Saturday, April 21, 2007

This has nothing to do with Tanzania, by the way...

When we picked the name "Ava" we liked it because it sounded old-fashioned. People "of an age" will comment on the actress Ava Gardner. It was a name that was not common, but not unusual, something we tried to go for in all the kids' names. But something's happened...

Ava, the daughter of actors Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Philippe

Ava, the daughter of ever-youthful Heather Locklear and rocker Richie Sambora

Ava Jackman, daughter of X-men's "Wolverine" (and Tony-award winner) Hugh Jackman (and let me say this is going to cause some confusion when he becomes the next Mr. Carla Hillman. Or Jackman. Whatever.)

And last, but not least...
Africa Ava, my favorite one of all!

PHS Update

PHS staff has been working hard! Theopista and her husband Victor welcomed their new baby, Daniel, at the end of March. She will be rejoining us for some training on a couple days before returning to work full time in May.

We are excited to have Brad Board with us for the month of April. Brad is a former principal in Minnetonka, now living in the Seattle area. He is gifted in so many areas when it comes to staff development and starting up educational programs. His strong faith has led him to work in Mexico, Romania, the Ukraine, and now Tanzania. We are so blessed to have him with us this month!

The big push right now is student selection. We have previously tested about 550 students in reading and writing in both Swahili and English. We collected information from their pastors and village leaders about their orphan/poverty status and from their primary schools about their final exam scores. We were not able to verify most of the information with the local government offices, however, because they had not gotten around to updating their orphan lists or collecting last year's exam results. Going back to try to verify any of that information before we visited students' homes took more time than we had planned. The students were ranked according to exam scores, entrance scores, and orphan status (of the 120 students we will take, we have a target of 75% being orphans). We compiled a list of about 150 students to start.

Last week we started out to visit the homes of the prospective students. Of course, there are no addresses or phone numbers and often we're not completely sure where the village even is, although the teachers do have a general idea. So we drive toward the village. When we think we're close, we stop and ask people. When we think we are at the village we just start showing the kids' pictures to people on the road. Sure enough, someone quickly recognizes a face and points us in the right direction and amazingly we find the house! You can imagine, though, that it does take quite a bit of time to find each student this way!

We meet with the student if they are there (if not, we have to go find them at their school which can be quite a ways away) and talk to the family/parent/guardian. While someone is doing this, other teachers are out talking to other children and neighbors to try to determine the family's status. Tanzanians are pretty knowledgeable about each other's business and are generally more than willing to cooperate and share information. Trying to determine whether a student meets the criteria for poverty is very difficult. Some leap out right away (see the following post). Others are trickier. We ask questions and look at clothing, furniture, the condition of the house, try to determine how much the family makes, who might be able to provide money for the child, how many other children are in the home and are school-age, how many other family members are being cared for, etc. From all of that we make a determination as to whether the child qualifies. So far it's been a combination of data and gut instinct. Our teachers are definitely taking the lead in decision-making. Max, Mark, or I are on each of the visits, but primarily as the driver--many family members don't read or write, much less speak English, so everything is in Swahili, and while we can generally follow a conversation, we can't ask questions or read the body language to know if someone's lying as well as our teachers can. They are doing a great job!

So far we have seen about 20 students in 7 days. We have accepted around 8. Today was a great day as we were able to accept all of the students we saw! Other days we've had to turn down every student we visited. Many families (and the referring pastors and village leaders) have lied on the application about a child's economic or orphan status, which automatically disqualifies the family from consideration. It's a difficult decision, especially since the offer of a free education is so very tempting, but corruption is rife in all areas and we need to be very strict. We have gotten very positive feedback on many levels about how we are approaching the work that tells us that we are on the right track.

To meet our very first students accepted to PHS, read on to the next post!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Meet Our First Students at PHS!

