Saturday, February 28, 2015

Change Happens

One of my favorite things about my job is seeing change happen right before my eyes.  Change for the better.  Granted, it doesn't always present itself *so readily* and there are many *storms to be weathered* along the way -- particularly in a developing country -- but when those storms erupt, and they always do, my friends here in Moshi like to say, "But remember why you're here.  Remember the children."
Okay, I know it might sound simple and rose-colored at best, and trite and formulaic at worst -- my New York posse's eyes are rolling back into their overly caffeinated heads right about now -- but God's honest truth .... it's honestly true .... I swear to God!!
It really is that simple.  I'm here for these kids.  For better or for worse.  Through the good, the bad, and all sortsa ugly.
This past week has been rough for me, personally.  Mama left after five glorious weeks of mother-daughter bonding, and sentimentalist that I am, I was hit hard by her departure.  While she was here, it was us against the world, taking care of business outside of the schoolyard, handling bullies handily, and pushing back the pushers.

In fact, this whole year, I have only been at school a handful of days -- something that is about to change big time -- because I wanted to maximize Mama's time in-country to deal with the irritating, nitpicking, bureaucratic yuckiness of running an NGO in Tanzania.  That meant going to accountants, lawyers, banks, THE REVENUE AUTHORITY, and all manner of other unpleasant locale in order to cross any Ts and dot any Is that are necessary for Toa Nafasi's legal status in Tanzania.  (We're all good, should anyone have any concerns, Mama saw to that before she left!!)
Now, on the cusp of a new month -- and just weeks from my 40th birthday -- I am reflective .... and thankful.

The past eight years in Kilimanjaro has been an amazing opportunity, an incredible experience.  "The best of times, the worst of times," as Chas Dickens once wrote.  But an experience that few others can say they have had the opportunity to live.  I know it sounds hokey and maybe I'm getting maudlin and mushy in my old age, but I feel quite certain that I'm on the right track here.
And my certainty mostly stems from the change I see around me.  I know I am hard on TZ and TZ'ians and I rail often about taking responsibility, being accountable, problem-solving, and thinking critically....  But ultimately, if all my railing comes to naught except to motivate just a select few, then my time here has not been wasted.  (Vumilia Temba, nakupenda mtu wangu....)

For my part, I've been taught many a lesson here, none of which I could have learned in a publicity department on the 20th-odd-floor in midtown Manhattan.  So .... asante sana, Tee-Zed, whether we like it or not, it appears we're stuck together, wewe na mimi.  And, you can now add Mama to that mix because she has unfinished business with several and sundry in the Moshi community.  And, she WILL be back!!
This is Grace, Vumi's daughter.  She was born in 2010, which makes her five years old these days.

The daughter of a teacher, she is inquisitive.

The daughter of the Vuminator, it also makes her opinionated.  And autonomous.  And stubborn.  And a lil' bit aggravating, quite frankly speaking....

But, as I said, change happens....

Five years appear to have passed -- according to Miss Grace -- yet I've somehow managed not to age a day....!!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Call for Overhaul

Big news in the education sector recently as Tanzania unveils new education overhaul plan.  I am of two minds about this, particularly the switch from English as the medium of instruction in secondary school back to Swahili.  

One part of me is absolutely strident that all people should know English if they want to be able to travel abroad, communicate with many different types of people, and succeed in the global marketplace.  If a Tanzanian, an American, a German, and a Korean all met up in a bar, the common denominator language-wise would have to be English.  That I happen to be a native English speaker is my good fortune, but I don't think anyone would argue with my notion of the importance of English language skills in such a situation over say, Urdu.
The other part of me, the Toa Nafasi part, thinks that realistically the majority of kids in public schools in Tanzania will ultimately not be world travelers or working in the international sector.  Unfortunate, but true.  And, if we can bring ourselves to admit this, then English language skills are much, much, MUCH less important than say, agricultural know-how and animal-keeping.
That English is continued to be taught in schools I still consider important, but that it be used as the language of instruction is indeed crazeballs.  Particularly when you consider that the switchover from Swahili to English in secondary school is sudden and arbitrary.  And furthermore, that the teachers in the majority of these secondary schools have fairly poor English language skills themselves.

