Monday, November 29, 2010


I am constantly faced with the dilemma of to do or not to do those damn stupid things that teachers have to do.

For example, today, the teachers have been slaving away on writing report cards, which include a section of character assessment.  The teachers, from their interactions with the students, judge the students' diligence, responsibility, and even personality.  These nine categories include respect for teachers, likes student leaders, and participates in sports.  After years of neglecting this job, the Saba Saba teachers have finally decided to complete this task, and as a part of the character assessment, each student was interviewed.

The following questions were repeated many times.

"Do you play sports?  Why don't you play sports?"

"Where's your chair?  Did you lose it somewhere?"

"Do you like your student leaders?"

Of course, in my mind, it seems perfectly okay to say no to any of these questions.  What is so wrong about not playing sports, or not liking some asshole student leaders?  Plus, if a student was street-smart enough, he could easily present himself as a student with stellar characteristics.

Ah, I digress.  This rather pointless activity lasted for the whole day, and will continue to do so for the next two days.  I sit, (shit), and I ponder, why are we doing this?  If the students are not present for the interview, the teachers have a mini discussion, and award them Cs.  With the interviews as arbitrary as the discussions on the absent students, why not just have a 30 second discussion for every student?  At least the teachers can have time to eat that way.

During my time here, I've encountered many of these inefficient work, which receive little or no resistance.  I've obliged to most of them so far, with the attitude that if I do likewise as the other teachers, I will earn their respect; and so far, I have.  I have learned so much more about my students, the teachers, the TZ education system, and Tanzania as a whole by doing these menial brain numbing tasks.  Plus many friendships with other teachers have been formed in the midst of these labor.  At the same time, as I were participating in these tasks, I couldn't stop thinking, is this..... am I really (insert expletive) doing this? And I ponder to do or not to do.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Every Morning in Korea....

My dear friend/colleague/mentor/co-worker/roommate/brother/uncle/father KabCity wrote on my facebook wall:

Every morning in Africa, a Gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a Lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest Gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn't matter whether you are a Lion or a Gazelle... when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.

This "African" proverb - notice how there is no specific geography that we can source this proverb too, just the exotic/erotic "Africa" - is one of my favorite passages ever, and I was touched by it ever since I encountered it in a Thomas Friendman book (Lexus and the Oliver Tree maybe).  I don't know if Kabir liked it as much as I did, but we both liked to make fun of it from time to time.

Given the recent events of Korea, I wrote him back the following:

Everyvmorning in Korea, a South Korean leader wakes up. He knows he must make bigger bombs than the North Koreans, or he will be killed. Every morning a North Korean leader wakes up. He knows he must make bigger bombs than the South Koreans AND the Americans AND the Japanese, or he will be bombed to death.  It doesn't matter whether you are a South Korean or a North Korean... when the sun comes up, you'd better be making bombs.

In Swahili, the word bomba means water pipe.  We should make more bombas, not bombs.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Third Moment

All right, I'm going to show some hubris today.

A couple of weeks ago I had my third moment, and by moment, I quote an earlier post from February:

There are incidents in life that I simply call “moments.”  No three adjectives suffice to describe the moments.  They are indeed memorable, but not to the extent of life-changing.  They are not grand events, such as a wedding or a dental accident.  They provoke some thought, but are perhaps more sentimental than stimulating.  

Back in October, my beloved former Headmistress Mama Machinga passed away.  We were very close, and it was a relationship that I valued deeply.  Emotionally, it was not easy for me, as I have little experience with death; the most recent death in the family was back in '92, to which Seigo, the Japanese volunteer, replied "happy life."  I felt no need nor desire to write about it on the tomzanian, and though it was an important event, I let it slide.

Although Mama Machinga was assigned to another school, her second daughter, Kalela, worked at Saba Saba as a part time physics teacher, and we were just like any other colleagues, a bit of friendliness and bit of distance.  I never thought of her as a close friend, which makes the third moment even more surprising.  

