“I love my friend,” Amani blurted out as her group was trying to come up with additional words that started with the letter “I”. The group looked to me for approval, but I was daydreaming about lions at the time. When I zoned back in to the students again, the picture had already been taken and they were all crowding around the camera. Still sort of daydreaming I said “Oh, that’s sweet of you to say,” when she repeated herself. She then put the camera in my face and repeated once more, “I, as in ‘I love my friend.'” “Nzuri sana”, I said to her with a smile. Very good. “I love my friends too,” I added without realizing the future impact of my statement. Objectively, it was a good picture – both girls were smiling, the lighting was good, and there were not many background distractions. But what I failed to recognize until later was this – the students I was working with grew up in a different country, were a part of a different culture, went through a different schooling system, had different names, ate different foods, and wore different clothes. But the concept of friendship was the same.
Amani had only been at Meru School for the current school year as she had transferred from a private, English standard school. In a maximum of 8 months, it seemed as if she had befriended everyone in her class. She knew all their names, smiled at them, and even hugged some of them to greet them. It was very clear that she respected her friends, and they respected her too. And regardless of all the differences between me and her, I feel the same way about my friends as she does about hers.
In a simple and kind statement and photograph, Amani helped open up a brand new web of understanding in my head. Some people may misperceive our Duke Engage journey as a sort of charity work, as if this summer is about “going to Africa to help children who have nothing”. These people are so wrong it hurts. We are in Tanzania providing teachers and students with an additional teaching or learning method that fosters creativity and original thinking. When a student has to gets to think about how to capture “friendship” or “police” or “elephant” in a picture without being directly told how or without handcuffs or without actual elephants, the imagination blossoms beautifully. I have gotten to see Amani’s kindness at Meru School, another student’s creativity at School of St. Jude when he made handcuffs from scotch tape and a robber’s mask from a blank sheet of paper, and another student’s laughter at Arusha School as he was pretending to be an elephant. So, to all of those people I mentioned earlier, listen up. These students have more than you or I could ever imagine.