Saturday, December 29, 2012

Here I Go Again On My Own

Well, I was meant to be on a plane from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro at this particular moment and this gorgeous chicken Caesar was meant to be my last meal in the Western world (The Palm at JFK last night), but the gods have spoken and made other plans for me this evening.

As if I wasn't nervous/anxious/terrified enough about going back to Tanzania as the "Head Mzungu in Charge" of my own charitable organization, replete with a bona fide logo/business card/letterhead, fully registered statuses/offices/boards of directors in both the United States and Tanzania, and a comprehensive plan for programming and implementation, now I'm stuck in no man's land to mull it over a bit more before getting back on the ground in Kilimanjaro.  Due to a technical problemo with the plane at Schiphol, my second flight has been delayed by a day and I am once again enjoying all the amenities that developed countries have to offer.  I had thought I said kwa heri to wifi, cable tv, reliably hot showers, and Caesar salads yesterday??  It appears not.  One more day of distractions and diversions before I get back to work....

Why I'm so antsy, I'm not sure.  I've lived in Kilimanjaro for years now, know the lay of the land, carried out projects, met people, experienced success....experienced failure.  Why Toa Nafasi should be so different I'm not quite sure, but I suppose there's a personal investment here that is new to me.

I should clarify.  It's not an entirely bad feeling, these nerves, it's just an excited feeling that if I'm gonna do it, I need to seize the day before I chicken out and slink back to New York, tail between my legs.  Enough with the intermission, let's get this show on the road, I say!  So this unplanned pit-stop in Amsterdam after I'd psyched myself up to get back to work is kind of a monkey wrench.

But what can I do?  Absolutely nuthin'.  And it's just one night.  Might as well take advantage of the calm before the storm and relax for the next 12 hours here in this bland airport hotel.  I just wish Dutch tv didn't suck so much....

Tomorrow I'll be "going down the only road I've ever known," and by next week's post, I'll be delightfully ensconced back at home in Maji ya Chai.  Until then, dear readers, enjoy your weekends and best wishes for a happy new year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

"Each Child's Inimitable Soul"

Take a look at this New York Times op-ed piece which points to a different side of last week's tragedy in Newtown, CT.  I particularly like the last sentence, which I think speaks directly to Toa Nafasi's mission: "Let's try to look in the eyes of every child we encounter, treat, teach, or parent, whatever their diagnosis or label, and recognize each child's uniqueness, each child's inimitable soul."

Happy holidays everyone....

Don’t Blame Autism for Newtown
Last Wednesday night I listened to Andrew Solomon, the author of the extraordinary new book Far From the Tree, talk about the frequency of filicide in families affected by autism.  Two days later, I watched the news media attempt to explain a matricide and a horrific mass murder in terms of the killer's supposed autism.  It began as insinuation, but quickly flowered into outright declaration.  Words used to describe the killer, Adam Lanza, began with "odd," "aloof," and "a loner," shaded into "lacked empathy," and finally slipped into "on the autism spectrum" and suffering from "a mental illness like Asperger's."  By Sunday, it had snowballed into a veritable storm of accusation and stigmatization. 

Whether reporters were directly attributing Mr. Lanza's shooting rampage to his autism or merely shoddily lumping together very different conditions, the false and harmful messages were abundant. 

Let me clear up a few misconceptions.  For one thing, Asperger's and autism are not forms of mental illness; they are neurodevelopmental disorders or disabilities.  Autism is a lifelong condition that manifests before the age of 3; most mental illnesses do not appear until the teen or young adult years.  Medications rarely work to curb the symptoms of autism, but they can be indispensable in treating mental illness like obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

Underlying much of this misreporting is the pernicious and outdated stereotype that people with autism lack empathy.  Children with autism may have trouble understanding the motivations and nonverbal cues of others, be socially naive and have difficulty expressing their emotions in words, but they are typically more truthful and less manipulative than neurotypical children and are often people of great integrity.  They can also have a strong desire to connect with others and they can be intensely empathetic - they just attempt those connections and express that empathy in unconventional ways.  My child with autism, in fact, is the most empathetic and honorable of my three wonderful children.

Additionally, a psychopathic, sociopathic, or homicidal tendency must be separated out from both autism and from mental illness more generally.  While autistic children can sometimes be aggressive, this is usually because of their frustration at being unable to express themselves verbally, or their extreme sensory sensitivities.  Moreover, the form their aggression takes is typically harmful only to themselves.  In the very rare cases where their aggression is externally directed, it does not take the form of systematic, meticulously planned, intentional acts of violence against a community.

And, if study after study has definitively established that a person with autism is no more likely to be violent or engage in criminal behavior than a neurotypical person, it is just as clear that autistic people are far more likely to be the victims of bullying and emotional and physical abuse by parents and caregivers than other children.  So there is a sad irony in making autism the agent or the cause rather than regarding it as the target of violence.

