Friday, March 25, 2016

"I've Named Her Scholastica"

Please take a moment to check out this magnificent photo-journalistic look at Tanzanian teen mothers and their children from Vice Media's new(ish) feminist channel, Broadly.  The author, Rebecca Schiller, is CEO of human rights in childbirth charity, Birthrights, and writes about reproductive rights, parenting, and birth.

I realize it is only tangentially related to the activities of The Toa Nafasi Project, but sex education is education nonetheless and our girls with intellectual impairment are even more at risk than typically developed young ladies.

In addition, the photographs are stunning and it is worth even just a cursory glance:


In Tanzania, girls are traditionally married off before they are 18.  In childbirth, they routinely lack access to life-saving cesareans and medical treatment.  Despite this, young women are daring to dream for more.

Eva Paulo wanted to be a tailor when she grew up.  When I meet her, she is dressed in a floor-length pink gown - the kind of dress teenagers wear to prom, with a ruffle that trails behind her in the dust.  She made it herself; it acts as a silky reminder of what she has lost.  Like many young women in rural areas of Tanzania, the 17-year-old's greatest ambition is now survival.
Married at 14, de facto divorced three years later, Paulo is a single mother to a three-month-old baby.  Her husband rejected her, so she now relies on an uncle for food and shelter.  She has achieved a lot since then, not least surviving childbirth, the leading global cause of death for young women aged 15 to 19.  She's lucky to live near to Uteshu, where Africa's leading health charity Amref Health Africa have overhauled the facilities to ensure women have access to life-saving cesareans, antenatal care and HIV clinics.

Paulo is the only woman I meet during a week travelling across the Shinyanga region of Tanzania who cries while telling me her story.  The unfairness of her abandonment is too much for her.  "Don't cry, don't cry," says our translator.  I don't hush her; she seems glad of the permission to talk.  "It's not that I want my husband to come back," she explains, "I don't.  But it is difficult to be on your own.  Raising a baby in this environment, in these conditions, is tough for anyone."

Though practices are changing, it's common for Tanzanian children to be married before 18.  "We were too young to make marriage work," Paulo tells me.  Tanzanian women start having children at age 19.  Access to contraception is made difficult by long walks to health centers and a lack of local dispensary facilities.  Many husbands and fathers-in-law have the final say about young women's reproductive futures, and they often say no to family planning.

At Uteshu, I meet three 15-year-olds, each recovering from an emergency cesarean necessitated by pelvises damaged by malnutrition.  Their voices sound like elementary school children when I play my dictaphone back.  Salome George tells me she likes being a mother, despite the pain from the scar across her belly.  But she wants a gap between her children and knows she is likely to be back here next year.

In Mbiki village, Zena Bakari tells me that she had her first baby at 19, and says that there is occasionally still reluctance to move away from traditional birthing practices.  Recently, a local witch doctor told her pregnant acquaintance, "You and your baby will die if you have a C-section."

When the woman went through obstructed labor, doctors and nurses tried to convince her to have a cesarean.  She refused.  Instead, she walked home and went to church.  "Everyone prayed for her," says Bakari.  "During the night the pains started again and she went back to the hospital.  She refused the cesarean again and both she and the baby died."

Access to education is seen as key to making progress on reproductive and child health.  Children are now legally required to attend school from age 7 to 15, though 15 to 20 percent do not.  Many families still see a financial advantage in marrying girls young.  Some young women are worth a financial premium; younger girls with the lightest skin and firmest breasts can earn their families up to 40 cows.  These cattle can be exchanged for maize flour if the family's own crops fail, and can be used to pay dowries for their sons.

Eva has her sights set on more for her child.  "I try not to have dreams for myself but I think of my daughter.  What I want most is for her to grow up and finish school.  So I've named her 'Schola' - Scholastica."

Projects like Amref Health Africa that focus on sexual health, reproductive education, and men's participation in women's health initiatives, are beginning to make Eva's dreams more of a reality.  Technology may well play its part too, with texts being used to deliver health messages to remote communities.  Despite not having access to running water or mains electricity, 20-year-old Mary Isaka is able to take a photo of me with her mobile and send it to her friends.  She's HIV positive and waiting until she stops breastfeeding to find out if her baby is too.  Thanks to new medical protocols and her proximity to a hospital, her child has a 95 percent of being clear of HIV.

When I see lines of teenagers pass my house on the way back from school each day, I now think of Schola, Clara, Maryam: the baby girls I met last month.  In 15 years, they will hopefully be in their own schoolyards with their future in their own hands, motherhood safely awaiting them if and when they are ready.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Hapa Ni Kazi Tu

This simple Swahili phrase has the general meaning of "It's time for hard work, nothing else."  It was a campaign slogan employed by new Tanzanian President John Magufuli and it reflects his austere style of governance, namely that the time for meaningless and wasteful shenanigans is over, there's a new sheriff in town.

