What Your Kids Need to Know About the World

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In another lifetime, almost 15 years ago, I traveled often. That is, if you consider semi-yearly international travel to be often.


Those were exciting days, and I learned a lot about the world, and the shared humanity that unites us. My days were filled with learning people’s stories, talking about how travel transforms us and the way we see life.

 

 

 

I was very fortunate to have started traveling when I was 10 years old. My grandparents were invited to many countries so that my grandfather could lecture at different universities. They took their grandchildren along for the experience, which was an incredibly brave task. But they knew the value of introducing their grandchildren to the world.  

We grand kids were young and didn’t understand much. We interpreted the world with our limited experience of life, and we couldn’t really grasp the significance of what we saw. But I’m sure there were ways that our travels as children shaped us. For me, I’ve always had a great love of languages and a hunger to understand others and I’ve often wondered whether those passions are the chicken or the egg.

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Fast forward some 20 years, when I visited Tanzania, East Africa for the first time in 2003, I think my eyes were opened for the first time to the world around me. I had the good fortune to make subsequent trips in 2004 and 2005 due to my work as a Program Manager for an international non-profit organization.

My role for this organization was to coach people who were embarking on cultural immersion and volunteer service work trips in Tanzania. This meant that I helped them navigate all of the different ways they would need to prepare themselves for their trip. Figuring out the logistics of visa requirements, vaccinations and registration forms was the easy part. I could tell them what the CDC {Center for Disease Control} recommended. I could explain that the Embassies needed certain things to grant them visas. I was able to answer their questions about how to fill out the forms.

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The more challenging part of my job was helping them to navigate and understand the cultural differences they’d encounter. Life in rural East Africa is different than in the cities and towns of the US, UK and Australia, where most of the volunteers hailed from. What would it be like to learn a new language? Would they like being away from home? How would they feel about their work in the schools, orphanages, women’s centers and hospitals where they’d work?

There are things that we know that we don’t know, right? Like most of us know that we don’t know how to perform brain surgery. We know we don’t speak all 6 official languages of the UN. We know we don’t know that.

 

There are many things that we don’t know that we don’t know. When we have only experienced 1 culture; when we only speak 1 language; when we have only ever seen abundance and choice, we don’t know that much of the world doesn’t spend their days in the same ways that we do. Getting to see the differences and experience them is where the transformation comes. We can see ourselves more clearly when we see others’ customs and hear their stories.

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There’s a woman who I was blessed to meet those 15 years ago. She was the Country Director for the organization’s Tanzania-based location. She and I “shared” the volunteers, if you will. It was my job to prepare them for their trip, and it was her job to receive them and teach them while they were there.

 

Her name is Esther Simba, and as is the custom in Tanzania, we referred to her as Mama Simba. (To be culturally accurate, the custom also is to refer to a person who is a mother or father as “Mama” or “Baba” and the name of their first-born. So, she was also known as Mama Peter.) Some of us kind of created a cross-cultural compromise and called her Mama Esther. She is patient and flexible and she answers to all of those!

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She and I have so much in common and we bonded immediately. She is a linguist like I am. She’s a language and culture teacher like I am. She is an incredible leader in the community and an inspiration to those who know her. We shared good laughs, good talks and she opened my eyes to so much in the world. Over time, we both parted ways from the organization that connected us, yet we stayed in touch over the years.  

 

This past week, she was in the US for a conference and she stayed with my family and I for several days. It was an incredible blessing to us and I’m so grateful for this time we had.

 

It is because my travels to other countries changed me and opened my eyes and heart to the world, I feel strongly that others should have this experience. Many children don’t have the chance to travel to other countries, so I feel that it is my duty and passion to introduce them to the world in whatever ways I can. I mostly do this through food, geography, stories and crafts.

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This past Sunday, I was able to bring a bit of Tanzania, East Africa to the children of Peekskill during my weekly cooking class.

 

The class is called “Cooking around the World” so I teach them how to cook, and I teach them about the world. Just as important to me, is that I teach them the real life tasks that leaves them feeling proud and accomplished so that they can apply these skills to helping at home.   

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This Sunday, we had an East African menu to prepare. Our dishes were Githeri, which is a Kenyan corn, bean and tomato curry stew, Potato Samosasand Chai Tea Masala. There is a strong East Indian influence in East African cuisine because there’s a fairly large East Indian population in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

 

Before we started cooking, I wanted to give the kids the chance to learn from Mama Esther so that they could learn a bit about Tanzania.

 

I always warm the kids up a bit by asking them what they know about the region we are focusing on. When I asked them if they had any idea where Tanzania was...there was silence. No one had a clue. Or, they didn’t want to be the ones to speak first. My bet is the former.


I pulled out our World Atlas and started going through the continents. Could Tanzania be in North America? South America? Finally, we agreed it was in Africa. I asked them if they could name any countries in Africa….Again, crickets. So, we talked about the countries in North Africa, South Africa, West Africa and East Africa.

And we came to East Africa and the kids looked at the page in my atlas where they could see East Africa. I asked them to read off some of the neighboring countries, and I couldn’t help wondering if this was the first time the kids heard those names. Our American school system could do much better teaching our children geography.

 

 

 

So here are 5 things that the kids learned from class on Sunday. How many of them do you know?

 

  1. Swahili. They learned that the national language of Tanzania is Swahili. Swahili has a lot of borrowed words, many of which come from Arabic. Mama Esther taught them a song that she teaches her Swahili students, and the kids learned it and sang! They also learned the word for “thank you,” which is “asante” {ah-sahn-tay}.
     

  2. Geography. The kids had the chance to take a look at the countries of Eastern Africa on a map. Maybe for the first time. They learned that the countries in East Africa are: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan, 14 other countries.

    We discussed whether Africa was a country, a continent or just a colorful shape on a map...again...the silence. I hope they heard us when we told them that the African continent is made of 54 countries. All with different languages and cultures.

    Also, to understand the size of Africa...here's a good way to describe it. It would take the entire contiguous US (not Alaska and Hawaii), the whole of China and India and most of Europe to be as large as the African continent. Most maps downplay the size of Africa to make the world look symmetrical and pretty, but it's important to know the truth. 
     

  3. Age. Mama Esther told them that the concept of age is very different in Tanzania than here. She told them that it would be acceptable to be asked one’s age back home. Why? Because our age is a measure of the title others should use to address us.

    For example, if you are the age of my mother, I would call you “mama” (mother). If you were the age of my grandfather, I would call you “babu” (grandfather). If you are the age of my sister or brother, “dada” (sister) or “kaka” (brother).

    Older people are very much respected because it’s obvious that they have had a lot of life experience and wisdom. Oh, what a cultural difference. How nice if we would treat older people with as much respect here in this country.
     

  4. Cooking. There are a lot of differences between the way cooking happens in Tanzania when compared with here. For one, the traditional way to cook food is over a kerosene stove or charcoal stove. It’s not as easy to regulate the heat to cook the food as it is with a gas or electric stove. So, the traditional dishes are made in pots and the preparation of the dishes is a long, slow heat or a quick high heat.
     

  5. Water. Water isn’t as plentiful, available or clean as it is here. We are blessed beyond measure, truly, to have clean water at our fingertips. Most people in Tanzania do not have access to water if they don’t live near to one of the 3 major lakes. As a result, women spend several hours each day walking to get water from pumps.

 

Friends, it was a very good opportunity for our children to hear about some of the ways that life is different for people in the world. They had the chance to ask Mama Esther questions, too.

 

Are there parts of the world that you wish you knew more about?

 

If you’d like your kids to be a part of “Cooking around the World” you can sign up here.

 

Thanks so much for reading! Asante!