In the wake of coverage like this, I worry, in line with concerns raised by the author Susan Cain in her groundbreaking book on introverts, Quiet: Will shy, socially inhibited students be looked at with increasing suspicion as potentially dangerous?  Will a quiet, reserved, thoughtful child be pegged as having antisocial personality disorder?  Will children with autism or mental illness be shunned even more than they already are?

This country needs to develop a better understanding of the complexities of various conditions and respect for the profound individuality of its children.  We need to emphasize that being introverted doesn't mean one has a developmental disorder, that a developmental disorder is not the same thing as a mental illness, and that most mental illnesses do not increase a person's tendency toward outward-directed violence.

We should encourage greater compassion for all parents facing an extreme challenge, whether they have children with autism or mental illness or have lost their children to acts of horrific violence (and that includes the parents of killers).

Consider this, posted on Facebook yesterday by a friend of mine from high school who has an 8-year-old, nonverbal child with severe autism:

"Today Timmy was having a first-class meltdown in Barnes and Noble, and he rarely melts down like this.  He was throwing his boots, rolling on the floor, screaming and sobbing.  Everyone was staring as I tried to pick him up and his brother Xander scrambled to pick up his boots.  I was worried people were looking at him and wondering if he would be a killer when he grows up because people on the news keep saying this Adam Lanza might have some spectrum diagnosis...My son is the kindest soul you could ever meet.  Yesterday, a stranger looked at Timmy and said he could see in my son's eyes and smile that he was a kind soul; I am thankful that he saw that." 

Rather than averting his eyes or staring, this stranger took the time to look, to notice, and to share his appreciation of a child's soul with his mother.  The quality of that attention is what needs to be cultivated more generally in this country.

It could take the form of our taking the time to look at, learn about, and celebrate each of the tiny victims of this terrible shooting.  It could manifest itself in attempts to dismantle harmful, obfuscating stereotypes, or to clarify and hone our understanding of each distinct condition, while remembering that no category can ever explain an individual.  Let's try to look in the eyes of every child we encounter, treat, teach, or parent, whatever their diagnosis or label, and recognize each child's uniqueness, each child's inimitable soul. 

Priscilla Gilman is the author of The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Black Friday

A very sad day here in New York as a mass shooting has just taken place at an elementary school in a Connecticut town about an hour outside the city.  While I've been spending the bulk of my time these days thinking about the mental well-being of schoolchildren in Tanzania, I've not given much thought to the physical well-being of our kids here in the States.  They need our support and protection too, particularly in a day and age when terrible harm can befall them suddenly, without reason, and at the hands of others.  Just so sad and so senseless.  So, wherever you are, whatever you're doing, stop for a second and give a kid a hug.  They are our precious future!!


From ABC

More than two dozen people, mostly elementary schoolchildren, were shot and killed at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school this morning, federal and state sources tell ABC News.

The massacre involved two gunmen and prompted the town of Newtown to lock down all of its schools and draw SWAT teams to the school, authorities said today.

One shooter is dead and a manhunt is on for a second gunman.  Police are searching cars.  One shooter was described as a 24-year-old armed with four weapons and wearing a bullet proof vest, sources told ABC News.

It's unclear how many people have been shot, but 25 people, mostly children are dead, multiple federal and state sources tell ABC News.  That number could rise, officials said.

President Obama was briefed on the shooting by FBI Director Bob Mueller.

It is the worst shooting in a U.S. elementary school in recent memory and exceeds the carnage at the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in which 13 died and 24 were injured.

Today's shooting occurred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, which includes 450 students in grades from kindergarten through fourth grade.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Clowns to the Left, Jokers to the Right

Stuck in the middle with you....

Every week, the World Bank in Tanzania in collaboration with The Citizen on Sunday share data from official surveys and pose to the public a couple of questions on current events.  This past week, the discussion was about education in Tanzania versus that in Kenya and Uganda.  As usual, the consensus was that although much improved in recent years, education in TZ is still subpar when compared to its neighboring East African counterparts.  Why this situation persists and what can be done to resolve it are questions very much still up in the air.

Education is key.  As foundations go, there is none more important than this one – in achieving progress as well as in sustaining it.  Since the introduction of free primary education in 2001, Tanzania has achieved significant progress in improving access to basic education.

Primary school attendance of children aged 7 to 13 years increased from 54 percent in 1999 to almost 80 percent in 2010.  Yet Tanzania also still has one of the lowest primary-to-secondary transition rates in sub-Saharan Africa (at just 41 percent in 2009), with girls being particularly disadvantaged.

In addition, standardized assessments have revealed that the quality of education is insufficient to provide students with the most basic numeracy and literacy skillsIn 2011, Tanzania scored much lower than Kenya or Uganda in these assessments.

