Professional Development Opinion

Under African Skies

By Sam Swope — January 01, 2003 25 min read
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Exotic spices, electric smiles, a rough boat ride, and inspiring work—all part of a writing conference in Tanzania.

Two years ago, I conducted a writing workshop in Pakistan at an international conference for English teachers. Afterward, I wrote for this magazine about falling in love with the exotic city of Karachi and the teachers I’d met from the United States and many other countries. When asked to participate in a similar gathering this past summer, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I immediately said yes. Then I went to a lawyer and wrote a will.

I’d never been to Africa and couldn’t pass up a chance to visit, but after September 11, traveling was scary. Some Tanzanians are Muslim, and I worried about al-Qaida, which had been linked to the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam. As my departure loomed, I told myself to relax, said, “When your number’s up, it’s up.” But I couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding. How much hatred of Americans would I find in Tanzania?

What follows is a journal that recounts my trip, the conference, and the discovery (not for the first time) that things are seldom what they seem.

Wednesday, August 7

Exotic spices, electric smiles, and a rough boat ride were among the highlights at a recent International writing conference in Tanzania.
—Sam Swope

It’s nearly midnight. I’ve been traveling for 18 hours. The pilot tells us we’re flying over Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain, but when I look out the window, all I see is the dark. Soon we’ll land in Dar es Salaam, in central East Africa on the coast of Tanzania. I’m excited but also filled with complicated emotions and apprehension. I’ve been invited to this conference as a guest because I’m a writer who gives workshops, most recently in Queens, to teachers and immigrant students, some of whose ancestors came from Africa.

I’m not sure exactly what I’ll be doing at the conference. Although it’s run by the Aga Khan Education Services, a network of schools funded by the current spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, no one is really in charge because the event is meant to be a collective effort by an international group of teachers. And I don’t know for certain who else is going to be there. School bureaucracies in several countries are involved in sending participants, and communication has been spotty at best.

Whoever does turn up, every conference leader but me will be an alumnus of the Andover Bread Loaf Writing Workshop (ABL), held each summer at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts and loosely affiliated with Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. At the ABL, urban American schoolteachers and several teachers from Third World countries spend two weeks writing because the ABL’s directors sensibly believe that better writers make better writing teachers.

Despite the lack of planning, I’m not worried. Our primary task is to get the teachers attending the conference to write, and I’ve been doing that for years. I’ve brought along lots of prompts and know the ABL alumni will be doing the same.

Before I left, a Tanzanian administrator sent me an e-mail saying someone would meet me at the airport, but I’m not counting on it. There have been enough slip-ups already. For one, I haven’t been told the address of the place I’ll be staying, so I might have to find a hotel in the wee hours of the morning in a city where, according to my guidebook, you’re not supposed to go out after dark.

Soon, we’re landing. Several groups of missionaries deplane with me, off to build schools and renovate hospitals. There are European tourists, too, heading to the Serengeti to go on safari. Over the years, Americans have also visited, many coming to Africa to observe wild animals, then flying out again, rarely interacting with the culture. But since September 11, the number of American tourists has plummeted, and that’s been hard on Tanzania, which desperately needs the money.

I breeze through immigration. Outside, I’m relieved to find a man holding a sign that reads “Swoopee.” I climb into his tiny, beat-up car. It backfires, and we head off into the night.

Thursday, August 8

It’s early, before dawn. Roosters woke me. A crescent moon hangs in the sky, in a position that startles me: It’s on its back, so to speak, like a boat or the upward- facing Muslim moon. I see headlights of trucks and buses on the highway not far off.

The conference leaders, including the author (back row, left) traveled from countries around the globe.
—Sam Swope

We’re being housed in a Catholic mission on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam. There are many religions in Tanzania: A third of the population is Christian, a third Muslim, and a third practice indigenous religions or are Hindu or Buddhist. Starting centuries ago, trade and colonialism brought Arab and Indian settlers here, followed by the Portuguese, Germans, and British. All left behind bits of their cultures and faiths.

The mission is a walled compound, like a small college campus with tropical gardens and papaya trees. Thirteen nuns live here, African women wearing habits. The dormitory rooms are small and spare, single beds with light-blue mosquito nets and sheets the color of Pepto Bismol. A crucifix hangs on my wall. We have our own bathrooms with cold-water showers. My cell is clean, pure. I feel like a monk.

