One of the things they don’t tell you when you are applying to the Peace Corps is how mad you’re going to be after about a year in country. During our PST, one of the admin people made a joke, “Welcome to the Peace Corps, also known as the angriest two years of your life.” We were all still optimistic and naive at that point, so we all laughed and I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought to them self, “Well, that won’t be me!”
But last month I found myself standing outside one of the classrooms and yelling, “What is wrong with this country? Why should I care about teaching these kids if no one else does? What is the point of me even being here?”
Now, I’m not going to defend my behavior, because I’m sure there were a million better ways I could have dealt with the situation I found myself in but teaching (or, more accurately, trying to teach) in this country is an incredibly frustrating experience. And if teaching is that frustrating, I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult and confusing it must be for the students here. The question is not why don’t more students succeed in this system but rather, how any of them manage to succeed at all. There are so many factors working against these kids, it is truly a miracle if one actually makes it from a government school in a village to a university.
For example, in the incident I mentioned earlier, I showed up to school that morning pleased with my students’ marks on a recent quiz and excited to wrap up the final two weeks of the term by covering a few important syllabus topics. I worked in the library for a few hours and when it was time to teach my Form 1B class, I walked into an empty room. I eventually found out that the school had moved the Form 1 students to different classrooms because the Form 4 students were starting their NECTA exams that day and apparently no classes can be held anywhere else in the building during the weeks the exam is going on. (No, this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I understand moving students from the classrooms directly surrounding the testing rooms to eliminate noise, etc. but the whole school? Really?) When I finally located my Form 1B students, they were in a classroom with no windows or doors (but with holes where windows and doors should be) – this is never an ideal teaching situation but being in the middle of the dry season when the winds are blowing like crazy, it is even worse. In addition, the blackboards in these rooms are not really black anymore; they have all faded to a light grey color that makes it very difficult to read any notes I write on it in chalk.
In addition, the floor was covered with dirt and there was a large pile of debris (parts of broken chairs, etc.) directly in front of the board, which made it impossible for anyone to teach. As it was now more than half way through the school day, it was quite obvious no one had been teaching in that room all day. And of the 50 students in that stream, only about 10 or 15 of them were present and they had clumped their desks all together in the far back corner of the room (making it even MORE difficult for them to read the board). When I asked where the rest of the students were, I was told they had “left”. Apparently, when no teachers showed up, the students decided to either go home or go into some of the empty classrooms and hang out. They barricade the doors to the classrooms with desks and chairs and do God knows what inside them. I started looking through rooms, having to forcibly push open the blocked doors, trying to find my missing students. I managed to find a couple of them, but there were still far less than half. And I had only encountered one other teacher during my hunt through all of the classrooms. It was then that I stood outside my classroom and started yelling and, realizing how angry I was, I did something I never do and that I hate to do: I left school and went home instead of teaching that day.
For a long time, I was convinced I was the worst Peace Corps volunteer ever and the only person that got this frustrated and angry in country. But, the more I started talking to my fellow PCVs, the more I started to realize this was more the norm than the exception. A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a couple of fellow Ed volunteers and they are two of the sweetest, calmest, loveliest young ladies I’ve met in country so I was quite surprised when I told them about my latest meltdown and they told me, “Oh yeah, I yell at people a lot” and “I’m just so angry all of the time!”" I only feel a little guilty to admit how happy that made me feel.
The Peace Corps doesn’t really address this issue. At one point during our mid-service conference, they told us “Remember, it’s the PEACE Corps. If you don’t feel you can be here and represent peace, maybe it’s time to think about your other options,” but that’s about all we get. And I completely understand what they’re saying and as much as I agree with that statement at a theoretical level, it can be hard to live up to it on a daily basis here. I think it’s especially challenging for Education volunteers because we deal with the bureaucracy of the government school system on a daily basis.
