“All these men just hanging around doing nothing…!”, my Mum kept commenting when she visited Tanzania. It’s true. Partly because social life happens outside, and partly because Time here is a different kind of commodity – something to be shared, not jealously guarded as it is by us in the West, running around shouting about how busy we are.
By now, though, I had stopped noticing the lazing and lurking and staring; I (sometimes) enjoy the gentler approach to time. And many of these men – they are usually men – do work somewhere, during irregular hours perhaps: selling produce in the market, working in a relative’s shop, repairing things.
But even if they’re lucky enough to have that informal employment, a desperate lack of skills prevents them ever getting more than unstable, unreliable work for a minimal wage.
That skills deficit starts at the most basic level. Tanzania has made progress: the share of national income spent on education more than tripled in the last decade; in the same period, enrolment in primary schools doubled. But just being in school, it seems, is not enough. Studies this year of East African pupils found quality of learning is still very poor. For example, 20% of children in Standard 7 (the last year of primary school) do not have Standard 2 level literacy and numeracy competencies. At secondary level – among the 36% of Tanzanians who even make it to that level – learning continues to be hindered by poorly trained teachers; lack of facilities; English as a medium of instruction while most pupils (and their teachers) barely master the language.
It’s not surprising, then, that so many lack what experts call ‘foundation’ skills – basic numeracy and literacy needed for self-sufficiency. Such foundation skills are the prerequisite for acquiring the next level of ‘transferable’ skills (such as problem-solving or communication) that employers of better paid and more stable jobs need.
Skills gaps are evident among professionals too. Sometimes, people we work with lack basic competences – struggling to send an e-mail or write correctly. Economist friends working here found themselves explaining the basic concept of inflation to the government officials responsible for the country’s economic planning. A friend teaching new media at a journalism school tells me his students – in their final year of studies – have barely used a computer. Shopkeepers struggle with calculations; handymen overlook logical ways to solve problems.
Globally, as unemployment soars particularly among young people, the talk is of addressing the mismatch between skills and the demands of the labour market. That’s true of Europe too, where they face rising costs of third-level education and an increasingly competitive labour market. 15% of all EU 15-29 year-olds – 14 million people – are not in education or employment.
But the fate of young jobseekers is extreme in Africa, partly because the average skills level is so much lower, and partly because of the sheer numbers. Two thirds of Africans are under 25 years old (compared to less than one third in rich countries). The implications of that may go far beyond even the economic and social, seeping into the political fabric of the continent. The recent unrest in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar are about more than just religion. As one commentator writes: “no one who has a job has the time to put down tools and go torch a building. The criminal insta-mob was made up of young men: we have tons of them sitting around looking for a way to keep body and soul together with dignity.”
Maybe Mum was right about to be concerned about all those men.