Arriving as the only woman at the Bukiriro School in Tanzania is certainly intimidating, but WorldTeach volunteer Elizabeth Martin has handled the experience with the utmost skill. Teaching math to classes of up to 75 students, Elizabeth has come to realize that the most important learning happens outside of the typical classroom setting. In this CNN iReport, she tells of her life during the first five weeks teaching at the Bukiriro School. Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth!
“Welcome to Tanzania! You will be teaching at Bukiriro Secondary School in Rulenge-Ngara. Karibu sana!”
I stepped off the plane in Dar es Salaam with only two backpacks of life essentials, a few words of Swahili written on my hand, and too many thoughts about why I chose this path on my mind. And these were the welcoming words I received upon my arrival. I left my life in America knowing very little about the life I would be starting in Tanzania. I knew I would be teaching, but I did not know what subject or which school. I knew I would be living with another volunteer, but I did not know who that would be or what town we would live in. And I knew life would be quite different from that in Wisconsin, but how so, I was wildly unsure…
I have spent the past five weeks teaching mathematics at Bukiriro Secondary School, and while the realities I am about to present to you may seem unfathomable from you office desk on the 15th floor or your recliner in front of a television, life here simply is what it is. No more, no less.
Bukiriro Secondary is a small school located 17km outside of Rulenge, and only 10km from the border of Burundi. Accessible only by the single gravel road that passes through the area, I must take a piki-piki (that is, motorcycle) driven by one of my neighbors from our home in Muyenzi, a village of 200 people, to and from school everyday. My ride through the rolling hills and mountains sprawling with lush banana trees presents some spectacular views, I must say! There are 8 teachers at my school, including the Headmaster and myself, for just over 300 students. When I arrived, I found out that not only am I the only female on staff, I am actually the first female the school has ever had, as well as the first volunteer from overseas. Nothing could have prepared me for my arrival on the first day of the term, via motorcycle, in front of 300 students who did not know I was coming. The look of shock on their faces as a white woman on a piki-piki pulled up to school is something I will certainly never forget.
When I arrived at Bukiriro to meet with the Headmaster, I was informed that the mathematics teacher had recently left to continue his studies at the university level. Would I be willing to teach mathematics to all four forms? Of course! As a mathematics teacher in the United States, I have been so happy for the opportunity to continue teaching a subject I love! It is a daunting task however, to teach all students a very challenging syllabus of material in a language they are not necessarily comfortable with. Class sizes are large, averaging 75 students, and their levels of English and mathematics skills vary widely. Unfortunately, with only eight teachers present, many with other academic, disciplinary, secretarial, or hierarchical responsibilities, and only four maintained classrooms, we are not able to divide forms into smaller classes. This has been a challenge for me in particular, because learning student names, checking for understanding, or simply following daily attendance are nearly impossible tasks. Slowly routine in is being built and perhaps one day I will know all of my students, but for now, as long as I can see progress in student understanding when I mark exercises or give an exam, we can count it as a success.
There are so many factors that are outside of my control, however, that have such a profound impact on these students that I am left wondering if a math lesson on graphing inverse relations or proving trigonometric ratios serves any purpose. Too often I have heard that the community doesn’t value education, or that a number of my students haven’t been attending because they can’t pay their school fees, or that the school can’t afford to staff an English teacher, which is why none of the classes have had an English lesson in weeks. When students leave school, they are walking several kilometers to a home with no electricity where the only water must be gathered from the local well. This is actually the same situation for me, although I am lucky enough to have a ride home. But education is the last thing on my mind when I am cooking by charcoal, washing my clothes by hand, or sitting by the light of a single kerosene lantern once the sun sets. I imagine it is the same, in some respect, for my students and their families.
So what is my purpose? Why am I here? Only to teach some esoteric mathematics concepts in hope that a handful of students might pass their exam? Doubtful. While I will continue to instill the importance of learning mathematics and speaking English in my classroom, I believe that ultimately, the cultural exchange that is happening has had the most impact on the students, my fellow teachers, my community, and myself. My students come to life when they ask me to tell a story from America, and hang on every last English word I speak to them. They are so eager to learn English, to learn about the history of America, to hear about the weather, and our school system, and what life was like for me growing up. My fellow teachers and neighbors have also been wonderfully welcoming, and are equally as eager to hear about life in America and we often have conversations to help improve their English (or to work on my limited Swahili). While the novelty of my presence may never wear off and I will probably always be laughed at for the way I pronounce words like “angle” or “opposite,” I am learning so much from them in return. How to live simply, be thankful, and find joy in smallest things.
It’s unbelievable that I have been here for five weeks. I feel like I am still assimilating to a dramatically new place, but I also feel fully accepted, welcomed and completely a part of my school and community. I am so eager for the adventures that await me, for my relationships here to continue to grow, and to experience the lasting impression that this exchange will bring about for all of us.