In the village that has decided not to give up

In the village that has decided not to give up

I haven't sat down to write even once since the new year began. Part of that has simply been that I can say in all sincerity that I haven't had really a quiet moment to collect my thoughts and to sit down at the computer and write. We went straight from the Christmas festivities to a leadership retreat with nearly 50 of our headmasters and project managers. Then another team of missionaries arrived from America, and Godfrey, Emmanueli and I have been concentrating on office work these past two weeks. And to be honest, part of the reason I haven't written is that it's really hard to get excited about writing about filing receipts and making beautifully ordered reports!

But Godfrey and I decided that we had no choice but to take a break from it all and make a trip yesterday far away to the village of Kimala to visit our school there. We had to go because sometimes you have news that you just have to take in person -- there are times in life when it just isn't right to send someone else to be the bearer of news. It was nearly two weeks ago that school inspectors had gone with Godfrey to Kimala and their report and their recommendations effectively closed off all hope of registering and accrediting our school this year. Now, we are always willing to fight it out with the inspectors when we know we're in the right, but this time they really were in the right, and we truly did not have a leg to stand on. The school simply wasn't far enough along in its building program to merit getting registered. And that would mean that our students at that school would not be allowed to take the national exams. So we all made the trip to Kimala -- me, Godfrey, Emmanueli and Ntula. There was no one to blame: those people had worked very hard, and the students had worked even harder. But the sheer geography of their village -- totally built on ridges high up in the mountains -- meant that everything that had to be done to build a school was simply harder, took more time, and while they had put their whole hearts into the task, they had come up short. Nothing anyone could say or do can change the fact that it is objectively speaking harder to build in their village than anywhere else where we are building in Tanzania. Every stone has to be carried further, every bucket of sand has to be brought up the steep hillsides, and while Fenet did make one rather heroic trip with the truck, the truth is that we can't really help those people by letting them use our trucks because it's just too dangerous. I felt like I was taking word to people that someone had died and I almost wanted to cry with them. It was pretty silent when Godfrey and I had finished speaking.

We had no good options to present to them. They could either move their kids to another school that is already registered -- our closest school is in the village of Kising'a and we gave them that option for those who would want to do that. Or students could agree to repeat the 8th grade, work hard to build and register the school and then everyone could start the 9th grade next year and take the exams then. Neither option was a good option. But sometimes in life, there are no good options. And to add to the distress of the day, the inspectors had also disallowed the name that the parents had chosen for their school -- and we told them that they could either fight for the name (and probably lose) or else accept the decision and choose another name.

Once the shock of the news had worn off, there were lots of questions, lots of statements, lots of people thinking aloud and trying to express what they were feeling...

This means I'll have to pay school fees for an extra year, for seven years instead of six years for my son to finish his studies. As people noted, however, your kid could study ten years here in our village for less than it would cost you to send your kid for even one year to the city, not to mention that he'd never pass there because none of us could afford to send our kids to any of the really good schools, and who knows what trouble he'd get into if you sent him far away at such a young age.

You mean we don't even have the right to name our own school that we have built with our own hands? It does not seem just for someone sitting in an office who has never made a brick to tell us we can't name our school whatever we want. Does someone tell me what name I can or cannot give to my own child? It's painful telling people that the world is the way the world is and that it won't possibly change until their kids go to school and get educated and can stand up and defend their rights.

My husband left me years ago and I don't even know if he is living or dead and I am trying to do everything I can to send my daughter to school so that she will have a chance in life, but I can't afford to send her far away to Kising'a because how will she live there and what will she eat? What is someone like me supposed to do? She's young and I don't want to send her away. Sometimes when you have no answers, it's best to just stand in silence and say nothing. So we just stood there.

