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Taking Time

Walter and Melinda Hawkes

"You should do very well as a Peace Corps Volunteer. You're creative, and you have a solid entrepreneurial background," offered one of my dad's friends, a successful businessman, in response to my impending departure for service in Tanzania, East Africa.

"Thanks, I hope so. I really would like to make a difference."

And so do most Volunteers as they set out, I thought, somewhat naively. At the date of official conscription, my wife and I boarded a plane bound for destinations unknown to us; I was to serve as an information technology (IT) Volunteer, and she was to be a biology and health Volunteer.

As a part of pre-service training, the six IT Volunteers were assigned to internship schools. We were warned that, although each internship school would have computers, we were not to expect too much as computers were still very new to Tanzania. I was assigned to Arusha Secondary School and would be the sole IT Volunteer placed there.

As I was led into the computer lab for the first time on the first morning, I steeled myself in anticipation of finding a cobweb-infested computer graveyard. But to my surprise, I saw six, four-year-old laptop computers. They weren't bad either, having been recently acquired and refurbished. The week was going to be easier than I had thought.

In the lab I was introduced to Agnes, a young Tanzanian woman who had been hired to train teachers at the school in computer literacy. Agnes was very cordial and friendly. Even better, she spoke English and would be my counterpart for the week. Chatting with Agnes, while examining the computers we'd be working with, I quickly learned that she had a decent general knowledge of computers and was probably quite adept at teaching Microsoft Office applications. I thought to myself that this was going to be a breeze. We'd probably be able to teach the teachers most of Word, Excel, and possibly Access. The setup was accommodating, and I was excited.

Reality set in, however, when the teachers, mostly middle-aged or older, entered the room. I greeted them enthusiastically in Kiswahili as they made their way to the computers. Most of them looked at me strangely, probably wondering why a foreigner was in their computer lab. They returned my greetings with somewhat less enthusiasm. After they had taken their seats at the computers, Agnes introduced me as an American who would be with them for a week to help teach computers. Agnes then commenced with a basic Microsoft Word lesson. She handed them each an exercise to complete, which consisted mostly of typing some text and then formatting it by changing the font, making it bold, etc. The teachers began working on the exercise while Agnes went around the room supervising, correcting, and teaching—all in Kiswahili. I watched closely as to how she was helping and after a few minutes, I figured I could jump right in and make myself available to answer questions. One teacher turned to gain Agnes's attention. "Mwalimu," she said. I quickly understood the word for teacher, so I approached.

"Can I help?" I asked in English.

"Mwalimu," she repeated, pointing at Agnes.

"I can answer questions."


"Okay," I stammered while retreating, confused as to why she didn't want my help. After all, I didn't speak that much Kiswahili, but that shouldn't matter. They have to know English to be able to teach it. Besides, English is the official medium of instruction in all secondary schools in all of Tanzania.

Agnes finally explained to the woman the concept of selecting text, which had previously baffled her. When the teacher was satisfied, Agnes attended to the next person who needed assistance. Perhaps that was just the personality of the person wanting help. Maybe others would be grateful for my assistance.

Across the room I noticed two teachers trying their best to correct the grammar of a simple English sentence. They went back and forth, both offering options. Here's my chance, a nice teaching opportunity, I thought as I approached. "Hi," I said. "Actually neither of these is correct. You can write it this way…" I offered, unsolicited as it were, two ways to fix the broken, but trivial sentence. The two teachers listened, gawking at me as if soaking up my profound knowledge of the English language. Or so I thought. When I had finished, they said nothing and went back to arguing, in Kiswahili, over the same points they had been arguing prior to my intervention. I hadn't made a dent; I wasn't even heard.

After several more similar instances, I became frustrated. Very frustrated. This is trivial subject material, what is the problem? Severe thoughts streamed to the forefront of my consciousness. Had I made a mistake in coming to Africa? How will I make a difference if no one here will listen to me?

Then Agnes announced that class was over; it was time for chai. I had tried several times to help and had been rebuffed, sometimes not so gently, in each of my attempts to teach, to help. I had failed miserably. Walking with Agnes, I broached my observations and frustrations. "Um, I'm not sure I'll be of much help this week, the teachers really don't seem to want to listen to me."

