LEARNING TO LOVE EDUCATION AGAIN
Teaching Karibuni: Five Stories of School Hopping in Tanzania
By STUART GRAUER
Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation's top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching, “a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at www.fearlessteaching.com/. email Stuart
The first President of Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere was unique in eschewing titles like His Eminence or The Supreme One. He called himself “Mwalimu:” Teacher. Still today, "Mwalimu" (pron. wolli-mu) is reserved for Nyerere as a honorific title when referring to him. His successor, Jakaya Kikwete, was elected as President of Tanzania in 2005 and he built 1500 secondary schools throughout Tanzania. (He was born the same week I was, in 1950, but I have built only two secondary schools.) He did not provide for the incidentals: books, paper, chalk. Teachers. What he provided his people was about what you might have under the village acacia tree: space. The main difference is between the shape of the classroom and the shape of the tree and, we discovered, those shapes are from different worlds.
Tourism as we know it normally entails visiting colorful, significant places and often meeting colorful people. But the concept of touring schools is relatively unexplored, which is understandable. Who would want to give up the great sites and instead spend their days interacting in foreign classes with students in far-flung schools? We would, and we recommend it! We have approached schools all over the world about spending time in their classes, even teaching their classes, and (sometimes through persistence and persuasion) ultimately have never been turned down. I’d venture to say that the typical educational journey affords our students a much closer study of the animals in the local zoo than it ever does of the local children. We offer these five stories as a primer on what successful student interactions look like, in their incredible diversity, and how deep they can take us. Whatever this practice lacks in grandeur or historical significance, we have found it more than makes up for in the friendships, authentic interactions, and rare insights it affords the educational traveller.
In September of 2012, we travelled with eleven students, five chaperones, and two guides, school hopping in Tanzania. Shadowing us was a Land Rover full of Maasai aides-de-camp, often wrapped in red checkered Shúkà robes, who worked hard setting up tents and tending to the fires and goats, as they might be mortified to do back in the thorn tree rimmed bomas, homesteads where their wives were present. Back in the boma, work is mainly for women. But that’s another story. Here are five stories about school-hopping our way across Tanzania. Enjoy any of them, and amend my conclusions in any way you see fit. We began in Moshi, a city of almost 200,000, and our travels over a fortnight pushed us deeper and deeper into tribal lands, as though we were going back in time.
Karibuni in Moshi
We’re eating lunch with some teachers and students at the Weruweru Girls High School, in their compound at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. We had spent the morning embraced by the smiles, handholding, photographing and dancing of the students who took our students as family and took our teachers as world dignitaries.
Emmanuel, Weruweru’s physics teacher, is discussing what is important in a school, and he is using the exact word I have heard tribes use on two other continents: unity. “‘Unity’ is a word people only think to use when it has been at grave risk,” I express to him. “Or else when they are gathered together eating fry bread. That is the only exception.”
He smiles as his students dig in to lunch. His students seem to live their lives holding hands. They are the most physical kids we have ever seen, nor could they get enough of holding our hands, either. Weruweru has been designated as a UNESCO-affiliated school, as has our school, so we are sisters. Students are selected by the federal government to attend, and their families pay $50 for the 194-day boarding school year (15- 20 more days than U.S. school). That is the cost of a desk. Their average GPA is over 3.5 and their goal is the “A-levels,” the gold standard of the British examination system. Their average GPA is over 3.5 and their goal is the “A-levels,” the gold standard of the British examination system (National Exam Council of Tanzania).
Emmanuel grew up in what he calls the Barier tribe and speaks Barier at home. So does his wife. I ask, ”Does your daughter speak it?” She was twenty and in college. He was proud she had gone to the University of Dar es Salaam, where the President of Tanaznia went, and where he himself went.
“No,” he says. She cannot speak it.
“Why not?” I ask, and he explains she speaks Swahili, that this is the national language, and she must know English, too, in this world.
“How long has Barier language been spoken in your tribe?”
“Maybe a thousand years.”
“And it will be gone in the generation?” I suggest.
Emmanuel shrugs. We dip our fry bread and try to finish up the beef and liver stew from the campus slaughterhouse. This school was traditionally Catholic, a boarding school, but President Kikwete, successor to Mwalimu, Teacher of the Nation, has disallowed religious schools across the country. Students get physics class, French class, and even an aquaponics class. Emmanuel’s classes have 45 students each, small compared to what we might find in the tribal schools. Emmanuel discloses that he gets $3753 per year in salary. I explain that, in Chicago, back in the states, the teachers average $75,000 and they are now on strike. It turns out that last summer, the teachers in Tanzania were on strike. I know these situations can advance the sense of unity.
We imagine there will be nothing like Weruweru, a city school, out across the countryside, across the Maasai tribal lands where we are headed. All the same, we reflectively sip the rooibos tea as they have been doing for 1000 years, and as they do daily at Weruweru. Outside, a bird sounds like a creaky rocking chair. Later that afternoon, our students and their new Weruweru friends gather together and attempt to find harmony as a combined class.
We convene in the library. I know I am taking a chance but I divide them into groups of four, two from California and two from Moshi, at each table so that they may talk about big questions that they share in their lives. Although we have done this kind of gathering all over the world, I always worry that it will be seen as an artificial set-up and that it will be treated superficially, or that I will ask the wrong question and cause silence. I have found that this is sometimes the case, but only in the first round of questioning.
I ask if the teachers and adult chaperones would like to sit with the groups, one each per table. They do. “What is the role of unity in your life and school?” I ask. How can I go wrong with a question like that? “Please allow each group member just about 90 seconds.” Roving from table to table, at each of the six large library tables, with considerable uniformity, the adult is explaining the meaning of this prompt to the group. Ack! I have made a rookie mistake, one I learned about years ago but have forgotten. Adults tend to be perplexed and impatient with the slow motion chaos that often precedes the natural self-organizing of a small group of kids. They are silence-intolerant.
