Learning by heart

Lifelong lessons through service beyond comfort zones

Matthew Baganz

Towering silhouettes of black smoke billowed up from the horizon, as if the other side of the world was burning. It was hard to tell how far away the fire was, but our guide, Charles, assured us we were safe. It was just the desert burning, he said. Happens all the time.

We were there on a social welfare service trip to support a small community outside of Rundu, Namibia. Two teachers and four high school students, sleeping in tents, cooking over a fire, swatting at malaria for a month. We had several projects to complete, which we’d been planning over the previous 12 months. Our main goal was to provide the local people with alternative options for education and entertainment, as the lack of resources in the desert prevented many from enjoying either of these things.

I had elected to build a small shelter that could be used as a local kindergarten. There was one school in the area, but small children couldn’t manage the several kilometer walk twice a day, so a shelter closer to a neighborhood of homes would be a great place for the toddlers to gather.

Charles handed me a rusty pickaxe with a splintered handle. We planned to dig four holes; that was it for the day. Later in the week we’d have time to cement the corner posts, and when they were dry we’d erect the walls with a wooden pole framework suffused with a network of branches, clay and mud. A thatch roof would complete the job, presumably by the end of the following week.

We measured out the perimeter and marked the corners. I stood over an X that marked the spot and slowly raised my tool. The first blow to the ground snapped the head right off the pickaxe, which went flying forward. Could have killed an elephant. The ground of the northern Kalahari Basin is not sand, as I thought, but rock with a thick layer of dust over it.

As I vibrated from the impact, I apologized to Charles and asked where we could buy more tools.

“We don’t,” was all he said, and he began scraping at the rock with the tip of his shovel.

We took turns with our only tool for the rest of the day, chiselling the earth flake by flake until it was time to head back to camp. We left with one hole started, about a quarter meter deep. We needed four holes, each at least a meter in. This was going to take some work. And time.

Back at camp we cooked onions and yams on the fire. I never could stomach onions, and as for yams… I’d never really come across a yam before, so I was suspicious. But these vegetables were staples in these parts, and after a day of chiselling rock beneath a desert sun, you favour nourishment over flavour anyway. I eventually got it down. Tomorrow would be another big day.

Two of our students chose to concentrate on healthy entertainment and organized a large sport tournament for the local football and netball teams. On the morning of the first game, we drove our rental truck to a piece of dusty land with a couple of broken football goals and netball hoops, none with nets. As we repaired the equipment and traced boundary lines in the dirt, a couple of kids watched us from the shrubbery. We waved them over, but they kept their distance.

When everything was ready we waited. An hour after the scheduled game time, part of the first team showed up, but they lacked too many players for an official game. That didn’t matter, though, because the other team never showed up anyway. Just a few more kids in the shrubs, watching, wondering what we were doing there. We left back for camp disappointed and a little gloomy, like the great clouds of black smoke rolling slowly along the horizon.

The next day brought us back to the kindergarten site, where we continued to scrape away at the earth. Not far away, three donkeys gathered together, tied at the ankles, grazing among graves. They took two steps with their back legs and then hopped forward with their shackled front legs to get around and find food. They didn’t appear in pain, but I knew no farmer where I’m from would get away with that.

I asked Charles about it. He told me that when you don’t have fencing, how else are you going to keep the family vehicle from wandering off? Tie him up, he’ll starve to death. Those donkeys were the greatest commodities many of these families had. And I realized while chiselling the rock that just digging holes for fence posts would take an army a year to complete. Without the right tools, you can’t get the work done right.

Like irrigation systems, or household plumbing.

This is why many of the local children don’t go to the one local school already established. When taken out of context this comment sounds unacceptable, and many might be quick to demand third world countries make education a top priority. But the parents of these children work all day, and someone has to fetch the water. There is no kitchen sink, no convenience store in the desert, so these kids pass right by the schoolhouse and walk kilometers away to get water. You’ll see kids walking barefoot across the desert to the river, carrying plastic jugs and crinkled water bottles. By the time they get home, school’s out.

So no, they don’t go to school. They won’t be able to read. But they won’t die of thirst, either. When your day’s activities need to focus on survival, it’s life that’s the priority, not education. Education is a luxury. This is sometimes hard to grasp when you’ve never carried a bucket to a river. Across the hot desert sand. With no shoes on your feet. Every day since you were two.

Another one of our projects aimed to reach these specific kids. If they couldn’t make it to school by the end of the day, we’d extend the school day. We brought dozens of games, cards, and art supplies to the schoolhouse and offered an after school program once lessons were finished. At first the children were weary, only a few would come inside, but soon the laughter intrigued more passing children.

I counted heads at one point and when I hit 90 kids in that one little classroom, I unfortunately had to work the door and stop more kids from entering. They’d have to wait in a line outside until some of the children left. Meanwhile my working student scrambled to various groups and demonstrated how to play the different board games. The atmosphere was chaotic, teetering toward turmoil by the sheer number of kids crammed into one room, but witnessing such sincere curiosity and enthusiasm from those children would bring a tear to any eye. We tried to visit the school every day we could while keeping our commitments to the other projects.

There’s no cell phone service in the desert, but word can still spread fast. By the end of the football tournament, teams showed up hours early for the games, and with extra players for substitutions. Families came to watch, children filled the short branches in the shrubbery, and the sidelines were three deep with onlookers. At the end of a game day, as we drove back to camp, the children would chase the truck while waving goodbye, sometimes climbing onto the bumper. The quiet desert had transformed into a jovial fest, just because of a little opportunity.

It was one of the last days we’d be working in the community. As Charles and I took turns chiselling, he told me stories of life in the area, as he usually did. When he mentioned the unusual weather when it once rained small fish upon the desert, he admitted he could not explain how this had happened. I had heard about this phenomenon, but never met anyone who claimed to have seen it. It reminded me how far away I was from home. When I looked at Charles, he looked just a little bit more magic.

He smiled back, and then looked through me, or over me. Four men approached us with shovels and pickaxes. Charles stood and shook their hands, and without another word the four men started digging. The holes were finished that day, and the posts were up in concrete the next. The day after that, my group packed our camp and left for home. I wouldn’t see the finished kindergarten shelter, but I had no doubt Charles would see the project through.

At the airport, my colleague and our students sat down at a restaurant for our first meal in a month that wasn’t cooked over an open fire. They didn’t have yams, so I ordered a burger. We laughed as we compared our blisters, and we cried when we shared pictures. Lessons and memories caught on camera, revealed in the flesh, and learned by heart, that is, through action taken from the heart. This is the deepest learning I know, that stimulates all the senses and resides within one, truly forever.

When our food came, I discovered my burger came with onions. I forgot to order it plain. But of course, I took a bite for nostalgic purposes. The onions were delicious.

The author holds a master’s degree in multicultural education and has worked as a classroom teacher for 13 years. He is currently the PYP maths coordinator and works for the marketing department at Strothoff International School in Dreieich, Germany. He can be reached at [email protected].

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