Where in the world did you grow up, Jackie?
Jacqueline outside of the AMI headquarters I was born on January 31, 1973, in Bukoba rural, Kagera region, North East of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. I am the fourth of a family of ten, from the same father and mother. I was raised by different people and I don’t know exactly how it feels like to be brought up only by your own parents. In Africa we have a lot of extended families and we still pertain somehow to the relatives of our biological parents. What happened to me is commonly happening to many children in Africa. I remember staying at my maternal grandmother’s during almost all of my childhood. A child in this situation doesn’t acquire the sense of belonging to one place. They will never get it. It affects the very root of possession. When you think about home (meaning your homestead, your nest) you have got to choose which home, since you cannot avoid thinking about all of them. It is somehow schizophrenic, and that feeling remains forever. You will always have to make an effort to relocate your past. Nevertheless, there is a positive part out of it that I discovered later. A person quickly reaches total independence. 
Moving from one place to another, that was my life during my childhood. Not knowing exactly the reason why. I happened to live in three different places. The memories, therefore, are not based in one place. I remember coming back home frequently. It wasn’t easy for me to isolate or to connect the different people I had lived with. That came later. Before, I never knew that I belonged to my real family and each time I was there I had that kind of mood “Why am I here now? Why am I different?” Until now, I still have those flashbacks.  

A few years ago, I asked my parents why I had to go through all of this during my childhood. Their answers were: “This one, this other one, liked you and asked to take you”. Another thing they told me is that I had a food problem, (a problem which faded away only after giving birth to my son!). My parents had no feeling of guilt at all; they were even happy to tell me so. Of course, they could not understand my perspective but reasons such as those of my parents are not good reasons to give away your child. The truth is that we were many small children, my mother being pregnant every other year couldn’t manage to take care of all of us at the same time. We all have two years difference. That way of life has not yet left the developing countries, unfortunately. I learned to forgive my parents after I realised that there are many children in the world going through the same experience, sometimes it is even worse.  

During this time, I went from one school to another. It was destabilizing. Although I became a very bright child in the primary school years, I had no opportunity to continue with secondary education. Before the nineties, education in Tanzania wasn’t something you could choose; it was chosen for you. That’s why many of us couldn’t see their dreams come true. Things have changed. Now, everybody can access education easily and has their say. In my time, this opportunity was offered by the government to very few people only. Private schools were scarce and very expensive, not affordable at all to common farmers. On top of that, they were not welcoming to girls. Most of them at that time were in the hands of the Catholic Church, so, as the English say: “orderly charity begins at home” and the little Lutherans that we were could not enter even through the window!

Being a girl, and from a poor background, education was not on my horizon.

Family photo

By the time I reached my seventh and last year of primary school the government had changed its selection mode. They were selecting 1 to 3 students per school to continue with secondary education, but not systematically. Sometimes, it was nothing at all. I was in the year of nothing at all. Nobody was selected in my school in that year 1988. My father tried to make me repeat the class, but that wasn’t allowed. Could my parents afford to put me in a private school? Definitely not. Then I did many different things, here and there, that gradually brought me close to the Montessori world. Now, from 2006, I am an AMI 3-6 diploma holder. I am a person who always wants to educate herself further, reading, experimenting, exploring new paths. I don’t complain; Life has been good to me. I am happy with who I am. I am who God says I am.

The wound of shortcutting my academic education remains but inside me, from the first day after, I knew it was not going to be the end of the world. Trusting in yourself can change your life… It has changed mine!

Can you describe some of your most precious childhood memories?

One day (I may have been six years old), I found myself in a group of seven children accused by a mother of having bullied her son. Since my father was an evangelist (as his father had been) and my mother was known as a good wife, our family was regarded by the community as a family of good manners. Our parents did anything possible to maintain their reputation… and that lifestyle was not making our childhood simple! Our mother punished us as soon as she suspected something wrong, or after learning that we were involved in some mischief or had been the cause of something bad.  So, as children, we had to avoid mistakes all the time (although we had a lot of fun as siblings). We had even to watch out in the neighbourhood since people knew what would happen to us if we were reported to have misbehaved.

I don’t remember exactly what we did that day to that boy, but I remember his mother coming to my home, and I remember what my father did after that incident. My father was a gentle and charming man but he could occasionally beat my siblings (but not me). 

