Mwalimu wa Michezo

22 05 2011

I know that my last post I promised to tell about the apparent miracle worker who has a cure for every known disease, but this last week was so action packed that I’m going to elaborate on the miracle worker in the next post, I promise.

So for those of you who don’t know, I will be returning to the good ole U.S. of A firstly for my cousins high school graduation but secondly to celebrate the birthday of America.  As school winds down and my calendar gets busy with final exams, the girls conference, visitors to Iringa, and hopefully the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary, I find myself getting increasingly excited.  The anticipation is so palpable I can taste it; literally.  The other night while I was sleeping, I was having a wonderful dream that would normally be mundane if it weren’t for the fact I was in Africa.  The entire dream consisted of me sitting in a Burger King by myself, eating a whopper with a large order of fries and an ice cold Dr. Pepper.  At some point in my dream, I decided that I needed and handful more of the delicious Heinz Ketchup packets that I like to think of as little presents packed with the delicious flavor or real ketchup (not the imitation stuff they have here that taste more like tomato water).  The dream was weird mainly because I was dreaming about Burger King and not Chick-fil-a.  I still can’t figure that one out because if I had to rank my favorite fast food joints, I’m not sure Burger King would crack the top 5.  Some questions I guess I’ll never know the answer to.  It was one of those dreams where you really think it’s real and as I got up to get my refill on ketchup I became entangled in my mosquito net, almost ripped it from the ceiling, and proceeded to tumble out of bed and roll across the floor.  I was thoroughly confused and after checking my surroundings and realizing I was still in Africa, I was slightly disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to get my refill of ketchup and finish my order of large, crispity, crunchy french fries but alas, only one more month until my dream becomes reality.

But on to more relevant topics.  The title of my post is ‘Walimu wa Michezo’.  In Kiswahili ‘mwalimu’ is teacher, ‘wa’ is of, and ‘michezo’ is sports/games.  This past week, my school hosted a district wide sports competition in which students from other schools came here for the week to compete against each other in a variety of sports.  They included soccer, volleyball, netball (which is NOT the same as basketball), and athletics.  I didn’t really know what to expect as all I was told was that there would be no class so I wouldn’t be required to prepare and lessons.  I was told that some of the teachers would be chosen to assist with the organization of the activities but since I had not a clue what the hell was going on I figured I’d just be able to hang around, watch some soccer, and enjoy the action.  Monday was the day that the 3 other schools in the district all arrived.  The other schools were Nyrere Secondary, Furahia Secondary, and Ilambilole Secondary.  The slowly trickled in during the morning, and in typical African fashion one of the schools was late because their car experienced a breakdown on the way here which is more a common occurrence than not here.  By mid-afternoon all schools had made it here safe and sound and everyone gathered in the main courtyard to officially open the games for the week.  Everyone was obviously excited since schools only compete against each other for one week a year, given the monetary constraints.  The nearest school to Ismani here is 45km away which isn’t exactly close, especially considering the condition of the roads in this area.  So whereas in America you have leagues and you play maybe 8 other schools in a season, 1 school a week, with some type of playoff or championship game, here in Tanzania this whole process takes place over the course of 3 days.  At the end of the competition between schools, the best students from each sport are selected by the teachers to form a district team.  The district team then goes to a regional level competition.  So after the competition was formally opened, the first event was volleyball.  I was asked to act as the match commissioner which ensures the fairness and equality of the particular game.  My friend Joseph was the referee and my neighbor Stanton was the scorekeeper.  What I quickly discovered was that the students who were “chosen” to play for each school were actually comprised mostly of students who volunteered to play.  Many of them didn’t know the majority of the rules governing volleyball so there was a little teaching going on as well as officiating.  I give them a lot of credit for just saying “what the hell, let’s do this” and to give it a try.  After the volleyball game, there was a netball match and a soccer game that occurring simultaneously.  Now netball is a sport that we don’t have in America but basically it’s a modified form of basketball without backboards, no dribbling, and is only played by girls.  The day ended with another soccer match, which was pretty entertaining.  Since all the other games were completed, everyone at the school, teachers and students alike came and packed the sidelines to watch the match.  In addition to students and teachers, younger kids from the primary school stopped to watch after seeing the mass of people and other adults from the surrounding villages came to watch as well.  I think I mentioned this before but it really had the feel similar to that of a Friday night football game in America; I think that’s the best way I can describe the atmosphere.

