- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — They are packed in so tightly there is barely room for a splinter of light between their bodies. The paint slapped over the cement walls is cracking. A dull light bulb hangs by a wire from the ceiling.

They have no textbooks. Few if any have more than a primary school education. But their eyes glisten with enthusiasm.

“Good evening, everyone. How are you?”

“Fine, teacher! How are you!”

Never mind the cheap plastic chairs or the odor of a cramped room without air conditioning; these students are proud to take part even in a small greeting.

In this large east African nation, only slightly more than half of primary school students pass the government test for acceptance to secondary school. An expensive private education is the only option for the rest, and college is all but out of reach for most, a dilemma that translates into scores of young Tanzanians on the street with no means of sustenance.

English, then, is a commodity - it could mean a coveted job in the tourism industry, a teaching post, a position with an international company; a ticket out of poverty.

“It will help me with my life,” says Godwin Charles, a 15-year-old whose family moved to Tanzania to escape violence in neighboring Uganda. “After education, I go to work in other countries, maybe America, that are using English.”

His dream, he says with stout assurance, is to one day manage an airline.

Such faith in education echoes throughout Ezra Ministries, a small school nestled among the cement houses and sandy paths of Gongolamboto, a village outside Tanzania’s biggest city.

Godwin is one of a few hundred students taking advantage of classes at the humble if not dilapidated campus, where English lessons are free of charge.

For most of Tanzania’s 40 million people, disposable income is a hypothetical concept. About 36 percent live in poverty, according to 2006 World Bank statistics, with more than 57 percent living on a dollar a day or less, according to a 2005 Tanzanian government survey.

Money here buys food, clothing and medical care before it buys education.

It was with this truism in mind that Pastor Tshiye Nyamugusha founded Ezra five years ago as an antidote to the suffering he says he witnessed as a preacher traveling across sub-Saharan Africa. He gave the nascent school the motto: “Stretch out a helping hand to lift others up with you.”

Road to a better life

Ezra’s nightly English class for beginners is a cross-section of generations: businessmen who take the bus in from the city, still in their ties; teenagers who are in the work force because they can’t afford secondary school; housewives on a break from cooking; and retirees, who despite having lived most of their lives without knowing English for some reason are compelled to learn.

Some come from villages miles away; others stroll from down the road. Asked why they wish to learn English, one man says he is a preacher and wants to spread the gospel to as many people as possible.

Others, like Godwin, answer it’s the international business language. A grandfather wants to make sure his young descendents can speak it perfectly.

“Tonight, we’re going to be learning possessive pronouns,” says an American volunteer, pointing at a weathered blackboard. “Say it with me: puh-zes-iv proh-nouns.”

They oblige and start copying a chart. Some pull out rulers to ensure the lines in their notebooks are as straight as possible.

The occasional cell phone ringing in class is about the only similarity between Ezra and a typical U.S. school. Chickens roam outside the classrooms, tiny lizards often crawl across the cinder-block walls and the sound of lively African music blaring from a restaurant next door easily wafts through the nonexistent windows.

Extreme poverty is less widespread in urban areas like this suburb of Dar es Salaam than in outlying tribal regions, where survival is the priority. But its strain is still visible.

In Gongolamboto, most homes are box-shaped cement structures with tin roofs; the very poor live in homes made of mud and sticks. Water comes from wells in the ground and malaria is common. Villagers, with few articles of clothing to their names, often wear the same thing for several days in a row.

Inevitably, the byproduct is people here have a fervent appreciation for learning. Students routinely arrive at school 30 to 60 minutes before class and stay for more than an hour after, going over the day’s lessons with each other. When being taught, they are silent and fixated on their teacher’s every word. At the end of class, they come forward with lists of words they find in the Oxford dictionary or glean from hip hop songs, asking translations.

“There are some people who didn’t have a chance to go to school,” observes Baitu Mjahuza, 27, who studies at the school’s computer lab. “Maybe they are orphans, maybe their parents are poor. People, they get education here for free.”

Ezra’s charitable mission, however, presents Pastor Tshiye, as he likes to be called, with a Catch-22. He wants to offer English courses for free, but doing so renders him unable to pay the teachers, who instead volunteer their time in exchange for meals and vocational classes. Nor can he afford basic materials, Internet access for Ezra’s computer lab or even the cash to build wooden shelves to store its stock of donated books. He can barely scrape together enough money to pay the rent each month.

