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Take a Right at the Tree: The path of Tamari Nduaguibe

Take a Right at the Tree…
The path of Tamari Nduaguibe

About 100 education students gathered in a room in Rhodes Hall on a cold winter's day to listen to stories of teaching in Africa. Although Tamari Clark Nduaguibe '88 has lived in New England the past two years, she might have just stepped off a plane from Namibia. Her stories are those of a parched yellow land and strong-willed people living a bare existence. The shadow of apartheid still pervades the country; AIDS has been a reality for far longer than the West has known the disease; people die young. Nduaguibe described these things matter-of-factly. The students, all prospective teachers, listen intently.

photo courtesy Tamari Nduaguibe"Should children go to school?" Nduaguibe asked the group. "Yes" was the unanimous answer. But, she asked, what if you weren't the smartest child in your family and your parents couldn't afford for you to attend school? Should you should stay home and work and let your brother go instead?

Next question: "Should girls go to school?" The answer, still "yes," was less assured. But, Nduaguibe asked, what if you were the oldest girl in the family, your parents were dead, and you were needed to help raise your brothers and sisters and tend to the millet that will feed your family?

That's the message Bauer and her colleagues on the Diverse Voices committee want to convey to students. "We chose Tamari because she's a graduate of KSC who knows where these students come from and who has sought out diverse experiences," explained Bauer. "She has a powerful experience with – and perspective on – diversity in her personal and professional life. And, she has become a friend instead of my student."

Nduaguibe's stories seemed to turn the students' perception of education on its head. This was deliberate. Nduaguibe, who studied education at KSC, had been asked by her friend and mentor Dottie Bauer to speak about her experiences in the Peace Corps in Namibia for the College's Diverse Voices from the Field Project. The Diverse Voices project, says Bauer, associate professor of education, is intended to expand the thinking of beginning teachers. "The world is incredibly diverse," said Bauer. "Our students will experience this as they grow and move on."


Diverse Voices from the Field:
A Colloquium for Teacher Education Students

Assisted by funding from the KSC Alumni Grants Program the past two years, the Diverse Voices from the Field project brings speakers who represent diversity in education to Keene State College, with the goal of helping prepare teachers for the multicultural world of public education in the United States. The project is organized and overseen by a group of education/special education/early childhood (ESEC) faculty members. Events are free and open to the public. Visiting speakers have discussed Mexican culture, the Hispanic experience in public education, a multicultural curriculum in rural elementary schools, and a Native American model for teachers, parents, and community members.

That's the message Bauer and her colleagues on the Diverse Voices committee want to convey to students. "We chose Tamari because she's a graduate of KSC who knows where these students come from and who has sought out diverse experiences," explained Bauer. "She has a powerful experience with – and perspective on – diversity in her personal and professional life. And, she has become a friend instead of my student."

After graduating from Keene State, Nduaguibe taught for four years at the Newmarket Child Care Center in Newmarket, N.H., and worked as a waitress to supplement her earnings. She traveled overseas, including a six-month working stint in England, and soon realized that her life didn't offer what she needed. "I was getting tired of work and I didn't want to burn out," she explained. "I also knew there was a world out there that I wanted to see." She researched how to work abroad and found out about the Peace Corps. She applied in 1993 and, a year later, decided to go to Namibia to be a teacher trainer for the organization.

"I was psyched," Nduaguibe said. "I threw away my checkbook and my make-up, my ‘waitress face.' I was ready to not buy into the American dream. I wanted to go away and think about what life was all about."

There's a story that's told to newcomers to Namibia, Nduaguibe said. "You get a glass of water and notice a bug in it. When you first arrive in Namibia, you'd throw the water away. After a year, you'd pull the bug out and drink the water. After two years, you'd drink the water, bug and all."

photo courtesy Tamari NduaguibeIn her first weeks of training teachers at Ongwediva College, Nduaguibe's own expectations of what "education" comprises were shattered. The students, mostly older, mostly women, were survivors of apartheid, the system of segregation practiced by whites against majority black populations in southern African countries until 1990. South Africa annexed Namibia, known as South-West Africa, after World War II, instituted apartheid, and fought a war against left-wing, pro-independence forces. Among the inequalities endured by Namibians under apartheid were poor health care, few employment options, no voice in the running of their country or their own futures, and "Bantu" schooling.

