Kristen Grauer-Gray served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Karatu District, Tanzania from 2007 to 2010. She taught chemistry and biology at a rural secondary school, managed the school science lab, and contributed to a manual for Peace Corps Volunteers on how to conduct experiments using cheap, local materials. She is serving now as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Liberia, where she is teaching chemistry and education classes at a community college.
The following is a true story from her service in Tanzania. Some names have been changed, but all events are true to the best of her memory.
Penye Nia, Pana Njia
[Where there’s a goal, the road is wide. — Swahili proverb]
“I’D LOVE FOR HER to continue with her education,” Rehema’s mother says. “But there’s the problem of the cow.”
I’m sitting in the house where Rehema grew up. The dirt floor is uneven beneath my feet; the mud walls smell faintly of the goats that shelter beneath them at night. Rehema’s mother is facing me. The light from the doorway illuminates her face and casts shadows beneath her eyes.
“The cow is all I have,” she says. “But I’m getting too old to cut grass for it. I need Rehema to help.”
“What about Rehema’s sister?” I ask. “Could she care for the cow?”
“Mwalimu, Sara’s been taking care of the cow for two years. Ever since Rehema left for school. She wants to look for a job, but she doesn’t even have time. It’s Rehema’s turn to help.”
Of course she’s right. Rehema’s sister shouldn’t spend her whole life cutting grass for a cow. But does that mean Rehema should?
“I want to live with my uncle for another year,” Rehema told me. “I want to keep studying computers.” She’s already finished vocational school, but the computer teacher is willing to keep tutoring her. “If I have good computer skills, I can find a job as a secretary. I can have a steady income.” That income will spare her from farm work, which is hard on her slight body, and it will protect her after she marries. “Husbands are more likely to beat their wives if they don’t have an income. If you have a job, they respect you more.”
Penye nia, pana njia — Where there’s a goal, the road is wide —promises a Swahili saying.
Well, Rehema has a goal. She just needs someone to widen her road. “I’ll pay for the computer classes,” I told her. “I’m happy to help.”
She thanked me. Then she frowned like a driver contemplating a washed-out bridge.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“Mwalimu — Teacher” she said. It’s the title she always uses to address me, no matter how close we become. “Mwalimu, I talked to my mother. She wants me to come home and cut grass for the cow.”
Now I look at Rehema’s mother, and I try to find a way to change her mind. “Could you ask a neighbor to cut grass? Or a family member? Surely you have a nephew or niece or cousin who could help?”
She shakes her head. “Everyone sends their children to school these days. All the relatives’ children are busy studying.” So too were the neighbors’ children. “Rehema and Sara are the only ones I can rely on.”
She’s already thought of all my ideas. She’s already rejected them. All her life, she’s been trapped in a rut of endless chores, and those chores may keep her alive, but they never let her escape. Of course she wants her daughter to be educated. Of course she knows that education can raise her family out of poverty. But that’s in the future, and she needs grass to feed her cow today, and tomorrow, and the rest of the week. And that means Rehema needs to stop studying and cut grass.
Rehema is the hardest worker I know. She already squeezes her studies between hours of chores. She already awakens long before sunrise and goes to bed long after sunset. Sometimes she falls asleep instead of studying, but she never blames her early rising time or her hours of labor. She only blames herself.
Penye nia, pana njia. Hard work and clear goals can overcome any situation, right?
“OBSTACLE” SAY THE BRIGHT white letters on the chalkboard. “What does this word mean?” I ask my chemistry students. “What’s an obstacle?”
Most of the students just stare at me. Two or three flip through their notebooks, as if the answer lurks in the previous year’s lessons on ions and isotopes. Whispers murmur across the room like the wind rustling through corn leaves. At last Tumaini raises his hand. “It means kizuizi,” he says. “Something that blocks your path.”
“Obstacles,” I repeat. “Today I want you to think about goals and obstacles.”
It’s my first chemistry class of the year, and I don’t know what else to say. Not after seeing my students’ exam scores. These are the students I bonded with from the first day of class. The students who shook my hand after the national exam, their faces glowing with achievement. I didn’t just think I had taught them well. I knew I had.
Ninety out of two hundred failed their exams.