But this hardly disturbs the man’s unshakable confidence, one that surely finds its roots in his own story.

One man’s calling

Pastor Tshiye, 43, studied rural development before becoming a customs officer in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo. He married a Tutsi refugee from Rwanda with whom he had two daughters.

A peaceful existence was not to be, however, and his life was turned upside down by the First Congo War in 1997. A Rwandan general, part of the forces who invaded what was then known as Zaire to topple the longtime dictator Mobutu, kidnapped his wife and forced her to live with him. He allowed her to take her daughters.

“I wanted to destroy him,” Pastor Tshiye says of the man who took his family. “I tried to get my wife. I wanted to see my children.”

The following year, he accompanied his brothers and sisters to France, only to return to Africa in a final bid to reunite with his wife. But she wanted to stay with the man who was once her captor. Heartbroken, he traveled as a preacher, landing in Tanzania in 2000.

After two years of studying project management at the University of Tanzania, he opened an Internet cafe near Dar es Salaam International Airport. “I was doing well,” he says of his business.

But not everyone was so fortunate. On the weekends, he preached to local congregations that included some of the area’s poverty-stricken families.

“When I passed through churches, I saw how people are suffering,” he recalls. He began teaching informal English classes at his one-room cafe, closing it to customers in the morning as he taught and opening it for business in the afternoon. He talked a friend into doing the opposite to accommodate more students.

The classes soon overflowed in a clear signal that people were desperate for education. “It is like a calling,” says the pastor, whose youthful appearance hides any trace of his travails.

He shut down his business and Ezra Ministries was born. He used the proceeds from his Internet cafe and secured the rest by writing letters to American philanthropists. In 2004, he moved into the cozy compound at Gongolamboto.

Ezra is buttressed by a staff of about 30 volunteers, usually recruited by Pastor Tshiye from church or through former students. They receive no formal training; most learn to teach by translating for American volunteers who come through United Planet, a Boston-based nonprofit that organizes volunteer trips abroad.

Teachers, like 21-year-old Amina Kimweri and 22-year-old Pascal Chandrakant can be found here more than 12 hours each day, hanging out under the shade of the courtyard’s two trees around a table when they’re not teaching class.

Some, like 20-year-old Jacob Senkoba, even spend the night on the cement floor of the school’s computer lab.

“At the time that I came here, I had nothing. I had nothing to do,” says Mr. Senkoba of the days after his graduation from secondary school. Now, he teaches Ezra’s vocational course on computer usage and his aspiration is to become a software programmer. Like others his age, he has dreams of studying at a college in the U.S. but such an idea is little more than a fantasy without an affluent sponsor or a scholarship.

“I like to give other guys knowledge,” says the young man known for his cheerful demeanor. “A lot of people in this area can’t afford to pay to get knowledge.”

‘They all ran away’

Ezra has awarded about 1,000 certificates to graduates of the school’s English and vocational courses, Pastor Tshiye estimates. Graduates have gone on to land jobs at embassies, multinational corporations and hotels, while low-cost vocational courses have helped women and other vulnerable residents find work as tailors or electricians.

“People here, they don’t think about their future,” he says, adding that some of Tanzania’s 130 tribes encourage women to marry very young, lessening the perceived need for education. “You have to convince some of them.”

The course lengths vary depending upon how well the students appear to have mastered their lessons, he says. Usually, it’s somewhere between six and eight months, after which time teachers administer an exam of almost 100 questions.

In the past, Ezra has tried charging $5 a month for English classes, but students retreated so that idea was scrapped. “They all ran away,” Pastor Tshiye recalls with a laugh.

To make ends meet, the school charges fees for its nursery school ($10 per month) and vocational classes ($60 a course). Still, Ezra struggles to pay its $200 monthly rent and other bills.

On a recent afternoon, men from the electric company came and tore down the wire that carried power to the building, forcing teachers to use candles for the 7 p.m. night classes.

Pastor Tshiye has tried asking the community for help but any donations he receives are very small. He says he will probably have no choice but to raise the price of vocational courses to maybe $100 or $150.

“Fundraising here is hard because people don’t have money,” he says. “What we are fighting is to pay the rent here. Really, we don’t have enough materials. We cannot afford to make some shelves.”