Woman with Child photoUnder the Bantu education system, said Nduaguibe, Namibians learned enough to fill out forms or to be useful servants for white people. "They weren't allowed to study math or science," she explained, "because they might get smart," and a smart population could rise up against its minority rulers. Nduaguibe's teacher trainees – "learners" – hadn't been allowed to study math or science, yet now they were supposed to teach these subjects. Nduaguibe remembered asking her learners to make a calendar, which would involve measuring poster board with rulers. Only then did she discover that her students didn't know how to use a ruler, or to add or subtract. She gave them a test based on the fourth-grade math syllabus – only four learners passed, of about 35 in the class.

Nduaguibe discarded her original plan and started from scratch. For the next six months, she taught fourth grade material to her learners, using techniques she had learned in her early childhood studies at Keene State. She divided her learners into groups of three, giving each a topic from the syllabus, such as multiplication of fractions, or changing decimals into fractions. The groups were asked to solve the problem and then to teach the rest of the class their process and solution.

photo courtesy Tamari Nduaguibe"They had to learn it to teach it," explained Nduaguibe. "I would look around the class and it was wonderful to see the light bulbs suddenly coming on. They were learning things they hadn't known before." She also taught the class songs that they could use in their own classrooms – songs that Bauer had taught Nduaguibe at Keene State. Some of those songs, said Nduaguibe, are now part of the Namibian government's education curriculum.

At the end of her two years as a volunteer, Nduaguibe was desperate to stay in the country. She had found her life's work and she had met Henry Nduaguibe, a Nigerian volunteer and agricultural expert. Fortunately, a job opened up and she was hired by the Peace Corps to help administer Namibia's Ministry of Basic Education, Sport and Culture's Basic Education Support Project (BESP). The aim of this project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was to increase the standards of teaching skills and resources throughout the northern regions of the country, by introducing new curricula and teaching methods to primary level teachers. Nduaguibe moved north to manage an office, where she put Peace Corps volunteer teachers in touch with rural schools.

photo courtesy Tamari NduaguibeNamibia's north country is a desert, speckled with scruffy trees and small villages. It gets hot out there, up to 120 degrees. Wood for fuel is scarce, deforestation being a huge problem. Water is captured in the rainy season and stored in tanks for the rest of the year. Millet, the only crop that grows in the desert, accounts for about 90 percent of meals. Houses are basic – built of sticks and, occasionally, recycled car bodies. People travel by horse and buggy, or hitchhike. Nearly a quarter of the population has HIV or AIDS. The life expectancy for Namibians is about 40 years, and infant mortality is high. Families are large, says Nduaguibe, because that's the only way parents can assure that they will have someone to help them if they fall ill.

Nduaguibe would take a four-wheel drive truck, the only vehicle that could navigate the sandy trails, and drive across the countryside, looking for schools she had heard about. There were no road signs or accurate maps. Often, she relied on local children riding shotgun and acting as navigators. Later, she'd write directions for volunteers to find the schools with notes like "drive for ten kilometers and turn right at the tree."

photo courtesy Tamari NduaguibeSchool operations had no hard and fast rules in this environment, she said. In some schools, there were no teachers – they had left, or died from AIDS. Some schools didn't have classrooms – students gathered under trees. The challenges for principals and teachers were many – inadequate training, class sizes (the average number was 40 learners, the largest was 160), lack of resources. She remembered one principal, "a wonderful man," whose office was a desk under the sun, outside a classroom. On his desk lay the tools of his trade – a timetable and the school bell.

For over five years, Nduaguibe and her two staff members welcomed Peace Corps volunteer teachers to the area, arranged their living situations, and placed them in schools. In that time, the volunteers introduced new curricula and teaching methods to more than 2,000 teachers from 500 schools. According to USAID, since BESP was introduced, the number of teachers in the country has increased by 30 percent, more than 3,000 new classrooms have been built, and standard curricula have been introduced across the country.

photo courtesy Tamari NduaguibeIn March 1996, Tamari married Henry, in a traditional ceremony in Namibia. They left Namibia in 2000, when her work with the Peace Corps ended, and, after a brief spell of travel, lived in New Hampshire for a year before moving to Amherst, Mass. Tamari is now working towards her master's degree at the Center for International Education at the University of Massachusetts. Henry teaches biology at a local high school. The couple have two sons, Alex Ucheze (five) and Chikacha Daniel (three).

The experiences Nduaguibe described at Keene State illustrated that survival in an unfamiliar culture depends on embracing differences, rather than fighting them or comparing them to life back home. "The typical thing with Americans including myself," she explains, "is that they think they're flexible and have no expectations about what they need to live. It's when you get to another country, you realize that you do."

Dave Orsman is the news coordinator in the College Relations Office.