Teaching at Sambasha Primary School

Sambasha Primary School is a 45 minute hike uphill from Emaoi, where we live, so we leave at 6.45am to arrive by 7.30am. The kids are already there, doing their various jobs. Some sweep the yards and paths with branches of soft leaves, others water the garden and others clean the classrooms. These get really dusty as there is no glass in the windows. At about 07.50 they’re called to inspection. Any who are dirtier than the rest, whose hair isn’t shaved shortly enough or who arrive late stand to one side and get caned after everyone’s sung the national anthem, then they head for class. Sometimes they don’t get caned but have to squat down and kind of goose step to class … ideas of discipline seem quite brutal here, but then life in general is incredibly tough and only those who work really hard have a chance of getting anywhere. ‘Survival of the fittest’ often has very real meaning here.

Sambasha school has about 900 kids, from Standard 1 to 7. Theoretically they are aged 7 up to 13, however, in practice there are 10 year olds in S1 and 16 year olds in S7, as it all depends at what age the parents finally send them to school – the kids are needed at home to look after the cows and goats, collect water, work on the shambas (fields). I thought it was terribly unfair that the children should be punished for being dirty uniforms – surely it was the mother’s responsibility to keep the children clean? I soon came to realise that children are expected to look after and take responsibility for themselves, pretty much as soon as they can walk; the women have enough to do with cooking, cleaning, working in the fields, repairing and/or building huts and much more, all often with babies strapped to their backs. There is not much time for children to play, which presumably accounts for them going absolutely beserk on the playing fields whenever we take them out to play.

I teach Standards 5A and 5B – love them dearly even though they drive me crazy. S5A has 70 pupils and S5B 65. I only know this as they all turned up for the end of term exams. Normally attendance varies anywhere from 25 up to full count, depending on whether it’s market day (then they have to go and sell produce), raining heavily (most don’t have coats) or Monday or Friday (seem to like long weekends;)) At first I was very nervous about standing in front of so many and teaching but quickly fell into the rhythm and realised that they love me and aren’t going to eat me.

The following exchange invariably takes place at the beginning of each lesson:

Teacher: “Good morning everybody!”
Pupils (jump up): “Good morning Teacher!”
Teacher: “How are you this morning?”
Pupils: “We are fine and how are you?”
Teacher: I’m fine, thank you. You may sit down now.”
Pupils (sitting down): “We are sitting down, thank you Teacher!”

Sambasha has the good fortune to have text books for all standards, so teaching consists of following the course book, allowing for little deviation. With only 40 minutes per period and so many pupils, it’s almost impossible to focus on any individuals, and with only 11 text books to be shared by so many, it’s very difficult to follow the teaching methods suggested for the lessons as defined in the teacher’s book. Whoever wrote these books, and they are apparently written for the Tanzanian education system, decided to conveniently ignore the typical classroom situation of 6 pupils to a book and apply methods that are meant for use in an ideal world.

Mostly the children learn through being drilled to mechanically repeat and recite; they aren’t taught to think for themselves. On the whole they’re very well behaved, pay attention and work hard, writing down everything unless explicitly told not to. I’m never sure if they’ve understood, and checking with concept questions often produces such bizarre answers that I almost prefer not to check*! Apart from following the coursebook, I teach them lots of songs which they love, especially if I add some animation and theatrics – they fall off their benches!

* “yes i’m bananas” was one answer I received to the question “Are bananas blue?”

Not wielding a cane, I don’t hold quite as much authority as do the other teachers and, after losing their initial fascination of the mzungu (whitey) teacher, they have turned into perfectly normal children, i.e. I’m hard put to get them to tear their eyes away from the window and look to the blackboard, yet alone to me. I find that most reassuring;)

English is usually their 3rd language, the first being that of their tribe and the second being Swahili. Even though they start learning Swahili and English from S1, many in my class still have problems with Swahili, let alone English. There are some very smart ones, but there are others who just stare at me completely clueless; even if their fellow classmates try to explain to them in Swahili, they don’t understand. They try so hard to please and have big hopeful smiles when they hand in their books for “tickies” and “very goods”, but what do you do when you open a book and find that the pages are filled with completely meaningless hyroglyphics? I could cry. Some of them are very obviously dyslexic, others illiterate and others have sight problems, but no one has the time or money for any special needs here. When I showed an example of this to another teacher and asked how to deal with it, I was told that the child was just ‘lazy’!

Rosie keeps telling me that the best you can hope for is that, at the end of the 3 months, the faster ones will stand a better chance of getting on and eventually into secondary school and the slower ones will have learnt a little and at least have had some fun. The kids absolutely love singing … can anyone imagine girls and boys aged 11 sing their lungs out to Old MacDonald or Drunken Sailor, etc. in Europe? Here they love it and drum on their desks to the beat. Despite having to carry so much responsibility from such an early age, the children here are still very innocent in many ways.

The problems are manifold, starting with one very basic fact – most of them are just plain hungry and have zero energy. Sometimes they just fall asleep and I leave them to it. What can I do? They often don’t get food at home and are then expected to sit and concentrate for 6 hours without lunch, getting caned if they don’t respond appropriately! How can I get angry with them? But I get very frustrated, knowing that if they don’t try, they have no future. In Tanzania, all subjects at secondary school are taught in English, so if they don’t attain an acceptable level, they won’t get past primary school and will never get jobs. It’s a very worrying situation. The education system seems to be years behind. And soon the borders are going to open and the market will be flooded with Kenyans who have a much higher standard of education and then the locals will have even less chance.

When we’re not teaching, we’re in the staffroom, preparing lessons or cooking tea … sometimes we pay a visit to the teacher’s wc;)

The school day finishes around 2pm, although nothing much happens class-wise after 12.20, as a lot of the kids disappear during that break – no food, no energy. So Rosie and I often take what’s left of our Standards 5 and 6 (Rosie’s lot) out on the fields and let them play football and netball. Funnily enough, they seem to find sufficient reserves of energy for this ;)

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