On education and all that stands against it

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There comes a moment in everyone’s life when we feel like maybe we haven’t done enough, contributed enough. Like we can do more. Be more. Be better. We search for that one experience, that missing part that will push us to become the very best version of ourselves.

Upon reflecting on what I need to do in order to grow, I decided the best way to find out would be to go back to where it all started: Africa, the very cradle of humankind. I took this old dream, the last missing piece of my AIESEC experience and, through the PwC Global Volunteer Fund, signed up for a project that would contribute in the only way I knew would last permanently – through education, by working on SDG #4 – Quality Education.

My Little Traveling Library caught my attention because it seemed to offer more than what could be seen on the surface. As a project focused on teaching English to primary school children in the rural area of Tanzania, its aim was to give youth the time needed to actually be young, while at the same time widening their pool of opportunities.

The only language used on primary level throughout the entire country is Swahili. However, as pupils move on to the secondary school, the entire curriculum suddenly switches to English. Often times, students have a hard time adapting to the new system and they end up losing one or two years of education because of it. The aim of our project was to prevent that from happening, to ensure that everyone is able to join secondary school and they won’t lose precious time.

With every class, every book, song and game, I tried to plant the seed of curiosity, of ambition in the minds of the children. You cannot teach a language in six weeks, but you can show them the way, help build new habits around studying English and encourage them to believe in their own potential. You can make them believe that their dreams aren’t unattainable if they put in the effort.

So that’s exactly what I did – I taught and sang and read and played with them every class, every day. There were moments that felt like they would last forever, good and bad alike. One day, one of my students came to the front of the class to share a sentence in English. What he wrote down broke my heart: “I am hungry”.  I didn’t know how to respond or process it – nothing in my life had prepared me for anything like that. The other volunteers continued the lesson and we moved on to a different topic. Still, I remained frozen, realizing that, for so long, I had been trying to teach children who cannot focus on studying because they are hungry.

That education is the key to improve the world but it’s still a long term vision. And that planning and thinking ahead is a luxury not many people can afford. Not when you have to worry about what you’re going to eat tomorrow.

Tomorrow will always be a priority. It’s something that still echoes in my head, that I’ll probably always remember. That if I want to make a contribution to the world, if I want to help people grow into their best selves, then I must provide them with the freedom to not worry about tomorrow.

There were also many moments of complete bliss that I will keep with me forever, like when my students put flowers in my hair for the graduation ceremony or all the times we danced at the end of the class. All throughout my internship I was so focused on giving, that it took me a while to realize how much I was receiving. My students taught me how to speak out loud, to trust in what I want, to be humble and to always stay curious. By trying to teach them a lesson, I was reminded of what I needed to learn myself – finding courage to embrace uncertainty, becoming comfortable with being vulnerable.

In saying goodbye to Tanzania, I’m also saying goodbye to the person I used to. Before going on exchange I was worried – I didn’t feel nervous or as if I was taking a huge leap outside of my comfort zone. Now I can only laugh at those memories and at not realizing from the very beginning that the biggest changes you’ll ever go through don’t break down your walls, but rather sneak underneath your skin, unnoticed, until you end up looking back in disbelief of how much you’ve changed.

If I were to leave you with one message in the end, it would be this: When in doubt, volunteer. Go somewhere new and look for opportunities to be of service. We all want to leave our mark in the world,  but how will you know what the world actually needs if you don’t go out there and find it out for yourself? How will you know what you’re made of unless you crack yourself open? Dare to dream big and go far. Playing small never served anyone.

If you want to see more, go to Youth4GG.


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