Monday 9 December 2019

Pack for a Purpose - Stella Maris Primary School, Tanzania

Stella Maris Primary School, Mailisita, Tanzania.

I'd always been conscious of economic challenges and lack of funding and supplies in developing countries ever since I began independently travelling at 23. During my time studying Geography at university in England, I had the opportunity to partake in a field trip to The Gambia, West Africa. As a class, we collectively brought copious supplies for a local school we would visit and during a 5-month stint on a gap year in Ghana, I collected and shipped tennis equipment to aid a sports project wishing to get more Ghanaian youths playing tennis. In future travels to Cambodia, I prepared educational donations in my luggage along with clothing that would just have been discarded and unused back in the UK, knowing that they would be much appreciated and made better use of by the Cambodian people. I feel if I am going to take the experience of a country away with me then if I am in a position to give back to the country and community I will through giving my time or by donations of supplies.

In October 2019, I decided to make a return to Africa, this time to Tanzania in the hope to tackle the extreme challenge of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro which I had wanted to attempt for a long time. Again, my ethos came back into play - if I was going to take away the experience of Kilimanjaro then I wanted to help give back something to the local people and I favoured aiding the education of the next generation of Tanzanian's in any small way I could. Why Travel and Kindness is the best thing the doctor can't prescribe

Whilst preparing for my trip, I gathered boxes of pen donations from my local Barclays bank branch and school exercise books from the UK Autumn 'Back to School' sales from WHSMITH. I had a generous amount on my checked luggage allowance and I totalled 7kg worth of school donations to fly out with me to Tanzania. I came to know about US based organisation Pack for a Purpose who encourage meaningful travel by using any excess luggage space to pack supplies needed by community projects around the world. In Tanzania, they listed the Mailisita Foundation supported by the Stella Maris Lodge who help fund a primary school and educational centre next door in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro. 

So with a bit of pre-arrangement before I arrived and with my face and lips sunburnt to a peeling red crisp from the harsh altitude of the mountain, I took the 6 mile journey out of Moshi to visit the lodge and hopefully get to hand over my donations to the Stella Maris Medium English Primary School.

Pulling into the school grounds, the cement skeleton of a proposed dining hall greeted me as I arrived at the lodge to meet Teddy, a very bubbly and gregarious Tanzanian lady who ran the lodge and gave me a really tight hug! She was so grateful to see me and with donations in tow, she took me across the red-copper gravel strewn grounds and up towards the U-shaped blocks of yellow washed walls and hooded green roofing of the school buildings. Each rectangle opening along the corridor of classroom doors looked identical to each other as Teddy picked the door leading into the book piled teachers room where I would meet the head mistress of the school. A short, older woman in a black sports jacked rose out of her wooden chair by Teddy's introduction in the expansive space of the room and shook my hand in gratitude as I emptied the bag of exercise books and pens for her to see.

I apologised for the plane journey bending and tattering some of the books but she did not mind, the thirty books would be greatly appreciated by whatever children out of the four hundred in the school who could continue their learning - just a simple exercise book and pens would enable a child to participate in further classroom teachings.  
  A young teacher Lucy was also in the teachers room, marking some books and offered to take me to see her class who she had left alone. We walked through the eerily silent corridor past painted illustrations of elephants and giraffes, the slight echoing of teachers voices getting louder as I exposed myself to the inside of the classes, catching the glimpses of hard working blue uniformed children. Their faces lit up in surprise and warmth to see the white face of a visitor (or in my case, a very red burnt one!) as I waved back at them. Lucy explained to me that the school relied 100% on funding from the Stella Maris Lodge and the kindness of visitors aiding them with donations of supplies in the school which gave orphaned and vulnerable children aged 6-14 years in the Mailisita village area, the opportunity of an education.

Upon seeing me enter the room, Lucy's class of over thirty aged children from 8 - 11 quickly changed from working in silence to suddenly rise out of their chairs to greet me in Swahili as I was introduced and told them I had just climbed to the top of Kilimanjaro, which I got a reverent round of applause for! Lucy then began chanting a song for them to sing for me in Swahili and ask me questions about myself and my life in England, with some very strange reactions to my answers!  As some of them stared mischievously and curiously at this beetroot faced woman with racoon eyes from England, I asked one of the little boys at the front of the class scratching his pen into his book what he wanted to be....

'A pilot' he answered with such conviction, and I urged the class to keep working hard to fulfil their life desires as they set to focusing back on their school work in silence - the discipline and work ethic was incredible with a real value and eagerness to learn.

