|The Terry Berg School at Ndoombo, Tanzania|
Often times in my interviews people ask me why did I set The Missionary and the Brute in Tanzania, East Africa. It is a unique setting to be sure but not the usual one for a serial killer thriller. My answer to that question is similar to my response when people ask me why I chose to focus the efforts of my tax-exempt non-profit organization, Brick by Brick for Tanzania!, Inc., solely on Tanzania as well.
Well, why not?
It's a cheeky answer, but one that sort of cuts to the meat of the true response. Tanzania is often neglected in literature, in art, and in the public mind share. Aside from Hemingway's African novels and stories set around Mt. Kilimanjaro, there is precious little literature that takes place there. This may be one of many reasons that people truly don't know much about Tanzania in general at all. As such, it is often shoved to the side of any discussion of Africa and why it seems continuously marginalized.
The truth is that because I travel to Tanzania each year to build preschools for Brick by Brick, I know and love the country, the people, the culture to the point that I wanted to share that in a way that would have resonance - and writing is one way I can do so. I have tried to write several bucolic non-fiction works about Tanzania in the past, but they all seem to fall apart on me - they either seem too self-congratulatory or too soft or too something! So far my non-fiction hasn't captured that tight rope walk of horror and beauty in equal accord as I hope I did in my novel.
(Though the novel admittedly is twinged toward the horrific nature of human nature as well - which has little to do with any nation or ethnicity - simply is a fictive device.)
It is a bit ironic that the very attributes that make Tanzania so appealing to me as a humanitarian and as author are the very same that keep it from public discussion - it is peaceful, stable, quiet. There is neither genocide nor apartheid; no grotesque horrors of war or great natural disasters. They have droughts and famines to be sure - but not as publicly as do Ethiopia or Kenya even. They suffer in silence.
Nonetheless it remains one of the poorest nations in the world. Poverty - and extreme poverty at that - is the norm. The average income for a family in Tanzania is approximately $370 US dollars per year. From that money the families must feed, clothe, house, provide health care and if they are lucky educate their children just as do we. Imagine that. $370 a year! Some of our kids earn that in paper routes or allowances! And for what? PlayStation games and iTunes downloads?
That's not exactly for familial survival!
There is a huge need there to alleviate poverty - and in my eyes, education is the key. No change can come from within without having the populace better educated to embrace those changes from a vantage point of knowledge. The Missionary and the Brute can give new-comers to Tanzania a bit of an overview of conditions there and a sense of setting, but it does not have the didactic role of talking about that educational situation. So let me indulge my Brick by Brick side by telling you the rest of that story.
Education is very much revered in Tanzania. I have never spoken with a parent who didn't deeply desire their children to be educated. Sadly however, there are many factors from keeping that from happening effectively. It is a disappointing fact of life that only 57% of all elementary school aged children attend primary school. One of the primary reasons for this is the direct effect of poverty. The children are needed around the home to work in the shambas (the small fields) of the region. Part of this dilemma is exacerbated by younger siblings who must be cared for by the Mamas while the fathers are off working.
Our Brick by Brick preschools help alleviate that. By giving those younger children (3-5 years old) an active, safe nurturing, academic environment where they can prepare for the rigors of primary school, our preschools can give the mothers the ability to work in the shambas picking crops to barter for other food - or even to take jobs in the villages to supplement the family income. There are jobs available, and the women are willing to work. A more ardent, tougher group of individuals I have never seen than these mothers. They are strong, strong women whom I very much admire.
The effect of our schools on slightly older children is even more profound. Only 7% of all secondary school aged children attend school with less than 1% graduating. That's a 99% failure rate! Unacceptable! The reason these children drop out is plain and simple economics, they must work. As you can imagine the jobs available for a 13 or 14 year old child are not great. For young boys, often times it means getting strapped to a board and be lowered down mine shafts where their nimble fingers can be put of use. Frightening to think of our own kids doing such - and thereby equally unacceptable for the children of others. For young girls the jobs are even more horrifying. For many, prostitution is the only means by which they feel they can help the family.
I had a young girl - probably 14 or 15 - tell me that she was going off to the big city to be a prostitute. She was smart as a tack, had gone through a lot of school to that point and was aware that with the prevalence of AIDS in Tanzania she would probably be dead within two years. But to her, the only asset she had with which she could help her family was her body. That's a tragedy on so many levels and unthinkable to us in the US where we take so much for granted.
We have in five years seen the effects of our preschools on communities. I am regularly mobbed by sobbing Mamas who now have jobs knowing their young ones are safe in our Brick by Brick preschools. They hug me and thank me profusely. It is a sincere outpouring of love that I know we are doing good work there. We have followed up on graduates from our preschools too. For the first graduating classes, we are doing extremely well. At the Malaika School in Usa River - our longest running school - we have 100% of our students continuing on that path by attending primary school. That perfect record I know will not hold forever, but it is a great start. We are breaking that 57% cycle of failure.
We are achieving our modest goals.
It will not happen for Tanzania over night. There are so many schools to build. But we are doing so little by little each year. We take each day at a time. Small steps. One after the other. And together, brick by precious brick, we are making a difference. I have seen it.
This hope for the future that education provides is the other side of Tanzania. The light amid the darkness. And it is to this lightness that I cling and for which I work with all my heart and passion. Having seen with my own eyes the success amid the challenges, I can do no else.
It is what I do and why I revisit Tanzania constantly in my work and in my art...
John Kenworthy's Book Blog Tour continues tomorrow with "Kenworthy Interviews Author Raychelle Muhammad" at: http://www.raychelle-writes.blogspot.com/
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