I call the tables to order in as short order as is polite, thank everyone, then say, sheepishly, “Thank you, now let’s try an exercise with just the students.” I am hoping this seems like a natural progression in the session, that the adults will not think I am a fool and that I will not be humiliated. Starting over, “What do you love?” I ask the student-only groups. I want them to each talk in their groups and develop a “finding,” and to report back on it in a few minutes. “Try to fully receive the comments of each group member and not to improve or refute what they say. Your only job as a listener is to show understanding. To show acceptance.” I prepare to embrace the silence, but this time students at every table are leaning in, and we can see hands animating the points being made, the eyes gleaming, even the shy ones.
After a time, we reconvene and the students pick a leader to report the findings of their groups. A primer on great teachers rolls out: “They make students’ interests their own.” “They help you believe in what you believe.” “The best teacher is the one who is caring the most.” “They believe in their students’ abilities.” “They love their students.” Four of the six groups express, “Great teaching is love.” This primer is, of course, on the teachers whom students find to be great, not on the teachers who are deemed great by any other means. Indeed, student love would measure as a small detail before the board of standards of our accreditors back in California. But right here, students from hemispheres north and south agree. They love their schools. They love the teachers who accept them for who they are. How lovely and how strange is this finding of unity. How rare it would be on many campuses world over.
“That was my favorite part of the trip so far,” says Amelia, 14. “Even though I am shy.” In visiting schools around the world, never have we felt more welcome, more karibuni. Now it is time to leave Moshi and our students struggle as they hug goodbye to their new friends and load into the vehicles. It took our students by surprise that Wereweru students and teachers manage to create hope and even joy in this far away school. I think, unexpectedly, they found this to be a little overwhelming. We set out across town and, out the window, people squat in doorways entranced, neither modern nor ancient, somewhere between western civilization and 70 million year of evolving life.
We woke up early the next morning to rooster augmented by Moslem prayer song, then tracked an eagle owl in the forest canopy before breakfast, and prepared for the trip. We will see seven schools this week and be met with the same karibuni in all of them, except one. Around the world, I continue to be amazed and enriched at the entrée, the grace even, afforded us for identifying ourselves as nothing more than “teacher.” For all its wild variation, wherever we go, there is something unifying, something organic, about foregoing visits to national monuments and top tourists sites and, instead, just visiting schools and communing with the students in them. Call it edu-tourism.
A School Where the Old Village Acacia Tree Once Was
It is said that traditionally in African villages schooling was held under an old acacia. The tall, thorny tree with a dense, flat crown added green across the dusty land to shade and shelter people as they gathered. The Oraucha people are a traditionally nomatic, Maasai group of 150,000 mostly herders, and few of them have ever had a school of any kind. We arrived in time to see all that changing.
Alex Marti was the Maasai tribal village leader in the Oraucha village of Olastiti, an outskirt of Arusha where urban life blends in with rural. A powerful looking, soft-spoken man in a khaki safari shirt, we met Alex through the Dorobo Guides. Villagers pay some taxes for goats, cows, and houses but the Oraucha Maasai get little in return for this. They have gotten some courts and roads, but it was going slow, Alex explained. Olastiti was founded in the auspicious year of 1950, and it was named after the acacia tree that was in the center of the village. “Was the school there?” we asked. Alex did not know. He thought it was time they built a school of bricks and mortar.
Like most acacia trees, traditional medicines are largely gone from the cities of Tanzania. Most Maasai will travel all the way to downtown Arusha for things like child-birth and malaria rather than drinking acacia tea and blends of locally foraged herbs as they did for 1000 years. Likewise, even though Tanzania has universal primary education, Olastiti kids had to travel all the way to Arusha for secondary schooling. This is where Alex came in.
As in Dallas or Shanghai, and around Arusha students travelling far to a mandatory, understaffed school with few books doesn’t work well for all kids. The large, comprehensive school becomes a place of hope for some and incarceration for others. National schooling all day long, common among industrial nations, has obvious and even profound merit, and yet it unquestionably disconnects children from local culture and its traditions. It diminishes the opportunity for children to play and explore, the most natural things in the world. In the comprehensive school of today, instead of circles and clusters, we normally find rows. Instead of open space, there are calibrations of time. Instead of participating in a local village community and its language, students are often removed. What will become of the precious languages and cultures?
Many of the Olastiti kids had stopped going to Arusha for school. According to Alex, they couldn’t afford the bus. Some girls who could not afford the bus but wanted education were impregnated, exchanging relations with the bus driver for rides. Other students tried hitchhiking every day—dangerous. Then, last year, Alex’s dream of a secondary school right here in the village came true. Alex attracted a U.S. charity, “Achieve in Africa,” to raise the building cost of $11,000, and the school started. At first there were no chairs or desks, so the students sat on bricks, rocks and baskets.
One morning, Alex walks us to the new school. Our group of eighteen California students and teachers move through the village, down the goat trails with their five-year old herders, down the dusty streets of dirt and rock rubble; past two thirteen-year old Maasai junior warriors, just circumcised, dressed in black robes with white face markings that look fluorescent in the sun and carrying small wooden cattle-prods; past the orphanage, small farms and huts. A pool hall with a thatched roof. Donkeys. Tractors. We walk past harvested fields, and along the banana plantations. Bean, thorn, acacia and ficus trees line the fields. Chinese motorcycles everywhere. Is this a suburb? Even on the mud houses in this area, thatched roofs have been replaced with corrugated aluminum, so it must be. A hornbill flies overhead. We walk about four kilometers, the same paths that students are now using every day to walk to school. We reach a ten-acre dirt and grass meadow ringed sparsely with thorn trees and a few cinderblock or brick homes, and the school appears on the far side.
Paulina Bagoye is the head of the Olasiti Secondary School, the first such school in the village. “Karibuni,” she says, welcoming us all. She has a solemn, patient smile, close-cropped hair, and she wears a simple red and grey swirled dashiki dress with matching sarong over her shoulder. She carries a flip-style cellphone in her hand. “Asante,” we say.
