(Summer ’12) Jessica Fujimori ’14

PSC Fellow. Jessica will spend this summer in Monduli, Tanzania setting up a science lab at a secondary school in an underserved area. She will create an interactive science curriculum using locally available materials for demonstrations. She hopes her work will help empower and inspire students to continue their education and one day give back to the community. Be sure to keep up with her updates!

Post Six: August 15, 2012

I’m a slacker blogger and haven’t updated for a long time, so this post will fast forward through the past couple weeks.

A couple weeks ago, we went to visit ISM Arusha (International School of Moshi, Arusha campus), a really good boarding school in Arusha, to check out their science lab for ideas on how to keep a lab organized in Africa. They were all very welcoming, and they have a really nice lab.

Esther and I visited the International School of Moshi at their Arusha campus, where the lab technician showed us around their science labs.


ISM’s system of labeled plastic drawers and containers seemed to work quite well.

Everything is in labeled containers, and they keep an inventory that notes the item and its location. Since that visit, I’ve been busy ferrying plastic containers from Arusha to Monduli, putting all the lab items in them, and labeling them. And color-coding by subject 🙂

I bought many plastic containers from Arusha and labeled them; these will save storage space and keep materials in good condition.

After everything was put away in these containers, it became much easier for students and teachers to keep the lab organized.

We also got ahold of pipette bulbs so the students don’t have to use their mouths to pipette acids and bases anymore. Yes, that’s what they had been doing before. Apparently mouth pipetting is totally acceptable in a lot of developing countries, from what we’ve heard since being here. Anyways, we had a bit of trouble figuring out how to use these pipette bulbs, but they’re pretty nifty once you know how to use them. There’s one spot to press to draw liquid up, and there’s another spot to press to release it. The design allows better control of the liquid than mouth pipetting, so I’m sure they will be used. The science teachers were really excited to use them.

Simon, the physics teacher, and Bendera, who teaches chemistry and biology, trying out the new pipette bulbs.

Since there’s no running water in the lab, I also bought a big bucket and had it outfitted with a tap to use for a while. Seth and I rigged the sink up with another bucket underneath and a plastic-water-bottle funnel so the water doesn’t spray all over the place under the sink.

Seth and Scott put up some bulletin boards in the science lab, and Esther and I have been working on filling them with educational posters. I made one about the scientific procedure, and Esther’s been working on depictions of different types of lab materials, like glassware and so on. And we found a periodic table to put up, too.

We started filling the bulletin boards with educational posters for the students.


Esther made some beautiful signs for the cabinet doors.

I also got sick for a while with some mysterious congestion-nausea-headache-maybe fever thing which thankfully went away on its own after four days. But being home sick gave me an opportunity to hang out with Lomayani, the little boy who’s staying with us during his school vacation.

Our family around the dinner table: Mama Lukumai, Malkia, Helena, and Lomayani.

Loma is Mama Lukumai’s nephew, the son of her husband’s brother. Both of his parents died of AIDS when he was young, and he grew up with his grandparents in a traditional Maasai boma taking care of livestock. He still hadn’t set foot in a school by the time he was 10.

Meanwhile, Mama Lukumai’s son, Joel, was remembering the funeral of Loma’s father when Loma was four years old. Upon seeing his father lying still in the coffin, Loma asked why his father was sleeping there. Joel replied that he was very, very tired, and when people are that tired, they go to sleep forever. When the father was being lowered into the earth, Loma began crying and asked, “Who will be my father now?” Joel replied, “I will be your father.”

So all those years later, Joel still remembered that promise he had made, so he traveled to Loma’s boma and asked to take care of Loma and send him to school. Loma’s grandparents didn’t want to let him go at first, but eventually his grandmother wanted him to go and study in school. But since he was already much older than the other children in the first year of primary school, the school was not going to allow him to begin. Luckily, Mama Lukumai is a school inspector, and she was able to convince the school to accept him.

Primary school in Tanzania is taught in Swahili, one of the two national languages in Tanzania (the other being English). But since Loma grew up in a Maasai boma, he only spoke Maa, the language of the Maasai tribe. After attending a boarding school for one year now, he’s learned a fair bit of Swahili, but it’s still quite hard for him to keep up, I think.

