Guest Post: Ryan Kleven

Ryan Kleven is a Master’s Student in Education.  You can read more about his research on his personal blog:  https://exploringeducationintanzania.wordpress.com/field-notes/

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Ryan with one of his informants at Azania Secondary School

In mid August, I received an email that said “Have you ever wanted to go to Africa?” Looking down at my phone, I thought to myself, I do want to go to Africa. I impulsively responded to the message requesting more information, and I am so glad that I did! Visiting Tanzania as part of the African Democracy Project class at Wayne State this October was one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences of my academic career. Not only did I learn about Tanzania, I’ve also expanded my knowledge on the historical and global forces at work that shape the experiences of the Tanzanian people and people throughout the African continent.

The first objective of our trip was observation of the Tanzanian elections. This was a potentially historic election for Tanzania with the opposition party Chadema posing a real threat to the long time ruling party CCM. Learning about the elections proved to be a very interesting way to engage with the Tanzanian people. Everyone we met was interested in talking about the elections, and it was fascinating to compare their expectations and beliefs related to government and politicians in a democracy to those here in our own country. We were accredited as election observers through the Legal and Human Rights Center in Dar es Salaam. Our gracious hosts allowed us to visit their data center where they monitor polling stations to ensure fairness in voting practices. Their methods of collecting data from polling stations using text messages and social media was simply fascinating. On election day, we also had the opportunity to visit polling stations ourselves. The long lines we witnessed reminded me of my own experience waiting hours to vote during our last presidential election. Apparently long lines are a part of the democratic process throughout the world! The winner of the presidential race, John Magufuli of CCM, was announced before we left the country.

In addition to the election activities, each student chose their own individual research project. As an Education major, my project would obviously center on issues related to education in Tanzania. Initially, I was interested in researching the experiences of international teachers in Tanzania due to my own interest in teaching abroad. However, we were encouraged to begin the visit with an open mind and not be too set on a topic right away. This was good advice; after visiting schools in Dar es Salaam, I because very interested in another issue. Upon visiting the first school, I was struck by how well all of the students spoke English. Because this was a private school, most of the students had grown up speaking English in school and, for many students, at home as well. The teachers explained to me that this is not the case at most public schools where Swahili is the language of instruction in primary school and then English is used exclusively in secondary schools.

I found this bit of information to be a little shocking. How could high school students be expected to learn effectively in a language they had only limited exposure to as a school subject? Imagine if you had Spanish as a subject in elementary school, but then when you got to high school everything was in Spanish! I wanted to know more about this language policy and how it was affecting students and educators. My next school visit provided a wealth of information on this subject and many other issues facing schools in Tanzania.

Visiting Azania Secondary School gave me some excellent insights into Tanzanian public education. I was able to speak with school administrators and teachers who were all very candid with me in describing the challenges they face. I asked many questions about the language issues, and teachers confirmed my assumption that most students have a very difficult time with the transition from Swahili to English. Teachers often feel frustrated as well because they are unable to convey information to otherwise intelligent students who simply do not understand the medium of instruction. However, what seems to be an even greater issue for educators here is a lack of supplies. Teachers showed me books they were still using from the 1960s and 1970s. Not only are the books painfully outdated, but they also do not have enough books. Sometimes 5 to 10 students must share one book. Like most people, I’ve read and heard about underfunded and undersupplied schools in other parts of the world, however the true reality of the situation was never clear to me until I saw it in person. I feel like books are taken for granted here in the United States. I myself donated boxes of books to the Salvation Army a few months ago simply because my bookshelves were full. Americans are overloaded with books, but there are schools elsewhere in the world where books are desperately needed.

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My experiences in Tanzania inspired me to action in two way. Firstly, I want to collect books to send to the amazing and gracious educators I met at Azania Secondary School. I have already begun my efforts collecting books from coworkers and fellow students. Over the holiday break from classes, I hope to focus even more on collection efforts and research avenues to actually ship the books to Tanzania. Secondly, I am very interested in continuing to explore the language issue in Tanzanian secondary schools, so as my final project I am writing a grant proposal. Returning to Tanzania with more time and resources would allow me the opportunity to explore more deeply how language affects the experiences of students and educators in the field. Recently, it has been announced that Swahili will become the primary language of instruction for secondary schools over the next ten years. This would be a very interesting time to study language in Tanzania to see how this transition will roll out and affect teachers and students.

It is difficult for me to describe how much this trip to Tanzania affected me. Many people have asked about the trip since my return, and I oblige their curiosity by talking about the food and the safari because I know that’s what they want to hear. However, this trip was so much more than the fun stuff for me. I was forced to confront my own attitudes and assumptions about the way the world works. So many of the issues facing the world at large that are ignored by Americans were right there in my face. This trip has made me more globally aware and much more interested in learning about issues faced in other parts of the world. I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to travel to Tanzania or anywhere in Africa to take it! There’s no better way to learn about the world then seeing it for yourself.

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