The silence in the room didn't end until an old woman stood up. I have no questions, I only want to speak to the students who I'm sure are discouraged and to say do not be discouraged because there is nothing to be gained by dropping out of school. And to everyone in the village I also say that I don't want us to be discouraged and to stop building the school thinking that it is useless to work hard. What is useless is giving up. What is useless is to stop building. What I want to know is exactly how many more buildings we have to build and what exactly the inspectors have told us that we must do and then for us to begin right now to do what they asked and more than what they asked so that we give them no excuse next year to not register our school. All I want to say is that this is not the time to be discouraged. This is the time for work. This is the time for very hard work.

I smiled. I think everyone thought I was smiling because of the good words she had spoken. And I was. But I was also smiling because I found myself thinking of really how silly I can be sometimes. I had agonized the whole way to Kimala about how I was going to break this news to these people and I prayed that God would give me the words to speak, that He would make Godfrey even more eloquent than usual, that we would somehow have the right words to say. But God didn't choose to give the right words to me, nor even to Godfrey. Instead He gave them to an old woman, who I'm just guessing never went to school, never took a speech class. And yet she had cut through the fog of everything, her words were filled neither with blame nor with apology, she lashed out at no one -- she just made us all sit there and listen to the wise words of an old woman. There really wasn't much more that needed to be said.

But there was one really good thing that I did have to say to everyone! And that was that I had to tell them that out of the six new missionary teachers who had just come from America and who will finish up their two weeks of training Saturday, that we had made the decision to send one of them to their village. That was something to cheer and be happy about! But I reminded them that when she begins the long journey to go to their village that she will ride first in a VST car on the paved road from Mafinga to Iringa as Emmaneuli drives her on the first leg of her long journey. And then they will meet up with Justin in Iringa and he'll have a vehicle ready there to take her on the mud road from Iringa all the way to Kidabaga. When she is riding on the paved road and then on that first mud road she will probably not get discouraged. But after she gets to Kidabaga the roads are too bad for anyone to want to come to bring their car no matter how much we would offer to pay them. But we have made arrangments with the hospital for her to be driven in the ambulance from Kidabaga all the way to their village of Kimala. But what if as she sees the horrible ruts in the road, and the road gets very bad, and the mud gets to be too much, and the car gets a flat tire, and she is discouraged and weary and begins to doubt that she'll ever make it? What if she then tells the ambulance driver that she has had enough and that she can't go on? And before she ever gets to the village, she turns around. She will never get here to meet all of your children, to teach them in class, she will never get to visit you in your homes and learn what great people you are. She will never eat your food and know how generous you are. She'll never get to worship with you on Sunday and know what good people of God you are. All because she will have given up. That is the same if any student drops out right now because the road has gotten rough -- I say as the old woman has said -- don't give up. Keep on studying and finish school here or you will never know what it is like to go to the university. It is the same if you people in the village say that you have worked hard enough, and for long enough, and you're tired and you're discouraged and so you're going to give up -- so close and yet so very far -- and the school will never get finished and the buildings you have built will stand only as a monument to the fact that you tried and you failed, and for decades to come there still will be no place for your children to go to school. I repeated the words of the old woman: This is not the time to be discouraged. This is the time for work. This is the time for very hard work.

We got back home at two in the morning last night and it was hard to get going again this morning. But I was eager to go down to eat avocados and peanuts, sip some of our locally grown tea, and tell our six missionary teachers about the old woman in the village of Kimala. I don't know which one of our missionaries is going to get to go to that village. Part of me wishes I weren't who I am and that I were twenty years younger and that this was my first time to Africa and that I was going to get to be the one to go to that village, to be the very first missionary to ever live in that village, to be welcomed by that crowd of people, to let them allow me to be a part of educating their kids, and building their school, and seeing change come to their village. I'm not the one going to Kimala, but as that very first missionary teacher goes to that village, in a very real way, we're all going to that village as well. To all of you who have prayed for open doors, those of you who have given of your funds, all who have helped this ministry in one way or another, we're only days away from the day that missionary teacher walks into those classrooms for the very first time. In the village that has decided to not give up.