Friday, November 23, 2007

Today was not your average Friday for 16 children at the Good Hope Orphanage in Usa River, Tanzania.

At 8:30, a half hour after they would normally be beginning class at their local government school Meru Peak, a bus from a nearby private school came and rounded them up. The words "Usa River Academy" were sprawled across the sides. For most of these kids, it was probably the first time they'd ever gotten on a real school bus.

All 16 of them needed to take placement exams for the beginning of the new school year this coming January. I sat in the same room with them for three hours, watching each and every kid painstakingly complete a series of tests written in English only. Some struggled mightily -- one kid seriously just filled in random letters, leaving his test riddled with words like "jcxcmjakkwjpzaq," "jmzjjlpmcdrgzsw," and "mkiewqalccvru." Others cruised to the finish line -- they were the ones fidgeting and unnecessarily going to the bathroom for the last hour of the tests. But none of them seemed to get why they were there.

What exactly did they think they were doing there, though? Wasn't it obvious they were being tested for admission? The answer is no.

"Tutatsoma shule gani?" one girl asked me when it was done, as they all crowded around my desk and touched my hair. She wanted to know which school we were sending them to.

"Uhh..." -- did she not know? -- "hapa..." Here.

"Hapa?" she asked, her eyes lighting up as she looked around. Usa River Academy, after all, is one of the nicest schools in the area, and by far the nicest these two eyes have seen. This girl had no idea that the whole time, she was being tested to see where she would be starting at that very school. "Kweli?"

"Kweli," I said. Really.

About five of the Good Hope kids all of the sudden started whispering to each other in Swahili, eyes bugging out: I knew we were gonna go to a nice school, but THIS PLACE??

I normally hate playing God. Hunter feels the same way. Having to pick and choose who gets an education and who doesn't is the worst part of this job. But to see the looks on those kids' faces when I told them they would be going to Usa River ... it was an early Christmas present.

An early Christmas present not only for them, but for me as well.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

I never thought I'd ever hear myself say this, but these past two months of teaching at Fikiria Kwanza Academy have changed things. My eyes have been opened to the truth: Girlz do rule.

You must not know 'bout us, you must not know 'bout us...

At least in Standard 6 they do, my English class being the extent of the sample size. Maybe the wasichana just have an unfair advantage in demographics. More people means more chances to shine. They outnumber my masela 17 to 11 in the class of 28, and out of those 17, I'd say I could have a seamless, three-minute conversation in English with six of them, about a 35 percent clip.
That's about twice the rate of fluency I've found among the guys -- Felix and Baraka alone account for their figure of just over 18 percent.

I hate to say it, but ... I really think the STD 6 girls at Fikiria Kwanza are just smarter.

Sure, there are two dudes who keep it respectable, but as a whole, they've got no answer for Anneth's grammatical precision, Mary John's ability to think outside the box, Itika's conversational acumen, her older sister Heri's quiet command of the language, Maria Peter's anal attention to detail, or Irene's deftness with NSL (Nagging as a Second Language). It's an unending cycle with the dudes: me telling David and Bernard to pay attention, them not doing it, me walking back there to monitor them for about ten minutes, eventually leaving to make trips to Erick and Godson's desks to essentially reexplain the day's lesson in "Kiswahiliingereza" (Kiswahili plus Kiingereza, the East African version of "Spanglish"), and then grading a bunch of mistake-riddled homework assignments by the very kids who, gasp, hadn't been paying attention in class.

Regardless of all the times I've gotten on them, all the dudes are down with Ticha BP (that's me). But none are spilling any leaks on who "likes" who, like some of the girls did the other day when we were chilling after class. Let me tell you, it was awesome. I really felt like an old man, sitting on the receiving end of the gossip chain, observing a bunch of young teenagers giggling and pointing fingers. It started with Itika calling out someone, I can't remember who, for liking Rubben. That shot was volleyed right back: "Itika likes Baraka!" It was a chain reaction of "Nah aww"/"Yah huh" in Swahili for the next 60 seconds after that. Then I learned about the other match ups: Heri-Bernard, Anneth-Felix, and some other juicy rumors. When everyone had thrown her share of mud, I leaned back, resting my head against the wall and laughed out loud, very aware of the main squeeze situation in Fikiria Kwanza Standard 6.

By the way, 90 percent of that group conversation about love in the land of Tanganyika took place in English, and it was seamless. What else could I expect from my girls?