I personally love the phrase and Hyasinta and I often repeat it to each other with various inflections - righteously, indignantly, jokingly - depending on context.

Just as Magufuli is determined to bring about change for the nation with kazi tu, so are we, the teachers of Toa Nafasi, determined to bring about change for the Standard One students of Msaranga, Msandaka, Mnazi, and Kiboriloni Primary Schools.

I think we are on the right track.  Though this year is still young and the process of expansion has uncovered fresh and frustrating new challenges, we now have the data from our colleague, Angi Stone-MacDonald, which reflects the results of the program on the Standard One kids from 2015.

Though they have only been tested twice and there was a gap of nearly a year between the assessments, due to Vumi's death last July, we can see that these guys are on the up-and-up, for the most part.  Those who have not progressed much, approximately six children out of fifty, are either still enrolled in tuition or receiving services from the Gabriella Center.  We are hopeful that by their third test, which will likely take place in June or July this year, they will have reached even further heights.

Vumi, wherever you are, be proud of the work you did with this last group.  And know that we are carrying on, in your name and honor, HAPA NI KAZI TU.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Meet the Parents

Greetings everyone, and here's hoping all of you are well.  March has come in like a lion over here in these parts with the rains starting to fall and the heat of the "winter" sun finally abating somewhat.

We at The Toa Nafasi Project have been extremely busy since the beginning of the year, expanding the program into three additional schools as well as Msaranga Primary which remains our home base.

In all four schools, our work is in various stages of progress, with Msaranga leading the way as the teachers, parents, and community at large are already familiar with what we are trying to do.  We have finished observing and testing all the Standard One kids and divided them into preliminary groupings so we know who we will be working with.  The real findings will come once Angi gets her hands on the tests and can manipulate the results into hardcore data, but she does not arrive in Tanzania until May.  So, in order as to not lose momentum, Hyasinta and I have gone over each observation form and test, and formed what we call vikundi or groups whereby those with no problems whatsoever continue on as they were; those with mild issues, we will start with a general tuition and see how they come along; and those who lack any foundation of the basic concepts whatsoever, we will enroll in Toa Nafasi and work with in small clusters or one-on-one.

We have done the same for the Standard One students at Msandaka and Mnazi Primary Schools as well, and at all three schools we have created teams of teachers to begin the process of tuition with these preliminary vikundi we've made up.

The teacher teams we also took care in devising with longer tenured teachers paired with newbies, and strengths and weaknesses divided.  For instance, Teacher Dorcas is not a great assessor as she tends to extract the answers from the students and the whole purpose of the test is to discover the child's true capabilities.  But she is AMAZING with the kids and they love to learn from her playful spirit in the classroom.  So, we paired her with Mama Mshiu in order to offset Dorcas's young cheerfulness with some good old-fashioned ukali or severity which Mama has in spades!

The only school at which we have not even begun our work is Kiboriloni and that is because there was a delay in receiving the all-important kibali (permit) from the Moshi Municipal Council.  We now have it but are still missing the even more all-important stamp on it so in due course, we will begin the same process there.

This past Monday at Msaranga, Hyasinta and I began the time-consuming and sometimes sensitive task of conducting parent interviews for those kids in our third kikundi, those whom we want to enroll at Toa.  We have just under 40 children, by far the most out of all the schools, and sent letters home with the kids asking that the parents come the following day.  This part of the task always takes extra time as many of the parents are reluctant to come to school, perhaps thinking that they will be asked for overdue fees or there is some other shida that they would rather avoid.  In addition, to get a parent to take time off from work to deal with their kids' school issues is tough, especially now in the time of planting crops.  Then, there is a sense that teachers handle the responsibility of raising a child at school and the parents do the same at home and that those two veins don't have much crossover.  Toa Nafasi is trying to change this, but it's slow-going.

During the interview process, Hyasinta does the bulk of the talking while I take notes.  (In past years, it was Vumi, who had developed a certain uncanny knack for the job, but Hyasinta is coming along nicely and we make a good team.)  The questionnaire itself (also developed by Angi in addition to the assessment and various teaching methodologies that we use in the classroom) is a mishmash of inquiries ranging from whether the child can see, hear, and talk as well as use the bathroom, dress, and tell the weather unassisted.  We then move on to how high the child can count, if he/she write or just scribble, and whether he/she can read.  Next is the knowledge and avoidance of dangerous situations, ability to do various common household chores, and whether the child prefers to play with friends or alone.  Finally, we come to some really interesting questions, which I find are often left unanswered in this Swahili context.  Can the child engage in self-stimulating activities?  Can he/she initiate conversation?  Does he/she get frustrated easily?  Does he/she show more than one emotion?  Will he/she explore new environments?  Good stuff like that.