So anyways, Mama Lukumai was telling me all about Lomayani’s story, and she told me that he also couldn’t read and write yet. She said they’ve all tried to teach him, but he just didn’t seem to get it. She said he gets beaten a lot in school for not being able to read. As I was lying in bed trying to get better, I decided I would try to teach Loma to read.

I plopped down on the couch next to him and started cutting a piece of paper into eighths. I wrote down various syllables on the makeshift flashcards in dotted lines and had Loma trace them. Then we went through them methodically until he had memorized them, which only took about twenty minutes. I added eight more cards after that, and just kept going until he had a big stack memorized. We had bought some children’s books for him in Arusha the previous week, so I then brought out the simplest one and went through it (very slowly) with him reading the syllables he had learned already and me reading the ones he hadn’t learned yet.

From that night on, Lomayani started smiling all the time. I would come home from Orkeeswa and he’d be at the table with his flashcards and books. Mama Lukumai told me that the morning after his first lesson, he told her that he was very happy because now his teacher wouldn’t beat him anymore for not knowing how to read. It made me happy to hear that, but also angry that instead of getting taught with patience and care, he was getting hit in school. But since teachers are paid so little and work in such poor conditions, they have no incentive to do anything else.

Reading lessons have continued every day, and he’s now able to read and understand simple words, and sound out big words fairly well. It’s one of my favorite parts of the day, to come home after working at Orkeeswa and read with Loma. I just wish I could stay and read with him every night, like my parents used to do with me.

We’ve also been trying to help Simon, the physics teacher at Orkeeswa, apply for university in the US. He only just graduated from secondary school, but since he did so well on his exams and knows physics well, he is teaching at Orkeeswa until he starts university in Tanzania in the fall. Esther and I noticed how smart and hard-working Simon is, so we asked him if he’d ever considered applying to college in the US. He told us he really wants to, but he didn’t know how to apply and how he would be able to pay for it. We explained the system of financial aid and encouraged him to try. Since the school he’s attending this fall takes five years, he would be able to get his degree in the same amount of time even after transferring to an American university.

We printed him out a practice SAT and some practice TOEFL questions, and we’re going to Moshi with him on Saturday to look into a place to take the exams. TOEFL is online now, but for the SAT he’ll probably have to go to ISM’s Moshi campus. We also helped him make an account on commonapp.org, and he’s working on his essays. To start him off, I told him he should just write his story, from however early on to today, not thinking about word limits or prompts. I told him to write as if he were talking to Esther and I, as if the pen were his mouth and words were just flowing out. He’s told us many stories before about his life and his experiences in school. His stories are very moving, so I hope he can capture them in writing well.

The problem is that Simon’s father is against him going for his undergraduate degree in the US. Apparently, his father’s friend told him it was a bad idea. And then his aunt also disapproved. We asked Mama Lukumai why, and she told us that many people in Tanzania think that if students go to the US when they are too young, they either don’t come back, or come back “polluted.” By “polluted,” she meant alcoholic, or into drugs, or under other bad influences. But Mama Lukumai said she disagreed with that opinion, and she thinks that studying in the US is a wonderful opportunity. We’re going to try to talk to Simon’s mother this week and convince her to give her blessing to Simon.

Coincidentally, another Tanzanian young man asked me for college advice in a shop the other day. I gave him a brief overview of the process, and as I was talking and jotting down notes for him on a piece of paper, the other people in the store were also listening closely. I’m definitely getting the impression here that people don’t often apply to college in the US (which I already suspected, since the application costs are so high), and they don’t have any idea what the process involves. There would definitely be a demand for a low-cost college counseling service around here run by someone from the US who could help guide young people through the process.

The more I get to know the people here—the dala conductors and drivers and passengers, colleagues at Orkeeswa, people I meet on the street—the more it upsets me how hard it is to get a leg up. So many people here have this look in their eye, this longing to be able to finish school or start their own business, but it just seems like no matter how hard you work, the best you’ll be able to do is feed, clothe and shelter yourself from day to day. And if you try to save money for a nice house or a plane ticket, you get a raw deal because next year, your money is worth a whole lot less because of the rampant inflation here.

