This is the work of Athumani, a student at Meru Primary School. As a part of our lesson at Meru that day, Athumani was asked to compose a self-portrait that featured his favorite body part. But the product above is more than just that – it is a reflection of much of what I love about LTP.
Although Meru Primary is located in the heart of Arusha, the eastern half of its campus is flanked by a picturesque creek surrounded by tall trees. Unsurprisingly, Athumani and the two classmates he worked with (Muhammad and Elia) headed directly for this area to take their portraits. Once there, the students spotted a tree that was easily scalable and Athumani quickly began to climb it. Athumani told his friends that he wanted to be photographed as if he were a monkey, gazing down at the rest of us. Athumani’s eyes, his favorite body part, are obscured in by the shadow of the tree in the picture. At first glance this may seem like a mistake on the photographer’s part, but I think it was intentional and lends an air of mystery to the photo. Once he and his friends’ photos were taken, Athumani quickly headed inside to affix his picture to a piece of construction paper and adorn it with the illustrations above. Athumani blends into the scene, towering above the animals in the leaves. To me the drawing also represents all the things he can see with his eyes, the myriad of colors and animals present in a Tanzanian landscape.
I’m fond of Athumani’s work not just because it is aesthetically pleasing, but also since it validates my conviction that LTP is a powerful and valuable tool for teaching. From the start of this trip I have held the lingering anxiety that somehow what I am doing here is not worth the associated costs of my coming. Further, the very idea of an American traveling to Africa to do volunteer service is wrought with potential negative implications. However, works like Athumani’s have at the very least reassured me that the work I am doing with these teachers and students has the potential to make a positive impact on this community. I say this for a few reasons. One of the central goals of LTP is to have students learn via active participation, for them to be enthusiastically invested in their own education. Taking this photo required Athumani to think deeply about how he wanted to be photographed and then directly coordinate with his classmate to get the picture he wanted. He then took the time to decorate the whole paper surrounding his photo, meticulously coloring the jungle below his picture. Having the time to make his own creative decisions about his schoolwork is not an opportunity he would normally be afforded due to the curricular limits of the education system in Tanzania. This picture also captures the essence of learning through play. While in the classroom, Athumani, Muhammad and Elia appeared somewhat disinterested in what we were teaching. But as soon as we left the classroom and gave them the freedom to take their own pictures they were instantly passionate. I can remember being an elementary student of similar nature – I as most interested in lessons when they were conducted outside. Often when working with children there is no better way to get them engrossed in what they are learning than to make the process of learning fun.
LTP is more about children exploring their own creative and imaginative potential than it is about learning to take photographs. This is an important distinction in light of the fact that many schools we have been working with lack the infrastructure to provide their students textbooks, let alone cameras to take photographs. Once we leave Arusha many of the children we have worked with, including Athumani, will likely not have the capability to take and print photos. However, it is our hope that teaching LTP as a methodology will help Tanzanian teachers approach the education of their students in a novel way. I am confident that doing so will make their lessons not only more intriguing but also more memorable. In the meantime, I think it is important for my colleagues and I to invest ourselves wholly in making this goal a reality while not forgetting the structural inequalities that afford us the privileges most of our Tanzanian LTP collaborators do not possess. We should also be sure not to forget to have fun in pursuit of this goal, to monkey around from time to time, just as Athumani did above. This in turn will help us all to make our time here worth the many expenses of our visit.