The reality is that a lot of Tanzanian teachers don’t actually teach all that much. Some of them are gone for long stretches of time, supposedly because they are studying to get a Master’s degree (which seems to be equivalent to a U.S. Bachelor’s degree). I have come to doubt whether this is actually true, but the Tanzanians seem to accept that as a valid excuse to not show up at your job for months at a time. Then, there are teachers that come to school almost every day but never seem to leave the staff room. They either never enter a classroom or enter for 10 minutes, copy directly from a textbook onto the board and then tell the students to spend the rest of the class time copying and “studying” the notes. They seem to think that the stronger students can answer any questions other students have, although I can’t figure out who they think is teaching the stronger students. There are, of course, also teachers that show up every day and teach every period they are assigned but, sadly, they are the minority. I am very lucky that my counterpart, Mr. Komba, is one of these teachers. Interestingly, he is also pursuing a Master’s degree at a university in Dodoma but, except for the odd week or two a year he has to travel to Dodoma, this never prevents him from being present and actually teaching his students on a daily basis.
The teachers I work with are not bad people – they are smart, funny and nice. But teaching seems to be a profession that people default into. A teacher’s salary is not bad by Tanzanian standards, but they are often paid late, which doesn’t help morale. They are often assigned to work in villages far from their homes that don’t have running water or electricity (or, like Ilembo, very unreliable electricity). Because of these factors and others, a teacher never (or rarely) actually teaching seems to be an accepted behavior here. It seems to be almost impossible to fire a teacher from a government school, so the mkuus don’t have any real ability to enforce rules for teachers. It seems like a no brainer that students wouldn’t exactly thrive under these conditions, but I can’t tell you how many really long meetings I have sat through where teachers and staff debate why test scores are so low. During one meeting where the teachers blamed the failure of the students on a variety of other factors, it took all I had not to say, “Maybe part of the problem is that we’re having a FOUR HOUR meeting DURING class time instead of actually TEACHING! Do you think MAYBE that could have something to do with it?”
But, honestly, it’s easy for me to say that as a relative outsider. I’m only here for two years; I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a teacher in that system for 10 or 20 or more years. And there are many other factors that contribute to the failure of the education system here – it’s too easy just to blame it all on the teachers. There aren’t any easy answers. At this point, I’m just focusing on getting my students ready to take their NECTA exams next year and doing whatever I have to do to get as many of them as possible to score above a 30 (a passing grade for Form 2). I do have a handful of students that have a good shot at doing very well, but it’s challenging when I’m teaching large streams that are not grouped by ability levels. The prevailing wisdom at my school is that you should put a few of the really good students in each of the streams so that they can help the lower achieving students. In my opinion, this only hurts the stronger students – they are capable of doing much more but the reality is that teachers end up teaching to the level of their lowest achieving students. I’m hoping I’ll be able to convince the administration to group them by ability levels next year. They’ve been doing it the other way for so long with very little success, they really have very little to lose by trying something new.
Another issue that has upset me recently is the treatment of animals in this country. I’m an animal lover and while I know Americans can go overboard spoiling their pets (Nulty, I’m looking at you), the way animals are neglected and even sometimes abused in this country makes me sick. This is always difficult to deal with, but I encountered a more troubling situation than usual last month. I was home on a Sunday afternoon, cleaning the house and getting ready for the school week when yet another group of sticker seeking kids knocked on my front door. I opened it to see four primary school aged boys, one of whom had a young goat on a rope. It took me a minute to realize that the goat was missing its ears.
“Why does that goat have no ears?” I asked in what is now semi-intelligible Kiswahili.
I’m still struggling with understanding Kiswahili, but I eventually was able to make out that the goat belonged to one of the older boys (he was probably in the 10-12 years old range). As goats tend to do, it got into the corn crop of one of the villagers and started eating it. Normally, villagers might chase the goat away or even strike it with a stick but this particular villager was drunk (surprise, surprise) and decided he was going to teach the goat a lesson by cutting its ears off with a knife. The boy said other villagers witnessed this (but apparently didn’t stop him from cutting off not just one, but both ears) and let him know what happened. Their is a livestock “vet” in the village, although I have some serious doubts that he is an actual licensed veterinarian, and he cauterized the area where the ears had been cut and told the boy the goat would live. The area was not bandaged and no antibiotics or medicine were prescribed. I saw the goat a day or two after it happened, and it looked relatively okay but seemed to still be in shock. I told the boy he had to make sure the cut area was kept clean and that he should bring it back to the “vet” if he noticed the goat failing, but I don’t know how seriously he took my advice. He and his friends did laugh when I told them they should report the villager to the police. There is a law against harming livestock (in a village like ours, people invest the majority of their money into their animals so to lose on can be financially devastating) but it is not really enforced. A few days later, I ran into one of the other boys when I was getting water and he told me the goat had died.