‘Mama mzungu’

Like other sub-Saharan nations, Tanzania is battling an HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Prime Minister Mizengo Pindain June confirmed that the percentage of those infected dropped to 6 percent of the population in 2007 from 7 percent in 2003, but people living with the disease still face a deep-seated stigma in the country, particularly in rural areas. International subsidies help provide free or low-cost anti-retroviral drugs to citizens, but on a social level, a dearth of education on the topic results in isolation or neglect.

As part of its “Work on Field” initiative, Ezra offers free home-based care for local people living with HIV/AIDS, bringing them groceries and keeping them company. The program serves between 20 and 30 families.

“HIV, it is all over the world, there’s a kind of stigma,” says Pastor Tshiye. “Getting free medicine is not enough because they need food.”

The disease has likewise produced a multitude of orphans; 1.1 million children have lost at least one parent to HIV/AIDS, according to a 2006 UNAIDS report.

About one-half of the kids scampering about in the maroon-checkered uniforms of Ezra’s nursery school are orphans. In instances where the parents didn’t die of AIDS, their lives were claimed by other illnesses, or they are alive but mentally ill or in jail. Pastor Tshiye finds orphans homes in Gongolamboto and doesn’t charge the families school fees. The government provides no assistance.

Four-and-a-half-year-old twins Kulwa and Doto used to stand out among the other schoolchildren at Ezra’s nursery school. The girls were the only students who didn’t have uniforms; instead they wore torn, sullied blue dresses and little shoes that cut into their heels. Their pint-sized backpacks had broken zippers.

The sight made an impression on Sarah Scheuch, a 25-year-old volunteer from Kansas City who is helping teach nursery school classes at Ezra. Miss Scheuch decided to buy them each a pair of uniforms along with new shoes and backpacks for about 40,000 shillings, the equivalent of $40.

“They couldn’t stop touching them and twirling around,” Miss Scheuch says. “They kept telling their teachers and pastor how happy they were.”

Kulwa and Doto live in a room inside of a building made of sticks and mud along with their aunt, who is HIV positive and has exhausted most of her savings paying medical bills. Miss Scheuch recently met with the woman, who cannot read or write, and has committed to sponsoring the girls and plans to help their aunt save money to become a street vendor again. All were in tears by the end of the visit, she says.

“It was a very moving experience and I will never forget it,” Miss Scheuch says. “She was a little surprised that a white girl from the U.S. would do something like this and not be afraid of her even though she is sick. I gave her a big hug before I left and I could feel the relief and happiness in her body.”

Kulwa and Doto have started calling Miss Scheuch “mama mzungu,” or “white mom.”

‘God will help’

In Pastor Tshiye’s office, he keeps a poster with a map of the U.S. marking the names and states of the volunteers who have spent time at Ezra. The school has seen nearly 45 foreigners in all, each of whom brings a different skill to the campus. Miss Scheuch, for example, teaches special education to kindergarten through third grade back home in Kansas. The pastor asked her to train his teaching staff, a task she says she initially felt unqualified for but soon realized that they were grateful to learn anything they could.

Past volunteers have had such an impact in a matter of weeks or months that students still speak of them a year or two later as if they were just there. A woman from California who does Web design helped put together Ezra’s Web site. She also brought a book on the subject and trained Mr. Senkoba, who incorporated it into the computer class. Two volunteers last summer wrote an English teaching guide by hand that they photocopied for use by teachers of both beginner and intermediate classes. The booklet now serves as the road map for Ezra’s English lessons.

The problem with hosting volunteers, though, is that they come on an irregular basis, teaching several classes a day for two, four or maybe six weeks and then leaving. In the future, Pastor Tshiye says his goal is to have at least 15 volunteers a year so that they overlap.

“When volunteers are there, we say, ‘Thank God,’” he says.

But Ezra’s aspirations hardly end with attracting more volunteers. A couple of years ago, the pastor used a $4,000 donation from a Canadian resident to purchase a new plot of land double the size of where Ezra stands today. He wants to build a new, bigger school so he can offer more classes and own the building to eliminate rent payments.

“Our vision is to grow,” he says. The estimated price of building the new school is $8,000.

He also intends to find a means of income generation so that the school can sustain itself and pay its teachers in the future. Those plans so far include chicken farming on the vacant plot, opening an Internet cafe or perhaps even buying a city bus, which would guarantee a steady source of money.

“The plan is there and then I think God will help,” he says. “Where God will open doors, they will be open. No one can close them.”

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