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From Bagamoyo, Tanzania: a Dirt-Floor Schoolhouse, and a Lesson in Life

University Staff Member Reports on Teaching English in East Africa

Public Affairs staff writer Geoffrey Douglas spends time with two new friends in Bagamoyo, Tanzania.

By Geoffrey Douglas

(Editor's Note: Last summer, part-time Public Affairs staff writer and adjunct English Professor Geoffrey Douglas spent a month teaching English at an art school in a small city in coastal Tanzania. Here, he looks back on his time in the East Africa country.)

The school was a half-acre of dirt piled randomly with African stone sculptures, many of them broken; at one end, four wood posters held up a thatch roof that leaked badly and has since, I’m told, collapsed. Under this, five or six wood stumps and a single plastic chair — the “Teacher’s Chair” — sat around a warped length of plywood, roughly 5 feet long, mounted atop the rusted remains of what had once been a metal table frame. A wobbly blackboard stood to one side.

map_africa_tanzaniaThere was no real lesson plan. It would have been unworkable. The students, sometimes as few as two, other times five or six, all males in their 20s and early 30s who would arrive anywhere between 10 and 40 minutes late, spoke English at wildly different levels: one student’s “Good Morning” was another’s “I want to fly to America in a fast airplane.” (America, by most lower- and middle-class Tanzanians, is conceived as a utopia; and though Swahili is the national language, a knowledge of English is viewed by many as the first rung on the ladder out of poverty.) The cardboard-covered notebooks they all carried in their pants pockets, each one ancient and filthy and molded to the shape of their butts, with words and numbers scrunched in tiny print on both sides of every page, seemed far too taxed to allow for anything ambitious.

So we did what we could. Some days I would write words on the blackboard — colors, numbers, professions, types of weather — and ask the more advanced ones to translate for the others. Other times we would do slang: “hot,” “cool,” “in the groove,” “on a roll.”  One morning, inadvertently, I replied “Bingo!” to a student who had answered a question correctly — and from that day on, “Bingo!” was our word. “Bingo!” “Bingo!” they would shout at one another across the little table when a question was answered correctly; “Teacher, is a Bingo!?” they would demand of me 12 or 14 times a day.

I have had better students, and worse ones. But never have I had students more hungry to learn, or who did more with less, or were so touched by joy in the process. And never before, certainly, has teaching been such fun.
A World Away

I have been home now three months. The longer I am back, the more I miss what I left. And the better I understand this: that our crude little classroom in Bagamoyo, its people and its setting, was a near-perfect mirror of the city it was part of, and — from all I could tell — of Tanzania itself.

Simple nouns have different meanings there. Or at least embodiments so different that their meanings may as well have changed. Our “art school” was a half-acre of dirt and stone. Its “city” — Bagamoyo, with between 80,000 and 250,000 people, depending on what source you rely on — is less a city than a patchwork of dirt streets and mud-hut neighborhoods, where electricity is scarce, most cooking and plumbing take place in gutters outdoors, house-fires often burn unopposed (there being no working fire engine or modern equipment), and the “hospital” is a gray concrete, mostly windowless monolith, often with no blood in its blood bank, where the patients lie unattended on gurneys in hallways with visible wounds under days-old bandages that attract buzzing green flies. Roughly one person in 12 in the city (6 percent nationwide) is HIV positive. Nearly all of these will die.

Almost no one has a “job,” at least as we conceive of one (the average income countrywide is $440 a year), though you can’t walk far on any “street” without seeing a handwritten sign for a “Hair Salon” — or “Saloon,” or “Sallon”— on the doorway or rooftop of a home. Inside, the woman of the house can be seen — at almost any time of the day or night, often by candlelight ߝ ironing or perming the hair of a neighboring woman or child, for a few pennies or the barter of a chicken or loaf of bread. A few miles away, along the beaches of the Indian Ocean, other women (women are the staples of most of the commerce I saw) arrive at dawn to plant sticks in the sand at low tide; hours later, they will return to harvest the seawood caught on the sticks, which they will then carry from the beach on their backs in bags almost bigger than they are, to deliver to buyers for their value in the making of toothpaste, air freshener and shampoo.

Hard Lives, Much Joy
Such hard lives, so few rewards. And yet. And yet every weekday morning at a little before eight, from all corners of the city, orderly processions of 7- and 8-year-olds, most walking in twos, their shorts and white shirts or dresses spotlessly clean and (somehow) pressed — and always in matching blues or greens — appear from the endless rows of mud and thatch and cinderblock and begin their parade to school. They are not only clean, they are smiling — and will do their best with “Good morning!” (sometimes confused with “Good af-tahnoon!”) as soon as they glimpse your white face. They are the picture of happiness. Of joyfulness. It is really something to see.

I can’t account for it. I don’t know where all those flatirons come from. Or the soap, or the hot water, or all those mothers’ tireless pride. But this, in the end, more than anything else, is what I came away with from my month in Tanzania. The joy. From the students in my “classroom” to the children in the streets, to the fishermen and street peddlers and safari guides we would meet later — in all the time we spent in the country, I never saw a single frown. Not one, not even from a distance.

In the streets of Bagamoyo, the children are all smiles.
Geoffrey Douglas gathers with students he taught this summer at the Bagamoyo Sculpture School.