The challenges of being an educator in the developing world were many. I could speak of the trials and tribulations of working without text books, electricity or running water, or having the local goats intermittently disrupt my lecture, or the issue of anemia and its effects on my students, but that would be easy and obvious. I’d rather speak of the most difficult challenge I faced everyday; breaking the mold of education that had been systematically in place for decades. After spending some time in the classroom, I realized that my fellow Tanzanians had a narrowed view of education and this view did not have any hints of what a good education should be. They were all focused on memorization, drill and kill, and had a complete make-it-or-break it high stakes test called the NECTA (National Examinations Council of Tanzania). This exam determined whether or not a student would continue onto the advanced level (A-level) school, then another exam would determine whether you continue to university or not. There was no room for creativity, outside-the-box thinking, and genuine active learning. Your academic career completely rode on this test, therefore, all school consisted of was passing or gaming this test. In addition to this test-based view of education, our community did not value education. I was posted, after all, in the most underdeveloped region in Tanzania. Even other Tanzanians would tease our region for being “country bumpkins”.
I taught one year at Mahiwa High School as a math, physics and computer teacher. Mahiwa is located in the remote Southern region of Tanzania called Lindi. The school had about 800 students and 12 teachers and was located over 2.5 miles away from the only paved road in the South. As there were only 12 teachers, all the staff were over-worked, stressed, and spread out thin. Most of the time, each teacher had at least 80 students per class. The learning environment was a challenge, not only because of the student teacher ratio, but all of the students had to walk (in the extreme heat) more than 2.5 miles each way to simply attend school. Other challenges we faced were a lack of classroom furniture and materials. There were many days where I would find two students sharing one chair or standing bent over their desk to diligently write down notes. We also did not have enough textbooks for every single student; therefore, the information that was written on the board and then copied into the student’s notebooks was the textbook. Not only was there an immense lack of school resources and supplies, but the surrounding village did not even have electricity or running water. The village had only four pumps where everyone would have to go with their buckets simply to get the daily water ration. At night the campus was enveloped in darkness except for the small glowing lights inside each house from kerosene lamps or solar powered lanterns. The southern region of Tanzania is notorious for being the furthest behind with regards to infrastructure, education and basic human luxuries that Americans never give a second thought about. Not only did the region’s lack of water and electricity hinder teaching, but the tribal beliefs made it even more difficult to teach compared to other regions in Tanzania. Many of the villagers are farmers and do not see or reap the benefits of education.
I wanted to change these thoughts on and entire approach towards education for my students and for my fellow teachers. It became my end goal. I wanted to demonstrate ways in which education could benefit them. In the words of the education historian and scholar, Diane Ravitch, I wanted to “ensure that my students gain the knowledge they need to understand political debates, scientific phenomena, and the world they live in. And to be sure they are prepared for the responsibility of democratic citizenship in a complex society.” Although the reality was that many of my students would not continue on to the more advanced levels of education, I still wanted to show them how education could help them in their daily lives. This challenge did not arise out of my content area studies of math, physics or computers but through life skills. Some days during the school week I would teach about nutrition, HIV/AIDS prevention, hygiene, and girls’ empowerment. I felt as though I was opening up regions in their minds where they had never ventured. As cliché as it might seem, I thought it was akin to giving a painter a brand new set of 100 wildly different colors in addition to the basic colors she originally had. However, this idea of girls’ empowerment stuck with me and seemed to me the most beneficial and feasible project to tackle at my high school.
At my school we had sport activities but mostly for the boys. The boys played soccer on a field of rough terrain that had more sand than grass. The soccer goal posts were made of wood and the students either ran around barefoot or wore one sock (on their kicking foot). The fortunate ones wore shoes. However, it was not the lack of shoes that I was concerned about, but the lack of opportunities, including sport activities, for the girls. At the beginning of the school year, the girls voiced their concerns about this and I wanted to do something about it. In addition to the benefits of improving academic performance and getting physically fit, I wanted to start a girls’ soccer team to focus on girls’ empowerment. After reading the book Half the Sky, I was motivated to encourage girls’ empowerment and convinced at how critical it was to the developing world. Gender balance is still an issue in East Africa and many researchers and analysts have found that this inequality is a giant hurdle towards economic development. I believe that supplementing education with sports would not only help build confidence in the girls and empower them to be more active in their school, but also help them to become active in their communities and eventually active in the development of their own country.
In order to set up a girls’ soccer program, I recruited two teachers who played soccer with the boys. They would assist in teaching basic soccer skills to the girls. I then coordinated with another Peace Corps Volunteer in a village about 15 miles away to plan a friendly match in which our respective girls’ teams would play. The practices started off slow since the concept of a girls’ soccer team was so new and unorthodox to the students and teachers, now coaches. Many older women in the nearby villages would walk by to stare and laugh but end up congratulating and encouraging the girls. At first, the boys would also come out to laugh and snicker at the girls but then they slowly began to give their support and offer some soccer advice. It was wonderful to see all the fans and supporters come out to cheer the girls in their endeavor. The girls began learning life skills such as teamwork and communication, and a few of them started showing natural leadership abilities.
The friendly game was eventful and the turnout was tremendous. It was a success not only because our school won, but because it cast a big spotlight on girls’ soccer. A girls’ soccer team is a concept that is not often seen or talked about in rural Tanzanian villages and I was happy to see it was finally being acknowledged. Setting up the girls’ soccer team and being their teacher was one of the many highlights of my service and a truly unforgettable experience.
When I returned to the United States to continue pursuing my Master’s in Education, I received an email from one of the former coaches informing me that one of our star soccer players was among the few young woman players who was recruited to the regional women’s soccer team. They went to compete representing our region for a national student’s sports competition. To me, that was the moment in which I knew I had done something right. I knew that no matter how many jerseys, soccer balls, or fancy equipment we had donated to the school, the most important thing was giving the students an opportunity. I believe education is very crucial to childhood/adolescent development. After spending time in a Tanzanian school without the resources and benefits most American schools have, I can see how much untapped potential there is in the American education system. I believe that through quality education and after- school activities, students can obtain the knowledge needed to live and function as a productive and positive member of society. Moreover, I believe education and after-school activities can help disadvantaged students to better their situation; by not only providing the skills needed to succeed in life, but by giving students more choices and opportunities. I hope to be a part of that change and success.