YOU NEED TO KNOW THIS BEFORE YOU VOLUNTEER IN A SCHOOL IN AFRICA
49 children, between 2 to 4 years old in one classroom. Only 6 are sitting down, the other 43 let their inner wild animal out. 4 are getting under the carpet while 2 are jumping on top of it. 3 are hanging out the windows; 1 of them is throwing chalk out to the garden. 5 are taking turns climbing the tables and jumping to the floor. One landed on a girl that started crying. 4 boys are moving the furniture against the wall, while 3 boys are fighting for a tennis ball. 2 boys are drawing lines across the board; another 2 are erasing what I had written. A girl sits putting one of her socks in her mouth, while her friend is using a pencil to try and make a hole in the other sock. 2 other kids are fighting over the pieces of a broken plastic rule. 6 are running after each other in circles, one tripped over the kid under the carpet and both started crying. Another 2 are playing with some bug they brought from the garden. 3 are spreading mud on the floor and onto each other. And one is fast asleep with the head leaning on the table. Seriously?! How am I meant to take control of the class?!
My attempts to tell them to sit down: kiti, in Swahili or stop!, Hatcha!, all failed. I even tried to start singing a song… “If you are happy and you know it….” but only about 5 kids reacted.
I had to get their attention… so I whistled as loud as I could! They all froze confused, their heads looking for where the noise came from. I whistled again, this time they saw me and there was complete silence. “Ah it worked”, I thought, but only for a brief second! Before I could say anything else, they started to imitate me on trying to whistle and continued on to whatever they were doing before.
I was volunteering at the public Nursery School – Magereza, in Moshi, a town in north Tanzania. The school is located inside Magereza Prison quarters and it has two big classrooms for the children of guards, prisoners and from the village next to the prison: currently there are 49 children in the younger class, ages range between 2 to 4 years old, and 51 children in the older class with ages between 5 and 6. This last one prepares the kids to enter primary school, so they have a teacher from the Government (a trained teacher). 2 prison guards and 1 prison Officer teach the younger ones, taking turns on their duties.
This school was built and is still sponsored by an American woman, currently providing free education and free uniforms to the children.
Public education in Tanzania has yet a long way to go until it is close to ideal. There is a lack of educated teachers. So classes often have more than 50 kids in one room. If the teacher is sick, it is likely that the class will join another class, ending up with more than 100 kids in one room, or no classes at all.
So I thought, as a volunteer, full of energy and ideas that I was going to help, to make a change, to create an impact! And here is where I was wrong and this is what you need to know before you go on volunteering in a school in Africa:
1 – YOU ARE NOT GOING TO CHANGE THE SYSTEM!
The classes are too big for only one teacher. The children wait a long time until they have their work supervised. If they don’t get it right, there is not enough time to give them individual support. During the class, the teacher asks the children to come one at a time to the board to shout the numbers they learnt. But when there are 49 children in one class, it is a long time to wait until their turn. I mean, after you watch and listen to 10 children coming to the board and shout the numbers like a song, even I got bored and distracted; now imagine a 3-year-old child!
In two occasions, in order to provide a more intimate lesson, I took 5 kids out of the class at a time to teach them introductory conversation in English. While I did this, at first the teacher watched me from the door for a while, leaving the rest of the class waiting in the room without any adult. Then she sat in the classroom on her phone, while the kids were peaking out the window to see what I was doing outside, which was very distracting to my little group of 5. I ended up only taking 20 in total, so the rest of the class did nothing more than wait in the classroom for the entire hour.
2 – YOU ARE NOT GOING TO CHANGE THE CULTURE!
Teachers beat the children and so the children respect the teachers, out of fear. Parents want their children to receive discipline and they believe that they are going to get it at school, with slaps and rules imposed by the threat of a whip. When a volunteer arrives, the children know the volunteer isn’t carrying a whip. The volunteer isn’t going to slap them. Therefore they don’t respect the volunteer.
3 – VOLUNTEERS ARE NOT ALWAYS SEEN AS JUST “A HELPING HAND”.
The teachers made me feel welcome and they were genuinely happy to have us, volunteers, spending time at their schools. But unfortunately I had the impression that teachers see the volunteers as someone that can take over their duty, while they go out of the class and sometimes disappear. I can see why it is so easy to fall into this mistake. After all, the volunteer has all this energy and willingness to teach something new to the kids. Volunteers come with the best intentions to help. And help from the outside should only be that: help. Help means support and not replacing.
Before I came to Tanzania, I imagined that the children would be willing to learn and listen to what I was so eager to teach. Even though some were genuinely keen on learning, they don’t understand English, they don’t respect me, and there were far too many for one single volunteer. They easily get distracted with anything else other than what is on the board. So whenever I was left alone in the class, the struggle started, the class wouldn’t sit down, wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t engaged in the activities, the morning was gone and I ended up feeling like a failure.