The next day, Tuesday, the games started early in the morning and went until dusk.  I wasn’t asked to assist with anything so I basically hung out in the shade of the innumerable acacia trees near the fields and took in as much of the action as I could.  I was especially interested in watching the netball since I’d never seen it before.  Like I mentioned, netball is played only by girls here.  However, unlike in the classroom where the girls are shy and very self-conscience and passive, on the netball court all that pent up aggression seems to come pouring out.  I quickly discovered that this sport can be brutal.  There are two poles on opposite ends of with metal rings like baskets attached at the top, but without a backboard.  The court is slightly smaller than a basketball court and the object is to pass the ball, without dribbling or moving with the ball down the court, similar to basketball to score.  However, unlike basketball it seems that hard contact is a part of this game.  I saw girls go flying, rolling, and diving.  Some of the plays, which would be considered flagrant fouls in basketball, are the norm in netball.  Needless to say, I was a fan.  It was intense, high energy, and action-packed.  I made sure to catch all the netball matches.  Luckily though, I was able to simultaneously watch netball and soccer because the fields were adjacent to each other.  The day was spent lounging in the shade, watching the games, and occasionally practicing my English with students from my school as well as curious students from other schools who wondered who the white guy in khakis, polo shirt, and boat shoes was doing in the middle of rural Africa.

Wednesday I was sure to wake up early because the first event was track.  This included the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m, and 3000m races.  Me being a runner, I was naturally interested to see if the perception of Africans as being innately fast was myth or truth.  As I hung out along the infield with the rest of the students awaiting the start of the events, my neighbor Charles, who was in charge of organizing the whole 3 day completion came up to me and asked me if I would be able to help with the timing of the events.  Of course I said yes.  I was instructed to get the time for only the student who came in third place for each event.  Other teachers would time the kids who came in first and second.  Only the top three in each event were recorded as the top three males/females in each event would be selected to go on to the regional competition.  Considering the pre-conception that Africans loved to run, I figured that each distance would have multiple heats of runners, but that was definitely not the case.  As the distance increased, the number of runners interested declined.  Compared to a track and field competition in the US, this was pretty rogue.  If students were interested in running the event, they just lined up when the distance was announced.  Additionally, the track was also clearly not something you’d find in the US.  It had the correct dimensions but it was basically lines dug in the dry red dirt and or grass.  Just like the soccer field, the track was littered with rocks, patches of grass, and even small acacia plants in some places.  If you don’t know what an acacia tree is you can google it or just know that the word for acacia in Kiswahili is “miba = sword” meaning the thorns on these things are razor sharp.  As if this wasn’t amazing enough, about 90% of the students ran in bare feet.  Students that had anything resembling running shoes were required to remove them before the start of the race.  I give the kids who volunteered to run a lot of credit.  They have absolutely no fear.  Running around a track that is littered with sharp rocks, holes, and acacia plants in bare feet seemed like insanity to me as well as a sure way to injure yourself.  Amazingly there were no serious injuries during the course of the events.  After each event, I’d grab the runner who placed third, and I’d jog over to the results table together with the student to give his or her name and time.  For me, the 3000 meter race was the most exciting since I’m a big fan of distance running I was real interested to see what these kids to do.  I saw that my school, Ismani didn’t have a lot of girls who wanted to run so I was running around trying to convince students to just give it a try.  Most students looked at me and said “Are you kidding?  That’s way too far!!”  For the kids who did run, I didn’t know what to expect because I had no idea if they had drank any water, or eaten any type of food before attempting to come out here and run.  I’m happy to say that for the guys, my school had the two fastest kids by far.  One of the kids I wasn’t really surprised.  When I saw him line up, I instantly recognized him as the kid who loved to run from my class.  I went over to the other teachers and told them I expected him to win.  When they asked me why I told them that if they ever saw him run out of a math class like a bat out of hell they’d understand why I thought he had some natural ability.  The other teachers and headmasters laughed pretty hard and got a kick out my story.  As for the girls, there were only 3 that finished.  The girl who came in third did so by a considerable margin, but I kept watching her and cheering her on.  Other students asked me why the heck I was still paying attention and I told them that they really couldn’t talk crap about this girl because they were sitting on the sidelines watching.  Me and a few other students ran the last lap with the girl and cheered her into the finish.  I heard many of the other students cheering her as she came to the results table saying “Ana moyo!” (She’s got heart!), so that made me happy to see. 