From my window, I see the shanties surrounding Dar es Salaam, tin-roofed, single-story structures crowded together with no plumbing or electricity. Below me, a guard wearing a khaki uniform and a red beret patrols the mission’s compound carrying an ancient rifle. He makes me feel safe, but I don’t know from what.

Where I am, close to the equator, the sun rises quickly, like a film fast-forwarding. Suddenly, it’s day. Already I can tell it’ll be hot.

I’ve arrived a day before the other conference leaders, so I head into downtown “Dar,” as it’s called, and walk around. It’s a sleepy place, a tropical coastal city, and it doesn’t feel dangerous. Some buildings are painted in pastels; there’s an occasional Victorian colonial structure and a few modern glass buildings. The skyline is punctuated by church spires and minarets.

The wide harbor offers a nice view as long as you don’t look toward the oil refineries. Dhows, fishing boats with huge triangular sails often set at a tilt, go out each night onto the Indian Ocean. In the morning, they return with fish that are auctioned off to groups of women who wear colorful kangas, contrasting pieces of intricately patterned cloth wrapped around waists, torsos, heads. The women sit on plastic buckets and bid. I watch one woman make a purchase, put the fish in her bucket, put the bucket atop her head, and carry it off.

You can’t help but notice the smiles; they’re electric, neon white against black skin. And the posture of these people—my god! I pull my shoulders back, lift my head up, but it’s hopeless. I’ll never manage to walk with such natural grace. Being white, I stand out. “Jambo!” vendors call to me, a word for “hi” used almost exclusively for tourists, who find it Lion King cute. They want my dollars. “Jambo,” I respond, smile, and walk on.

Every now and then, a wedding caravan passes. In each, the bride and groom’s car is followed by a pickup truck carrying a brass band playing a weird mix of oompah, jazz, and African rhythms.

Friday, August 9

The conference begins Monday, and the ABL alumni who will help run it are trickling in from India, Kenya, Pakistan, Tanzania, Uganda, and the United States. I run into Hazel Lockett, a co-director of the ABL who teaches high school English in New Jersey. We were in Karachi together, and she squeals when she sees me, gives me a hug, says she can’t believe we’re here, then hugs me again.

Hazel’s skin is black, and she didn’t like the way it made her stand out in Pakistan. In Africa, though, “I see my face on the streets here,” she tells me in her soft- spoken voice, a voice she thinks may be African, too. “I’m physically incapable of yelling, like my father,” she explains. “And I hear that same quiet quality in voices here.”

Hazel introduces me to Ummi Modeste, a New Yorker who is also African American. Ummi is a sign language interpreter and teaches English at a public high school not far from where the twin towers stood. She was so shaken by what happened on September 11 that she had to take time off from work. She’s in great shape now, though, and thrilled to be in Africa. “When I got off the plane,” she tells us, “I was like, ‘Mother Africa, I’ve come home!’” Then she’d kissed the ground.

After Rich Gorham—another Karachi alumnus who teaches high school English in Lawrence, Massachusetts—shows up, a group of us go shopping in Kariakoo, Dar’s sprawling outdoor market. Hazel is overwhelmed, but the rest of us love it. Ummi especially is enchanted by the racks of dresses cut to fit a figure like hers. “This is where my body’s from,” she says. “African women are shaped like me: big boobs, big hips, big butt. I love it!”

Saturday, August 10

In Dar es Salaam, on the coast of East Africa, women in colorful kangas bid for the day’s catch.
—Sam Swope

I’ve made a new friend, Patricia Echessa Karuiki. She’s Kenyan, teaches English at the Aga Khan Academy, a secondary school in Nairobi, and speaks English with a vaguely British accent. Patricia has a loosey-goosey, gangly body. She boogies when she walks and can’t talk without moving her arms and hands. At the preconference planning meeting, she sits beside me. There’s no air conditioning, and it’s hot and humid. When I start to nod off, Patricia pokes me, making me jump.

As conference leaders, we number 15, and though we’re from six different countries, we all come from the same pedagogical place, sharing the core belief that every child can learn to write. Teaching that skill means offering our students engaging topics, involving them in meaningful projects (especially ones tied to their communities), and publishing their writings so they have an audience beyond their teachers.

Our goal is to mimic the ABL workshop, where teachers write, read their work aloud, receive applause, get inspired, and then write some more. All this is done within the context of trying to figure out how to bring the experience back to classrooms—and for good reason. “Before,” Patricia tells me, “I used to teach in an old-fashioned, humdrum, textbook-based way, but ABL changed everything for me. It re-vo-LOO-tion-ized me.”

