Understanding a Low Pass Rate

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
There can be valid reasons for students to fail examinations and there were plenty in rural Tanzania.

Submitted: September 29, 2016

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Submitted: September 29, 2016

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Tanzanian students sit a few national examinations to progress through their schooling and it would be fair to say that their government is not satisfied with the pass rate. For reasons I won’t go into here, I had an interest in schools and their academic performance. But of let me say, change is one of the constants in life and I am only reporting on what I saw in rural schools at the time I was there. I have known some students who excelled under the system and others who did not, which may well be the case anywhere. Intellect and diligence are not always the main factors in pass rates, the daily lives of individuals has perhaps more of an impact.

‘Saa moja’ - one o’clock, they call seven o’clock in the morning, because it is the first hour of sunlight. Daybreak, and sunset, are abrupt in the tropics, and that alone is a factor! In the morning there will be a small fire going with water boiling as mother makes tea. It is not always possible, but the tea will be half milk and sugary. There may be uji – a thin millet or maize flour porridge, but only if the ingredients are available and so often they are not. There might be some roasted peanuts. During hard times, there may be nothing for breakfast!

Most will have a toothbrush and toothpaste, but if not twigs are used – some of the trees we planted around schools suffered from being stripped for teeth cleaning! Water would have been collected the night before, but after cooking the evening meal, the water has to be rationed for bathing. Time in the ‘the place of bathing’ depends on pecking order, but it is done out of a plastic bucket or similar container. The amount of water varies with availability and most usually it is cold.

A lotion, or Vaseline is applied to make the skin shine and to protect against the low humidity and dust that dries the skin, causing cracks. Dressed in school uniform and shoes that have first to be at least dusted off. The child may have a long walk to school, five kilometres is common. The monitor class is required to be there as early as 7:30am to clean the classroom and the school yard. With no brooms available, twigs and brush are used – the tree plantings again suffered – and the dust raised, sticks to the lotion or Vaseline and is breathed in.

During the rain seasons, of which there are two, if banana leaves are not available for makeshift umbrellas, the kids are soaked and sit in a cold classroom most usually with no glass in the windows. So combined with this and the dust it is no wonder there are chest problems. But on hot sunny days, the roofing iron radiates heat. There are no ceiling boards because if there was, over time, the gradual dust buildup would cause them to collapse. So the classrooms can be stifling and a poor learning environment – which is why we promoted trees to offer shade.  

There are times when students are required to work in the school grounds; cultivating, planting/sowing seed and harvesting either beans or maize. Sometimes the harvested grain is used to feed the kids at lunchtime, but more usually it is shared among the teachers because there are times they have to wait for their wages and anyway their earning are low. I recall one time when the students spent the day squashing army worms with their feet! Army worms are actually caterpillars and will eat any vegetation, they arrive in plague proportions, much like locusts! So while the squashing was a reaction, in fact it did little to stop the plague. The school is also required to supply water to the teachers’ accommodation and that means the kids have to cart it and sometimes from afar!

At lunchtime there may be a meal; sponsored by some organisation, or utilising crops grown at the school, sometimes the parent will work collectively, other times the students living nearby may go home for lunch but very often there is nothing! During drought times I have interviewed students and found that on average they went totally without food for three days and after the three days a half-glass of water mixed with a mashed banana was their only sustenance.

After school there are chores to do, and traditionally boys do different work to girls, but if the family doesn’t have the sex mix, the jobs still have to be done. Firewood has to be collected for the cooking fire, water carried, dishes washed from the previous evening meal, feed for the cow or goat has to be collected for those who have zero grazed livestock otherwise shepherding animals so they have full bellies for the night, cleaning out the animal pen and fanya usafi – make clean (the house).

Darkness descends at 7:00pm (saa moja jioni – one o’clock, evening) and most usually there is no lighting! Of course some have electricity, a few kerosene lamps, while others use candles but a majority only have the cooking fire. We were 1500 metres above sea level, 3.3° south of the equator and 450 km from the sea, so the evenings could cool down considerably. The fireplace was therefore the focal point with the evening meal being eaten at around 9:00pm. So homework? Difficult to find time and difficult to complete in the dark. Reading the same, but no worry, there are no books!

Teaching standards were variable, especially so in remote schools, where there was difficulty in finding teachers prepared to go there, and those there, didn’t really want to be there, so the standards suffered. Primary schools are taught in Swahili with English as a subject but most schools suffered from a lack of reasonable English teachers. Secondary school on the other hand is taught in English so the students tend to struggle. Teachers wrote lessons on the blackboard, and not being strong English speakers they made errors. Students copied those errors and made errors in tabulation as well! I once translated a year’s worth of Agriculture notes in exercise book from English to Swahili but the errors were not language only. The student passed the exam!

Regardless of teaching standards, the curriculum standards are high. Three English secondary teacher graduates found they could not teach senior students curriculum maths at the local secondary school because the standard was beyond them!

The average student can speak three languages; Swahili, their own tribal language and that of a neighbouring tribe. The majority nowadays have at least a smattering of English. Despite a lack of resources, and the many factors against them, including a lack of the common experience richer countries’ students may take for granted, the Tanzanian students I interacted with were intelligent and somehow happy.


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