I know I should just go to bed, but Godfrey & Emmanueli are driving tonight coming back from their long two weeks in the Rukwa region, and the part of me that is like a dad wants to wait up and make sure that they make it home safely. I’ve had such a wonderful evening, such an inspirational evening, and a part of me also just doesn’t want the evening to end. My phone has kept pinging with the incoming messages from around the country here ever since I wrote to all of our schools to tell them the wonderful news of what has been going on down in the Rukwa valley far in the west of the country. Justin had written to tell me that they have over the past two weeks visited a total of 29 villages, sometimes holding town meetings, in all cases speaking to the students at the primary schools, everywhere going with the message that this year, this special year, this year above all other years, we want every kid – every boy, every girl – the kids who pass, those who don’t – those with parents, those whose parents have already died – those who have been dreaming all along of going to secondary school, and those who only now have had that hope planted in them – we want them all to come to school. I close my eyes and I see images of Justin standing tall above those crowds, speaking the way he does with passion and authority and boldness.
All of this was the culmination of weeks and weeks of agonizing discussions as we tried to figure out what God would have us do about that isolated valley. Truth be told, everywhere our schools are pretty much bursting at the seams, but not over there in Rukwa. Everywhere our scholarship program has worked and we have met our targets of having at least half of the students in every school be girls, but not over there in Rukwa. Everywhere our schools lead to the creation of other daughter schools as parents clamor in nearby villages for schools for their kids, but not over there in Rukwa. Instead, six years after we first started that school at Nankanga, we felt when we talked about it in June as if we had failed. Of course we haven’t really failed. The school has been built. And every kid, and especially every girl, is a victory. And yet, and yet it’s just not possible to be satisfied when we are so far from achieving there what is clearly happening everywhere else. And so we agonized about it, and prayed about it, and argued and discussed about it, and out of all that, there was born the idea of doing something tremendously audacious. Justin mapped out the entire valley and said he would go to speak in each and every village from one end to the other. The headmaster from Madisi was willing to go with him. We had a great teacher from Madisi (one of our best really) who was not only willing to go on the trip to all of those villages, but also he was ready to move there and tell the kids he was going to stay and teach them science. I was stunned when I heard that. And then the idea was born to ask Sara, one of our most energetic missionaries, to move from her school to that valley, to travel around yes, but then also to stay, and to tell those kids everywhere she was staying, that she was committed to teaching them. And to all of that, we would add Suzi.
Now Suzi was special.
Special in that, in all of our years here in Tanzania, I’ve never had someone after we offered them a job look so tremendously disappointed. I’ll never forget that day in our office at Madisi, when we told her that out of those who had just come from the university that she was one who we had chosen to work with us. She almost looked like she was going to cry. And I didn’t know what to say. Why had she come for the interview, why had she gone through all of the practice lessons to show us she could teach, why had she filled out all of the forms, if she wasn’t going to thank us and be happy for the job? Since when do people apply and then end up sad when they get accepted? I was so puzzled I didn’t know what to say, and before I could figure out how to ask her what was wrong, she had already hurriedly left our office. It was a couple of hours later that Justin came to see us to tell us that one of the teachers was very unhappy, and Godfrey and Emmanueli and I knew right away it had to be Suzi. We called for her to come so we could hear her out. When you came to my university to speak I heard you invite us to be a part of changing the world. You made an appeal to those of us who were female to give of ourselves to make sure that girls in the poorest most remotest of villages at least got the chance to go to school. Your voice rose telling us that you believed that this was a mission from God, and then those of us who believed that God wanted something done for the poorest of the poor in the remotest of the remote villages, that we should stand up and do something. And although I’ve never been to Rukwa, I had heard of that region and I knew when you spoke of those villages in Rukwa that that was where I wanted to go, where God wanted me to go, to the really hard place, the place where girls weren’t getting to go to school. And instead you have chosen to send me to a school right here in Iringa, to a school with over 600 students where more than half of them are girls. That is not why I came to join you. I believed you. And now I’m disappointed and sad. I can teach anywhere, but this isn’t what burned in my heart that day you spoke at my university …
Goodness! Dear Suzi brought tears to my eyes and it was an easy decision to send her to the Katunda school in the Rukwa region and to tell her that after a couple of months there we would contact her because maybe we would have something even bigger for her to do. She went to Katunda with joy, she loved her students, she did a great job, and every single report we had about her from everyone was glowing and good. And that was when we got the idea to call her and ask her if she wanted to be the Headmistress at the school way down in the Rukwa valley. She hesitated only momentarily. This was her dream! And so there she was a part of the team.
