Reflections on Guest Season: Seth Diemond

September 9, 2013 3:01 pm Published by

 They come from all over the U.S.- even the world. Some are young- in high school. Some are in college. Some are well into their careers and have families with grown children of their own. Despite coming from many different places with wildly different backgrounds, they all come with one goal in mind- to make better the lives of the girls at JBFC and to enrich the education of the children at Joseph and Mary schools. That, I am sure, they have done- far beyond our or their expectations.

As guest season here at JBFC comes to an end and I enter into my fourth month in this position, by far one of my favorite aspects of this job has been meeting so many wonderful guests, supporters, board members, and volunteers. In addition to just being able to spend time with these people- high school students from Bronxville, New York, soon to be college graduates from Vanderbilt University, recent graduates from Holland Hall in Tulsa, Oklahoma- it has been truly amazing to see the impact that all of these guests have had on campus. I have seen young man- soon to be a college freshman (whose nickname is Kuku Kaka)- build (or continue, depending on who you are talking to) a lifelong relationship with our youngest girl, Esther. I have seen a couple of very talented soon to be teachers from Vanderbilt University share their skills and knowledge with our teacher at Joseph and Mary. I have seen American teachers- whose passion has brought them back to JBFC time and time again- digging holes, moving manure, and painting buildings with the idea of helping JBFC improve its programs

and meet its goal of being self-sustaining. I have seen groups of high school students- some of them away from home for the first time and some of them returning volunteers to JBFC- spending afternoon after afternoon on the guest house porch or in our newly stocked library reading with the JBFC girls during “reading buddies.”  

I have seen all of these volunteers- young and old, big and small, from New England or from the Southwest or from Germany- spend hours upon hours building relationships with Zai, Lau, Neema (all of them), Eliza, Nyamalwa, Shida, Yonga, and all of the other girls here. Ultimately, and I have written about this before, they spend hours upon hours with the girls who now see them as family. One thing that is obvious is that in just a short amount of time, guests can have a profound impact on both our girls and on our school and it has been truly remarkable to watch first hand.

One thing that I have learned during my four plus years in Tanzania- and it’s one of the things I most hope that our guests will take home with them- is lesson that I  think, at least for some people, doesn’t hit until later.
Many times guests and volunteers in Tanzania — and this was more than true for myself during my first trip to Tanzania in 2008 — come here expecting to teach, to guide, to change fortunes, to improve lives, to inspire, and this is certainly true, often beyond their wildest dreams. 
But what I want our guests to remember is that often times- even when they can’t see it- the change happens in them. 

The impact on them is as big as the impact on any of the girls could ever be. And as a result these volunteers are even more empowered to inspire or create change.

This change – this impact- that kids in Tanzania have had on my life has made all of the difference and has put me on the path that has brought me to JBFC.

When I was a sophomore at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, studying to be a teacher, I hit a wall in my life. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, where I wanted to go, or, most importantly, how to get there. I was lost, to say the least. Just as I hit this difficult junction in my life, my best friend — my sister, really —  invited me on a trip to Tanzania for the following winter. I had always had an interest in Africa, but had never really dreamed of traveling to such a far off, foreign, abstract place. While we were snowboarding in Maine one day I agreed- on a whim- on a chance- to go to Tanzania with her for no better reason than I didn’t know where else to go. It was on this ensuing trip to Tanzania that I would arguably make the most important relationship- most important bond- of my life. I met my role model- a person who remains my role model, my idol, until today.

When I tell this story I usually ask “who do you think my role model is?” Often (more often than not actually) people answer, “Chris Gates!” Chris is truly an amazing person and an outstanding role model for anyone (including for me). And although I learn something new from him nearly every day, he isn’t “my” role model.

Usually a couple more names of a couple more amazing, wonderful, courageous, adults are guessed before I tell the true answer (no one has yet to guess correctly who my role model actually is). In reality, and in all honesty,
my role model was six years old when I met her.

