11/18/14

Being an Island of Excellence in a Sea of No Competition

Days in Tanzania are long; they’re hot and humid and they are busy and boring. They start at the break of dawn and continue long past the sun is set – which, might I add, happens at the same exact time every day, offering predictability but also monotony. The days drag on, yet the weeks seem to fly by and the months move so fast you can barely see them.

As I’m sure is true in any corner of the world, putting your nose to the grindstone day after day is exhausting. Some mornings you wake up more tired than you were when you went to sleep. Some days the tasks ahead of you before you can climb back into bed are daunting and sickening. Some days seem so long that even routine tasks are impossible and you can’t imagine how you’re going to get to the end. And then you think: you have to do it all again tomorrow. How lovely.

Most days aren’t like this for me. More often than not, I wake up ready to take on the day, after the gentle coaxing of a cup of coffee and a certain exercise in breathing that calms and collects me. I will admit though, that these days, the days I want to stay in bed, are more frequent here than they were before. Of course in college and in high school not every day was honky-dory and I didn’t love everything. But there was something different. There was something motivating me, something pushing me, something prodding at me to get out of bed and do it. Do what needs to be done, enjoy what is enjoyable.

But here and now, I feel nothing of the sort. There are things that need to be done and enjoyable things to enjoy – I’m not saying it sucks being here and that I have nothing to do. That would be false. But there seems to be an entire lack of motivation on my part to do and enjoy. And I think it all comes down to competition.

College, high school, (dare I say the US as a whole) are driven by competition. Be the best you can be, so long as your best is better than the best of the person sitting next to you. Whether friendly competition or good, dirty, real competition, I loved it. I saw what the status quo was and tried to top it. I found out who was the best and tried to do better. I set goals that only insane people would think of and I accomplished them. I felt a drive, something compelling me to do so. Perhaps it was the people I surrounded myself with – all highly motivated and talented and energetic. It gave me something to pull from; it gave me motivation. But here in Tanzania, things move slowly. Not that there’s no motivation – but rather that there’s no rush. There’s no timeline, no deadline. Nenda pole pole.

What i am about to say next needs to be tread upon very lightly. I will say, however, that I am not the original perpetrator of this idea – it is actually part of a lot of scholarly work I have read. While it may seem that I am talking down and passing judgement, I urge you to not see it that way.

In orientation for this program, and in reading a few books, (Poor Economics and Half the Sky), I learned that teaching in many developing countries is seen as a booby-prize job. Most teachers surveyed hate what they do and come to school simply for the paycheck. Often, teachers are found in the staff office drinking tea, eating chapati, and chatting while they are supposed to be teaching lessons. Teachers are paid less than people in most professions, and a teaching license is also one of the least expensive certificates to earn (at least in Tanzania). This means its a highly accessible career, targeted at students leaving high school without the top GPAs or huge scholarships.

Here, many teachers show a lack of enthusiasm for their jobs that rivals how interested I am in using sunscreen (I get a new sunburn, like, everyday). Often, they go to class to write notes on the board in a language the students don’t fully understand (trust me, I’m the one teaching them said language) and leave without explanation. That’s on a good day. I feel like I am surrounded by slacking, excuses and laziness. Nobody around me seems to enjoy their job and therefore they are okay with not doing it. Seeing this, day after day, is incredibly disheartening.

In orientation, we were told to be an “island of excellence” at our schools. Well, how? I’d like to be self-motivated. I’d like to be able to find a reason within myself to get through the day. I am finding now, more than ever, that I just don't know how to do that. In the beginning, it was easy; I came to Tanzania and my school with rose-colored glasses on – andI saw that nothing could go wrong. I came with motivation and a hero complex – I would help these students become fluent in English, and therein make their lives significantly better. Everything was golden and flawless; everything was on my side. As it turns out, I am not a hero. These kids don’t see the use for English. They don’t seem to care what I have to teach them. Everything is not golden and flawless. Not everything is rooting for me, and my motivation is no good here. Many of my fellow teachers hate their jobs and verbalize this regularly. They taunt the students as if it is their duty and they teach only when they feel compelled to do so; I wish I could just tell you how infrequently that is.

While practicing our superlatives in form two class (my favorite food is…, my best friend is…) many of my students said that their favorite class is English. Whether they were searching for pipi points (brownie points) or they genuinely enjoy English more than any other subject, I’ll never truly know. But it certainly feels like the former – as their motivation, attendance, and participation are light years away from what I expected, hoped for, desired.

Often, I do think of myself as an island. It’s comforting to know that I can completely break myself off from situations when I need to. In college, I could leave my friends and take a few hours to decompress. At home, I had the silence of an empty house during the day and a car to wander. In Tanzania, I have the privacy of my home about three-quarters of a mile outside the village center. I can invite people ashore of my island when I want, and I can enjoy the peacefulness when I need to.

But at school, I feel like my island is one of those floating numbers, maybe the ones constructed of sand in the UAE (look up the aerial images – they made a series of islands that looks like a pineapple…) and I’m bumping into the mainlands that are flooded with discontent. Every collision steals a little confidence in my ability, a handful of motivation, and a plethora of my good ideas. Each run-in with the mainland leaves me a little more bitter, it dulls my perception of the silver lining I’m supposed to see, and dumps doubt upon me like the metaphorical waves upon my shore are actually tsunamis.
My friend Forrest, who is part of my program and a really fun partner-in-crime for Dar clubbing and Zanzibar holidays, said something that stuck in my head a few weeks ago. “You don’t need to move the mountain, you just need to climb it.”

Okay, so now we have movable mountains and floating islands and aggressive mainlands. Sorry. But what he said holds water in any situation. Moving mountains is not within my abilities, nor is it my place. Similarly, changing attitudes towards teaching and motivating other teachers is not within my abilities nor is it my place. I did not create this culture, nor am I even a part of it. But mountains, and cultures, do beg to be climbed and understood, just like islands need visitors. 

I read somewhere else, I don’t remember where, that island ecosystems are among the most fragile on earth. For example, before Zanzibar and Tanganyika were united under one leadership to become Tanzania, there was a rich sultan who lived on Prison Island – part of the Zanzibar archipelago. He brought hundreds of gigantic ancient tortoises to decorate the courtyard of his enormous home. Today, thousands of people visit the uninhabited Prison island just to see the now enormous population of giant tortoises. I imagine it has done wonderful things for the tourism industry. What I’m saying is, maybe my island could use a little tourism, a little influx of the unknown to liven itself up, and then I could get up and over this mountain.
-WorldTeach Tanzania volunteer Abby
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