Not only does Tanzania still lag in terms of educational outcomes compared to neighboring countries but also the quality of education varies tremendously depending on where you live in the country:

The best performing schools are found in the urban centers, such as Iringa Mjini, Bukoba Urban, and ArushaIn these districts, students in Standard 7 scored on average 97-98 percent in Math, 88-91 percent in English, and 97-98 percent in Kiswahili when being tested on a Standard 2 exam.

In contrast, schools in Chunya, Kibondo, and Tunduru reported Math scores ranging from 50 percent (Chunya) to 78 percent (Kibondo, Tunduru), and only obtained a dismal 44-47 percent in English,  and 75-83 percent in Kiswahili.  Many Standard 7 students in these districts hence have not grasped even the Standard 2 curriculum. 

Disparities in learning outcomes emerge from the very beginning of the education cycleAlready in Standard 3, students in Iringa Mjini perform twice as well in Math as those in Kibondo (82 percent versus 40 percent – again, based on a Standard 2 exam), almost five times as well in English (61 percent versus 13 percent), and more than 2.5 times as well in Kiswahili (83 percent versus 33 percent)These children may only be a day's drive from each other, but they are worlds apart in terms of the quality of education they receive.

And inequalities are not confined to primary educationThe share of children who passed the 2011 Certificate of Secondary Education Examination (CSEE) is between just 2 percent (e.g. Simanjiro and Mbulu districts) and 24 percent (Makete). 

What could explain these variations in learning outcomes?  A major explanation is found in the current distribution of resources across districts and schoolsAs expected, districts with more resources and teachers (per student) are also more likely to deliver better education services and therefore outcomes.  However, there is some limit to this logic since one additional teacher in an already well-served district will likely have a lesser impact on service delivery than one more teacher in an under-served district.

But money alone cannot explain cross-district variations in school performance.  The districts of Ruangwa and Kilombero, for example, report approximately the same level of public (recurrent) spending per capita on primary education yet exam results in 2011 are much better in Kilombero than in Ruangwa (with an 8 percentage point difference in test scores of students in Standard 7).

Other factors are obviously at playThese include:

1.) The quality of financial management in the local education system and/or the school.

2.) Teacher productivity.  Teacher absenteeism is a widespread phenomenon, with 20 percent of teachers in rural schools and 36 percent of teachers in urban schools reported missing during an unannounced visit.

3.) Family involvement in the children's educationThis too is a very important determinant of success or failure in school.

These huge variations in school performances within Tanzania raise several questions: 

1.) Why do schools in some districts appear to be doing so much better than others, even with the same resources?  What are the key ingredients of success for these schools?  School-level management?  Teachers' work ethics?

2.) Should the government increase teacher salaries depending on school performance?

3.) To what extent are variations in education outcomes explained by factors outside the school system, such as poor nutrition and health?

4.) Are parents discriminating against their daughters in access to secondary education?  If so, why?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Community Funds of Knowledge

A recent article from the Tanzania Daily News about pushing agriculture education in schools as employment opportunities in other sectors continue to dwindle has got me thinking about how incredibly obvious this curriculum should be in Tanzania and perhaps all over the African continentIn a place where agricultural initiatives take precedence over other forms of commerce, it is clear that knowing your jembe from your panga and everything in between is infinitely more important to daily survival than conjugating English verbs or finding a common denominatorI know this kind of flies in the face of my near-rabid insistence that everyone on the planet learn at least basic English language communication skills, but a girl has the right to revise her opinions, right?  It's not that I no longer believe English language is HUGELY important, it's just that practically speaking if you only have access to a very limited education, it might be in your best interest, in rural Kilimanjaro, to focus on getting the knowledge you'll need for survival as opposed to say, keeping up with Oprah's Book Club. 

Funnily enough, there's a name for this sociocultural approach to education.  It's called "community funds of knowledge" and it originates from the research of Luis Moll out of the University of Arizona.  Working with Mexican-American students and their families in the barrio schools of Tucson, Professor Moll contends that "existing classroom practices underestimate and constrain what Latino and other children are able to display intellectually."  He believes the secret to literacy instruction is for schools to investigate and tap into the "hidden" home and community resources of their students.

Similarly, my Toa Nafasi colleague, Angi Stone-MacDonald, used the community funds of knowledge approach as well in her work at the Irente Rainbow School for mentally challenged and autistic children in Lushoto, Tanzania in 2009.

Angi says: "In unique locations, like rural Tanzania, it is essential to focus on the needs of the local community.  All children, including children with disabilities around the world learn first from their families and their environments.  A culturally and socially relevant curriculum provides individuals with the knowledge relevant to living in their local community and the skills necessary for success in that community.

