"I believed then, and still do, that stories can save people." --David Sedaris, Editor's Preface to the anthology Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules
"Ten years ago, I believed that if every woman had the power to tell her story, we could change the world. I still believe that. I still believe that today." --Ruth Behar, Translated Woman, Preface to the Tenth Anniversary Edition
When I began teaching English at Namihoro Secondary School in Peramiho, Tanzania, these quotations defined my way of viewing the world, and I thought that teaching my students to tell their own stories, the stories of their lives and their community, could empower them beyond math, science, English language. I still believe this, but the last seven months have taught me that it's not so simple. Because telling a story requires a language, and that's something my students don't have, not yet. They're taught that everything worth saying should be said in English, but their foundations in English are so weak that they're confined to broken sentences and a limited vocabulary.
In this project, I strive to give these students a voice outside of language, a voice they can express through photographic imagery and eventually, aided by their photographs, through their own descriptive, emotional, and explorative writing, in their native tongue. Through the creation of artwork and writing, I want to teach these students the power and the possibilities that lie within their own stories.
Mazingira (The Setting)
Small town Peramiho in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania, East Africa. The town was founded around a German mission and hospital, which still play a large role in the community. The majority of the population gets by through subsistence farming, and those who receive good education generally move away.
Namihoro Secondary School is a new government school built to serve the Peramiho community. It has over three hundred students, seven permanent teachers, and seven classrooms. All instruction is done in English, although most students lack even basic proficiency, having been raised speaking Swahili and one of Tanzania's over-120 "mother-tongues."
Tatizo (The Conflict)
For various reasons and in various ways, Tanzanian students are taught to memorize, not to think creatively and critically about the world around them. Despite near-constant education reform since Independence in 1961, the curricula remain theoretical in nature, with little relevance to students' actual lives, needs, and futures. In his 1967 paper "Education for Self-Reliance," first Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere wrote about the strive for education that does something more: "It has to prepare our young people to play a dynamic and constructive part in the development of a society in which all members share fairly in the good or bad fortune of the group, and in which progress is measured in terms of human well-being."
This is hard to do when their future education and employment depends on high-stakes national examinations. Another key problem is that secondary school subjects are taught and tested in English only, a language with which students have varying degrees of proficiency depending on their home environments and the quality of their primary schools. This leads to rote memorization and rampant plagiarism of their fellow students, their class notes, and any other materials they can get their hands on. My students in particular have little confidence in their own voices and feel extremely uncomfortable with any assignments in which they are asked to think for themselves. Students are consumed with thoughts of money and "getting by", and this often follows them into adulthood.
That's not to say that they're not creative. Tanzanian children spend their early years entertaining themselves and building toys and games from found materials, but none of this is expressed in the academic realm due to their lack of confidence within this environment. The challenge is to figure out how to channel this resourcefulness in ways that will also empower them academically, socially, and politically so that, as Nyerere and others hoped, schools can become places for raising informed and hardworking citizens who know and embrace the power an individual can have in her or his community and country.
Mashujaa (The Protagonists/The Heroes/The Warriors)
Wanafunzi (the students)- Twenty in number, aged 13-20, and selected on the strength of their application letter, themed "Nguvu ya Sauti: Usikate Tamaa" ("The Power of Voice: Don't Lose Hope") and written in Swahili. Students will be selected from across the board of academic achievement and community involvement. While strong, confident students are important within the school community, this project is meant to serve the voices that are not often heard. The application essays will be read with that in mind, to search for potential among the painfully shy, the troublemakers who don't connect with their teachers or with other students, and those from broken homes.
Walimu wao (their teachers)- My name is Erin Jordan. I am twenty-three years old, American, an anthropologist, a writer, and an idealist dreamer. I hope to guide my students to realize how creative and capable they are despite an environment that's constantly telling them otherwise. I also have the help of two Tanzanians who have pledged their support: Bernard "Ben" Mapunda and Friday Simbaya.
Ben is a fellow teacher at Namihoro. He recently graduated from the University of Dodoma with a degree in Education, specializing in History and Geography. Ben believes that education has the power to transform students, but has struggled with the environment of Namihoro, where he cannot practice what he has been taught. He hopes this project will provide a space for true learning in our community. Ben plans to help me with my Swahili translations and to sit in on discussions of activist projects and how the students' work can educate the community.