The 3000 meter race was the final event, so after it was completed I started from the track back towards the school.  However, I noticed a crowd of students gathered under a tree beside the track so I figured I’d have a look.  When I pushed my way through the crowd I saw a girl lying down in the lap of another student with her eyes closed.  There was another teacher sitting there also, just kind of waiting around.  I asked what happened and another teacher from another school who didn’t speak English that well told me she “froze”.  I didn’t know what that meant or what he was trying to say, but I figured she’d fainted from the heat since she was one of the girls who ran several events.  I waited about another 2 minutes before I asked if anyone was bringing water or glucose for her.  They said there was a boy going to get water and sugar but after about another 5 minutes of this poor little girl lying there seemingly unconscious I began to get seriously worried.  Most Tanzanians are notorious for not drinking water or drinking it in ridiculously small amounts.  Students always ask me why I carry a water bottle with me to class and go completely bonkers when I tell them I drink about 3 liters a day.  Because of this, I figured that this girl most likely hadn’t drank water in over 24 hours and went out and ran about 5km in the African sun and was severely dehydrated and needed water and electrolytes fast.  Nobody was doing anything but standing around and looking at this girl so I told them I had a huge jug of glucose (aka lemon lime Gatorade) at my house which was about 200 yards away so I quickly ran to get some.  I grabbed my huge tub of Gatorade, some sugar, and a bowl of salt.  When I got back the girl was still laying there, and hadn’t moved in over 15 minutes.  I was seriously worried.  I asked if they called anyone to bring a car to take her to the hospital and they said they had a private car coming.  At this point I thought I was going to see a student pass away in front of my eyes.  Finally, a boy arrived with the water bottles and I mixed the Gatorade, sugar, and salt and handed them to the teacher holding the little girl.  The girl was so out of it she couldn’t drink on her own so the other teacher opened her mouth and slowly, little by little, poured the Gatorade down her throat.  After a few sips she still wasn’t moving and I started to get real panicked.  The teacher continued to feed the girl small sips of water, but could only do so slowly because the girl couldn’t drink on her own.  Finally after she was nearly finished with the first small water bottle she started to respond to questions and was trying to open her eyes.  I handed the teacher the second bottle of glucose/water mix and he started to feed that to her as well.  As he started to have her drink the second water bottle, the private car showed up and they loaded her into it.  I kept telling the teacher and the other people in the car that they needed to continue to feed her the water, but I wasn’t sure if they understood or not.  Just before the car drove off, I saw the little girl leaned against the backseat of the car, this time with her eyes open for the first time in over 20 minutes.  I tentatively breathed a small sigh of relief that she’d be fine, figuring the hospital would know she was just severely dehydrated and would be able to give her something to help.  After the car left, the crowd around the tree where the girl had collapsed began to disperse.  I walked back towards the school with one of the teachers from another school and he said to me “God bless you, thank you so much for your help”.  As I found out later in the day, the girl ended up being okay but I never did find out exactly was the problem was.  I’m just glad that she was okay.

