“Sometimes we all sing Happy Birthday together, but that’s all. Today it is the kids. They have planned a surprise for Richard.” The teacher explained in her limited English.
It is Friday, the end of my second week working with the kids at my new project, I have arrived early and ready for a day’s classes. The grey clouds look down on us and I can smell the threat of rain. The mud bath that serves as a road was lying in wait for its next victim, I had beaten it today. Its potholes and lumps and bumps are artfully hidden under the pools of rainwater, waiting for the unsuspecting car or mzungu volunteer. Correction – the mud lurked not waited, I am certain it is a living thing.
There are 26 kids attending the “school” that is my new project. It is organised for those who have dropped out of education due to the extreme poverty which is their day-to-day life. Most failed standard seven at Primary school so even if their families could afford it they probably wouldn’t, most have brothers and sisters and many live with Aunts or Grandparents. Many of them are falling asleep after an hour of lessons. They come here with an empty stomach. Breakfast is a luxury not the norm.
If they were not here?
Well, the streets beckon to a bored, hungry child seeking company.
“Today is Richard’s birthday Teacher.” The girl explained in case I had missed the relevance of the three feet high pronouncement artistically chalked on my blackboard.
Classes continued as usual but sheathed in an atmosphere of anticipation, the underlying excitement of the kids was almost palpable and my lesson found itself drawn to the subject of birthdays. I wondered what the end of the school day would bring and was completely caught up in the suspense and drama.
This is what my life in Tanzania is like. Each day I get up and go about whatever it is I have planned for the day. I moan and struggle with the much-needed Big Rains and its wonderful bed mate, Tanzanian Snow aka MUD. Then bang, wallop, right in the midst of normality events take me on an emotional rollercoaster ride, with no warning or hint at preparation. What those kids did for Richard’s birthday surprised me and the hyper respectful way in which it was conducted was one of the most humbling experiences to date.
Once classes finished for the day all the kids collected in the larger of the two rooms that we call a school sitting on the borrowed plastic chairs, there are no desks here. The ancient blackboard with its crumbling 2cm crack through the centre (it gets me every time I try to write my lesson) is covered with the happy colourful message Happy Birthday Richard. Coloured chalk courtesy of G Man, thanks G we miss you.
When the children were sure they were ready and prepared it was time for two of them to go and collect the guest of honour who was sat at the neighbouring shop cum café cum social spot cum private home. The “escorts” selected, they went across and “invited” Richard to join the rest of the class. The boy and girl chosen walked arm in arm to the amusement and cat calling of their classmates – these are teenagers, 13 to 17. Richard was ceremoniously escorted back between them, all three linking arms and boasting smiles that make the Cheshire Cat look positively depressed.
I watched in silent amusement as Richard sat at the front of the class and speeches made (all by the kids). I wasn’t really following things but the formal structure to the “party” made me smile. Suddenly one of the boys appeared with a small plate piled high with small biscuit like cakes and a real Anthony Hopkins in the Shining type carving knife. Richard ceremoniously attempted to carve several of the pastries into bit sizes and two forks appeared. Richard then stood and made a short speech which my ears only managed to understand one word of, the name of the Mama who is in charge of the teaching process. Richard walked over to the said teacher and fed her the first piece of pastry whilst the kids applauded.
I was in awe and caught up in the moment, not really trying to follow the words but preferring to drink in the atmosphere and watch the kid’s reactions. I was startled out of my reverie by the familiarity of the words “Teacher Gill” and became aware that I was the focus of attention. One of the older girls stood and translated Richard’s words. I can only recall the first few because of the strength of my emotions at that moment. Richard wanted to dedicate the second piece of pastry to me. He came toward me with a massive grin, he has an incredibly open and honest face which is often serious beyond his years but today he was the world champion grinner, he came and ceremoniously fed me the second piece of his gift to the class.
This sharing of cake and dedication of the first few pieces is apparently a custom here, but this was the first time I had witnessed it and please remember these are youngsters. I was and am completely blown away. The rest of the biscuits were ceremoniously presented to the rest of the staff one by one and then Richard selected a few of his classmates and there were quite a few scenes of two friends feeding each other. Think wedding and champagne flutes and then substitute forks.
Once this was over the children then ceremoniously presented Richard with a very old and used looking cardboard hat, a paper flower, handmade garland and a tired second or third hand card of some sort. Then more food arrived which I now understand the children had supplied with funds they each asked their families and friends to donate. Please don’t think pizza and soda. There was a handful of popcorn, two plain biscuits, roasted peanuts and a couple of candies each. This feast was carefully dished out on to borrowed plates and handed out with instruction to share, one plate to each two children. Wanting to help I took a plate to distribute to the waiting children and I was confused when the boy I approached refused to take the plate saying firmly “no”. The plate was taken from me and correctly distributed.
“Richard has said he wants all the girls to be served first, then the teachers, then the boys.” The Mama explained. At this a plate was thrust into my hand and I was encouraged to tuck in.
To try to explain the strength of these things you need to reflect on the backdrop of Richard’s and all the children’s upbringing. Women and girls are still second class citizens here by and large. They have no inheritance rights, are expected to wash, clean and cook for the males in the family and forced or arranged marriages are common. Female Genital Mutilation is a common practice here for God’s sake. It is a measure of the work being done here and the willingness of the people that there are young people such as Richard who are happy to fly in the face of custom and show his female classmates respect.
The afternoon continued with much joy and happiness and a lot of dancing. Why did the kids do this for Richard? Because he has flown in the face of adversity and survived, a capable and bright student, one of the few that passed standard seven before his Grandmother’s inability to pay school fees stepped in. He has been with the project for two years and must feel some level of frustration at not having been sponsored for secondary school in last year’s successful sponsorship programme. Yet he has faced that disappointment and come forward as a leader amongst the kids, offering translation assistance to the many volunteers that pass through the doors. He tutors and mentors the younger ones and is the Class Baba, (Father).
He is a charming and delightful young man who wants to be a tour guide when he is older, or maybe a musician or movie actor he told me.
I am honoured to have been included at his birthday celebrations.