I was angry and the whole thing made me really sad. I understand that a lot of Tanzanians are so poor that they don’t have the luxury of spending money on their animals but I don’t understand why animals have to be treated so brutally. Normally, I try not to editorialize too much when I’m teaching. In most situations, I don’t believe a teacher should impart their opinions and beliefs on students. I wouldn’t want a teacher doing that to me, so I try not to do that to my students. But in this situation, I made an exception. I had to teach a topic called “Describing people’s character” anyway, so I used it as an opportunity to talk about treating animals respectfully. One of my vocabulary terms was “cruel” and, as an example, I told the story of the goat’s ears being cut off. Some of the students thought it was hilarious (typical teenagers) but most of them got quiet when I told them the boy’s goat had died.
Tanzanians are, for the most part, very religious people. They don’t particularly care what your religion is (which is one of the reason that Muslims and Christians coexist, for the most part, very peacefully here) as long as you have one. When I arrived in Ilembo, one of the first questions people asked (after asking how many children I had) was what religion was I? At the time, I told them I was a Buddhist, which is not technically true but it’s probably the one that comes closest to my beliefs. (Also, Tanzanians don’t know much about Buddhism so I can always blame not wanting to do things – especially eating certain things- on being a Buddhist. The people of Ilembo probably now think all Buddhists are vegetarians who can’t wake up before 9:00AM on weekends, drink wine and have abnormally close relationships with cats.) I told my students that there are many people all over the world who believe that animals are also children of God and should be treated with respect and kindness. I told them that even people that kill animals for food do so quickly and try to limit the amount of pain they feel. Then I may have mentioned something about how I would be tempted to cut off the ears of the cruel man if I ever ran into him in the village. (I didn’t mention his name to my students, but you better believe I got the name of that guy.) I don’t know how much, if any, of this my students actually absorbed but I hope I got through in some of them.
Lately, I think I’ve been dealing with my anger and frustration better. A big part of that is my having less than a year of service left. It seems easier to let some of the smaller things go when I can see the finish line in sight. As one of my PCV friends told me, the mantra for your final year should be “It doesn’t matter, it just doesn’t matter.” I don’t know if that’s the best outlook, but it’s the one that’s been working for me lately.
Another coping strategy is getting away from site every other weekend. My fellow PCVs Rachel and Mandy and I did a girl’s weekend getaway to Matema Beach a few weekends ago. Even though I am almost 20 years older than some of these kids, we are all encountering the same challenges teaching and living here, so it’s nice to have friends to talk to during the more challenging times.
And when I’m at site and need a pick me up, I can always play Super Jewel Quest on my phone. I think I’ve completed that game at least 200 times since arriving in Tanzania, but I never fail to be amused by the message you get at the end.
The good news is that the rain has finally arrived in Mbeya. It was super late this year, which made getting water extra challenging. I’m sure I’ll complain about the mud and the rain in a few months, but for now I’m just happy to be able to say goodbye to my dry season feet.
And the really good news is that my friend Rozy has returned to Ilembo! Her mother had her baby (a big, beautiful boy named Baraka), her maternity leave is over and she is teaching again. Rozy hangs out in the library with me when I’m working there- there is a little desk next to mine where she sits at and practices writing letters. It’s adorable.