“If I could just get a chance…” they always say. “Nafasi,” in Swahili. Chance. Their eyes are so often saying, “If only…”

And I always wish I could help them, but how do you help a whole country of people? Everyone wants a chance, and so few get one. There are so many young men on the streets without work, so many young women married off before they even start secondary school. When they see a foreigner, they see a doorway to a better life. Maybe if I can make friends with this mzungu, this foreigner, they’ll get me out of here, they think. Or maybe I can at least get a soda from her. So I try to be one of them, to talk to them and get to know them, but I don’t give them presents or money. We trade information; they ask me about America, I ask them about Tanzania. And so I come to understand this place a little better, and my heart hurts a little more for all of them.

It feels good to become familiar with a place, a people, and a language. I know the handshakes, the greetings, the attitudes, the prices, the exclamations. Mostly. I’m always still learning. But I feel at home here now, and I know I’ll miss it so much when I go back to America in two weeks. In America, it’s sort of weird to greet every person you pass on the street; here, it’s perfectly normal. In America, you don’t consider someone a friend after talking to them for a while on the bus; here, you do. In America, no mother would hand a stranger her baby to hold on the bus; here, it’s perfectly commonplace. There are so many problems here, and yet it still feels like a community where everyone knows each other, like a family. I’m really going to miss that.

Post Five: July 28, 2012

Instead of giving a project update, I want to zoom out from Orkeeswa Secondary and look at the country of Tanzania. Tanzania, the most peaceful and happy country in Africa. Right? Wrong.

There is so much under the surface here, I can’t begin to say it.

Today was very upsetting.

Maybe I should start from the beginning. Today (Saturday), Esther and I went out to the school to help proctor and grade the entrance exams for the potential students. More than 400 showed up for the test; only 30 will be accepted. Clustered in groups by the color of their school uniforms, they all looked so solemn waiting for the test. Sometimes one would call out a greeting in English as I walked by, and if I smiled at them long enough a few would smile back. It broke my heart to see their ragged sweaters and shoes, and to know that so few would be accepted. Many of those that are not accepted will not attend secondary school at all.

I keep seeing their faces; some with a shy smile, some with a stony stare, some with a blank look. And always in the back of my mind, the question: Why? Why is life like this here, for these kids?

After school, Esther and I were walking through Monduli town, up the hill past Tumaini Shop, then diagonal across the soccer field towards our house. Since it’s Saturday, there were a bunch of little kids playing on the field—mostly boys, around eight years old. We decided to take a break on the far side of the field, and as we headed to collapse on the dusty dry grass, we noticed we had two shadows. Two little girls sat down some ways away from us, smiling shyly in our direction. I beckoned them over and showed them my Swahili book, and within 60 seconds we were surrounded by a crowd of kids, looking on in interest as I went through Swahili/English translations and Esther flipped through some science textbooks we happened to be carrying. The kids were absolutely enamored of the books, turning each page to look at the pictures and asking us what each was. Our attempts to explain DNA, magnets, circuits, etc. in Swahili led to some pretty funny and creative teaching moments, and best of all, the kids were fascinated. We sat there for what must have been two hours with those kids just flipping through these books. Having books to look through seemed to be a very novel thing for them; someone at Orkeeswa was just telling us that in most government schools, you’re lucky if you have two books to share between a whole class of 40 students.

When Esther and I finally got up to go home, we both walked back up the road to our house with a flood of different emotions in our hearts. Sitting in that field with those curious kids was so fun and exciting, and at the same time so heart-breaking. They were all pretty rag-tag looking, and we knew that someday they might be some of those kids clustered outside Orkeeswa, waiting to take the exam that might dictate whether or not they can attend secondary school. Will their curiosity stay burning, or will it flicker out from lack of teachers, lack of books, lack of support?
And still this question always in the back of my mind: Why?

Living here in Tanzania those three weeks last year, and this past month this year, we’ve seen and heard a lot from people we’ve met. There are so many problems here, and the people that get hit hardest are the people at the bottom. And where do the problems come from? The people at the top.

The government. Serikali. The ones entrusted with protecting the people of Tanzania and overseeing the growth and development of the country. CCM is the party in power. They’ve held it for 50 years, and they’re not giving it up easily.

