Four 500-ml bottles of water. Two liters in total. 12:30pm. My body absorbs it all and sweats it out. We take a break for prayers and lunch; above the hum of the fans furiously rotating above, I can hear the call to prayer sounding outside of the classroom. It’s not coming from a cracking PA system, as I am more used to hearing in different Muslim-influenced areas of Africa, but a man, somewhere not far from our building, probably standing among palm fronds and raising his voice in a round baritone. A man in a long gray thobe stands in the back of the room and distributes lunches in foil containers, biriyani rice and mystery meet rolled in a hearty spiced stew with bananas and warm cans of fruit juice.
I am with two other English Language Fellows from my program, and we are in Zanzibar, an island to the west of Tanzania, a place of ancient lore. Spices, slave markets, ancient dhow fishing boats with wide, triangular sails, moderately unchanged for four hundred years, except than many traders have now been replaced by vendors hawking sarongs and saffron. It’s a place of deep, rich, spicy history, once visited by Vasco de Gama, claimed by Portugal, ruled by the Sultan of Oman, absolved into the far-flung British colonies, and, in the most recent chapter of its political history, merged with Tanzania, but still craving independence. This history, stewed with Persian, Chinese, and Indonesian influence, bleeds culture and dynamism. My first minutes after arrival were spent winding through the labyrinth of Stone Town, feeling as though I had become a part of this storied history. A storied, humid history.
wandering around on arrival night
But my own exploration of this new environment is not yet able to begin as I’m on the island with two other fellows from my program doing work (yeah, actual work): leading teacher training for nearly fifty members of the Zanizbar Professional English Teacher Association. For two days, Mickie, Jessica, and I will lead workshops to present and practice some of the most holy tenants of modern language instruction: communicative exercises, student-centeredness, peer collaboration, group work, and fluency-building practices. It’s what I have loved about my experience in Rwanda, transported to this island. And afterwards, I will stay on and have a proper holiday, as the British would say.
During the morning, I work with one group. We focus on one of my favorite topics: improving reading comprehension through improving reading habits. The teachers break into groups, most mixed with men and women, with one of the local Embassy staff members encouraging a newly arrived lady to “join her brothers.” There isn’t tension surrounding gender; despite the very traditional Muslim society that guides daily life on the island, the hallmarks of conservative societies that I see in other classrooms (Rwanda included) are not present. Women speak up, speak their minds, correct their colleagues, laugh and enjoy themselves. Men shake my hand, smile and greet me. We are colleagues, despite our differences.
In deference to the conservative culture, I arrived covered up. But, as I’m going to Europe after this tropical jaunt, all of my long-sleeved clothes are heavier, totally unsuited to the 90 degree heat and accompanying humidity. I gleam with sweat, dripping from my forehead and down my legs, as I attempt to maintain my usual caliber of teaching energy in the oppressive, wet-dog humidity. In the audience, the women seem to be faring better than I- through evolution? Adaptation? How can it be possible that they merely glow while I melt?
The women all cover their hair, but the hijab run from modern, chic head wraps knotted to the back of the neck to the most conservative available without the niqab (face cover): hairline covered with a knit band, then wrapped a longer hijab so even the chin, lower neck, chest, and shoulders were covered. Most wear the traditional long black chador without a hood, a sort of cloak that resembles American graduation gowns, but the vibrant colors of Zanzibar still represented: I look out over a hijab rainbow, orange with red hydrangeas, scalloped deep purple with sequins, a Tiffany teal that matches my nail polish, wrapped and pinned with jeweled brooches. Many of the men wear kofia– traditional caps, either crocheted and close to their head or crown-style, raised, saffron yellow or dove gray with white embroidery.
As I walk around, shining with sweat and marveling at how the women are not, like me, slowly dissolving down into a humid puddle, emulating the Wicked Witch of the East (West?). In the training we emphasize teachers not as the center of the classroom but facilitators and guides, and I do my best to model. The groups are engrossed in their work, using Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Learning Domains to write increasing complex questions for O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.” They enjoyed the story- an excellent blend of American Christmas culture and the broad themes it contains. We could openly discuss the common problem of poverty- a theme in the story- and how it was one of their own experiences. Love and sacrifice, that of a mother, wife, husband, boyfriend, or child, was quickly understood and framed through their own lenses. They reminded me of why I love to travel and teach, and teach/travel. You learn that a few extremists, of any extraction, fail to represent the majority. Despite the kofia and hijab, we understood these values on the same plane. Life is about love. Love is about sacrifice. We give up our own happiness, at times, for those that we love. This is what is important.
We broke at 12:30, after the call to prayer. They filed out of the classroom, many thanking me and shaking my hand vigorously. One woman’s hands were elaborately decorated with henna- usually sienna on my white skin, but a deep, rich chocolate on her dark skin. I complimented her on the designs, flowers and arabesques artful curving around her knuckles and wrists and asked her if it was for a special occasion. “No,” she chuckled. “Sometimes, we just do little things to make ourselves happy.”
I returned to my seat to simmer in my sweat, checking the hours until the end of class. Zanzibar awaits. Spice markets, tortuga sanctuaries, the smell of roasting chickens, cinnamon, and nutmeg and cloves waiting somewhere. But for now, a few more minutes of collaboration and learning, sometimes subtly, from each other. And I’m drinking a lot more water.