Tribe, Nation or Literacy?

Tanzania’s founding president Julius Nyerere famously described Kenya as a vulgar, capitalist “man eat man society” – to which Kenya’s then Attorney General Charles Njonjo retorted that, in contrast, Tanzania was a “man eat nothing society.” At the time Tanzania had embarked on a program of African Socialism – Ujamaa – backed by a language policy that put a lot of emphasis on Kiswahili as the national language. As Ted Miguel has argued inTribe or Nation?(pdf)this was a great strategy in nation building. But was it economically beneficial in the long run?

For now the answer is probably no.

The legacy of Tanzania’s language policy has been that English language instruction only begins to be done seriously in high school. Obviously, four years are simply not enough to master a language, let alone sit a major national examination in that language. The result has been an astonishingly high failure-rate in the national end of high school exams in Tanzania. Earlier this year 60% of high school (Form Four) students failed, prompting jokes like “I’m a rocket scientist in Tz” on this side of the border. In reality even fewer made the cutoff to get a place in institutions of higher learning. In addition, a recent survey done by Twaweza, an education Think Tank, found that 72% of sampled primary school kids and 66% of high school students could not do second grade maths. English reading and comprehension was equally bad.

It goes without mention that the state of Tanzania’s education system has serious implications for human resource development in the country. The impending commodities boom in many parts of the country will certainly not benefit locals if workers have to be imported. Tanzania cannot effectively transform itself into a 21st century economy without a drastic improvement in its education system. Oddly enough, despite its obvious shortage of human capital, Tanzania is the most restrictive state with regard to labor mobility in the East Africa Community (EAC). Dodoma is especially hostile to Kenyan workers that it sees as a threat to local workers (Kenyans and their alleged aggressiveness rudeness have jokes about Tanzanians’ work ethic….. I should add though that Tanzanians tend to be stereotyped unfairly, both at Mang’u and in New Haven I went to school with some very smart and hardworking Tanzanians).

In the final analysis, although Kenya’s post-independence education and language policy left us with a ‘tribe eat tribe’ legacy, it allowed the country’s education system to focus on English language instruction from early on, and a chance to develop a relatively more globally competitive human resource base. Nation building may have taken a hit in the process but I would argue that internal economic ties – the result of man eat man competition – have now made it such that the Kenyan nation-state will only get stronger. The challenge for Tanzania is to ensure that nation building does not limit the development of a globally competitive human resource capacity.

Since the announcement of the high school exam results earlier this year the country (Tanzania) has been debating possible avenues of reform. Better teacher training, more books and equipment and more teachers have been cited as possible remedies. Strategic review of the country’s language policy should also be put on the table.

In my opinion the EAC should adopt a language policy in which our history, social and religious studies and civics are taught in Swahili while everything else is taught in English. This would not be a selling out to a foreign language (with due respect to Ngugi) but an investment in global competitiveness. Many decades down the road, once we have universal literacy in both English and Kiswahili, we can have a full switch to universal Kiswahili language instruction in all subjects.

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