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Preschool in Tanzania

By Crista Friedli
July 2010

Amina, a preschooler in the Eastern African village of Bagamoyo, Tanzania, comes to school each day clutching her pencil so no one will take it. She is one of 40 children in a classroom where writing utensils are scarce. The pencils are often cut or broken in half to accommodate more students. When she wants to play, Amina hands her pencil to me for safekeeping.

In a country where most of the population lives on less than $1 a day, it's a daunting task for parents to feed their families and send their children to school—especially since many are subsistence farmers and rely on their children to help on the farm or beg in the city.

This doesn't bode well for education in these communities, especially when most schools require uniforms for attendance. The punishment for coming to school without a uniform is often caning or being sent home—and sometimes expulsion. These uniforms cost $15, which is very expensive for a family struggling to get by. As Zik, a resource for those of us volunteering with U.S. nonprofit Cross Cultural Solutions, explained, "The uniforms are a way of cutting down class size." Whether or not this is an intentional side effect of the policy, it is certainly an interesting observation.

Most of the teaching materials I used were handmade by previous volunteers. We had a couple textbooks the children were forced to crowd around because there weren't enough to go around. Most classrooms have 40 to 90 children. Up to five children share one four-foot-long desk.

But this school was one of the lucky ones. For lunch, neighborhood women provided uji, a white watery cornmeal concoction similar to porridge. The children would run from the classroom to get their spot in line. For some, it was their only meal of the day.

Even under these circumstances, they managed to teach me more than I taught them. I learned more Swahili from my students than from the organized classes provided by the volunteer coordinators. For example, Asha and Yusef would often sit with me on Fridays, draw pictures in the sand, and tell me the Swahili words. Sometimes I would draw pictures and they would excitedly tell me the English word, so proud of what they'd learned.

Asha also would often reprimand the other children on my behalf. Once, when I was getting up to separate two fighting students, Asha commanded me to "Kaa, Mwalimu" ("sit, teacher"). She marched across the small room and proceeded to shake her finger and scold the wrestling boys.

A photograph of Asha is now framed on my wall, alongside many of the kids I worked with in Tanzania. Although I don't think I was a very good teacher, I can only hope I made a difference in some way, however small.

 

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