By Natalie Butz
Last week, Professor Robert Siudzinski stopped me in the hallway and told me that six dormitories in St. Thomas were destroyed in an electrical fire on Jan. 15. St. Thomas is a private boarding school outside of Arusha, Tanzania, which I visited with Dr. Siudzinski when we both participated in the 2010 Tanzania Summer Program.
According to Andrew Mwaipopo, the headmaster of St. Thomas, and Angella Marcel, the Terrawatu Project Coordinator, none of the children or matrons were hurt, but 100 students, two assistant matrons, one patron, and one couple are without beds. In an email to Professor Robert Siudzinski, Mwaipopo said that all these people lost everything in the fire except the clothes they were wearing. The school itself lost beds, mosquito nets, lockers, desks, and other items.
Mwaipopo wrote, “During the rescue and evacuation process most of our teaching and learning materials and food reserves were either damaged, destroyed, burnt or stolen. Our favorite computer lab, installed with Pentium IV’s thanks to the U.S., was looted and surviving computers were damaged because the persons helping to re-install them had no technical know-how.
“The school managed to buy some mattresses and blankets for the affected but the number is big and the needs are great. Our focus was on making students comfortable, hence books and textbooks and other teaching and learning resources, though very important, were not a priority,” Mwaipopo continued.
The students and staff affected by the fire are now sleeping in the former headmaster’s house and the old computer lab.
Since the fire, Pi Lambda Theta, the education honor society, has organized a drive for school supplies that will benefit St. Thomas. Past education interns who taught at St. Thomas were contacted and have all promised donations, too. This summer, six education students are travelling to St. Thomas to help teach for six weeks, and they will be taking supplies with them as well.
I hope that after reading this, other people are also encouraged to give to St. Thomas. The Washington College Business Office has explained that a check made out to WC (and mailed to the Education Department or the Office of Leadership Gifts, Attn. Barbara Heck) with a note ‘Teaching in Tanzania: St. Thomas School Supply Donation’ will be tracked so that all donors will receive a thank you note for their contribution (and for potential tax clarification). Pi Lambda Theta has a nice, initial collection of donated school supplies, yet more reading materials featuring African-American children, families, and communities would be welcomed. Likewise, any additional school supplies or backpacks would be nice.
I was forever changed by my trip to Tanzania and the two days I spent with the children of St. Thomas. You’ve heard it a million times before: these kids had nothing, but they were so positive. They were smart, eager to learn, and grateful for anything you gave them, whether it was your time, a story, or a crayon. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s hard to describe the impact an experience like that has on you. I may not remember every Swahili phrase I learned while I was in Tanzania, but I remember the need I saw and the people I met. I remember the unshakeable optimism and determination of every person I met. I remember people’s kindness and hospitality. My vision, not only of Africa, but of myself and the kind of contribution I want to make while I’m on this earth changed because of that experience.
I dream of going back to Africa someday. But more than that, I dream of helping the people I met while I was there. I’m not sure how much this editorial will help. But I hope at least that it gets the word out and it convinces people to donate to St. Thomas, because there is such a need. Trust me, everything is appreciated and nothing is wasted.