Lashes During Lunchtime

Every Monday through Friday I take my lunch break around 10am, which may seem early but I’m famished by then after being awake since 5:45am. This lunch break was a little unusual as I overheard a screaming match between an intimidating Swahili teacher and a 16 year old boy with guilt written all over his face. After much debate, the teacher ordered him to balance on one foot and squat – it was almost flamingo like, but the look on his face did not show serenity and relaxation like the rosy birds usually have. His face did, however, have a luminescent pink glow similar to a flamingo, but his red face was more as a result of stress as opposed to mother nature.

Five minutes later he was commanded to switch, but in the process of switching his feet he tipped over to one side, resting his body momentarily on the concrete slab flooring. Instead of giving him another chance, she giggled with the Geography teacher and held up a stick. The stick looked weak, but the teacher looked strong. After playfully practicing her swing the teacher directed the student to put his palms on the edge of the desk.

WHACK.

The first one took me by immense surprise. I was dumbfounded that such a weak-looking stick could make such a piercing sound. I was not completely naive to the system of corporal punishment in Tanzanian schools up until this point, but I imagined slaps on the wrists not a public whipping. The teacher took two more swings, both landing in the lower back region of the student, between her lighthearted laughs. After listening to three lashes I was relieved that it was over. I was relieved at least until I saw the teacher toss the stick across the room to her friend. They joked about who could hit harder (at least that’s what I gathered through the language barrier).

The next lady took a couple strikes before declaring defeat and passed it over to the Geography teacher from earlier. He walked confidently up to the student’s backside and began tapping the students rear with the stick just like a hitter would do before swinging at a baseball. The teacher chucked and mid-laugh threw the stick so hard against the student’s back; the stick flew out of his hand landing across the room. Four strikes later and I can barely lift my eyes off my grading, but I do so that I can continue furiously taking notes on my trusty notebook next to me.

I wanted to ask the teacher so badly what he did to be punished so severely but I couldn’t. Not gonna lie, I was a little worried about what my punishment would be if I questioned the authority..

I’m not one to question the culture of a country so distant from my own culture. I do not think that Americans have a superior culture where we have figured out the perfect formula for educating children, because we haven’t. I do, however, feel like beating a student publicly during school time is counterproductive, not to mention wrong. Watching the teachers take the whipping as one big joke was even more heart wrenching. To me, all teachers must genuinely care about their students to be effective educators. I feel like a teacher who will joke so carelessly while beating their student cannot possibly care about their student enough to truly provide them with an adequate education they so badly need.

Interrupting Success

Classes “begin” every day at 7:15am, Africa time, so this essentially means that students won’t even sit down until around 7:45am. It’s hard to blame them when their own headmaster strolls in around 8:20 every morning.  Even when I do finally get to teach, other administration will arrogantly march into my classroom when I am mid-lesson. The constant interruptions and lack of time-management just reinforces most students’ belief that their education is a waste of time.

One day, in particular, I was mid-sentence when a senior Swahili teacher knocked on the door. Before I could even see who was at the door he pranced in and announced he had an urgent message. I reluctantly agreed to let him speak, basically having no choice. At that moment of agreement his whole attitude changed from a cheery, but tired disposition to one of infuriated drill sergeant. He shouted at my class of generally obedient teenagers, “All of you stand up!”

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He walked around the room flaunting his stick while half my class nervously laughed, while the others wore faces of genuine fear. Most of the side conversation was in Swahili so I’m unsure if they knew what was to come, but by the looks of their faces this incident was a common occurrence.

The teacher then ordered the students to show him their badges, like they were all enlisted in a boot camp for troubled teenagers or they were inmates at a prison. Their badges had the school logo on them and apparently were necessary to learn. He walked around the room whacking the squirming male students who had not remembered their “badge”. All the boys in the classroom to the quick beating generally well and even laughed it off amongst themselves a little bit.

Then the teacher got to the first girl who had forgotten her badge. She was a fighter. She wriggled her way to the floor to avoid the lash, which only made him madder. The entire class was giggling except the girl’s best friend who looked at me with eyes full of worry.

After finally getting a firm grasp on the girl, the teacher hit her back once and then slammed the stick against the back of her neck. She fell into her seat and sank her face into her shaking hands. Five minutes of silent crying later, I brought my stash of toilet paper from my wallet over to her as a makeshift tissue. She quietly responded, “sank you” as she wiped her tears and went back to work.

It was not easy to continue teaching after watching that unfold. I kept looking down at the girl somberly taking notes in the front row, thinking about what a good student she was and the lack of compassion the teacher had. I understand why these schools use corporal punishment, because it is the same reason America used it when we were still a developing country. (In fact corporal punishment is still legal in 19 states!) But what I don’t understand is how he can do it. I teared up watching that girl fall to the floor staring up at the looming stick threatening to beat her. Compassion is required for effective educating and I just do not see that with the majority of teachers in my school.

Pulling from my past anthropological studies, I understand that compassion can vary from culture to culture, which is in part why I did not put up a fight against the teacher with the stick. It is their culture and I came here to learn about it so I cannot keep a closed mind about their various traditions. I just hope that one day, with development and compassionate teachers, the education system in Tanzania and all around the world will improve so that every student has an equal opportunity to succeed.

I would like to point out however, current Tanzanian Laws limits teachers to hitting a child four times with a stick. I have personally watched a child get hit ten times.