The first time I went to Tanzania (East Africa) was in 2000 to spend a semester studying at the University of Dar es Salaam. The first thing that I realized when I got there was that my “non-expectations” for my time there were entirely wrong (I thought I was going there without expectations, but when I realized Tanzania was nothing like what I expected it to be, I also realized I had expectations of what I thought I would find). 🙂
In the midst of abject poverty (at the time, Tanzania was typically one of the top 10 poorest countries in the world), I discovered some of the happiest people I’d ever met, delicious food, generosity that humbles a Westerner, and a hunger for education like I had never known. See, in a country of more than 30 million people, only about 0.03% of the population has more than a high school education. Yes, that says 0.03%. It was during my first visit to Tanzania that I realized why it is that education is so important.
While I studied there, I took an economics class. One day, outside of class, I ran into a classmate of mine who wanted to talk about the class content with me. While doing so, I realized he was simply regurgitating exactly what the professor had taught in our lecture. I found this exceptionally odd coming from a culture that prides itself in thinking creatively and outside the box (let’s face it, there isn’t a whole lot of creative thinking as far as econ is concerned, but there’s still room for it). As I began to pay attention, I started to put my finger on why it was that Tanzania continued to remain as underdeveloped as it had (malaria, dysentery, AIDS and child-birth were the top causes of death…all preventable issues in this day and age). Tanzanians are taught in Swahili through 6th grade, and take an English class during Primary School. When it comes time to go to Secondary School, all classes are taught in English (mostly because it’s a lot cheaper to get education materials written in English than in Swahili). To get by the language barriers, students will write their notes in English (verbatim what the teacher has taught them), translate them into Swahili so they can study the notes, and then when it comes to testing time, will write verbatim the answers in English as the material was taught in class. This same process is used at the University level as well. This whole translating back and forth between the two languages forces the students to rely on rote memorization rather than comprehension. And we wonder why there aren’t new developments in education, health care and anything beyond subsistence farming in the country.
There are a couple of major factors contributing factor to there being so few people getting more than a high school education. 1) In the rural areas, most parents have at most a 3rd grade education. Since they cannot imagine their children being anything more than farmers, they take their children out of school after they complete 3rd grade. 2) Children are required to wear school uniforms and shoes to school. These costs are often unaffordable to most families. And while primary school may only require the purchases of a uniform and shoes, students must pay to go to Secondary School. So, simply put, the majority of the population cannot afford to go to school, so they don’t.
Tanzania truly is an incredibly wealthy country, as it is filled with the greatest resource on this planet: people! Human capital is our primary resource in this world. And Tanzania has a lot of it. Each of us is born with potential and purpose and destiny. But when it comes to this being actualized, we are not equal. Most of Tanzania’s population will not be able to live out their fullest potential simply because they do not have access to education, adequate health care, and clean drinking water. Because of this, Tanzania will remain one of the poorest countries. I look forward to a day when this reality changes, for the people of that country have the same value, dignity and worth as those of us who live in countries that no longer struggle with those challenges.