Africa Time – Ups & Downs

Africa: a continent so diverse I can’t formulate one general description of it. It’s a challenge to feel stressed in Africa; life is just slower and the air is simply fresher. Unfortunately (and sometimes fortunately) what comes along with everyone’s relaxed disposition is a lack of urgency as well as the joke that scheduling is in Africa.

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While working in Tanzania as an English teacher if class started on time I questioned the sanity of my headmaster. Even in Morocco my pre-arranged car was almost three hours late to pick me up at the airport in Rabat. In South Africa they actually have slang to inhibit Africa’s bad habit; when you say “just now” that means meet you in 20 minutes and when you say “now now” that means maybe 10 minutes – there’s no such thing as being in a hurry. This overarching generalization of poor time management is what the traveling community knows as Africa time. Nothing ever starts on time, which is an adjustment from the structured Western world I come from and comes with its own set of ups and downs.

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UPSIDES – I’m an optimist person as well as someone who loves Africa so I’d much rather start with positives. Obviously having no true schedule is fairly conducive for relaxation and can be freeing to not live your life by a strict schedule. College has gotten me in such a rut with a packed planner varying from odd jobs, club meetings, actual classes, and social gatherings. It’s exhilarating to go somewhere where none of that matters.

Teaching without a community sense of time is actually awesome because it gives me the flexibility to make lesson plans on the fly. If something isn’t working I can change it. My school was grateful for anything I could do for them because my English skills were something they never had before. It’s not like there was a scary curriculum looming over my every move like it is in America. Sure there were standardized exams that were and are a big deal for my students, but I could get through the required information in about five minutes leaving me forty minutes of fun time.

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Another upside to “Africa time” is that no one is ever in a hurry. Yes this can also go into the negative section, but I’ll get to that in a few. Being able to snooze my alarm a couple times without waking up in a rumpus is amazing. It gives me the ability to stroll to my school instead of my fast-paced halfrun I do to get to class here in the US. Think of all the surroundings and people-watching you miss out on when you speed walk. That’s not a problem in Africa.

With a view like this how can one be stressed? This was the balcony on the back of my school - Tumekuja Secondary School

With a view like this how can one be stressed? This was the balcony on the back of my school – Tumekuja Secondary School

calo-bolletteDOWNSIDES – As I mentioned earlier there are many, like lists and lists, of reasons why “Africa time” is really awful. It can serve as a major roadblock in getting anything substantial done in a classroom setting or just with everyday life and it makes tourism less desirable for many people. All of this adds up to the fact that a lack of time management hinders Africa’s economic development on a larger scale. On a more personal level and with having experience teaching in a very disorganized environment, I’ve found that the biggest challenge was never really knowing exactly what my school wanted of me.

Basically when I arrived at my school on the first day they handed me a book and said teach. One day I was thrown into a random environmental science class to teach a lesson on environmental degradation and chloroflourocarbons to students only one year younger than me. I really should have recorded myself teaching that class because it just might have gotten on America’s Home Videos or something of the sorts. But really you just have to go with it – that’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from living and teaching in Tanzania.

It’s certainly irritating to have no set schedule, leaving me with more questions than answers, which is only intensified by most locals inability to speak English and my poor Swahili skills. I would go for a meeting and simply no one would show up for thirty  minutes. Break time at my schools was supposed to last 15 minutes, but I cannot remember a single day that it finished within 30. All of my lesson plans were constantly re-evaluated and re-worked because of the sheer quantity of unplanned occurrences. And you know, that’s ok.

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If you let the three hour late bus ride bother you, truthfully, you will never make it in Africa. Flexibility is key when traveling in general, but especially in Africa because of all the unexpected things that could happen – sudden rains, bad roads, violence, and so many more different curveballs that may be thrown at you. Africa is a learning and growing experience. So just go! Africa awaits you.

Interested in volunteering/interning in Tanzania?

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My one friend, Sean Stoerrle, is working with a wondering non-profit called Maasai Children Education located in Arusha, Tanzania including programs all over the country mostly centered in Arusha, but also in Zanzibar. You can doing anything from working with NGOs to environmental work with Roots and Shoots to teaching. Sean is an expert on Tanzania as he’s lived there for the past few years and he’s an alumni from my college, Washington College. Check out more about their program at their website or Facebook!

