Teaching the Teacher

A journey to Tanzania underscores the privileged life we take for granted

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Kerry Glamsch is one of the most talented all-around theater artists in the Tampa Bay area. He's an actor (Caryl Churchill's A Number), a director (Best of the Bay winner for Stop Kiss), a writer and a professor of theater at the University of South Florida.

But when I sat down with him recently at Café Kili in North Tampa, the subject was a different one: his trip to Africa this summer to teach theater to youths in Tanzania. Over coffee, he told me about the great poverty he witnessed, the great enthusiasm he discovered and about the changes the trip had made in his own consciousness. I've always known Glamsch to be a deep thinker, but I sensed that this African sojourn had made a special impression.

He said the saga began last March when he signed on with the International Theatre and Literacy Project, a nonprofit group that organizes teaching trips to Tanzania. He was told that he'd he be one of 10 teaching artists who would work with 100 high-school-age boys and girl in various small villages. Teachers would be paired and assigned 20 students whom they'd coach in playwriting, acting and improvisation. At the end of a week, each group would put on a play that had been developed during the all-day workshops, and in the following week the students would again put on the plays for their relatives, friends and each other.

Glamsch was told to prepare for cold weather in Tanzania — the country is below the equator, so it's winter there now. The teachers arrived at Kilimanjaro Airport at night, near the foot of the famous mountain, and upon getting off the plane, Glamsch immediately noticed the smell of burning wood "because most of the people heat their homes with firewood and cook with wood."

They made their way to the teachers' lodge on roads without lights; but, passing by, one could see into the houses because most of them were illuminated with lanterns or candles, and sometimes the doors were open. "People there walk everywhere, because nobody has cars," Glamsch said. "During the day, the roads are just packed with people up and down each side of the road walking, women all carrying things on their heads."

The teachers' destination was a site just outside Arusha, the third-largest city in Tanzania (and the venue of the current Rwanda Genocide Trials). Teachers — seven from New York, two from Los Angeles and Glamsch — were put up at a comfortable lodge built in 1908 as a German barracks, "so we were a bit privileged where we stayed."

But the classrooms where he taught weren't anywhere as cozy: Cold and dark, they has no electricity, the windows were broken, the bathrooms had no running water, and the toilet was nothing but a hole in the ground. Many of the students had to walk two or three miles to get to class.

Glamsch was teamed with Los Angeles writer/teacher Jeannette Horn, and they were assisted by translator who could speak Swahili. After meeting their group of students — ages 16-25, most of whom spoke some English — one of the first orders of business was to discover what themes they wanted to explore in their theater pieces. "The students were all really interested in social themes," said Glamsch, "things like forced marriage, polygamy, drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, old customs versus new, respect for family."

Glamsch soon discovered that some of his students had real talent as writers — one wrote him a 25-page story overnight — and "some amazing talent in acting." Through acting games, improv and scene work exercises, the students eventually composed "a stripped-down Romeo and Juliet with warring families," Glamsch said. "There was a poor family and a rich family, and the girl from the rich family fell in love with a poor boy, and her father, finding out about that, had the poor boy thrown into jail and then tried to marry his daughter off to another rich boy. It ended happily — they didn't want to go with a tragic ending. They didn't know Romeo and Juliet; they'd never heard of Shakespeare."

During his second week in Tanzania, Glamsch and the other teachers sat in on local classes and then led further workshops. As the session was ending, one student handed Glamsch a letter: It asked him to pay the $220 yearly fee — for tuition, textbooks and meals — so that he could afford to go to public school in the coming year. Glamsch has decided to help.

So what did Glamsch find most noteworthy about his experience? First, that the Tanzanian students were so devoted to learning. "We would get [to class] sometimes a half an hour early, and they would already all be there," he says. "The amount of gratitude they expressed for us being there just blew me away. It was in some ways heartbreaking. ... They want so badly to learn, they want so badly to have opportunities to better themselves, and in the States, so many of our kids sort of hero-worship rebel-loser culture, you know, outlaw culture. ... [In Tanzania] it's cool to actually study hard and earn a living and make good grades."

He had this to say about African poverty: "We in this country, and our students, have no idea how easy we have it and how spoiled we all are. Just running water; just being able to drive across town; just the diversity of food. ... A lot of the students would wake up and not have breakfast because there was no food in their house, so the first meal they got was lunch in school, and they would walk three miles to get to school."

Glamsch also saw during his African trip what America might represent if it were so inclined: "The English teachers that we saw [in Tanzania] had only a junior-high-school or high-school education, so they were teaching incorrect English. And our high-school students could probably do better. I think it would be amazing to bring back America as a sign of hope, beacon of hope, if we sent enthusiastic students out across the world to ... help with medicine, to help with education, to help with building roads, houses, anything."

And that's the nagging thought he brought back from Africa: "We live in a very privileged and isolated country. ... Especially our young people just do not seem to engage. Our young people seem so apolitical."

"And there are so many opportunities to go and reach out and build bridges."

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