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PCHS grad travels to Africa through ROTC program

Snowshoe resident and West Virginia University rising sophomore Derek Hamman, left, spends time with a couple of students at Makongo Secondary School in Tanzania, Africa. Hamman spent a month in Tanzania teaching students to refine their English skills. Photo courtesy of Derek Hamman
Snowshoe resident and West Virginia University rising sophomore Derek Hamman, left, spends time with a couple of students at Makongo Secondary School in Tanzania, Africa. Hamman spent a month in Tanzania teaching students to refine their English skills. Photo courtesy of Derek Hamman

West Virginia University rising sophomore and 2013 Pocahontas County High School graduate Derek Hamman took a break from being a student to be a teacher of students in Tanzania, Africa.

As a member of the WVU Army ROTC, Hamman applied to take part in a month-long program called CULP, Cultural Understanding Learning Program.

“About seventeen went on our trip to Africa and there were two teams,” Hamman said. “There’s three rotations that go to the same places we did and we were the first rotation for a month. Then there’s another one for a month and another for a month. You can apply to do humanitarian, military-to-military, academic or no preference. You can also choose your region. I didn’t realize any other reason I’d go to Africa so I just picked Africa and put no preference on what I was going to do there.”

After passing the proper tests and getting his immunizations, Hamman flew to Detroit, then to Amsterdam and finally to the city of Dar es Salaam. Hamman was assigned to Makongo Secondary School where he helped students with their English speaking skills.

“The secondary education in Africa is a lot different,” Hamman said. “You have to be tested because all the secondary education is in English, but all the primary education is in Swahili, their natural language. So it would almost be like us doing all our stuff in English and I have to pass a Spanish exam to get into high school because everything in high school is Spanish. It’d be the equivalent of that. That’s why so few go to what we call high school.”

During the month, Hamman and his group worked with students to improve their English speaking skills, as well as on other subjects.

“I was also helping teach calculus and other things like that,” he said. “They knew all the English vocabulary, but even if you take five years of a foreign language, if you never really speak it or have a reason to speak it, you’re still not really confident to do that. We had them doing some writing exercises and we made sure that they were using the right tenses. We had them do certain practices, like we created a menu for them and told them to order off the menu.

“For the most part, we were there to make them more confident in English,” he continued. “We were trying to teach them idioms like ‘on the same page,’ ‘from the ground up.’ Things like that that would make them seem more like a native speaker.”

The group managed to fit some fun and games into their time with the students and taught them a few American classics.

“I taught a lot of kids tic-tac-toe and rock-paper-scissors,” Hamman said. “The school we went to, it dominates in all the sports. It was interesting. We played football – soccer – and basketball with them. I played that for five hours one day. They asked us what our hobbies were, so we got to explain things like snowboarding and skiing, kayaking and American football. We actually taught some of them how to play it and we played two-hand touch football on their downtime whenever we had a bunch of free time.”

As the students grew closer to the group, they talked about the differences between Africa and America.

“We heard all about dengue fever, malaria, HIV, Aids and they asked what kind of diseases we had and we said we don’t really have any naturally occurring deadly diseases,” Hamman said. “We said we mostly have heart disease and things like that. One of the students found a bunch of Reader’s Digest books for us that are all about how to prevent heart disease and how to prevent heart attack or lung disease.”

The students also attempted to be the teachers by giving some Swahili lessons.

“We did ‘kidogo’ – a little Swahili,” Hamman said. “I took a military course in it before I left so I could kind of know. It was beneficial, especially because when you spoke Swahili, the children’s eyes lit up because it seemed like you were more interested.”

During down time, mostly in the afternoons, the group ventured out into the city and explored the culture of Tanzania.

“It was a little bit different, they were a lot more friendly,” Hamman said. “You walk down the street and if I’m walking one way and another person is walking the other and I don’t say anything to them, it’s disrespectful. It’s almost like a five minute conversation with every person you walk by. They have an extended handshake they keep doing and continuously talk.”

Hamman was surprised to see that time is not as much a factor as it is in America. While Americans rush through the day, Tanzanians take a more leisurely approach.

“We’d go to lunch, and it would be three hours instead of thirty minutes,” he said. “We’d order a burger and it would be a three-hour meal. Room service was a two hour ordeal one night. It’s not like we were at a bad place. We were at the second best hotel in Tanzania. It’s just that’s their custom.”

There wasn’t much American influence in the city at all. Hamman said the only fast food restaurants he saw were Subway and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

During the weekend, the groups went on mini-vacations where they did some sightseeing and enjoyed the beach.

“Our first weekend, we went to a private island off the coast,” Hamman said. “The second weekend we went to Zanzibar. It was also very different because they’re ninety-seven percent Muslim. We were requested to dress more conservative just so we wouldn’t cause any issues. We went snorkeling there. My group also went to Prison Island which is where they used to have a yellow fever quarantine area. There were giant tortoise there. We got to play with starfish – a storm had rushed a bunch of them close to the shore, so they were everywhere.”

The final weekend, the group went on safari and saw elephants, jackals, hippos, zebras, wildebeasts and antelopes. The safari went on without incident – that night at camp, another story.

“An elephant walked through our camp and that was kind of interesting,” Hamman said. “We were all hanging out around the fire and we knew an elephant was over there with its children, but it was doing whatever it wanted. I guess someone got too close to it and it trumpeted. It sounded rather vicious. I jumped behind the bench seat I was on, but I saw a couple of others run. One ran into a wall. It was pretty funny.”

After the scare, the owner of the camp managed to shoo the elephant away and everyone was safe.

Of the 1,300 ROTC students who participated in CULP this year, Hamman was the only one from WVU. He was joined by students from all over the country. While he enjoyed the experience, next year, Hamman has his sights set higher, way higher.

“I was told about an internship with the Army Corps of Engineers,” he said. “That would be my second branch choice if I were to fail the aviation medical screenings for any reason. Also, my other plan, if I were not to get that internship would be Airborne School, where we do paratrooper jumping and things like that.”

The ROTC program is very competitive and only the top 20 percent of ROTC members become active duty in the military branch of their choice. Hamman said the summer programs, like CULP, help the students rise in rank.

“We get points through ROTC,” he said. “The higher you are on that list, the more likely you are to be active duty and get the branch you want whenever you commission as an officer. I also want to try to do aviation and that’s one of the most competitive ones because everyone wants to fly. This [CULP] offers me the most points out of any of the things we can do.”

Because of the competitive aspect, Hamman is focused on his future and has a plan for the rest of his college career. He is pursuing a degree in civil engineering, a four-and-a-half year program, which will give him an extra summer to participate in CULP. Hamman will be considered an MS5 and with that rank, he will be eligible to be a Cadet XO where he would be the right-hand-man to the Colonel in charge of a CULP mission.

“I could go on another trip like this for an extended three months in some country and be the Cadet XO for that officer who is leading the program,” he said. “That’s kind of what I’d like to try to do that summer.”

Hamman has already considered the other CULP missions he would like to do, including an Airborne School in Spain.

“It’s a military-to-military and they go to Spain, and they go to Spanish Airborne School,” he said. “You’ll get your Spanish Airborne wings. It seems like a really cool experience. Since I’d also taken a lot of Spanish in high school and have been to Spain already, I would be prepared. There’s also a jungle warfare school down in South America, and other than that, I’d probably try to go to an Asian country just because it’s dramatically different than ours.”

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at

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