Her students line up neatly before the school in their uniforms, facing us, and we scan over them and out across the dry meadow where mothers and small children in colorful cloth drift along the path carrying plastic buckets on their heads or backs. Young boys pass by herding cattle.
It is Saturday and some of the boys would not be herding goats or cattle today. Some girls would not be fetching water this morning, either, because, even though it was not a regular school day, the Americans were coming. There are four classrooms for 211 students, providing class sizes typical for public schooling in Tanzania. (Elementary classes can go as high as 100.) There are four teachers, each with a three-year college degree in teaching. They are among the .27% of students in Tanzania, or about on in 400, who go on to University (Elimu Africa ) (compared to almost half of all U.S. youth and 67% of high school grads). The teachers are supplied by the Tanzanian government. The school was to add more classrooms and so the school was to double in size over the next year.
No books or computers were in the classrooms. Students are becoming happier than they used to be, explained Bagoye. Bagoye says the students were from 120 tribal families, 50 percent Maasai. The school is a mix of tribal cultures.
As a gift, we had brought them white board markers, soccer balls, and Frisbees. What drove us to bring white board markers, I will never know. It was crazy. We should have brought them chalk, but we just act like the markers are for art. At any rate, what we brought them was for play. What is more universal than play? I ask Bagoye: How do you accommodate all the tribal cultures in school? She sees no reason to teach culture or community values. Perhaps this is not what school is for. The National Ministry of Education provides the syllabus, and her goal is to deliver it. “Do the families teach local culture?” “What is the family role in education?” “Do you think the national educational program is a replacement for local and traditional cultures?” She has little to say about my questions. I am wondering alone.
“We are happy,” Bagoye reiterated. “We try to encourage our students to study hard.” I recall how, four years earlier while we were visiting schools in Botswana, the President expressed that the tribal people in the bush were a national disgrace, something to be eradicated. Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, Mwalimu, role model for President Kikwete today, hoped to dissolve the differences between all of Tanzania’s 131 tribes. Everyone would be more like one tribe. He called this “Unity.” It appears that what I see as colorful tribal traditions are not valued, either. Bureaucracies prefer grey.
Most likely I underestimated the complexity of the whole concept of unity. Back home in the States, our federal government was engaged in a similar program to Tanzania’s. This program entailed the steady loss of local, place-based curricular decision-making in favor of mandatory, national uniformity. It was called the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Common Core was the latest wave in a quarter-century old “accountability movement” in the U.S. Just like in Tanzania, it had far more to do with filling projected job slots than advancing a rich culture or sense of community. Almost all the states had adopted these “standards.” Texas and Alaska had not. They are the last frontiers, the wild west.
After some orientation we gather all together in a large circle around the national flag for games of singing and dancing. Our students blend in, everyone holding hands and grinning. The flagpole is the new acacia tree. Next, as we have done in many cultures, the students begin kicking some soccer balls around. Once this happens, almost anywhere in the world, a circle begins to form and, from this, soon a game almost always evolves as people divide into teams and spectators. We have brought something new to them and, in a spin-off, we tease their curiosity with Frisbee. Charlie, ninth grader, tries to explain the point of the red plastic disc to our new friends, but after a few seconds of this the California kids just start tossing it around, demoing it. Everyone clusters, and the grinning locals begin circling around and around in every direction looking for a pass, as we are all inventing a game. Amongst ourselves, we claim to be the pioneers of a new sport in Tanzania. We are changing their culture! After a while, we have two games going on, soccer and ultimate Frisbee, each with its own spectators.
On one side of the field, where a group of houses lies, small children have gathered around fascinated by our skin, our Frisbee, and by the images we capture on the lcd panels on the backs of our cameras. Most of them do not appear afraid at all of their own camera images, as so many of their grandparents, the ones born around 1950 and earlier, would be. One, a little Moslem fellow, tiptoes up, peeks at the image, giggles, runs away, then tiptoes up to peek and run away again and again. I am surprised at the cultural diversity of these little ones. I think I was expecting an indigenous tribe here in the little village of Olastiti, at a time when many indigenous peoples are disappearing into a national or global blend. Is this okay? I am afraid that the Millennial world and its nationalized schooling systems are transforming cultures, and I feel a sense of loss. Wood is giving way to plastic, color to dusty dun, circles to rows, space to time. But who am I to judge? I work and live in a Southern California beach town.
I think about my own Austrian, Hungarian, English, Dutch heritage and wish I had a clearer identity and ethnicity, a place, a church, an origin, some roots, but to principal Bagoye and her teachers and students, I must be from the same tribe as everyone else in our group: the Americans. The Californians. The surfers. In California as in Arusha, ethnicities and regional identities, like species, are becoming extinct every day.
After the games, the students all join together in long lines and mouth the national anthem as we all sing together. Our students look captivated and reverent as the whole Olastiti secondary school student body bids them goodbye. A student delegate stands before us and announces, “Thank you for visiting us, you are almost welcome.” Principal Bagoye adds, “Thank you all for choosing us among those special schools you visit. You are mostly welcome,” and we set out on foot, waving goodbye to the rows of happy students gathered around the Tanzanian flag, in their local village school, all dressed in grey.
Blessing the Goat
As teachers, we rarely intend to push limits very much. We plan lessons, most typically knowing what end is in store. We try to show each student who is willing the risk-free, reliable formula for successful learning, what’s important, etc. We avoid risk. In general, we attempt to leave mystery out of the classroom preferring to seek out the known, which is strange if you explore the meanings of words like “teacher” and “education.” But one day on the edge of the Serengeti Plains, we ended up out of bounds, and we did not know how to get back in.
As the day started out, A Maasai herdsman and master cattle whistler named Barradit, spear in hand, walked us through the forest and to a wi-fi hotspot. (Man, that herdsman could whistle!) So, just another business as usual morning with the Dorobo Guides in Tanzania. I dispatched all this description as an email report to the parents back home, and promised to bring home the whistling tune I had learned. The students piled into the Land Rovers and we headed out.
