How a twelve year old and his bicycle deepened my appreciation for learning.
My name is Blair Kessler and I am a junior at Northwestern University, studying Economics and Entrepreneurship. This Spring I will be interning with GoSoapBox .
I spent this past summer working in the education branch of Outreach Zanzibar; a start-up Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Situated off the coast of mainland Tanzania and north of Madagascar, this archipelago lies approximately 8,500 miles away from sweet home Chicago.
It was my responsibility to implement an English based curriculum into Unguja Ukuu primary school, located in a remote village on the Eastern coast of the Island. The village primarily served as the home to “fish-mongers,” supplying five star resorts across the island with fresh seafood. It was the ultimate goal of many of the students I would work with over the next three months to be successful “fish-mongers.” It was my goal to challenge this intuition, by providing a platform in the classroom to best prepare them to continue their education, or at the very least become aware of what other opportunities are out there.
The Unguja Ukuu complex is split in half by the main road that runs into the center of commerce on the island, Stone Town. On the right hand side of the road is the primary school and on the left is the secondary school. Each school is spread across five tin-roofed, open-air classrooms, filled with hand crafted benches and desks facing the teachers’ podium and large black slate, that serves as the blackboard. I spent some time in my youth installing artificial grass in Denver specifically for soccer fields. Seeing the field the use everyday was such a shock. Behind the secondary school lies an open field that serves as grounds for the village’s cattle during the evenings and school’s soccer pitch during the day. Playing soccer was a very rich and humbling experience. Students without shoes would run circles around me, across the field strewn with cow manure and “prickers,” not phased in the least. Their enthusiasm and interest in soccer was the main reason why I bought them Football cleats so that they could practice better. During the gameplay, I even thought them a few basic rules which they quite never knew existed such as Chip pass and Clear.
For lunch students would pay 100 Tanzanian schillings (equivalent of $0.05) for a cup of pink bean porridge. Curious of who this “mzungu” (white-person) was at their school, students flocked at the opportunity to eat and even share their porridge with me in hopes of learning a new word of English or teaching me a few words of their native tongue, Swahili.
Each student was responsible for supplying a notebook for each subject, comparable to a Blue Book, which was to last them the length of the academic year. The students of Ungujua Ukuu never had their own textbook and were accustomed to being taught lessons by under-qualified teachers who showed up late and unprepared; a stark contrast to their peers in first world countries.
Despite limited tools, resources and technology, the Unguja Ukuu students were more engaged and eager to learn than any other group of students I’ve shared a classroom with before. I can only imagine how excited Unguja Ukuu kids would be to use an application like GoSoapBox!
One student in particular, named Omari, stood head and shoulders above his peers in terms of drive and curiosity. Each morning and afternoon, Omari would meet me on the road into school on his bike and offer me a ride to beat the hot Zanzibar sun on the three-mile stretch, in exchange for sharing the English word of objects that we would come across on the ride, or that had occurred that day. Personally, I don’t know many seventh graders anxious to tug a former defensive lineman on the back of their bike, just to soak up a few more bits of knowledge. Omari taught me far more than I thought any seventh grader ever would, and it is his story and love for learning that has brought me to join an education based start-up.
Never in the last 20 years of my formal education have I seen an appreciation run so deep through a group of students, or such genuine interest and curiousity in learning as I did in Zanzibar.
As I reflect back upon the strong academic foundation that I have built, and the opportunities that presented themselves throughout my academic career, I have a new found appreciation for the people and institutions that allowed me to get to where I am today. Driven by the conversations over porridge at lunch, Omari’s ride to and from school, and the genuine enthusiasm for learning that I witnessed in Zanzibar, my appreciation for the educational opportunities that lie ahead of me has never been stronger.
I hope that my story will inspire you to feel the same thirst for knowledge as Omari, who was eager to lug a 220 pound lineman for three miles on the back of his bike in order to learn a few new words of English each day. With today’s technology, we have access to a world of knowledge within a few clicks of a mouse. The next time you find yourself watching reality TV, or browsing Facebook, I challenge you to think of Omari and his friends sitting patiently on their wood bench, waiting for their teacher to show up to class. Do right by Omari and take advantage of the resources that are available to us. Be eager to learn something new, or better yet, teach a friend something new. There’s a group of kids 8,500 miles away who I know would appreciate it.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. Please feel free to reach out to me with questions or feedback at: firstname.lastname@example.org