A brief history lesson: CCM began with Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, the one who gained independence from the British and united the country with the national language of Swahili. Under his guidance, life was good in Tanzania. People trusted Nyerere. Even after he gave up his official power after 20 years, he was the most powerful man in the country simply because people listened to him. In Nyerere’s time, schools were free, and they had enough teachers, and teachers were paid good money. Those were the years when Mama Lukumai was going to school. Taxes were lower, yet school was free. How have things changed so much since then? Why are they going backwards, downhill, into a darker place?

Money slips through the pockets of government officials and into foreign bank accounts with enough money to fix all the roads in Tanzania, to fund the education of all the children in Tanzania, to employ the huge percentage of youth without jobs after graduation. These few people have done so much damage to the population of an entire country.

I cried tonight for an hour after hearing the stories that the media has uncovered about the government and the money they’re stealing from their own people, the children of their country. I shook with anger and sobbed as I remembered the faces of those kids in the exam room and on the soccer field, their ripped sweaters and their eagerness and their smiles. Why? Why can’t each of these kids have a shirt with no holes, two shoes, a textbook and a desk? Because the money meant for them is sitting in a bank in Switzerland in case the president feels like buying a new private jet.

Maybe the next election in two years will change things. Maybe the opposition will finally unseat the current government and maybe things will get better. But until there are major changes in the government and the way it runs things, as much as foreign volunteers come and try to help, to start schools and to teach these kids, nothing will really change in Tanzania. Because who’s going to employ them after they graduate? How are they going to live any better than paycheck to paycheck when prices keep rising and good wages are as scarce as ever? The answer is that they’re not.

I came here because I wanted to help these kids, but the overall goal is to help their community, and the greater goal is to help all of Tanzania. But we have to remember that we’re treating a symptom of a disease that we don’t know how to cure. That task lies on the shoulders of the Tanzanian people, who may be happy on the surface but underneath are afraid of what might happen if they drop their happy face and speak out in protest. Those who do are jailed, or lose their job, or are tortured, and sometimes even killed. In a recent doctor’s strike, the leader was kidnapped, and his teeth were pulled out with pliers. Just yesterday, a law student from town was jailed for speaking out against the government.

In America, we never hear about this kind of thing happening in Tanzania, but it’s here. And until things change at the top, nothing will really change at the bottom.

Post Four: July 16, 2012

Esther and I are once again sitting on our beds in the house of Mama Lukumai, but everything looks and feels so different from those first few days when we arrived two weeks ago. This house and this town are starting to feel like home. We’ve made many friends here already–Mama Lea and her two daughters, who sat on our laps in the dala dala when there wasn’t enough room; the taxi driver Seph, who we call every time we are stuck somewhere in the dark or have a giant antenna to transport; random people we meet walking around Monduli. We know our way around Monduli and Arusha and have mastered the scores of Swahili greetings that Tanzanians love to test foreigners with. We’re about 25% through our stay here, and I have the feeling that after six more weeks, we’ll be quite sorry to leave.

Our projects are going really well so far; the big news is that we got Internet to Orkeeswa! Not just any old Internet, but “blisteringly fast” (~1 mbps) 3G Internet! We hacked the USB modems (ie, cut a hole to the external antenna port and stuck in various makeshift monopole antennas and our 24 dbi antenna) and that boosted the signal enough to give us speeds that are about 10 times what we get in Monduli town itself. Check out Esther’s blog for more details.

Testing that Internet setup was our main focus for the past week, as we have been waiting to be able to meet with Alex (the office manager) and the science teachers about science lab policies and maintenance. However, we have made progress with the science lab. Alex asked us to write up a document of recommendations for the science lab, which we did today. It was almost two pages long and will hopefully be helpful; we listed seven goals which include proper lab maintenance and property management, safety, and smooth transitions for new teachers. Our recommendations covered eight areas: security and access; instruction on lab and material care; safety measures; preparation and planning; records and inventory; storage; ease and convenience; and student leadership.