Aside from those already here, 30 teachers will attend the conference, half of what we’d expected, thanks to budget constraints. Almost all the participants live in Dar, where they work in K-12 schools, most of them part of the Aga Khan Education Services. (All the ABL alumni, except the Americans, also teach in AKES schools.) The Aga Khan is a direct descendant of Mohammed, and many Ismaili Muslims live in East Africa and West and Central Asia. A graduate of Harvard, the Aga Khan is fairy tale rich, lives in Europe, and owns jets, yachts, mansions, and even, I’m told, a Mediterranean island.

He promotes Islam as a faith that teaches compassion and tolerance. You don’t have to be Ismaili to go to, or work in, an Aga Khan school, but the schools aren’t free or especially cheap. Neither are they as well-equipped as most American schools. But they’re a lot better than the public schools of East Africa and the subcontinent.

The Aga Khan’s son attended Andover Academy, and over time a relationship developed between Andover and the AKES in the form of the International Academic Partnership. The IAP, which sends American teachers to Aga Khan schools, paid for the five U.S. teachers to attend this conference.

ABL workshops usually last two weeks, but we only have five days, so there’s a lot to figure out. What workshops will be given? When? Where? How much time should we allow for free writing? What sessions will we conduct in smaller and larger groups?

Although no one is eager to lead the meeting, Will Marinell, a young American, reluctantly takes charge, which is good because, as it turns out, he has a genius for this kind of thing. Will is a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and before that, he taught at AKES schools in Kenya and Bangladesh.

We agree on a format that will divide the participants into groups and offer a mix of writing workshops using tried-and- true ABL prompts and presentations, among them strategies for teaching grammar and using art and drama in writing classes. An hour each day will be given to free writing, and a few sessions will be mandatory, including a talk by a Tanzanian writer.

After we learn that the writer can’t make it, someone suggests I take his place.

“I’m not Tanzanian,” I say.

“But you’re a writer, and a writing workshop needs a writer.”

“All right. What would you like me to talk about?”

Several want to hear how to get published. But Patricia elbows me and says, “I want you to read us some wonderful stories and tell us how much you suffer as a writer.”

Sunday, August 11

Hazel Lockett, an English teacher from New Jersey, relished her visit to Africa, saying, “I see my face on the streets here.”
—Sam Swope

Outside the mission gate is a tattered sign pointing the way to the Beach View Hotel. After lunch, a few of us head down the dirt road and find a dreary lodging but no beach—not even a view of one. So a local named Jerome, drunk but friendly, offers to take us to the water. We follow him along the littered railroad tracks, then veer onto a path flanked by bushes. Jerome says he’s been to Tallahassee, Florida, has family there. He loves America, wants to move to Texas, but it’s hard to get a visa. It’s good that he’s with us, he says, because otherwise drug-using hooligans might mug us. We end up at a quiet bay, a lovely spot, but a strange one, a kind of graveyard. In the water sit a half-dozen abandoned boats, some enormous and rusted through, sitting askew, skeletal, ghostly.

Will tells a story. He says he was in New York City a year ago. His father was in a hospital in Manhattan, dying. On September 11, shortly after the World Trade Center towers fell and sent the city into panic, his father died. “I couldn’t process anything,” Will recalls. “Nothing seemed real.”

Before long, I realize that everyone, all over the world, has a September 11 story. One Pakistani teacher says she cried that day and urgently asks me to tell Americans that only a very few Pakistanis hate our country. Lee Krishnan, from India, admits that her male students—no al-Qaida sympathizers— were nevertheless romantically enthralled, as by a David-and-Goliath story. Patricia says she flashed back to 1998, reminding me that while the embassy in Dar was being blown up, so too was the U.S. Embassy in downtown Nairobi, not far from her school. The blast killed many more Kenyans than Americans. Ummi says a friend of hers had a baby on September 11, and it gave her hope.

It’s evening now, and the conferees have arrived. After the opening ceremony, there’s a banquet, served cafeteria style. The food is local fare, including chicken, grilled beef, spaghetti, sautéed cassava leaves, a vegetable stew with interesting spices, and ugali, a cornmeal dish that reminds Hazel of grits, only drier. (You twirl a glob of it between your fingers, making a roll that you then dip into stew.)

I eat with several Tanzanians. One grew up on an island in Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, so large he couldn’t see the far shore. As a boy, he thought his island wasthe world. He didn’t wear shoes ‘til he first went to the mainland at age 13, and he was terrified by all the open space.

