by TaLeiza Calloway
Ashley Irons and Maggie Niebur had talked about all they wanted to do before leaving Tanzania during a service trip. The College of St. Benedict graduates had one goal: to be content with their experience.
The students are participants in the Benedictine Women Service Corps., an outreach program of St. Benedict’s Monastery. The program invites CSB alumni to join the monastic community’s efforts to deepen relationships that support justice globally, according to the program’s mission statement.
The students returned from Tanzania in March. Their 10-month commitment at St. Agnes Monastery in Chipole was cut short due to civil unrest and violence. Despite an early exit, their service continues and their spirits remain high.
Niebur said they were not at all afraid during their trip. But when the climate changed, she admits being worried.
“Part of what was upsetting about it was we had felt so safe the entire time we had been there,” Niebur said. “Tanzania is such a peaceful country, especially where we were. It was very unexpected and everyone around us was sort of dealing with that too because it was very unusual for them.”
Irons said the overall experience is what they tried to focus on.
“Yes, it felt like we were being ripped out really quickly,” Irons said, “and there were so many unfinished things, but what really saved me was I was still really content with the seven months before and what we accomplished.”
What they accomplished was finding ways to creatively assist in the teaching of English and computers to Form One girls – the equivalent to seventh- and eighth-graders. They visited children at the orphanage at St. Agnes Monastery and worked every day to soak up the culture and connect with students. They also spent time in a bakery and helped one of the sisters plant trees – something Irons was really interested in, she said.
Irons and Niebur worked with four separate classes with groups ranging from 30 to 50 students. Niebur said she went there with lesson plans and quickly learned their education system was different due to lack of resources. Irons majored in peace studies and Niebur majored in English. Without the background in education, they drew from what they thought they knew about teaching and made it work.
“There comes a point where you realize your organization doesn’t fit their system,” Niebur said. “It was almost easier that we weren’t trained in education . . . it was very much a learn-as-you-go experience.”
They determined students in Tanzania learn differently than American students with a strong emphasis on memorization in Tanzania. Because all they had to work with was chalk and a chalkboard, the student-volunteers tried to mix it up with games and songs.
Irons said all of the classes were taught in English, however, the students speak Swahili.
“They’re learning English as they learn their other subjects,” Irons said. “That’s really challenging. We realized how important learning English is for them. It’s not only important for them at the first level but for the rest of their lives.”
Even though the students were forced to leave the East African country early, they are volunteering in the St. Joseph community and finishing out their commitment at St. Benedict’s Monastery. Colleen Hollinger Petters, media representative for the monastery, said this means a lot to the nun community because they could have chosen to end their service when they had to return.
“The Sisters were all very impressed that they elected to do that,” Hollinger Petters said of the students’ continued service. “They appreciate it. They like that these two are going to prayers and having all of their meals (with them).”
Irons said the monastic component is a big part of the program both here and in Tanzania. She said it has really opened their eyes to how much of the monastic experience they can make their own. One of the differences between going to prayers here versus in Chipole is the language difference.
“Going to prayer times there was really significant,” Irons said, “but it was all in a different language. Their practices are really traditional there. Here, it’s easier because we understand the prayers and the songs.”
Niebur said it has been interesting to see the similarities between the nuns here and in Chipole. Years ago, the Benedictine community in St. Joseph was completely sustainable with nuns gardening and farming, something many of the nuns in Chipole are doing, Niebur said. Irons thinks it’s cool they get to experience both communities and discover not only what connects them but what makes them unique.
“Tuna kwenda” is Swahili for “We have to go.”
The girls might have been a little disappointed to say that to their students, but the relationships gained and lessons learned outweigh the emotion.
“I learned how really rewarding an experience like this is, “Irons said, “where we’re challenged everyday, where you really have to be patient, where you have to be open-minded – how rewarding an experience like that can be.”
Niebur said they missed the children once they returned to Minnesota, just as they missed their families when they left in July. More than anything, she says she gained the gift of perspective from the experience.
“It’s the middle that counts,” Niebur said. “We had talked so much about the end . . . we had so many good days in the middle, that’s what you focus on in those last days.”