Teaching and Living in Tanzania


Being Mzungu in Tanzania – the courage it takes for some of our students to show up everyday.

Mzungu: Swahili word used to refer to anyone with white (or sometimes even light brown) skin. Its original meaning is “person who wanders about aimlessly”!

That’s me in Shinyanga – a mzungu. And we four CUSO (Canadian University Services Overseas) volunteers are the only mzungus in the entire city as far as we have observed. In the last two months I have glimpsed four others but two were staying at the fanciest hotel (think somewhere between Econolodge and Holiday Inn) in town. All my life I have been part of the majority and now I am not. It has given me pause to think.

Prior to leaving my job at the school board, we had spent a great deal of time, like other western institutions, talking about white power and privilege. I participated in workshops and listened to racialized students who felt left out of the public school system. We challenged teachers to create equitable and safe classrooms. This is important work.

And now I am on the other side – except I’m not really.

As I walk about town I certainly notice my whiteness and my English-ness. My clothes, while more modest than at home, are not the same. My hair is different. My shoes are different. I do not always feel comfortable heading out of the house to the market. Do not imagine a modern grocery store. Everything is bought at an open-air market which involves a conversation in Swahili and a different currency. There are no price tags to help out. Little kids openly stare. There are frequent shouts of “Hey mzungu”. I stand out. And it takes courage some days to go out and be the one who is different and the one who doesn’t understand.  It takes energy to go to the market.

As a whole the Tanzanian people are very kind and welcoming. Today at the market when we asked our favourite pineapple seller if there was a fish store nearby, another man said, “Samaki? – Follow me!” and led us down a side street to the fish store. My favourite banana and mango lady always greets me with “Rafiki wa Canada – karibu!” (My Canadian friend, welcome) and she puts an extra something in my bag each time after I’ve paid. We are never hassled on the street, rarely are we asked for money and everyone is helpful. Still, I don’t feel “at home”.

I have a much greater appreciation of the courage it takes for some our students to go to school everyday. Of course, as a teacher and a principal, I always believed I was welcoming. I tried to be understanding and patient.   But I don’t think that I recognized the tremendous amount of energy and bravery it takes to go somewhere every single day where you don’t feel like you quite fit in. I don’t understand the jokes in the office at school. I would like to have a dress made but have no idea how to negotiate it in Swahili (and how would I say I prefer a dropped waist???!!!). What will I do if I need to go to the dentist?

So what about our ELL students who sit for 5 hours a day and understand only the odd word here and there? I remember a refugee student in grade 8 who had no idea what was going on when we had our first school dance – how foreign that must have seemed. Do they understand about cafeterias and pizza days and even bathroom culture? And what about our visible minority students who are so aware that they look different, have brought different food for lunch (I was not as happy as my coworkers when grasshopper season came and everyone was munching away), or wear different clothing. It is not that we are not kind. The Tanzanians are kind. But I do not feel like I belong.  I understand that feeling more now.

And yet, even here, halfway around the world in a city that is all rural Africa, I have white power and privilege. Everyone wants to practice their English or meet me. Strangers often ask to have their picture taken with me. At the NGO, my ideas are valued simply because I am from Canada. At the market I am often served ahead of another customer even if I protest. So as uncomfortable as I may feel at times, I don’t think I truly understand what it is like for many immigrants in Canada. I am a novelty here but a revered one. I am different but special.

The word “mzungu” is used both as a descriptor/identifier and as an insult, mostly the former. It is not uncommon to be referred to as a mzungu directly or while being talked about. Mostly I have decided not to make it an issue. Sometimes I reply with “hey Watanzaia” which means Tanzanian. And mostly the response is laughter. But occasionally the term is used derogatorily like when we were in a big group all trying to get on an already crowded bus and there were comments to the effect that the Tanzanians should be able to get on before the mzungus. Or, on the street when it is yelled out as a sneer not an identifier. And then it hurts. And again, I reflect upon all the racial name-calling I have witnessed and dealt with (and sometimes not dealt with) over the years.  it feels odd to be identified by your race and not your name.

