Sitting in a spacious, with and blue brick room, I gazed around me at a full (for once) class and found myself wondering what I could do to make them fall in love with the English language. Oh, the delights of Shakespeare, the wonder of Chaucer and the wit of Bill Bryson! I came here under the (somewhat naïve) impression that the kids of Kongowe would be eager to fall under the spell of English, grasping at its magic with out-stretched hands. All I saw were faces in palms, fingers digging into empty plastic porridge cups in primary colours and disgruntled looks that apparently belong to teenagers everywhere. Nice to know that some things are universal.
My tired eyes flicked to the quad; an old rusty car part hanging from a tree which definitely belongs in the Lion King to be used as a school bell, two halved and bloodied snakes that had been attacked and stoned by the older boys and three girls dancing in a way that only African women can, booties shaking in ways unimaginable. I was at a push to keep my class from joining them. Surrounded by walls covered in graffiti and barred windows, Waamuzi Secondary School is much better off than most schools in Tanzania, parents paying a hefty sum every term to keep their kids in school. They still didn’t want to learn.
Ears picking up the word ‘mzungu’ and eyes homing in on hormonal teenagers’ lewd grins, I remember feeling overwhelmed and slightly threatened - many of the students being older and much bigger than my 19 year-old self. White girl must teach now. And be completely and utterly ignored. To be honest, I wanted to cry. I had before. One of the students that was apparently so desperate for education told me he hated white people, threw me against the wall and destroyed me with the loathing in his eyes. The Head Master just asked me if I’d teach again tomorrow. I was yearning to make some sort of impact, however little. I wanted to be one of those people that comes back older and wiser, telling tales to wide-eyed listeners about how they had been fulfilled, enlightened and no longer in search of themselves. I wanted to come back boasting dreadlocks, a tropical disease or two, and leg hair an inch long. Well, the last one I did manage. Enlightened? Not a chance. I’d been living on rice and beans twice per day, hadn’t been to the toilet for a month and my class hated me. I wanted a Big Mac and a flushing bog.
Clearing my throat, I announce: "Right. I’d like you sitting on chairs, not desks. Books out, pens out. You knew you had a lesson so you must have a pen. And paper. C’mon. Time to learn some Shakespeare!" I fell in love with the Bard and only then fell in love with English. Perhaps this would be that magical nudge they need?
I start talking, spinning the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet. Who could not be moved by such a story? Walking around the room, I make sure my eyes connect with every student. At the first mention of conflict and battle the shuffling subsides, the whispers die down. I had them. Slowly I turn back to my desk and see what I considered to be the most amazing thing I had seen in my three months abroad. Girls leaning closer to me to hear, boys quietening down so I could speak in breaths. As I retold the final scene, the final heart-wrenching scene, I notice that there is not a dry eye in the class. Girls looking horrified and young men subdued. They could not believe something so catastrophic, appalling, horrendous could happen! One girl exclaimed "Madam! That is so awful! That is true love!" The entire class nodded solemnly in agreement and when I asked them to turn to their task in creating their own story, they bowed their heads and got to work, inspired by Shakespeare, love and loss. It was beautiful. These kids, young adults, now wanted to learn. I was so moved that I suddenly felt whole. This is what I had come for. That one moment of clarity. That connection with my class that all teachers long to have. Classes with Form 4 were very different from that day on, and I loved every beautiful moment.