The third and final day ended with a soccer match between my school Ismani and another school.  Again the match was at dusk, and was played against the backdrop of the setting sun over the rolling hills behind the school ground.  The weather has started to get chilly, well relatively at least, since winter is on its way in June and July.  I know that I won’t get much sympathy for the ‘cold’ weather here from those of you living in the north of America, but the temperature probably drops to the mid 50’s at night which is cold enough to make most Tanzanians bust out their winter jackets.  Seriously, no lie, winter jackets.  But anyway, I was invited to pull up a chair alongside the headmasters from the other schools as well as some of the other teachers and watch the match.  I shot the breeze with all the old Tanzanian men, showing off what Kiswahili I knew, and enjoyed the match.  However, my school was defeated 2-0 which was slightly disappointing.  Our coach, and my neighbor Charles, took the loss pretty hard.  I saw him slinking away from the field after the students from the opposing school rushed the field.  I tried to console him but it was the same as trying to console me after a Michigan Football loss to an inferior school, like Michigan State (sorry Lindsey, it was too easy).  What I mean is that it didn’t do much good.  Another benefit of having the competition held at our school was that teachers who helped with the events were fed lunch and dinner, which meant that I cooked even less than I normally do.  By my standards the food was good, typical Tanzanian cuisine, but tasted even sweeter given the fact that I didn’t need to spend the time to cook it.  So after the soccer match, all the teachers met in the staff office for dinner.  My neighbor Charles reluctant came in with his head down.  The teacher of the school that won the match couldn’t resist ribbing us a little jokingly calling Charles “the big loser”.  Even though it was my school that lost, I couldn’t help but laugh because I’d probably do the same thing to my sister or other friends if my team beat theirs.

The next morning, Thursday, I woke up earlier than normal because I wanted to make it in time to see the selection process.  The best students from all 4 schools would be selected to stay and train for 2 days before the regional competition the coming weekend.  All the students from the visiting schools as well as from my school lined up in the courtyard and one by one students’ names were called.  When a student from my school was chosen, they got a loud ovation since we had the home crowd.  After all the students names were called, the headmaster started to call teachers names that would also be staying to help coach the students over the next two days.  As he was finishing the reading of the names I started to walk to the office to do a little reading when all the students started yelling my name.  Apparently I wasn’t listening closely enough because the headmaster had called my name as one of the teachers chosen to stay and coach!  I was dumbstruck and couldn’t believe they wanted my help.  Since we already had coaches for soccer, volleyball, and netball I figured they wanted my help to coach the track team.  The headmasters from all the schools called me into their office and asked if I could be interested in training the track team.  Of course I jumped at the chance and agreed immediately.  The only thing was that they wanted me to start in about 1 hour so I quickly went home and started to write up a game-plan.  Now, considering there was only two days to coach the kids, you couldn’t really do too much in terms of physical activity (or so I thought) so I focused on the obvious things like when running a distance 800 meters or longer, you can move to the inside track.  I saw many students start in an outside lane and run the entire race there.  To most of us it’s obvious this makes the race longer.  I also planned to teach other things like drafting, proper hydration, how to start properly, and how to finish properly.  So the first day consisted of an hour and half in the classroom going over these topics.  Thankfully, I had another teacher who knew Kiswahili so he was able to take my notes and pretty much translate them.  As it turns out, most of the kids who excel in sports here are kids in the lower streams, which mean their English is pretty poor.  After our in class training session I went home and changed into my running gear and we went out to the track to do some actual physical practice.  I introduced the idea of warming up and stretching; other ideas that were completely foreign to most of these kids.  Then we worked on the proper way to finish and to start.  Another issue I saw was that many students did a very nice Usain Bolt imitation.  This means they slowed up at the finish to point to the sky in celebration of their victory.  I knew at the regional level they would only have one chance to run and their times would be recorded so I told them please no more Usain Bolt imitations; you need to finish hard and fast. 