To be clear, those ninety students didn’t only fail chemistry. They also failed physics, biology, and agriculture. And math. And history. And English, Swahili, civics, and geography. Their scores were a line of ten Fs, or else nine Fs and one lonely D. This, in a country where 21% is a passing grade.
I don’t understand what happened. Is their English so bad that they couldn’t scrape out twenty-one points? Did the constant interruptions to the school schedule prevent them from learning more than a fifth of the syllabus? Or am I, and every other teacher at the school, just incompetent?
“You have two years before the next national exam,” I tell the students. “It’s enough time to bring up your grades, but we need to start now.”
I ask them to set goals. To list the obstacles that block those goals and to plan ways of overcoming them. I speak in terms of the new school year, of the future, but I’m really asking about the past. What went wrong?
Some students know what the problem is. They must have been listening at assembly, because they write the word that the academic master hurled at them that morning. “Lazy,” Imani writes. “Don’t study very hard all subjects,” Petro writes. “Lazy, lazy, lazy,” the academic master thundered. The students who sleep through my lessons agree, and so do the ones who complete every assignment and then beg for extra work.
But perhaps the students prefer to see laziness as their main obstacle. At least laziness is within their control. That isn’t true of many other obstacles. “I hear that for this year many teachers leaves the school,” Boniface writes. “No material for reading e.g. books, past papers or sparse of materials,” Edina writes. It doesn’t surprise me that some students mention the lack of teachers and books, but it does surprise me that many don’t. Perhaps they’re so used to teaching themselves from borrowed notebooks that they believe it’s normal.
Or maybe they’re saving their energy for a different problem. In some answers, the frustration of months leaps from the page. “I DON’T UNDERSTAND LANGUAGE,” Adela writes. “I have no experience or ability for understanding the English language,” Natalia laments. Other students don’t blame English, but their answers betray a painful struggle with language. “Obstacles do you face is I should be to very study in the class,” Rebeka writes. “I will overcome these obstacles to upward and downward to winowing this obstacle,” Mathias writes. Mathias is one of my most creative students, one of the few who asks questions that start with “why” and “how.” But he only asks those questions in Swahili.
As for how to overcome their obstacles, the students are clear. “Study very hard all subjects,” Gladness writes. “I should be study very hard or I must be study very hard all the time,” Carmela writes. “Give us more homework,” the students urge. “Give us tests every week. Teach us extra classes on Saturdays.”
“I will,” I promise.
I might have to stay at school until sunset. I might have to forget that weekends are meant for rest and not lesson planning. But even if it takes every drop of energy I have, I’m going to drag my students over that stubborn wall of obstacles. I’m going to do it by sheer force of will.
“Penye nia, pana njia, that’s our motto for the year,” I tell the class.
It’s a noble goal. But as the year continues, I’ll start to wonder whether one of my students said it better. He lamented the lack of textbooks and the fact that most teachers hadn’t completed the previous year’s syllabus. He swore to overcome those obstacles by studying hard. And he concluded, “God help me in my study for this year.”
REHEMA IS OUTSIDE, cooking. Pieces of wood snap as she builds up the fire. I remember how her eyes struggled as she talked about the future, the unhappiness that peered out from them and then buried itself before it could grow too strong. Think, I beg my mind. There must be some other way to get grass.
“Could the cow graze?” I ask.
“It would get sick,” Rehema’s mother says. “It’s a ng’ombe wa kisasa — modern cow,” the imported breed that produces more milk, but lacks the strength to find its own food.
“Could you buy grass?”
She laughs. “Mwalimu, where would we get that money?” A bag of grass costs as much as a kilo of beans, and she would need twenty bags per month. She barely has money to buy sugar for tea.
There must be another way. But all I can think of is the obvious answer, the one a fellow Volunteer suggested. “She should sell the cow,” he said. “She should use the money to buy land.”
Rehema smiled when I suggested that. “My mother would never sell the cow.” Her mother can’t afford milk, and she relies on the cow to supplement her diet. Besides, the cow gives her dignity. In a place where men head families, Rehema’s mother has no husband and no sons. In a place where land is wealth, she lays down to sleep each night on borrowed soil. “All she has,” Rehema said, “is that cow.”
