A Brief Connection

In Journeys
A reflection of my time working at a local school in Moshi, Tanzania.

The bus rattles over the potholes and stones in the dirt road before turning into the school’s main quad, which is nothing but a large expanse of dry, baked, orange land. Concrete walls of bare-boned classrooms limit the dirt courtyard. Faded, sun-drenched orange paint peels from these concrete slabs, exposing nicks in the walls from years of exposure to weather and vivacious children. The corrugated tin panels or thatched dead foliage used for roofing make the whole configuration appear structurally unreliable. Rectangular holes are cut out of the concrete to form windows where the incessant Tanzanian sun provides the only source of light in the classrooms. Horizontal bars, crisscrossed garden fence wire, or wire mesh stretch across the holes, casting shadows against the children within the enclosures.

Horizontal bars, crisscrossed garden fence wire, or wire mesh stretch across the holes, casting shadows against the children within the enclosures.
Horizontal bars, crisscrossed garden fence wire, or wire mesh stretch across the holes, casting shadows against the children within the enclosures.

I am here with a group of students from my high school on a service trip. Our task is to build desks and therefore help provide a more productive learning environment for the local students. A secondary objective is to engage with the children and make friends with them. For the past couple of days, however, they have mostly only ogled at the sight of us foreigners doing physical labor to help their school. Any interaction with them today, which is our last day working at the school, is highly unlikely. After the bus trudges to a halt, I climb out of our 1960’s model, Japanese-imported bus onto the solid dry earth and feel the eyes of children on me as they scrutinize my every move. Thankfully, they’ll at least wait until the end of class to watch and appraise us as we work on their school. I gaze into the barred rooms once more, then turn my back on them as my service group stands ready for instructions, focused on the work we have ahead of us.

“Alright guys!” my instructor says with an accompanying enthusiastic clap. “Let’s get to work sanding the new desktops. We need to have them ready for staining by the next group that comes to help.”

My instructor points us in the direction of our temporary workstation next to the scraggly vegetation near the school’s entrance. It provides no coverage from the power of the sun, so the already blazing morning sky illuminates our work for the rest of the school to see. I grab a small block of wood and sandpaper, and get to work sanding the nearest wooden plank. We all grasp our blocks wrapped in sandpaper with moist, perspiring gloved hands. Our backs arch over the work tables. We breathe shallow breaths through the face masks that are intended to prevent us from inhaling the carcinogenic sawdust we generate.

We all grasp our blocks wrapped in sandpaper with moist, perspiring gloved hands. Our backs arch over the work tables. We breathe shallow breaths through the face masks that are intended to prevent us from inhaling the carcinogenic sawdust we generate.
We all grasp our blocks wrapped in sandpaper with moist, perspiring gloved hands. Our backs arch over the work tables. We breathe shallow breaths through the face masks that are intended to prevent us from inhaling the carcinogenic sawdust we generate.

After a while my arms begin to sting with the exertion of rubbing plank after plank of wood. My sweat-infused t-shirt clings to my back while I wipe my upper lip of the sweat and dust it has accumulated even through the mask. The eyes of several students still in class are on our working bodies, absorbing and embedding every detail of the rare scene before them into their memory. One thing is for sure: even if the the desks we are building deteriorate, the memory of our sweaty, grimy faces and bodies working to make this school a better place will live on in the minds of these watching children.

Eventually a bunch of us sanding the desks decide to take a break from the heat and strain. I remove my sweat-ridden hands from the work gloves and grab my water bottle off the concrete step beside me. I take my spot next to my fellow workers, and we chat in English about the weather and what else the day has in store.

I reach for my water bottle for another swig, and see three young school girls whispering to one another, while their eyes glance quickly in our direction. They are about ten feet away from me, closer than the students usually are, so I offer them a small reserved smile. To my surprise, all three of them return the gesture. Their smiles are much toothier than mine, and stretch to their young eyes. I can’t help but broaden my smile into a full grin as I turn back to my bottle. I peek back at them, and they still look in my direction.

My first instinct is to look away again, but something holds my gaze. Maybe it’s the shock of the unusual occurrence. Maybe it’s the sparkle of curiosity in their eyes as all three of them steadily meet my gaze. Whatever it is, my eyes don’t wander, and, to my surprise, I wave at the girls.

Their smiles grow even larger as they turn away from me and whisper to one another. As if I hadn’t just foolishly waved at three schoolchildren, I stand and hurriedly return my bottle to its place in the shade. I straighten from placing it on the ground, and turn to find the girls rapidly approaching me. They come to a halt just over a foot in front of me, and with those same toothy smiles, say with thick accents, “Hallo.”