At the Irente Rainbow School, the teachers utilized and augmented the 'funds of knowledge' the students gain from family and the community.  Gonzalez et al. (2005) define 'funds of knowledge' as 'historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being.'  At the school, funds of knowledge inform teaching practices to provide locally and culturally relevant lessons. 
Reading and literacy is neither essential nor critical for daily life as subsistence farmersOver 80% of Tanzanian households rely on agriculture for their primary source of economic activity (World Bank, 2012)Most farmers (over 70%) are farming by hand hoe and 85% of farmers are producing food for their families and communities (Ministry of Agriculture, 2011)."
Angi's findings from working with special needs children and their families in 2009 are indeed consistent with with the following article about students in general in 2012.  Check it out....


A newly released report on education by the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) paints a gloomy picture on the future of the youth in Tanzania and the entire African continent. 
According to the report, one fifth of the youth in Tanzania do not complete primary school.  Further, two million boys and girls who finish primary school every year have no job skills.  The report also shows among other things that students finish primary school without the strong foundation they need to take them to a second level of education.

The outcome is that many of the youth find themselves trapped in jobs that keep them under the poverty line.  While the report is essentially about the lack of adequate education and skills which in the end translates into unemployment and consequently poverty, it also advises that relevant education is essential from the very first day a child enters the class.

Poor education background and lack of skills have triggered urban migration.  Thousands of unskilled youth flock to towns and cities hoping to earn a living whether decent or otherwise.  Some of the young, energetic men are hawkers in the cities like Dar es Salaam selling petty items, including bubble gum targeting motorists caught in traffic jams.

Those who fail absolutely to earn a living turn to criminal acts including robbery and drugs.  All this is happening in a country of plenty arable land, river and lake waters ideal for farming and irrigation.

While UNESCO positively advises that children need to know their goals right from their first day in school, it is up to decision-makers and educational experts to carefully assess the challenges.  Is it viable for example, to teach children that they are attending school today so that they have a job tomorrow?  Would it make a lot of sense if they were gradually oriented into farming which is the country's economic mainstay?  Such an option does not suggest that all the youth will have to turn to agriculture where education has failed to provide opportunities.  Other areas like fisheries and livestock keeping may also be part of the learning process in schools.

However, in the long run, our emphasis is on agriculture as other areas have limited opportunities.  We trust that farming, whether large scale or subsistence, has not depleted all fertile land and plenty of it is lying idle.  While we recommend orientation of agriculture in schools, we also predict many challenges as children may see things differently.

There is the urge to get quick money, coupled with the inclination to the fast world of information and technology.  Nonetheless, it is not bad to have multiple choice in life.

It is only sad to see young, energetic men loitering in the streets while they could be engaged in meaningful income-generating activitiesThe current situation is that thousands miss opportunities because they lack skills, and even those who finally graduate from school cannot secure decent jobs because in a world of stiff competition, primary and secondary school levels are not sufficient to guarantee them employment.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

That Old Familiar Itch

No, I am not referring to Nairobi fly, but rather to a certain feeling I get after having been "Out of Africa" for a while.  It's like an alarm clock telling me it's time to go back, time to get to work.  Sure, these few months in New York have been fun, catching up with friends, hanging with the fam, eating good and drinking better, but it's time to relinquish my creature comforts and get back in touch with the things that matter most.  And, whether it's idealistically romantic or sickeningly sentimental, I only find these things in Africa.

I say "Africa" in general and not "Tanzania" in particular because although it's a pet peeve of most expats in TZ (myself included) to group together fifty-something countries and refer to them as one entity, there is in fact a certain unified persona to the continent, at least the parts that I have been to.  I see it as a sense of wilderness and wildness, danger and damage.  There's a lost, lonely quality that I identify with.  Maybe it lies in the natural surroundings themselves; in TZ, of course they can be found in the poetic kopjes in Serengeti and the majestic foothills of Kilimanjaro, but also on the long, dusty roads between towns, all along the way the villages and shanties, these stops just as profound as the great natural sites that we consider wonders of the world.  Africa is where you can let go of the ties that bind and see the real nature of both man and beast.  Africa is where you know yourself best.  There's no dressing up; everything is laid bare.

There is a real profundity to living and working in Africa and I don't necessarily mean the (supposedly) altruistic nature of development work.  It's more a way of life that permeates every aspect of one's manner of doing things.  It's about paring down your necessities and adapting to a simpler and purer lifestyle, cutting out the clutter, and focusing on what's truly indispensable: basic survival mechanisms, interpersonal relationships, and maintaining a modicum of happiness.  It's so easy living in the Western world to get caught up in all sorts of extraneous stuff that seems really important but actually isn’t, not just material trappings but all manner of white noise that comes along with it: media, politics, keeping up with the Joneses.  In Africa, it is easy for me to shut out that noise and focus on myself and my work.  And that is what I am starting to miss now.  The noise of New York City is creeping in and I'm ready to return to the quietude of Africa.

