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Thursday, May 5, 2016

To Tanzania with love

Monday, December 10, 2007

Fifty-five students pack into a 12-foot by 12-foot room every day for class in Dongobesh, Tanzania. Gehlen Catholic teacher Willie Massay, his brother Fort, and Guardian Angel Preschool director Lisa Freking and her daughter traveled to Tanzania this summer, saw the need first-hand for education in Massay's hometown, and came back with a plan to start a non-profit organization and raise money to build a new kindergarten classroom and fund students' tuition.
Like others in the Tanzanian community he grew up in, Willie Massay was raised in a two-room house with walls made of mud and sticks. From the age of four, he was learning to tend grazing calves. His family had very little in terms of money, food or possessions.

"I went to school for days without food," he said. "Some days the only reason we went to school was because we could get lunch."

Today, Massay teaches Theology at Gehlen Catholic School, and some of the money he makes here goes back to help his family in Tanzania. Now they have a roof that no longer lets rainwater pour in. Now they don't have to go hungry some days.

A Tanzanian boy peers out from his home. Most families have 2-3 room houses, with one of the rooms for the family's animals. In Dongobesh, running water and electricity are non-existent, but cell phone towers are beginning to pop up.
But this summer, Massay retuned to his community Dongobesh in Tanzania for the first time since he left three years ago. bringing several friends with him including Lisa Freking and her daughter Stacie of Le Mars. They all came back fired up.

"This time, I want to do something more," Massay said. "To me, at the end of the day, it's about eliminating need, poverty and powerlessness. And that comes through education."

Massay, with the help of his friends who traveled with him, started organizing a non-profit organization to help connect Tanzanian children with education. This month it became official: Helping Hands Ministries Africa, Inc. is state-approved and ready to roll. Donations to the organization are tax-free and will be wired to Tanzania to pay for tuition, supplies and room and board for students. Most schools in the country are boarding schools, Massay explained, but not like American boarding schools.

Packed into a tiny kindergarten classroom, the students students use bottlecaps strung on twine to practice counting and math. In a country where most people survive on subsitence farming, education can mean the possibility of a future where the students don't worry if there will be food for the next meal. Helping Hands Ministries Africa, a new local non-profit, will raise money to provide these students with new classroom and others with tuition.
"They are very poor schools, The diet there is really sad," he said. "When I was in high school, every day we ate a cornmeal porridge with a few beans thrown in. If you got a couple of beans, you were lucky."

Getting rice, maybe once a month, was a huge treat, he said, and they might get meat two or three times a semester.

Coming to the U.S. after spending his first 30 years in Tanzania, he said, was like bringing a child who had been starving for a week to a huge feast.

Massay and Freking check out the design of a desk that will be used in the new kindergarten classroom they are planning in Dongobesh, Tanzania. Right now, 55 students pack onto rows of benches with no desks. The new classroom will be built by people from the Tanzanian community.
"It's unbelievable," he remembered. "You don't know what to do with it all."

When he returned home to visit this summer after just three years of being away, the poverty surprised even him.

"Here in the U.S. I had to adjust from a life of abundance," he said. "I needed to see life again in its reality."

This Tanzanian mom asked Lisa Freking of Le Mars if she would adopt her child. Children in Tanzania, especially from ages 1-5 are very vulnerable to disease and death, Massay explained. Mothers like this one know that if the baby stays there, his future is uncertain, but if he was adopted by an American, he would have a better life. Freking said the hardest part of her trip was telling the mother no.
Where her heart is

For Lisa Freking, the director and co-owner of the Guardian Angel Preschool and Daycare in Le Mars, she was seeing that reality for the first time. She and her daughter decided to travel to Tanzania after Massay had asked her to sponsor students there.

"It's exactly as the pictures show in the National Geographic or on CNN. The poverty is that great," she said. "I really didn't expect them to be that poor."

With a Tanzanian woman watching, Massay grinds corn from the cob. Massay spent the first 30 years of his life in Tanzania, born into a family with very little in terms of food or possessions. Three years ago, he came to the U.S. first as a seminary student, then a teacher at Gehlen in Le Mars. Now he's working to help other Tanzanian students.
Homes with dirt floors and a small fire pit for a kitchen. No running water. No electricity. Families whose only means of transportation was their feet, or a bicycle, if they were lucky.