“H-hi there,” I stutter out, taken aback by this development.

They giggle. Is my stutter that funny?

“Jambo,” I add with more certainty, which is Swahili for ‘hello.’ This incites outright laughter as the girls step back and then forward again, wringing their hands with nervous excitement.

“Hallo. How ah you?” the most confident one of them asks with a beautiful, strong voice. Even after she speaks herself, she giggles. I guess my earlier mess-up isn’t behind their laughter.

“I’m good, thank you.” My Swahili unfortunately does not extend that far, so I reply in English. “I am very hot.” I wave my hand frantically in front of my face as a fan, and the girls continue to laugh and smile. I can’t help but smile too. These young children, not even ten years old, are attempting to communicate with a foreigner in a completely different language from their own. And we are communicating successfully, which is something I never thought would happen.

As I lower my hand back down to my side, the girl closest to me on my right takes hold of it. Her callused palm is gentle as she flips my hand over and asks, “What is it?”

My eyebrows scrunch in confusion.

“My hand? Oh! You mean what is it called, I see. This is a hand. Hand,” I explain the English translation, flexing my hand to show. They nod and smile.

“Mkono,” the one holding my hand says as she taps my palm.

“Mkono,” I repeat, unconsciously nodding my head. I stare at her hand still holding mine and embed the word into my own memory.

The girl closest to my left reaches out and puts her finger to my elbow.

“What is it?” she inquires as well.

“Elbow.” And this continues for several minutes. I am asked what my ear is called, along with how to say hair, nose, eyes, and face. The girl to my left slides her hand from my elbow to my hand as well. Neither girl at my sides lets go of my hand. Instead their grasps shift so they are holding hands with me. Like the Tanzanian tradition of shaking hands while engaging in conversation, these girls hold my hands while we interact in order to stay connected. It’s a wonderful connection that leaves my heart warm with joy.

Their smiles are much toothier than mine, and stretch to their young eyes. I can’t help but broaden my smile into a full grin as I turn back to my bottle.
Their smiles are much toothier than mine, and stretch to their young eyes. I can’t help but broaden my smile into a full grin as I turn back to my bottle.

I have to get back to work though, so I eventually remove my hands from the girls’ firm grasps, smiling and grinning the whole time. I’ll see them at my next break, I assure them and myself. They remain standing close by as they watch me return to my post at the sanding table.

Squeals and yells suddenly fill the dry, empty air as the rest of the children emerge from the stolid rooms, escaping into the open sunshine as they run out onto the dirt quad. Some run off to play football in the space in front of the four concrete stalls that are the toilets, kicking up small clouds of dust to show where they’ve been. But some notice our group, the pale foreigners laboring over school furniture out in the open, and sidle closer to watch this strange spectacle. They sit on the concrete step up to the classrooms, swinging their short legs against the artificial earth. They squat on the ground a few feet from our makeshift workshop, squinting against the sun at our now dust-covered sanding arms. They hover in clusters with their friends near enough to us so that we hear them whisper to one another, giggle, and smile in our direction. Tens of eyes stare intensely at our gloved hands working the wooden planks, their eyelids stretched open to their max, but more eyes rest on our pale faces; the faces with blond or brown hair tied back against the heat; the faces with light blue or brown eyes, scrunched against the sun; the faces that enjoy looking up from their work to smile at the curious gathering of young minds.

These children only look at first. They are too shy to approach the strangers.

After a long while, a child actually does approach the pair of students working next to me, their young eyes magnetized to the working hands. Their chin tucks into their neck, cautious in their approach, while their teeth clamp down on the tip of their finger. They stand in front of the pair, watching with sparkling eyes the strange masked figures in front of them. No words escape their lips, but their lingering hand on the end of the plank strokes the now smooth surface.

“Do you want to give it a try? It’s a lot easier than it looks. Here, why don’t you use mine?” One of the foreign students sanding extends her block and sandpaper towards the hand that pets the plank. The child’s eyes move from the block to the scrunched eyes of the smiling girl, then back to the block. They then scrunch too as a smile stretches across their face. The hovering hand reaches for the block and swiftly grabs it, running their fingers over the rough surface before sliding the sandpaper back and forth across the wood, mimicking our movements perfectly.