My current itch pertains most to the classroom.  I have for too long been out of a Tanzanian class teaching youngsters in their native tongue.  My Swahili is foundering after months of disuse and I find myself, in my sleepless moments, thinking whole speeches in Swahili, practicing in my head, reminding myself to check certain noun/pronoun agreements, passive tense suffixes, word choice.  And while I am trying to re-educate myself in this regard, I am really missing the experience of being the educator, of the camaraderie of the class, of greeting 60+ kids with a resounding "Hamjambo?" and being met with a chorus of "Hatujambo, shikamoo mwalimu!"  And then the ensuing chaos of the lesson, me trying to rise above the noise, the children excited by my very presence, the novelty of a mzungu teaching them.

When I first came to Moshi in 2007, I taught five days a week and that novelty wore off after a while and I was just "Mwalimu Sarah," a fairly ruthless taskmaster, but one who didn't use the stick, so that was preferable.  While working for Visions in Action, the small international NGO with which I was employed for two and a half years, I could not teach every day but twice a week was enough to ensure that my presence was not so unusual as to be a distraction.  Now, having been out of action for almost the entirety of 2012, when I go back next month, my re-introduction is sure to be a major event in Msaranga.  Of course, with Toa Nafasi, I won't be teaching per se, but rather observing, assessing, and then facilitating a shift in curriculum to ensure that those children who are struggling receive a proper chance to grasp the material in the way that best suits their individual needs and hopefully then succeed in kind.  It's a lofty goal and an ambitious undertaking, but I find myself not only up for the challenge, but excited, invigorated, and super-pumped.  A little itchy, too, I suppose....!  I am already packing my bags and I don't leave for another four weeks!!

At any rate, those are my deep thoughts for the day.  Take what you will and leave the rest.  Some images of "home" follow....dusty roads, green hills, and that big, beautiful mountain....

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Yo Gobble Gobble!

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all!!  I hope everybody is doing great and that you are all getting ready to get your chow on, watch a little pigskin on the tube (Redskins at Cowboys, 4:15pm EST), and give thanks for all you've got, of course. 

I am excellent, fantastic, splendiferous, happier than a Slinky on an escalator, and getting ready for the holidays a la Rosenbloom, which means a lotta wine and a lotta noise.

Anyway, enjoy yourselves and, if you have time, take a quick gander at the following article from Monday's The Guardian about parents as agents of change in the education sector in Tanzania.  Nakutakieni Thanksgiving njema!


Simply defined, an 'agent of change' is someone who knows and understands the dynamics that facilitate or hinder change, and utilizes his/her knowledge and skills to champion making a change.  This person is self-motivated by an urge to see positive changes in his/her environment. 

Since independence, our education system has gone through a number of significant changes, some of which were necessary and some notThe main changes in the curriculum have been observed at the primary and secondary levels.

In the last two decades, there has been a dramatic change in the education system which affected the curriculum, textbooks, and much more.  However, all these changes have not been due to various socioeconomic policies but rather the wishes of the prevailing education ministers.

In one way or another, these changes have had an adverse effect on teachers, students and parents.  With each change in the curriculum, students and teachers have had to adjust.  Additionally, parents have had to shoulder the burden of ensuring that their children have obtained new text and reference books.  And worst, these changes affect students' academic performances and parents suffer because their future academic dreams for their children are shattered.  Parents must struggle to look for alternative means of supporting their children so they obtain skills and knowledge for preparation of future responsibilities and economic independence.  Therefore, they are forced either to look for private schools, send their children to vocational training centers, or keep them around to support home chores.  There are myriad effects as a result of decisions made by policy makers at higher levels which have an adverse effect on parents and their households.

It takes courage to be an agent of change in education.  As parents are becoming increasingly involved in the education and training of their children, there is a possibility of using various approaches in affecting changes in their children and the schools in which their children are studying as well as at the policy level.

So, what happens when parents encourage each other?  A strong school community focused on learning develops, to the benefit of all children.  And all parents, regardless of their mastery of language, background, level of literacy or experience, have something to contribute to bring out positive changes.

Parents can become agents of change in education starting from their households.  They need to instill in their children motivation toward learning, encouraging them to learn not just for passing exams but for acquiring skills and knowledge as well.

Parents can take time out of their busy schedules to follow the academic progress of their children in school.  They can review their exercise books and talk with their children as well as visiting their teachers to obtain feedback.

Parents can also participate through attending school meetings and other functions such as 'open days,' which provide an opportunity for parents to obtain an understanding of school operations and participate in providing views or concrete criticisms on issues pertaining to school operations.

It is my strong belief that through such forums, parents can be very good monitoring agents of what is happening in school and can demand improved services for their children.

It should be noted that responsibilities come with these rights; as part of the duty of agents of change, parents should also be ready and motivated to fulfill their responsibilities.