One day, couple of days after Mama's funeral, I was in the office doing some work.  I was called by someone so I went outside to the hallway.  It was Kalela.  She told me that the family is leaving, with each member going their own paths.  We did the usual small talk, and bode farewell.  After coming back to the office, I was a bit perplexed.  Why didn't she come to the office to say goodbye to the other teachers in the office?  She could have just come into the office herself.

I soon realized that the bond that I created with Mama Machinga and her family was a lot firmer than I perceived it to be.  After Mama's death, I visited the relatives in her house a few times, and wrote a letter to the family as well.  I didn't think of the foreigner/local divide, or my lack of experience with death.  I felt that it was just part of what I had to do, as if it's completely normal.  In the end, through Kalela's farewell, I saw how these gestures were meaningful to Mama's family.  It felt good to be recognized in such a way over the other Tanzanian teachers, and I will treasure this moment as a vote of confidence on my work/life hereonafter.

Monday, November 15, 2010


The prime reason of my interest (or nerdy love) in Statistics is that it trains me to gain an acute sense of numeracy.  By numeracy, I mean litearcy for numbers.  Thus, innumeracy is an inability to understand numbers, as illiteracy is an inability to read words.  To further clarify, if you were numerate, you wouldn't get a student loan at 8% interest rate.  Instead, you would borrow from your parents/grandparents/relatives at 0% interest rate after buying them a nice bottle of wine at Christmas.

Statistics are often representations of our society in simple numerical ways.  These indicators are most often a single dimension of a larger complex world.  Thus a combination of these indicators show several cross sections that seem a bit choppy without the numeracy needed to synthesize them holistically.

In Tanzania, the failures in mathematics is often referred to as a national disease, and the statistics shows.  A large chunk of scores in Swahili, English, Geography, and other social sciences range in 30-50, while the Mathematics scores range in 0-30.  But when we are more numerical and analytical , we notice what the problem truly is.  The Arts subject examinations are filled with multiple choice and matching problems, and thus, there is a chance of guessing the right answer.  On the other hand, Mathematics questions have none of those, and all answers must be constructed from blank space.  Now, after eliminating how many questions should you guess in the SATs?

So the picture I see is in fact more problematic.  Students are failing / underperforming at every topic.  Wait, lets look at the subject of the previous sentence, students, and think again.  Is it just the students with problems?

Here's more.  The Millenium Development Goals and similar standards in development are often represented by a few statistical indicators.  For health, child mortality.  For education, primary school enrollment, etc.  Rarely does a single category involve more than five indicators.  I never knew high salary policy makers were so innumerate.

The Secondary Education Development Plan (SEDP1), implemented in 2005, is heralded as a great success of Prez. Kikwete, increasing the enrollment of secondary school students.  But other statistics, if collected or easily obtainable, will show otherwise.  A dramatic increase in student/teacher ratio, a fall in government subsidy per student, a fall in test scores, and many more.  I wonder if Kikwete is numerate.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Expetation vs. Reality



Friday, November 5, 2010

Fruits of Labor

Fruits of a year's labor.


No wonder I say the West Wing is the most exciting thing that happened to me here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

West Wing

I hoped that this day would never arrive, but it unfortunately has.

If someone in the near or distant future asks me "so, what was the most exciting thing that happened to you in Tanzania?"

I would say "West Wing."

The seven seasons I had with West Wing were absolutely fantastic.  It gave me so much.  I was fully entertained with all its politico-cinematic awesomeness, and was informed as well about various aspects of American politics.  But most of all, it was the best motivational tool I had.  I would be watcing West Wing to wind down after work, only to be pumped up to do something after finishing it.  But in many cases, I could not resist watching another episode.  In the midst of ridiculously low standard and achievement that surrounds me, it was something both intense and comfortable.  It took me a while to finish the seven season, but I admit that I had intentionally took my time, and I even wish that I was even more economical.

No doubt I will return to another round of the West Wing, and perhaps a lot sooner than I expect myself to.

Farewell West Wing, it was good to have you around.  I'll miss you.