I’m told that Tanzania, a democratic republic, is peaceful. Everyone agrees that Julius Nyerere, the first president after independence from Great Britain in 1964, is the reason why. He unified the country’s 120 tribes, and today there are none of the violent rivalries seen in other African countries. Nyerere’s economic policies, however, were a disaster, and now Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world, with little industry. Only 4 percent of the land is arable, and more than one-third of the people are inconceivably poor, with a life expectancy of 50 years. Education is mandatory, but the schools are often bad, and in villages children beg not for money, but for pens for their classrooms.

I learn still more about the embassy bombings, which, years ago, I had assumed were the work of locals. But as in New York City, they were perpetrated by outsiders, and the explosions left Tanzanians and Kenyans as terrified and outraged as we were on September 11. I’m ashamed of myself. My fear of Tanzania was the result of ignorance.

It’s late now. I hear people having fun in the dorm’s common area, but I can’t join in because I have to prepare the talk I’ll be giving tomorrow. I’m having a hard time of it. I stay up late, struggling to find the right words, until a power outage plunges me into darkness. The crucifix on my wall glows green.

Monday, August 12

Our first day. The conference is taking placeat the Aga Khan Primary School. We’ve been given four classrooms and a big gym. Up high, where a colder climate would demand windows, there’s no glass; occasionally, a breeze blows through. Sometimes birds fly in and land on the floor. Six computers are off to the side, hooked up to the Internet. Two years ago, in Karachi, few Aga Khan teachers had ever surfed the Web. Now the moment we get a break, everyone races to check their e-mail.

Set up on a few tables is an impressive display, almost a dozen from each country, of the publications ABL alumni have put together with their students. A lot of the work was written by kids for their communities—health brochures, for example, and anti-drug pamphlets. My favorite is a photojournalism project titled “Innocence Lost: The Reality of Child Labor in India.” In Mombai, Lee Krishnan’s students, who aren’t rich, photographed and interviewed children who are much poorer, some of them living in the streets, and exploited as child laborers.

I’m not able to take part in the opening session because I’m still working on my talk. I’m sitting by myself in a classroom, the solitary writer. I can hear what’s going on, though; the teachers are discussing the kinds of writing they do and don’t do, and I can tell people are excited.

Patricia has a glass and a spoon. When it’s time for something to happen, she dances around, the glass held high over her head.

Clink! Clink!

Oh, god. I’m on.

In my experience, most teachers don’t feel confident as writers. I’ve decided to be encouraging. I start by saying people always ask me where I get my ideas. No writer really knows, but I like to think there’s a Muse. I tell them the Muse visits everyone, often at odd moments, when you’re washing the dishes, say, or shopping for dinner. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, an idea pops into your head and you think, “Hey, that’s a great idea for a story.” What distinguishes writers from everyone else is that they sit down and try to write the inspiration out. I tell my audience that the Muse loves to see people writing. I say the act of writing itself is inspirational, that words lead to other words as if by magic and that I’ve seen this happen time and again with my students. The Muse is with us now, hovering over our heads, invisible, eager to give us ideas. Write, I say, and ideas will come.

Then I read two children’s stories I’ve written that seem appropriate. One is about a poet so lazy he’s never written a poem, and the other is about a teacher who turns into a dog and gets adopted by a student who adored her. People are attentive; they clap, say nice things afterward. I guess I did all right. But it’s hard to know with teachers. They’re so damn positive and polite.

Everyone at the conference speaks English, some better than others, some with accents hard to interpret. Later, after an hour of free writing, a teacher comes up to me, excited. “Have you seen the moose?” he asks.

“What moose? In Africa?”

“The moose! She inspired me, like you promised!”

Tuesday, August 13

Pakistan’s Lubna Kohati proved during a workshop that playing with words leads to inspiration.
—Sam Swope

I attend a workshop given by Lubna Kohati, an ABL alumna from Karachi. Lubna is glamorous, my idea of a Pakistani movie star. Her hair, her makeup, her nails, everything is always perfect, and her Pakistani outfits are beautiful. In Karachi, many logistical details fell to her, and she worked like a dog. At times I found her politeness distressingly subservient, as if that were a woman’s place. I had to insist she call me Sam instead of Mr. Sam.

Her presentation is formal, the objectives written on the board, the steps carefully listed. Yet her writing prompt is wild, a true left-brainer. Lubna passes out newspapers and has us jot down sentences and phrases that catch our eyes. “It could be anything,” she tells us. “Twenty will do.” Then we choose our favorites, 10 or so, and arrange them in poems that somehow make sense. “It doesn’t have to be overly logical,” she says.

