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The children at Shepherds Junior School in Arusha, Tanzania were so eager to be seen and heard. Proud to be in uniform. Happy to be learning. Excited to host visitors. Wowed by new laptops and the idea of being connected to people across the world via the Internet. Grateful.

Last night I joined friends from Epic Change and The LAC Project online for a live video chat with Mama Lucy Kamptoni, founder of Shepherds Junior School, to help kick off TweetsGiving 2009, a global celebration of gratitude beginning today through Thanksgiving. Since 2003, Mama Lucy has grown this school to embrace and educate 350 students ages 3-13, despite limited resources and a slew of hardships. Thanks to TweetsGiving 2008, lots of people like you made small contributions that funded a new classroom for the school.

I guess that's really what it takes to make good things happen – a few hopeful and courageous souls like Mama Lucy and a lot of inspired people like us raising our hands to ask how we might help.


Spirit Carries

We are walking on a thin muddy path that borders her rice patty.  This is the land she works with her husband in order to feed her children.  Before she obtained the seed capital from BEST, a locally founded NGO, she barely had enough to survive.  Her house was nothing more than pieces of sheet metal rigged together with scrap wood and rope.  Now she works this land and sleeps in a simple bed in a solid house with the profits of her own labor.

She is the tiniest slip of a woman, but her smile is wide and her steps are strong.  She is proud to show us what she has wrought with her own hands.  Her pleasure in this task radiates off her body, though she keeps her gaze to the ground and hardly says a word.

I try to wrap my mind around what it takes to keep this field, this family, alive and thriving.  I know I should be watching her hopeful eyes and capable hands for a sign, but all I can see is her feet.  How she carefully picks her way through the muddy field, how she knows where to step, how to walk, where to stand.  How the immense strength of her spirit carries her, even as the frailty of her body dares her destiny and expands her hope.


He Stood Apart

I had just arrived to the school that day – dipping in and out of classrooms at Shepherds Junior School studying the simple structure and wooden desks, tiny bits of chalk, faded newspapers and journals stacked on simple shelves, and wondering if the children were hot in their sweaters. I studied their warm expressions with curious eyes and shy smiles that rapidly eased into pure kid silliness.

But one boy stood apart that day. He had discovered my audio recorder on the teacher's desk and took the initiative to interview his classmates at lunch. "What is your name? What is your class? Where do you stay?" he asked each of his friends in rapid-fire fashion. I loved that he didn't ask permission. I loved that he just did it. Bold. Full of thought. Beyond his years. He stood apart.


Against the Wall

The ladies of BEST have brought us to a small building, right next to a cell phone tower.  Outside, sewing machines hum as two young women pass pieces of batik under the needle, their chatter a happy staccato.  Inside, two women stand against a wall as a third prepares to grind peanuts into peanut butter.  We are here for a tour of this small but profitable food processing plant inspired by BEST. With funds from this simple endeavor, all three women can feed their children and move themselves further along in their entrepreneurial pursuits.

We stand quietly and watch, trying to give the emerging peanut butter all our awe and attention, but it is these beauties against the wall that capture our imagination.  In Africa, everyone is almost younger than they appear as the everyday difficulties of just getting by add unnecessary years.  This woman, I realize,  must be older, a slip of her scarf revealing a headful of graying hair.   She carefully wraps her scarf back around her head to conceal her secret--her smile bright, her face young with new possibilities.

These women used to farm, Juliet tells us, but decided to enter food processing when their work in the fields left them with a substantial enough profit. 

After a harrowing visit to the unforgiving rice fields, all I can think is smart move.  These women are taking their days back, rewinding the clock to collect their best efforts and turning them into the kind of ease they deserve.  This is by no means an stress-free life, but turning the food grinder sure beats turning the fields, and the laughter in this room convinces me that I'm stumbling on an old and obvious, well-known fact.

We photograph the process in honor of their success, but at the last minute I can't help but turn my camera to the beauty up against the wall.  I hope her progress here will give her back any joy she lost before she had a way forward.  I hope the wall will give way to more opportunities that bring her youthful delight.


The Only Time She Didn't Smile

These are the things that wreck you in Africa:

How the gift of your presence matters more than a thousand hours of "helping" and then some.

How the fact that you came is the real ground for transformation and repair.

How the reality of your imminent departure is registered with such genuine grief, you feel part machine, half human--for your inability to take it in.

We have no cultural equivalent for this level of transparency or kindness.  There is no way to absorb it other than to try to sit still and let it sink in.  To be together makes a difference.  To be close to one another generates a rare kind of hope.  To travel a long distance to see what matters to you here is a particular magic.

Even now after so many years of being with former refugees, political asylees and immigrants from all over the world, I meet all this with a blank stare.

You're sad, because we are leaving?  It matters because we were here?  I thought you'd love or hate me for what I did or didn't do.

Why is it so hard to believe that any of this makes a difference?  Why is it a small form of torture for us to let go of doing, good deeds, projects, so the wave of emotion can wash over us both?

We stand by the van, not sure what to do with our arms as you extend yours from heart to sky as we drive away.  At the last possible second we wave back--the goodness of the grief you model persuading us that presence matters.  This is how we begin to learn that the biggest gift we bring is not our goods or our services or even our ideas but our own selves--no matter how flawed or blind we are to what is most hopeful, to that which is most true.