The next morning we woke up early to get some training in before the sun got to hot.  The evenings here during the winter can get pretty chilly, but during the day, the sun can be real hot, which I guess is not surprising since we are basically on the equator.  Anyway, I planned on having the students running the short distances practice their events and was going to take the students running the longer distances on a longer run.  However, after doing our warm-up and stretching, when I told the group that we were going to spilt up, the students running the short distances insisted on coming on the long run instead.  At first I resisted, but then thought, what the hell why not.  So me and about 28 kids set off for a 6km run.  I wish you could have been there to see what some of these kids were wearing.  About half of them were wearing flip flops, a quarter of them were wearing skirts/dresses, and another quarter of them were wearing jeans.  Many of them even had shoes similar to jellies (of mid 90’s fashion craze fame).  I looked around me and just shook my head, not believing that they would be able to make a 6kn run in flip flops and a skirt.  I mean I felt a little awkward with my fancy running shoes, slick new balance warm-up jacket, and ironman watch.  I thought about chucking it all and grabbing a pair of sandals just to see if it was possible but after seeing the terrain we were running through I thought better of it.  Anyway, I originally stayed back with a group of slower runners as we ran through a neighboring village but the other coach offered to hang back with them so that I could catch up and run with the faster group.  As I approached the pack of kids, I realized what a motley crew it was.  They looked woefully unprepared to run 6km in my opinion, but then I realized I was busting my ass to catch up to the 14 year old girl running in sandals and figured they’d be fine.  We finally made it to the main junction of the neighboring village at about the 3km mark and I had to literally grab them and hold them back from continuing on.  When I called out to them to stop they started yelling “teacher! We aren’t scared! Are you tired??” I know you won’t believe me but I really wasn’t tired and would have liked nothing more to see how far these kids could go, but the longest race any of them would run was 3km, with some running just a 100 meters so I thought that since the competition was less than 2 days away it was do more harm than good to let them push themselves to the limit.  Additionally, I didn’t want to see another student faint because of extreme dehydration so I convinced them stop and wait for the rest of the group to catch up.  As we were waiting, people from the village started to come out of their houses to see what all the commotion was.  The kids started jumping up and down and chanting in Kiswahili.  I honestly had no idea what they were saying but they were jumping, shouting, and cheering on their fellow athletes as they came into the junction.  It really got me pumped up and I excitedly joined in on the jumping and chanting.  It was one of those moments I have here when I say “holy cow, this is legit. I’m running with a pack of kids in the middle of rural Tanzania.” After everyone made it to the junction, we started back towards the school at a blistering pace.  It’s amazing that these kids enjoyed running so much.  I mentioned this in a previous post but you don’t really see running in America this filtered down to its essence.  These kids just took off without having any idea how far they were going, how fast they were going, or how long they were running for.  They ran just to see how far they could push themselves and just ran for the pure enjoyment of running.  It was truly exciting to see what, in my opinion, real running should look like.  During the middle of the day we just relaxed because the sun was really too hot to do much of anything then had one final training session in the evening.  I faced the same problem again; the kids wanted to push on further and were begging me to let them continue.  I tried to explain that if we kept going, they’d be real sore for their events the following day but they didn’t really seem to care.  All they said to me was “teacher, we aren’t scared!”  I was flabbergasted.  These kids were basically begging me to let them run another 6-7km to make that a total of 14 km in one day.  Most of them probably don’t do anything near formal training yet they were all pumped up to push on further.  I told them that we really needed to just relax, and that second semester we’d start up a running club.  On the return run, the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of starting a running club here in Africa so I think that will be one of my projects when school starts back up in July.

The next morning the students left for their competition.  Because of monetary constraints, I wasn’t able to travel with them but as I sit here writing this post, they should be finishing up their completion and I should know the results within a day or two.  I’m hoping that at least a few of them are chosen to compete at the regional level.  If some are chosen, I’m going to try and see if there is any way I can make it out to the competition to see them run.  Either way, the experience was awesome even though it lasted two days.  It made me realize how much I love to coach.  I enjoy teaching, but I think the best job I’ve ever had was coaching a swim team for two years while I was in college.  For me there’s just something extremely fulfilling and rewarding about trying to get a kid to push him or herself and see what they are truly capable of.  When I get back to the states, I think regardless of what my job is I’m going to try to get back into coaching in some shape or form.

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25 05 2011
Don’t allow the grass to grow | ITSOGS

[…] Mwalimu wa Michezo Twitter This Usuario: […]

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