Friday, February 7, 2014

The Geography Lesson

“All you can change is yourself, but sometimes that changes everything!” 
Gary W Goldstein

Most change is resisted in the beginning, but over time thoughts start to loosen and reform around new ideas. This is what happened to my idea of wealth and access to travel. Going to Honduras opened my eyes to different types of poverty, but my time in Tanzania solidified my understanding. There were many moments during my time in Tanzania where I experienced the loosening of my own constructed ideas whether from my own interactions or stories from other volunteers. One thing can be said for sure, the change that happened for me during this trip did change everything.

Bagamoyo: A Community of Artists
Twisuka Group
I was teaching English and an assortment of other things at Twisuka Arts Group in Bagamoyo, Tanzania as my volunteer placement from CCS (Cross Cultural Solutions). I spent my days surrounded by local handicrafts and paintings that would cost a fortune if they were sold in the US. I only had about four students on any given day, mostly younger guys who saw learning English as a way to expand their opportunities in this world. Most of the time they laughed at my methods wondering why we were playing charades or bingo, but they always completed all of my assigned tasks with a smile. It was informal, and sometimes we would go for a walk to the market or over to the internet cafe to learn a new computer skill. Sometimes I would find things to bring to class like the day I brought the world map.

My Classroom
My students looked at me quizzically as I entered the small classroom in the back of the art shop hut. Under my arm I carried a large rolled up map of the world. It was an old one, and printed on it were some countries that no longer existed. But that wasn't the point of the lesson. We had been talking about directions in prior classes, and I wanted to give them more of a global perspective of what we had been discussing, a chance to apply their vocabulary. I unrolled the map and hung it from a protruding nail in the wall. I was met with oohs and aahs, and I knew that I was on to something.

For this class I was joined by a new student, an older man who I had never seen before. He had heard in town that I was teaching English and thought he would see what it was all about.  He was quiet throughout the lesson, standing to the side watching and listening. My other students were animated, pointing to various countries and practicing their new directional vocabulary. I talked about my journey to Tanzania and traced the route with my finger, and we talked about time zones and the Earth revolving around the sun. I was met with astonished looks and amazement at how far I had traveled and how long it took. But most amazing, however, was the realization that, "The Earth really travels around the sun?"

"Why did you want to come here," they asked. "When you can go anywhere you want?"
"I came here to meet you and teach some English," I replied.

They couldn't fathom why I would want to come to their little village when what many of them thought about was what life would be like if they could get out.

Suddenly the older gentleman began to speak, "I have a book shop right down the street. I have read many books about countries all over the world. I love to read about other places. But I know that I will never be able to see any of them. You are so rich that you can travel the world. I wish I could."

Some of My Students
I was speechless. I had nothing to say. I couldn't reassure him that sure, someday he would travel. That's what you would say in the US because there, anything is possible. In Bagamoyo, you make the best of what you have. I knew deep down that he was right, and it broke my heart. Something that was such an integral part of who I am and what I love about the world he and the others would never be able to experience.

There is not a time that I think about travel that I don't think about this man and how I wish I could have done or said something at that moment.

The man returned to all of my English lessons after that and was an active participant, and we never talked about wealth or travel again. He didn't really need to be in my class; his English was flawless, but I'm glad he was.