The woman came this time not to see our mother, but our father. I remember children shouting; “She has come!” and running to hide. The woman was speaking angrily to my father. He listened attentively and the woman left. We were all happy seeing that we were not punished. The next day my father called all of us, our little club of seven. He said: “You need to be punished for what you did yesterday”. It deserved a stick to my father’s point of view. He then ordered one of us to fetch him a stick that my father seemed to have previously hidden. When I saw it, I couldn’t imagine how he was going to use a three meters stick to strike us. He asked us to line up. Nobody wanted to be the first, nor the last. So, we kept on shifting from one side to another until he ordered “That is enough! He asked us to cover our eyes and not to look. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… five strikes were passing onto our buttocks. Children started screaming and weeping. I couldn’t feel anything at all, and I was wondering why others were shouting. For others not to think I was not beaten, I started screaming too.  Many wept and were making too much noise. To my surprise, I heard my dad saying:” Get up and never repeat that again!” 

When it was over, not all were crying; some were even giggling! 

Now I realised that I was not the only one who had not been punished...

And this is how my father beat me, for the first… and last time of my life.   

I also remember my grandma’s stories with fondness.

My grandmother on my mother’s side is among the people I lived with during my childhood, from the age 9 to adolescence. She was baptised Roman Catholic at the age of 83 and that’s when she got her first communion. Then her new name became Maria. She was from the Nobel tribe with typical wide eyes, the rabbit’s type (that not one of her children got, only one of her granddaughters).  She loved me very much and she was my favourite grandmother ever. She spoiled me, at least this is what the others used to say. She pampered me in comparison to the other grandchildren she happened to live with. She could hide the last spoon of sugar and give it to me in secret the next day, among other things. I never knew why she loved me so much; maybe because I was always prompted to fetch her what she needed, what she requested, contrary to other children who were more reluctant to do so. Maybe that was one of the reasons I was her favourite. It took me a long time to understand why the others complained about her. For me, she loved us equally since we were eating the same food, all having sugar when there was enough available, sharing the same soap to wash and clean, etc. 

She also wanted to tell us stories before going to bed. The stories were told on the condition that we ate early, but also at most of the times that I would be present. During school holidays, when I was returning to my parents’ home, there were no stories for my cousins and nephews remaining with her! 

We were fond of her stories as children and we wanted it to be a routine, but she refused. Gradually, she started telling less frequently… until she stopped completely! She gave us the reason but for us that reason didn’t make sense. She said she was lacking sleep after telling tales. We had no choice and that was the end of hearing my grandma’s stories. 

These tales were taking me beyond my imagination. I wanted to remember all the details since after her telling we were often asked to retell. Many of them have populated my childhood and not left my memory… white pebbles on the path to education. 

They were always principled. For instance: What a man is supposed to do if he wants to be successful in life, how to keep your garden free from weeds, the beautiful girl who was made out of bone and milk, the cheater and the liar, the dishonest husband, the greedy father who ate all the food given by his in-laws for his family during a famine (since the fellow had to travel far, for several weeks, to fetch it, he finished it all on his way back home)... He told lies but he was instantly caught by his wife and children because of the many samples of food remaining glued onto his beard.

Another story was about a man who had the habit to wake up in the middle of the night to have extra food, pretending there was an unknown beast coming to eat everything at midnight. They laid a trap and finally he was caught after getting an unbearable stomach ache which made him yell for help after he had eaten rotten mangoes. …And another one about the husband who could not trust his wife with cooked spinach unless he stayed himself in the kitchen to survey the cooking. 

She also told us about the child made not by God but by humans, made out of the mud. She could do everything except staying in the rain and she always made her mother worry. 

Grandma’s stories have made my moral education, in the stream of our culture and traditions. As I said, she used to keep extra things for me, but her tales are the best gift I ever received from her. They will remain precious and cherished memories for the rest of my life.

What do you remember about your earliest school days?

Young Jacqueline with a globe

It was back in 1981 when I was admitted to the primary one. It was the time when, at admission, to make sure of your age, a special way of measurement was stillapplied if you were looking younger than the legal age of 9. I was less than nine, so I was among them. They put me straight against the wall and assisted me to raise and fold my right arm over my head until my fingertips touched my left ear. They did. So, that is how I was admitted to the primary one. At the time, I was eight years old. I had attended a nursery school for one year, but in those days the nurseries were concentrating much more on religion than on reading, writing and arithmetic.

