The name they chose for their school

The name they chose for their school

Last week began with another email from Malawi and when I saw the pictures of all of their bricks – they now have more than 70,000 made! – I said to myself that nothing the whole week, no matter how good, was ever going to top that! I was thrilled off the charts. The only bad thing about starting out the week at the mountain top is that everything from then on looks like you’re going downhill!

And down hill indeed things did go.

Our trip to the northern regions of Tanzania was rapidly turning into a disappointment. We were returning, nearly two years after our initial visit, to a village called Soko near Moshi. We were coming back to see their “progress” – which would have been fine, except there wasn’t much progress at all. All I could think of as I walked with them was how Paul had written to the Galatians to tell them that they had started out so very well and now he was wondering who had come and bewitched them and sent them veering off course. I got my answer. Seems that things had started out actually quite well, but then someone came and promised them a school – a school that someone would just build for them, one that wouldn’t require any work on their part at all. That is pretty much standard up in those parts around Mt. Kilimanjaro where we jokingly say that if you turn over a rock you’ll find another benefactor or another charity organization full of people who are willing to do things for people. My only question was why they had even invited us to come back! Turns out that after all of these months the promise of a free school just wasn’t going to be, and so they were back to Plan A – the plan in which all we promise people is hard work and lots of suffering – but the plan in which in the end they themselves have built a school for their own kids. Part of me was pretty angry with the whole world of wonderful benefactors who know so very little of this continent and parachute in for a few days, make promises and then leave white elephants littered all over the continent, projects that start and then die, projects that rob people of their initiative and dignity, projects that hurt far more than they help. Sometimes I really wish someone would just gently shake them and say don’t you see the great potential that is in people, why won’t you just live with them and work with them and see all that they can do for themselves, why do you keep wasting your money and leaving behind so little to show for it. Part of me was angry with the people in the village for their poor choice. Part of me was just disappointed. Two years wasted down the drain with more and more kids from the village lost who would never go to school now. It just seemed like such a waste.

But in the end, how can one be angry with benefactors who, even if they act in ignorance and do more harm than good, do indeed mean well. How can one be angry with people who choose a hand-out over hard work – after all isn’t it a lot easier. And what really was the point of being disappointed, since it accomplishes nothing. I just stared at the pictures of all of those 70,000 bricks people were making in the little village of Mbembesha down in Malawi. Looking at those pictures cheered me up. I wanted to show them the pictures of the bricks that people had made down in Malawi, but I resisted the temptation. It would just be rubbing their noses in it. They wouldn’t rejoice in someone else’s success; they would resent their success, and they would look for excuses as to why those people had succeeded and they had failed. It was best to simply be silent. I left their village disappointed. The odds that those people will ever have a school are quite frankly really poor. It had taken us two days travel to get there, and all the way we were expecting to see great things and so we were planning out our next move, who we would send to the village to work with them to turn all of their bricks and stones into classrooms. Boy were we wrong and we had agonized over plans that we didn’t have to worry about now. There were almost no bricks, very few stones, no sand, not enough for even a single classroom. My only consolation was that it was better to know the truth than to keep on deluding ourselves.

As we drove away, I said to myself that that things were probably only going to get worse. The next place we were headed to had been dormant – so dormant that after the meeting we had with those people in 2011 we didn’t even put them on our list of places where we thought something would happen. And for more than a year, we heard not a peep from them. When they asked us to come to “encourage people” we decided that since we were traveling all the way up north, why not just swing by and make a second stop. Seemed reasonable, but the “swing by” was a joke – it was a whole day’s travel, the roads near the end were bad, and in my mind I wondered why we had ever agreed to visit them again. As we drove closer and closer to the village I remembered more and more of the details of our original trip there. This wasn’t the poorest area of Tanzania I had ever visited, but it no doubt was painfully close. And I didn’t remember any great, overwhelming sense of enthusiasm for building the school after our first visit. I had that sinking feeling and braced myself for another disappointment.

And then suddenly as we travelled down that road, there we could see bricks and sand and stones and even gravel. Mountains of it. Well hills of it, small hills of it, but when you were expecting to see nothing, they really seemed to be mountains. Why didn’t you tell us all that you were doing? You told us to call you when we had finished the work. I guess they took us literally and so all of these many months they had simply been quiet. Quietly working. Quietly working very hard.

Based on the pictures of all of the bricks I’ve seen, I have no doubt that there will soon be students studying at a new school in the neighboring country of Malawi. And there’s also no doubt in my mind that there’s going to be very soon a new school in the small village of Dotina in the middle of nowhere in the region of Manyara right here in Tanzania. I’ll have to go in and add school projects #33 and #34 on the website ( to reflect that new reality. Actually there is no new reality – the reality has been there – I just didn’t know fully what was going on! We’ll be going back to Dotina in not too many weeks, and we’ll be going back to Malawi in not very many weeks as well. We have said over and over to people in every village where we go that if you run, we will run with you, if you walk, we will walk with you, and if you sit down and stare at the sky, we will also sit down and stare at the sky with you. The initial seed was planted years ago in Malawi, and years ago in the hearts of people in the village of Dotina as well. Truly lovely to see things sprout.

I don’t know how much everyone in the meeting knew about Jesus, but I talked to them mostly about Thomas. The great disciple Thomas! Sometimes he’s my favorite. People don’t remember him like Matthew or John because our Bibles don’t have any books that he wrote. But I like Thomas and so I enjoyed telling them about him. For Thomas, it didn’t matter how many people came running breathlessly to say that they had seen Jesus alive after He was dead and that He had been resurrected out of the tomb where he had been buried. Thomas wasn’t bashful about saying that simply wouldn’t believe until he touched the nail prints in Jesus’ hands. And that was when someone had the great idea that we all walk back to the site – and so we all walked back – Godfrey, Emmanueli and I in front with the village leaders and with the mob of people following behind us. I touched the bricks and everyone laughed. I climbed the hills of sand. I stood amazed at the gravel (the stones that they had pounded into smaller stones). There were indeed tens of thousands of bricks. I wondered how it was possible because you can’t make bricks without water. Well it was easier they told me to carry the water from afar than to make the bricks where there was water and then later on to have to carry the heavy bricks. I marveled as I imagined the countless buckets of water that women must have carried from some far off place to bring there to pour into the dirt so that people could turn it all into bricks. I had never heard of people carrying that much water -- what a sight it must have been. There were no cameras to record it all, but the images will hopefully be engraved in the minds of those kids who will remember how much their mothers and their fathers sacrificed so that they would one day get to go to school.

They named their school, the school that hasn’t been built yet, the school that awaits to rise from the empty field filled today with piles of stones and bricks. The name they chose? “Gidagwajeda“. It means the place where children eat. I was greatly puzzled. Why that name? I think they saw the look on my face. The land was empty and dry, nothing could ever grow in this place, and surely no one was going to be eating there. It made no sense at all to me.

They will eat education here and through them then we will all be fed.

How silly of me to have ever thought that my explanation of why it would be worth them building a school hadn’t gotten through to them. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They proved it with their hard work, painstakingly and silently done, for months and months. And they proved it with the name they chose for their school.