Week Three Letter Home: An Overview and Reflection on “Signals, not noise,” by Helen Liu

“If you could hear this photograph, what would it sound like, smell like…?”

Invoking the five senses is one of my favorite LTP questions to toss out. The students always look at me like I’m a crazy person at first, but soon they’re excitedly discussing various sounds and not being scared to say something silly.


So, what are the five senses like for this third week of DukeEngage Arusha?

  River Pangani


Blue-green – for the never-ending sky and trees. Scarlet for kangas on the street. Magenta for rouge on a mwalimu’s cheeks – opaque in the sunlight, which lit Pangani alive, so bright that even dust shimmered like diamonds. I hearthe constant thunder of waves, the crisp chirping of birds hiding among thick leaves, and the bubbly giggles of children towing their pet crabs on string leashes. The smells of gasoline and coconuts are in the air. To our surprise, we’re lucky enough to taste a few – fresh off the tree! Everything is humidity and heat, combined to make a thick blanket of butter melting over the top of the land, sizzling into our skin.


We spent this last week teaching LTP workshops to both walimu and wanafunzi, teachers and students. After brilliant navigating by Kassim and Bakari, our loveable drivers, we’ve touched ground at both Tanga and Pangani, eight hours on the road each way. We worked with the teachers to create vocabulary related to the Oman-Pangani slave trade, posters relevant to the subjects they taught, word clouds based on example photographs, and more. As for the students, we learned about reading photographs and self-portraits through photography, complete with pictures of students doing everything from beatboxing to playing football (soccer). See photos below for examples.


  Emily and Pangani teachers taking photographs for the vocabulary word “coconuts”,  which were carried by slaves during the Arab slave trade.





 DukeEngagers with students after our workshop.


In addition to LTP workshops, we had the privilege of participating in several local activities. We visited the Pangani education ministry, where the woman in charge spoke about her work in the education field both in Pangani and in Denver, Colorado, where she worked with FastTrack Kids. We also learned about the slave trade from hundreds of years ago, where free men in Pangani and the surrounding region were captured and taken to Oman via the Indian Ocean. Finally, we experimented with beautiful henna patterns and spent our evenings along the Pangani River and Indian Ocean, where I spent equal amounts of time losing in various sports to other beach-goers, accidentally swallowing sea water, and being wowed by the sea’s inhabitants – tiny orange crabs, multi-colored sea dollars, and purple seaweed so thick that it’s an ocean of its own.


River Pangani.


What stands out most from this week to me, however, is a very specific group of walimu. In Tanga, fellow Duke student Nate and I worked with five geography and civics teachers. One of them was a feisty woman – young, well-groomed, and the designated group writer. She was relentless in her questions about LTP. It turns out, she was uncertain about the costs, its similarity to drawing, the lack of resources in local schools, and the time commitment compared with just lecturing at her students. At first I was intimidated with being interrogated, but I soon realized that her fervor showed not only skepticism, but also hope and curiosity and dedication to her students. Being interrogated also forced me to truly put my thoughts together on why LTP is so valuable. Having to defend it gave me a better perspective on how it looks from the eyes of the walimu and what points we need to emphasize – the higher level of understanding and application it enforces, the creativity it fosters, and the interactivity with students. The walimu’s uncertainty reminds us of just how new, how foreign of a method it is to teachers here. We still have a ways to go – but I think all of us knew that.


Uncertain doesn’t mean bad, however. Back to the five senses question – specifically, the sense of hearing. On our way back to Arusha, I spent my hours buried in a book on uncertainty and its necessity to creating something original and worthwhile. The author says that the point is to create “signals, not noise”. It occurs to me how much of education, here and elsewhere, sadly just feels like creating noise. I remember zoning out during high school classes, trying to avoid monitoring the clock’s ever-so-slow travels. Noise. Students at Duke in large lecture halls blindly scribbling notes or gossiping with friends – noise. Wanafunzi here responding to questions from “Where is the photographer standing?” to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “Yes” – noise.

Only a slight exaggeration of my primary school experience. 


Nevertheless, perhaps the few signals we transmit are strong enough to last past DukeEngage summers. This week, a few teachers inquire curiously about the costs of LTP equipment, hoping to be able to use them in their classrooms – a signal. Some students get extremely creative with their photos, defending a football goal from an imaginary player – a signal. 


  Teachers taking a photograph to represent “Reunion” during an activity focused on the slave trade.


Throughout our weeks, there’s always lots of ups and downs in terms of how successful we feel with LTP. But perhaps when we’re doing something uncertain (read: something original and worthwhile), we have to create quite a bit of noise for every signal. But I think that’s worth it. And I hope, if we could hear it, that’s what this week sounded like.

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