The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world topsy-turvy for the last year and a half, but it really hit home at The Toa Nafasi Project this past month.

In early August 2021, the board in the United States was informed that Tanzania was in the grip of an intense third wave of coronavirus, one that the Tanzanian government was finally acknowledging and addressing.

Shortly after our first communications from the ground that COVID had reared up again, we started getting reports that people were getting sick, including members of our staff.  Our Executive Director, Innocent Estomih, wrote to say that Rose Assey, one of our most beloved tutors was in critical condition and receiving oxygen at the local hospital.  He also reported that 12 other staff members were feeling unwell and unable to work.  He canceled the second quarter meeting of the Tanzania advisory board and ordered a cessation of the weekly professional development workshops for the tutors.

The very following day after first informing us that Rose was in the hospital, Innocent wrote again to tell us that she had passed.  I was not altogether surprised due to how sick she was and the lack of resources in Tanzania but losing her was a shock nonetheless.

Rose was a feisty, funny woman who would routinely make us all laugh with her impressions and jokes and irreverent personality.  Unlike a lot of Tanzanian women, she had not one submissive bone in her body.  She was very, very funny and was always one of the tutors I could tell a joke to and know it would be well-received.  She acted as a mentor to a lot of the younger women and was a strong character on staff.

The first time I really sat down with Rose was shortly after she was hired in 2016.  I was observing her assessing a student and when she said, “Ukifanya kazi nzuri, utapewa zawadi” (“If you do good work, you will be given a present”), I had some concerns about how well she would do at Toa.  But I took her aside after the exam and simply told her, we don’t do that here at Toa, we want the child to give his best effort on his own and not be motivated by a gift that does not exist.  Rose understood immediately.  She was able to shed, over time, a lot of the usual societal norms in Tanzania for teaching children and was willing to support each of her students with personal care and attention, no bribing or bartering necessary.

Rose was a quick learner and just as she learned from the zawadi experience, she learned from many other daily experiences with me and with her fellow tutors.  She was a vocal participant in the Friday workshops, whether it was relay races with Kaitlin or the marshmallow experiment with Shannah.  Because of her willingness to learn new things and apply them in her classroom with her students, Rose was selected to travel with us to Lushoto in July 2019 to attend the International Association of Special Education’s biennial conference.

In 2020, when we expanded from 4 schools to 9 schools, Rose became Head Tutor at the Magereza Primary School site which is the prison school, and when I teased her about how she would handle being so close to all the prisoners, she responded in typical Rose fashion, balling up her fists and kicking out her legs, showing me what would happen to any jailbird who messed with her.

It’s nearly the start of a new month now, and the reality of Rose’s passing has sunk in.  But her loss is only just beginning to be realized.  And it will be felt for many months to come.

Pumzika kwa amani, Mwalimu.  We love you.