On my first day at the Shinda school, as I came around the bend into sight of the lines of children standing at attention, I could faintly hear that they were singing a song. It turned out to be a song I had taught them three years ago, called “Simple Gifts.” Their version goes:
“Tis a gifty to be simple
Tis a gifty to be free
Tis a gifty to be fall down where we are to be
When you find a place thats a place just right
It will be in the valley of love and delight”
There’s something very Tanzanian about that song, though that would surprise the Shakers who wrote it so many years ago. But one of the simple gifts I will treasure was that immediately after singing it, a school full of kids many of whom had not been at the school when I was there three years ago, segued into the other song I taught them, “Hot Corn, Cold Corn.” As they did, they pantomimed a mandolin player playing his “gitarra,” me, and jumped into the air at the end, as I had done when I sang the song three years ago. “Yes, Sah!” they shouted, with great satisfaction.
I’ve since taught them other verses. And they really liked the new song I taught them yesterday, “If I had a boat.” The verses don’t make much sense to them, so I changed one around. With apologies to Lyle Lovett, this is the new lone ranger and tonto verse:
“The rich man he was smart
He got himself a servant
Cause servants do the dirty work for free
But the servant he was smarter
And one day said Samihani
I’ve got a pony I’ve got a boat I’m going off to sea.”
They like it, and lord knows it’s ideologically correct, at least according to the old ujamaa culture. But what they really like is just the simple gift of song, that they wouldn’t otherwise get very much of. Learning a song and singing it in a group is a joy that we Westerners, we westerners who are so often too shy to sing in front of other people and find doing so to be one of the most stressful things in life, nevertheless take for granted. I didn’t even think to bring my mandolin, thinking no doubt of more important matters. And in the culture of education in Tanzania, in which just covering the very basics sometimes seems as daunting as painting the moon, things like singing, this simplest of gifts, often happen almost by accident. But while we Wazungu sometimes think that what we are doing here is something noble sounding, something like “teaching children to read!” (or bringing light to Africa, god help us), the gifts we actually bring are both the simplest and the rarest, the things that children of necessity consumed with the mundane necessities of a hard world and a hard life sometimes don’t get to experience. A previous teacher took them to a swimming pool. Anton gave them Sudoku puzzles. I taught them some new songs. We spend most of our time teaching them to add and subtract, to read and write, to pass national exams, and maybe these things are the most important in a larger sense, but there is no question of what they will actually remember us for.