But as a preschool and day care owner, one thing hit her more than everything else: a cramped kindergarten class connected to the church Massay's family attended. At first, no kindergarten was available, but then the priest offered one of the church's offices as a classroom.

"I walked in there, and there were 55 kids in a 12-foot by 12-foot room. They were packed like sardines," she said. "It was just unbelievable."

A Tanzanian woman cooks in her "kitchen," which doubles as the living room and dining room in her two-room house. Her "stove" is a firepit with three rocks to set the cooking pot on, a typical setup for families in Dongobesh. Freking said she was surprised by how little the people owned but how happy they were.
There are no desks, just rows of benches. At the front of the room is one blackboard with English words on it -- they start learning it as a second language to their native Swahili even in kindergarten. Each child has a backpack with one notepad and one pencil. And around their neck they wear a string of brightly colored metal bottlecaps.

"They do all their counting with those," Freking explained. "That's how they learn all their math."

Old school, new school

After only 24 hours in Tanzania, Freking knew she'd caught "the Africa bug." In other words, she knew she wanted to do something to help people there. But when she walked into the kindergarten room, that desire began to form a vision.

"At that time I decided building a facility for their kindergarten classroom was what I wanted to do," she said. "Back here at Guardian Angel, we are so fortunate to have so much. I almost feel selfish to look around at what we have. We are so blessed to have all of this: toys, supplies, cots. They have nothing."

For the first couple of days in general she felt sorry for the people of Tanzania, she said. Then a realization hit her.

"These people are happy, laughing. They are the happiest people in the world," she said. "They have very little of anything, but they have what they need. They have each other."

Still, she was fired up about the kindergarten classroom.

She and Massay talked with the local priest about the details. A new classroom more than four times the size of the old is in the works, and it will cost about $6,000. Freking, on her part, pledged to raise about $4,000 for the building. The local Tanzanian church will pay for the rest and put in the manual labor to make the bricks and build it.

Shepherd to midwife

Freking and Massay speak passionately about this project and raising money to pay for students to go to school.

"Education is liberation," Massay said.

He's speaking from experience. His education became an open door for him. Eventually it gave him the opportunity to study seminary in the U.S., then get his job at Gehlen.

But his desire to make a difference in his world actually started outside a classroom. He was 12 years old, and was tending his family's cows, goats and sheep miles from the nearest home.

"I was out in the middle of nowhere, and this woman came walking along. She was pregnant, and she told me she couldn't walk any more," he said. "I told her the nearest house was about a 20-minute walk, but she told me, 'You cannot leave me. You have to help me.'"

So, with no hint of medical training and only the woman's instructions, Massay helped her give birth among the grazing animals.

"That's the moment when I knew I could do something to help," he said. "Now, being in America gives me the chance to give back to my community."

Caught in the middle

When Massay, Freking and the rest of the group's two weeks in Tanzania were over this summer, Massay said it was hard to leave his family. All several hundred of them. His mom, he explained, was one of 108 kids. His grandfather had 12 wives and 100s and 100s of grandchildren.

"But it's what I had to do," he said. "My presence in America may be hard because I am far from them, but it's the best thing that happened to me, to my family and to a lot of children who are now in school because I'm here. I'm caught between two extreme worlds. One is extremely poor. One is extremely wealthy."

Helping Hands Ministry Africa will become a kind of bridge between the two. Led by a three-person board of directors in the U.S., the organization will wire the money to Massay's brother in Tanzania, a religious brother who will distribute the finances to his school and to the kindergarten classroom project.

Massay said in the future he hopes to develop a connection between Le Mars and Dongobesh, partly by taking more people to visit.

"They are two small towns, very far apart, but I think we will all benefit from the cultural exchange," he said.

For more information or to donate to Helping Hands Ministries Africa, contact Massay at Gehlen at 546-4181 or Freking at Guardian Angel at 546-8732. Donations can be sent to Massay at Gehlen Catholic Schools, 709 Plymouth Street NE, Le Mars or to Freking at Guardian Angel Preschool and Daycare, 1391 1st Street SE, Le Mars. To donate specifically to the kindergarten classroom project, indicate that with the donation.

Massay also said a website is in the works.

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