The extension of basic education to encompass Form 4 and the abolition of those nasty standardized exams, I ain't mad at.  Both seem like steps in the right direction.  But as the author of the Newstime Africa piece below states, such changes are gonna be a long time in the making.

Tanzania announced a new educational overhaul plan, one that will extend basic education to Form 4, instead of the current Standard VII.

"It's our hope that when students complete this basic education, which is compulsory up to Form 4, they will be at an age ready to contribute to the country's development," Sifuni Mchome, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, said.

He added during a televised national ceremony that the new system would abolish national examinations for primary school leavers.

Mchome noted that students would have their final exams after 11 years in primary and secondary schools.

He said the new system would make primary and secondary education free of charge at state-run schools.

Most important in the new system is that it will ditch English as a language of instruction at Tanzania's schools, making Kiswahili – the mother tongue of the people of Tanzania – the instruction language in these schools.

English dominated teaching in Tanzania's schools from secondary to tertiary levels for a long time.

"Language studies will then be available to enable students to communicate in English," Atetaulwa Ngatara, the assistant director for policy at the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, said.

"Communicating in English is something to do with language studies," he added.

Mchome, meanwhile, noted that the new system would also incorporate vocational education in basic education syllabus to allow students who do not make it to Form 5 to have skills to contribute to the development of their country.

"We need a critical mass of skilled labor for the country's development," Mchome said.

"This cannot be achieved within the current policy, which focuses on filtering and rejecting students without skills through final exams," he added.

Nevertheless, the new system might take decades to take root, some of the officials speaking on Saturday said, because extensive preparations would need to be made for English to be ditched.

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said the new system was part of his country's Vision 2025.

He said the system took the global economy, and social and technological changes into account.

"In the next seven years, we will have built the capacity whereby every child who starts Standard I will reach Form 4," the President said.

He added that the system would take Tanzania to the next level, where the nation would have skilled people with both practical and theoretical knowledge."

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Wackness

Years ago, when I was still young and vain and silly, I was complaining to a friend about my looks.  My unusual ethnic heritage gave way to a plethora of imperfections: the wild tangle of curly hair, the faded perma-tan color of my skin, the random disbursement of freckles across my body - nothing matched up and I would never be a classic beauty.

At that time I was working in publicity in New York and glossy magazines were not only a guilty pleasure but the bread and butter of my work.  I was having trouble escaping the concept of "image" and reconciling myself that own was vastly differing from the mainstream.

I remember that this friend looked at me and said, very simply, "Symmetry is wack."  She meant plainly that sameness is boring, conformity is lame.

Those three words have stuck with me all this time since.  Though it is a simple point to understand, it took me a long time to accept; the idea that my differences - some more annoying, unpleasant, ugly than others - actually make me ME.  Those dissimilarities that I found so glaring in my youth have made me the woman I am today.  And though we were talking about ideas of physical beauty at the time, the notion really applies across the board.

Symmetry is wack.  It is wack in looks, it is wack in styles, it is wack in thoughts, it is wack in opinions.  So, though we have long lost contact, I owe thanks to Aisha Wilson for her three words of wisdom that have remained with me to this day.

In this recent article from The Guardian, the writer discusses how the Tanzanian education system should be overhauled and touches on my particular notion of The Wackness.  It underscores the fundamental Toa Nafasi premise of embracing difference and individuality and fostering those very traits which make us each who we are, separate from anyone else in the world.  To date, the systems in place here in Tanzania promote conformity, marching in place, being very careful not to rock the boat.  But, it's not working.  Critical thinking and problem-solving skills are difficult for Tanzanian kids because they have never been asked to think for themselves.

However, the time is now, on the cusp of a new Tanzanian governing body and with the climate ripe for change in the education sector.

Asymmetry can be pretty dope, too.


Education can be described as a process of training and instruction, especially with respect to children and young people in schools and colleges, designed to impart knowledge and develop skills.

