Perhaps it’s time to reiterate what is going on here and what it is that I have come to Africa to achieve. It all started of course with the computer centre, and my Google search for “education projects east Africa” which luckily lead me to several NGOs based in Tanzania, Kenya and Malawi, and of course the conversations with Katy that followed which lead me to come to Kilimanjaro and work for VEPK. It seems like such a long time ago that I was at home, sick from work and spoke to Katy for the first time about what I could do and how I might help the project and the village, almost like I have lived another life again since then, as I have changed in almost every way.
When I arrived I knew that it would be hard work, I knew that I would struggle with the language and the people and the way of life, but what I didn’t expect was to get so heavily involved in so many things that leave me eternally busy each and every day (well that last part is only 50% true, I always find time to chill with the dogs and hang out at home). So I began to re-invent the computer centre from the ground up, breathing life into the computers that needed it, and restructuring the network and infrastructure to suit the way life is up here and make it work for everyone. Adding a 3G connection to the system, learning how to optimize it and make it work for 20 computers has been the biggest personal work challenge, but still I haven’t touched on what it is that I actually do there, and how it has helped the village. To explain, I need to go into more detail of how education works in Tanzania, and how I saw, and continue to see, myself working within that framework to provide something unique that didn’t exist before.
Swahili is the main language here, and is spoken by pretty much everyone. It was introduced as the first language of the country at independence by Nyerere himself, and has remained the main way of communicating across the country. Unlike our neighbours to the north, Tanzanians did not keep their English teaching up, and instead concentrated on making Swahili the de-facto language for the entire country for each and every tribe of people here. It has had mixed effects, some good and some bad, but in my view it was essential in order to build the solidarity that most Tanzanians have for their country and definitely helped bring down the barriers between tribes that still exist in other countries. The negative effect it had was to lower the general level of literacy in international language like English, instead focussing on uniting the country together. Now we are in a different situation, we have one national language, and the need for that to be expanded upon is growing. It is essential that Tanzanians are able to communicate with the outside world, to capitalise on the strong growth in economy that all east African countries are experiencing, and that means only one thing, we all need to speak better English.
This is a double-edged sword of complication. For a start, primary schools are taught in Swahili. That means, like at home, there is one language each day for everyone to speak. Primary school runs 7 years from standard I to standard VII and then that is the end of government paid schooling. Students then need to pay to go to secondary school, which contrary to all sense and reason is taught in English, by teachers who on the whole do not have the grasp of English strong enough for it to be of any use to most kids. It’s easy to say, let’s just put everything in Swahili and get on with it, but it is not as simple as that, as the books that exist are torn and tattered, to replace them across the board with an entirely new Swahili-based curriculum would take time and lots of money that no Tanzanian government official is going to pay. So we are left with what we have, a broken system that is failing its students year in year out.
I came here to teach IT, or to at least provide some IT services to a community that has none. It began with a few individuals that could speak some English and I quickly realised that in order for me to really reach out and get into their minds, I would need to be able to communicate more effectively, and I began to learn Swahili. As time wore on, I realised that the few gifted students I had only appeared to be more intelligent or knowledgeable than others because of their education, their family upbringing or sadly their family income. Those families that could not afford to send their kids to secondary school at the first opportunity often fell out of the system altogether, learning about the world through the quite frankly awful television and radio services here, or by talking to other people around them. It’s not that they couldn’t learn how to use a computer rather that the idea of what a computer is for has been left out completely and they have no idea why they need these skills, or in fact what those skills might entail once they have been attained.
The classic model of showing someone Microsoft Word and Excel, working with spreadsheets and databases just does not fit the way people live here, and so I had to rethink exactly what it is we teach and how we go about it. It remains that students that say they understand English in Swahili but then cannot answer a simple question put to them by me do get left out. I feel bad that I cannot help them the way they want, but I have to stick to what I believe in and re-iterate to them, that the computer can unlock countless possibilities to them in their lives, but in order to understand what it is they are looking at, their grasp of English needs to improve first. I have trialled English tuition on a number of occasions, with limited success, as most don’t want to admit that they went through several years of secondary school not understanding what was being taught. Others who really try to learn more progress more quickly, and with the brightest of students, I always look to train them in the dark art of self-promotion and sustainability, using myself as an example of how an individual can achieve whatever they want should that person really put his or her heart into it and get stuck in. If I can learn Swahili in two years, then these kids can learn English throughout their lives. Once their literacy has improved, I see massive improvements in every aspect of their work. From their initial conduct, which is often shy, reserved and wholly submissive to authority, right through to their ability to work on their own initiative I try to help them see that yes I am here to help, but I am not doing anything for them, I am just giving them the tools they need to be able to do it themselves. I said this at the beginning and I stand by it right now.
From among all these people I have some good friends and colleagues, who are moving on their own lives and learning how to lift themselves up in this country which is not easy at all. They are taking the bull by the horns and pushing themselves towards new frontiers and it warms my heart to know that I have helped them on their way. From all of this mess; from within some of the poorest families in this country I have seen more than just a glimmer of hope that things will improve, I have seen the future of Tanzania, from within the eyes of the children who now have access to the outside world through the medium of internet and communication and who are seeing their country as a place that they aim to better themselves, rather than putting up with problems and issues that their forefathers did. Some of the most beneficial conversations we have are often nothing to do with computers or English, but rather just story telling about how the rest of the world is, how politics compare here and back in Europe, and how normal people live in such different ways across the world. It is highly motivating to reach out to a community in this way, and through nearly everything we do I aim to be part of the village to show them that there are some wazungu like me who do not wish to just go home when the going gets tough, but are here, like them, struggling with the daily problems as if they were my own.
Dispelling the fallacy that you “need” to go to a good school or college in order to get a good life is terribly important to me, as I honestly believe that before anyone goes on to further education they need to have sat down with themselves and really thought about what it is they want to do with their life. Without any knowledge of the outside world, or limited knowledge based on media and culture, it is incredibly difficult to make these decisions, and that is where I see the computer centre residing in the near to distant future. It is a place where people can come and have a go, learn about something without having to pay school fees, or just come and get familiar with the technology in a way that lights a spark in their mind. Its ran as a business, although heavily subsidised, but will continue even after that monetary input, as I believe that what we have built there will be able to survive the toils of time, and eventually become a successful place, ran by the people for the people. Sounds a bit cliché doesn’t it? Well all things are based upon experience, and mine is limited at best, but what I do know about the world I share as much as I can, and I just hope that moving forward, the people I have chosen to continue where I left off will see it this way as well, and be able to show each other what it is they are missing, and bring this wonderful country and its people right up to where they belong: known and not forgotten.
So what’s next? I believe that education is the key, but not in the traditional sense. Over the next few months I will be getting more involved in the work that VEPK does across the board in Tanzania, helping train teachers in schools around the Kilimanjaro region, and working more with the teachers and schools in the local area to help share this vision with as many people as possible; and always remembering where it all began, in Mshiri, above Marangu, where I call home.