Many of our specific recommendations depend on the compliance of the science teachers, so we must make sure that when we meet with them, we get a realistic picture of what they are willing to do and how we can work to create a system that is both realistic and effective. For example, we want teachers to enforce safety measures like wearing lab goggles and aprons, but we are not sure that the teachers will actually do this, particularly if they did not have to wear goggles in their own high school classes. Since we will be here for five weeks of school session (they come back from break in a week), we will be able to see lab classes in action, which will help us make the system and policies more realistic.

I also feel strongly that one of the most effective things we can do is make organization and property management as easy and convenient as possible. For example, there is not running water in the lab. If the teachers and students have to carry a bunch of glassware some distance away from the lab to wash it, they are much less likely to. So, we can set up buckets with taps over the sinks in the lab (which won’t have plumbing for a while) and a bucket underneath, and that already makes it a lot more likely that they will wash the glassware. And if we set up a drying rack for the glassware, they are a lot less likely to put away glassware while it’s still wet. Another problem might arise if a teacher carries a bunch of materials to a classroom to teach, then carries some of it back but forgets a few pieces, which then are lost. That could happen simply because the teacher has to make multiple trips back and forth. But if we provide large trays for carrying materials, then they are less likely to leave materials behind. It is these simple but helpful solutions that I think might be most effective.

Last Thursday and Friday, I was lucky enough to step into the shoes of a science teacher at Orkeeswa and get an inside glimpse at how it feels to be rushing into the lab looking for materials for a demonstration in five minutes. Simon, the physics teacher, broke his wrist playing basketball, so I stepped in for a lab practical on light refraction. It was an extra class, since the students are actually on school vacation for another week, but the Form 4 (10th grade) students are preparing for their big upcoming national exams. I had about six students the first day and a few more the next day. Interestingly, all of the students who showed up were boys. There was not a single girl. I asked about it later, and another volunteer told me that a lot of girls end up dropping physics because they do not have as much time as boys to study due to the work expected of them at home, so they can’t keep up in the coursework. Hearing that made me pretty sad. But the school has plans to provide boarding to Form 4 girls closer to the national exams so that they can study together in peace, which is good.

I was impressed with the respect and care that the students showed in their work. They had to line up pins through a glass block and measure the angles of incidence and refraction, then calculate the refractive index of the glass block. Some had trouble using a protractor, but after I went over it with them they were ok. And I gave them a calculator to calculate the refractive index from their data, only to learn that they are not allowed to have a calculator on the national exam and must instead use a table to look up sine values. They did not seem to have ever used a calculator before, so I showed them how and they did just fine with it, though using it took them a long time. Never having taught high school students before, I’m not sure how they compare to other high school students, but they did seem to have some trouble with the theoretical aspect of the lab. It was hard to tell, though, because they don’t seem to like admitting when they don’t know or understand something. There was also a clear undercurrent of competition among them, which I didn’t like that much, but when other students joined us on Friday, the students who had already done the lab did a good job explaining it and teaching them.

After I taught the physics class, I passed a few of the students later in the day and was greeted with “Jessica! The physician!” (They are still working on their English).

We’ve spent most of our days at Orkeeswa, but we’ve made a few trips to Arusha for supplies. While there, we’ve kept our eyes open for places to get materials for the science lab, with great success. On the main road, there are a number of hardware stores and pharmacies, which have some materials, as well as a specific laboratory supply store.

When we see a store that looks promising, we go inside and ask if they have some sort of store catalog or inventory. Not one of the stores has had one. The laboratory supply store did not have one the first time we went in, but they said if we came back later they could give it to us. So we came back a few days later and they photocopied their inventory for us. A quick look through the list told us that we had been overcharged by 15,000 Tanzanian Shillings ($10) for the resistance box we had bought the week before. And it’s for that exact reason that I wanted to get the inventory. Storekeepers almost always tell you a price that’s way too high, and even though you can bargain it down, it’s always best to have some kind of benchmark. Especially if foreign volunteers need to go buy supplies at some point, they need to know what’s a fair price and what’s an mzungu (foreigner) price.

Since most other stores don’t have an inventory, we’re going to have to take notes on the location and cost of various materials for the lab. We’ll be working on that in the next few weeks, and we’ll also be visiting some other schools’ science labs. Tomorrow we may stop at the International School of Moshi (ISM), which has a campus in Arusha. ISM is one of the best schools in Tanzania, and we hope to learn a lot from seeing how they run their lab.