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Another possibility out there is called America’s Unofficial Ambassadors, which focuses on providing unique internships that connect Americans to the Muslim World in hopes of building better relations between the two areas as well as dispel stereotypes. In Africa, they have programs in Morocco and Zanzibar, but they also have a handful of other programs including ones in Indonesia and Tajikistan. Wonderfully organized opportunity and there are opportunities of funding through the program. Check out their website or Facebook as well for more information.

The Terminal Test

As much as that sounds like a catchy title with the whole alliteration thing, it’s not. The students at my school in Zanzibar actually have to take a biannual exam called the “Terminal Test”. And the name isn’t just for the intimidation factor. For students in secondary school, if they fail the national exam, they are cut.

Terminal. That makes me think of terminal cancer or the terminator. I’m picturing Arnold Schwarzenegger rampaging through my school after exams are graded and slaughtering the ones who failed. For those who have dreams of becoming doctors and lawyers this exam is the end all be all. If you fail this, there is little hope of ever continuing your education. For the few students who make it to the end of Secondary School at a level of Form 6 only about 35% of them pass their exam (According to The Guardian in 2009). This outlook on education – that there is a pass or a fail option and students who fail will be doomed to a life selling souvenirs on the street is the problem. Because of the dire importance of this exam faintings have been “reported” (and when I say reported, there weren’t actually any reports made.. just a hear-say type of thing that apparently a lot of faintings occur around exam time). I myself have seen three girls faint now within a week. That third girl definitely pushed me over the “coincidental limit”. My guess is that all the stress from those looming terminal exams is what has driven females especially to being completely overwhelmed.

Students, from what I’ve seen, are very hard working. I’ve seen sentences like “If I fail my exam I am very stupid” and “I am foolish if I do not pass my exam”. They want to be here and they know that education can be their key out of poverty. In 2 hours and 15 minutes this key could be snatched away from them if they do not perform well on their exams. That’s a lot of pressure.

 

Maybe They Aren’t Fine?

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Every morning at 7:15am I am welcomed into my classroom by a mob of good morning teacha’ followed by a cloud of chalkboard dust from the one reliable student cleaning the 

board for me. I respond to my class with the same greeting plus a three-word phrase so common in America, I findmyself stunned with how unique and droning their reply is. I ask, how are you? expecting the typical good that I know I used to monotonously retort to my dad when I was their age. Instead of good, they respond with we are fine. But are they really fine? Is everyone on this island really just fine?

I have learned that in Kiswahili greetings that when someone asks habari, or how are you, you must respond with nzuri, which essentially means good. In America I feel like people have a habit to just complain when they are posed with that classic question even if the person asking really does not care. In Zanzibar even if you are really not fine you are trained to always say I am fine or nzuri.

Walking into my classroom I feel like my students surrounding me are all being fed a teleprompter script morning after morning. Then I remind myself, if my school doesn’t even have running water they definitely don’t have a teleprompter.

After a few days of getting the same colorless greeting I decided to teach one of my classes emotions. I brought in pictures of people laughing and people crying to represent the many different feelings a person can have. I told them it was ok for them not to be fine.  At first they gave me a perplexed blank stare until I began going around the room asking them personally how they felt.

I got answers varying from happy to headache to excited to hungry. Their responses provided mixed emotions for me. I felt like maybe I was defying their culture by asking them to actually share their feelings, and that maybe I was not ready to hear almost half the class tell me they were hungry. At the same time, however, I felt accomplished to have at least made a small impact on allowing them to feel heard. I, even just for a few minutes, gave them a chance to express how they felt instead of them just repeating the same required greeting like a robot.

In this generation of Americans – nicknamed Generation “Me” – children feel entitled to speak their feelings and generally get their way. There is certain your wish is my command type of attitude in America, which is completely unheard-of in at least the environments I have been in in Zanzibar. Children and all Zanzibarians for that matter don’t expect much here. They just claim to be “fine” or “nzuri” all the time.

Looking at their bland responses from an outsider perspective, I just find it so unnatural and oppressive to always respond in a positive manner. After a full week of teaching I was able to remove my critical lens and see this as simply their way of life. Although I have come to accept this cultural shortcoming (in my opinion), I will continue to ask my students how they are actually feeling. They are not always fine. They are hungry and tired and happy and surprised and glad. They have a multitude of emotions that deserve to be heard and not masked behind their school’s restrictions on how to greet a teacher.