Pen Pals & Whale Tales

When I first arrived at JBFC, one of my first duties was helping various classes write letters to their Pen Pals in the USA and thank you letters to donors. This turned out to be harder than it sounded.

There were various challenges to this project. Questions asked by American students often only required “Yes” or “No” answers and were – occasionally – culturally irrelevant to our Tanzanian students. When you ask a 7 year old, “Does it snow in Tanzania?” in my experience they answer, “What is snow?” “What’s your favorite movie?” can also only be answered honestly by about half the students, while the other half don’t have electricity at home and seeing any movie seems foreign to them, let alone picking a favorite. Letters often went back and forth excitedly since they both loved the same sport – football – not realizing that one was talking about American Football, while the other was talking about soccer.

The primary challenge though, was having the students reflect and then answer questions with answers unique to them. I made the mistake one day of writing examples on the board.

When I wrote:

“Dear Jeff, Thank you for your letter! My favorite food is pork.”

I should have seen it coming when everyone wrote letters to me claiming they loved bacon. Or when I held up “Hungry Cat” as an example of a book that may be their favorite, I should have known that it would just so happen to be everyone’s favorite. Regularly, it seemed that there were clusters of similarities. What’s the chance that all of the “Tom & Jerry” fans sat together?

To be fair to them, it was a two-way street and both sides seemed to struggle. It’s what you should expect when eight-year-olds are writing a couple letters to each other with months in between each. Despite the challenges, our students were very excited each time a new batch came in!

We started to get students to draw pictures to accompany their letters. It’s here, we thought, that students could really express themselves even if they couldn’t follow a letter format or struggled with English. We often ended up with football players, football fields, flowers, and princesses. It was common for students to find photos in their textbooks and quite skillfully copy these.

On two occasions, our classes were sent on field trips and we had them draw pictures of things they had seen to send to the sponsors that made it possible.

One trip was to a museum. A girl, who I knew well since she lived on campus, began to draw a very colorful blob. As I walked by, I cautiously said, “That looks like a whale,” not wanting to offend the artist, which very well could have been drawing something else. She ignored me, so I moved on thinking I had indeed offended.

When I looped back though, it was still looking like a whale and I leaned on her desk and said again – this time as a question – “That’s a whale?” Again she ignored me. I timidly went off, feeling I had misjudged her artistic intention.

The third time, I came by it was definitely looking like a whale. I squatted beside her and said, “That’s definitely a whale. You saw a whale at the museum?”

Her head popped up from her drawing: “What?”


“You’re drawing something you saw at the museum,” I explained again. She threw her Whalehead into her hands on her desk and exclaimed, “OH NO!” She hadn’t heard the instructions. Too much work had been put into that whale though, so the donor just got the impression that the students had visited a museum – in honor of Tanzania’s first president – which also had a large aquarium out back.

The second trip was a safari in the Serengeti and they were asked to draw their favorite animal they saw. The class had one of those binders filled with animal profiles and they were quick to find it and fight over relevant animals that they could draw/copy. I’m pretty sure one particular artist drew at least five of the cheetahs that began popping up on his classmates’ sheets. As I walked by one boys desk, I noticed he was drawing what looked like a dinosaur and then I saw the animal profile he was copying it from. He was indeed drawing a dinosaur. “You saw one of those,” I asked and he nodded profusely. I just let it go. Who was I to argue over what mysteries the Serengeti could hold?

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