Lucy then took me away from the class and we ducked in and out of other rooms with the slightly older children to say 'Jambo' and dodge out the way of running children being excused for a class time toilet break, them double taking and grinning at this strange visitor from a foreign land. Lucy walked me round through the half finished dining room, its cavernous belly underneath a huge roof of nesting birds and skittish lizards wiggling up the walls. It was a project in progress, still waiting on the flow of more funding to complete it piece by piece to provide a place for the children to eat lunch together and have assembly as opposed to their classroom desks.

There was a flag pole standing in the main grounds outside which would erect the Tanzanian flag in morning assemblies. Lucy told me the flag of Tanzanian incorporated four colours - green to represent the rich agricultural lands and peace of Tanzania, black for the unity of the Swahili people by their skin colour, gold for the countries rich mineral resources and blue to represent the Indian Ocean and the blessing of water sources like lakes and rivers that run through Tanzania. The very same colours that stand at the summit of Kilimanjaro.

We wondered around further into the cool shade from the fervently harsh afternoon sun and into a stifling outhouse where a single man stood stirring a giant spoon into two of the biggest and deepest silver pots I'd ever seen. Lucy asked him to show me the contents of the steaming pots dropped deep into a brick stove over a flickering fire and told me he was cooking the daily lunch of beans and mayonnaise for the 400 students, holding one big hunk of food clinging to the spoon. I couldn't imagine how many jars of mayonnaise or bags of beans that were needed to feed 400 students, but it did look appetising and the aroma swirled around the room as a baby toddler came padding in and laughing onto the concrete floor.

I had timed my visit to Stella Maris Primary School just right as mid afternoon meant lunch time for the students. As we walked back towards the pale yellow corridor of classrooms a young girl came bounding out onto the grounds and bashed on a steel drum, looking very similar to a thick hubcap of a car tyre suspended from an old swing frame.

Lucy kindly invited me to join her class for their daily serving of beans and mayonnaise. Of course, the dining room was still on their 'wish list' so back in her classroom the children sat jittery behind their desks as one student came in heaving a full yellow bucket, dripping with splodges of it beans and mayonnaise to the front. As she plunged a plate into the bean bucket, another girl who I assumed was on 'plate duty'  today was zipping up and down the rows of desks handing out the same flimsy foil-like plates to her classmates. Like picking a random lottery number, they cut across one by one in some sort of organised chaos to the front of the class to plunge their plates into the bucket and return to their desks to eat. Beans were everywhere!  I was told to take a seat up front at the teachers desk and got my own helping of beans and mayonnaise, feeling quite strange that the children sitting opposite me found it fascinating to watch a Westerner eating their daily lunch with them. It tasted pretty good! Taking mouthfuls of the seasoned beans and mayonnaise, I watched as more children noisily ran in and out of the classroom and admired how when one of the girls had too much on her plate, would go around adding more helpings of beans to her classmates plates to even the share out. How sweet! Caring and sharing seemed to be instilled in their school etiquette from this young age in East Africa.

Eating time didn't seem to last too long as the children abruptly jumped from their chairs and thrashed their empty plates back into the yellow bucket before it was carried out like a well-drilled military operation. Several of the kids were fascinated with my compact camera, with one little boy taking the act of snapping photos intently serious and I could see how he had the patient and intelligence to frame photographs (take a blank memory card - just in case little fingers go pressing something they don't mean to!). I stayed pre-occupied with the young girls who I helped draw the nine planets of the solar system onto their black board with an eroding thumb nail piece of white chalk - and actually got it wrong and was corrected!

I would spend my last hour of my visit in the library and office - with a photocopier, when the children's thirty minutes of praying in Swahili filled the air outside the door. Their melodic and obedient voices echoed reciting prayers repetitively as I looked around on the shelves filled with the abundance of donated games, reading books school supplies and murals on the wall - one reading from Dr. Seuss - 'The more you read, the more things you will know, the more that you learn, the more places you will go.'  along with painted sketches of different landmarks around the world running across the spaces of the walls. Education I saw in Africa, was encouraged to be seen as a cherished privilege and of great value for a life of more opportunity.

Lucy asked me if I wanted to help mark piles of her classes English grammar exercises they had just done in class. Of course! It was actually really fun marking them and realising how some of them scored perfect or above average with their grammar exercises (I was actually given the answers by Lucy to mark them right but still, some of them were flawless!) I marked their work on human rights exercises and admired how impressive it was that these young children, especially the girls, were being educated about their human rights in a third world country.

So, give back and Pack for a Purpose or buy supplies in-country if you can for a local project at your destination - you never know how a pen and exercise book could really help a child in Africa to still attend school and work on their dreams, even a future pilot to fly you there!

The Stella Maris Primary School benefits 100% from donations to the Mailisita Foundation and kind donations of school supplies from guests of the Stella Maris Lodge or visitors to Tanzania.   

Asante Sana and Hakuna Matata!

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