Teaching in Africa: Are My Students in Zanzibar Actually Fine?

May 15, 2014
Teaching in Africa

“Good morning teacha’!”

Every day at 7:15 am, 35 teenagers in identical black and white uniforms welcome me into my classroom with this monotone greeting.

A cloud of chalkboard dust billows towards me from across the room as that one reliable student finishes wiping the board clean. I respond to my class with the same three-word greeting so common in America, and ask, “How are you?”

“We are fine,” they drone together every day. When I went through this routine with my dad for years, I’d at least respond “good, in that same mechanized tone.”

Are they really fine? Is everyone on this island really just fine?

I have learned that in Kiswahili when someone asks “Habari?” or how are you, you must respond with “Nzuri,” which essentially means good. In America, I feel like people take the opportunity to complain when they are posed with that classic question even if the person asking really does not care. So, in Zanzibar even if you are really not fine you, are trained to always say, “I am fine” or “Nzuri.”

Walking into my classroom, my students act as if they are all being fed a teleprompter script morning after morning. But my school doesn’t even have running water and there definitely isn’t a teleprompter.

After a few days of getting the same colorless greeting, I brought in pictures of people laughing and crying and taught my class emotions.

“You don’t have to be ‘fine’ all the time,” I said. They replied with perplexed blank stares. So I went around the room and asked each of them how they felt.

Some were happy, some had headaches, others were excited, and still others were hungry. Their responses left me with mixed emotions. I felt like maybe I was defying their culture by asking them to actually share their feelings, but also that maybe I was not ready to hear almost half the class tell me they were hungry.

At the same time, however, I understood that I’d allowed them to feel heard.

Coming from a generation of Americans nicknamed “Generation Me,” where children feel entitled to speak their feelings, I have always felt heard. There is a certain your-wish-is-my-command type of attitude in at least the middle- to upper-classes of America, which is completely unheard of in at least the environments I have experienced in Zanzibar.

I have seen plenty of smiling faces here on this beautiful island, but does that really mean that deep down the people are happy?

My students do not ask for much. When I say time is up, they do not ask for extra time on an assignment. They just respectfully turn it in. As a child growing up, I know that on a host of occasions, I demanded extra time from my teachers, declaring that it was unfair. No matter how many times my mom repeatedly told me that life is not fair, I just did not really get it–until now.

Life is so not fair. Malaria is like the common cold here and when I’ve run out of paper for my students’ exams, no one really seems to care. It’s just life. My students don’t demand much at all. Despite our lesson on feelings, I don’t think we’ll get beyond “fine” or “nzuri” all the time.

As an outsider who is looking at their bland responses, I just find it so unnatural to always respond in a positive manner. I believe that exploring feelings is a necessary part of everyone’s life because if one never shares how she feels, how can she truly be happy?

I see the dung huts my students live in and the rice they eat day after day. They are not guaranteed anything–electricity, running water, clean water, even food. I can’t help but think, from my perspective, how can they be okay?

After a full week of teaching, I was able to remove my critical lens and see this as simply their way of life. Their easygoing attitudes and go-with-the-flow lifestyle instill this feeling of always being fine. Still, I will continue to ask my students how they are actually feeling. They are not always fine. They are hungry and tired and happy and surprised and glad. They have a multitude of emotions that deserve to be heard and not masked behind their school’s instructions on how to greet a teacher.

About Emma Way

Emma Way volunteered in Zanzibar through America’s Unofficial Ambassadors.

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