Why Our Volunteers Teach English in Tanzania

At CCS, we often get asked about why our volunteers teach English in many countries where we work. While there isn’t one universal answer to that question, we thought we would ask Basil Lima, a former teacher and a passionate supporter of education reform in Tanzania for his take on why English education is important in his country.

tanzania volunteer

What is your background?
"My background is in teaching. I have been a teacher for 12 years since 1996 and up until 2003, i was teaching formal school and one year at teachers training college and from there I joined politics. Since 2005, I have become the private secretary to the member of Partliament for this constituency. I am now the Secretary General for the main opposition party in tanzania in the Kilimanjaro region. Before, I have volunteered with the UN. While I was a teacher, I registered an NGO to fight corruption in Tanzania and I became the national leader of that NGO. It is a youth-based organization and I have just handed it off to a younger person, as I have aged out of the organization."

When did you know that you wanted to be a teacher?
"I was 23 at that time. I felt that there was a very big burden in my heart and that this country needs a lot of changes. We have to prepare youth, who will bring changes to this country. Youth who would be ready to fight corruption and to exercise patriotism in it’s fullest and I thought that the best I could do was to become a teacher. I thought this would be my biggest contribution to my country."

In a nutshell can you explain the Tanzanian education system and what are the primary barriers to success in education as you currently see them?
"Absolutely, the biggest barrier a Tanzanian student faces is language. Every person you see in Tanzania is born in a vernacular society, so the very first language a child learns is their own mother tongue. This language is spoken from age 0-7. Then the child starts school at age 7 and begins to study in Swahili. All subjects from sciences, history, and all social sciences are in Swahili language. This person is fighting the challenge of learning a new language. It may take 3 years for the student to master Swahili. However, hear comes the big challenge: After primary school to gain access to secondary school, this student then needs to learn English as all of the subjects from age 14 onwards are taught totally in English. The problem is that there is no place where this person is to be taught English before entering secondary school. It is the biggest challenge that this person will face, maybe in their entire lives.

The second challenge is poverty. By poverty, I don’t mean only lack of funds, facilities or resources, although those are large challenges in Tanzania, but I mean poverty of mentality. Like most African governments, Tanzania does not see to it that the country is given enough money for funds for education. We have allocated many funds to the military and other aspects of society, but education is not a priorty for the government."

I’ve heard you say before if you had one millions students starting school, by the time they reach secondary school, there will be 500,000 students or less. Is that due to language?

"There are lot of factors contributing to that, some kids can’t pass the exams because of language incapabilities, and there are fewer secondary schools than primary schools, so there are not spaces for everyone. Another factor is parents often can’t afford to send their kids to secondary school. So that means, that half the population is not getting more than seven years of education in total."

Are secondary schools free at the public level?
"Yes, they are free, but there are a lot of other contributions, such as food, sports gear, uniforms, books, transportation, and so on. Many of the families can not afford these contributions."

Why do you feel that half of the TZ school system is in English in your mind?
"It is absolutely politics. There is nothing scientific there. There are two schools of thought: First is that we have to teach in swahili language to express our patriotism and to show that we belong to our nation. We are Africans, and we belong speaking in Swahili. We don’t want to show that we are black outside and white or european inside.

The 2nd school of thought includes those people that think that education is education. We can not segregate ourselves from the rest of the world, so we have acquire knowledge that is universal. Therefore Swahili is a big and good and useful language to ourselves, but it is not as strong as as the English language.We need to learn to use English so those that acquire education in Tanzania will be of a global level, and can compete globally. We need to allow these people to study from primary school to university in english language, so they can compete globally. Then no one is hindering you from being a citizen of the world, reading research in English, attending conferences in English."

What can you tell me about gender equality within the school system?
"In primary school, there are so many girls. In lower secondary school, also either equal or more girls than there are boys. However, when you get to advanced secondary school or university, there are few girls. They get lost on the way. Many families do not see the need to send them to university and beyond, and many girls may get married early."

What do you see the role of CCS volunteers in the school system?
"When CCS volunteers go to schools, they create universality in schools. Kids at the school feel like they now belong to the world. Before the volunteers come, they see themselves as belonging to Moshi or Kilimanjaro, but when volunteers from many countries come to their school, the students become global citizens who feel important. The most important thing that a volunteer can do is to speak English, sing in English, play in English with the students. This will allow the students to have a better grasp on the English that will be required for them to continue their education and pass their exams in English later on. The best thing a volunteer can do is never stop speaking in the classroom. My life was changed by a volunteer teacher from another country, and I know that CCS volunteers can change lives in the short amount of time they are here, but helping to lift that heavy barrier of language acquisition for the student."

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