When I was arranging our late February trip to Tanzania I told our Borton Travel agent that I wanted to include some time to get to know the people more intimately than through the car windshield. She said there was an orphanage about half an hour’s drive from Arusha, Peace House Africa, which encouraged vacationers to volunteer there for one to a few days. That’s unusual, she said, because schools generally prefer a longer stay.
“It’s based in Eden Prairie,” she said.
Well, what more encouragement did I need?
So there I was several weeks later standing in front of a class of about 35 high-school-aged students, all dressed in red sweaters, white shirts and brown pants or skirts. I could see from their eyes that five or six were distracted, but the rest were hanging on every word, spoken in English, not their native Swahili.
Their questions were in-depth and intriguing: What was the purpose of my work? Who had supported me in my studies when I was their age? Had my society improved? Was I married? Do I have children? How did I do research?
Much to my surprise, the kids, the poorest of the poor in a country where 35 percent of the budget is foreign aid, were Google- and even WikiLeaks-savvy, thanks to donated laptops.
When we began an exercise in creative writing, I showed them an Entertainment Weekly magazine cover then asked them to make up a scenario about what was going on in the picture. They spit out great ideas. The person driving the car was about to have an accident. The passenger was trying to wrestle away the steering wheel, so he wanted to drive away. Others in the car were excited, scared, laughing. I wrote their answers on the dry board.
Then we did the exercise again. I urged them come up with a different scenario. It took some prodding, but eventually they put together a different tale to go with the same picture. Again, I wrote the answers on the board.
A hand shot up from a boy who had asked many of the questions.
“So you’re saying that you can make up a story from anything, right?”
Yes, I shouted, fists pumped in the air.
When class was over many kids lingered, asking more questions, lining up to take my card. One wanted to take the Entertainment Weekly cover I had used.
Later I learned that many of the volunteers at Peace House are connected to Minnesota, such as Julien Olson, who graduated last spring from Southwest High School in Minneapolis.
When I visited, Olson was three weeks into a four-month stint at the school. He helps kids with their English and works in the garden, where 80 percent of the school’s vegetables are grown. At the time he was working on a spreadsheet for the garden. Olson said the Peace House kids are hard-working, studying constantly, sometimes even waking in the middle of the night to study.
“This is smart bunch of kids,” he said. “Sometimes they treat me like a teacher, but I say, ‘You’re older than I am. Let’s just learn together.’ “
Judith Yates Borger’s next Skeeter Hughes mystery is available on line through Amazon.com Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook. It will be published in paper in the fall by Nodin Press.