We’re encouraged to fiddle with the language, add or take away words. It’s a fun way to play with sentences we didn’t have to think up. As I sift through my choices, ideas emerge, proving my point that messing around with words leads to inspiration. The whole thing takes less than half an hour, and, in the end, each poem gets across an idea in ways the poet probably wouldn’t have thought of on his or her own. Here’s mine, titled “How to Make Money in Kenya":

Where can you go for all your shopping needs?
Take a closer look at our treasures,
Row across our lake of gold,
We’ve got your passport to paradise!
All branches open today!
Turn on your power!
Go for the purse!
Step right up,
Give us your soul,
We’ll give you shillings!
Thank you, thank you!
(Who’s stupid now?)

Wednesday, August 14

A hallmark of any ABL conference is the field trip. One day out of five is being given over to a trek to Zanzibar, so that we have a chance to bond. This is critical because by developing friendships, it’s more likely the work begun at this conference will continue through classroom exchanges and future workshops.

Zanzibar is an island in the Indian Ocean, 22 miles from Dar. For centuries, it was a major trading center; Arabs, Persians, Indians, as well as Europeans settled there. Stone Town, its historic city, is a medieval maze of crumbling African, Indian, and Arabian architecture. Slaves were shipped from Zanzibar, and spices are grown there, especially cloves.

Lubna, who gets seasick easily, says she doesn’t want to go. “You have to come,” I tell her. “We have to bond.” She isn’t sure. So I say, “I hear there’s good shopping in Zanzibar.” That piques her interest. I hand her some seasickness pills. “These work for me,” I say. “All right,” she responds, “I’ll come.”

As the ferry leaves the dock, the weather’s perfect, but the waves turn rough out at sea. On the deck, I see lots of miserable faces,including Ummi’s. I give out the rest of my pills, but it’s too late for these folks. Just as Zanzibar appears on the horizon, Ummi, leaning over the side, throws up, sending her breakfast my way.

We’re bonding.

Finally ashore, we pile on buses for a whirlwind spice tour—cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg! Our guide, Mr. Metu, is a character, an old guy with a deeply wrinkled face who keeps herding us around. “Hurry! Hurry!” he says. “More surprises in store!” Lubna is a trooper, sloshing down the muddy paths in open-toed heels.

We’re running late. It’s time for lunch at a fancy hotel overlooking the sea, a hotel owned by the Aga Khan, one that none of us could afford to stay in. Service is slow, though, and by the time we’re done, we have to rush to catch the ferry. No time for the slave market, which disappoints Hazel; no time for shopping, which disappoints Lubna; and no time to get more seasickness pills, which disappoints me.

The trip back is worse, with swells pitching the boat. During the spice tour, Mr. Metu gave us lemons to suck, saying, “Better than seasick pills!” I suck ‘til I’m blue in the face, but it’s not working. And Lubna—poor, glamorous Lubna; she lies on the dirty deck floor, her head in a friend’s lap, ocean spray soaking her, all vanity forgotten, spittle running down her chin.

Thursday, August 15

On a field trip, Mr. Meti led the spice tour. “Hurry!” he kept saying. “More surprises in store!”
—Sam Swope

We hear from a linguist with the University of Dar es Salaam. He tells us Tanzania has 120 tribal languages. As part of Nyerere’s plan to unify the country, Kiswahili was made the national language, a brilliant choice because it doesn’t belong to any one tribe. It’s like Esperanto, a mix of languages—mostly Bantu, but with Arab, Persian, and other languages thrown in, a kind of creole that evolved for trade. Kiswahili is spoken in the courts and government, but all official documents are written in English, the language of business. The linguist laments (and pokes fun at) Africans eager to emulate Western culture, calls them Afro-Saxons, and urges that tribal tongues not be forgotten, that they be viewed as a resource, not an obstacle. This gets people excited.

It appears that tribal tongues are doomed, though. Abbas Chemere, a Tanzanian, tells me matter-of-factly that he married a woman from a different tribe, something quite common, and that they speak Kiswahili at home. This means their children hear little and speak even less of either tribal tongue, a dilution that will only increase with subsequent generations. And Munungi Musee, a Kenyan, says, “You can scratch your head about tribal language all you want, but denying English to a child is wrong and just plain silly. It is up to the parents, not the schools, to teach the mother tongue. English has won the battle.”

