Mwalimu or mwanafunzi? A reflection by Kirstie Jeffrey


Mwalimu or Mwanafunzi? Teacher or student?

I stepped off of the plane in Africa as a twenty year old Duke student who had only taught in one class, on one subject, in one Durham school for less than five months. Before my travels people were extremely curious and constantly asking me the purpose of my journey to Tanzania. I would reply that I was going to teach visual literacy in a number of schools in Arusha. It was challenging trying to explain what exactly Literacy Through Photography was yet it was more of a challenge to say how I was qualified to go and teach in a foreign country. I had never formally taught any academic subject before my travels this summer and my title was most definitely ‘student.’ Needless to say I felt slightly intimidated by starting our LTP lectures in teacher workshops. I was explaining a method to adults over twice my age, many of whom have been teaching for years. In what way was I qualified to teach them? Many fellow DukeEngage students felt discouraged as the power dynamic of respect, age and teaching were played with.

Yet the feelings of insecurity did not stop at the teacher workshops. We moved into the primary schools to work with children, an area in which we all felt slightly more confident, until we discovered that Swahili was one of the subjects we would be teaching. Seeing as how we had only been lectured on Swahili for a sum total of ten days we thought, “How the hell are we supposed to teach Swahili to Tanzanian children? Should we really be teaching this?” In spite of our doubts, the Swahili proverbs lesson was one of the best and most creative projects we have done yet. As time progressed we stumbled along the lesson plans exposing our strengths and weaknesses in various topics such as Geography, English, Math, Science and Social Studies. There were challenging moments of returning to our ancient knowledge bases of forest and flower reproduction. We had to specifically define a proper noun and answer humiliating questions like, “Are there wolves in a Boreal Forest?” Not only the children gained useful knowledge, we did too. We all learned about the subjects and ourselves through teaching. The most rewarding thing was seeing a kid laugh at their photograph or correctly explain what they just learned to a fellow student. I don’t always feel like I’m getting through to the children, but I can see that they’re always having fun—which, arguably, is just as important as what they retain.

We are by no means experts in the subjects in which were are asked to teach, nor are we veteran teachers, but I implore you to consider what you remember about your favorite teacher. Was it their education level or their knowledge base? Was it their age? Was it the lessons you learned and the grade you received? Or was something more? A wisdom and expertise that reached you on more than just a factual level? When I asked my fellow Duke Engagers what they remembered about their favorite teachers, most of the responses boiled down to their personal relationships and teachers’ involvement with the students’ personal lives, a commitment to the individual not the subject.

I think it is a blessing being a student-teacher because it makes us more relatable to the students. They look up to us in a very informal way that allows them to be expressive, creative and open to new ideas. The children view us as rock stars—I quite literally autographed some girls arm the other day. They want to impress us so they work hard and participate in almost every subject. We are not agents of power and threat but older kids that just want to share and listen.

Furthermore, I have been taught invaluable things from mentors, friends, coaches and family members who cannot be technically classified as formal teachers. One instance of this in Africa was from my first night in my home stay. Once the family had returned from church I was immediately helping in the kitchen and talking about heritage with Mama Brenda. We got into a discussion of hair as Mama Brenda told me her little boy Bryce asked God to bless him with “straight non-African hair.” During this same conversation, as I let down my hair to show its length, Mama Brenda proceeded to rip off her wig and throw it down to the ground where it was retrieved by little six-year-old Beverly. For the next two hours I was led on a tour of the same one story house by this little angel wearing her mother’s hair piece. As we reached an area containing a pitcher of water and two glasses Beverly explained, “This is for drinking or for guests or whoever. No one really in particular. If you come in you can drink or not. That’s Africa.” The wisdom in this little girl floored me. Some of the things she said were t so wise and considerate, I had to stop and consider how much I can genuinely learn from this six- year-old girl. I suggested she rest from our rigorous tour she said, “No, I have to show you things so you can learn to do them yourself and so you can know everything while you’re here.” For the first three hours of my stay with only Julius (the father) in the house we watched soccer and did not leave the living room. But after meeting Beverly I know what type of jewelry her mother has, what is in their pantry and how to set their dinner table. I guess the term mwalimu (teacher) is broader than I thought. We can all learn things from various teachers if we keep our eyes and minds open. We just need to redefine what a “teacher” actually is.

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