One incident I still remember about my earliest school days (and that I am amused to share), is how my sister saved me from my reading incapacity. She was at that time in primary seven and the head girl of the school. It was examination time in the first semester.  As there were no printers, no photocopiers by then, my sister was in charge of copying from the blackboard onto individual sheets of paper the examinations that teachers had composed for the lower classes. The reading exam was one of them. So, my sister knew what the questions were. I used to hear people saying that I could not read although I had convinced myself that I could! On that day, it clicked into my mind that, in reality, it was an illusion, otherwise my sister wouldn’t have had the bravery to rush to my rescue as she did. 

This is how it happened: We were outside during break time. Several exams such as mathematics and writing were already done. I knew we were going to do another one. I didn’t know which one but that didn’t affect my inner calm. Then I saw my sister Kisha running towards me and pretending to fix some of my clothing (I cannot recall what). To make sure nobody suspected, she whispered something into my ear. “You know that you still cannot read! I want you to listen attentively to what I say. Here are several words you are going to find in the reading exam. Make sure you remember them”. She went on to tell me those words. She didn’t give me time to even repeat and I didn’t know how to remember all of them. She trotted back and disappeared from my sight. I started panicking for the first time but, hearing this from my sister, it touched me very deeply and I wanted to do it right for her. I wanted her to be happy. I realised she did all of this for my own betterment, no matter the risk; she could have been caught!  I didn’t expect her to do what she did for me! It was like a wake-up knock. 

Among the words she recited, some were short, others appeared to be very long. It is only later that I came to know that the long ones were what they call sentences! It wasn’t easy for me to remember everything my sister said, but one sentence instantly glued into my memory, only one, the longest one… and I still remember it today.

It’s funny: Although I could read most of the babbling words such as baba, mama, dada, (father, mother, sister) and so forth, it was not making sense to me that other words as, for instance, mwalimu, shule (teacher, school) would not be written phonetically. So, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why they were confusing me when I tried to read them! I remember thinking that if it was possible to make words such as “mama”, why were there such other unreadable words? Now I know that most children go through the same confusion if the environment isn’t prepared to answer most of their questions.

Our primary one teacher was a female, with fair skin and a small voice. I don’t remember her being upset. She was at least 170 cm tall with a smiling face at all times. When the time for the reading examination came, she went on calling the pupils one by one to enter her office until it was my turn. She smiled at me and asked me to read. Since I didn’t know all the words, at first, I froze, then I started reading the few I knew. I managed to spot some words, but the rest was all blurred… except one thing: The longest sentence!  The teacher was running her index under each word. I skipped many. When she reached that long sentence, I couldn’t wait to read it! I knew it was exactly the sentence my sister had told me about. Immediately I started reading it as fast as I could, ahead of the teacher’s pointed finger. “baba ana shamba la mapapai” meaning the man has a pawpaw farm (or My father has a papaya farm). “What did you say?” she exclaimed, “Read it again”. I repeated with the same very speed. I noticed that other teachers present in the office were surprised, all paying attention to me, but I did not figure out why. My teacher smiled widely and told me to go. That was it! I had good marks, thanks to my sister! I couldn’t believe I did it. Since then, I knew how to read, mechanically speaking, I had no idea how that “accident” improved my cognitive process. I never knew what had happened to my brain, what could have suddenly been unlocked. 

I regarded it as a life lesson on how the adult victimises the emergent reader who is mechanically struggling to order things into their context. It taught me to respect and appreciate the struggle, the efforts of the child having to sneak through the mysterious mental process of reading.      

How does your childhood experience relate to the life you are currently living?

Weakness: 

Workaholic: I work very hard and I don’t feel okay if I am not busy.

Trustworthy: Since I trust people very much, I wish that everybody could be honest. I will spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to forgive someone and to defend a person.   

Attachment: I let go easily, although I used to worry very much about others. 

Lies: I am caught easily because I don’t know how to tell lies.

