Is this education?

Day 5, Part 2

Riding in a Land Rover down one-lane dirt roads through banana trees and — What? Corn? — I feel the ghosts of 200,000 years of human habitation. How strange to be so close to where it all began, our Simian ancestors coming down from the trees and chasing wild beasts into a new world of language, art, music, agriculture, education, and finally Land Rovers.

Waiting in the car park before we left, I had struck up a conversation with Joyce, the gate guard, who taught me a whole slew of words, sentences, and grammar. I tried out a joke on her: “Jina langu ni Mzungu” — “My name is White Man.” She laughed and held up her hand for a high five.

The Land Rover takes us to a rural public boarding school, where we are first escorted to meet the staff and the headmaster. I can’t resist tossing out a Swahili phrase or two in response to their “warm welcome” in English and “karibu sana” in Swahili. I also try it on some students sitting in the shade of a tree: “I am trying to speak Swahili,” to which one replies “Unaweza” — “you can.” “What do you mean?” I say. “You can speak Swahili,” she says. Another generous assessment. It’s apparently a low bar for Mzungus.

We are introduced to the middle school students and asked to address the group of 50 or so — girls in matching dresses and white shirts, boys in white shirts with brown pants and vests. My cooperating teacher, Ingrid, engages them in some call-and-response English greetings, and I tell them in English that I am happy to be in Tanzania, and thank them for their warm welcome.

We have come with a group of D1 students (juniors in high school in the International Baccalaureate program) who visit each week in graphic tees and blue jeans to engage in debate and dialogue with their uniformed counterparts at the public school. The topic: women’s rights and health care issues. It is entirely student led, and I have never in all my years of school and teaching heard such a thoughtful, polite, articulate, and passionate discussion over a topic of such seriousness.

Afterwards, I tell the headmaster my impression. He is well traveled in Europe and Africa, and in his view, the difference between Tanzanian students and mine back home is simple: These kids need to struggle to survive. He imitated the laid-back posture of his peers at graduate school in London — shoulders slouched, stoner smiles, “Hey, it’s all cool!”

On the ride home, the students have all sorts of questions for me, mostly revolving around the police shootings and race issues they’ve heard about through Facebook and the Internet. Another spirited discussion with thoughtful questions and carefully considered responses.

It looks to me like real education, old as the hills but timeless and new.


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