Trying to get a good education in the rural communities with which we work in Tanzania is a real challenge. With classes of 80 students, insufficient chairs, classrooms and equipment, no electricity or running water, lack of funds to buy textbooks, and some parents encouraging their children to fail the pre-secondary exams so they don’t have to continue going to school and can help run the family farms, it’s no wonder the failure rate is so high. Girls are sometimes encouraged not to go to school as they would be more useful helping with housework and then given away in marriage for a number of cows (cows are a big status symbol to the Maasai, who use them as a wealth indicator). The average distance a child travels to secondary school in Terat is 15km, so they have to stay overnight in unlit classrooms, often with two children sharing a single bed.
Another massive challenge is the language barrier. Primary school students in Tanzania are taught exclusively in Swahili, except for their English lessons. Once they enter secondary school, everything is taught in English. Although this decision to teach in English is important to increase Tanzania’s ability to work internationally, it makes it extremely hard for the students who are already struggling, or who do not yet have a solid grasp of the English language. It is even harder for those students for whom even Swahili is not their first language, as is common amongst Maasai people who often primarily speak Kimaasai.
Our education project aims to create a teaching app in both English and Swahili, helping the students grasp the concepts alongside teaching them the new English vocabulary. The app content will be shareable offline between phones or a central server at a school, enabling the app to work even in schools with no internet access or phone signal. The app is not intended as a sole education method, but will be used to help enhance a student’s learning experience, as the large class sizes and limited number of teachers makes it difficult for them to get all the support they need. If successful, the app will require donors who are keen to give money to education projects, and supply schools with phones/tablets for students to run the app, with teaching resources and related games/quizzes.
The first step in developing a teaching app was to understand what the students liked and disliked, as their technology experience is very different to what we are used to in England.
The first school we visited had large school grounds, but was very undeveloped. They had about 4 fully-built buildings, and another girl’s dormitory building that had been under construction for 4 years, a dining room that had been under construction for 10 years, and another two laboratory buildings still under construction. Politics and lack of funds seems to have prevented them from completing the buildings. None of the classroom buildings had glass in all the windows, and one of the classrooms had been converted to a store-room (with huge sacks of maize and a water tank), laboratory (one desk with four Bunsen burners, the extent of their chemistry department) and a teacher’s staff-room, through the use of some wooden dividing boards.
We were shown into a classroom of about 60 students of varying ages squeezed onto benches and greeted with applause when we announced we were from England. What a welcome!
Nine boys and nine girls were selected for app testing. They carried their chairs outside and we sat them in groups of three, with one electronic device per group to test the apps, then asked them questions. They really struggled with grasping the concept of some of the more ‘fun’ games, and preferred ones that we’d deem to be really boring back in England, with minimal animations and pictures. The concept of ‘dragging’ something on the screen rather than just tapping also really confused them. It makes you realise how little these students have had access to anything electronic throughout their upbringing! It’s also important to realise how much our white privilege gets us here…if a Tanzanian group had turned up to take 9 students out of school for 1.5hrs, I’m not sure they’d have been welcomed quite so warmly. People see white people as donors, and want to welcome us and tell us their problems in the hope that we will provide them with money and solutions. Unfortunately, that’s not how we operate as we don’t have the funds available, and we are always extra careful to make sure that message gets across to the communities we work with, so they don’t get disappointed.
In another rural secondary school where we’re hoping to run further trials, every single student failed their GCSE maths exam last year. The school is extremely run down, and although it’s not officially a boarding school (and so gets no funding from the government), as the children have to travel for hours to get there from the surrounding villages each day, travelling there and back each day just isn’t feasible. The boys sleep in on the floor in the classrooms, and the girls sleep on the floor in the local primary school, which angers the local community as it disrupts their primary school. The secondary school also owns the only borehole in the area. Although this seems like an asset, the borehole itself is 2km away. Every other day, when the school needs its water tank replenished, a class of students have to carry the diesel and battery to the borehole, and line up along the 2km pipe to stand guard while the borehole pump is turned on, as otherwise the neighbours come along to break the pipe and pinch water! It’s an interesting political issue as the community genuinely don’t have anywhere else to purchase water from a borehole. Another of our high priority projects is looking into how we can commercialise the borehole to make it affordable and usable for the community, and prevent the current disruption to the student’s education. If we could power the pump with solar, then the school wouldn’t even have to pay for diesel, and the borehole could be used to its full capacity, pumping every day for the community.
All in all, I’m impressed with the resilience of the Tanzanian population. Despite being faced with huge barriers in language, distance, costs, facilities and class sizes, students still go to school to learn and make the best of a challenging situation.