On July 24, 2015, we lost our beloved dada and Toa Nafasi co-founder, Vumilia Temba, at the tender age of only 31 years.
I first met Vumi in 2007 when I came to Tanzania to do a six-month volunteership. We co-taught nursery school in her home village of Msaranga, just outside of Moshi town in Kilimanjaro region. We also taught each other.
Over the years, Vumi became like a sister to me: we loved hard, laughed hard, worked hard, fought hard. In fact, just before her untimely passing, we had had a terrible row which I will never forget. We made up, of course, but that fight was almost a testament to the intimacy of our relationship; you don’t get that mad at someone you don’t care about.
Learning of Vumi’s death was a moment of utter disbelief for me. I was shopping for groceries for dinner at a mini-mart nearby my house in Moshi when I got the call. My last text to her had gone unanswered and I was already worried. She always answered. The person who called me must have told me the news ten times in Swahili. I didn’t (or couldn’t) believe him. Finally, he said it in broken English: “Teacher Vumi, she die.” I went home and made dinner with my fresh-bought groceries, hysterical with a laugh that was not funny and streaming tears that I hadn’t yet made sense of.
I had just come off Mt. Kilimanjaro after trekking with my mom Carla for her 70th birthday and my 40th. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer shortly before traveling over and I was consumed with thoughts of her mortality, not Vumi’s. Yes, Vumi had been sick in the weeks leading up to her passing. She had a cough and was fatigued. Nothing drastically abnormal. Nothing like cancer.
Reaching town after summiting the “Roof of Africa,” Carla and I were filled with elation. I called Vumi when we got back to crow about our success and to tell her we wanted to come see her and show her all our photos and brag to her about our triumph. Her voice over the phone was meek, un-Vumi-like. You’ll see from some of the anecdotes below that meekness was the polar opposite of Vumi-ness.
We went to see Vumi and Carla was aghast by her appearance. Her face was grey and she was slumped on the sofa in her living room. She told me, “Mwili hauna nguvu.” Her body had no strength. I forgot about Kili and my swagger and asked where she had been seeking treatment. Her husband told me they had gone to the local referral hospital, the best in the area, but still lacking in many resources and personnel. I promised him that the following day, after making sure Carla made her flight back to the States, we would go together to the private practice doctor who I myself saw and get a referral from him.
That was the last time I saw Vumi alive.
Looking back, I cannot believe that I would survive another four years in Tanzania without her or that Toa would become the incredible locally-led organization that it is today: the employer of 35 hard-working Tanzanians, primarily women, and the supporter of thousands of public primary schoolchildren with learning differences.
I’ll share a few of the many funny and sweet stories about Vumi now….
Early on in my time in Tanzania during my volunteership and before Toa was even a glimmer in either of our eyes, we had the custom of going to her house in the village after teaching and eating fried bananas and watching Nigerian telenovelas, just chatting and laughing.
Vumi had a chicken coop out back as so many Tanzanian households do, and there was this one particular hen who would regularly enter the sitting room, cluck around a bit, and finally settle in a corner. After some time, the hen would exit leaving behind a single perfect egg.
I remember asking Vumi, “What gives?” She shrugged — Vumi had three answers: Yes, No, and “The Shrug” — and said, “Ni tabia yake.” “It’s her habit.” Vumi never tried to change the hen, totally understood that this hen was somehow different, accepted her for what she was, and allowed the hen to carry on with her “habit.”
When I think about how we started Toa in 2012, Vumi applied this same attitude to the struggling learners who were so often being cast out of the regular public primary school classrooms. She never tried to change who these kids were at their core, only to help them to be successful with whatever their own particular habits might be. She fully understood the value of individuality in a culture that celebrates herd mentality.
Another good story about Vumi involves our parent interview process where we discuss with parents and caregivers the results of their children’s assessments.
The interview questions are meant to help us discover more about each child and the particular reason why he or she might be lagging. They concern things like gross and fine motor skills (can the child hold a pencil, walk a straight line); adaptive skills (does the child know when to use the bathroom, follow school rules); behavioral skills (does the child handle social situations appropriately, know how to problem-solve); and of course, cognitive skills (can the child apply basic logic and reasoning to different situations, are they able to process auditorily and/or visually).
One day, after a particularly trying episode with the family of a child who we discovered was the victim of longtime sexual abuse, I kind of lost my mind. Tears streaming with outrage, I railed against the parents for not protecting their child, for allowing the abuse to go on knowing she was intellectually impaired and gravely susceptible to social dangers. Vumi was not pleased.
After they had gone, Vumi picked up a copy of the questionnaire and silently started ticking “No” on various questions, ignoring my pathetic whimpers. She wordlessly handed me the sheet and I asked her what it represented. She said that it was me: Could I control my emotions? No. Could I problem-solve effectively? No. Could I behave appropriately in social situations? No.
It got to the point where Vumi would only share bad news with me on a Friday for fear my overly empathic (and very VOCIFEROUS) nature would render me useless at work the rest of the week! She knew me so well….
A last story I will share about my Vooms regards my personal life.
In 2010, I started dating a Tanzanian guy who was purportedly a mountain guide on Kili, but in reality pretty much just a drunk and a loser who could not hold down a regular job. I made a lot of excuses for him. Vumi found this unacceptable. She told me I needed to get tough with the guy and set my masharti or conditions otherwise he would run around and waste my time and energy, not to mention break my heart.
Suffice it to say, my masharti game was not strong and the relationship did not last. I think Vumi was secretly pleased about that although she certainly did get her kicks hearing all the gossip about me and my expat friends’ social lives. Never one to lack for an opinion, Vooms relished the tales and loved to act as my unofficial social advisor, guiding me through myriad extracurricular situations outside of the workplace. I should note that we spoke only in Swahili, so it was quite unique for me to have “girl talk” in a Bantu lingua franca!
Aside from leaving me and Toa, Vumi left behind her husband, who has not yet remarried, and a young daughter, Grace, who was just five when her mama died.
Now, practically a lady, Grace is in Standard Four at a private boarding school about an hour away from Moshi. I figured the least I could do for my best Tanzanian girlfriend and the only person who “got” what Toa was all about and who helped me champion our ethos to others was to ensure that her only child received a proper education.
We at The Toa Nafasi Project do our best to elevate the level of study within the public school system and to support those kids who struggle to learn, but the conditions are still not great: overcrowded and under-staffed classrooms are the norm, and I wanted more for G, as we affectionately call her. Needless to say that when G comes home for vacation, she is showered with love and warmth from all 30 of our tutors, even those who never knew Vumi personally, but only her name and legacy.
Truly a visionary and funny as hell, Vumi was one of the most important people in my adult life, and with the ever-enduring memories I have of her, she always will be.
Vumilia wetu, ulituacha hivi karibuni lakini daima tutakukumbuka.