We are finishing the 2nd week of verifying students for our first class at PHS and discovering that the process is really difficult! Many many applications were not truthful about a child's orphan status (with the problems not just from the families, but also from the village pastors or leaders), other families try to convince us that the child is far worse off than we're inclined to believe. Others have started school recently in the second selection (students are selected for secondary school based on their primary school exams. Those with high scores are chosen first; then, when the schools see how many actually show up, they do a second or even third selection as the year goes on).

One of our conditions is that students must be unable to afford school, so we have to try to determine if the family is "poor enough" or if circumstances really warrant a child attending. There are no official criteria, no guidelines, no real way to determine a family's status. It can be difficult standing in someone's home trying to decide if they are needy enough. Every day we refine our criteria in hopes of being able to make the most objective decision we can. We have about 560 students on our list and we need to choose 120.

We are finding that even those that may have started school really can't afford to be there. The government has recently dropped school fees to 20,000 Tshillings ($16.00) per year to encourage more students to attend. Sounds cheap? It is. But there's more. Schools charge a fee to build a desk and chair (38,000), uniform fees (32,000--each student needs 2), a "cushion" fee (6,000) for whatever miscellaneous needs crop up, and a food fee (50,000). That brings the total up to about 150,000 Tshillngs for the year, in a country where the average income isn't much more than $200 a year. If a school is building more classrooms or requires a guard to watch construction materials additional fees are added in those years (one school added 50,000). These are day schools--boarding schools would be much more. And they are the government schools, which are the cheap ones. Private schools can run up to $1,000 per year. Families scrape up the minimum (borrow a uniform, pay a partial year for food, get someone to build a desk) and wait until they are chased out for lack of payment. Sometimes they can come back, sometimes not. They try to stay as long as they can by paying as little as they need to.

That being said, we are proud to introduce the first 2 students to be accepted into Peace House Secondary School! Meet Johnson Lukumay. We were so impressed by his desire to take advantage of this opportunity. His pastor had arranged for transport to the testing site, but Johnson did not make it on the bus. He went from door to door in his village until he had collected enough money to ride a dalla-dalla (less than 50 cents). Once he arrived at the testing site he was too late to begin testing. His pastor had waited at the site for over 2 hours to see if he could take the test. We told him he would have to come back the next day (luckily we had an extra day scheduled to accommodate the high number of students that had come that day). He arrived the next day on time and ready.

When we visited Johnson's house last week, we learned that he lives with his father and mother. His father is disabled and not able to work. Jouhnson has several younger siblings. They have no farm or animals or work for income. His mother collects greens growing by the side of the road and sells them as best as she can. With younger siblings the cost of living will only increase for this family with no hope for much improvement and no possible way for Johnson to continue his education.

When we visited Happy Joseph's home, things looked different. Her school affirmed that they had paid some funds for food and a desk but nothing more. They were puzzled because they had heard her family had money. Happy told us she was able to borrow her uniform from a friend. We went to her house with her. The house was in a compound with a concrete wall and nice gate. The house was large and clearly indicated that the family had money. Happy's father had disappeared long ago and her mother and younger siblings had died of AIDs. She was living with her "grandmother" (actually probably a sister of her grandmother) who works in a government office. Clearly the family has resources. Except they don't use them for Happy. Other than a place to sleep, she receives nothing, including love or support. Often the only meal is the one she gets at school. She is told often by her "family" that there is no point in spending any money on her as she is no good and will probably die soon anyway. It was difficult to verify her story--if she is caught telling things, she could be kicked out, and the walled yard prevents neighbors from knowing the family well. One large factor that led us to believe her was that the family members all said they did not have a housegirl. A home of that size should have had one or two by custom here. Happy is the housegirl. Although the family does have the means to pay for her education, she is clearly at-risk for not completing school, among other things.