I call upon parents in Tanzania to act as agents of change and promote home learning as well as advocating for improved education services at school.  Building a strong community of families committed to learning benefits our children, and surrounds them with motivation and support while holding officials and authorities to task.

We have heard of several civil societies which motivate citizens' engagement in socioeconomic development issues.  Recently, Twaweza and HakiElimu have stood out to be some of strongest civil societies which advocate for citizens' engagement in bringing changes in the social sectors including education.

Twaweza believes that citizens in East Africa can bring change themselves rather than waiting for governments, politicians, donors or NGOs to do it for them.

I call upon these civil societies to continue empowering parents in realizing their potential and responsibilities in ensuring improvement in education sector services.  Parents should be empowered to learn how to understand their children’s educational needs.  Then, they should learn how to engage with schools and teachers to understand better what the school is providing and how parents can assist in helping meet students' needs.

They also need to learn that they are not passive actors of instruction from the school administration, that they have a right to inquire further explanation on matters raised or decisions made by school administrations which affect their children or households, for example frequent financial contributions, utilization of development grants from the government, disciplinary actions and many more.  Some school administrations are reluctant in cooperating with parents, and in such cases lobbying and advocacy are needed.

In the same tune, I strongly appeal to parents in Tanzania that we cannot continue to point fingers at the government about weaknesses in the education sector; we need to do something in our own capacity and surroundings starting from our households.

We need to build a strong parents’ power to influence changes and demand accountability of responsible authorities in providing quality education services to our children. 

Take courage, it can be done if you play your part!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Obama Nation

From Actualite Afrique - Africa News, I peeped the following article regarding Tanzania's reaction to President Obama's big win last week. 

Two things to note in this here news piece IMO: 1.) more than a lil' bit of pardoning the prez for not focusing more on Africa in his first four and *hoping* he will do so in the next, and 2.) a very pointed discussion about how Western politicians "graciously concede defeat" and "the huge transparency gap" in the way Western elections are run versus those in most African countries.  While these remarks could really be aimed at any African politician in any African country, they particularly bring to mind Raila Odinga who famously contested (probably rightly) Mwai Kibaki's 2007 presidential win in the detriment of the political stability of his country and the safety of his countrymen.


Dar es Salaam, Tanzania - U.S. President Barack Obama's re-election was the major story in Tanzanian newspapers this week but accompanying editorials focused on its ramifications on other parts of the world.  "As the world's strongest economy, not to mention its military might," wrote The Citizen, "the U.S. has the capacity to dictate a lot of what happens elsewhere across the globe."

The private daily recalled how Obama's 2008 victory at the polls was received with a lot of excitement in Africa, probably, because many regarded the president of the 'Big Brother' nation as "one of us" with his roots in Kenya.

Given Africa's generally parochial politics, where leaders tend to abashedly direct national resources to political supporters and their villages of origin, there was a belief that Obama would spoil the 'continent of his father.'

"It is clear that in the world's biggest democracy, matters are not run on the basis of the big man's whims.  It is American interests, and not the president's interests (and sentiments) that reign supreme," the paper explained. 

The Citizen said irrespective of who occupied the White House, the U.S. had specific areas of focus and "development partners" must not expect much simply because there is change or otherwise at the top of its administration.

"However, the executive's background and style of leadership must surely influence the implementation of initiatives that benefit recipient nations while serving American interests as well," the daily said.

Also, the paper pointed out that the American business, security and cultural dominance can be sustained only if poverty and social upheavals are put in check in other nations, including those in sub-Saharan Africa.

"That is why we expect President Obama will use his second and final tenure of office to boost partnership with developing nations in areas of health, poverty alleviation, and education.

"As he had aptly said in his 2008 acceptance speech, his victory was not about him, it was about 'us.'  And for a man who leads the country touted as 'the land of opportunity,' the pronoun 'us' is not just about Americans; it is about the world at large," The Citizen added.

Meanwhile, The Guardian pointed out that the U.S. electoral system was touted as the best in the world in terms of its openness in partying and campaign styles.  But just like any system, it may not be lacking its own demerits.

Yet there were many lessons that African countries and individual politicians could learn from the polls, said the daily, noting in particular how the loser graciously conceded defeat.

"What Africans may learn here is that the loser need not wait to be prodded into accepting defeat.  Even before Obama spoke, Mitt Romney had conceded defeat at his Boston campaign headquarters."

The paper quoted Romney saying: "This is time of great challenges for America; Republicans and Democrats should work together to avoid partisan bickering and political posturing....leaders should reach across the aisle to solve the nation's myriad problems....We look to Democrats and Republicans in government at all levels to put the people before the politics."

The Guardian also hailed Obama's statement as the re-elected president promised to work with leaders of both parties on national issues and discuss ways to 'move the country forward.'

"This is definitely a major lesson for African leaders.  Not every idea from an opponent is discarded.

