05 May 2014

let's talk tanzanian culture - education.

Time for another session on Let's Talk Tanzanian Culture.

Today's topic? The Tanzanian education system.

Before getting into the details, I will give you the headline now: the education system in Tanzania is a broken mess. I have yet to speak with a local that feels differently. Fixing the educational structure will take a lot of work. The country is currently in the process of updating its constitution, so here's to hoping they overhaul the Ministry of Education (but I'm not holding my breath).

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on education in Tanzania. Heck, I am not even a teacher. The following information was imparted to me by a couple of our Tanzanian teachers here at the Makoko Language School. However, the information they provided feels quite consistent with conversations I have had with other locals outside of the school on this very topic.

History of Education in Tanzania

Prior to 1884, country borders did not exist in Central and East Africa. They would eventually be arbitrarily chosen to the confusion of local people. Yay colonialism!

During this period, there was no formal education in Tanzania as you would think of it today. Instead, children were educated by their tribe during a ceremony which prepared them for adulthood. While this custom varied by tribe, the ceremony centered around the act of circumcision and prepared boys and girls for marriage and the way of life within the context of their tribe.

Once national borders were drawn up at the Berlin Conference, Germany had the rights to what is known today as Tanzania. It was Germany that built the first schools in Tanzania, but education was limited to the boys of area chiefs. The British took possession of Tanzania after World War II and established the education system that continues to exist today. Tanzania's first university was not founded until after the country gained independence in 1961. Prior to that, the few students that attended university had to go to neighboring Uganda.

After independence, few government schools existed in Tanzania, but religiously-founded schools were a plenty. However, Tanzania's first president, Julius Nyerere, saw this as discrimination and, in 1967, nationalized the school system with the Arusha Declaration.

It should be noted that, traditionally, Tanzanian girls were not educated because (1) they were a source of income for their family via the marriage dowry (e.g. cows) so the family did not want them to get educated because educated women tend to marry less, and (2) if educated women were married, the fruits of such education would only benefit the family of her husband. Today, it is acknowledged that not only should girls be educated, but also they are even favored at times over boys since it is proven that educating a girl will bring more help to her family. Come on boys!

Structure of Education in Tanzania Today

Okay so that's the past. What does education look like today in Tanzania? I will break it down by grade level, separating pre-school, primary school and secondary school.

Nursery School: Children enter between ages 4-6. Basic stuff.
MEMKWA: If due to varying circumstances you were not enrolled in Nursery School during the appropriate age, you will be sent to a catch-all school called MEMKWA. This is meant to acclimate you to school life and facilitate the transition into the standard school curriculum should your age fall outside of the normal parameters. Or so I think but to be honest this area is a bit gray for me so let's move on.

Primary School
Tuition is free in government-run primary schools. Unfortunately, the caliber of teachers is quite poor. Additionally, the student-teacher ratio is abysmal and books are difficult to come by and often shared among many students.

Here is what primary school consists of:
  • Standard 1: Enter at age 7 and study six subjects.
  • Standard 2 - 4: At the end of Standard 4, every student takes a national exam in order to enter Standard 5. If you fail, you are allowed to repeat twice before you are unable to continue your education. In other words, your educational career could be over at age 11.
  • Standard 5 - 7: At the end of Standard 7, every student takes a national exam in order to enter Form 1 (secondary school). There are seven subjects on the exam, all of which are in Kiswahili except for one - English. It is common for parents to pay teachers a bribe in order for the child to pass this exam. Why? Because if you fail this exam, your education is over. As a result, many children pass without being able to read (they are about 14 years old at this point). Some students that fail will repeat under a new name (very few Tanzanians have a birth certificate so they can forge a new identity with relative ease).

Secondary School
Students must pay to attend government-run secondary schools. Generally speaking, and in USD equivalency, the annual costs are as follows:

Tuition: $12.50
Teacher's Fee: $9.50
Security Fee: $6.00
TOTAL: $28.00

Compare this to the significantly better private schools which cost $750 for tuition (a fortune for most Tanzanian families). It should be noted that whether you attend government or private school, you must pay roughly $125 for supplies (i.e. uniform, shoes, desk, etc.).

If you attend secondary school, the government directs you where to go. This means you may be sent to a school in a different part of the country. Tanzanian's first president, Nyerere, instituted this policy to promote national unity. There are over 120 different ethnic groups (tribes) in Tanzania, and Nyerere wanted to leverage education to mix and mingle all citizens together to form a unified Tanzanian nation.

Here is what secondary school consists of:
  • Form 1: The Tanzanian education system skips the traditional Standard 8 and goes right to Form 1. Students study nine subjects, all of which are now in English except for one - Kiswahili. Imagine that you were thrown into a high school in which every subject (except one) was taught in a completely foreign language. Truly unbelievable that it works this way.
  • Form 2: At the end of Form 2, every student takes a national exam in order to enter Form 3. You may repeat once if you fail. The education journey of many Tanzanians ends here.
  • Form 3: Students obtain the freedom to choose at least a few of their subjects at this point.
  • Form 4: At the end of Form 4, every student takes a national exam in order to enter Form 5. It is common for parents to buy copies of the test to help their child pass, but unfortunately, these copies are usually fake. Results from this test are grouped into four divisions (the scoring of which changes almost every year). Generally, those in the bottom division (lowest test scores) stop their education at this point and become primary school teachers.
  • Form 5: The subjects you study depend upon your test scores on the most recent national examination. You go on to study that which you tested well on. Other subjects are discarded. 
  • Form 6: At the end of Form 6, every student takes a national exam in order to enter university. If you fail, you become a teacher of secondary school. Roughly 20% of Tanzanian students reach university.

To recap, a Tanzanian student takes a national examination at the end of Standards 4 and 7, and Forms 2, 4 and 6. If you fail any one of these tests, your school education is over (unless you pay off a teacher or forge a new identity for yourself).

A Word on Corporal Punishment

Students are beaten in Tanzanian schools, though today it is less severe than in the past. Nevertheless, the government officially allows a student to be beaten with a stick provided the school's headmaster approves the punishment and the lashings are limited to no more than three. Naturally, teachers do what they want anyway.

Corporal punishment is one aspect of Tanzanian (and African) culture that is difficult, if not impossible, for foreigners like us to comprehend, let alone accept. We may not be able to change this custom, but we can reinforce with children that they are smart and loved.

Final Thoughts

The education system in Tanzania is constantly changing. It is by no means stable - thank goodness as it needs to be drastically overhauled! The fact that students can repeatedly fall entirely out of the education system based upon the results of a single test is mind-blowing. Then of course, so is the fact that many pass these exams without being able to read. I suppose we have multiple-choice exams to thank for that.


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