Tag Archives: language

A few small bananas

My third day in Nakivale, Uganda’s oldest refugee settlement, and feeling ready to move on tomorrow. Meanwhile my guide and translator, a film-maker and actor called Alex, is in his ninth year of living here. Some Rwandans I’ve spoken to have been here 16 years. Some mention those who were resettled in the US, Canada, Denmark; many have disappeared to try to make it in Uganda’s cities. Most people stay.

And they come. New arrivals — about 3000 each month — put the current number of inhabitants at 110,000. The population looks set to keep growing:  Uganda is receiving refugees from not one next-door crisis, but three: DR Congo, Burundi, South Sudan.

I’ve talked to maybe 20 people, some for five minutes, some for several hours. Olga, a warm young Congolese woman who has galvanised a group of her peers to start making and selling crafts, tells me in well-spoken French that life is better here for simple reasons: securité, liberté. We can do what we want. Many others are less positive. Yes, we could go and live elsewhere, but how can we afford to? Yes, we can set up businesses here in Nakivale, but how, without capital? Yes, we could buy better or cheaper goods from the cities, but who pays our transport there? Continue reading

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Sticking around

Home salon

Home salon

There are two other mzungus staying in the village at the moment – a pair of young English volunteers with the UK International Citizen Service programme. They work along with Ugandan volunteers, so the talks they give on sexual and reproductive health can be translated into Luganda or Lusoga.

At the weekend, the volunteers talked about HIV/AIDS to the women at the end of the crafts session. It wasn’t very interactive and it was hard to tell if many people were listening – or understood the dry, scientific explanations. They were silent though, during the condom demonstration, and gathered stacks of female condoms to take home. Continue reading

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Pig & blankets

My four students, Ugandan volunteers from their early 20s to about 50, arrived more or less on time (on African time) this morning. Susan promptly handed a bundle of blankets over to the boss, who sat at the desk next to us with the sleeping 1-month-old Elijah across her lap the rest of the morning. The shriek of a pig being slaughtered just outside was a bit more distracting, but otherwise things sort of went to plan (photos coming once internet more available).

The level of education, and of confidence, varies widely in the group. Zai has her own business – making peanut butter – and Vincent has two university degrees. The others are shy and unsure, with more of a language barrier too. We’ve got quite a lot to do, in less than two weeks: the idea is to get them started on gathering photos and interviews for the website, while giving them a chance to develop new skills.  Continue reading

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I for Inventive

WATER (1)The P3 class needed a bit more structure, so we started working on a photographic alphabet. This has had the advantage of the kids realising that what they see and try to capture isn’t necessarily what others see in the photo (I for ‘insect’ was a difficult one – bugs aren’t great at being visible; and ‘inside’ wasn’t so obvious either). Continue reading

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Learning, not burning [churches]

“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. Continue reading

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A bad name

“I strip Dar es Salaam of the ‘haven of peace’ title!!!”, commented a Dar resident on Facebook. The discussion was about the rise in violent crime here – more on that topic another day – but it could just as easily refer to the current religious tension in the city.

Tanzania is home to 120+ tribes. Mosques and churches and temples sit next to one another without a bother, as do their followers. At a training session for grassroots leaders we organised a few months ago, I was impressed by the mix of faces I saw. At the end of the day, a group of Catholic sisters asked the Muslim participants if they could end by singing a blessing. The latter agreed, and we all listened patiently as the song filled the room.

But it’s not always so civil. The latest story – after the somewhat more predictable reactions following the Innocence of Muslims – sounds almost too ridiculous to be true. A 14-year old boy peed on a Koran, following a dare from his Muslim friend. Continue reading

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Communication for beginners

Have I learned nothing in all the time I’ve been here?!, I wonder sometimes.

The past week I’ve been in long meetings with an experienced Belgian colleague who’s in the country for a week. With our Tanzanian colleagues we’re working on the “exit strategy” of an education project – trying to pave the way for continuation of what worked well and ensure that what’s been invested isn’t lost as soon as our funding ends next year.

So I arrive with my laptop, ready to note down action points and to-do lists and questions to be ticked off. And then struggle against the rising irritation in my lungs as people we were scheduled to meet simply don’t turn up, or are late, or sit there yawning or answering their phones. Continue reading

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Could do (much) better

I’ve already written here about the language of instruction in Tanzania, but recently developed those ideas in an article for the Washington Times.

When I called the Ministry of Education’s spokesperson, she told me that they are not considering changing the language of instruction while English remains so important globally. Ironically, her own level of English was not great, but she didn’t seem to see the irony in defending a system that isn’t doing what it’s supposed to.

As usual, I discovered many more aspects to the issue than could be explored in a 900-word piece. Like the fact that overall quality of education here has actually got worse since the last generation (still trying to pinpoint why). Continue reading

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Excuse me?

Just don't expect him to know where he's going

It took me a while to realise this but when Tanzanians say “Yes?”, they don’t mean yes. Obviously. They actually mean “pardon”, as in, they haven’t understood what you said.

Considering I work in communications I’m finding actually communicating mighty hard. A big part of that is the language, especially outside the capital where few people speak English. But even with the educated ones who do – like my colleagues, or like the secondary school teacher I met yesterday – it takes me about three times as long to get an answer and even then I’m not totally sure we’ve really understood each other or that they’ve told me what they really think. Continue reading

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The language debate – and why it matters for schoolkids

“No English, no service”. That’s what Tanzanians are told on day one of secondary school. All subjects are taught through English, and pupils can only ask questions in English. This is an abrupt change for kids, whose entire education until now has been given in Kiswahili, Tanzania’s only official language.

Isaac, a shy 14 year-old, started secondary school in Dar es Salaam this year. It’s difficult, he tells me. He’s struggling with his French homework – today’s task, conjugating verbs, though his understanding of what he’s supposed to do is poor, and his translations into English are full of basic mistakes.

I at first assumed that teaching through Kiswahili for what’s effectively the bulk of people’s education (only 36% of the population continue school after primary level) was holding the country back, in the region and globally. After all, in neighbouring Rwanda and Kenya, the under-tens are already learning through English. Teachers in Uganda are earning, as one columnist rather bitterly put it, “a quiet income from the children of the Tanzanian elite, who choose to send their children to Uganda to learn English”. Meanwhile, the educated here struggle to write correctly. Continue reading

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