There are few things in this life more precious than to be remembered. Of course sometimes in life we are remembered for the wrong things. Every person who has ever volunteered with Village Schools International within the last 9 years knows who I am, if not by name then at least by reputation. My tale of getting lost on Bongoyo island is repeated at every training session as a cautionary tale to future travelers (though I do suspect more subtly that the story is told to laugh at the foolishness of my experience). So with this in mind, let me clarify my initial statement: There are few things in this life more precious than to be remembered for the right reasons.
Last weekend I had the unique privilege of visiting the village where in 2010 Emily and I lived and taught for a year. In the six years that had elapsed between visits, the school had changed in almost unrecognizable ways. The four classrooms had turned into twenty classrooms. The four teachers houses had turned into nine teacher houses. And of course with the increase in buildings came the increase in students, teachers, animals and noise. Our little school of Bukimau in just six years had more than doubled in size causing me to barely remember the school where Emily and I taught. It was a weird feeling. To stand in front of the school where you and your wife dedicated a year of your life to teaching and not to even recognize the school. But school goes on, people move on, life happens, things change quickly.
As I stood contemplating these things and pondering if Emily and my year here made any lasting difference at all, I started to regret even returning to this spot. It was like returning to your childhood home and realizing that the epic hill you used to sled down and tell all your friends about was in fact not an epic hill but a small mound. Memories can be fickled things...
In the midst of this depressing stroll down memory lane, a student walked by me. I, in an effort to distract myself from these negative thoughts, called out to the student to inquire about Bukimau and how things were at the school. He told me he his name and that he was in Form 4 (when I taught at Bukimau it only went up to Form 2). I then told him that I in fact used to live and teach here a long time ago ("a long time ago" as if I was some ancient wizard returned from the past after hundreds of years... I had been gone for just six years, but whatever). When I told him this his eyes got really large and a smile crept across his face and he asked in what appeared to be almost disbelief "Are you Mr. Matt?". Well yes, in fact I am. I was surprised that he knew my name as I had not introduced myself to anyone yet and then I asked him how he knew who I was. He responded, "People tell me. We remember you."
The young man could not have buoyed my spirits anymore if he tried. With his words "we remember you" echoing in my mind I went into the village to retrace the steps Emily and I had walked hundred of times before, years ago. It was not long before I encountered my old pastor who after a brief introduction (for an introduction was necessary because as we know, all white people look alike) he realized who I was and gave me a strong embrace. He then invited me into his home, and we reminisced about many of the students that I had taught and how grateful he, and the village, was for mine and my wife's work. I then walked around the village and word quickly spread that I had returned. Older woman, who in no way were related to the school came up with huge smiles and greeted me when they realized who I was. I was able to visit former students who immediately recognized me and their faces beamed with delight.
It was not all good news. Atu, a young student who worked for Emily and I and who possessed an incredibly good heart, always looking out for Emily and I's best interest; always happy and cheery; Atu was one of those humans whose kind soul is contagious and you just feel compelled to be brighter and happier just because you were near her. Atu's grandmother had died. And as she was living with her grandmother at the time she was forced to move back in with her mother at the lumber yard, a very far distance from Bukimau.
Despite my disappointment at not seeing Atu, I was on cloud nine because I was clearly remembered (and remember for the right things!). Which brings me to the larger point of why Emily and I were remembered. We were remembered less because of what we did at Bukimau Secondary School and more for how we did it. Village Schools is adamant that... Wait for it... That American missionaries are inherently no better than Tanzanians. As result Emily and I lived in the village; we invited Tanzanians into our home as our guests; we ate what everyone else ate; we slept in the same beds (well not actually the same exact bed, I mean Emily and I had our own bed, but you get the point), we spoke their language (anyone can pick up a few lines of Swahili, but we took it a step further and learned the greetings of the tribal language Hehe), in short we lived with and like our neighbors. I am convinced that this is the reason why were remembered. We did not come as the saviors of Bukimau; we came as children wanting to learn how to live from them and in return we taught them English and shared the Gospel.My weekend at Bukimau is one of the highlights of my work this summer. It served as a reminder that my work here is making a difference, and it will be remembered. Speaking of my work here being remembered, villageschools.org is opening up new schools at such a rate (I think it's over thirty schools now) that it is having trouble getting enough missionaries at every school. Let me say it again, VSI needs more missionary teachers to dedicate a few months, a year, or a few years to teaching at these schools. Just saying...