Written by: Shilbee Kim
We walked in the dark for about 10 minutes, side stepping rocks and waiting for our eyes to adjust. It was a full moon. After every few houses we’d hear greetings from neighbours walking by or sitting on the footsteps of their homes to our local volunteer, Omar, who was leading the way.
Omar then said, “We’re here!”
We stepped into a madrasa made of bricks and down a hallway filled with shoes, we entered a room with one lightbulb, a clock that wasn’t ticking, a blackboard, and a bookshelf with a few English books. The madrasa is an open brick-building with no doors but several “rooms” divided by walls. During the day, the madrasa is used for Quran teachings and in the evenings, it was taken over by eager students who were learning from a volunteer. The madrasa was built by a lady who owned the land and wanted to give back to the community. On the floor mat, a group of kids between the ages of 5 and 13 were sitting quietly but squirming anxiously. They were waiting for Mr. Omar’s English class.
Omar is a tour guide and a YCI local volunteer by day; an English teacher by night. He volunteers 4 times a week to teach English. It all started when one of the current students asked him for an English lesson. Soon afterwards, other kids flocked to Omar for more classes. Omar, too, was taught when he was a little kid. His hero at the time was Muhammad and his impeccable English skills today are largely thanks to Muhammad who gave his evenings to teaching.
In the Zanzibari education system, there are government and private schools. By the time a student reaches secondary school, most classes are taught in English. The problem is that during primary school, a classroom can be as big as 80 students per teacher. Some teachers, Omar explains, are obliged to teach math and science in broken English during secondary school. This compounds the problem of students’ abilities to excel in school, a prerequisite to get into a university.
He felt that one way to help this situation was follow the footsteps of Muhammad. One by the one the students stood in front of the class reciting their introductions Omar taught him. “My name is Maryam and my father’s name is Abdul and my mother’s name is Laylat.”
While Omar continued his lesson, I can overhear another class going on in Swahili behind one of the brick walls. The only words I can make out because they were in English were “colonialism” “Europe” and “Africa.” Omar later explained that there were many other local volunteers like him – especially those who graduated from university and are unemployed. There are 4 evening classes like this on his street alone for different subject matters (science, religion, history, etc). This particular class was for students who needed extra classes on history so that they can ace their national exam that determines university acceptance. The room was packed. Everyone sitting on the floor with one instructor in the middle holding a book in his hand. One lightbulb.
Omar expressed some challenges – mothers who disapproved and didn’t think that he was a serious teacher to feeling burnout to needing more English books, teaching supplies, desks, and the list goes on. But his determination for these students to be “more than him” keeps him going. Day in and day out.
“Volunteering is important… If you help people, they will help others… and they will help more people and then you will change the world. I hope that some of these kids will want to do the same.”