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Sharing Cultures Through Artwork

The third day of our trip was spent visiting the primary school built by ASFE in Magogoni village that was about an hour and a half outside of our group’s home base in Bagamoyo. On this summer day when school is not in regular session, the schoolmaster had traveled to each family with daughters the night before to invite them for a special day of learning. We arrived to approximately 100 girls ranging in age from 4 to 15 who ran up to our ASFE van to greet us. They were split into two groups by age. The 11- year olds and up went to a Days For Girls lesson on personal hygiene, and I spent most of my time with the younger girls in another classroom. All of the children sat silently at their tables and waited to see what was next.

Our director, Ashley Washburn, had learned about a cross-cultural exercise for children to share their surroundings and lifestyle with those from another culture by coloring on paper plates. I had worked on a drawing project with the children who attend church school at my church in Canton, Connecticut in early June. Before I left for Tanzania, I handed out paper plates to the students aged 3 to 13 and asked them to “draw what you see”. Their assignment was to color things and scenes in their life so others can see how they spend their time and what they like. American children drew things including pet dogs, snowmen, basketballs, football stadiums, American flags, houses with fences, grass and flowers. The younger ones drew pictures of themselves and other members of their families while those over age 6 drew activities such as sledding, playing soccer and riding bicycles.

The Magogoni headmaster held up one plate at a time, and Ashley described the drawing on each plate that he then translated into the African language of Swahili because these children speak no English. We passed around each plate for the Tanzanian children to look at more closely and pass to their neighbor.

The next step in this cross-cultural activity was to have the Tanzanian children draw their own paper plate pictures. We handed out crayons and magic markers. They were encouraged to draw WHAT THEY SEE – in their minds, hearts or with their eyes. They worked in silence with the many colors they had been given. Their eyes lit up when we made a second round with more colors for them to use. I walked around and encouraged them to keep adding to their drawings and smiled enthusiastically as I looked at their colorful artwork. They stared at my light skin and eye color, and I imagined that many of these children have never seen a Caucasian before. It made me feel different and unusual but in a safe way. Their eyes showed curiosity and intrigue, and I hope that my smile and eye contact helped them to feel more comfortable with my presence. When I made my next rounds up and down the rows of desks to hand out and later collect the crayons and markers, I saw a few smiles and then more still. It made me feel like I had connected with them and hopefully showed them that we come in all colors – like crayons and magic markers.

I am looking forward to sharing the Tanzanian children's decorated plates and photos from this trip with my church school children when I return to Connecticut on July 13th.​

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