Urban Gateways Artist-in-Residence Amanda Lichtenstein is teaching creative writing and theater to children in a rural village in Tanzania, as part of UG’s first international exchange with the International Theater and Literacy Project (ITLP), a New York City-based organization founded in 2005 to provide rural African communities with youth education through theater.
Below is an excerpt of a letter Amanda sent to the UG staff, sharing her experiences:
again i greet you a thousand times from the internet shed in tengeru market. many are gathered round these glowing screens, enjoying justin timberlake/t.i video on youtube. others are uploading photos of a recent wedding. a rooster crows, a cow groans, the world is quiet except for click clak of keyboards, and swahili laughing from time to time.
i do feel that my whole teaching artist life has flashed before me in the last week. we are trying everything with our group of 20 eighteen year olds, and they are totally ready to try anything. hitchiker, mirrors, moving through space, shapes, levels, tableauxs, poetry writing in groups, pairs, solo, just generating material, exploring ideas through movement, role play, meisner, neutral text, subtext, everything.
we are working on striking a balance between honoring traditional mode of theater, grappling with the notion that theater here is often defined by and linked to a wonky tradition of development/issue-based theater, and wanting to introduce more experimental methods of telling story and expressing collective feeling.
we’re also grappling with the tidal desire to reenact soap opera stories and swahili rap videos as seen on tv, which are both incredibly influential elements of contemporary tanzanian culture (even/especially?) in rural areas like patandi. even after a week of experimenting with breath and body, mind and voice, group and individual, the imagination and reality, when it came to making a play, students rallied for the didactic hiv/aids play, in which the main character always dies. there’s tons of tears, a funeral, and that’s that.
we decided (after long and challenging conversation in swahili and english) that we’d do a play about hiv/aids, as long as our students would be willing to tell a different story, or a new story, that would stray from their “true north” which is to reenact the same devastating story — probably scripted at one point from a development lens, — a psa — and never challenged.
so yes, our play is going to be about hiv/aids, but it is also about questions, and about a journey, and about being lost in a sea of misinformation, about the desire to be healthy, and be loved. we will keep you updated on its development…it’s a beautiful start. we are pushing to make this story personal, as when we asked if any knew of someone who had died of hiv/aids, over half raised their hand. when asked if any knew someone living with hiv/aids, all raised their hands. i read that the rate is actually pretty low in tanzania (6%), but the over percentage in all of africa is still high, and is constantly on young people’s minds.
they know it’s out there, but they don’t have information often times, and even when they do receive information, there’s a great deal at risk in order to get condoms, talk to partners, make informed choices. it’s a lot to take on in 2 weeks, but students are up for the challenge.
and this all happens at nkoundrua secondary school, along a rocky dirt road, with my american teaching partner lee, and our 20 students, in a bare classroom with 20 desks and metal chairs, and open windows that look out onto enormous, glistening banana leaves, and patches of blue sky. sunlight shines through at times, but mostly we’ve been working with a chill in the air, as this is winter in tanzania. cold mornings. hot afternoons. cold nights. but not really COLD, just chilly.
our students walk from their homes, which are also their farms, most have many chores related to farm life before arriving at school. they are all in form four, obsessed with passing a major national exam to pass to form five, and also quite concerned with covering their school fees, which cost the equivalent about 83 dollars a year.
we work from 9:30-11, break for chai and white bread with a smear of butter, work from 11:30-3, and then break finally for a huge lunch of ugali, greens, beans, and sometimes hunks of beef, a treat for most. though we do have one vegetarian in our ensemble, emmanuel. our crew is amazing — bryson, mercy, sixbert, doreen, maria, asmaha,farida, baracka, johnson, neema, jackline, each one is unique and asks us hard questions — about americans, white americans, black americans, europeans, africans in europe, africans in africa, the economy, the african economy, the injustices of this world, and how they can change the story.
i try to answer slowly, thoughtfully, and with more questions as well as answers that will for the moment satisfy a desire to learn more about this huge world. students are totally aware and in love with barack obama, they ask questions about the war in iraq, the closing of guantanamo bay, and our embarrassing history of torture.
they know and want to know more, and each comes from a history of socialist education, with nyerere, their founding president, modeling a view of history that challenges everyone to think about what it means to have enough. kikwete, the new president, i believe continues in this tradition, though views are mixed, and a young man just told me in a whisper that he thinks the prez is greedy. so, i’m learning, here, i’m learning.
this has been the most extraordinary teaching experience and i look forward to next week. in the meantime, i went to the african street dance competition yesterday in arusha and got to meet and hear professor J the famous tanzania rap star, do his thing. it was an incredible experience, full of haze and holla. all sponsored by guiness malta.
hapo vipi? hapo sawa * how is it over there? over there’s it’s fine — professor J lyrics
much love and hugs from tanzania,
thanks for reading…
kila la heri (all the best)