We motored out of Arusha and its outskirts, and after a while the asphalt roads gave way to red clay in decent shape, not too much washboarding. We began crossing the dry savannah, passing the Maasai herders dressed in their red or red and black, three-piece togas, tending their goats or cattle. The corrugated aluminum roofs gave way to thatch as we drove further across the dry plains of Maasailand of sprouting spreading acacias, ancient, giant upside-down baobab trees, and dried out grazing lands with occasional dry soda ponds. It was September when the tsetse fly and mosquitoes are low. It was the usual, slightly overcast day, cool. The students gazed out the windows as the countryside passed them by, a vague impression. It was early in the trip and they were still mostly splintered into sleepy little duos and triads, still not a real team. Often, before a transformation like that happens, everyone has to overcome a significant, shared challenge. They have to go through something together, something real.
After a bumpy two hours we arrived at our campsite in the mountains. The Maasai guides were busy tending to the cooking site they had set up before a tall slanted rock and, roped to the kitchen tarp was a goat. This could only mean one thing. “I’d like to help with the slaughter,” I told Killerai, our guide.
“Why do you want to do that?” he asked with his big smile, curious.
“Because I eat.”
“Of course, you may slaughter the goat,” he said. “I will tell the Maasai.”
I assumed the students would be preoccupied setting up their tents, scrambling on the rocks, napping, maybe even discovering a world without Facebook, and that they would not notice any activity around the camp mess tent. I don’t know how word got out. But within a few minutes of my offer, the students were approaching me or the guides expressing either desire to help in the slaughter or anxiety that something like this could actually be happening, that we might be involved in killing a living creature and eating it. The thing had spun out of control.
"To see things in their true proportion, to escape the magnifying influence of a morbid imagination, should be one of the chief aims of life,"
exclaimed William Edward Hartpole Lecky, in The Map of Life. Lecky’s bronze statue, man in chair, sits before Trinity College in Dublin and yet I have to wonder if he ever worked with teens.
There was no avoidance now, it was time to tackle morbid imagination head on. No matter that this was a basic part of tribal life, Maddie, a senior who had just spent the summer rescuing wolves in Colorado, was inconsolable. No matter that this was probably the greatest gift the Maasai could have given us. We gathered the students all together on the promontory before a glowing Oldonyo Sambu sunset, solemn. We formed a circle. Julie Chippendale, a nurse, and yoga-meditation instructor, recited a Sufi prayer on all of life returning. Let us “pay the debt of our existence.” People weighed in on the nature of sacrifice and the appreciation of the meat we eat. The taking of the goat would be a blessing, life affirming. “I’ll help, too,” one student said, though it was not Maddie. “I want to watch”—another. One by one the students and teachers determined their relationship to the event and, in the end, all but two or three wanted to either watch or participate during the slaughter.
The time came. A Maasai wearing dusty chinos, sandals, and a black tee shirt with the word “Australia” printed across the front led the innocent goat out on a hemp rope. We gathered on a granite outcropping overlooking the valley below and the sunset, for an actual lesson about life in Africa, the veneer of textbooks and lectures, removed. “Here, you may suffocate the goat,” a Maasai offered to me, as Australia held back its legs against the rock.
“Not before all these students. When I offered that, I didn’t know all these students would watch,” and I was still worried that maybe the students should leave. Was this a grave error? Were we traumatizing these students? Even if not, could the parents back home ever understand? Amelia, grade 8 and the youngest and one of the most articulate among us said, “We eat meat, and we need to learn…” and of course she was correct. We go fishing. We squash bugs. I looked across the row of student eyes. Brandon looked scientific and matter of fact. Natalie looked inspired, but she always looked that way. Ahmad looked enthused, hungry—too much so, like many teenage boys.
“This is going to be phone calls when I get home,” I repeated to the teacher standing next to me, as the Maasai guide carefully grasped and held the nose of the goat with a thick cloth. Amelia turned her head away, and the goat’s wriggling slowly ceased. The guides began pulling various parts of the lifeless body taut as a Maasai worked his knife blade to separate various parts of meat. Amelia peeked a couple times, then gradually drew her eyes in with everyone else’s. Two students were about ten paces away, peering out from behind a tree.
As a teacher, it is a rare treasure to get in situations where everyone’s instincts are all weighing in the same, and where the line between teacher and student goes away. The few clouds were turning from gold, to reddish, to grey and the campfire had already been laid out, ready to light. The Maasai were clearly happy we had made possible the purchase of this life-giving goat. Never would we have fresher, more local, more organic, healthier food. They continued carving masterfully, and everyone looked on in reverence and curiosity. This did not look or seem at all like a biology class dissection. “Not a drop of blood,” Ahmad noted admiringly. Our students might either never eat meat again, or they would love the meat they ate.
Next came the kidney, which the Maasai nibbled a bit, then passed around. Some of our students nibble and feel the squish of the fresh organ. It’s like lychee. And then a blue plastic bowl filled with precious goat blood was circulating. To the Maasai this is the healthiest part of all. “This is phone calls,” I moaned to somebody, wiping the blood from my fingers. But of course it was too late. My only choice was to trust our students. Now the carver began separating the useful skin, as a Maasai walked away with a bucket of meat parts to hang on a row of wooden spits above the bonfire.
Gradually the African sky grew inky black and we convened around the campfire. After a while, the meat turned from red to brown and the smell was savory. We circled closer around the campfire, eighteen of us. You can always witness a diverse group starting to come together when circles start to form. We form circles at the end of almost every day on our expeditions, to process issues or express gratitude, but here one was forming on its own. Normally we find a symbolic object to place in the center of our circles, but this time we had a real center. Meat. Things that were mysteries were seeming normal. Up above, Scorpio had appeared. Thor, ninth grade, said, “The thing is, this goat had a better life than 99% of any animal you’ve ever had. At home, I’m a vegetarian, but here, this is good.” Personally, I found the meat pretty tough.