Anyway, land is expensive. Tourist lodges are sprouting all over town, and land prices have risen out of the reach of local farmers. Even if Rehema’s mother agrees to sell the cow, the money will buy only a third of the land needed for a tiny house.
Come on, think.
I try to beg my way out. “Rehema is so lucky to have this opportunity. Her tuition is paid for. She can live with her uncle for free. When she finishes her education, she can find a job that will help the whole family.”
“I know,” Rehema’s mother says. “That’s why I wanted her to attend the vocational school. But she’s been away too long, and now I need her at home.”
What else can I say? I’m facing a woman who labors to survive. Who spends most of each day searching for firewood and hauling water and carrying sacks of grass, just so she can have enough food to make it to the next day. As her bones become brittle and her joints start to ache, the tasks that keep her alive become impossible. She has a right to live. She has a right to expect help from the daughter she toiled to raise.
A spoon clinks against a pot outside. Rehema is singing as she cooks. I wonder if I’m hearing her future: day after day of searching for grass as the sun rises, of squinting in the smoke of a cooking fire, of hauling wood and water until the spark in her eyes fades. She would never complain, and she would still sing as she worked, and she would still try to squeeze classes into the moments between chores. But her dreams would fade until they became nothing but stories to tell her children.
What makes me think I can help Rehema? Why should I expect to solve a problem that she can’t solve, and her mother can’t solve, and a whole extended family of relatives who understand Tanzanian culture can’t solve?
The truth is that I don’t have a solution. I know I’m out of place here, that this mud house doesn’t understand my view of a world where hard work leads to success. I would leave, except that Rehema is still singing, and I remember how she carried me through my first year in Tanzania. All the days when I wasn’t lonely, and I wasn’t hungry, and I didn’t feel like a stranger. All the days when I was grateful to have a sister in the village.
When you have that kind of connection with someone, you don’t have a choice. You have to try.
Besides, I know where Rehema’s life will go if she returns home. It’s a story I’ve heard many times, from strangers who spill out their hearts and open their souls and rarely tell me their names. Once, on a bus, I told my seatmate I was a teacher. “I always wanted to go to secondary school,” he said. “But my parents couldn’t afford the school fees.”
Another time I was bargaining with a vegetable seller, and I happened to mention that I was a teacher. The seller’s eyes took on a distant look. “I always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “But my parents didn’t see the value of education. They didn’t want to pay for school.”
In Tanzania, a person’s place in life is by no means correlated with ability. I met so many bright, creative people whose talents were trapped inside them. Some lacked the resources to pay for school. Some lacked support from their families. Some simply didn’t have the luxury to take a break from the basic tasks of survival. For their entire lives, these people who could have been great scientists and writers and statesmen used their talents just to stay alive.
It was a heartbreaking waste of talent, and it was happening to Rehema in front of my eyes. I wish I could believe that her determination and work ethic would save her, but that would be a fable. In rural Tanzania, determination and hard work lead to survival, nothing more. I learned that from Haruni.
HARUNI WAS A RELATIVE of my school’s headmaster. He lived in one of the most beautiful villages I visited in Tanzania, a place with a thousand shades of green even in the dry season. Forested mountains cradled the village on three sides, and on the fourth they flattened to a plain of rice paddies that stretched to the shores of a lake. There were streams that spilled down from the mountains. There were orchards of mango and banana trees. The goats were plump, the cows’ ribs didn’t show, and no one had to wake up early just to fetch water.
Paradise, I thought as my bus drove into the village. He lives in paradise.
Haruni’s eyes glimmered with pride as he showed me his house. The walls were of bricks that he had made himself. The bedroom doubled as a shop that he stocked by biking to a town over the mountains. At a time when the fields around my school had crumbled to dust, his house was surrounded by a maze of cassava, pigeon peas, pumpkins, and corn.
That evening, the stars stretched from the green mountains around the village to the distant ends of Lake Manyara. Neighbors visited to drink tea and to see the mzungu who spoke Swahili. We sat around a fire built to chase away mosquitoes, and Haruni spoke about his life.
“My father had ten children,” he said. “At least he had ten children by my mother. He had three wives, each in a different village.”
“He only sent us to primary school because it was compulsory. He thought schooling was a white man’s custom, a waste of time. He had never been to school himself.”