Today she is a beautiful, intelligent, hard working, caring, amazing ten year old girl named Elizabeth Gideon Shemaya. I call her my daughter. She calls me dad. We tell each other almost everything. She’s the reason I am in Tanzania today. She’s the reason I am at JBFC. And she is the reason, for better or worse, that I am the person that I am today.

Like many, if not most of JBFC’s volunteers, I expected my first trip to Tanzania to be my one and only trip to Tanzania. The night before I left for this trip I remember talking to my father. We were discussing the possibility of me going on a safari to the Serengeti and I was convinced that I should do it because this would probably be a once in a lifetime experience. My father, very wisely, said that “if this experience turns out the way I think it will, you very well may end up back in Tanzania, maybe many times.” He was more right than he could have ever known. It was on this trip that I met Elizabeth. She sat quiet in the back of a classroom for students who didn’t have enough money to go to school that I taught in every day in a rundown section of a small city called Moshi. For the first couple of days I barely noticed her. One day, as I was helping students correct problems that they had gotten wrong on a worksheet, I noticed why Elizabeth sat so quietly; Elizabeth, rather than being detached, was teaching herself English from an English-Swahili dictionary. 

It was at that very moment- and every moment over the course of the next couple of weeks- that Elizabeth became my role model in life. The sum of what Elizabeth taught me in that short amount of time- what she taught me about life, about perseverance, about patience, about caring, about being positive and not giving up, about love was more important than any number of English words or Algebra that I could have ever taught her. She continues to teach me these lessons until today. Elizabeth taught me that no matter how hard it gets, no matter how many obstacles you have put in front of you, all you need to do is hold your head up high, believe in yourself, remain positive, and know that tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or even next year, things will be better.

I tried to pay Elizabeth back for these lessons by sponsoring her to go to school after I left Tanzania, still thinking this would be a one-time trip. It took one phone call from Elizabeth a couple of months later and receiving one picture from her in her school uniform via email for me to plan my second trip back to Tanzania. And then my third. And fourth. And fifth. 

My father and Elizabeth were both teaching the same thing- sending the same message- however unintentional it may have been. What they were teaching me- my father by telling me not to rule out coming back to Tanzania and Elizabeth by teaching herself English out of a second-hand dictionary- was to never discount an opportunity as too small to matter, an experience too little to be worthy of further thought. Had Elizabeth discarded that dictionary, I may not have taken notice of her and she may not be in school today — most importantly, I wouldn’t have her as a daughter. Had I gone on that safari and had it decided in my mind that I would never come back to Tanzania, I wouldn’t have seen her again. I wouldn’t be at JBFC and I wouldn’t have had the wonderful opportunity to work with Chris and the rest of the staff here, to meet so many amazing guests, and most importantly, to meet our girls here. 

If Chris hadn’t been open-minded to the experience that he was having on his first trip to Tanzania and the opportunity that it could become, I wouldn’t be here; our dozens of staff members wouldn’t have their jobs here; our wonderful guests wouldn’t have these experiences; and, although it is hard to imagine, the girls wouldn’t be here.

What I want our guests to take away is a sense that they should never discount an opportunity, an experience, a moment, as small, or unworthy, or meaningless. 

Moments become experiences; experiences become your path; and your path, years from now, becomes your life.

I met Elizabeth in one small moment and let that moment determine my path in life. Kayci, our Administrative Director, came to JBFC as a volunteer and ended up coming back (and has stayed for several years). Chris saw an opportunity, regardless of how small it may have seemed at the time, and made dreams come true- not just for himself but for dozens, if not hundreds, of other people in Kitongo, in Tanzania, and around the world.

Our guests deserve a huge thanks- the work they do, their dedication, their love- it shows up and makes a huge difference every minute that they spend here (and even when they return home). But to those same guests- let the girls teach you something- let them change you and empower you to do something bigger, be something better, for them. 

Don’t forget that moment sitting with Liku on the porch or in the library.

Don’t forget that moment when Esther came running across the court yard to see you again. 

Don’t forget that moment when one of the girls started crying because she knew you were leaving to go start college. 

Don’t forget, because they don’t.

Guest Blogger, Seth Diemond, is JBFC’s Campus Director.

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