4 – LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS AND COME WITH AN OPEN MIND.
Accept the culture, accept the way the system works and look for what the children need that you can provide during the time you are there.
These children needed love, caring and attention. Most of them spend the day on their own while parents are at work till late hours. They held my hands all the time, they wanted attention, and they wanted to play with me. Well, this was something I could give everyday.
I figured I could show them different games and those that I taught in an unofficial way, while in the playground, had better success. For example, drawing boxes in the sand and play hopscotch or simple pata-cake movements.
5 – BE CREATIVE, BUT HAVE INTO CONSIDERATION THEIR RESOURCES.
When I arrived I thought the best way to get 49 kid’s attention was a DVD with nursery rhymes. It was amazing to see how curious and quiet they would be whenever I would play nursery rhymes on my phone. At one point I counted 36 little heads watching cartoons on my phone’s screen, commenting about what they were seeing and responding to what the cartoons were saying. So I thought I would buy a TV and a DVD player. After debating with Louise, another volunteer, we figured this wouldn’t have been useful in the long run, as electricity is expensive and the school wouldn’t use it after we would leave.
There is nothing wrong in buying a game or a book to assist with the classes or invest in the playground. But make sure that the teachers know how to use the materials, as volunteers aren’t always there.
For example: Louise also bought a puzzle. My class had never seen a puzzle before. Even for the teacher, it was a whole new concept. Some days she would hand me the puzzle box (of 24 pieces) and tell me to play it with 49 children. That is physically impossible even if the children would obey and understand what a puzzle was. One day, on a very rainy day, more than half class didn’t attend school. So we divided the class in two (10 kids each). I opted to leave the puzzle complete and remove only one piece and hand it to one child at the time. With a little Swahili and gestures I explained to the little boy that he had to fit the piece in the only space left on the puzzle. When he did this correctly, I used lots of verbal encouragement and a “hi5″. So the next child wanted to get it right too. I went around the circle 5 times (mind only 6 children out of 10 stayed put and paid attention to the game). Once they learnt the concept of fitting one piece, I moved on to color match the pieces. So I removed 3 pieces from different areas of the puzzle and asked the child to fit it in one of the holes, and it was a success. This was a good day. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the presence of the teacher to explain in Swahili and tell them to follow the instructions and to sit down.
However, I do wonder if the teacher will ever use the puzzle again, now that we aren’t there anymore to explain how to make it.
6 – IDENTIFY WHERE YOU CAN ACTUALLY HELP.
Once the volunteers realize they aren’t achieving much with the actual teaching, they channel their energy into something else, something where the final product of their effort is visible: so they focus on making the school’s infrastructure better, by building a better kitchen, or painting the classrooms, or fundraising for a swing and toys and school material, and some will go onto sponsoring a child (education isn’t free in Tanzania, it can cost between 20-40£ per year plus uniforms and school material). And I do believe that this has a better impact than taking over the classes.
Unless you are sponsoring a child, as a volunteer you need to know that your help is only temporary, and you should question yourself, what will the school do without you? Whatever you do, they can’t rely on you only. As a volunteer we should provide with tools and knowledge to help them sustain themselves when we are no longer there.
7 – ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE AND JUST DO IT!
My opinions are based on my experience and a general feedback I got from other volunteers I met while in Tanzania. Every evening we would share the struggles and those who were with younger classes had these in common: we weren’t teaching much when we were left on our own by the actual teachers.
Perhaps, the issue is because the children were too young. Or perhaps you will have a better experience teaching children over 12 years old. Maybe the school you will end up volunteering with knows your duty as a volunteer and they won’t expect you to take over their duty.
I don’t want in any way to discourage anyone on volunteering as would do it all over again. I had an amazing time playing with my class and it was a pleasure to meet these little angels. But I do feel I needed more time to create some sort of bond with the teachers to change their view on the volunteer’s role. I wish they “used” my time to assist them supervise the development of the children and identify those who need more attention. I wish that they would have been more present whenever I was leading a class, because the children’s attention would improve significantly, and the several times this happened, the results were incredible, making me very proud of the things they learnt from me.
The majority of children were actually really interested in the exercises if they were captivated the right way. They just needed attention in the right quiet, peaceful, teaching environment.
To change the teacher’s view on the role of the volunteer – this is one change it will take a while to happen, and I believe it depends on the volunteer himself to make this possible! So, go on, now that you know this, go on, accept the challenge and have the time of your life!
And finally here is a video of the fun we all had at the School:
On a little note:
I stayed with Hostel Hoff, a hostel that has a policy of a minimum of 30 nights stay, that aims to welcome volunteers from all over the world, looking to work in all different fields. I couldn’t recommend them more! Email them, and they will send you a list of all the projects that need a helping hand available in Moshi. You will feel looked after and supported from the moment you arrive in Tanzania!