Strength:

Love and compassion: Most of the time, it doesn’t matter how much a person has wronged me; I will always try to forgive him/her. I will find any excuses for a person to be forgiven otherwise I won’t feel ok. 

Apology: I want people to apologise immediately after they are proved wrong because this is what I do myself.

Patience and Trust: People intend to trust me so much in so many issues and they appreciate my decision and advice I give them. I am very patient, and I wish to give a second chance to people to solve their problems before intervention. I don’t give up easily. 

Responsibility: I am happy to help others and I don’t want to correct people very much. I expect people to act responsibly. Sometimes I keep silent for a long time to see if a person will remember his/her duties. 

Cleanliness and order: My mother took a home craft course that had been offered to members of the Lutheran church by Europeans. She became so clean and organised and she made us good food. We all still remember eating well. Those things, none of them have left me. I was happy to come across Dr Montessori’s concepts and principles about order and how important it is in a child's life. 

Since I have become involved in the Montessori community, I have understood how the prepared environment can normalise a child and how the same child brings a dynamic transformation into the world. I never understand how a person can betray another person. 

Do you remember one special place with particular fondness?

I am a person who likes nature and the outside environment. It gives me calmness and peaceful sensation; it provides a lot to observe and admire God’s mighty work of creation. I have been lucky to visit many places that have impressed me by their beauty and precious geographical features. To mention a few, in April 2019, being a member of AMI, I was privileged to attend the Montessori Annual General Meeting in Amsterdam. I had been to Amsterdam before, but this time, I saw it differently. Despite all breath-taking events and people I met there, there was one exceptional thing that made me regard this trip as one of the best, for it provided me with very profound memories: It was the guided tour to Koningnneweg 161 and Noordwijk, on the 5th of April, to visit Montessori’s office and the place she is resting. 

My son Jean-Daniel, who studies in France, had now arrived in Amsterdam to spend a day with me. He joined the excursion along with two other friends of mine whowere participants of the General Meeting:  Danisiana from Tanzania, and Benjamin from Switzerland. One thing I didn’t want to miss was, in building 161, the apartment where Maria Montessori lived and worked. We walked through the garden from the hotel we were lodging and crossed two streets and there, just opposite, I saw the AMI office. That was the real building! I could not believe it! For a long time, I had been dreaming about it. On that day the dream became reality. I never thought one day I could see the real place! From outside to inside the building, I wanted to create fantasies. I wanted to feel she was present, and I felt safe with that. I had a feeling I can’t express by words, but I was overwhelmed by joy. My eyes could not believe that I was in her studio, in her real office, with all those trial and error miniatures displayed around... What a pleasure to see! It makes a big difference to read about a person and to discover the place she used to live. We were grateful to those who made it possible for visitors to come and enjoy it. My joy was complete. There is also a huge difference between visiting a museum and visiting someone you loved and wished to see, someone who is continuously inspiring you in all what you are doing. 

Another place that has impressed me is in Spain. I visited Spain with my family, not long ago, in 2016, and enjoyed discovering a different culture and impressive landscapes.

But overall, what I shall always remember with emotion are the few days we spent in the town of Salamanca. The name was familiar to me: My husband used tomention it often in his storytelling about his childhood but I never paid much attention to what he meant by “Salamanca”. 

Jacqueline with her son and husband

Now I know. My husband is French but he was born in Spain, to be precise in Salamanca, in 1943. He had prepared our stay to be very special. We lodged in the very heart of the old city, the balcony of our room hanging over the “Plaza Mayor”, a splendid and renowned square, we meandered at length through old streets harbouring ochre stone buildings and medieval churches loaded with history, we refreshed under the shadow of little gardens hidden here and there… After he had shown us the University, where his father was a lecturer, the grand hotel where they lived for a while and which now has turned into some sort of bank, the traditional restaurants and canteens where they used to go and enjoy tapas, tortillas and ice creams… then came the day to hunt for the house he was born in. That was one of the reasons we went there. We walked for a while and then took a public transport heading to the north. We finally landed in a place called “Las Salesas”. My husband was focusing and concentrating very much on the town map he had carried along, trying to find out a place whose address he no longer remembered. The geography only remained in his memory. He then said, “This is the place!” and, with a disappointed tone, “But no, it was not like that!”. We observed all the buildings around and he couldn’t make a clear connection. I had to retain my tears.  We went up and down several times, along the same avenue, trying to find a match to his memories. I decided not to ask more questions and tried to talk about something else. We then sat onto a bench to rest and all this time my husband kept silent, absorbed by his stubbornly dumb map. My son, who had continuously tried to cheer up his dad, finally went into consoling him: “Papa, it is ok. You have been waiting for all these years to come and see this place and now you are here. You did it. What matters is that the area is still called by the same name. It’s normal if the buildings change after a certain time. We are happy that you shared this with us. It was an emotional moment for all of us.” 