While we’re in Arusha tomorrow, we’re going to get measured for dresses as well; we got invited to a wedding! Mama Lukumai’s younger brother is getting married on Saturday, and we didn’t bring any nice clothing. Luckily, my friend Bernard (who works at Global Cycle Solutions, a company in Tanzania founded by an MIT graduate), has a mother and sister who make dresses.

Over this past weekend, I found out that we will not only see a wedding in Tanzania, but a birth as well. My host mother from last year, who lives in Arusha with her husband and three children, is eight months pregnant. It was so wonderful to see her and the kids again after a year; during my three weeks in Tanzania last summer, I became very close to their family. I’m really excited to visit after she has her baby!

Everything is going great so far, and the people of Tanzania are quickly becoming close to our hearts. We can’t wait to see what happens in our remaining six weeks here!

Post Three: July 4, 2012

Esther and I were slaves of science today. I spent all day washing the messy glassware from the storage room that I mentioned in my last post, and since we did not have gloves I may have acquired superpowers from the toxic-orange wash basin. I’m still waiting for them to reveal themselves. Esther spent all day shuttling things to the right spot and organizing.

Chris, the Tanzanian chemistry teacher, was teaching a class while we worked.

We got everything clean and on shelves in the lab for the most part, and tomorrow we are going to inventory everything, sort things out better, and label everything. The storage in the lab is great—one entire wall is cupboards which all lock independently, which will be great for property management. Then there is another wall lined with countertop sinks, beneath which are more cupboards and drawers. Unfortunately, the drawers do not lock, so we requested that locks be installed to ensure that nothing walks away from the lab as has happened with other equipment previously. There is probably not money for the locks, though.

When we were unpacking the donated and purchased materials we had brought over with us, two students wandered into the science lab: Mimuti and Lesi. They seemed curious and rather in awe at the new materials, helping us unwrap things ever so carefully and handing me everything instead of putting it down themselves. Mimuti helped file down a sharp piece of glass on one of the pieces of glassware using Esther’s purple Leatherman. He seemed to really like it, as did Lesi.

Later that day, we told Quinn (one of the IEFT administrators) about Mimuti and Lesi helping, and she said it was great that Lesi in particular was engaged in this project with us, because he is someone who often ends up at the bottom of the pack in academics and extracurriculars. Now that we know that, I’ll be keeping an eye out for him!

Peter, Quinn, and Alex seemed really impressed and happy about our work today. “These guys are no joke,” Peter kept saying. I’m very glad we’re making a good impression. I think part of the reason that they view us as so efficient is that everyone else at the school also has to focus at least part of their attention on something else, be it classes for the students or Groton’s visit or fundraising. It’s good to be able to focus on a single goal; that way, you’re able to make a lot of progress on one thing instead of a little progress on many.

Since plumbing will be awhile, I think due to lack of funding, we have been trying to think of substitutes so that the kids will be able to wash their glassware and use the eyewash/shower if necessary. The lab is close to the water tank, so that’s one option, or we may put in buckets of water with taps over the sinks. We figure that the easier we make it for them to wash up, the more likely they are to do it. We’ve also been spreading verbal propaganda among the students about washing glassware.

Another thing we need to do is go on a hunt for materials. Rapha, Peter’s right-hand man, is the expert on purchasing materials in Tanzania, but he is also infinitely busy. We haven’t even met him yet this year (I met him briefly last year). It’s clear from talking to the other volunteers that he is very respected, and we’ve heard a lot of good things about him. We want him to give us a list of stores where he’s bought materials for the science lab, as he’s been doing so for a while now. Then, we’ll go to these different places and take note of what is available and how much it costs so that we can document these things for future volunteers and they won’t have to depend on Rapha for purchases since he is so busy. Additionally, we are going to talk to the owner of Tumaini Shop in Monduli and give him a list of items that will be used often in the lab so that he can keep them in stock and they are easy for the school to acquire. Otherwise, they would have to go into Arusha city.