Friday is a trained photojournalist who has been published in Tanzanian newspapers The Guardian and The Daily News. He is currently serving as an editor at Peramiho Publications, which produces both books and a few newspapers which are spread throughout the region. Friday will be co-teaching the class with me, focusing on photography skills as well as interviewing, writing, and guiding the layout of the final newspaper.
Mradi Wetu (Our Project)
A two month seminar on photography, journalism, and creative non-fiction, culminating in the production of a gallery show (for the students to present their work to the community), a newspaper/gallery guide-like publication to spread their work and their findings, and a photobook of the work along with portraits, short autobiographies and interviews they have conducted of one another. In this way, the viewer will be able to view the created artwork as well as to learn about the artists themselves, from their own points of view. All printed works will be bilingual, written first by the students in Swahili, then translated with the help of a teacher so that the writing helps the students on many levels.
Although the photography and journalism aspects are considered art forms in themselves and will be treated as such in this seminar, in this case the creative media are specifically being used as a gateway to activism. "Photovoice" refers to the process of using photography within communities to support outreach and advocacy efforts. The first to use and name this method were professors Carolyn Wang and Mary Ann Burris in 1992, but it is now used by many researchers and those involved in social work among children and adults. Due to the success of similar projects among children around the world, I feel that its implementation within the young adult community of Peramiho will provide meaningful progress toward empowerment of this population, and the curriculum will cater to the specificity of their social, cultural, and political situation. The use of photography, as well as the use of Swahili as the language of instruction and of the production of texts, will help the students to express themselves creatively while remaining within an academic setting. It also allows for self-expression and critical thinking without confining them to English, which works as one of the many levels of oppression within the Tanzanian education system. The students will be encouraged to identify challenges within their societies, things they want to change and things they want to preserve, all within an artistic setting as we talk about what artistic media have the power to do. We will also spend a significant amount of time brainstorming possible solutions to these problems, with the understanding that there will be no easy answer, there will often be no right answer, and that the best way is often to do as Guy Clutton-Brock noted amongst the elders of Nyasaland: "They talk till they agree."
The first month of the seminar will consist of after-school lessons in photography and journalism a few times per week. Students will be taught to use methods of journalism and anthropology (like participant-observation of events and discussions with local people, description of people, places, and things, interviewing, research and digging deeper than what can be seen on the surface) to explore their culture and to shed light on issues and problems that are important to their community, their country, and themselves. They will learn to use photography as a universal language to facilitate creative and critical thinking, prompted by questions like "What do you want to say/show? How can large ideas and themes be expressed visually within a frame, with and without accompanying text? How can photography be used to show the strengths and weaknesses of your society? How do your photographs portray your culture to the outside world?" Through studying the art of photography, including discussions of composition and light, they will be encouraged to create photographs that are both visually appealing works of art as well as meaningful expressions of their lives and culture. All instruction and discussion will be done in Swahili.
The photographers will be placed into ten groups of two, each group with their own camera, so that each gets to use the camera on a rotating schedule. They will be taken into "the field" as in groups to photograph aspects of the community with the guidance of their teacher, and they will be expected to produce a certain number of photographs to present to and analyze with their classmates. The use of affordable but high-quality digital cameras will facilitate this process, and as each turns in her or his camera, the images will be loaded onto my laptop for sharing, editing, and analysis, on both the individual and the group level.
They will also participate in writing and interviewing exercises, class discussions regarding the power of photography and journalism and the possibilities for what can be said with their work. The writing will begin on a small level, as they learn to write captions for their photographs and sketches, then to describe the photographs, their experiences taking them, and other relatied detales. These will then be expanded into longer descriptions and various methods of transcribing the contents of their interviews. To stimulate interest, conversation and participation within the local community of artists, we will invite writers and photographers from Peramiho and nearby Songea to give guest lectures and offer advice.
