A photo reflection by Leilani Doktor

History, Our Story

“We were stolen against our will from our families, shackled, and then marched from deep within the interior of Tanzania to Zanzibar, where all the slaves were traded. To Tanzanians, caravan is a word that is sadly woven into our history.”

To me Caravan evokes the benign connotations of romanticized gypsies traversing Europe, but when the Education Officials used this explanation, it gave me a whole new understanding of my vocabulary. During the first week of June our Literacy Through Photography (LTP) group had the privilege of holding a two-day seminar with over 50 education officials from the Arusha district. On the second day we moved into our Alphabet Projects. Each group had been assigned a theme for which they would have to come up with one related word for each letter of the alphabet, and then photograph it. My group was given history as a theme, and I was brimming with excitement at the prospects for our alphabet. Until slowly, word by word, our alphabet revealed what period was on the forefront of these officials’ minds when they thought of history. Abolition, caravan, empire, harassment, slave; these were their first gut reaction words. After all their history lessons, it was slavery and the slave trade that they remembered best.

Following the initial instructions and themes, the LTP participants are allowed to pick any word they want for their alphabet. During our multiple alphabet projects I’ve noticed that the words the groups pick reveal more than just their understanding of a theme; they often reveal how those words/concepts affect their lives. In this case history evoked thoughts of the slave trade, a very dark part of Tanzanian history that haunts them to this day. Freedom within the LTP process is crucial, and specifically within the Alphabet Project freedom of choice in their words and expression allows the alphabet to reveal a groups true feelings about a theme. By giving a group the freedom of choice in their project, we can see a true reflection of their thoughts and their lives.

When we took the caravan photograph, I was most struck by the universality of the word. The officials gathered students to help act in the photo and as soon as they explained “we are taking a picture of a caravan”, the students picked up heavy logs, put them on their back and made pained expressions, with almost no direction. There was a relationship with their past that as a foreigner I may have been too scared to evoke, and I could sense a greater feeling of empathy. In their photo you can literally see the students and the officials, experiencing their history, and it takes that experience to internalize knowledge.

But in the end it was the empathy I was learning through this alphabet project that was striking. By letting me into their project, these officials had intentionally or unintentionally let me into their collective psyche. I could see how our personal vocabularies differed, and I gained so much knowledge about their culture from working with them. The project itself gave us a platform to discuss current issues in Tanzania and sensitive parts of culture that I may have shied away from. Most of all, it put a face on history, so that anyone who saw our alphabet knew that history isn’t just our past that’s ended, but it is still our story.

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