"Hakuna matata," she offered, telling me not to worry.

I tried again to gain some insight from Agnes, forging my statement into a more direct interrogatory. Again she replied, "Hakuna matata."

I remained unsuccessful in drawing any more information out of Agnes on what I thought was the more pertinent subject at hand. Instead we entered the staff lounge talking about food.

"Do you like ugali?" She inquired about a native dish.

"A little."

I glanced around the staff lounge and took note of some of the faces that looked familiar, a couple of my Volunteer friends and all of the teachers who had just been in the computer lab. They had made their way to the lounge for chai. I became a little uncomfortable, a little nervous. Perhaps they were not particularly thrilled to have us there.But my feelings quickly changed. Agnes led me over to a table where one of the women who hadn't listened to a single one of my English suggestions poured me a cup of chai and started chatting with me in Kiswahili.

"Habari za leo?" She inquired.

"My day is fine."

"Unatoka wapi?"

"I'm from America."

"Karibu sana!" (You are welcome here!)

"Asante sana" (Thank you very much) I said, appreciating the warm welcome.

We continued chatting for a few minutes, as much as I could in Kiswahili with only a few weeks of language training. She was very friendly and social, curious even. Her true personality was quite the opposite of my first impression. In fact, most of the people from the computer lab came to chat with me at some point during that chai break, and each subsequent one, with genuine hospitality. The teachers became more comfortable with me when they heard that I could speak some Kiswahili, or that I was expending effort in an attempt to speak it.

Curiously, the second trip to the computer lab, for the afternoon session with the same teachers, was far different from the first. Near the beginning, two teachers actually wanted my assistance and listened intently to what I told them. I would have never guessed that teaching something as trivial as how to bold text would come to feel like a suc-cess after such miserable failure. But it did, although it baffled me. Why did they want my help now, when they could not have been bothered in the morning? What had changed? I had only talked with them a little in the best Kiswahili I could muster, very little as it were, over a cup of chai. Surely something so simple could not possibly be the difference. Or could it?

The first night I went home, exhausted, of course, and learned as many new computer-related words in Kiswahili as I could. It helped. The next day in class, the more I attempted to provide assistance in my best, broken Kiswahili, the more people wanted my help. This was great; I was really starting to help. And I did something else. I never missed a visit to the staff lounge for a cup of chai and conversation. Again, the more I spoke informally with the teachers, the more they would listen to me and, in fact, seek out my assistance.

I eventually came to call this informal time we spent together "taking time." It's taking time to learn about teachers, students, colleagues, community members, their families, work, ideas, and passions. It's taking time to understand them, to become friendly with them, to care about them. For each of them matched my curiosity and care with their own, whether by cordially offering a cup of chai or by offering something more profound like genuine friendship. By the end of the week, one by one, all of the teachers had opened up to me and let me help them. I wasn't teaching them anything complicated, just simple concepts on the computer. But nonetheless, I felt good about it. The last day, when Agnes observed that I was as busy as she was, she caught my attention with a knowing glance and casually offered, "See? Hakuna matata." I smiled, and replied to her wise words from the first day, "You were right, there are no worries."

Prior to this experience, I had been blinded by my haste, my unrealistic expectations, and my desire to jump in head-first in an effort to move quickly and make as much difference as possible. There seems to be an unending number of intangibles in trying to make a difference here. The cultural divide alone is wide and complicated. Sometimes I feel lost at the start of a project, in trying to contemplate how it will eventually be accomplished and by what means. I'm feeling this now with the current seemingly insurmountable challenge I face. Almost 1,000 teacher trainees and staff members are waiting patiently for computer training at my permanent placement site at the Teachers Training College of Korogwe. Somehow this needs to be accomplished using the college's eight old, barely functioning computers. I haven't the foggiest notion how this will happen, but I do know one thing: the simple but previously confounding first step—taking time.

Walter and Melinda Hawkes (Tanzania)

Walter Hawkes and his wife, Melinda, served as Volunteers in Tanzania from 2003-2004. They joined the Peace Corps following careers in technology and teaching.

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