As for Nulty, we had quite an adventure on our way into town the day before Thanksgiving. As I will be traveling in the beginning and end of December, Heather and Jason, a married couple who are part of the newest PC Education class, have kindly agreed to look after Nulty in my absence. Their site is at MUST (Mbeya University of Science and Technology), which is where Nulty lived with her former owner and where she stayed with Beth while I was in the U.S. in June. I had Nulty in her carrier and we managed to get a ride into town in an actual car, driving with a pastor from the village on the other side of my mountain. Things were going really well until we got a flat tire and ended up sitting by the side of the road in one of the smaller villagers on my mountain. Nulty was not happy to be cooped up for so long and started meowing loudly. And, due to temporary insanity/utter stupidity, I thought I could just take her out of the bag and hold her for a while. Some of the women in the village were by the side of the road, selling fruits and vegetables. They saw me holding Nulty like a baby and apparently thought it was hilarious because they all started laughing. Of course, this freaked Nulty out (she gets a little nervous around Tanzanians) and she jumped out of my arms and took off running into a cornfield. I chased after her, but lost her when she jumped into some bushes. I crashed into them after her, only to find that they were hiding a drainage ditch. I looked all around, but couldn’t find Nulty anywhere. I immediately started to panic and ran around the cornfield and surrounding areas calling her name and getting progressively more hysterical with each passing minute. The villagers at first found this all very funny, but as I got more and more upset, they started to help me look. Eventually, the flat tire was fixed, the pastor was ready to continue on with his journey and I went into full Betty Mahmoody mode.
The pastor kindly arranged for one of the duka owners to watch my bags for me before he left. Then the village really mobilized to help me out. One of the men went to get his dog (“The dog will find the cat. Don’t worry,” he told me) and at least 30 people started walking through the fields with me, searching for Nulty. Every time I turned a corner, I ran into another villager searching for her. The kids climbed around in the places I couldn’t squeeze myself into, the adults fanned out over the entire surrounding area. Tanzanians tend to think I’m totally crazy for treating Nulty like an actual human baby so I was really touched that, once they realized how distressed I was over losing her, they went above and beyond to help me.
About an hour and a half after Nulty rocketed through those bushes, I heard someone shout in Kiswahili, “They found it!” A bunch of villagers waved for me to follow them and we took off running through the cornfields. Apparently, I didn’t give Nulty nearly enough credit for the amount of distance she could cover because she was way beyond the area I had been searching, which was pretty big to begin with. Eventually we came to a small clearing with a house and a small thicket of trees. There, a bunch of villagers were gathered around a tree, and a dog was barking crazily. Sure enough, there was Nulty, way up in the tree and completely freaked out by all the activity. She was not interested in making nice and coming down voluntarily, so one of the villagers ran and got a (home made) ladder and held it while I climbed, in a long skirt, up to the very top rung. Nulty kept scooting farther away from me but by this point, I’d had enough so I just said, “Pole” and grabbed her by her tail. The villagers cheered and everyone followed me as I carried Nulty to the main road and back to the center of the village. I thanked them profusely, and when I got the duka where Nulty’s carrier and my bags were, the duka owner suggested I do something to show my appreciation. I gave 10,000 shillings to the dog owner (the dog was the real hero in this story), 10,000 shillings to the duka owner and then I bought sodas for the other 30 or 40 people that had helped me search. It was a bit costly, but it was money well spent. Nulty was so overwhelmed by everything, she was happy to crawl back into her carrier and curl up into a ball. As an added bonus, the villagers flagged down a Land Cruiser (the popular vehicle for all government groups and NGOs that work on my mountain or anywhere in Tanzania, for that matter) and Nulty and I got another car ride into town. By the time we reached Heather and Jason’s, we were both dirty and tired and ready for some time apart.
As usual, I will close with some Nulty glamour shots:
I mentioned previously that I would try to record Nulty making her escape over the courtyard wall. Here she is in action:
I apologize it took me a while to get this up- between technical issues (apparently the entire country’s electricity was being worked on during the last couple of weeks of November, so things were even more unreliable than usual) and traveling, it has been a challenge. I will do another post in the next week or so with photos from the amazing safari I just got back from!