Sunday, 19 September 2010

Tanzania Business Times Correspondence-06

During my trip to the South African World Cup over the summer, one of the things that stood out amid the bright flags and hum of vuvuzelas was a sign, recurring over and over on busses, placards, t-shirts and advertising boards. It read simply: 1Goal, Education for All. There was a web link underneath, inviting people to find out more, then hopefully to show their support: It represented a clear message and a worthy cause.

The website itself acts as a rallying call, a cry from those who have signed, aimed at political leaders across the globe. Using the internet’s power of cutting across time zones and bringing the world together, the campaign has encouraged a metaphorical linking of hands from varied walks of society: A-list celebrities, politicians, the regular public and so on.

The campaign, according to its website, is hoping that: “Together we can call on world leaders to make education a reality for 782million children by 2015.” Shakira, the pop diva whose ‘Waka Waka’ song made this World Cup even more memorable, gave her word to the cause: “Education is the one deal that we have to invest in”.

Some statistics give the opinion weight: 1. A child who goes to school will earn an extra 10% for every year of schooling they complete. 2. Children who complete primary education are less than half as likely to be infected with HIV compared to those who haven’t attended school.

The second of UN’s Millennium Development Goals highlights the importance of universal completion of primary school education. Their website proudly says that in 2002, Tanzania made primary school education free of charge and that: “Almost overnight, an estimated 1.6million children enrolled in school and by 2003, 3.1 million additional children were attending primary education.” Since that landmark year when primary schools no longer turned the poorest away, school attendance has ballooned from 59% to today’s figure of 95.4%. Tanzania’s success has been held up as a model to which other developing nations must aspire.

But, as with so many success stories, there’s a flipside. The school system in Tanzania, it has been reported, cannot take the strain of the increasingly huge number of pupils. For reasons similar to those explaining why the road infrastructure in downtown Dar es Salaam causes ‘foleni sana’, the schools are getting swamped. There is simply not enough school to go round.

It is not uncommon in Tanzania to have classrooms with more than 80 pupils squeezed in, many of whom suffer a shortage of books and other essential facilities. The number of teachers is also in relatively short supply. I remember having a conversation with an American Peace Corps volunteer who was explaining how, in the region where he was working, many new schools had been built and, although the young children in the area were given new opportunities of attending the schools, the education they would receive there would be highly questionable.

He told me that only one or two teachers would be in charge of hundreds of pupils. Due to the huge difficulties involved in getting the children to sit still and pay attention, the teachers would opt for another method: taking them to the school’s fields where they would till the soil and farm the crops – the same activities they would be doing had they not gone to school at all.

Another fact puts the UN’s positive statistics into a different light – that, although the school fees are technically free, there are many overheads not taken into account that parents must pay for. These can include uniforms, transport to school and even, it has been reported, the use of the toilets.

Add these points to the barriers emphasized by the Tanzania Education Network, including children not being able to pay attention due to empty stomachs; forced marriages and early pregnancies; and a limited access for children with special needs and it seems that the success story the UN uses on their Millennium Development Goals website doesn’t say the whole story. Perhaps these points shall be raised at their summit, to be held in New York next week.

Although Tanzania is on the right track, it needs to play catch up with itself. It has succeeded in getting the youngest generation to go to school but it must now catch up with providing the necessary facilities for a decent education.

It was a courageous and ambitious move to make primary school education both free and compulsory. The masses of children, burning with desire to be educated, now have chances that wouldn’t have existed to them a decade ago. These are the children who will grow up to lead this nation further in its rapid evolution. They must be prepared for it.

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