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.