Coming to America–reflecting on a photograph from Tetra Primary School, by Anne Rhett


Coming to America

If only shaking hands with the President were this easy…

This photo was taken by standard three students at Tetra Academy, a private school in Arusha. And in case it wasn’t clear, the man in the tie on the left is President Barack Hussein Obama. Or at least that’s what the students would have you believe.

This photo was made as part of an LTP project we called “Going on Safari”—safari being the Swahili word for “trip.” Using digital cameras—novelties that proved a thrill in themselves—the students were asked to depict an international trip as exotic as their imaginations would allow.

We started with a simple example: our DukeEngage trip to Tanzania. We explained how we prepared, how we packed, what we hoped to experience here and what we hoped to take with us when we left. In turn, we asked them to envision a trip of their own to any country of their choosing. By a landslide show of hands, my group decided we were going to America.

“What,” I asked, “might one do in America?”

Why, meet Obama, of course! This was first on the to-do list, precluding any and all alternative leanings. What about baseball games? The Statue of Liberty? DisneyWorld? They could all wait, it was decided.

And so we set off, cameras in hand, to find an Obama within the walls of the Tetra playground.

The selection process that ensued was anything but democratic: after a bout of squeals and scuffles, Frank Jr., the tallest boy in the class, took the honors.

Having found an Obama, the students set off to find his headquarters: “It must be a white house!”one proclaimed.

Soon enough our Barack impersonator was stationed in between two glaring white walls, Tetra’s very own makeshift Pennsylvania Avenue. But something was still amiss.

“Wait, wait,” take my tie! A classmate begged before ripping it from around her neck,“Obama must wear a tie in America!”

At last the elements were in place and the other children mobbed Frank Jr. as if he were the real deal. The pictures were priceless.

This episode was not only endearing, but flat out eye-opening.

I could hardly believe the enthusiasm with which the students greeted the concept of visiting America, let alone fathom the large wealth of knowledge they each retained about our political leader. Before my arrival, I barely knew the name of the Tanzanian President.

I’ve heard it said that Americans reside in a “fishbowl”—only conscious of the beautiful colors within their safe habitat and unable to see what goes on outside of it– oblivious to the entire world peering in on them. The more time I spend in Tanzania, the more I become conscious of the place America occupies in the world’s eye.

I have always thought myself very lucky to be a citizen of a nation known as a land of endless opportunity. Slowly, I am seeing that it is also an enormous pressure, and that even American plenty is not without bounds.

As I packed up the cameras and prepared to leave Tetra that day, I was bombarded with questions from excited students. “When are we coming home with you?” they wanted to know, “When can we meet the President?”

It broke my heart to have to explain that I could not afford to take them all home with me, and that the trip would remain an imaginary one until, perhaps, the establishment of a TetraEngage program.

“You can meet my president as soon as I can meet your President!” I retorted, hoping to deflect the inevitable disappointment.

But in that moment of disenchantment, I felt a small flutter of relief, as if a dose of reality had found its way into the conversation. That despite the fact that Americans came bearing fancy toys and teaching strange concepts, we were ordinary citizens.

I hope the work we do here will effect both our DukeEngage team and those we instruct in that very way: revealing commonality and leaving us, ever so briefly, neither fish nor spectators.