Joshua was a Tembo, an Elephant. This was a fluid group that was to reach six members at its biggest and shrink to three at its smallest. But Joshua was a constant throughout and he was the one that created the team identity and sense of fellowship.

To start with his performance during my classes was not outstanding, he was always late, he would always attempt to ignore my chosen seat for him and always without fail grab a random book from the shelves declaring that he didn’t want to read my chosen book. However once I observed this ritual with my sighs and shaking of head and proclamations of “Hapana,” no and “kaa hapa” sit here, he would sit and join in the group reading of the story with the barest of attention. Although he refused to follow the words as his co Elephants read, when it was his turn he would always be able to find the right page and read his designated passage easily.

I don’t remember the change. I suppose it is the same with me. I don’t remember the early frustrations and sense of hopelessness leaving but they did, just the same as Joshua’s bright smile started to light up the library again.

Gradually he came home, that is how I think of it. One day I noticed him playing within a group of kids, he was the clear joker of the group and everyone loved him. His smile was back and it was creeping slowly toward his guarded eyes. Other staff would talk fondly of him and tell tales of his heart winning pranks. Suddenly he was always at the door of the Library five minutes early for class, he would round-up the other Elephants willingly and he developed the ability to read with feeling, first in the group.

Read with feeling.

That is my agenda. I dearly want these kids to find the escape route and hidden worlds tucked between the covers of the books. I hate the “read by rote” that I face with most of the kids. I refuse to say well done just because they can follow the rules of reading and pronunciation and make out a word. I insist upon more.

Frustrated with my lack of understanding of the Swahili stories I set about making sense of the pictures and words via a dictionary. Then I found the hidden treasure, tucked in the shelves of English books, battered and torn; The Story of the Crow and the Frog. I immediately recognised this as the English translation of the Kiswahili book I had read with the kids.


picture above of a similar book in the series posed by the young lady who has dubbed me Madame Jelli

We revisited the story with gusto, now I could read the Kiswahili to them with feeling. Now the Crow had his own deep dark voice and the young and old frogs had their own squeaky “rivet rivet” tones. Now the race came alive as I had the kids leave their seats and jump around the Library whilst I madly flapped my arms as the frustrated crow failed to beat the wily frogs!

We hammered that story across four or five weeks and every week the kids loved it more. Other teachers passed the door with a sideways glance at the rumpus that was within my Library. There is no solemn, stuffy peace and quiet in Madame Jelli’s Library. The chairs and tables were often piled high in a corner making room to enact the race.

In Starters, Joshua got it first. He was the first to start to add inflection and feeling as he read aloud and, with encouragement, the others shyly joined in.

As we entered November and the infamous Starters Mashindano (Competition) got underway and  Joshua was a regular visitor to the Library during Open Sessions when I would relax the reading only rule and allow Christmas drawings and encouraged the singing of songs and carols. Joshua would sit in a corner away from the hubbub and read.

His participation within Elephants was always exemplary and it was largely his efforts that achieved the team’s final placement of second. Since points were given for individual behaviour in class he was the one who would remonstrate if a co Elephant was misbehaving or failed to turn up. And the kids responded to him, through him they gained the cohesiveness of a club.

As the term started to wind down and preparations for the Christmas holidays, which are throughout the whole month of December, got underway Joshua was a bright, cheerful, helpful but still mischievous kid around Amani. He was truly transforming before my eyes.

The Christmas holidays are a busy time for the Social Workers as they use this extended season of goodwill as a testing ground for re unification with many of the children. I learned that Joshua and another boy from his remote village were both to go on a home visit in order for the Social Worker to meet their families and assess the home environment. This was when I first learned that Joshua comes from a village nearly 600 kilometres away from Arusha where we had rescued him from the streets.

I have posed this question before but I will repeat it.

How does a small fourteen year old with no shoes on his feet, no money in his pocket and no adult by his side make such a journey?

I still wonder, although research and conversations supply a variety of methods, from begging for the bus fare, to working on the bus either collecting fares or worse in exchange for a free ride, through to the extreme of hiding under a stationary bus and then grabbing the undercarriage and literally “hitching” a ride.

I cannot tell you how Joshua made his journey but I will leave you with these thoughts as you shut down these pages and prepare for your bus, train, car or bike journeys to your next destination.

For Joshua and all the kids at Amani.


10 thoughts on “Joshua – The Return of the Smile

  1. Wow, what amazing journey these children make just to learn. And here in the country too many children see school as something that wastes their time. My son (at 26) wishes now he had made more of an effort with his education even though I tried my hardest to make him understand how important it was, but in the end it is up to them wanting to learn. I wish Joshua and all the other children well. You are amazing, Gill.


    1. Oh thanks Paula, the kids give me so much! But I know what you mean and it amazes me how these kids can still be so open and eager to learn. The simplest things entrance them, That is why I am sitting here right now producing a Swahili crossword puzzle!!!!


  2. Such a heart warming storyand great tk see how your rapport with the students developed. Stories and books really are a wonderful way to connect and engage a child’s imagination. I am glsd Joshua found his smile again!


  3. Dear Gill

    Wonderful and so moving as always. As you say, how did Joshua make that physical journey that ended where it did? A place where there was someone, who he had no idea existed. A someone, who would help him through her patience, love and devotion become
    a different child. No longer a reticent, difficult and shy young elephant but a proud and confident member of the herd. And that person, is of course, Madame Jelli! God Bless you and keep you and all your little elephants safe and well.X


    1. Hi Penny,

      Thank you so much for the kind words. I am blown away by everyone’s support, I really am. I truly mean it when I say I am getting as much from this experience as I am giving, if not more. I feel privileged to be able to experience life here and it is something that will stay with me for ever, whatever my future holds. Love to you all and everyone else from the “old set”. Happy days and wonderful memories. With love xxx


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