We finished our plates. The Maasai formed a group before us and danced the hyena and elephant and lion, spears moving up and down as they chanted, flames illuminating their flowing Shúkà and faces in wild orange flashes. This was surely not the lesson I had planned. After a while, we yawned and people drifted off to the tents, and one Maasai stood out all night with his spear, the long, bladed side that could be used against lions, facing upwards.
Traveling to eastern Tanzania deep into Maasailand, I doubt any of us could imagine what schools would be like. There is not much in the literature. Would the teachers be warriors?
Would we know a tribe if we saw one? Eastern Tanzania, the birthplace of man, opened up as we began to see more thatched roofs; huts of mud, cow dung and urine; and when we first saw a woman wrapped in brightly colored robes moving gracefully down the side of the dirt road with a bucket on her head I nearly jumped out of my seat to entrap her soul inside my camera. Each step she took was dignified, as though the whole earth were a balance beam.
We pressed on through Tanangire National Park, past a lioness guarding a half-finished wildebeest carcass, dropping gradually down towards the Rift Valley, camping on the Southwest side of the park. The next day, we continued heading east through dry plains of wandering herdsmen with goats, donkeys or cattle; ostrich; termite mounds three times the height of a zebra; the occasional baobab tree, somehow a call for reverence; wide-spreading flame trees that transfixed our eyes; tiny villages with mud huts.
Deeper into the country we drove in the Land Rovers, far out across the plains, a flat, headless giraffe is merging into the dusty landscape and we stop for lunch.
Pressing on, at last, we reach the dry, wide open space called Emboreet. The Emboreet School. “Knowledge is like a garden; if it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested,” goes the African proverb. But there are no gardens out here. Emboreet is an expanse of pastoralists living at least to a fair extent as they have for centuries, and risks like human and cattle disease and drought are only just starting to be viewed as things you can actually do much about, beyond migrating. It can take a twelve hour day or a thirty kilometer round trip walk to get water, which keeps many Maasai nomadic. Some of the children walk half that far for a day at Emboreet School, rather than tending the herds.
Out here, elementary classes can have up 70 students in them, and 120 students is not unheard of in the country. The state Ministry of Education supplies the curriculum. It is the same one they supply for schools in Dar es Salaam, a crowded coastal city and commerce center where there are no herds or baobab trees. As a community educator, I am wondering: What is an Emboreet education? Will there be anything in this community that schooling can sustain rather than replace with whatever the State serves up? Will the local Maasai traditions play a part?
We pull in to the schoolyard and are greeted by the school officials and some Maasai elders who have come around as well, to see visitors from afar. They are tall and dignified looking in their robes. One has a black wool ski cap with the word “Obama” scrolling across the front. Does this mean anything? The U.S. elections, Obama’s second term, are one month away. There is an L-shaped building of eight classrooms with rusting corrugated aluminum roofing, enfolding a red-clay plot punctuated with dry, wispy trees, and a couple matching dorms which do not look well populated. Two donkeys loll around. Two water cisterns help punctuate a perimeter of scrub and succulents, but not much lies beyond that. Ours is the only car. Someone has a bicycle. It is a two dimensional life on the flats, and straight lines have not defined any village as they do in town. These are the last vestiges of the traditional, nomadic community.
The Maasai children bunch up to greet us, rather than line up like they did in the schools close to the city. About half are in their uniforms of yellow tee-shirt tops and green skirts or shorts, colors from the Tanzanian flag. They sing a welcoming song. It is in English language and it is so rhythmic that soon we are all involuntarily bobbing our heads,
We welcome you, to our school,
(louder) We welcome you, to our school.
Clap-Clap, clap clap clap clap,
Clap-Clap, clap clap clap clap.
We welcome you-oo, to our schoo-ool,
We welcome you-oo, to our schoo-ool.
Na nana nan-nan-nan, clap clap clap,
Na nana nan-nan-nan, clap clap clap.
Charlie, a high school freshman who has been travelling all week with a thick paperback on the political history of Tanzania, has also been studying Swahili, and he reads a welcoming script he has composed. The students watch this with a mix of fascination and disbelief, clapping at every pause. Though they have nothing prepared, I browbeat two of our student musicians into singing a song for the children. After all, they have sung for us. Thor accompanies Natalie on ukulele as they perform a very hip, alternative music song by a band called Of Monsters and Men, a song not made for clapping along with, while the little Maasai gathered before us look on, concerned. If you can’t clap or sing along with music, what are you supposed to do?
A few young teens look on from the outskirts, arms folded, hovering, but for the most part teens seeking schooling would have to go to a boarding facility in the city, if they could pay the fees. That could be around $1000 a year for families used to living on a dollar or two a day. The locals of Emboreet hope that someday this school will board four or five hundred secondary students. That was the original plan.
We talk with the principal a while and explain we have arts and sports stuff and want to work with the kids. Dorobo Guides has told her we’re coming, and they’re excited. Now we are ready to convene into a couple classrooms. This is what we came for. With walls of dull yellow and powder blue, a smudged blackboard and rows of bench desks, this could have been a classroom in any country.
Student exchange in the elementary classroom is very different than in the high school classroom. There can be no forum. Besides, we have almost no common language.
We give out a pencil and two or three crayons to everyone we can so that we may begin drawing, and each of our students gets a group of two or more elementary students. The Maasai kids are almost overwhelmed at this way of organizing. How many tourists ask to spend the day with them at their school? They are incredibly joyful and filled with smiles. The melodic banter of Maasai and Swahili fills the room.
An older child is so overenthusiastic he tries to take a pencil from a little one, and one of our students sorts that out. Our paper is unbelievably scarce in this school, so we take the 8 ½ by 11 sheets and carefully tear them into fours. Now there is almost enough to go around, if we use both sides.
