SEATTLE – She knew she was entering a world unlike any she had ever seen or experienced.

So for Libby Magnuson, perhaps it was best that her welcome-to-Africa moment came after she barely had gotten her feet on the ground.

“The roads are like the moon – they're not paved,” the former Seattle Pacific women's basketball star said of her first ride from the airport to the town of Sumbawanga, “and we broke down. And when you break down in Tanzania, you can't call Triple-A.

“So we were out on the side of the road, broken car, in a little village with 50 people – and I had no idea where I was. I had all these American movies (about Africa) going through my head and thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I'm not going to make it.'"

She more than made it, eventually spending May through September of 2010 in Sumbawanga. The town is in the remote western part of Tanzania, which itself is on the east coast of southern Africa.

I think I was scared at first. But once I jumped into their culture and realized how peaceful and great and friendly 90 percent of the Tanzanians are, it was funny to think of how scared I was.
-- Libby Magnuson

Magnuson taught English and computer skills. Learned Swahili. Coached soccer. And, in her own way, helped build a bridge of sorts between her own American lifestyle and that of her African hosts.

“I think I was scared at first,” Magnuson said. “But once I jumped into their culture and realized how peaceful and great and friendly 90 percent of the Tanzanians are, it was funny to think of how scared I was.”

Magnuson, who came to SPU from Bradley University in Illinois, donned a Falcons basketball uniform in 2006-07 and 07-08, playing a key role on the latter squad that went 29-1 and played in the West Regional final.

Her Seattle Pacific degree is in art – not teaching. But when the opportunity to fulfill a long-time dream of going to Africa presented itself, Magnuson couldn't say 'yes' fast enough.

“My cousin and another guy were already in Sumbawanga through St. John's University,” Magnuson said. “I emailed him and asked if there were any opportunities around. Turned out there was going to be a four-month break between the time they left and the time St. John's sent the next group.

“I had always wanted to go and do something in Africa – although I wasn't sure what. He said, 'Just come, and we'll figure it out.'”

Trying to Understand Each Other
So Magnuson went. Figuring out what she would do – teaching – turned out to be the easy part.

Figuring out how to teach through the communication gap was considerably more difficult.

“There were huge language barriers at first – there were maybe five English speakers in the whole town,” Magnuson said. “I had 40 (high-school age) kids in each one of my classes and wrote with chalk. I learned most of my Swahili in the classroom.

“But the class was there only to speak English.”

Such is the nature of the Tanzanian education system. Students are taught in Swahili until the equivalent of ninth grade – then switch entirely to English.

“Once we figured out a flow, we would try to pick one or two things to focus on,” Magnuson said.

According to her, very few people have computers, and the majority of those “are very old PCs. Most of them have never seen a keyboard and wouldn't know what to do with a computer. My computer class (that I taught) was keyboards – we practiced turning it on, turning it off, and typing a sentence. But when they apply for college, they do have to type their (application) letter.”

Able to structure things somewhat in her own way, Magnuson said she tried to introduce a more light-hearted approach to learning, whether it was having the students group up from time to time, or, in a nod to her artistic background, “draw a picture on the wall.”

Her Own Life Lessons
But Libby the teacher was also Libby the student – and not just in picking up some Swahili. (“You learn fast in that situation,” she said.)

This was the first time in her 25 years of life that she had ventured outside the United States.

“There were four Germans in town, and one Norwegian who was helping out at an orphanage. (They) and my friend and I were the only other Caucasians,” Magnuson said. “Being a minority is different. Everyone stared at you, pointed at you, and talked about you as you walked by.”

And that was just walking to school or into town. When she would get in one of her daily workouts …

… “They thought it was really, really crazy that I exercised because I would run or lift bricks,” Magnuson said. “They would always apologize when I ran by. They were assuming I was running from something, or that I was in a hurry – and you shouldn't be in a hurry over there.”

Not everyone thought she was “really crazy,” though.

“I also had a fan club of between four and seven kids,” she said with a grin. “I would run laps, and they would stand around and scream and cheer and try to high-five me as I went by.”

As for not hurrying? Magnuson said that might have been one her most important lessons.

“It made me slow down. A day felt like a year there,” she said. “We're so go-go over here, and I felt like it was pretty much the polar opposite. They really have no sense of time. They know when mealtime is, and they try to make their kids be on time to school.”

Magnuson also discovered that some things are universal – including high school students.

“You have kids who work hard, kids who don't, and those in the middle,” she said. “But I learned a few things about how to work the classroom better. My friend and I redid the library, and we tried to utilize that as much as possible. They do have quite a few donated books.”

Now, Magnuson is putting her art degree to work in graphics design for KOMO 4 News just a few miles south of Seattle Pacific's campus. But the experience and memories of Tanzania live on.

“I still communicate with some of my students – we set them up with email,” she said. “One of our more advanced ones we set up with Facebook. And I even get some Tanzanian snail mail once in a while.”

Would Magnuson do it again?

“I would leave in a week,” she replied enthusiastically. “Once I got back here, it was like, 'I can't believe that just happened.' I'm so glad I did it the way I did it and I wasn't in a “touristy” situation.

“It was a really unique experience to be totally emerged in a culture like that.”