We ended up having a good dinner at a nearby restaurant, with various small dishes of traditional cuisine, each one seeing my husband close his eyes and returning, with a smile, deep into the fragrances of his invisible childhood. I shall never forget…  

Jackie, please tell us a little more about what you do.

I AM ENGAGED IN A MISSION. IT IS MY CALL. IT IS MY LIFE.

Before indulging myself with Montessori activities in 1990, I had already applied for studying medical nursing and at the same time for a job in a newly established organization known as Partage Tanzania, caring for orphans and their families. They were offering caretakers’ jobs to look after children in hospitals and nutrition centres. It was the time of the AIDS pandemic in our region. The nursing school admission and the employment opening came at around the same time. I remember asking God to choose me and…I took the employment!

My duties consisted of escorting sick children to different hospitals and to attend them until they would be healed and discharged. 

Two years passed by before I was asked by the organization to take a Montessori course in Dar-es-Salaam. They had added several kindergartens to their daycare centres and they wanted them to be Montessori. I completed the two years certificate course and I returned to Bukoba to teach. After only one year of classroom experience, they wanted me to share what I knew with the other teachers who were not aware of the Montessori Method. The little I did was appreciated almost by everybody including by the board of Directors. I was promoted to be a Principal of one of the schools, which turned into a training centre for teachers. I had to run that school, teach children, teach students, facilitate parents’ meetings…and, despite all my preparations, I was not always able to answer efficiently to the many questions that were put to me, especially by the parents who were willing to know more about our method and philosophy and their children’s growth and education. I liked to facilitate meetings. Meetings bring people together and it is the parents’ right, anyway. But it turned out to be sort of “hard talk” for me on many occasions, leaving me short of arguments and I felt the need to widen and deepen my knowledge of the Montessori universe. So, when I got the surprise to be granted sponsorship for an AMI diploma course in London, I saw it as my golden chance. 

Being there gave me a clue on what I was missing about early childhood education and on how much more there was to offer to the people of Tanzania. I graduated in 2006. All the time I was in England I worked very hard, I took everything very seriously and decided to improve my job and make Bukoba a Montessori focal point!

Back in Tanzania, the first thing I did was to repair Montessori materials, to make and add new ones, to give a refresher course to my co-workers and to change the class program from two to three hours for material manipulation in the children’s house.

I also reinforced the usage of the term “work” rather than “learning” and the idea of “teach teaching not correcting” as well as “motive of perfection”.  All these are Montessori’s principles and concepts. That improved our way of teaching very much. Although our children used to be good, now they were becoming better. Since Partage doesn’t only have the town centre I am talking about but also another 12 kindergartens in the field, we organised an eight months refresher course for the 12 village teachers. 

Groupphoto of teachers and children

For these last 14 years, we never stopped running a two years course for a private Montessori Diploma, lobbying to have it recognised by the Ministry of Education.

In 2018, finally, it was accepted and our TTC was officially registered. I do not regret all the time and energy spent to convince parents and officials. I have realised that, once the concept of social relationship in education is applied consistently, it allows the concept of the prepared environment to be understood physically. This is the gate to Montessori world. It is our mission to spread Maria Montessori’s philosophy as long as we live. Financially speaking it is tough, but God provides... thanks to Partage’s sponsors.

If asked to tell a little more about what I do, it’s simple: As an AMI 3-6 diploma holder, director of training and general manager for both Montessori Teachers Training College and Kindergartens in Partage, I take every morning my shepherd’s stick to lead my little flock towards the green pastures of a better world.…And my reward is to see it being born in children. What a happiness!  

Our sincere thanks to Jackie for taking the time and effort to provide us with an engaging life story, filled with hope and optimism for the future!