Haruni’s parents didn’t push him to study, yet Haruni loved school and dreamed of becoming a teacher. He finished primary school with the third highest grades in his class. When he learned that he had qualified to attend secondary school, he began to imagine a future outside the village.
“I need money for secondary school,” he told his father.
“Why should I pay for school?” his father said. “How is school going to help you plant rice and herd cattle?”
Maybe I can find someone else to support me, Haruni thought.
Haruni had a relative in Karatu, a teacher, who had just been appointed headmaster of a new secondary school. He traveled to Karatu and visited the headmaster. “Will you pay my school fees?” he asked. “I can live with you and help with the housework in exchange.”
“Okay,” the headmaster said.
It was that simple. Penye nia, pana njia.
But school didn’t start for a month. Haruni’s father knew he was in Karatu, and he sent his son a message. “I need you here,” he wrote. “Come home and help plant rice.”
Haruni went. Planting rice wouldn’t take long, and he could easily return to Karatu before school started. He did what his father asked and then packed his bags. “I need money for bus fare,” he told his father.
“I’m not giving you money,” his father said. “You’ll have to find it yourself.”
Haruni spent days trying to gather money for bus fare. Meanwhile, his father contacted the headmaster. “Haruni doesn’t want to go to school,” he said. “He’s just sitting around the house. He seems more interested in farming than studying.”
“If that’s how things are, then I’m not going to pay his school fees,” the headmaster replied.
Days later, Haruni scraped together enough money to travel to Karatu. He was too late. “If you wanted to go to school, you should have been here on time,” the headmaster said.
There was no one else who would pay Haruni’s school fees. And so he did the only thing he could. He turned around and went home.
That night, Haruni spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, with little emotion. How would complaining help? It was too late for him to study now, when he had a wife and child. Besides, he had built a life in his village: he had a house surrounded by crops, a shop that provided a small income, and enough savings to help his mother and siblings. The path of a teacher was closed, gone. He needed his energy to build a path to the future.
But dreams are stubborn things, and their footprints never truly fade. Two days later, Haruni took me to visit the local secondary school. He had never been there, and he wasn’t sure if we were allowed to visit. Fortunately the guard was friendly and gave us a tour. As we walked around the school, Haruni peppered him with questions.
“Let’s take a picture,” Haruni said at the end of the tour. In that picture, the two of us stand atop a hill with the school behind us, our hands clasped together and raised in the air, like two politicians celebrating our success in building the school.
After we finished taking pictures, I walked down the hill away from the school. Soon I realized that Haruni was missing. I turned to look back. Haruni still stood at the edge of the school grounds, gazing at the buildings.
Penye nia, pana njia? Perhaps the saying should add that the road may wind its way through more than one generation. Haruni would never sit in those classrooms, but he would urge his children to study. He would keep hauling crates of soda over the mountains for his shop, and he would save the profits until he had enough to send his children to school. And maybe, just maybe, his children would live out the dream he left behind.
REHEMA IS STILL clinking dishes outside. I know she believes I can solve this problem, and that makes my helplessness worse. What power do I have? What special ability do I possess, other than the white skin that attracts desperate stories and makes people believe I can fix their broken dreams?
I’m supposed to have money. Money is how most wazungu solve these problems. Money can leap past deep-rooted issues, and it even pretends to cure them.
I could offer to buy grass for Rehema’s mother. I know I shouldn’t. It will make her dependent on me, it will worsen the belief that wazungu are rich, and besides, I don’t have enough money to buy grass every month. It’s a terrible solution to this problem.
It’s also the only solution I have.
“What if I help you buy grass?” I ask Rehema’s mother. “I can’t pay for an entire month’s worth, not for the whole year. What if I help during the dry season, when cutting grass is hardest? What if I give you enough money to buy grass for half of each month during the dry season?”
Rehema’s mother thinks for a minute. “It could work,” she says. “Yes. It would work. But only for a year, mwalimu. After that, Rehema needs to come home.”
“Only for a year,” I agree.
I give her money to buy grass for the cow. She calls Rehema into the house. “You can stay with your uncle for one more year,” she tells her daughter. “Make sure you study hard.”
“I will,” Rehema promises.
We return to the village together.
Rehema has another year to find a way out of this rut of poverty. Another year, and then the cow will be waiting. I hope it’s enough time.