Reflections from the Teachers Abroad Program (TAP), 1962-1985

[Individual articles from the Spring 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

“This is my assignment in a nutshell. I am an American Mennonite in the Republic of Congo teaching French to Angolan refugees in an American Baptist Mission Secondary School whose director is a Canadian.”

— Agnes Schutz, quoted in “TAP Teachers Describe Teaching Situations,” MCC News Service, November 13, 1964.

In 1962, in response to calls from African churches and government ministries and as an outgrowth of a study carried out by Mennonite educator and MCC leader Robert Kreider, MCC inaugurated the Teachers Abroad Program (TAP). Building on MCC’s experience in the 1950s placing hundreds of teachers in remote parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, MCC founded TAP to support newly independent African countries in their quests to build up an educated populace and to support African churches as they sought to contribute to African liberation and independence. At an All Africa Churches Christian Educational Conference in 1962, African church leaders declared that “The leadership of African countries, in the future, will depend upon the secondary schools of today. Indeed, great emphasis has been given to the role of secondary schools in producing ‘top-level’ manpower and thereby contributing both to economic development to expanding public and social services. The Church should recognize that one of the greatest services it can give to the nation is to run secondary schools of the highest possible standard, both in academic attainment and in the values which they impart.”

I’m not really sure that I have made any [contribution]. It is only now, after one year of working, that I am beginning to feel that maybe I have something to offer.

Margaret steider, 1967

Over the ensuing two decades, MCC placed 768 teachers in 27 countries government-run schools in Botswana, the Republic of Congo (later Zaire, and now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DR Congo), Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria, and smaller numbers sent to Algeria, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ethiopia, Grenada, Greece, Indonesia, Jamaica, Lesotho, the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, Pakistan, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. TAP began tapering off in the mid-1970s, ending in 1985. In the course of their three-year service terms, TAP participants reflected on the challenges of teaching, the dynamics of life in contexts shaped by colonial legacies and the nature of Christian service. The excerpts below from MCC news releases and worker progress reports show TAP teachers engaged in such reflections.

Demanding teaching loads

During the last few years the Mennonite church has become widely known throughout East Africa. And one of the reasons for this has been the MCC Teachers Abroad Program.

Paul Kraybill, eastern Mennonite board of missions and charities, 1967

“‘To teach in East Africa in a mission school requires that one be versatile.’ This statement given in orientation before our departure from the U.S. in August 1962, certainly sums up the need of a teacher in Kenya. To illustrate this let me list some of the courses I have taught in the two terms since our arrival at the Kaimosi Girls Secondary School. First term my classes included African History, Geometry, Algebra, Arithmetic, British History, Biology, and General Science. Second term I have added to this list Geography. . . . Duties beyond that of teaching also present many opportunities for varied ‘talents.’ Speaking in chapel services, Sunday morning or evening services, teaching Sunday School classes, invigilating examinations or evening study hours, acting as night-watchman or maintenance man during the school holidays all add variety to a rather busy schedule. We also direct athletic events after school hours and each staff member is sponsor of a club or society such as crafts, dramatics, debate, music, or science.”

— David Yoder, “Teaching in East Africa,” received in Akron, PA, May 4, 1963

Student passion for education

Anthony Epp, one of twelve Teachers Abroad Program (TAP) participants who arrived in the Congo after a year of French study in Belgium, talks with a student at Sundi-Lutete Secondary School, Congo, in 1967. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Epp)
Anthony Epp, one of twelve Teachers Abroad Program (TAP) participants who arrived in the Congo after a year of French study in Belgium, talks with a student at Sundi-Lutete Secondary School, Congo, in 1967. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Epp)

“I have seen students coming to chapel at 6:30 am to begin another day. I have watched them copying blackboard outlines with dogged persistence, trying to understand European concepts so foreign to their culture. I have known high school students who think missing school is punishment. Then at noon I have seen them going to their crowded dormitories to prepare their skimpy meals. Beans or rice or salted fish are their T-bone steaks! Peanuts, bananas, and manioc serve as staple foods. I have struggled with them to stay awake for two hours in the afternoon on a windless day. I have watched them carry dripping buckets from the spring in the evening. There are clothes to wash, more studying, soccer (if there is time) and the evening meal to prepare. I have heard the study bell at seven.”

— Carroll Yoder, teacher in Sundi-Lutete, Republic of the Congo (now DR Congo), quoted in “Africa’s Student—The Compelling Dimension,” MCC News Service, January 22, 1965

“As we teach the students here, we wonder what struggles they really encounter: getting fees during these uncertain times in Nigeria, finding a faith that satisfies African needs, facing vast and complex changes from village life to city life. We pray that our stay in Nigeria will help the students of Ochaja Secondary School face the 20th century with bolder steps.”

— Dave Giesebrecht, quoted in “Education—Not a Magic Cure-All,” MCC News Service, November 15, 1968

TAP as Christian witness

“I’m not so much interested in whether five years from now anyone at Tumutumu [Kenya] is still using the syllabus for Religious Knowledge that I wrote. What I am interested in is whether the girls can see a difference in my life, and know that it is Christ Who makes me different. If they see this, then the logical conclusion is that He can make the same difference in their own lives.”

