It was an incredible experience,” said Kate Barnes who sat down to tell about her recent volunteering experience in Tanzania. “I don’t have words to describe it.”
Kate Barnes, a 2017 VHS graduate, is an elementary education major, with a Spanish language endorsement, from Concordia College in Moorhead.
This summer, Barnes volunteered through Concordia to teach English in Tanzania for three weeks. She returned from her adventure at the beginning of July.
“I was very nervous about going and I didn’t know what to expect,” Barnes said during an interview last month. “I’ve never felt more in my element, which is odd to say because I was in Africa.”
About the program
According to material provided by Concordia, “Concordia College, Concordia Language Villages, and the Singita Grumeti Fund partner to offer English immersion camps to youth living in rural Tanzania. In its third year, the program is the first of its kind in Tanzania. The purpose of the camps are to enhance English language skills for youth from villages bordering the Grumeti Reserve — 350,000 acres of land which forms part of the Serengeti ecosystem.”
Barnes explained that students in fifth grade would attend the camp, each day for a week. Due to the high experience of educational disruption, these fifth grade students ranged in age from 9-15.
Barnes explained that a lot of children would be pulled from school to work on the family farm or for other cultural reasons.
Concordia brought three teams of five volunteers and a dean, who rotated through the various locations. The three locations included the Singita Grumeti Fund’s Environmental Education Center, Bunda and Mugumu.
Barnes taught for three weeks at the Mugumu site and was at the Grumeti Reserve her last week. While at Mugumu, Barnes and her team stayed at a hotel where they had separate rooms with a shared living space. “It had a bed and a Westeren toilet,” she said, “which was a big deal!” While staying at the Grumeti Reserve, they had bunk beds in a dormitory.
“But no matter where we went, we had mosquito nets that we had to tuck under our mattress every night.”
Each morning they would eat breakfast before their students would arrive.
“We would have eggs, cereal, breads, peanut butter and jelly. Fruit was at every meal: bananas and watermelon. It was the best bananas and watermelon I’ve ever had but I never want to see them again!” she joked. “We had milk but it was always hot as it was fresh and just boiled.”
Each week, the camp would host about 30 students. The duration of each camp was five and a half days running Monday-Saturday.
“The first few days the children were always quiet and reserved because they knew they couldn’t speak Swahili,” said Barnes. “But by the end of the week they were happy, chatty and sad to leave.”
Following the successful Concordia Language Villages immersion model with adaptations, the daily camp activities included large and small language groups, sports, craft/art, singing and dancing.Each volunteer lead a small group of students in their English lessons. Several times a day, the small groups would gather for a large group lesson.
Barnes would lead a small group of five or six children each week. “We focused on language instead of cultural immersion,” she explained, “which is different from CLV.” Instead of teaching about American culture, the group taught a basic language, curriculum of vocabulary and grammar.
It was important for Barnes and the other volunteers to focus on English language acquisition because of the Tanzanian educational system.
“In Tanzania, primary school is taught in Swahili with 40 minutes a day dedicated to English,” states the college’s program material. “Secondary school is taught in English. For many students the transition from primary to secondary school, with the change from Swahili to English, is a difficult one resulting in high failure and school dropout rates.”
As Barnes explained, students must take an exam, part of which focuses on English, to advance to secondary school.
“This is because all of their classes will be taught in English,” she said.
A cultural difference Barnes and the other teachers tried to overcome was the tendency toward perfection, which is encouraged in their society.
“They were very particular. They would use a straight edge if they needed to draw a line. In their educational system they need to be perfect — they are held to a high standard. They also don’t want to disappoint their teacher.”
Barnes explained that perfection is not possible when learning another language. When learning a new language, the student will make mistakes when speaking, and that is part of the learning process.
“They had to be told not to worry about being wrong,” she said. “One of our main goals was to build confidence in their English ability. We taught them it is OK to struggle with the language.”
In Tanzania, students are taught by rote memorization and another hurdle Barnes had was getting them out of their rehearsed responses.
“I would ask ‘How are you?’ and they would respond, ‘Very well, mam. How are you?’ I told them to open up and not be so formal or rehearsed with me.”
