Kathrine Margulis ’24, reflects on her time in Mainsprings, the strong connections she made with the JBFC girls, and the difficulties of saying goodbye.
Sitting on a thin wooden bench in Mainsprings school kitchen, flour and friendship bracelets covering me from head to toe, the end of our trip to Tanzania has arrived. These two weeks have been filled with everything from coconuts to British travelers, leopards, mango jam, and Hearts. I knew that I would start and end my time at Mainsprings with tears in my eyes while listening to 36 brilliant girls singing prayer prior to a delicious dinner. Their song reflects their generosity, talent, hospitality, and value for inclusion and connection. I remember the first time I sat down and saw a sea of girls with identically shaved heads, curious eyes scanning a room of strange faces. In the same position two weeks later, I look at the girls and proudly see a story behind each of their, now, familiar features. We have all become sisters through cooking, reading, basketball, and dancing. Meals have enabled us to share love and culture between two communities from opposite sides of the planet. I will forever remember the affection in the air today, and the talent each JBFC member possesses. The last two weeks were all about embracing the uncomfortable, and the progress we made as a group is irreversible.
The morning started off with an early rise at 6:00 am in order to hike up the rocky hill behind our dorm to watch the sunrise. The cloudy sky hid the sun, but the dawn felt refreshing. I’ve valued the constant conversations with group members, a process of getting to know Deerfield students and faculty on a very personal level. We’ve talked about topics as serious as permaculture and stereotypes to silly recurring jokes about our British neighbors, George and Lizzie, who are spending twelve months touring Africa, and Phoebe the newest girl at the JBFC home, a three-year-old wild child. We followed the sunrise hike with our final Papa’s breakfast; we all indulged in the tasty mango jam and lemongrass tea. The group filled our free time with countless rounds of the card game Hearts and sessions of friendship bracelet making. We constructed and signed posters and thank you cards for the Mainsprings girls and teachers in order to express our gratitude. This quiet start to our final day was a very drastic change from our usual bustling schedule, but it prepared us for the emotional night ahead, as well as giving us one last chance to soak in our beautiful surroundings. Unlike my preconceived notions of a dusty, dry Tanzania, campus is luscious and blooming with shady fruit trees offering gifts of limes, guavas, coconut and jackfruit.
Lunch marked our last meal at Papa’s beach-side oasis. Our chefs for the last two weeks, Jackson and Dawdee spoiled us with quiche, quesadillas, and pumpkin soup. It’s safe to say every meal we had this trip had everyone going up for seconds and thirds. Mainsprings is the face of permaculture and it translates into the mindset of the staff and students. Patient nurturing is critical for good results. Mainspring’s permaculture fields are free of chemicals and bear an abundance of produce that nourishes the residents and members of the school. At school, children are treated with love, yet challenged to reach their fullest potential. In Tanzanian schools a 75% grade translates to an A–too bad Deerfield hasn’t adopted this system. Their curriculum is student-centered, fosters growth, and pushes students to strive for success.
Heading past the main gate of the girl’s home, I knew my last time (for now) inside their living quarters would be filled with more laughing and crying than I have ever done. Girls of all ages swarmed our group. The toddlers begged for piggy back rides and cameras, while the older girls grabbed onto limbs and covered every inch of wrist and ankle in friendship bracelets. Their weaving skills significantly outmatch ours, but they embraced our elementary level gifts as a physical homage to our love for them. We learned how to make Chapati (Tanzanian-style naan) from scratch in the kitchen and helped the girls knead dough, cut vegetables, sprinkle cheese, and bake over 100 pizzas over an open charcoal fire (while snacking on ingredients throughout the process). By 6:30 pm, we gathered in the bungalow under the dimming light and participated in one last prayer. Our own students have performed in the last two gatherings and gave the Kitongo girls a taste of religion and spirituality in the United States. I finally made progress with two young twin girls. Abby and Ami, identical three-year-olds who, to this point, had not cracked a smile the entire trip. However, on this last night they steadily opened up and upon seeing their faces in my camera they showed off their bright teeth and grinned from ear to ear. While listening to prayer, Abby crawled into my arms and fell asleep. Her beating heart aligned with mine and her smooth head fell against my chest. I felt like she had finally become comfortable with me and trusted a new face.
Once I put Abby down for a nap, I rejoined the group. A fight broke out with the remaining flour from our cooking adventure. It seemed as if it had snowed over the tropical land as white powder filled the air and fluttered down onto the ground. Our faces, shoulders, and hair received fistfuls of flour. The girls felt so comfortable with our leaders that they boldly tossed some in their faces and cloaked Mr. Emerson in a layer of flour. Of course, his wide smile shined through and the children ran off giggling as we swept them up with hugs. The joy from this impromptu flour flight brought contagious energy to every individual. We gorged on pizza, filling up our plates to the brim. At Mainsprings, Mamas (the matrons who live with the girls), volunteers, and students pour their hearts and souls into creating delicious meals that brighten the lives of every person lucky enough to taste the cooking. Having nutritious and filling meals saves lives, and can even open the door to education for students from poor families. We learned earlier in the trip that many local farmers reluctantly send their children to the nearby government school on empty stomachs.
After clearing our plates and visiting my reading buddy’s room, we gathered to perform for the girls. One of our language lessons focused on learning songs in Swahili. We sang the Swahili version of “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes” and after stumbling through the first verse every girl in the room joined in to support us throughout the rest of the song. We finished strong with the Deerfield Fight Song and left a piece of our culture with them. When it was their turn to go up, my breath hung in the air and I took in the presence of each unique girl. Their passionate and powerful singing filled the room and it took all my strength to hold back tears. I felt conflicted between sadness and happiness while watching the girls perform with wide smiles. Joy was just as overwhelming as my melancholy, and on the final note I rushed to embrace my reading buddy and the other girls that had become my sisters. Upon the first hug came the waterworks, and the whispers of “I love you” and “I will never forget you” still echo in my head. One of the difficult parts of saying goodbye was acknowledging the limited ability of communication between us. The girls do not have access to telephones or email, however I look forward to sending them messages and photos through some of the school faculty. In my experience, I have found the last two weeks without my phone extremely refreshing. I’ve been present in the moment and 100% dedicated to bonding with people and internalizing our surroundings. The lack of distraction has cleared my head and grounded me in the experience of Africa. We filled our time with photography, art, and card playing, new activities I will integrate into my life at Deerfield.
Well past the girls’ 8 pm curfew, we slowly made our way to the gates of the home. I said farewell to each girl knowing that it was “see you later” and not “goodbye.” As someone who has always loved traveling, service is the perfect bridge between a hobby and a career, as I continue my life adventures. Everything we participated in while at Mainsprings brought me more genuine joy than I have ever experienced before, and I feel that we made a lasting impact on the girls through our kindness and attention. Participating in this trip allowed me to combine lessons from Environmental Science and English as I consider additional ways to assist this incredible community. I will continue to expand my relationship with Mainsprings. I hope to aid the school’s plan to increase their supply of solar energy. No matter how we choose to give back to JBFC and Mainsprings, I know that I will be back to see the current girls and make more memories with future students. Tanzania is certainly a special place, and it inhabits a small school in Kitongo of even more special kids.
–Kathrine Margulis ’24