I hesitated to tell these students' stories. One one hand I want people to know the conditions that face so many children here and why PHS can fill such a big void. On the other hand, I worry that by putting forth these children's stories, we are exploiting them, focusing on their desperate situations, a sort of "poverty pornography" that reinforces the image of Africa that is so prevelant in the Western media. The truth is that these students are children of God, as we all are. They are blessed with gifts and talents and have hopes and dreams the way that all students have. Like every other person, they are far more than the poverty and circumstances they are in. We will do well to remember that when we meet them and welcome them to PHS and see them as the blessings and opportunities they are, and be open to all the ways they will enrich our lives.

The Pangani River

Some more obligatory pictures of the Hillmans not working…but as you can see from the other posts we DO have work times…they just aren’t always photo-worthy! We spent a week near Pangani at Peponi’s, which we love before heading to Dar es Salaam for a week to work with a Young Life camp and see the O’Neils before returning for Easter. We had a great time and a much-needed break from work.

The Pangani River empties into the Indian Ocean at the village of Pangani so we (the Hillmans and our neighbors Tom and Sally who are ELCA missionaries here) arranged for a boat ride up the Pangani to see some new sights. The village of Pangani is on both sides of the river so travelers need to take the ferry if they are using the road. We got on our little river boat (ala Disney's Jungle Cruise, but authentically rustic) and headed upriver. It was amazingly lush, with mangroves lining the banks. We were surprised to see very few houses along the river and no wildlife, except a few monkeys and birds. The houses we did see were small and made of makuti, a thatch made of woven palm leaves. Almost all of them had nets drying next to them.

We did see lots of people fishing in small dugout canoes. We stopped by one of them and bought 2 pounds of fresh shrimp for about $1.50. They were delicious that night pan-fried in butter and garlic with a glass of white wine, eaten at a small table on the beach while watching the sunset! Ava was very interested in purchasing a fish--but our interest (or lack thereof) in cleaning it made us take a pass on the little guy!

We turned off the main river onto a small channel and found some men selling green coconuts. They were more than willing to shinny up the tree and cut a few for us (you can see how far up the tree he is compared to his friend on the ground). The climber uses a length of palm leaves that are braided into two circles with a length between them. He puts his feet in the loops to help him climb. Ava loves coconut milk and these coconuts were brimming with it. Unlike the brown coconuts we're used to, the meat in these was limp, with almost the texture of fat. Fresh coconut has a much milder taste than the stuff you buy already shredded in packages, but none of us could get past the texture.

There are lots of things you can eat in Tanzania. Like these things, the name of which I can't remember. These have been munched on by monkeys, but they fall from the trees and you can dig them out of the mud. The taste--well, it's very chalky and made your mouth feel kind of numb. The closest thing I can compare it to was eating chokecherries as a kid in Montana. The pit is large, like a peach, and inside it is a smaller kernal that tastes like an almond. Ava is the best of all of us at trying new things! Others are not quite so adventurous!

The whole day was very relaxing and fun. The guides were great about showing us lots of things and even letting the kids drive the boat on the way home. We live in the part of Tanzania that is generally featured in travel guides--the dry, dustier savannah/bush country. It's so interesting to be on the coast where everything looks so different and where people have different foods, etc. It felt very "Indiana Jones" adventur-y, off the beaten path (yet still safe!) which is always fun.

No pics of the rest of the week, but we had a great time in Dar es Salaam. We went to a real waterslide park that was clean and lots of fun, largely in part to the fact that no one really monitored the slide use so you're free to load up the tubes and do lots of things that sound fun but are never allowed. The day also included go-kart racing, with fast karts and no seatbelts (this part was dangerous at times) and a great introduction to Young Life and the amazing work they do. We also went snorkeling on an island preserve there with amazing tide pools and coconut crabs (giant crabs that live in trees). They had a bar with cold drinks and they grilled whole fish and chips there--yummy! Ava and I were able to see two squid and a sting ray just walking near a coral patch. We finished with some time with the O'Neils and got a taste of just how hot Dar can be when their power went out and we had no fans! It was a great and uneventful trip--just the way we like it!