The introduction of the Western system of education in Tanzania left much to be desired as what we have today leaves little or nothing for a legacy, and it is a far cry of where we ought to be.  Every area of our life has changed, or at least improved, except our antiquated system of education.  It is clear in the language of Tanzania's educational system that its primary focus is on knowledge and teaching rather than on the learner.

Students are expected to conform to schools rather than schools serving the needs of students.  Regardless of the high-sounding rhetoric about the development of the total child, it is the content of assessments that largely drives education.  How often are students given the opportunity to recognize and evaluate different points of view when multiple choice tests require a single 'correct' answer? 

Original thinking is not currently the aim of our educational system.  Schools fostering it become the only hope for the educational system in the 21st century.  The aim of education should be to teach us how to think rather than what to think - to improve our minds so as to enable us to think for ourselves rather than to load our memories with the thoughts of others.

Students receiving the failure label are growing in numbers and percentages, all because the system measures selected knowledge on a one-day standardized paper test.  Anyone who does not have the ability to put clear thoughts on paper is labeled a failure.  Education is the only business in which the customer is to be blamed when it fails. 

If the purpose does not motivate, other than to please the teacher, then there is nothing to process outside of memorizing answers for tests.  Tests do not measure intelligence or ability; they do not measure how the mind processes information, how motivating experiences develop persistence, or how we sort out instincts, opinions, evaluations, possibilities and alternatives. 

Examinations are not tests of knowledge; rather, they are tests of assimilation.  Using that yardstick is like using a thermometer to measure wind speed instead of wind gauge, as both are measuring instruments but do not measure the same thing. 

Now our educational system is becoming a system that memorizes the dictionary.  When students have memorized selected knowledge, then they will be given a one-day test, based on dictionary knowledge, which will influence their employment opportunities for the rest of their lives.

This is where some teachers are failing as they have a single instruction guideline without alternatives.  When one technique fails, other means should be brought in.

The current educational system needs to be overhauled to clear the way for a new system of education that enables full development of personality and character of the individual, the development of full capacities necessary for achievement in life, and the ability to truly think instead of parroting information.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Back to School

Well, I have been back at school one week now and I can confidently say that Toa Nafasi has definitely had a positive impact on the good denizens of Msaranga.  The differences between the regular Standard One classroom and our Toa Nafasi classroom are astounding.

Of course, the nature of our Project being a pullout program, the two arenas are not mutually exclusive but rather complement each other for those children who are "slow learners."  As I have noted many times before, what we do is to provide remedial support for students who are falling through the cracks academically or seem troubled behaviorally or psychologically.

We pull the kids out of the Standard One class (age 7 or 8) for 40 minutes each day to work one-on-one or in small groups with our trained Toa Nafasi staff.  Then, the kids are returned to the regular class to continue their lessons in an inclusive setting.

In this manner, we are able to assist slow-learning children to cope with their learning differences and to utilize alternate methods for accomplishing their school work.  And, the children, parents, teachers, and school administrators alike are positively thrilled with the results.

Check out the photos and video below .... I don't wanna brag, but .... I HAVE TO!  The learning environment my teachers have created is BEYOND amazeballs; it's the phenoma-bomb!!

Too many kids in the class for the beleaguered Mama T to deal with.  And check the peanut gallery in the doorway.  No wonder she is looking forward to retirement!!

Aaaand .... we've got a sleeper!  The poor kid was rudely awakened shortly after this photo was taken.

Capers, hijinks, and shenanigans ensue as the two Standard One teachers sit in the back of the room.  Really.  They're there.  I swear.  Watch it again.


Two teachers for seventeen kids, all of whom have eyes on the board, busy little bees!

View from the back.  A reasonable student/teacher ratio whereby the instructors can teach a whole class but still provide individual support for those who need it.  NOTE: This particular group of kids have been in the program some months now, so are able to be taught en masse.  The newbies are still (always have been, always will be) tutored one-on-one or in groups no larger than three pupils at a time until they are up-to-speed.

My "sister from another mister" at the head of the class.  Two words: Vumi ROCKS!

The beautiful and soft-spoken Yacinta sits patiently with this little girl, my baby "Snork," Haika, as she practices her numbers.  Still a ways to go, but light-years from where she started.  And, really, who knows where she might end up .... ?