Monday 17 June 2013

Sweetman Opens Middle Ages to Tanzanian Students, Finds God

My wife and I had the chance to spend some time in Tanzania visiting our daughter who has been living and working in the southwestern city of Mbeya since the beginning of September last. For one of our three weeks in Tanzania we lived and worked at the Olive Branch for Children, the NGO that our daughter works for. It is a small organization that does a lot with very little. On a budget of about $120,000 annually it runs two houses for AIDS orphans, runs 20 Montessori kindergartens that serve 500 students, runs fifteen public health offices in a chronically underserved part of Tanzania near Mbeya, runs a micro-loans program for entrepreneurs, a small bank, and a couple of rice farms so as to defray the cost of the food used to feed its orphans, employees etc. All but one of its paid staff are Tanzanian and all receive Tanzanian salaries. Its fundraising occurs in Canada and is done by volunteers. The money, well over 90% of it, goes directly into program support. Quite a little organization, and chronically struggling with financial issues because it pays too little attention to fundraising. It constantly acts because it’s the right thing to do; not because it is the prudent thing to do. In that way it reminded me a lot of ICS.

Rosanne and I were given the chance to work with intermediate primary students at the school the Olive Branch runs for its child wards. I worked with a number of students on Medieval Europe. We used the Bayeaux Tapestry and its many images as a way to illustrate social and political formation in the Middle Ages. They used the comic-book like artistic forms of the Tapestry to illustrate stories of their own making. We spent a lot of time using found materials to build a large model motte and bailey castle complete with field system surrounding it. We listened to and discussed Chretien de Troyes’ Perceval, that bumbling boy-knight who inaugurated in literature the famous search for the Holy Grail. And we studied some basic Latin grammar and vocabulary. To my surprise they went for it with enthusiasm. Rosanne did a unit on story writing helping another group of intermediate primary students tell their life’s story, illustrate it and turn the result into books, an exercise culminating in an “Authors’ Evening” when they read their stories to the orphanage community as a whole. As we heard the stories of the children we were working with and tried to put those stories together with the bright and engaged youngsters we had in front of us, we found ourselves at a loss. These 9-11 year olds had suffered a great deal already in their young lives. They had been abandoned by their fragile and at risk families, for the middle generation of adults was missing, victims of AIDS. Here was the human refuse of the AIDS crisis in this part of Africa; that was clear from the stories we were entrusted with. And yet . . . such bright and shining eyes, such interest and care for each other, such a willingness to take up the opportunities offered to them, such a capacity for love and imagination and joy!

Our living conditions were typically Tanzanian. The water was bad, the bathroom facilities not what a North American has come to imagine as normal. All food was cooked on charcoal and the fare while healthy was repetitive and plain. The living quarters spare and open to the elements and the critters, lots of those. But these brave cast-offs did not think of themselves as institutionalized and impoverished but as part of a family going places, as brothers and sisters in a family in which all must work together and contribute if things are to continue to go well. We felt the privilege we had been given to serve these children; we were transfixed time and again by their smiles and their hugs. Grace, that is what we received in a dozen and more small moments. Of course, you don’t have to read the parables of Jesus too attentively to realize that our experience should come as no surprise. There is something biblical about the pattern. Among the outcasts, the lepers, the widows and orphans, the poor of all stripes—that is where God so often has chosen to dwell. What were the Hebrews if not a slave people, Galileans of Nazareth if not the rubes and hicks of the Syrio-Palestinian world? And yet there and among them is where God chose to dwell among us. What would be surprising about seeing his face in the bright eyes and smiles of Tanzanian orphans? Or in the unexpected excellence of Christian reflection produced at a small donation dependent school that should have passed from this world decades ago if prudence were the only principle at play? But that is the wonder of God’s world. There is more at play than prudence, and we can all be grateful for that. I am thanking God for Grace in “unlikely” places: at the Olive Branch for Children in Tanzania, and at the ICS in Toronto. Won’t you join me in the month to come?

Bob Sweetman