It’s Friday evening and I find myself sitting in Joyce’s house with her and her Bibi (grandma) cooking a dinner of ugali with a side of vegetables and beans. Joyce is a Form IV student at the Secondary School I teach physics at (she is the Tanzanian equivalent to a senior in high school). I met Joyce my first week at school because she offered to bring me her home nearby to ‘take potatoes.’ I live in a community where most families use farming as their main source of income and for substinence. The rolling hills my home is tucked away in are flourishing with potatoes (irish and sweet), maize, avocados, bananas, and chai tea bushes. The green farms and pine forests make for an absolutely mazingira mazuri (beautiful environment).
Joyce’s Bibi could not believe I did not know how to cook Ugali. She insisted Joyce teach me to make ugali as she hustled in and out of the cooking room to grab different pots, more firewood, and water to add to the beans. Joyce was cracking me up on this particular evening because everytime Bibi left the room she would pull out her cellphone and blast our favorite song Jibebe and then quickly turn it off once Bibi returned, as if her Bibi was going to tell us, “turn that racket off.” But we were still dancing in our chairs and mouthing the lyrics to each other once Bibi turned her back.
There are many differences for young adults and teenagers in Tanzania. The challenges teenagers face and what is expected of them at school and at home is so much more than what I experienced growing up. I think it is safe to say for many of my peers as youth in Marin County as well. We had gossip queens and bullies and an occasional student pregnancy, but we didn’t have corporal punishment in school or friends with HIV. In high school I whined about doing the dishes after dinner and get in trouble for staying out too late with my boyfriend. My students return home after a 10 hour school day where they had to sit and listen to teacher after teacher lecture in a language unfamiliar to them. Then maybe they arrive home to be sent to fetch a 20L bucket of water from the nearest well for evening cooking and bathing. The expectations for these teens at home and at school are set sky high. I feel if I was a teen here I would constantly feel inadequate and discouraged. Please realize, I do not share these things so that you may feel sorry for my students, but so that you may share in admiring their strength and perseverance to try and meet these high expectations.
This particular evening with Joyce and her Bibi brought me much comfort. It helped me to realize while teenagers in Tanzania face very different challenges from American teenagers, their spirit, the things they care about, and the trouble they get into are not all that different. As I have spent more and more time getting to know my students, I do not know why there is a common thread between youth in America and youth in Tanzania, but there is.
My students are highly competitive about sports, full of sass, and have dating problems (even though technically it is illegal for them to be dating while they are still attending school). At times they definitely have that ‘I know everything’ attitude and are resistant to listening to the adults in their lives. They fail exams, crack jokes about teachers, and pass notes in class. Things I feel teenagers should have the freedom to care about and experience. And why do these similarities exist? I am not sure, perhaps just because they are teenagers.
What I do know is that I am happy to be here and happy to get to know them in what feels like a short amount of time I will spend here. Also, it is undeniably important that myself and other secondary teachers invest time and energy into guiding our students to be the best they can be and to realize the opportunities before them that will use how great they already are.