The child’s friends that just a moment ago hovered a few feet away now shuffle forward to peer with raised eyebrows and pursed lips over their friend’s shoulder. The partners immediately offer the kids their own sandpaper. Their smiles now reach all the way up to their eyebrows, and are mirrored on the kids faces as they eagerly take the sandpaper from the working students. My grinning head turns back to my own desktop, and it does a double-take; a huddle of children awaits my attention at the edge of my board as well, wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the scene before them. At the front of the group are the girls I talked with earlier.

“Do you want to help too?” I ask eagerly.

No response. Only the awed gazes and slightly open mouths answer me, reminding me of the language barrier. I hold out my block to the girls. I stare at it, and nod vigorously with extremely arched eyebrows towards the block, hoping they understand my meaning.

They nod enthusiastically in return, and before anyone else can take it, the girl who first held my hand grabs the block and starts energetically sanding.

“Here, let me get you guys some sandpaper too. Here you go. That’s right, just like that, back and forth across the wood. Yes, that’s wonderful!”

I yearn to interact with these kids who braved the strangers to help support their school. I remove my mask to communicate directly with these children. They hear the highness of my pitch as I encourage them in their work. They look back and forth between my full-fledged smiling face and the plank we are all working on, and increase their vigor in sanding the more enthusiastic my pitch gets. Five more children come to surround my plank of wood, while ten circle around the pair next to me. Wonderful childish curiosity draws many more to the workbenches, and soon there is a gathering of over fifty students working side by side with the foreigners. We work in tandem as a group, moving our arms across the wood in an unconsciously established rhythm. I nod without thinking. My cheeks hurt as the joy at having these new friends and making these children smile floods every being of my body and spills out from my beaming face.

Others from my group want to interact even more, but their Swahili is just as bad as mine. So from a few tables down I hear the sound of someone quietly singing a song in time to their moving arms: ‘Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)’ by Shakira, released specifically for the 2010 FIFA World Cup held in South Africa. One of the two only songs both communities might know and understand.

Tsamina mina eh eh

Waka waka eh eh

Tsamina mina zangalewa

This time for Africa!

I add my voice to that of the singing students, both local and foreign. I swing my hips to Shakira’s lyrics, sand in time to the song, and exaggerate my facial expressions as the words pour from my mouth. Some of my new friends join in quietly at first, then giggle at my overdramatized performance and sing louder, and match my exaggerated movements and enthusiasm. They swing their hips, bounce their knees, and move their blocks across the wood in time to the song, as we repeat the chorus time and time again because it is the only part of the song we all know.  

“Do you know the song ‘Jambo Bwana’? The welcome song? We can sing it with you!” Another student from my school group begins singing the other song we all understand. The words switch to a local Swahili song that is sung to welcome guests, and say thank you for coming and/or hosting the visitors.

Jambo! Jambo bwana!

Habari gani? Mzuri sana!

Wageni, mwakaribishwa!

Tanzania yetu, Hakuna matata!

Hello! Hello sir!

How are you? Very well!

Guests, you are welcome!

Our Tanzania, no worries!

On repeat, our movement stirs the usually still air around us by a breeze started by the moving bodies. It caresses my reddened neck, numbing the heat of the sun. I don’t feel the tickling from the continuous trickle of sweat down my spine and on my ribcage. My hands smothered in their thick gloves don’t feel suffocated as they scrub in time to the song. My parched mouth, wide and gaping in song, doesn’t long for the necessary water, but instead keeps moving, repeating the song countless times in order to connect with these dancing and helping children. Smiles bounce off one face to another as we all bond over this unexpected moment.


My heart physically aches as I watch the rapidly waving hands from behind their barred windows at the foreigners they won’t ever see again. I wave back at the running bodies traveling as fast as their small frames can carry them, trying to match the bus’ speed as it pulls out onto the dirt road. I keep my eyes locked on the three girls who I first met as they try to run next to the bus, but eventually they can’t keep up. As I lose sight of the girls, I switch my focus to a two-year-old and her slightly older sister as they run around their house to continue waving us off. Both sets of gleaming white teeth smile as the bus finally rumbles onto the main road, leaving the white teeth and laughter behind. I sag back into my old leather seat, stare up at the Bob Marley-covered ceiling of the bus, and embed the image of the smiles I saw today in my memory. One thing is for sure: if the only memory I have of Tanzania is that of the smiling children from today, they still will have left a mark on me. The smiles we were able to put on so many of those young and old faces will forever bring a smile to my own face. I had given them a memory, while they gave me an experience of a lifetime.

I had given them a memory, while they gave me an experience of a lifetime.
I had given them a memory, while they gave me an experience of a lifetime.

Submit a comment

css.php