Friday, August 16

Tanzanian teachers read their own poems aloud at the end of the conference.
—Sam Swope

Today is the last day of the conference. We’ve gathered together to talk about ways teachers can use what they’ve learned. Most schools, of course, have structured curriculums, so ambitious projects, like organizing student writing clubs, must be done after school hours. But it’s always possible, the ABL alumni make clear, to find a period here and there to use the sorts of prompts learned this week, prompts that provide kids with positive writing experiences, which motivate them to write more often and, through practice, to become better writers.

The conference participants have used these prompts, creating the poems we’ll now “share” during our final public reading. Teachers use that word a lot. They mean well, but whenever I’m asked to “share” my writing, I feel like I’m being coerced. Why not just say “read”? I also don’t like the touchy-feely connotations suggested by sharing poetry. It implies that the medium, as more than one teacher at the conference said, “is all about feelings.” Well, yes, sometimes, but poetry can be about anything.

Like music, poetry is uniquely suited to the suggestive, to expressing what can’t be said. ABL poems, however, wear their hearts on their sleeves, and the typical prompt encourages writers to put their life experiences into the work. In one exercise, for example, the poem is supposed to begin and end with the same two lines: “Do not stand at my grave and weep/ I am not there; I do not sleep.” In between, the writer composes a message to someone. “Guided” poems like these are almost like writing by numbers, except not exactly because what gets put on the page is authentic and heartfelt.

These prompts work so well it’s easy to forget they’re the simplest kind of writing. I complain to my colleagues that we didn’t offer workshops on composing short stories or nonfiction. Some agree but point out that we had so little time, and the poems serve the important task of giving a beginning writer confidence, which is what our students need. I can’t argue with that, especially as the reading gets under way. Because each work is so personal, we all clap heartily after it’s read, applauding the poet as much as the poem.

All too soon, the reading is over, and what remains are the farewell meal, some picture-taking, promises to stay in touch, and vague plans for international classroom exchanges. Then the local teachers head home.

The gym is empty.

Saturday, August 17

Before heading out ourselves, the conference leaders meet for a post-mortem. We look over the evaluations, written by the participants, and see that they’re all positive. Lou Bernieri, an ABL co-director who couldn’t make it to Tanzania, once described the ABL to me in an e-mail by saying, “Teachers have not only left the ABL workshop inspired to transform their classroom teaching but have also felt empowered to collaborate with colleagues andcreate organizations, projects, and programs where they can share what they’ve learned with others and begin the organic process of educational renewal in their schools and their communities.”

Misgivings aside, though, we’ve worked hard and done what we could, and that feels good.

I’m having trouble imagining renewal in Tanzania. The local teachers who participated in the conference certainly felt good about themselves while they were here, but I can see them returning to their classrooms and once again feeling lost. Not all, but many, of them seemed worn down, demoralized, lacking fire. I don’t know all the reasons for this. One is certainly the pay, which is rotten; and their profession isn’t highly respected. One Tanzanian, when asked to name his most embarrassing moment, said, “The day I became a teacher.”

Misgivings aside, though, we’ve worked hard and done what we could, and that feels good. We’re also tired, eager to go home. But Lubna has been nagging us all week to let her tell us what’s been happening in Pakistan since the last conference. We can’t disappoint her, so for the next hour we listen to Lubna and her Pakistani colleagues giving a PowerPoint presentation that describes how they’ve completely redesigned the writing curriculumfor the AKES schools there. They’ve also instituted annual weeklong workshops, one for 100 teachers, the other for 50 to 100 students.

Our mouths fall open. Oh, Lubna, glamorous Lubna, how I underestimated you! Underneath your subservient façade lies a will of steel. Everyone’s excited. No one wants to leave. Many ask for Lubna’s e-mail address. Tanzanians in particular talk about starting workshops of their own. One teacher says, “If they can do so much in Pakistan, surely we can do something here.”

I say, to myself, “Inshallah,” an informal Muslim prayer meaning, “God willing.”

Sam Swope lives in New York City and is the author of many children’s books. He is currently writing I Am a Pencil, a memoir about teaching creative writing to immigrant kids in Queens.


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2 min read
Illustration of AI and classroom tools.
Anna Frajtova/iStock/Getty
Professional Development Opinion Are Your Staff Meetings Unfocused and Disjointed? Try These 5 Strategies
Too often, staff meetings do not focus on learning, which is a lost opportunity. Here's how to make them more meaningful.
Michael Nelson & Peter DeWitt
6 min read
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