As overwhelming as all the paper and drawing materials are, more overwhelming to the children is the presence of a dozen, smiling, light-skinned teens from a faraway land, all wanting to draw with them and sing with them. They physically attach to our students, hugging and hanging on to every word, grinning and giggling politely, and absorbed in drawing beautiful pictures of Serengeti wildlife, bomas (homesteads), and beautiful visions. Birds. Tribesmen. Fish! Lots of flowers. We all huddle together and draw until there is no more paper.
Gradually, students are coming outside where we have brought not only soccer balls but pumps for them. There is no groundcover, but the sandy red clay yard is smooth enough to play the French Open. And globally, soccer balls never fail. Soccer stimulates self-organization and collaboration amongst any diverse group. We have even done with this with Israeli and Arab ethnicities. Soccer is language. We have Frisbees, too. By a slight shade of a dry thorn tree, a group of seven huddle in with fascination as they pass around Thor’s ukulele. We play like this for about an hour and it feels like we have spread goodwill. But we have many miles to cover and, since it is not a regular school day, these students may have goats and cattle to herd.
We load into the Land Rovers and one of the herdsman who was at the school directs us to his homestead, his boma, a rare glimpse of another world. In the country, the Maasai herdsmen live with the goats, cattle and two or three wives to tend them.
Once inside the boma, we walk over to a hut surrounded by baby goats and then into its open doorway, and there is an entry wall with a sign reading: “Karibuni WA WA.” Welcome people. Unexpectedly, the herdsman invites us to enter the hut. We amble in, ducking into the main, round room with its two tiny, low sleeping alcoves. It is dark and we are met first by two eyes, set back in a corner. Wife number one. We move quietly like trespassers.
In front of another hut is another wife with her bald, rheumy-eyed mother. Her three little boys in patchwork robes and ear piercings hover around along with some chickens and dogs, holding their wooden cattle prods. We did not see them in the school today. Behind, prairie runs as far as the eye can see.
There is limited secondary school in Emboreet. Girls marry at between ages 12 and 18, sometimes as arranged around the time of their birth if someone has paid the bride price. Their lives are on the boma, where they gather firewood, carry water (unless they have a donkey), build the houses, cook, and milk the cows. All this may change if the Maasai are moved (by the government) to areas where they can farm reliably. And, as hard as their life seems, if the past 10,000 years is any indication, loss of the herder lifestyle and transition into a farming life will make things a whole lot harder. But herders and hunters make it hard for the government to carve up the land into taxable chunks. This is no world for a warrior.
Of course, education is changing a lot of this. Ngos are paying for more of the girls to go to boarding school. Is this the advance of a better life? The Maasai love their native language. Will it die out? Will the development of all these schools across the plains put all these children into a low-end mimicry of Western schooling, six-hour days of restrictions and artificial book learning preparing them for … what? For over a century now, people have been speculating on when the Maasai will cease to exist (Matthiessen, 182). Is this the accomplishment mandatory schooling and agriculture will bring about?
I shoot photographs of the faces and already know that they are hopelessly too good, a cosmic set piece, here now but vanishing. This life is all too precious; its time is running out. We say our goodbyes, and continue heading east through dry, red, reedy plains. We pass two women, grain they have milled and bagged strapped to the side of a donkey, on their way to a market somewhere, something we could not have seen a decade ago.
They are the future.
Eventually we begin ascending, winding up a red, clay road and up the Rift Escarpment to the congested town of Mulu where electrical wires crisscross overhead, giraffe is supposedly labeled “beef,” and Pepsi is on every corner but only shillingi are taken for them, no dollars. We continue climbing up toward dusty plains with young cow herders and their siblings, herding, walking, working along the way, just happy children. We are headed across the Great Rift Valley, deeper still into the bush. How much farther from civilization is there? We are out of paper and soccer balls.
"It is not necessary to hope in order to persevere."
William the Silent, Netherlands
Perhaps more important than knowledge, the enduring outcomes of great education are friendship and the sense of openness and connection. When teaching is great, we get this sense growing between individuals and shared among groups and communities. Here is a story of great teaching.
The Great Rift Valley is a crack in the earth running six thousand miles from around the Dead Sea, all the way down to Kenya in the south of Africa. It is the only landform you can see from the moon. We were going to cross over it, the world on the other side being unlike anything we’d ever seen or are likely to see again.
You might not want to make this trip without a Land Rover. Our guide, Killerai, said he’d rather push a Rover than do what we were doing with any other vehicle. We had driven southwest, several hours from Arusha, through tribal lands and villages with smiling children waving along the side of the road, past cattle prodded along by little boys with sticks, across river valleys, then switchbacking up the Great Rift Escarpment.
Once on the other side, we began crossing the Valley, a flat salt pan that was dry enough around this time of year, September, to drive across, and even then only if you could avoid cracks in the earth and the occasional mud sink. For a student group, this was rough going. As a teacher with two vehicles filled with students rapidly dehydrating, I was shaking my head once again, fretting, “This time I’m gonna get parent phone calls.” By the time we reached the other side, we could sense the Great Rift had cut us off from a changing Africa. The Rover began climbing the far side of the Escarpment, steep and rocky, passing small grass huts and dry scrub. People moving very slowly with long, rough wooden spears indicated that we were in a very different part of the world. We would meet no other vehicles. We were in one of the last, inhabited parts of the natural world, the tribal land of the Hadza (Hadzabe).
Daudi Peterson re-discovered these people around 40 years ago. A Dutch missionary who had just finished in his post, he determined to make contact with the tribe and so, driving far out into their lands, he filled an oil drum with tobacco and lit it. The people came from miles around at the rich smell of their only luxury.
That was the start of the Dorobo Guides. Ever since then, Daudi’s guide service has been stopping by now and then. Their business is both safaris and very special partnering with local tribes. Through Daudi’s “Dorobo Fund,” every visitor on safari was donating $50 per visit to the local tribe, which went to a general fund to pay for medical care or education down in the city. It would buy them nothing that they use up in their lands. This would also allow them to learn the ways of the city people so they might not be taken advantage of.
