Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Learning Experience

Once again, it’s been a while since the last update… but that just means there is even more to update you on.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been busy collecting footage for what I  hope will become some enlightning or at least interesting documentaries.  It’s been an eye opening and at times heart wrenching experience for me, and that’s saying a lot considering I’ve been coming to East Africa for the last 8 years.  I like to think I’m pretty used to living in Tanzania and don’t get too shaken by anything any more.  Things that others might be amazed by are just everyday events for me.  I also used to think I’m pretty hearty.  I can carry heavy cement bricks with boys in the village.  I can carry 20L of water on my head with the mamas (alright, so they do it with out hands and without spilling but we both make it to the end).   However, yesterday, I met my match and it broke my heart. 

So, one of the documentaries I’m making is based on the viral video we made last year called ThirdWorld Problems Read by First World People.” If you haven’t seen it, definitely check it out!   For the documentary, I decided to take five of the problems from the video and show actual people who live with those specific problems and how they confront them.  I interviewed them and then followed them around as they completed daily activities.  Most of them are good friends of mine and it was really interesting to get to know them on an even deeper level.  One of the problems from the video is “I hate it when I have to walk 10km to school each way.”  Watching the video, you might think this is an exaggeration, but I assure you it is not.  15 year old Beata does precisely that, five days a week.  Yesterday, she agreed to let me follow her around for a day and even after living here for over 8 years, the experience was more overwhelming than I ever could have imagined.

So, let me take you through our day.

I woke up at 4am to pack up my camera gear and be at her house for 5am.  I biked to her house without seeing another human being, just me, a couple of stray dogs and millions of stars.  I got there for 5am and she was already awake and getting ready.  She had a quick shower under the stars using a small bucket and probably much less than 5L of water.  She got all dressed in her school uniform, grabbed her notebooks and with a full bags and empty bellies (yup, not a bite of food or a drop of water for either of us), we were out the door.  The time was 549am.  There is something not right about starting your day before the sun starts hers, but off we went.  Her older sister joined us for the first 20 minutes and then turned off and carried on to her school which is only about 5km away.  We kept walking.  After 20 minutes on the main paved road, we turned off down a dirt road to get to her school.  The school is right beside where our old land was so it is a route I’m familiar with.. but on my bike, not on foot.   As we turned on to the dust road we said good bye to the stars and the sun, the hot sweaty sun, joined us for the rest of the journey.  

We walked, we chatted, we laughed, we walked some more.  Then we walked some more.  We were passed by some students on bikes and some other walkers joined us along the way.  We arrived at school at 806am.  In case you forgot, we left the house at 549am.  As we arrived, all the students were lined up outside for the morning announcements.  We joined the line, listened to the announcements and then all students headed inside.  We had barely sat down, only to be called outside again.  Apparently, completely unbeknownst to me, we had arrived late and therefore we were punished.  PUNISHED!  Off we marched to see the head teacher to hear our fate.  After being counted off, all the late students were handed a slasher (a long piece of metal used for cutting grass) and sent out to the field to be assigned a location to cut grass.  

I  was lost for words!  Or rather, I wasn’t, I had tons of words to say… but it didn’t matter what I had to say because nothing was going to help!  It didn’t matter that we got up at 5am.  It didn’t matter that we left the house in the dark.  It didn’t matter we walked over 2 hours to get there.  Students are expected to arrive at 700am and we arrived at 806am.  I honestly wanted to scream… “this is not fair!” It made me think of all the times I heard students back home say “it’s not fair!” If only they knew!  Beata in stuck in an impossible situation!  There is no way that she can walk to school and make it there for 7am.  It would mean walking up at 4am and leaving at 5am and that’s just not safe.  No parent would allow their 15 year old daughter to leave the house at 5am.  There are thieves, rapists, bad guys, boogey monsters and if that is not bad enough, there are hyenas.  It’s just not possible!  So that means, every morning, during her 2 hour walk to school, Beata knows that at the end of the road, there is a punishment waiting for her.  Sometimes it is cutting grass, sometimes it is carrying water, sometimes it is going to the neighbouring farms and gathering manure (that’s the polite way of saying picking up cow dung), sometimes it is making mud bricks by hand, and sometimes it just a straight up, good old fashion caning.  Every morning, Beata gets punished, the only variable lies in the type of punishment.  IT’S NOT FAIR! I experienced it one day and was outraged, but Beata, at 15, just looked at me and said in her quiet, innocent voice, “it’s ok, I’m used to it.”   

So, she was assigned her location to cut and was sent back to class with the rest of the late students, many of whom had walked many kilometres just to get there.  The grass cutting would be done later in the day so they did not miss out on their studies. Back in the class, Beata got out her notebooks and began reading her notes.  It was the first day back after a week of mid-term holidays and teachers were still getting ready so the students did independent study in the classroom.  That’s my polite way of saying not a single teacher made it to class to teach!