This is the part I find most difficult because Tanzanians tend not to really think about these kinds of thing and are so literal that when you provide an example, they latch onto that rather than to the behavior behind it.  Point in case: For the question regarding new environments, Hyasinta usually says something about if the mama buys a new pot for the house, will the child notice and say "Hey, where'd that pot come from?"  Ummmm....  Then, the parent will respond, "Of course my child will ask about a new pot!  IT'S A NEW POT!!"  Errrr....  Then, I have to try to think of other, less literal ways of trying to get the message across, ones that have little to do with new pots as this example seems to really make imaginations run away.  Plus, there's the fact that a pot is not really an environment, new or not.... unless you are a potato.

Another toughie is the question about whether the child can follow two-step instructions.  Vumi used to say as example, "If you send your child to the store to buy salt and onions, will he/she come back with both, or only just one?"  No-kay, but I was too tired/uninspired to ever really correct her.  Now, with Hyasinta, I told her to try an example of a task whereby the child must accomplish Step 1 before even attempting Step 2.  "Like what?" Hyasinta asks.  I had a hard time thinking of something appropriate and mentioned following a recipe, like to cook beans, you gotta boil them first, then add oil, spices, and vegetables.  "But kids don't cook beans," Hyasinta says.  This is true.  So, how about this: does the child know, when getting dressed, to start with his/her underwear and then work outwards to sweater, socks, and shoes?  "OF COURSE MY CHILD PUTS ON HIS UNDERWEAR FIRST!  OBVI!!" the parent will exclaim, looking around with a nervous chuckle as if we've discovered a whole gang of kids who wear their underwear on the outside.  Again.... lost in translation....

The idea that the mfano (example) becomes the actual meat of the question is a telltale sign of how Tanzanian minds (at least in this tiny, remote village) have been programmed to work.  There is very little exploration of connotation; rather, everything is taken at face value with no analysis, no discussion of meaning.  This makes it tough for a champion expounder like me, who could go on for eons about the meaning of pretty much anything from the plot of Game of Thrones to the effect of a potential Trump presidency.  (Actually, those two mifano are probably more closely linked than we all think....  "You know nothing, American public....")

Anyway, you get my drift.  These kinds of mushy-gushy, touchy-feely questions are really tough to translate and it will take time for Hyasinta and I to develop a proper set of examples that will carry us through the years.  For now, however, pots and panties will do just fine.

Lastly on the questionnaire, there is a space for the delicate questions regarding the mama's pregnancy and delivery, the child's milestones, life at home, and any other things the parent might want to bring to our attention.  It's here where we find out whether Mama drinks, whether Baba beats her, if they're still together, if there's any illness in the family, and whether the child has any other atypical habits such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking (NO JUDGMENT HERE: I sucked my own left thumb for ages, so I fully understand how delicious and hard it is to give up that short, stubby, opposable digit!)

Generally, the parents are cooperative and appreciative and usually I find that they think their kids know more than they do, so it's really good to show the parents the child's assessment and explain where exactly they are falling behind and could use our support.  We also get a lot of good information about the kids.  For EXAMPLE: This one is an orphan, left by her HIV+ mama and drunkard baba and being raised by bibi (grandmother); that one fell out of his crib at three months and was never the same after.  Things like that.  This information helps us to know what next steps to take.

Once all the interviews are done, we will know if there are any students who need referral appointments, whether it be at KCMC for eyesight or hearing or Gabriella for further special education assessment or behavior modification.  We tell the parents that all costs associated with their child's care will be covered by Toa Nafasi but that they must communicate and cooperate with us if they want their child to receive our services.  Hence, the slow and steady welding together of "school" and "home" in order to raise some healthy, happy kids!

Below, check out the hojaji (questionnaire) in Swahili and also our Swahili language brochure, which we give to each parent to take with them.  All in a day's work!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

"Too Much Politics"

Hi everybody, hope all is well.  My apologies again for the delay in posting but Carla and Barbara have just left and I needed to take some "me time" to put the house (and my life!) back in order!!

To that end, no original content for today's entry, but an interesting article reprinted from the Daily News titled "Too Much Politics in Education Will Not Do Tanzania and Its People Any Good."


It is written by Dr. Gastor Mapunda, a senior lecturer in the College of Humanities at the University of Dar es Salaam, and I gotta say, he makes a lot of sense.

