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Too Old To Change?

Chapter VII: Teaching and Learning in Tanzania

By Jenifer NimPublished 19 days ago 6 min read
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Too Old To Change?
Photo by K15 Photos on Unsplash

So, there I was in September 2019, having left my job, broken up with my boyfriend, ended my apartment lease, moved all the things I own into my parents’ attic, and given up the goal shooter position in my netball team. I had totally abandoned my former life, without being too dramatic about it, and was heading to Africa for the adventure of a lifetime.

I had been so nervous in the months up to quitting, but on my way to the airport I felt nothing but excitement and elation. I played George Michael’s Freedom over and over again on the tube to Heathrow to remind me of the day I handed in my resignation and that song came on at lunch, the sheer euphoria of that moment. I was free! I felt wild and liberated and alive. I had no responsibilities and no ties. I would never be this young and free again.

But I was feeling realistic about the whole thing. I was 28 years old. I had travelled before, lived abroad, had two different careers and succeeded in both of them. I was not a young person starting out in life. I was not going soul-searching, or to “find myself” or “discover who I am.” I knew who I was. I had finished growing and changing. I was already the person I was meant to be, and the person I was going to be for the rest of my life. I was old now and set in my ways. I was at the end of my evolution. I would have a few months living it up, and then I would go back and get another office job in London.

Or so I thought.

***

From the minute I stepped through the door at Lifted Strong, I felt the power. The atmosphere was infectious and inescapable – a place of hope and joy and love that reached into your heart, grabbed hold, and didn’t let go.

About a dozen women of various ages were sitting chatting and chopping vegetables in a sparsely furnished room, painted bright purple. There was a whiteboard on one wall, a few photos tacked onto the far one, some desks and chairs arranged in a horseshoe shape. On the other side of the room was a shelf stacked with tubs and tubs of brightly coloured beads, strings, metal clasps, some notebooks and pencils.

Light streamed in through the two big windows and the open door. You could see the leaves of the banana trees that surrounded the small rectangular brick building, and you could hear the chickens clucking in the coop in the front yard. It was absolutely beautiful.

“Hello! I’m Nissi!” said a very tall lady in a vibrant patterned blue dress and headwrap, and she gave me a hug so powerful it just about lifted me off my feet.

“I’m Jenifer,” I squeaked out, nervous and feeling out of place.

“Karibuni! Karibuni sana! That’s Kiswahili for welcome!” She laughed, a huge, contagious laugh that instantly made me feel at home, and then she put her arm around my shoulders and steered me around the room, introducing all the Mamas.

***

When I had signed up to teach English at Lifted Strong, a local Tanzanian NGO that helped women with HIV, I suppose I was looking for a good time. I was hoping for an interesting experience, an enjoyable trip, a way to do something useful during my unemployment and perhaps reclaim a little bit of my soul that had been slowly starting to wither in the corporate world.

I liked that I didn’t have to start until 11 AM. I was happy that I could finish just after lunch and have most of the afternoon free. I was keen on the idea that it was a place for women to hang out with women and help each other. Girls just wanna have fun, after all. Little did I know what I was in for.

I worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life. I worked morning, afternoon, and night. And worse, nobody asked me to do it! Even worse than that, I cared about it deeply! My whole life I had actively and explicitly tried to leave work at the door and have as little emotional investment as possible. But Lifted Strong made me care. I used every skill I possessed and developed the ones that I didn’t. I became a leader, an organiser, a mentor to new arrivals, a mother figure in the volunteer house. I even went on social media for a few weeks, to my horror.

As a young child I was timid, quiet and afraid to speak. I never talked in class, and was even embarrassed to speak in front of a large group of friends, or on holidays when extended family came to visit. At Lifted Strong, I stood in front of a room of women and taught English! In a monthly meeting for local volunteers, I stood up and made a presentation!

Money was up for grabs and I made a bid for it to be used in the Mama Kuku programme, which aimed to give each Mama a coop and some chickens. To my immense surprise, I was awarded the cash. Other volunteers even came to me afterwards and offered money they had raised separately from their people back home.

Even more surprisingly, my connection with the Lifted Strong Mamas made me the sort of mother of the volunteer house. I organised beading workshops put on by the creative Mamas and cooking classes given by the culinary Mamas, went around the volunteer houses persuading people to sign up, and then twice a week gathered my little troop of students and led them to the Lifted Strong house.

I also arranged the clothing that volunteers wanted hand-made by the seamstress Mamas, and escorted people to the markets to buy fabric. Somehow this extended to me welcoming new arrivals, answering their questions, helping them use the daladala (minibus), showing them around town… Only two weeks had been enough to overcome my lifelong aversion to leadership.

***

A month flew by, and before I knew it, it was time to leave. I was devastated. It seems strange to say, but I felt so at home in the community by then. When you see people every day, and you are all there, voluntarily, no obligations, just bonded by love and sistership and the desire to help, you feel as if you have been there for 5 minutes and 5 years at the same time.

I had never been around such an inspirational bunch of people before, and it deeply affected me. Eva and Joyce, who had founded the NGO, both had jobs and families but managed to run this organisation and paid the rent on the building. Nissi and Elizabeth, who volunteered every day to translate from English to Swahili during the health, business, and English classes that we gave. All the Mamas, who had such difficult lives, but took the time to learn new skills and work together. Mama Zion especially impressed me. She was around 70 years old, had already lived a long life, but told me, “You’re never too old to learn and grow.”

***

On my last day, the Mamas made me a delicious Tanzanian curry lunch and a cake, and we all ate together around the tables where we had been learning English just before. We listened to music and sang and danced, Pendo doing her famous twerking to whoops and cheers from the other Mamas.

When it was time to leave, I hugged each of the Mamas tightly, and every one of them said merrily, “Thank you, Teacher!” And I suddenly knew: This is it. This is what I want to do. I want to be a teacher.

The Mamas. Photo by Jenifer Nim

female travelMemoir
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About the Creator

Jenifer Nim

I’ve got a head full of stories and a hard drive full of photos; I thought it was time to start putting them somewhere.

I haven’t written anything for many, many years. Please be kind! 🙏

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Comments (3)

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  • Esala Gunathilake19 days ago

    Collaborating with people is a wow experience.

  • Hannah Mooreabout a month ago

    What a fantastic experience!

  • L.C. Schäfer9 months ago

    When you find your passion, talking to a group of people does get a lot easier doesn't it 😁

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