What do you think?


For this lesson, I was prepared for misunderstanding. I made a list of questions the students would likely pose. I had clear and simple answers ready for those questions. And, I highlighted vocabulary which I knew would be unfamiliar. I laid out these unfamiliar terms like a roadmap of traffic patterns. We established the known before broaching the unknown. The itinerary was a good one, and the route was manageable.

Until Donald Trump hijacked the car.



Just as the Kaskazi rains started to fall, my classmate’s longing to create peaked. As an artist, she missed having studio space back at Indiana University. Thus, our resident director made good on a promise to introduce her to Stonetown’s art community. Another classmate and I tagged along, and we were the ones who clicked with Philbart Banzie, a.k.a. Bart Michoro, a.k.a. Bart.

My first impression of Bart was that his mind was in eight different places at the same time. He spoke rapidly, and moved unpredictably. His eyes were youthful, but his hands were worn. Not unusual for a Zanzibari, he owned at least two mobile phones. And, he switched between them as seamlessly as his words switched between Swahili and English mid-sentence. Often, it is apparent that he is laughing at your expense, but somehow it is never insulting.

Tornadoes and Crocodiles


On my second day as volunteer, one of my fellow teachers approached me with questions about the United States. In the past (cf. Tanzania), questions like “Is Canada a state?” and comments like “But you are European” annoyed me. However, my fellow teacher changed the way I feel about these seemingly ignorant questions.

Walimu: The Teachers

        For the last three days of my Zanzibar visit, we went to Pemba, the second largest island in the archipelago. It’s a beautiful place: eternally green, with roads that wind through hills and valleys–drastically different from its big sister, Unguja. Fittingly, in Arabic it used to be known simply as “The Green Island,” or Al-Jazeera Al-KhaDraa’. I’ve been to Pemba once before, and loved it then, too.


      I could write twenty blog posts about Pemba, but for now I’ll focus on one topic. For this trip, it seemed like everyone we met there was introduced either as someone’s teacher or someone’s student.
      First, a great old friend who lives in Wete, the largest town by population, picked us up in a minivan from the airport near Chake Chake. He teaches secondary English nowadays. Currently, his students are reading a book about Ugandans living with HIV. We arrived at the airport exactly at prayer time, so we waited a few minutes until our friend’s own former teacher, turned boss, drove up. We took off down the road, and along the way picked up three more teachers.
      First, a man waved us down and then hopped into the back seat. Soon after, we saw two women and scooped them up, too. Everyone squeezed in, and the fatter of the ladies was given the spacious front seat (it was explicitly under these terms, I promise I’m not being rude). Among the teachers, topics of raucous, passionate discussion ensued; such as poetry, borrowing words from English, and the difference between enh-henh and eh-heh (I promise I’m not making any of that up, either). The next day we met half a dozen more teachers or former teachers. Even store owners introduced us to their former teachers, who happened to be passing by or just hanging out in the vicinity. I began to think that something was lost in translation, because there just could not be this many teachers all around us. In fact, being a teacher is so respected in Tanzania that I have heard friends or coworkers refer to each other as ‘teacher’ before (Mwalimu or Maalim), so I thought this might be going on in Pemba.
      Each time we ran into these teachers and their students the modus operandi was always respect and inclusion. Pembans are known jokesters, so conversation was never boring, but still thoughtful and tempered when teachers were around. Teachers hold sway there. For example, when we didn’t know the way to a certain part of town, but our Wete-based teacher friend was busy, he summoned up a former student who served as our guide for the day without asking for anything in return.
      Finally, on our last day in Pemba our friend’s father (who is also a retired teacher) explained the situation to us. He said that in Pemba there isn’t much employment, but there have always been schools and plenty of opportunities to teach. While everyone can agree that having a diversity of jobs–and lots of them–is better for many reasons, I have to say that having an abundance of teachers is not the worst of situations. In my opinion, a nation without a place for teachers is in a lot of trouble. These teachers initiated and facilitated discussions all around us in Pemba. Especially as such respected men and women, they build communities, and in turn a society.



As an ESL teacher of low-level, beginner students, I follow along with eager anticipation any time my students volunteer to speak. One student in particular, who is a middle-aged and proud grandfather from India, speaks up especially often. In the fourth week of the term, this student–who we’ll call Mr. B.–got my attention toward the end of class, saying, “Excuse, me, sir.”

As usual, I was all ears. That class had been a lively one, and I awaited his question. I expected something about clarifying the difference between courtyard and patio, or maybe a request to convert 30 degrees Celsius to Fahrenheit. But, that isn’t what Mr. B. wanted. Instead, his speech was jumbled from the start and I could tell his ideas were difficult to express. I didn’t interrupt him, but patiently waited with my best calm, and kind, teacher-face. Teacher-face means looking as interested and encouraging as possible without being patronizing.

“You going–you go–went college? Pre-graduate? Teacher for secondary–er–college…I–er…”

Mr. B. laughed and looked flustered, so I suggested, “Did I go to college?”

He shot back with, “No, no…you going to school, work for…”

Then with sudden clarity, he looked me in the eyes and exclaimed, “Qualifications! … What are your qualifications!?”

The best way to describe my reaction might be spooked–not the way horses get spooked (thank goodness), but more the way someone who saw a ghost smiles awkwardly to prove he isn’t nervous. After the flurry of words like ‘college’ and ‘graduate,’ my brain went into job interview mode, and I began to question my very existence as adult ESL instructor. I saw a ghost named self-doubt.

What are my qualifications? Am I qualified? What gives me the authority to teach these people?

After snapping out of it, I told Mr. B. about my time in graduate school receiving my MA in TESOL. I also learned that he just wanted to compare what it took to become a teacher in the United States to India, and he didn’t really care about my personal qualifications as much as what teachers studied in general. But, the question stuck with me. It made me question myself and my career choice. Even more than that, it made me question all teachers. What leads people to decide that they are fit to educate? When does student turn into teacher?

There might be just as many things that motivate students to learn as there are that motivate teachers to teach. It’s a job, so it pays. Many teachers are inspired by family or by incredible teachers they had when they were younger. Depending on where you are, it is a good career for continued learning and networking. I know why I teach, but the question is always worth considering:

What are your qualifications?

What gives you the right to teach me?

Anyway, I digress because this is a blog about sharing stories. So, I will leave it with something I heard Maya Angelou say on television once:

“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.”