How do you land a job as an assistant warden in a Tanzanian juvenile detention center?
Approximately the same way you end up serving as a full-time LDS missionary in southern Italy.
You prepare yourself. You apply. You close your eyes, open up a letter, then open those eyes to see where you have been assigned.
And you ratchet up your Swahili.
Since her childhood, Claire has had this fixation on African animals. And since her youth spent in Paris with its dominant francophone-African population, she’s felt a keen interest in all things African. And so during her junior year at University, (where she studied Humanities with an English emphasis and French and African Studies as her double minor), she began inquiring seriously into different service programs that would take her for a semester as a volunteer to the Big Continent.
As is required for an LDS mission, Claire had to have a certain level of preparation and stability and a strong endorsement in order to be considered for this program. She filled out lots of forms, submitted letters of recommendation, and was finally accepted for the fall 2011 program.
What she did not know on the outset was precisely what her assignment in Tanzania would be.
She could have been placed to work in a hospital, or in one of the many shelters for battered women, or could have interned with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, located in Arusha.
But. . .our girl was assigned to juvi.
I can’t say her initial reaction to the whole juvi idea was effusive. And just between us, I had my reservations, too, of course. Teaching delinquent male teenagers (some in for serious crimes like murder, I was told, and some for minor and trumped up infractions like disrespecting their elders) in a caged environment? Every day? So I asked: uh, so, any chance my daughter’s going to pack some heat? Wear Kevlar? Who gets to be her body guard? Because she’d never be left alone with felons. . . right?
After less than a week teaching her twenty or so charges at juvi, Claire had fallen fiercely and irreversibly in love.
Next post, I’ll tell you more about the young men my Claire calls her “Boys”, the ones who call her “Teacha Claira”, the boys-made-men who won my daughter’s heart, the ones who, that last day in late December when we came as a family to pick her up and take her away into the wilderness, were silenced with respect, motionless on their low, dilapidated wooden benches. Sad and adoring. Concerned and apologetic when they saw their “Teacha” was wiping tears.
These boys were the same “criminals”, by the way, who showed their depth of love for Claire in a most visceral way.
They begged and insisted she come back the next week after Christmas. “A big party for you,” the leader boy named Prosper told her, his eyes glinting with pride, yet weighted as if he were forty. She must come back because all of them wanted to give her something “very special.” And so Claire managed to come back.
She left well before dawn from where our family was camping out in the Serengeti and by means of three modes of transportation driven (or flown) by the kindest locals, made it back to her juvi where the boys were waiting, she told me later, all lined up, shy, sober and smiling. Practically happy with themselves.
Prosper escorted her into the courtyard on whose walls they’d painted a mural together that fall. He was eager to show her their extravagant gift.
“Please. For you, Teacha Claira.”
And there is was, fresh and bright, a most luxurious offering.