And indeed they went to 29 schools in 29 villages from one end of the valley to the other, just as Justin had originally proposed. And today they rested. And late this afternoon Justin wrote to tell me that already eleven students had come to sign up and to pay their school fees – six boys and five girls. And it was for him the beginning of the flood that he was sure was coming. They were coming from near and they were coming from far. And they could rest finally this day, knowing that students were coming.
And so earlier tonight I sent out a long 420 character message (we can do that here) to all of the phones of all of our headmasters, of those who were laboring to build new classrooms, of drivers of all of our trucks. I wanted to tell them of the tremendous news of what was beginning to stir in the Rukwa valley. And for the last four hours the messages have been coming in – some to simply congratulate, some to praise God, some to say nice things about Justin and Suzi and Sara – but many also to share the secrets of what they had been doing these past weeks in the villages around their schools. Chris wrote to tell me that he had gone with two of his students and three of his teachers to visit all of the fishing villages along the shores of Lake Tanganyika, and all of the villages inland, and that they had spoken to 563 students face to face, and that it was his students, he said, who spoke boldly and encouraged them all to come. Sunday and his students have gone already to eleven primary schools …. Itikavu and her students to nine … Kabonge had gone on his bike and had signed up more than a hundred students … message after message, woven together, created for me a wonderful image of something wonderful that was happening. And this Friday, when our students finish their exams and get a week’s vacation, in school after school, those kids will be traveling in pairs, in teams for 4 and 5, going to their home villages to spread the word and sign up students. I keep hearing the ping of my phone with new messages coming in and I don’t want the night to end!
Here I am sitting now in the dark – it’s nearly midnight and the generator has long ago gone off – and I’m relishing thinking about what an incredible group of people we are working with. They aren’t puppets out there in these schools, waiting for Godfrey or Emmanueli to tell them what to do. They are out there with their students and their teachers taking initiative, doing things that thrill me, traveling around, visiting schools, telling the kids we want them to come, telling them that we believe that every kid is important and we don’t want anyone to be left out. No one is paying them to do this. No one is ordering them to do it. It’s not part of their job descriptions as teachers and headmasters. There’s no extra anything in it for them. Of course there’s nothing extra in it for Godfrey & Emmanueli, working so hard on this trip, driving home late at night after two hard weeks. I wonder what it would be like working here if Susan and I felt called to this and if, for everyone else, it was just a mere job. I don’t know if I could bear that.
Of all of the messages, it is one of Suzi’s that I will want to save and look back on years from now: God has many plans to do something good for the people of Rukwa especially for girls. He has given me this chance so I will try hard with my level best. It is hard in only a short text message to say volumes but Suzi has. It’s not a job for her. She calls it a chance; Paul in the New Testament calls it a privilege. I think how Susan always says how blessed we are – that God could have given this job to anyone at all and instead He chose us and He let us be here.
Godfrey and Emmanueli just called and they are less than an hour away. And Suzi just wrote again: “You just tell Mama the VST family of Nankanga we are doing fine and with the power of God we are going to win.” Boy she manages to pack a lot of theology into each of her little 140-character SMS messages. We’re not going to win because we’re the best, or because we’re going to try harder, or even because our cause is just and right and good. We’re going to win by the power of God! And now I can go to bed with confidence and with joy. Because we are indeed going to win. A couple of young people, one who just finished college, one from America, one who has a couple of years teaching under his belt. Toss in a couple of our students who are going to graduate in a few days and who are going to do go their internships there in Nankanga, arm them perhaps with the promises of scholarships for girls, a few laptop computers people donated, stir it all together and what do you have? Well, you have a bunch of dreamers fighting an impossible battle in one of the remotest parts of the country, where we haven’t managed after 6 years of work to make a dent yet, and who, in spite of all of their good efforts and good intentions, are probably objectively speaking doomed to failure. I know that. And any reasonable person knows that. You can’t change a whole people and a whole area just like that.
But in that mix we also have, as Suzi said, the power of God. And that’s why I can sit here with my confidence rising, knowing that Suzi is right, that we will indeed win.
Godfrey & Emmanueli are home now and I can go to bed in peace. And tomorrow we will sit together and I’ll share with them each of the messages in my phone and we’ll savor them all together.