The Hadza, say our guides, are believed to be one of the only remaining hunter-gatherer societies in the world. There are probably about 700 Hadzape remaining on earth. Retaining what could be a 40,000-year heritage in the area, they do not herd cattle. They do not grow crops. If they are not hungry enough to eat it today, they won’t remove it from the earth. As such, study of the past or future is of minimal importance in Hadza education. They would be puzzled by our educational obsession with the prefrontal lobe, always planning for predictable outcomes. On the other hand, people all over my town in Southern California talk often of living life “in the present moment,” and at this the Hadza are clearly at guru level. We pulled into a heavily wooded clearing where the Hadza had already set up the mess tent for us.
They were dressed in hand-me-downs and animal skins, and they adorned themselves with colorful beadwork. Hence, the Hadza lifestyle is similar to the way it’s been for hundreds of years, maybe thousands. Soon after our arrival, it was time to gather tuber roots for food and we followed the men and women into the woods. This we did successfully with our digging sticks, noticing the small children buzzing about the outskirts of our activities. A small child always seemed to be toddling around, punching his little digging stick here and there.
Hadza seem impervious to the western and increasingly global illusion that we can and should make life whatever we want it to be. The Hadza have resisted western and other outside influences with incredible tenacity and consistency. Dorobo Guides explained to us that, when the missionaries came and left Bibles, the Hadza used the pages to roll and smoke tobacco. What’s more, their children receive no education. At no time does a Hadza parent tell the child what to do, nor did they tell us what to do. Hence, in the utmost educational irony I have witnessed or imagined, they pass along their culture primarily by not schooling.
Such concepts, occasionally called “unschooling,” where students pursue their own inclinations freely and with trust, are well known to Western educators and psychologists, and supportive research is easy to find, even if it is widely ignored in practice. For instance, as Deci, et al concluded, “In terms of education, it has become ever more apparent that self-determination, in the forms of intrinsic motivation and autonomous internalization, leads to the types of outcomes that are beneficial both to individuals and to society.” (Deci et al. 1991, 342)
Anthropologists have noted that the Hadza do not beat or scold their children, as they must presume that the child’s instinct is the main thing worthy of their trust. The child’s educational guide is their own free will, as nature has designed it. Developmental psychologist Peter Grey details this, citing research from anthropologists who have observed Hadza and other, scarce and threatened hunter-gatherer tribes, “They run, chase, leap, climb, throw, and dance, and in doing so they develop fit and coordinated bodies. They make musical instruments and play the familiar …songs and create new ones. They do all this because they want to. Nobody tells them they must. Nobody tests them.” (Gray 2013, 22)
World over, most schooling emphasizes accountability, meaning that the will and free spirit of a fair number of our youth are drummed out of them over years of mandatory sitting in rows for hours every day and ranking the value of each based fundamentally upon how compliant they are with our wishes. Hadza children are subject to no such competitions or judgments. They merely play. Through mimicry of their elders, they care for infants, build huts and tools, make fires, defend against make-believe predators, and tell stories. If their parents have quarreled, they may rehash it the next day in playful mimicry. Suicide and anxiety are incomprehensible. They learn to stay alive and healthy in the most natural way in the world. Afield our first morning with them, they found us some honeycomb high up in the tree branches, the sweetest treat I have ever tasted. Children make miniature bows and arrows for fun, and we saw eight or nine year-olds who appeared to be stalking small creatures.
Some Hadza teens are sent to the city for secondary schooling, paid for by the Dorobo Fund. When we asked the elders why they did this, they explained that the tribe needed to understand the outside world enough to preserve and protect what they had on the inside. One women we met has seven children and six are away at the government boarding school. There they were learning Swahili and the ways of civilization and authority. Some Hadza leave the tribe forever, and others return after their city education. Some try their hand at city jobs for a while and then return to the tribe and its simple ways. Why not quit your job as an urban trash collector and return to the land for a two to three hour workday? Primarily, though, for the past century, the Hadza “ask nothing from the rest of us but to be left alone.” (Matthiessen, 211)
As with the Maasai, the federal government has tried for many years to pressure the Hadza to turn to an agrarian lifestyle, but they continue to resist. Farming would be too much work. Moreover, their simple, sustainable ways would be lost forever. On October 18, 2011, the Hadza living in the Yaeda valley were at last issued land titles for land encompassing more than 20,000 hectares of land. A culmination of years of strategy and work, this was a momentous occasion and a historical precedent in Tanzania. The Hadza may now continue their lifestyle (Dorobo Safaris ).
On invitation through the Dorobo Guides, we shadowed the Hadza, and were schooled by them in various survival skills. They treated us as they treat their own children, which is to say, with enormous respect. We found not only the Hadza children but all we met to be not only incredibly good natured, but incredibly stoical and free of any show of burden as they lived in the balance of nature in ways we would most likely find beautiful, isolated, uncomfortable, and arduous. We began feeling the same way. We found no age divisions or groupings as Hadza children played. Younger children learn from older, sometimes in great fun. If any of our group sat down next to an elder or grandparent who was beading or arrow-making and showed curiosity, we would see the elder slow down and begin to share this activity with us gladly, guiding our less experienced hands.
One day we got up early to go hunting. My group was lead by an elder, Kou’unda. He carried a baboon fur-trimmed bow strung with giraffe tendon and we followed in his footsteps. We had helped manufacture the arrows, sliding smooth sticks across the fire, bending any kinks out of the wood with our teeth. Our students found this engaging and relevant.
We walk a few miles on foot as the rough, wagon-style track gives way to single, red clay trails. We follow closely, through the woods and meadows, Kou’unda peeking around corners and listening for signs of game, but nothing. There was little to talk about because we had not yet discovered any common words. At a rest stop, by a cave, he show us a little known “click” word, which is made by popping the tongue off the roof of the mouth. It means, arrow. “Click-baago,” he says: arrowhead. “Click-baago.” He somehow gestures to make me understand that he likes my hiking boots and wants them. I don’t know why, because his feet look completely adapted to the local terrain. We even worry that we have no business introducing foreign objects into this indigenous situation. I reply, “Hiking boots.” He smiles.