At 1040am, the students got a break and Beata picked up for slasher and headed out to the field to get her punishment over.  In her left hand, she was tightly holding a piece of material.  I asked her what she was holding, turns out it was some candies I had given her at the start of the journey.  She explained that if she left them in the classroom, they would be eaten.  For the 20 minute break, candies tight in one hand, a slasher in the other, she cut away at the long, dry, thorny grass in the hot sun while other students rested in the shade or the lucky ones bought tea, bananas or candies to ward off some of the hunger pains.  At 11am, Beata returned to class for more independent study as still not a single teacher had come to teach.  

At 230pm, the students gathered for the closing ceremonies and then we began our walk home, up hill, in the blazing afternoon sun!  We left school at 240pm.   We walked, we talked with classmates, we practiced our multiplications, we laughed, we walked in silence, we sweated, and we kept walking.  We got to Kisesa at 443pm.  Our bellies were still empty, our mouths parched, and now our backs were nice and sweaty.  For my own sake, we stopped at a shop to get some cold water, some sodas and a few biscuits to tide us over for the last 15 minutes of the walk to her house.  By the time we reached the door, the sun was already setting in the distance and there was less than 12 hours until Beata would be awake for the start of a new day.
Her mom met us at the door.  Beata got changed out of her school clothes and we sat down to some tea, rice and a few pieces of meat.  (likely cooked because of me, which makes me feel a more than a little guilty).  We ate, and chatted with her mom is who an absolutely wonderful lady and who, at 38, looks not a day over 30 despite having three kids, the old who is 22 and already has a four year old and a 1 year old.  After eating, Beata went outside to wash dishes and play with her niece and nephew.  She still had to wash some clothes and then head to bed, hopefully before 9pm.

I took my bike and on tired legs, biked back to town… still overwhelmed… and sat down to just reflect on the day.  It was honestly beyond what I had imagined the day would be.  Walking over four hours only to be punished for something that is out of your control….

While at the school, I talked to the teacher handing out the punishment and tried to explain to him what Beata had gone through just to get to school.  He said he understood her situation as when he started teaching at the school, he was biking 20k each way to get there.  The problem is work needs to be done and there certainly is not a budget to hire a groundsman or a janitor.  There is not a budget for books so groundsmen is definitely low on the priority list.  So, as a result, the students are required to do the work… and the students who unfortunately cannot comply with the rules, carry the brunt of the load.  His explanation did not make me feel any better... if anything just more discouraged.  He explained that many of the students that live closer to the school drop out early on as they and their parents have yet to see the value in getting an education and prefer to continue working on the farm.     

The problem is so complex, that there is no easier answer, no easy solution.  The government cannot afford to build enough schools to accommodate all the students or for that matter, maintain the schools that are already built.  The teachers are paid low wages which means they do not see teaching as a career but simply a way to put food on the table and as a result, many do not have the necessary education or the motivation to teach the future generation.  The parents cannot afford to send their kids to private schools so they need to rely on the government schools which, as I already explained, are few and far between.  All of this leads to high drop out rates which means the future generation is uneducated and unable to develop the country.  Another huge issue is the high pregnancy rates.  Many of the young students are being approached by male, either students or males in the community and being offered money or gifts, in return for sex... and when you are walking 4 hours on an empty belly, you are definitely prone to make decisions would not make on fresh legs and a full belly.  It is hard to see the hope in the situation… to believe that things will get better.    

So, basically that was my day yesterday.  It was a lot to take in.  Like I said at the start, I used to think I was somewhat hearty, but Beata put me to shame.  And to think, she is doing that five days a week, for the next four years.  So, it is only a band-aid to a larger problem, but I am buying Beata a bike today.  I know there are tons of students like her out there and many who live in worse situations and likely some who walk even farther.. and I know I cannot help all of them and I know the problem lies deeper than a simple bike.. but at least one bike can help one student..  and who knows what that can lead to! I have to believe there is hope either wise I am not sure how I will get up in the morning.

So, that was just one of the five people featured in the short documentary.  I’ll be screening the documentary on Saturday, November. 30th at beautiful West End Cultural Centre in Winnipeg, MB as part of LISTEN LOCAL! GROW GLOBAL!, the 4th annual benefit concert in support of GO!.  If you are in the area, please come check it out.  The night will also feature Jesse Lewis an amazing HYPNOTIST whose sole job is mesmerize your friends and convince them to donate all their money to GO! (just joking..maybe), amazing musical acts including emerging artist, 18 year old Elsa Kaka, and a second short documentary that shows how Tanzanians are taking what would otherwise be considered garbage and with a little creativity and ingenuity making long-lasting, amazing products!  And of course, as always, we will have awesome raffle prizes to be won!! If you have been at the concerts in the past you know that it is a great night and as always, all the money goes to support a good cause!  Tickets are $20 in advance, $23 at the door and this year, there are group rates! Why not get your team mates, co-workers, friends, and family together to celebrate the holidays while support a great cause! Buy 10 tickets and get one freeBuy 25 tickets and get 5 free! 

Hope everyone is doing well! I'm back on Oct. 23 and look forward to catching up!