Kiss Before Open, a letter home: week 5, by Katie Ellis

Strange title, you think? Not for the students of Arusha School. On a few lucky afternoons throughout our weeks here in Arusha, Tanzania, we DukeEngage students have been honored to receive notes of affection from our afterschool students on which are scribbled the words, “Kiss before open”. At first, we didn’t really know how to translate this into our college humor centered English dialogue. We didn’t know if it was a physical recognition of gratitude, like an unspoken thank you, that we should abide by or simply an unrecognized statement of endearment to serve as a precursor to what was inside. Now, with five weeks of experience working with the students of Arusha School after school, and after this past week working with them in their regular classrooms on LTP lessons, I think I’ve finally decoded it.


It’s been a rather dramatic week here amidst the standard LTP commotion we cause when entering schools. Without fail, our arrival always means an impromptu moving around of teachers’ schedules, and shaking up the usual classroom teaching techniques. This past Monday, we started our week by observing a standard 6 Math class at Arusha School. As soon as we walked in, we were greeted with uncontainable excitement from the class, particularly those students in our individual afterschool programs. We sat in the back and watched as a typical lesson in geometry unfolded in an efficient and uneventful fashion. Nothing to report here, I thought.


Next we decided to supplement the blackboard lesson with our own LTP take on math: “geometry of the face”. The students measured their face diameter from ear to ear and did the calculations to show the area of their faces, as if they were perfect circles. We took pictures of their faces with rulers to scale, and pasted them onto the paper with the calculations. Giggles could be heard from across the campus as each student received his or her picture and was allowed to draw a circle on top of a two-dimensional face.


Later, in the other Standard 6 class, we arranged word maps related to Tanzania’s cooperation with various countries around East Africa. The students conjured up some extremely relevant connections including barter trade, tourism and diplomacy to wrap up the afternoon.


We continued our lessons at Arusha school on Tuesday, with the Standard 5 classes, teaching about adjectives in English and animal environments in Science. As any faithful Biology major would, I leapt into the science lesson with energy and focus. Seeing kids act out different animals and interact as different species is one of my favorite ways of using LTP (which in this case can be interpreted as Learning Through Play rather than Pictures). To my dismay, the students in Standard 5 surpassed me with energy and fell below par with their own ability to focus. It was a hectic morning trying to get the students to adhere to the lesson plan, but some wonderful pictures and projects were produced nonetheless—along with some uncanny lion impressions. Though I was not present for the English lesson, Zuhura, one of my afterschool girls, met me later that day bright eyed and eager to tell me the story she made up in her 5A English class. All in all, Tuesday ended as a tired success.



Wednesday proved to be the turning point of week five. We spent the day with the Standard 3 classes working on their use of prepositions and comparisons in English. As can be expected from the youngest students of LTP, class 3A (where I stood on a chair attempting to govern the madness that unfolded below me) presented itself with ups and downs. It came to our attention that, contrary to our expectations, the Standard 3 students didn’t know what adjectives were, let alone how to compare them. After much aimless teaching, both comparisons and prepositions turned out to be well conveyed through games played outside in which students would run to, around, behind various objects and dance “slower” or “faster” or (to my dismay), “better” than me.


The week’s turning point came not in regards to LTP activities during the school day, but in terms of my own responsibilities as both a student and a teacher here in Arusha. My group of afterschool students came to Superstars (the name they chosen for our afterschool classes) ready to talk about injustices they’ve experienced. Working with a small, all-girls group, my hope has been that my students would talk openly—even about topics otherwise unaddressed in primary schools. I spent about a month trying to create a place where they can say, feel, and think anything, and employ a creative license on all the work we produce. Wednesday’s injustice lesson was proof that my group of girls can certainly say anything, and they feel absolutely everything.


Wednesday afternoon I became privy to some information that made me shudder and question the lens through which I’m seeing students and teachers in my time here. As our hour together unfolded, I felt like a trusted recipient of information they hadn’t shared before. Now let me confess; by the time this Wednesday came around, I had barely felt comfortable with the title ‘teacher.’ Suddenly, I was not only their respected teacher, but also their confidante with whom a secret rested. Inside the accustomed realm of my normal life, I can keep secrets. I can be trusted. That’s step one. What I was and still am struggling with is the next impending step, step two—the call to action. It’s a vague, grey area outlining my place in this matter. Do I capitalize on my title as teacher and launch into defense mode in order to help? Or do I fall into the shadows of my role as the constant mzungu outsider simply observing a different culture for a transient time period soon to expire?


Though I still haven’t found the surest of footing in my stance among this issue, these are the things that I know:
These girls mean the world to me.
They trust me with their safety.
They are twelve.
They want me to “kiss” before opening a letter and reading what’s inside.


And I’ll do anything they ask me to.


Kiss before open—Now I know. All they request is a sign of acknowledgement. A simple gesture of affection reassuring those who give you their words and feelings at their own discretion. Just a little something to reciprocate the amicable feelings in an exchange of love and vulnerability. Though I may not know my place in the echelons of power that teachers hold here, I know that the only thing I can do for now is return my amazing girls’ gesture of confidence in me with that same compassion and affection they seek when they write those words on the outside of their notes. So here I go, with ethics and cultural mores in mind, planning out my return “kiss” before opening a new week and a new course of action. It might not be tactful, or smart, or any of the adjectives we taught the Standard five students, but it’s all they ask of me, and all I can give them.

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