To all worshippers of English, I challenge you. We have shown you research results, but you refuse to consider them. We have explained the theories of language teaching; you reject these theories as usomi tu or elitist though they are used worldwide.
We have shown that throughout the world – apart from those colonised by the British and the French –and in UNESCO guidelines, it is recognised that – if you want a successful education system in which children gain the knowledge and skills they need, you must teach children in their own language, but you dismiss that saying that Tanzania is not the rest of the world. We are exceptional!
All right. I challenge you, worshippers, just as Elisha challenged the worshippers of Baal in the Bible. Prove me wrong.
Let’s do a simple experiment. Choose a few schools randomly across the country, and in each school, allow every second student to do the mock exam in Swahili. Then, compare the results of those who took the exams in English and in Swahili.
I know you are bored with the constant arguments about myself and others, so prove me wrong. If there is no difference in the results, I promise I will never raise my voice again in favour of changing the language of instruction. Prove me wrong!
Curse of Cassandra
Some events are as reliable as public or religious holidays. You know the day, and to a considerable extent, you don’t need Chat GPT to understand what key people will say. Indeed, sometimes, one wonders whether we have been given the curse of Cassandra. Despite being given the gift of prophecy by the God Apollo to get her into his bed, she refused.
Then, because you cannot withdraw a gift you have already given, as so many men have wanted to do, Apollo took his revenge like so many men who don’t get what they want. He could not remove the gift of prophecy, but according to the curse, no one would believe her prophecies. Thus, no one believed her, even when she prophesied the attack on her city.
I have often wondered how Cassandra must have felt. You prophesy what you know to be true, you shout, you plead, you persuade, you beg, you do everything in your power to let the powers that be see what you see, but all in vain, and you watch the impending disaster get closer … and closer … and closer until it engulfs your whole city including yourself.
I must admit to having similar feelings when the day of exam reckoning approaches. No doubt I have offended the Goddess of English. She tried to seduce me, like many others in Africa, that she was the answer, and now, I have refused.
I am then cursed to know, even before they are announced, not only what the results will be but also the destruction of the lives of thousands and thousands of our children, not only the results but the annual defences of the destruction produced by those who make these decisions to try to explain away what has happened. The goddess of English is strong, I tell you; she is beautiful and seductive.
Kiswahili pass rates
Let us look at the results. While the National Examinations Council of Tanzania (NECTA) may convince us that there is a slight increase in the number who passed, more than half passed with Division Four, which means they have scraped through with little prospect of advancement. Even this figure is distorted.
If you remove private schools and a few government schools from the list, you will find there are so many schools where nearly all, or all the students, failed completely or only scraped through – year after year. How does this affect the morale of students in the lower classes? Are we surprised that they avoid going to school or pay no attention? They are cannon fodder for failure.
At the same time, the only subject where more than half of the students passed with an A or C grade was Kiswahili. Does that mean nothing? It may mean nothing to the educational administrators and the middle-class worshippers of English who insist on no change to the system, but it means a great deal to the students.
Year after year, if you ask the students, and I do, if you ask the students, not the parents, why they are failing like this, they cry out like the inhabitants of Cassandra’s burning town that they want one simple thing.
They want to study in a language they understand. They want to learn, participate, discuss and finally show off what they have learned in the Form Four NECTA exam, which is supposed to test what they have done.
But every year, the Goddess of English denies them that chance. It is not for want of their trying. They want to understand, they try to understand, but they live in a situation where they do not come into contact with the goddess. They perceive her dimly in a few English classes, often through curtains of misguided English, but she is nowhere to be seen outside the classroom.
Meanwhile, other more accessible gods surround them, speaking languages they understand. However, they have been taught that only one goddess is a true goddess who can bestow unique gifts of employment, even employment abroad if they ever manage to climb the mountain to reach her. Then, the exam condemns them to tumble down the hill into nothingness while the chosen few ascend to the heights.
And that is why I so understand the parents insisting that the government provide them with English medium primary schools. For them, that is the only way to climb the mountain and break through the barrier of NECTA to reach the promised goddess. And, of course, while the barrier of NECTA remains, they are right, oh so right.
If you look on the other side of the barrier, you will be surprised to find the promises of instant riches and success only belong to a few, but let us break through that barrier. Those with the riches to seduce the goddess are already climbing the mountain to break through that barrier, so why can there not be a cheaper route to break through and seek the favours bestowed by the goddess?
So now we have a veritable epidemic of English medium government schools. Indeed, they are responding to the parents’ wishes, as they claim, but have we ever considered why the parents wish what they wish, against their children’s wishes, who just want the oh-so-simple goal of understanding what they are supposed to learn?
The division at the primary level into English medium and Swahili medium privileges a small group of the better-off in society who outshine their less fortunate brothers and sisters regarding the NECTA barrier.
Right from Form One, they can sit and laugh at the ridiculous attempts of their worse-off brethren to claim English for themselves, that is, if they ever see them as they live in their privileged enclaves, otherwise known as private boarding schools. So, the slightly better-off parents want the same for their children. Of course. I get that.
And that is the defence every year. Increase English medium schools, start English from Standard One, and have English loudspeakers in maternity wards so that they can absorb English by osmosis.
As they say in English, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. To stock these 26 or 27 English medium schools, I guess you will multiply each school by ten teachers, 270 people who want to be teachers – not lawyers, engineers or IT specialists – who are conversant with their subjects but fluent in English.
That may be possible, but when you get to 100 schools, you now need 1,000 teachers; when you get to 1,000 schools, you are talking about 10,000 teachers. I firmly believe that we could greatly expand the number of fluent English speakers, provided they have the grounding required to become fluent.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Most have been introduced to a variant form of English by their English teachers – if you don’t believe me, join the WhatsApp groups of teachers of English– and are then thrown into the deep sea of the language of instruction when they have barely known how to paddle.
If only they had been given a proper grounding and development of the language, but that is not the case, so they have to muddle through.
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But, the defenders say, we can rectify that. Train more and open more English medium schools at the expense of the vast majority of Tanzanian children – how much money is being spent on upgrading these schools when the same money could have been given to increasing equity across the school system? Can we be realistic instead of providing Utopian solutions to a harsh reality for most of our kids?
So, I am not opposed: open English medium schools for middle-class kids whose parents can afford it. Continue to perpetuate a class system through education. Of course, nowhere in the world do classes not affect school classes. Equality of opportunity is an ideal, not a reality. But at least they all do the exams in the same language so that language is not used as a barrier to the advancement of the majority.
At the primary level, the upper and middle classes are allowed to do the exams in the language of their choice, English. Why, at the secondary level, can we not let the vast majority of kids do the exams in the language of their choice, Kiswahili?
Would that not be more equitable rather than allowing a small minority a considerable advantage? Why are we afraid of experimenting? Let us try it in the mock exam this year.
Don’t be afraid. PROVE ME WRONG!
Richard Mabala is an educator, poet, and author. He is available at email@example.com or on X (Twitter) as @MabalaMakengeza. These are the writer’s own opinions, and they do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at firstname.lastname@example.org for further inquiries.