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Teaching Games in Shirati

Eli Horowitz is getting his MSW at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. He came to Maji Safi Group this summer to work with fishing communities in participatory learning and action, a series of group activities designed to help communities learn more about themselves and identify priorities for development. His professional background is in social work, especially working with kids in experiential education settings. He spent several summers working with camps as a wilderness professional, which included team building games and low ropes activities.

It was just before lunch, and there I was, tool in hand, sawing away at one of the yellow water buckets that are so ubiquitous around Shirati. I got more than a few confused looks and at least one, “Unafanya nini?/What are you doing?” But I was undeterred.


What was so important that you would waste a water jug when water storage is so precious in Shirati, you may ask. Games for teaching good water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) behavioral habits of course! Games that would entertain, engage, and teach teamwork and problem solving skills.

“Yellow Jugs” being used to store water at a home in Shirati.

As all the Mabalozi/Community Health Educators gathered in a circle under a tree in lieu of their normal Monday morning staff meeting, I was nervous. I tried to explain why experiential education is important, but through an interpreter, it is always hard to know if you are getting the right message across, and besides, these games are better understood through doing than saying.

We began with a simple icebreaker called ELECTRICITY. The participants hold hands in a circle, and everyone squeezes hands one after another to see how fast we can make it around the circle. The game is called Electricity for a reason, but this time it did not quite give a jolt. “Why are we doing this?” one participant asked. It was not an answer I had readily available, so I tried to do the only thing I knew how: facilitate another (more fun) game.

When we separated into groups for HUMAN KNOT, the mood changed immediately. It reminded me why a good challenge is important: When people are having fun and are challenged, the question shifts from “Why are we doing this?” to “How do we do this?” Playing Human Knot, the Maji Safi staff members were challenged in a fun way and even requested to play again just to finish working through the problem. By the time we finished, the groups had each given themselves a hearty applause and were eagerly asking for the next game.

Community Health Educators playing the “WATER FETCHER GAME”.

From there, things got exciting! We finally got to play the ‘WATER FETCHER GAME’! “You can’t step into the circle; otherwise; you’ll get bilharzia!” participants were warned, referring to the danger of entering Lake Victoria’s parasite-infected water. Through cooperation and conversation, the Mabalozi were able to use ropes to manipulate an elastic band around the yellow water jug I had prepared the other day (= putting on a water filter). Afterwards, they used group problem solving to flip the bucket (= fetching water) and put a ball inside (= treating water with WaterGuard). Confusion gone, the Mabalozi were all smiles. I asked who felt they could facilitate this game with kids at Maji Safi programs, and everyone raised their hands. I was all smiles, too.

MSG focuses on incorporating cognitive development into our programs through different games and activities.

We finished off with a classic game I grew up playing while attending Bar and Bat Mitzvahs: COKE AND PEPSI – a game that involves plenty of running, enthusiasm, and general silliness. The game ended with all in breathless laughter.

Today, nearing the end of the week and preparing for health screenings, the Mabalozi asked me if they could bring the game to the program they were running this afternoon. I haven’t stopped smiling since.