Hope from a Tanzanian Secondary School

A great teacher can be transcendent. But if forced to transcend a shattered and wholly dysfunctional system, a catastrophic dearth of funds and resources, and a culture that often fails to see the value of education, connecting with students can be, well, a little difficult.

I just returned from a trip to northern Tanzania where I came face to face with this phenomenon. With my friends Max and Margot, I was working to bring my program X-Change the World to Mwaniko Secondary School, located in the heart of Sukuma country about two hours south of Mwanza. On the day we arrived, with the huge Tanzanian sun blazing above our heads, we were struck, almost immediately, not by the school's deficiencies (which are, as I'll explain, not unnoticeable), but, rather, by one thing that the school has in incredible abundance: intelligent and qualified teachers.

Dickson, the school's academic master who is spearheading the X-Change the World chapter, gave a thorough portrayal of the school with eloquence and profundity akin to that of a University professor; Needy, one of the school's higher level English teachers, described his students with such sincere (com)passion and thoughtfulness that we were sure the school was, in fact, not that needy itself.

However, as we came to realize quickly, Tanzania's broken and inherently flawed education system renders most well-intentioned and pedagogically minded good doers--teachers, headmasters, and humanitarians alike--relatively useless. This is thanks, in most part, to an academic sequencing that is nonsensical and, for an overwhelming majority of Mwaniko's students, deeply tragic.

Through primary school (typically ages 6-13) all subjects--history, math, science, geography, etc.--are taught entirely in Swahili. There's hardly an issue in that, especially because many students come from households that speak tribal languages like Sukuma or Makonde, and it's hard to get around East Africa without a strong understanding of the Swahili language (that's why I've been kusoma--studying--it for a few years). However, when students transition from primary school to secondary school, the language of instruction--for every single class!-- transitions as well: from Swahili to English. Therein lies the rub.

Imagine trying to learn geometric proofs, examine the effects of the Berlin Conference, or construct lengthy chemistry equations in a language that you can barely speak, let alone read, write, or analyze. Witnessing the wide-eyed incomprehension of Tanzanian secondary students makes it hardly surprising that Mwaniko--with a student body of 400+--saw just 5 of its students pass last October's Form 4 exam to continue onto higher education.

This is a problem, endemic to the country as a whole, that must be addressed on the national level, probably in a move redolent of, but less drastic than, Rwanda's 2008 switch from French to English. As a high school student who's yet to take even a single class on African politics, though, I don't feel qualified to make any specific demands of President Kikwete or anyone else. But I can say this: it's not working. At least for the students of Mwaniko.

With a grant from the GO Campaign and the indefatigable support of Africa School House, Max, Margot, and I were equipped with the tools to help students tread water--and, hopefully, get afloat--in an educational deep end that drowns far, far too many. We helped install solar power, a television satellite, and an internet satellite so that students, teachers, and motivated neighbors can plug in to the surrounding world; we brought 5 lap-tops fully equipped with Cambridge's Interchange ESL software to help students gain a grasp of the language that's necessary for not just the classroom, but much of the professional world as well.

Closest to my heart, though, is that, starting in the fall with the help of Max and Margot, students from Mwaniko will connect once a week, through an online educational platform, with students from Harvard University. Through my X-Change the World organization, these students will explore a supplementary English curriculum, share and discuss their lives and cultures, and, hopefully, develop long-lasting and deeply rooted friendships. My hope is that these students will not only be able to pass their Form 4 exams, but be able to fully interact with this 21st Century world as globally compassionate and intelligent individuals. Who knows, they could be the ones who finally fix this broken system.

Great teachers, like Dickson and Needy, can be transcendent. And hopefully, as we move forward in the 21st century, they won't have to transcend nonsensicality to make the types of connections that can make all the difference.