In a Foreign Place - Secondary Education in Tanzania

Article excerpt

For my first two months on Mount Kilimanjaro, in the summer of 1990, I stayed in a household of seven children and two parents. Three of the children were students at Mkufi Secondary School. My observations in those months constituted the beginning of what would bring me back to northern Tanzania twice again, an ethnographic study of schooling.

At home, the children's operative mode (at least in the presence of their parents) was usually one of deference to adults. Students--particularly the older girls--kept the household's basic operations going. Every morning they put on their clothes to the loud shouts of Mama Elimbora. "Stellah! Catherine! Blimbora! Lilian! Eudora! Kivawafo! Elingaya!" Mama Elimbora would call each of them in turn. Slowly at first, the oldest girls dressed, fetched water, washed clothes, and mopped interior floors. Boys in the household were charged with feeding the guinea fowl and watering the vegetable garden and flowers. Morning duties were in general less onerous than what was expected of children after school. At the end of the day, Stellah and Catherine were supposed to cook dinner, Elimbora to tend to her younger brothers. Male cousins in the neighboring house, some of whom ate meals with this extended family, were tasked with the project of cutting grass and cleaning and feeding the goat and her kids. This was the plan, though not always the practice: Children were often looking instead for some diversion.

As though living by one interpretation of a popular local aphorism--"a person who lives in a foreign place should not question the things she [or he] sees, but upon returning home may criticize and comment all she wants"--these children generally waited until their parents were away to dance and party to their hearts' content. The aphorism had many meanings, but one interpretation was that children were essentially foreigners in parents' homes. When parents came home, children's personal items went away, and children were deferential toward adult authority. In parents' absence, it was possible, however, to do and say practically anything.

It was then, in those hours after school and before dinner, and before these children's parents came home, that the "boom box" came out of the locked cupboard, and Bobbie Brown, Black Box, and Michael Jackson tapes were played over and over again, often to the whine of straining batteries. The doors were flung open-- windows too--so that neighboring friends might hear and join the party. To me, these were familiar signs of adolescent culture, flirtations with freedom and innocent rebellion. In fact, I welcomed this time in the late afternoon when I could loosely connect with the songs and scenario. The children told me to "make myself at home" (jisikia nyumbani), but the neighbors-- adults and other youth in the community--had mixed opinions about the afternoon brouhaha.

Mama Lucky, who lived catty-corner from the Mbasas and who had married one of Mr. Kawyu's father's brother's sons, loosely endorsed the afternoon release, calling it "what educated youth do these days." She said she was rather amused by the chaotic dancing when she came one day to collect her daughter, Lucky. Lucky was one of the more quiet Form 2 students but a ready participant in this "disco" culture. The neighborhood boy who lived across the road said he too was intrigued by the students' loud music. Like a fraction--about 5 percent--of the children in the area, he had quit school at Standard IV and spent most of his days farming and tending to livestock. He never joined the celebrations inside the house but instead hung around the main road and watched.

Education as threat

Less appreciative, Bwana Mafue, an itinerant worker, scoffed at the music when he came to the door looking for Baba Elimbora. Muttering that such dancing and loudness was disrespectful, and that these girls were behaving inappropriately, he attributed the "nonsense" (ujinga) to Western education (elimu ya kizungu) and condemned schools for ruining African women. …