.  Thank you everyone and God bless!