"We see a difference that whereas many an African politician handed defeat would at this juncture plot to deny the process its logical run, the thoughts of the former rivals are engaged in plotting the way forward for their country," said the daily.

The paper, however, cautioned that any tampering with the electoral process should be challenged through formal mechanisms.

In addition, The Guardian observed a huge transparency gap between the way the U.S. elections were run and those held in most African countries, partly because of logistical bottlenecks.

"In our recent memories of presidential elections, we know that it was only in Ghana and in Zambia where orderly handover of power took place," the paper added.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Southern Comfort

Greetings, readers.  I hope you have all weathered the storm in stride.  It's been one week since Sandy and things are nearly back to normal for most of us in Manhattan, but it's a long road ahead for those on the islands: Staten, Coney, Long.  Here's hoping Mayor Bloomberg makes good on his word to restore as much as he can as quickly as possible. 
At any rate, I wanted to put out this lil' bloggy entry about my weekend in South Carolina last month.  Yes sir, I was indeed Lady Antebellum for a day or two.  It was great fun and a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Yankee country.  I hope you enjoyed the photos of me in a kayak and weren't left scratching your heads too long as to the connection between water sports on the Waccamaw River to special needs education in East Africa.  It's all about to become clear. 
You’ve no doubt heard of the "Unsinkable Molly Brown" of Titanic fame, but now it’s time you meet the "Indomitable Mary Gale" of Pawleys Island, SC, and more importantly, the International Association of Special EducationMary Gale Budzisz is the past president of IASE and has become a dear, dear friend of mine since we first met in 2009.  I had just begun the research for my project and was applying for an Echoing Green grant (which I would not receive) and by happy circumstance, I stumbled upon IASE and Mary Gale.  We had some email exchanges, then a phone conversation, and finally met each other face-to-face in Arusha when MG came to Tanzania to visit a project site that IASE was involved with at the time.  We have kept in touch ever since and are particularly in sync now that Toa Nafasi has risen from the ashes phoenix-like.
IASE is a fantastic organization, by the way, and I encourage all my readers to take a look at their newly revamped website and become a "friend" if possible.  Check them out here:  Along with all the good work and awareness they bring to the issue of special needs education and learning differences in the United States, they run volunteer sites all over the globe in developing countries to bring that same work and awareness to places where these types of disabilities are unknownMary Gale has been involved with projects in Bangladesh, India, Mexico, and Tanzanian neighbor Malawi where there is a similar project to Toa Nafasi.  So needless to say, knowing MG and being part of the IASE network has been a huge resource for me.  We have talked about collaborating on everything from recruiting volunteers to donating supplies and MG has already come through on one big "get": due to her familiarity with Curriculum Associates, the publisher of the Brigance assessment module, The Toa Nafasi Project will be the recipient of two donated assessment kits, worth several hundred dollars apiece!  So, lucky us and many thanks to Curriculum Associates, Brigance, IASE, and the indomitable MG!!
For a long time now, Mary Gale and I have long been planning my sojourn down to Pawleys to visit her, talk SPED, kayak, and "wear rags 'round our heads," and with me here in the States now and this project going great guns, we figured there was no better time than the present.  I flew from New York City into Charlotte and then to Myrtle Beach.  MG picked me up at the tiny Myrtle Beach airport and we headed to Pawleys, stopping at a local dive for some dinner.  The food was great (blackened Cajun fish and coleslaw), but the ambiance was even better.  The waitress named Louann or Louelle or some such variation was dressed in gold lame and seemed to be playing the part of a waitress named Louann or Louelle in a local dive in Pawleys Island, SC.  Every word that came out of her mouth was honey-coated.  (Example: "Can I get a green salad instead of potatoes, please?"  "You surely can, darlin' girl, comin' right up, sweetiepie, anythin' else, sugar?")  It was fantastic.  I know the South has a lot of issues but customer service ain't one of them.  Louann/elle was phenomenal.
Mary Gale lives in a lovely little cottage in a non-gated community with other lovely little cottages.  From the outside, they are all beautiful homes, each one a little different, but generally of the same aesthetic.  On the inside, however, I might venture to say MG's is quite different!  Fit for a modern-day Maasai, the whole abode is done up in shades of red and black with tokens from all her various travels.  There's little evidence of her husband Frank's taste anywhere except maybe in the TV room where the football paraphernalia is.  Otherwise, there was the guest bedroom where I slept for the first time ever on a water-bed (!); the gorgeous sun-drenched breakfast nook where we started our mornings with a bit of work and chatter over coffee; the living room, outfitted with black leather couches and Maasai wall hangings; and a stunning collection of vikapu in the kitchen.