I can especially relate after last week when some of the wazee (old men) on my Tanzanian Board of Directors tried to say they should be involved in the hiring of Toa Nafasi teachers.  Heck, even I don't hire the teachers; I leave that up to Hyasinta and Mama Mshiu.

Part of the successful running of this organization is knowing when I need to step up and do things myself, and when I can delegate the responsibility to others.  Especially when those others know better than me what is necessary to complete the task at hand!
Is it a coincidence that one of these meddlesome wazee is a diwani (local councilman) and a low-level politician?!  Methinks HAPANA!! (NO!!)

It is generally understandable and acknowledged that the provision of education in any country is necessarily politically motivated and controlled.

It is actually surprising when people keep on saying that politics should not interfere with education - this is outright impossibleThe role of politics is unavoidable in religion, in the army, in the economy, and so in education.  What I do not condone though is too much politics in the aspects of education which are technical.  Those should be left to the professionals, who are the technocrats.

To put my argument in perspective, I will give examples explicating how education should in a way be politically driven and motivated.

During the colonial times in Tanzania, the education provided was meant to train personnel in areas relevant to skills and attitudes necessary to the running of the colonial government, including their economy.

In this regard, both the content and the values inculcated were those that specifically painted colorfully the colonial governments and their homelands as the best on earth.

In the schools, children were made to sing "God bless the Queen;" in the literature classes, children were made to learn the Shakespearean literature; the history which was taught was that glorifying the might of Europe while at the same time denigrating Africa.  But when the political landscape changed after independence, we saw how politics changed the educational outlook.

In the schools, even the songs changed, let alone the language of instruction and the content of some subjects.  Examples of subjects whose contents were either changed or modified include History, Literature, and Geography.

In this regard, the role of politics is seen as that of aligning the education system to the national philosophy, policies, and development goals in the general sense.

The political direction after independence was geared towards decolonizing Tanzania.  In this regard, Nyerere's regime worked hard to undo all the imprints of colonialism in education.

However, more recently Tanzania has witnessed political events in the education sector which negatively affect its proper functioning.

At the onset, my argument in this article is that while politics are unavoidable in education, they should be limited only to the more general levels, particularly regarding administrative levels, but not to the specific ones needing technical and professional attendance.

For example, for some reason, the government decided to make Standard Four and Standard Seven national examinations multiple-choice.

So candidates are expected to only choose the letter of the correct answer.  In some schools, teachers are already seeing incapable pupils excelling in those examinations.

Some of the most serious problems with such examinations are that guesswork and peeping, among other practices, can easily be done.  Teachers teach their learners how to arrive at the correct answers, and not just the answer.

So, within the multiple-choice mode of examinations is a political decision, possibly aimed at covering for the growing number of students against the number of teachers, which is small.

The solution cannot be setting all multiple-choice examinations, but recruiting more teachers.  This kind of decision is an improper political decision in education.

Another inappropriate political decision in the Tanzania's education system, relates to the 2005 change in syllabi, from knowledge-based to the so-called competence-based.

When this syllabus was introduced in 2005 by the Tanzania Institute of Education (TIE), the overall reasoning behind the change was that learners were to show ability in applying what they learned in the classroom.

They were expected to be able to apply, not to simply cram and remember details.  They argued that Tanzanian learners should be capable of competing with other learners in other parts of the world.

Generally, I have no problem with this decision; it would actually have been very nice to do so, if chances allowed.

But practically, the change was made prematurely and impressionistically, and Tanzania was not yet ready for the kind of change made.  Such a decision should have involved a sizeable number of technocrats; not just the small sample of teachers involved.

The teachers who were supposed to implement the new syllabi, that is, the competence-based syllabi, were not trained to do so.

Besides, it was realized in a workshop held in Morogoro in 2008 that in some parts of the country, up to that year, that is 2008, some teachers had not yet seen the 2005 syllabi.  This means that in some schools students were still being taught in the old syllabus.

Relatedly, if not, consequently, the year 2012 saw the worst ever performance in the certificate of secondary examinations.  The more intriguing act of politics interfering with education was witnessed when the government handled the 2012 mass failures.  Instead of dealing with the root causes, it decided to politically change the performance, in the guise of standardization.

This was followed by changing the examinations reporting system, from division to grade performance average (GPA), with a view to lowering the different categories.  Superfluously, the use of GPA made Tanzanians believe that things were moving in the right direction.

This was, again a wrong political action regarding education.  I would like to end my article by urging politicians to not jump into technocratic decisions without involving the technocrats.  The consequences of doing so are terribly horrendous on the nation.