We climb a rise into a heavily shaded area surrounded with six-foot rock outcroppings when Kou’unda suddenly turns on his heel, looks at us, puts his finger to his mouth, a universal sign I guess, and we stop in our tracks while he slides an arrow into this bow. Kou’unda has heard something. A second later, we too hear a soft drumming. Kou’unda crouches. Then, tap, hooves on rock, and a blur of something like a small deer bounds up, lightly touches his forepaws on the rock for added thrust, passes overhead while Kou’unda wheels around and lets go a poison-tipped arrow as we hear another tapping of hooves on a higher up rock outcropping and this blur disappears into the thick wood. A klipspringer.
Kou’unda walks over to the rocks and fishes around some, then comes walking back with two objects that were of one: the front of the arrow, and the broken, feathered part. He points to the front of the arrow and says, looking down, “click-baago.” The valuable arrowhead is gone. Crestfallen or reflective, I can’t tell which, he extracts a cigarette rolling paper out of his pants pocket with a pinch of tobacco and rolls one up. Then he draws his hunting knife from out of its sheath, slices a small branch off a tree, and fashioned a four-inch platform into which he hollows out a small bowl with the tip of his knife. He rounds off the edges of his broken arrow, carefully letting the shavings fall into the tiny tinder bowl.
I’ve travelled with outdoorsmen and survivalists, including Native Americans, all over the United States but never seen anything like this. In close to two minutes he had constructed both an ancient style bow drill and a cigarette, created fire, and was sitting in the shade plaintively smoking. That klipspringer would have been a week’s worth of meat. He could have been a hero back in the tribe. And he didn’t even have a click-baago to show for it.
When he was done smoking I looked at him and said, very slowly, “Kou’unda, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” This was so different than the things I am normally sorry about, I had to wonder if the Hadza had a better word. I took off my beaded bracelet I’d bought in the market, offered it up. He looked at the bracelet and said, “Maasai,” recognizing the tribal style, and he put it on.
Then he took off his own bracelet, fit it onto my wrist, where it still is right now after one year. “My friend,” he said in English. “My friend.”
We walked back and, from behind, I studied Kou’unda’s gait carefully. He never once even broke a twig passing through the brush—I don’t know how he did that. It reminded me that sensitivity to the environment is the true meaning of intelligence, something his children would surely have. His feet tracked in a single line, which I mimicked, as a good student. In these ways, I determined, Kou’unda was a master teacher.
When we got back to camp I took off my shoes, held them out saying “hiking shoes,” and Kou’unda was quick to take them. Ever since then, every time I call someone “my friend,” it taps down into something more ancient than it used to.
In the five years prior to our visit to Tanzania, 1500 community schools were built across Tanzania, all with an eye towards delivering a more accessible, more uniform, state-approved education to the youth across the country. It is perfectly within the realm of imagination that all this public work to further transform a land into a nation could invite both the greatest liberation and the greatest educational loss of the new millennium. What vast and timeless spirit will be gone? What great unity awaits the future of students and tribes? For some of the tribes, the federal pursuit of equity will mean the extinction of their identify and ethnicity. If you want to photograph them, go quickly.
It is an ancient and still contemporary precept that two ideas can contradict each other and both be completely true. Few spaces on earth remain outside the reach of national bureaucracies seeking compulsory, standardized education in the name of “unity” or “equity.” And yet, the more education we force on our children, the less time, space and freedom there is for their own, intimate searches for meaning. Most of our educational heroes said no less, whether we look to Dewey, Fröbel, Einstein, Montessori, Piaget or even, in a powerful sense, Socrates.
The youthful human is the most adaptable, learning sponge in all of creation, and we saw this ontogeny recapitulated as our Rovers took us deeper and deeper into the dark continent. Africa is too big to be true, and anyone on a meaningful expedition there may discover primeval spaces which tap into the human instinct, a limitless field for emerging research on learning, and into human intuition, our ultimate meeting place of the mind and the brain. We drove further from the cities, and deeper into more localized, more ancient educational practices and, for a few moments there, we thought we had a glimpse of freedom.
On our last night with the Hadza, we cooked our catch—a turtle and an irax—on the rocks of the campfire. Our native teachers sang songs all evening to the melodies of the handmade, two-string, gourd zither, and they sounded strikingly like traditional Appalachian fiddle tunes. I had one translated:
A man has such trouble.
Won’t you help?
He has leprosy.
He has misery.
Ballads maybe a thousand years old. Older. Lessons that transcend any time and human culture. Loneliness and pain. Loss.
The next morning, we loaded the Rovers and headed back to the city for our long journey home, first stopping at the Hadza settlement at the foot of the hill to say goodbye. There were the men and boys hovered around just being, while the village mothers sat beading, their children close at hand, all circled around the spreading acacia tree.
Deci, Edward, L., Robert J. Vallerand, Luc G. Pelletier, and Richard M. Ryan. 1991. "Motivation and Education: The Self-Determination Perspective." Educational Psychologist 26 (4): 342.
Dorobo Safaris. "Hadza Granted Land Title.", http://www.dorobosafaris.com/news/
Elimu Africa. "About Tanzania Schools.", http://www.elimuafrica.org/page20/page9/page9.html
Gray, Peter. 2013. In Free to Learn, 22.
Matthiessen, Peter. In The Tree Where Man was Born, 182. New York: Penquin Group.
Matthiessen, Peter. In The Tree Where Man was Born, 211. New York: Penquin Group.
National Exam Council of Tanzania. "ACSEE 2012 Examination Results.", http://utawala.udsm.ac.tz/form62012/ACSEE%202012/s0221.htm
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