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Saturday
Sep022017

Fast Forward through Life

Everyone asks me how I got into doing work in Africa. Most people follow up that question- spoken or unspoken- with why would someone like you want to spend so much of your life in Africa. I guess it is rather strange. A middle class retired educator packs up and leaves her family for the unknown, for not only another culture but a challenging life far from home.

Well I can’t explain it in one sentence. But I can tell you some of it.

When I was young, I went to a school that was dedicated to service. Our motto on our uniforms was, “Action not Words”. We were taught to live our faith and to help others as a fundamental part of our life. One day in 6th grade a visitor came to speak with us. She had been a missionary in Nigeria. She made it clear that she was a teacher. That was her primary function there. She taught children to give them a good education like we were getting. She was not there to convert them but to educate them. What was so powerful was her love of her work. She loved the place, the culture, and most of all the children. She kept saying how they loved to learn, that they were such a pleasure to teach, and how their work ethnic and dedication to their studies should be an inspiration to all of us. I was very impressed with this but couldn’t help but wonder, what they were really like. Did they really love to study and work hard? Did they play or have conflicts in the playground? I thought about it and wondered and wanted to see for myself.

Fast forward. In high school I had a Latin teacher who had taught in Nigeria. She was now permanently dark skinned and she said the same thing as the first visitor. These students were well behaved. She never had to tell them to stop talking in class (she always had to tell us to stop talking). I tried to imagine them. How could they be the perfect student? She peaked my curiosity. And I never dreamed that one day I would be saying the same thing to my grandchildren.

Now fast forward again. In my junior year of college I transferred schools and was assigned a roommate from Uganda. I was shocked – rather stunned. I had no idea how to relate to this person. I quickly discovered that it was very hard to get to know a person from another culture- that is “really know”. She would laugh at weird times and I didn’t understand why. I was confused about some of her habits and attitudes. I would complain to my mother and she would tell me, “You will learn to get along”. Will I did. But they end of the semester we were inseparable and became the closest of friends. I learned so much from Anita Kabenge and she revived my interest and curiosity about seeing Africa. During my senior year I applied to the Peace Corps and was accepted to go to Ethiopia to teach English. But in the end I didn’t go – for many reasons- and always wondered what it would have been like.

Again fast forward. After doing some social work and directing an early childhood program, I became a reading teacher on Long Island in New York, teaching children from nursery school through grade 12 over the years. I loved working with students and parents, helping them unlock the written code and discover the joys and power of reading and writing. I also loved working with teachers and sharing ideas and resources as to how to reach every student and support their success. I then went into administration, thinking I could reach more children, becoming a Language Arts Director and an Elementary Principal. But eventually I felt a calling to do something more, to share my skills and all that I had learned about the teaching/ learning process.


One day I was talking about education and looked at the New York Times Education Section. I saw an ad for Teachers for Africa Program. I applied just for the sake of it. And one fateful day in April 2003 I received a call from the director asking me if I wanted to work in Ethiopia. I was shocked. After so many years, Ethiopia. I guess I was really supposed to go to Ethiopia, only 36 years later. So I said yes.

As I waited the few months to start my new life, some people were very skeptical. Some worried about dangers and thought of a million disasters that could happen. Some thought I was nuts and was “one of the worst decision makers” in the world. Some were excited and supported. I was curious.

But once I got there, I instantly fell in love. I loved the people, the culture, the sense of history and tradition, the feeling of belonging in a community. I saw things that were shocking and it was very hard to adjust to a world where everything you can imagine is different. But I thrived in the challenge. In the end, the most powerful motivator to me was the children. I would see 95 students in one class yet all seemed eager to learn, children with no shoes and in rags but full of smiles, houses with no lights or water yet the warmest welcomes you could imagine, girls walking miles to fetch water and carrying it home- you can’t believe the heavy load they carried. I was constantly pleasantly surprised and constantly puzzled at the same time. But I knew I all my experiences teaching many children in different context could be used here to make a difference. I felt that once I saw the reality I could never just go home and forget it. There was never a moment of doubt. This is what I had to do. I had to try to make a difference, to support the education system so these children could have a brighter tomorrow for themselves and their community. I knew- this is where I belonged. 

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