Only in superlatives

Only in superlatives

Obviously teaching is important, but in Village Schools Tanzania what is really important to us often takes place outside of the classroom. Each of the 84 people who have come to serve with us over the past five years have brought their own unique contribution to the work we are doing, impacting their students and their students' families in unique ways. Becky has lived now for almost two years in the little village of Mpwapwa, and like so many of our missionary teachers, when I think of her and what she has done in the village where she has lived, I think only in superlatives. You'll know why I feel that way when you read something she wrote recently to thank a group of her friends in America who collected a bunch of art supplies for her to use at her school. You'll also know why there are a lot of people in that little village who are going to miss her terribly when she returns to America to start her graduate studies ...

Artists are supposed to have good background stories, for the sake of scholars later critiquing their work. Especially for those of you who sent me art supplies, I want to tell one.

I met Edwin through his mother. She and some little ones were sitting around a bucket of peanuts when she called me over. We sat, shelling peanuts, snacking, and chatting. The kids had gotten tired at the farm, so they had come back early, she said.

“I’m Mama Edwin,” she told me as I looked around for the first child, “But Edwin is big now.” She was the mother of seven, she said, but illness had struck their family. The second child got sick, then the third, and left their mother with a family of five. Then the fourth came down with it, and they were four, and then Mom was sick as well. They sold their cows, their worldly possessions, to pay the medical bills.

Edwin, meanwhile, passed his primary school government exams with top marks and was one of the few chosen to attend the local government school. The family bought his school supplies and paid half of the secondary school fees. In June, however, they couldn’t finish off the second half. Edwin came home. He helped on the farm, made bricks, and prepared to look for a wife—at the age of 17.

Money’s no reason to stay away from school. There’s plenty of work to do, I told her, if Edwin wanted to try studying again. So the next day Edwin was in our living room, looking for work. He was the first one to register for the intensive English course and the first one at school on the first day. He didn’t miss a single day those first months—he came for the day-long classes, afternoon sports, and evening prep time. He started speaking English.

In November he missed school for the first time. His family was happy to see me when I stopped by their house in the evening. Edwin, had who been sick and sleeping, came out and sat with us. His mother joked with the children and told me about them. The twelve-year-old has a dog that helps him catch birds. He stopped primary school and no one can convince him to go back again. This next one is the only girl, so all the boys would one day look up to her as their sister.

The youngest boy, tired from that day’s long walk, leaned against his mother’s side as she stirred ugali over the fire. “Do you see,” Edwin’s mother said, “I have a family.” In her warm packed-earth floor kitchen, over a meal of greens and hand-ground maize ugali, I could easily see that.

Edwin returned to school shortly after. In December he placed first in his class. Christmas break, he helped me with office work in return for school fees. His dad drank away his uniform money. Edwin had cultivated beans and sent his dad to sell them in the valley, in hopes of buying his uniform. Dad hadn’t come back, and reports said the money was gone. So Edwin then followed me around preparing my garden, to earn his uniform. One day he borrowed my markers and I saw I’d found an artist.

Something wasn’t right, though. Rumors said Edwin’s relatives were thieves. Edwin himself was joking about other plans. His uncle said they’d go to the city and work as mechanics. Dad wanted him to get married. School started in January and Edwin didn’t show up until the third day. He was late. In class he called out and laughed at the other students’ mistakes.

One day, a young teacher on internship saw him coming to school—late again. “Run,” the teacher said, but Edwin slowed down. “Kneel down,” he said when Edwin reached him, but Edwin only stood. “Do this punishment,” the teacher said, and Edwin ran. Through the tall grass behind the school, he performed two somersaults, and then completed his sprint across the field to the village. To a life of pubs and endless games of checkers.

We didn’t see him for several days. One day, I saw him in a loud game of checkers with a bunch of government school drop-outs. Other teachers advised me to help the good students instead of the troublesome ones. Jesus didn’t walk with good people, I internally protested. He walked with tax collectors and prostitutes, and taught them better.

The next week, Edwin was in our living room again. He had scared, sorry eyes and asked if I’d heard. I replied with a nice long speech about respecting teachers and school rules. I must have asked him five times if he wanted to study. Yes, he wanted to study. He didn’t know what had gotten into him, maybe Satan? You made a choice, I told him. God gives us choices and he had chosen a bad one.

The next day Edwin was at school again and took the punishment he had previously refused. Then for three months he sat respectfully in class, proving he really did want to study.

Now he follows me around again, but this time with a paintbrush instead of a hoe. Artists, after all, belong in studios more than in gardens, unless they’re painting them.