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A mzungu’s first day at teaching Tanzania


As I passed the daily assembly of the Village School it overwhelmingly dawned on me quite what an experience this is.

There is something about the mundane tasks and daily African events that stick in my head. The assembly was one of these. A strict and ordered gathering of presumably near 1000 children, dressed in their mud caked black and white socks, torn trousers hastily patched together and shredded jumper epitomises Africa. Ordered but deprived; strict yet out of control. The children standing bolt upright to the front, right and back in a perfect square encompassed the small circle of drummers.  As the teachers stood by, some concentrating with frightful faces, others oblivious as always the children sang as the drummers played to a perfect beat.  It is this which could be used to explain a plausible belief that education in Africa must be well managed. With their beautiful sunsets, stunning scenery, majestic creatures and incredible people surely the African education would further represent just how wrong we have got Africa? The dark continent, full of despair, sorrow and sadness it most surely is not. But, then we realise Africa is a third world continent, and the education system, like the economy and corruption, unfortunately is representative if this. Maybe we are not so wrong. Despite is treasures, Africa is in need, and more in need that I had realised. This is Tanzania where 93% of the population are unemployed and where due to little education or understanding, nearly 40%c contract AIDS. Africa- where the expected is sure not to happen. And what does happen is at least the customary 30 minutes late to be in true “African Time’- there really is “No rush in Africa”.

The staff room is more comparable to an English schoolteachers office. Old battered desks line the dusty, cold and uninspiring room that is the staff room. Apart from one solitary piece of paper and a motley assortment of tooth marked cups, grey with endless stream water residue, battered dog-eared books are the only thing that adorn any surface. And adorn they do. Some wrapped in newspaper, some with out covers, the piles of books seem endless. Teacher’s faces appear from behind their piles of books, that is those who have decided top turn up, and who are not at the “Teachers Conference”!

Teachers stroll in late for their lessons, or not at all. Some just decide to sit and talk. After all, it is just the education of 90 children, so what does it matter. 93% won’t get jobs, and a poor rural government run school is not going to have a facilities to provide the children with a percentage higher than this. So what is the point? May as well have another cup of chai, and since it’s offered, four more slice of bread wouldn’t go amiss either!

Meanwhile children run to lesson through fear of being beaten if they are found wandering.

After watching yet another thoughtless unplanned lesson to standard 5, who clearly didn’t understand and probably never would, I was looking forward to taking over. I too would be teaching standard 5, and I too would be teaching punctuation, but I was excited and my lesson would be planned. What originality! My nerves increased during break, as I drank another cup of chai, sweet beyond any recognition of a tealeaf. As did my boredom, and irritation. Boredom, from not being able to understand word from the inaudible fast, gambling Swahili. Irritation from the table cloth seller whose face had lit up as he saw me. I could see it in his eyes, a white person, so clearly a bottomless pit of money, as he said, “welcome sister- business”!

Although harder to control, I decided I didn’t want the teacher to watch my first lesson- as this would be more intimidating. I explained I would like to teach by myself, she said that she would visit later.

As I packed up my bag ready for the lesson, Mama Nokombe promised to be along after her chai. Hardly surprising that she took her time drinking though- the amount of bread and roast potatoes she consumed, must I thought, prevent any re-hydration at all.

As I walked in the 90 faces lit up. Their eyes showed excitement and interest for the first time that day, in all honesty, probably that week. They stood up to welcome me, and thanked me as they sat- an order that had probably been literally beaten into them from day one.  Scrabbling to write their names on the reward chart I introduced, the previous strict African order turned to chaos. Thankfully, eager to please they eventually settled and watched my attempts to illustrate their lesson on the blackboard  Aa. Too nervous to answer the first question, they all jumped out of their seats, whole bodies stretched up, to answer the second.

It was just like form a gap year brochure, and I was just as excited as them- probably more.  As I progressed thought the lessons the usual problems resumes. Bolshy boys, who wouldn’t write, and girls finishing too fast. Nevertheless I still enjoyed it. In fact absolutely love it, so much more that I had thought I would. “Teacher”, “teacher”, “teacher” shouted unknown and unknowable faces to show me yet another sentence. As the boy running outside ringing the bell signalled the end of the lesson, I asked the class monitor to collect in the books and made for my exit. I was soon reminded that the customary goodbye from the children was needed and left feeling thrilled.

Near the staff room a group of teachers were congregated, including the teacher who had failed to turn up to my lesson. Whether she ever had had any intention of teaching that day was wholly debatable.

The speed at which emotions can change is another African speciality. In the staff room a group of over 20 children were huddled in. hands out with quivering faces they were hit three times each on the hand by their teacher, then anther three teachers had their go too. It was almost unbearable. The terrified faces forced me to ask what they had done, “Not written down the work”- is that equal to 12 hits each? Worse was to come. For a country where beating is illegal, and a school that told me so, it is a surprisingly common event. Mama Nokmbe had hit 20 children in the first lesson of the day and many more followed in the weeks after. What a crime, to have not written down their corrections. How dare they?

But it is the brutal caning by the discipline master who seems to get a sadistic pleasure from his role that annoys me the most.  Today, again, there were boys were beaten. The force put into the final whack reflected by the straining face of the discipline master. The children hobble out. Is it necessary? One girl was crying so much that the other teachers actually asked what she was being punished for. She was handed a new exercise book. Beaten for not working, while poverty had prevented her from buying the required book.

Sitting outside in the warm sun, one sweet boy, with holes in his T- shirt walked by, stared inquisitively and said hello. His toy, a dilapidated car made of wood, which must have equalled if not exceeded his own 7 years.  As he walked off, one wheel and then the next fell of. The toy seemed to be his ride possession but without crying, as a western child might, he quickly went off in search of wood to mend it with.

I went inside feeling quite overcome with sympathy and brought out a new car I had been given to bring out from home. As I walked over, he stood up, his face a mixture of fear and bewilderment. Taking the car, and finishing opening it he looked like he couldn’t quite believe it. Persuading him to give it back so I could show actually how to play with it, he set about playing. Children came to ask where he had got it. Hiding and protecting it, I hared him say “the Mzungu”. Children looked around in amazement.

It is the small things that make this trip memorable, and I think today will one of the memorable ones!

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