America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

My Student’s Perspective.

Liselot Koenen from Georgetown University is completing her summer service in Zanzibar, Tanzania.  She continues to teach Chemistry within the Forodhani Secondary school as a means to provide the best education for her students.   

As if being thousands of miles away from home, surrounded by everything new – from the culture to the language – wasn’t overwhelming enough, on day two, I was told that I would be teaching four chemistry classes to Form II students (ages 15-17). Teaching English during my six weeks at the Forodhani Secondary school already seemed daunting enough, but chemistry sounded even more difficult. Sitting in the headmistress’ office for more than half an hour discussing teaching arrangements had already been a battle as she struggled to piece together the right English words, so how would teaching a subject to non-native English speakers (which was already challenging in its own right) not be equally, if not more, of a battle? Saying that I was full of doubt would be an understatement, but even then, I somehow knew this is what I was meant to do here and excitedly agreed.

The Forodhani School where I am teaching Chemistry.

The Forodhani School where I am teaching Chemistry.

All the people of Stonetown – from the little children to the elderly – gave me a very warm welcome during my first week. This only replicated on my first day of teaching. My first impression of the public school was very positive – roofed classrooms, desks and chairs for each student, a small library, and even a computer lab. Yet, it didn’t take long for me to become aware that the school system in Zanzibar is pretty ineffective. Most teachers could not be more welcoming and motivated, but in a school system where all subjects are supposed to be taught exclusively in English, it was surprising to realize that even holding a conversation with them was a challenge. However, through their faces, it is not difficult to see how overworked they are and how they are unable to perform their jobs correctly with the lack of support from their government. Many travel over 6 miles to get to school, taking an overloaded dala-dala. With a monthly salary of just $150 and no travel or resource stipend, many teachers are forced to take on other jobs and make unrealistic sacrifices (such as having their children live with relatives).

The students are trained to repeat, but not to critically apply their knowledge. They simply memorize and recite sentences or answers, without knowing the meaning of it all. Many times, I find myself asking, “does that make sense?” just to get the generic and highly respectful answer, “yes, teacher”. Yet, I ask them a question about the material and not one student is able to respond. I continually ask, even beg, them to please come to me for help and ask questions, but I know that realistically, most cannot express themselves well enough in English to ask for help. Nevertheless, most are eager to learn and I find myself often being inspired by my students.

I started an English club with the other AUA volunteer, Mari, to about forty motivated students afterschool from 1-2pm. Each day, some of our students walk with us back to our apartment, often offering to carry our night’s grading for us. A couple of days ago, we had one of our well-spoken 14-year-old students walk with us. Earlier that day, I had seen that the attendance of his class since January had dropped by ten students – not unusual in Zanzibar. Before teaching his class, I had talked with the students about the importance of education – a speech that had been inspired by the previous days watching of the documentary “Girl Rising”. It was my hope that at least some of my words would continue to linger in their thoughts and for this boy, it had.

Talking with him, I realized that it takes more than just realizing the importance of education. He comes from a family of farmers and in his words; they are “just poor enough to survive”. He explained to me that his dream is to one day come to America and not be forced to live the same life as his parents. However, for him, graduating and going to University seemed irrelevant to his life, as he would never be able to afford it. And even if he did, what good would it do him? Even with a college degree, he would still be forced to live the same life as his parents as it would not guarantee him a better and more prosperous job. I thought back to my own life and how graduating high school and going to college was something I never questioned. I thought about how very little I really know about how education can truly relieve one’s poverty. In his own words, he educated me about the dire situation of Zanzibar, how it has plateaued in its development, offering no hope for future employment. When he was finished, he simply asked me, “Why does Zanzibar not develop?” In this moment, my brain was swimming for answers and explanations. I was supposed to be the teacher, but I really had no valuable information to convey. Even if I did, how could I explain something that seemed so unexplainable to a young boy in words that he, or even I could, understand? I tried to give him words of encouragement about his education, but I’m sure I offered little motivation.

Ghandi once said, “If we are to see change in the world, we must start with the children”. Throughout my 20 years of life, I took these words to heart – it is what motivates me to come and teach. It is these Zanzibari children that must somehow rise to the occasion and pull this island out of its current predicament. They must find the intrinsic motivation to continue their studies and seek out opportunities. I am barely qualified to teach chemistry, let alone teach them this. I have never been in their shoes. Honestly, as much as I try to convince them that learning how to write chemical formulas is an essential skill in their lives, I know that it really is not. I do my best for my students even in these short six weeks, but I know that for most, my words of encouragement will not be enough.

Yet, when I have my students come to me to ask for help and go beyond to educate themselves, it gives me hope for the future of Zanzibar. This student shed light on the trivial nature of their obstacles, but reminded me to keep looking forward, especially to these moments of hope. When I try to muster up explanations to these life questions, I never realize that these are precisely the most important lessons that they effortlessly teach me everyday.

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One comment on “My Student’s Perspective.

  1. Pingback: Third Annual Conference on the Muslim World 2014 | America's Unofficial Ambassadors

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