KARATU , Tanzania -- Something was decidedly different about this seventh-grade classroom.
Yes, it was crowded, with some 50 pupils, sitting two or three to a bench. And, yes, only a few tattered textbooks were in evidence. But here was the most striking difference:
The classroom was quiet. The pupils were polite and respectful.
There was no restlessness or chatter so typical of children when 14 visitors from across the United States trooped into the room to meet the students of the Kambi Ya Nyoka Primary School and to glimpse lives so unlike those of their children and grandchildren.
The visitors were on safari with Overseas Adventure Travel, which includes school visits in its itineraries as one way of giving travelers a deeper understanding of people and places. In fact, OAT and its sister company, Grand Circle Travel, have set up the Grand Circle Foundation, a nonprofit group that, among other projects, helps support more than 70 schools around the world.
``The class would like to sing for you," said the teacher -- one of 16 for 800 pupils on double sessions . And sing the children did, their voices blending sweetly as they sang their national anthem. Maybe that was the moment the trip became about something more than sighting lions and elephants.
``We'd like to sing for you, too," said one of the group, and the classroom was treated to the spectacle of 14 grown-ups warbling ``You Are My Sunshine." Their efforts were applauded, but the pupils got truly enthusiastic when as an encore the travelers sang ``If You're Happy and You Know It." The youngsters joined in on the hand-clapping and foot- stamping that goes with the song, then laughed and applauded and finally seemed like the kids that they were.
Questions followed. One seventh-grader asked, in English, what the travelers did for a living. Another wanted to know about America's size and natural resources. The visitors did their best to answer, even using the blackboard to draw a map that sort of looked like the United States. Then it was time to visit, and be entranced by, some first-graders.
Later, in the principal's tiny office which was devoid of computers and fax machines, the travelers were told about the Grand Circle Foundation and how they might help when they got back home. ``We don't want to wait," one of them said. The wallets came out and bills were plunked down. In no time at all, more than $200 was on the table.
(When the travelers made a brief return visit a week later, they would see the fruits of their impromptu donation: some 70 softcover textbooks and a gift of $20 each to two student volunteer teachers who otherwise would have earned nothing. An offer to show receipts was waved away.)
The first visit ended just as recess broke out. The tourists brought out their cameras and camcorders and the youngsters gathered around in amazement and excitement to see themselves on the camera screens. Digital devices, after all, are not part of their world. Nor are school buses; many walk three miles to get there.
That evening around the nightly campfire, there was talk of ways to continue to help, from service club sponsorships of seventh-graders who lack the $150 fee needed to enter secondary school, to working with the Grand Circle Foundation, to individual gifts of cash and clothes. Such instant enthusiasm often fizzles when a trip is over and members of what was briefly a cohesive group return to their own homes and cares. It seems unlikely in this case, but whatever happens, one thing is certain: Fourteen travelers who came to Africa because they love animals left with a new love: the beautiful children of Tanzania.
For information on the Grand Circle Foundation, visit www.gct.com and click on About Us, then on the foundation. The address of the Kambi Ya Nyoka Primary School is P.O. Box 95, Karatu-Arusha, Tanzania.
Contact Richard P. Carpenter at email@example.com.