The documentation of our work for future volunteers will be crucial, it sounds like. In addition to details about where to purchase materials, we will explain how to maintain the lab properly and provide proper lab safety given the conditions present at the school. We also suggested to Quinn today that we could leave a set of recommendations for the school about future policies for the lab, such as purchasing plastic beakers instead of glass, and she really wants us to do so.

It feels great to be doing useful work, and I’m excited to see how much we can accomplish by the end of our stay!

Post Two: July 3, 2012

We have been here for three days now, and we have been packed with knowledge bestowed on us by other volunteers, Tanzanians (especially Mama Lukumai) and Orkeeswa students. We went to Arusha yesterday on the dala dala, a cheap mini (and I mean MINI) bus that is always packed with local people. Tourists tend to take taxis or private cars, but I love the price, ease, and culture of the dala dala. An Orkeeswa teacher named Seth happened to join us on the dala dala, so we spent the hour-long ride peppering him with questions. He’s been here more than two years, so he knows a lot and has been incredibly helpful.

When we got to Arusha, we found all the useful shops to be closed since it was Sunday, so we couldn’t get the USB modems for Internet access that we wanted to buy. We exchanged money to Tanzanian shillings, explored town, and had a very informative lunch with Seth at a tourist-y restaurant during which time he mentioned a certain café in Arusha that had a wireless hotspot with the best Internet speeds he’d found. We went to the café and had some of the Tanzanian chai (tea) that I love so very much (their secret is milk and lots of sugar), and we’re planning on going back with our laptops tomorrow to try it out. We’re trying to hunt down the manager to ask how the wireless works there, since it could be relevant to the Internet project, but tracking down the right people can be hard here in Tanzania.

So yesterday was not what we had planned, but was probably what we needed. Like Seth told us, “You have to crawl before you can walk.” He was talking about the school, but it’s spot-on for our project, too. We needed someone to just talk at us about everything: the realities of the school, life in Tanzania, volunteering, trying to get things done here. The more we understand how things work, the more effective we will be. Otherwise, we will run full speed ahead before we’ve learned to walk on Tanzanian ground, and we will fall face first into Tanzanian dirt.

Today went more according to plan. We finally made it out to the school and got a look around the new science lab and other facilities. Our first day there was also the first day for a group of students from a Massachusetts high school called Groton, who are here for a few weeks helping out at the school and bonding with the Orkeeswa students. There was a welcoming ceremony during which the students sang songs in English, Swahili, and Maasai. It’s pretty incredible that all of them are already trilingual.

Our main work today involved cleaning out the horrendously filthy glassware in a horrendously filthy storage room. This task was something of a…traumatic misadventure. The things growing in the glassware were reminiscent of Sheba’s lair from Lord of the Rings. By that I mean that we were lucky to make it out alive.

…Esther and I definitely need to come up with a way to make sure students and teachers clean up their glassware properly

We scraped all of the sludge and unidentifiable solutions into a bucket and labeled it as dangerous chemical waste, complete with skull and crossbones (the multi-talented Esther is also an artist!). We filled another bucket with water and put the glassware into it, turning it a radioactive orange color. As Orkeeswa students walked by with a variety of confused, worried, and curious looks, we explained to them that the terrifying sludge in the bucket was what happens when you don’t wash your glassware. Hopefully we made an impression.

Part 2 of the storage room saga involved an innocent-looking cardboard box in the corner that was filled with what I can only describe as a pile of…well, you know. We wanted to use it to transport the materials we had just inventoried to a different room, but we saw a big bug on the side, so we dragged the box outside to flick it off. In so doing, we uncovered a motherlode of spiders and proceeded to a) freak out and b) give those poor spiders the worst day of their lives. I suppose the story ends badly for everyone, because we decided to find a different box and the spiders were scattered or destroyed by the 9.0 earthquake we had inflicted on them.