— Mim Stoltzus, quoted in Jean E. Snyder, “Shades of Tumutumu,” MCC News Service, January 24, 1969

“During the last few years the Mennonite church has become widely known throughout East Africa. And one of the reasons for this has been the MCC Teachers Abroad Program which is greatly appreciated. . . . It is making a very significant contribution to the Christian schools of these countries.”

— Paul Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, “Educator in Africa Says Time is Short, Task Urgent,” MCC News Service, October 27, 1967

TAP as transformative education for MCC workers

We TAPers are generally very idealistic people. (Maybe anyone under MCC is.)

Lois Shenk, 1968

“[O]ne of the most important things life here has taught me has been a greater sense of trust and dependence upon God in the everyday jobs we are called upon to do. Time and time again, when confronted with tasks for which I am not prepared and which I know are beyond all my natural ability, I have been amazed at the way in which He does them if they are given to Him. Often it is when you reach the end of your own strength and resources in a given task, and realize how completely powerless you are, that the power of God is most clearly revealed.”

— Judith Hilty (Tanganyika) to MCC administrator Urbane Peachey, June 8, 1964

“Being the only Mennonites in the country, we worship with people of different denominations and have been tremendously encouraged and enriched as we’ve shared our various Christian experiences. We think we’ve gained a new openness and appreciation for differing forms of Christian expression.”

— Ron Mathies, “The ‘Other’ Advantages and Opportunities of TAP,” MCC News Service, April 15, 1966

“By the time we were ready to leave [our student’s village in Nigeria], we had two live chickens, two huge stacks of bananas, other fruit and some eggs— all in appreciation of our visit. They couldn’t thank us enough for coming. Strange when it was we who were most blessed by the visit.”

— Bill and Marianne Thiessen, “Village Visit: A Highlight for Teachers in Nigeria,” MCC News Service, February 9, 1968

“It is much easier to think what this year [in Tanzania] has meant to me than trying to analyze the contribution which I have made. I’m not really sure that I have made any. It is only now, after one year of working, that I am beginning to feel that maybe I have something to offer.”

— Margaret Steider, “TAP: A Service with Adventure,” MCC News Service, October 20, 1967

Ronald Mathies, a participant in MCC’s Teachers Abroad Program (TAP), talks with students at Blantyre Secondary School in Malawi. Mathies completed three terms with TAP, and went on to become MCC’s Executive Director from 1996-2005. (MCC photo)

TAP workers seeking to learn new cultures

“A TAPer’s bookshelf is just about as cultural-ogical as they come… TAPers in East Africa have each had at least a lecture or two in Bantu theology by an anthropologist. In addition TAP Retreats are stimulating days of intense discussion—analysis of self and culture and an attempt to discover the role of the young Christian professional in bringing about the Kingdom of God in the hearts of men. We TAPers are generally very idealistic people. (Maybe anyone under MCC is.)”

— Lois Shenk, “Shouldn’t We Be a Little Frank—In the Name of Christ?” MCC News Service, July 19, 1968

“One can hardly relate effectively to the local community without being able to speak to people, and yet a short term hardly warrants enough time to be spent on language study to get reasonable facility in it. This is particularly true when one is in a high school situation in Kenya, for one can manage so well without knowing any language but English. But the longer I am here, the more embarrassing it becomes to go beyond the school gates and not be able to communicate with the rural people.”

—Judith Hilty to MCC administrator Robert Miller, September 20, 1964

Teaching and living amidst colonial legacies

“[D]o not be too critical of African nationalism and of newly independent African governments. You may frequently hear expatriates expounding on the view that Africans are not doing an adequate job of governing themselves. . . . it is my belief that, not only should a foreign worker refrain from being too critical, but he should be in basic sympathy with the nationalistic movement of the country in which he serves. . . . within certain limitations, a person need not forsake his convictions as a Christian in order to subscribe to this sympathetic attitude towards African nationalism.”

—Ken Lohrentz, “Attitudes of the TAP Teacher,” February 1965

“It is really difficult to enjoy the comforts of a nice house when one knows that one has such comforts because one has a white skin and when one learns that money which had been set aside to improve student quarters has been poured into the construction of one’s own comfortable house. Several times recently we have encountered the astounding philosophy that it is only natural to look after housing needs of white teachers before those of the Congolese who are already used to living in poor conditions. It is on hearing such attitudes from ‘missionaries’ that one begins to understand why missionaries are not always loved.”

— Anthony Epp, teacher in Sundi-Lutete, Republic of the Congo (now DR Congo), “Progress Report—March 1966,” April 2, 1966.

Lois Shenk, a participant in MCC’s Teachers Abroad Program (TAP), shown teaching Sunday school at Githumu Secondary School in Thika, Kenya, in 1967. (MCC photo/Willard Claassen)

Alain Epp Weaver directs strategic planning for MCC. Frank Peachey and Lori Wise serve as the MCC U.S. records manager and assistant, respectively.

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