While attending day camp, the students would wear their school’s uniform. Although the exact patterns varied by school, this would include a skirt for girls, pants for boys, white collared shirt, a blue or green sweater and closed-toed shoes.
“You could tell they were very proud to wear their uniforms and worked to keep them clean. When I would tell them to sit on the ground they would squat or dust off the area.”
The Tanzanian school system does not have a summer holiday but instead is three months on and one month off. These camps occurred during one of the months off.
Each Sunday, Barnes and the other volunteers had off from teaching but the Grumeti Fund kept them busy with scheduled activities.
One Sunday they were brought to a safe-house for girls fleeing female genital mutilation or child marriages.
“It was an incredible and heart wrenching experience,” said Barnes of speaking with the young women living at the safehouse. “But it was also inspiring and hopeful.”
Although parents are educated on the risk, and girls do die during procedures, female genital mutilation is still a common practice in the region.
“It is done because it is believed the woman will then be pure for her husband,” explained Barnes. “It is very painful and if the girl dies during the procedure, she is believed to be cursed. They don’t bury her in the village but throw her remains into the bushes for the animals...If the girl is not cut it can be shameful for the family.”
The girls at the safehouse learn English, attend school and are trained in life skills and vocations in which they will be able to support themselves.
“We heard some of their testimonies and, oh my gosh, they were heartbreaking. It was incredible the strength they spoke with. These girls have big aspirations. They are enthusiastic and hopeful for their future.One girl said, ‘You must tell my story so others know.’”
At the time, there were about 30 girls, ages 10-18, at the safehouse. It was not the “cutting season” which is when these ceremonies happen, generally in December. At that time, the population of the safehouse explodes.
On a free Sunday, Barnes also visited a market.
“It was culture shock times 1,000! It was very overwhelming. Kids would swarm around us and ask ‘How are you?’ That was the only sentence they knew in English.”
Barnes recalled that special memory saying, “A group made up a song and sang it while they followed us around. ‘How are you? How are you?’” she sang.
The children did not have shoes and wore tattered clothes and the babies were naked.
Men called out to the group of American women. “They asked if we had a lion at home,” explaining the meaning she said they would respond, “yes,” meaning they had boyfriends or husbands.
“One man proposed to Dr. Patty Gulsvig!” Gulsvig was the faculty member who lead this program. She declined the proposal.
“Women would yell random names at us. We were told they were naming us.”
Overall, the market experience was a fascinating one for Barnes. “It was also interesting being in the racial minority.”
“The natural beauty of Tanzania is breathtaking,” said Barnes looking off in the distance. “We were lucky enough to take a sunset and sunrise game drives.”
She flipped through photos on her phone and tablet.
“I was 8 feet from a lion,” she exclaimed. “I always felt safe. Our drivers were very intune and aware of the animals.”
One elephant made a show as if he would charge their vehicle. They were told he was a teen male just showing off. He ran off when the vehicle started back up.
They watched as a lion napped in a tree before jumping down.
While teaching at the Grumeti Center, elephants would walk up to the classroom windows, animals would run through the walkways at night. Baboons, snakes, black mambas, scorpions and zebras all made themselves at home.
“We drove through a wildebeest migration,” Barnes said turning on a video. “There were tens of thousands of them! They make the strangest noise.”
“I never thought about student teaching abroad before this experience,” but now the thought is a real possibility for Barnes.
“I always limited myself. When I went to Mexico in high school I got very sick and I was nervous for it to happen again. But now that I’ve gone and know I can do it- No door is closed for me! It was a life changing experience.”
Before leaving, Barnes read a passage in her devotional that said God was calling her to be uncomfortable and grow through the experience. “This is what God had planned for me.”
“For the first time in my life, I felt so reaffirmed that this is what I wanted to do,” said Barnes explaining that teaching had always been her plan. Barnes’ father is Greg Barnes, a teacher at Mesabi East. He teaches choir and elementary music. Her becoming a teacher had always seemed obvious to her. But after this experience she has never been more confident in that choice than now. “It is so weird it had to happen in Africa.”
“I can’t help but smiling — I’ve returned on such a high,” said Barnes saying that her sister said she has never seen her happier or more confident.
Barnes’ mother is Terry (Chris) McCabe and father is Greg (Thea) Barnes.