The aftermath of our encounter with a box full of spiders and trash

In any case, turns out that storage room has a fair amount of decent materials for the science lab, but they are being abused because of the lack of accountability and property management. That means teachers not cleaning up after demonstrations and experiments, and it means that property “walks away” from the school often. A big part of what IEFT would like our help with is creating a system for property management, especially for this new science lab. To do so, we’re mainly working with Alex, the office manager, who has been here for two months. Esther came up with a great idea on the dala dala back from Arusha yesterday for a lab group/cubby system where students would get small lab groups at the beginning of the year, and each would be assigned a set of equipment and a locked cubby to which only they would have access. Seth and Alex were very enthusiastic about the idea, so to develop it further we need to figure out exactly what materials a lab group would need. These would differ depending on what year the students are; in Tanzania, secondary school consists of six “forms,” or grade levels. Right now, the oldest students are in Form 4 since the school was founded only a few years ago, but we need to plan ahead for Forms 5 and 6 as well.

Esther and I went through all the materials in the storeroom cleaning and taking inventory

After all I’ve seen and heard these few days we’ve been here, I think it is a very good thing that we’re here to help. There’s so much to do and not enough people or time, so unless someone is specifically in charge of and enthusiastic about a task, it’s not getting done anytime soon. I think we’ll be able to really push a big step forward in the weeks to come.

INTRO: July 2, 2012

Esther and I are sitting on our beds in the home of Mama Lukumai, where we will stay for the next two months here in Monduli, Tanzania. The house is on a hill, about a 20-minute walk from the center of town: Tumaini Shop, the meeting place of all volunteers. When we walk out of the house down the (very) bumpy dirt road to town, we pass trees, small cornfields, and concrete or wooden houses. Then the trees clear a bit, and we can see out to the dusty brown volcanic cone in the distance called Lashaine Mountain and the surrounding plains, spotted with Maasai bomas, some sparse vegetation, and hills. It is these plains that we drive through to get to Orkeeswa Secondary School, the Tanzanian high school that I visited last year for just a few days, and that made such an impression on me that I felt I had to return.

This is the way from our house to Tumaini Shop

Orkeeswa was founded around six years ago by an American teacher named Peter Luis. Peter founded a non-profit organization called the Indigenous Education Foundation of Tanzania (IEFT) to administer and raise funds for the school, which is free of charge for students. In Tanzania, even public government-run schools have fees that might seem small when converted to US dollars, but these students come from very poor Maasai families who need that money for food and care for their livestock. Furthermore, they often do not see the value of education, particularly for girls. This point is one that we discussed at length with Mama Lukumai, who helped to found the Maasai School for Girls in Monduli in 1995. Mama said that over time, Maasai families began to see the value of education when the girls who had attended her school graduated, found good jobs, and sent money back home. Now, she says, there is much more demand for education in the Maasai community.

Throughout this past school year, Esther and I have been planning our summer here. At first, it was just thinking of what we could do to help. We thought of teaching seminar classes, helping with water filtration, and many other ideas. After much consultation with IEFT and the MIT Public Service Center, we decided to focus on two things: a science laboratory and Internet.

When I was at Orkeeswa last year, their science laboratory was nothing but an empty building, and now it is fully furnished with beautiful wooden cabinets and tables for group work. Still, there is so much work to be done that it’s overwhelming. Luckily, we spent a lot of time back in the US planning how we would go about not only stocking, organizing, and preparing the lab, but also making sure that the know-how required to run a fully functional lab in Tanzania is passed on effectively to future volunteers. Most teachers stay two years at most, because the pay is low, the work is hard, and local living conditions are not what many Westerners are used to.

IEFT has furnished the lab with chairs and tables, but there is currently no plumbing and the lab is not fully stocked.

Our goal for the science lab is to stock it as best we can with the money we have (which means prioritizing), to set up a solid lab safety and property management system, and to create a short manual that tells teachers all they need to know about how to manage and supply the lab. For a lab back home, these goals would be quite reasonable, but we are learning that here in Tanzania, things move slowly and unsurely. Reaching our goals for the science lab will be a challenge, but we can do it.

An even greater challenge is our lofty goal of getting Internet to the school. To add some context to this, the school is basically in the middle of nowhere, which might seem silly but actually makes sense because its target students are Maasai kids who live in the middle of nowhere and must walk to school. The town of Monduli has decent Internet (which in US terms, means very bad Internet) that we hope to transmit via directional radio antenna to Orkeeswa School. Read more about it on Esther’s blog! I’ll be blogging mainly about the science lab, since that’s my project focus, and she’s the expert on the Internet setup.

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