On my first day, after doing a wee bit of work at the breakfast table, MG and I headed out to the marshlands of the Waccamaw River to get our kayak on – hence the photos from last week which show the start, middle, and finish of my virgin voyage.  Apparently, I did pretty well.  I didn’t tip over and only ran the nose of my kayak into the brush once….or twice….(actually MG doesn't know this because she was too far ahead but I dinged both my kayak and my paddle into a metal birdfeeder in a particularly narrow passage!)  Still, I think she was quite impressed and I was actually really glad we did it.  It was so peaceful and calm on the canals of the marsh with majestic cypress trees draped in Spanish moss - a real Cape Fear momentNavigating the river itself was a bit more precarious and I begged off after only about twenty minutes or so.  But we had a lot of fun, and I didn't see a single snake nor a gator neither!

Now, of course there has to be some funny little story here because this circumstance clearly BEGS for a funny little story (just as unlikely and potentially humorous as "Sarah in Africa" was in 2007, "Sarah in a kayak in South Carolina" is in 2012.)  As we were getting ready to go out on our kayaks, we came across a group of teenage boys hanging out on one of the little landing sites, no doubt preparing to engage in some nefarious behavior.  I was content to let them smoke their doobies or look at their Playboys in peace, but MG went right up to them and started asking them what their intentions were.  And I’m glad she didOne of the youngsters, a certain Hamilton Tiller ("The ladies call me Hammy") had brought a BB gun to the marsh with himMG asked what he planned to shoot, maybe ducks or something, and he said, "Naw, just gonna shoot straight up in the air."  Well this did not sit too well with Mary Gale who, taking a seat with the boys at the landing, gave them a lesson in physics and how what goes up, well, it must come down again!  She also said that we would be kayaking out there and she didn’t want to have to be dodging bullets on what was an otherwise idyllic Saturday outing in October.  (At this point, I may have piped up and quipped something to the effect of "Yeah, and what a shame it would be for me to have come all this way from New York City just to get a cap in my ass in South Carolina."  Probably not all that helpful, I felt a little levity was called for as we were now all quite uncomfortable, me finding myself in the middle of the lecturing parental figure and the wayward adolescents, not knowing which side to be on!)  Finally, however, MG wrapped up her sermon and I asked the boys if they couldn't find other extracurricular activities to be involved in like track and field or Mathletes or something.  This suggestion was met with, "Wow, you really are from the North."

Throughout the duration of my trip, MG kept up her "indomitable" persona with an endless supply of one-liners.  They actually weren’t really one-liners since other than me, I don’t know anyone who likes to talk so much and about so many different things.  I tried to make note of some of the best zingers:
“We don’t get our trash collected out here, it's too far, but there’s a lovely little dump I like to go to.”
“I used to go to church but they pissed me off, collecting money for the pedophiles and all that.”
“Let me tell you about this place in Bangladesh I visited....Well, I can't say too much, but it was god-forsaken, I tell you.
Thank goodness her husband Frank was a man of few words or the three of us would have talked ourselves silly all weekend long.  But Frank's passion is football not conversation and he had mapped out every college game on TV from sunrise to sunset before I even woke up in the morning.  Here’s a good shot of MG, Frank, and their bulldog Luka at the sliding door.

And here, dear Toto, is evidence we’re not in Manhattan anymore.  Down South, there definitely was not an Obama supporter for miles around but, political differences of opinion aside, I found every Southerner I met a belle or a dandy, and greetings in South Carolina were more than cursory, conversation more than passing.  It was actually a refreshing change from the brusqueness of the Yankee Northeast and reminiscent of Tanzanian affability.  I’ll note here that I did NOT engage in any politics or election talk with anyone for the entire 48 hours I was there.  Quite a feat for the Washington DC-born New York City-dweller.
On my last day, we went to the Pawleys Island beach and roamed about a little bit.  It was a gorgeous cloudless day and, though a little chilly, we could still walk in the surf barefoot.  We beachcombed but very few shells were to be found.  We did spot this starfish however with a strange orange spot on his head that we thought might be a wound.

That night we went to another typical down-home Southern spot for dinner and some live music, a place called The Pit, which was actually quite nice.  We sat outside and listened to a relatively famous local group called Ten Toes Up and I had my red wine and flirted with the boys in the band.  (Not really, but in my mind, I was pretending to be the bad preacher's daughter from Footloose.)  This didn't last long however as I am a.) thirtysomething, and b.) Jewish.  Also, MG wanted to get home to Frank and Luka.

Finally, just before I caught my flight out of Dixie, we had a quick lunch at the neighboring golf club.  Not too much to say about it, though it was another lovely day in Pawleys with good food and great company.  The whole trip was just a weekend jaunt but it was so much fun and such a departure from my usual NYC weekend activities that I felt compelled to sharePlus, Mary Gale's name is sure to grace this blogsite again many times, so I wanted to put that out there.  I'm not sure what next week's entry will bring, but hopefully something good.  Good things seem to be the trend these days, hurricanes aside.  Until next time!!