There is something to be said for walking in someone else’s shoes to help you understand better. Although I have travelled the globe, I have never lived somewhere as the minority. It takes more courage some days than I would have thought. And, at the same time, I have an even greater awareness of my own white power and privilege.

The next time you have a student in your school who is a newcomer, or a racial minority, or in a wheelchair, or has identified as transgender, remember how brave that student is to show up everyday.

Becoming Zen…

In the last two months I have retired from my Canadian school board position, accepted a role as Math Teacher Advisor in Africa, moved to Shinyanga, Tanzania and had malaria twice. I have learned to shower during the hottest part of the day because we have no hot water, love spinach, as it is the only green vegetable around, and speak a few words of Swahili. I am learning to accept life as it comes. For those of you who read the blog for educational tidbits, they will still be here, but I will also share some of my insights about moving half way around the world to teach in a totally different place and culture.

Shinyanga is a town of about 90 000 in the middle of Tanzania. It is flat and rural and dusty – no Serengeti highlands here. There are no modern coffee shops, no big grocery stores, no fast food restaurants, no cinemas, no museums, no landmarks, no parks, no lakes, no rivers. There is no garbage pickup or neighbourhood mail delivery; there are no underground sewers and most of the roads are unpaved; there is running water but it needs to be boiled. And yet we live comfortably. My housemate and I can shop at one of 4 local markets and buy all our fruits and vegetables for the week for about $10.00. Most of the time we have electricity and internet is cheap. We have a microwave, a toaster oven with two burners, a toaster and a kettle (but only one outlet so we can only use one appliance at a time). The fridge keeps things cold, including beer which you can buy for just over a dollar a bottle. Life is good.

There is nothing like seeing something new to appreciate what you’ve got. Education in Tanzania, while moving in a forward direction, does not meet the needs of most of the students. Education is free through lower secondary school (except transportation to and from, school uniform and school supplies) and over 80% of school-aged students attend primary school – up to the equivalent of Canadian grade 8. However, only 35% of students continue onto secondary school for a variety of reasons. Here are some obstacles to completing secondary school in Tanzania:

  • Primary school is taught in Swahili with students receiving a few English classes a day but secondary school is taught and tested completely in English
  • In order to attend secondary school you must pass the Primary School Leaving Exam. Only 52% are successful.
  • The class size ratio is 59:1. In some public schools it is as high as 76:1. Differentiation is not a thing.
  • A “pass” is 30%. Many students move forward without having fullly mastered the content of the previous grade.

So what am I doing in this educational setting? I am working with a small NGO- Agape ACP – that runs a not-for-profit residential school for approximately 50 secondary school girls. In Shinyanga region, 59% of girls are married before age 18, many as young as 12. Although it is now against the law, the tradition persists. If a girl is married or becomes pregnant then she is expelled from secondary school. Agape rescues girls being forced into marriage, or who have been raped, and provides them with a secondary school education, housing, food and legal representation. The ultimate goal is to reunite the girls with their families through reconciliation. My job is to teach math and to provide pedagogical training to the other teachers, most of whom are volunteers.

The school is made of mud and concrete. The floors are mud and there are openings for windows and bars but no glass or screens. The girls sit on plastic lawn chairs but have no desks. There are some rickety old blackboards with holes in them. There are no whiteboards, no math manipulatives, no scissors, no calculators, no computers, no bulletin boards, no photocopier and no chart paper. And yet, these young ladies study hard and since 2015, 145 girls have graduated from secondary school! I have a new understanding of resilience and grit and determination.

It is currently year-end break and the new school year begins in January. I am a bit nervous to start teaching in an environment so totally foreign and to four classes of students who do not speak English very well. Just when you think you know a lot about teaching, it turns out there is more to learn. And so I am learning to be “zen”- take the days as they come, accept all I don’t know and listen a lot. I will share the journey and insights (and frustrations) in the weeks to come. In the meantime there is a good video posted to this GoFundMe site. Don’t feel you need to donate, but if you have 28 minutes, watch the video to hear the story of many of my new students.