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Doug: The Tanzania Trip

September 8, 2011

I just returned from a 6 day trip to Arusha, Tanzania with three friends from my program, and it was absolutely amazing. The MSID program coordinators decided that they would give us 5 days to travel after our final exam last Tuesday. So we boarded a bus bound for Arusha, Tanzania. The trip to Arusha was primarily my friend Chelsea’s idea—since there is a school there that she has supported for the last 7 years, The School of St. Jude. One highlight from the 5-hour bus trip from Nairobi to Arusha was paying $100 USD at the border for a visa into Tanzania (USA and Ireland citizens are the only ones that had to pay more than $50; oh yeah, and Pakistan pays $200—sorry Pakistan). Arriving in Arusha, we found it to be a much smaller city than Nairobi, with AMAZING views of Mt. Meru—which looms over this hilly city.

View of downtown Arusha from our hostel

Our first two days and nights were spent at The School of St. Jude, a remarkable school that was started on a bare plot of land about ten years ago by an Australian woman with the dream of a school that would offer excellent education, while being completely free, to train bright young minds from the poorest families in the area. What stands today, nearly ten years since the first 3 students enrolled, is one of the most amazing schools I have ever seen, with 1,500 students (ages 7-20) on three different campuses and a core faculty of Tanzanian teachers. The School of St. Jude (the patron saint of hopeless causes) is fully funded by private donors (you can sponsor a student through their website), and everything (and I mean everything, from the kids’ backpacks, to their uniforms, to school supplies, to tuition, to the brightly colored school buses, is completely free for the students’ families). The school provides hearty meals to every student (in case they aren’t getting it at home). The campus is quite literally a paradise—it is beautifully groomed, covered in rich green grass and vegetation, with colorfully painted playgrounds and clean bright buildings. Walking around the campus, I was speechless that such a school existed in rural Tanzania.

Not a bad view…

But enough about the school—now onto the students. I challenge you to find a happier group of kids than the hundreds of primary school kids we saw running, jumping, screaming, laughing, playing and just being kids every morning before the bell rang for classes. There was no fighting; there were no disobedience issues or behavior problems or crying—just pure joy. And I realized that for these kids, school is paradise. For their families, they realize that getting this education is the only hope for their children to break out of the cycle of poverty, empowered to change their lives. “Fighting Poverty Through Education”—The School of St. Jude’s mission statement is short but powerful. They seek to train the future leaders of Tanzania, and they are well on their way—the students here score unbelievably high on standardized tests and are considered some of the brightest in the country.

I admit it—I teared up twice during our stay at St. Jude’s, both times on the last day. On that Friday, the school opened its gates (like it does every Friday afternoon for 2 months out of the year) to any and all 7-8 year-olds in a 30KM radius from the school for testing for admission. Chelsea and I agreed to help guide the kids during a series of “tests”, from basic identification of pictures, then (if they pass) to a short writing portion. What resulted was something I will never forget, as I stood in the open-air lunch pavilion, waiting for the kids to arrive: hundreds upon hundreds of boys and girls started filing into the school yard; parents (mostly mothers) and even orphanages had started lining their children up at 8AM that morning, hoping beyond all hope that their son, their daughter, would get a coveted spot at St. Jude’s (the school only can let in 150 students each year). My role was to greet each child and lead them to sit on some benches, waiting for their turn, their chance, to prove that they deserved a spot at St. Jude’s. Each kid was so precious, some holding small, dully sharpened pencils (perhaps their family’s only pencil?), with shy, scared expressions. Some light up in a grin as I smiled at them and greeted them in Swahili (most spoke no English). On the one hand (as I greeted child after child), it made me so happy to think that St. Jude’s was giving these kids a chance at an education that they may not otherwise get; on the other hand it broke my heart that the majority of these kids were going to go home empty handed—without that coveted green slip of paper, saying they had earned a spot. And here I was—a kid who always had had access to good education growing up, and in a year’s time, would be back getting my university education (something that will be a challenge to get even for many of the St. Jude’s students).

Hanging out at lunch

Nevertheless, what brought tears of joy was the amazing sight that met our eyes as we walked, later that afternoon, bags packed, to the front gate on our way out. The dozens of students who had gotten those green slips of paper (which meant acceptance to St. Jude’s) were finally making their way out of the gate after a long day of waiting in lines and testing. A huge crowd awaited them on the other side—mothers cried and yelled out screams of joy, picking up their children (who themselves did not seem to be fully aware of the implications that the paper held for their lives). People everywhere were crying and laughing, as these small kids filed one-by-one into the joyous crowd of parents. And as the crowd thinned, and as beaming mothers took their children back home (next the school will visit them at home to survey their socio-economic status to make sure they qualify for free education), I realized the true power that a school has to transform and empower the lives of the families it serves. The smiles of the kids and families also further convinced me that working with youth through education is a career path that I increasingly am feeling called to. Thank you St. Jude’s, for everything you’re doing, and all you taught me.

After the School of St. Jude, the other main thing we did was hire a taxi to drive us through Arusha National Park (while all the other silly tourists paid absurd amounts for their safari trucks, we were bouncing along in our beatup sedan–it was fantastic). Instead of going on and on about how beautiful it was and how many animals we saw, I’ll just put in a few photos:

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