The following two weeks will consist of focused discussions on issues to be covered in the gallery show, the "newspaper," and the book. These ideas are to be student-generated with as little teacher input as possible. These two weeks will also involve much of the actual creation of material to be used in the final products, though they will also be encouraged to include work from their previous sessions. Students will brainstorm in small groups and as a class about the specific issues they have identified and hope to challenge with their work, and assignments will consist of creating individual, handwritten "samples" of their work. To emphasize the necessity of action regarding problems they've seen, students will also write two documents specifically focusing on possible solutions. These are to come out of group discussions. First, each student will write a letter to local or national politicians to inform them about a problem and to suggest a detailed plan in which this problem might be addressed. Those who have written about similar issues will then form groups to compile and edit their letters, which we will send. Each student will also write a proposal for a solution that can be completed with a limited amount of funds and at the community level, to encourage self-reliance and the idea that development can start from the bottom.
In the final two weeks, the students will be involved in the production and organization of their gallery show and their publication. This process will consist of developing photographs, setting up displays, and typing and editing their photo descriptions and stories. They will also finalize their letters and proposals to be displayed for community members who are interested in learning more and even getting involved. At the end of this two weeks, they will host their show by inviting the community to view a presentation of their work. We will also choose one of the students' suggested activist projects to pursue in terms of research, press, and action.
Tutatengeneza Nini? (What Will We Produce?)
From this project, we will produce the students' work in a few different ways.
First, the students will organize and create a publication, like a gallery guide, in which they showcase particularly powerful photographs and pieces of writing around themes they choose themselves. This work will be made available to the community at their gallery show. We will produce two versions of the paper, one in Swahili, and one in English. For those supporting the project, this paper will be made available digitally and in print.
The photographs and writing will also be collected into two different books, a "Best of Show" edition and a copy of the entire displayed collection (both to be titled by the students themselves). The "Best of Show" book will be soft cover and will contain approximately 50 pages of color photographs and bilingual text by the photographers. It will include the strongest photographs by each participant as well as her or his writing. The entire displayed collection will be hard cover with approximately 100 pages of color photographs and bilingual text by the participants. All material for both books will be chose by the photographers themselves, though organization and formatting of the book will be done by me.
Je, Hela Yako Itafanya Kazi Gani? (What Will Your Money Do?)
$3,000 is approximately four million, eight hundred thousand Tanzanian shillings (4,800,000/=). I expect this money to be used in the following ways:
-Cameras (10): 2,500,000/= ($1565)
-Notebooks (100): 20,000/= ($13)
-Guest Lectures (3): 120,000/= ($75)
-Gallery location: 40,000/= ($25)
-Printing photographs: 300,000/= ($188)
-Other materials for display: 30,000/= ($19)
-Editing, compilation, and storage costs:
--memory cards (10): 300,000/= ($188)
--flash drives (2): 60,000/= ($38)
--external hard drive: 200,000/= ($125)
--internet cafe (20 hrs): 20,000/= ($13)
-Production: 50,000/= ($32)
-Reward Production: 500,000/= ($315)
The remaining money will cover processing fees and any changes in the shilling to dollar conversion. The first priority of funds exceeding the amount of $3000 would be used to increase the number of cameras so as to increase the amount of time each student has to produce her or his photographs. For a 1:1 camera to student ratio (and to cover associated processing charges), an additional sum of 2,750,000/=, or $1720, would be needed.
Tutafanyaje Baada ya Ninaondoka? (What Will We Do After I Leave?-- Sustainability)
This budget and the goals listed apply only to this project: the two months in which the seminar is conducted and the initial production of the gallery shows, the photographs, newspapers, and book, all of which will be completed within the year 2012.
However, I also have hopes that the project will continue after I leave. Proceeds from print and book sales will be funnelled back into the youth community for as long as they continue, with constant discussions of how they can best be used. In terms of the cameras purchased, they will belong to the students themselves, though in the case of sharing, a respected community member will be responsible for making sure that they are equally shared. I also have hopes that the programs can be put in place so that the student participants become involved in training their fellows in the art of photovoice. Conversations are in progress to form a connection between local primary school children and middle school students in Jackson, Mississippi, and in this case the secondary school participants of the initial project will serve as mentors to these children and mediators to the American project.
Despite these goals for subsequent programs, they are not part of the project as it was previously described: they are merely possibilities that will be considered in time as it allows.