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Jambo, Bwana MAG
The first of many lessons I learned at Faraja School in Tanzania was this simple welcome song in Swahili. I was a freshman on a service trip to a primary school for children with physical disabilities. We were going to help build a warehouse (the area the school had been using as storage space was actually supposed to be a room for physical therapy) and help teach students. I was excited to give back to the greater community and impact others' lives on a personal level, and with the company of seventeen classmates ranging from freshmen to juniors, I thought nothing could be better.
After weeks of preparation, two vaccinations, and sixteen hours of flying, we finally touched down in the capital, Dar es Salaam. As I got off the plane, I stole a glimpse of the unfathomable sky. Back in New Jersey, saying “The skies are clear” simply meant there weren't any clouds. In Tanzania, without the pollution and distraction of the cities, I could see straight through the skin of the universe, sparkling with gentle, unassuming beauty. Sometimes when I miss my friends from Faraja I look up and remember that gorgeous African sky.
The next day, the eighteen of us split into two groups. Group A would work on the warehouse and Group B would work in the classrooms, then switch after tea time. I went with Group A, passing fields of vegetables, a cow pen, and what looked like a small brick hut. Later I learned that the brick hut was actually a chicken coop and a bread-baking creation built by my high school on a previous trip. It felt great to continue the legacy of help and teamwork.
At the work site, everyone quickly grabbed shovels. All that was left for me was a heavy, awkward pickaxe. Taking a spot in an empty area, I raised the axe above my head, nearly fell backwards, and dropped the point with an unsatisfying thud. Frowning, I tried again, but only repeated my blunder. I must have looked pretty funny: five-foot-two, glasses smudged with dust, lips gritty with dirt because I had naively chosen a spot downwind. No wonder this area had been empty – the gusts would blow everything directly into my face! Luckily, a African construction worker came to my rescue.
“Sister,” he laughed. “Here, trade.” He offered his shovel and I gladly took it.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Asante,” he replied. At my blank look, he explained, “That is ‘thank you' in Swahili.”
“Asante!” I repeated. We grinned at each other.
For the next week, we made a formidable team. He wielded the pickaxe (squatting low, raising the pickaxe to head level, then dropping it with precision, and wiggling loose pieces of rock), and I shoveled rock and dirt behind him (also squatting low and rotating – not swinging – to prevent the dust from wildly flying about). I learned to position my back to the wind, wear extra sunscreen, and appreciate long pants, even with the sun bearing down on us.
After tea time (I am now addicted to black tea with two lumps of sugar), my group made its way to the classrooms. Picking a room at random, I walked into the kindergarten class and was suddenly overwhelmed with nerves. My vision tunneled, I remarkably started stuttering, and my friend had to drag me along to say hello to a child sitting at a desk. How was I supposed to communicate without a common language?
“Jambo,” we said.
“Jambo,” she greeted back.
“What are you doing?” I pointed at her book.
“I am learning to read,” she told us.
Having already run out of things to say, I suddenly burst into song, “Jambo! Jambo, Bwana. Habari gani …” but I forgot the rest of the lyrics. Her eyes lit up.
“Mzuri sana! Wageni,” she sang, clapping her hands and slowing down for us. “Mwakaribishwa. Tanzania, Hakuna Matata!”
Soon, the entire classroom was singing this simple song about welcoming visitors. It was better than any spontaneous music moment that could have been concocted on television. Somehow, through a series of bilingual charades, funny hand gestures, and drawings, I learned that my new friend's name was Esta and that she was twelve. She was two years younger and nine grades beneath me, and yet her maturity dwarfed mine. She worked hard, was a calm role model for younger classmates, and was always eager to learn, teach, and help.
Some days, after working in the field and teaching in the classrooms, I played soccer, basketball, tag, or just sat in the grass with students. Namnyaki, a fourteen-year-old fourth grader, enjoyed relaxing with me in her free time. She was shyer than Esta, but our quiet friendship was more like a hushed embrace than a tongue-tied silence. Hand-in-hand, we were totally inseparable. My fears of communication flew away into the breeze. Somehow, Namnyaki and I didn't need words.
The following day, as I was leaving a classroom for tea time, I noticed two kids left behind. “Come on,” I said, motioning to the door. “Let's go!” But the students didn't move. Just then, the door opened, and another Faraja student pushed in a wheelchair for one of the these students. When she pointed at something behind me, I noticed another wheelchair in the corner of the classroom. Of course! I rolled it over, accidentally knocking over chairs and nudging desks in the process. I helped wheel the other student out the door and watched him zoom off to find his friends.
At the Faraja School, a simple walk to the dining hall was an eye-opener for me. I saw kids without arms pushing wheelchairs for kids without legs. Other people moved at a snail's pace to walk with their friends who used crutches or walkers. Everyone moved leisurely without stress. Handicaps that would be regarded as unfortunate limitations in America barely caught anyone's attention, and the members of the school community were masters at playing off each other's strengths. There was an atmosphere of inclusion and cohesion that each kid exemplified. Somewhere in the mix, Namnyaki found me and we walked together for tea and bread.
After only the first day, I realized the importance of time: I would only have four more days with some of the most wonderful people on the planet. For perhaps the first and only time in my life, I lived second-by-second, never worrying about the future or being anxious about the past. Time moves quickly when you're looking back and slowly when you're looking forward, but for those seven perfect days under the gorgeous African sky, the universe was timeless and infinite. I fell asleep to the symphony of the crickets, saw an elephant up close, and lived lessons that could never be taught without experiencing them.
I learned to connect with people despite a language barrier, whether that meant squatting at eye level with a boy in a wheelchair or using posture, body language, and tone of voice to get my meaning across. I realized that community service isn't necessarily about giving back or emulating Robin Hood, but rather about doing what you can, no matter who you are, to improve the lives of others.
I stuffed my bag full of souvenirs, but the things I wanted to take with me couldn't be touched, only remembered and passed on: Esta's spirit and selflessness, Namnyaki's patience, Emanuelli's happiness, Upendomuchi's gentle heart, Godbless's easy confidence, and Godlisten's friendly smile. Tonight, the sky is inky and without character, but I can always remember our gorgeous African sky beyond the clouds. F