Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Songea Boys’ Escapades (Or, How I’m Constantly Reminded That I Indeed Work at a Tanzanian All-Boys Secondary School)

By Tanzanian standards, Songea Boys’ Secondary School is a good school.  We have ample, well-maintained facilities, a sizeable staff who are relatively good at what they do, and a large, active student body.  We rank fairly well academically, we have a decent athletic program, and we have a number of well-established extracurricular groups---Christian groups, Muslim groups, HIV/AIDS awareness groups, choir practice, English clubs, FEMA (gender equality) clubs, etc.  We even have some really fun events dedicated to school spirit, such as the annual faculty/student football (soccer) match we played this weekend (and we totally won… 2-1 teachers).  Granted, Songea Girls’ beats us in nearly every one of these categories, but we still take pride in the relative non-dysfunctional-ness of our school community, and I will freely admit that this place has really grown on me over the past six months.

That being said, there are definitely moments here when I am sharply reminded that I am not in America.  It doesn’t have to be a negative experience, per se, but it definitely triggers my “Um… what the hell are you guys doing?” reaction, sometimes to the point where I feel inclined to discretely ask my fellow teachers if this is truly a normal occurrence in Tanzania.  Now, because I work at a well-off, mostly A-level, all-boys school, I manage to avoid many of the common incidents that form the standard initiation procedure for new education volunteers---lack of food or water, pregnant students, fataki (pedophile) issues, demon possessions (usually done by girls to get out of tests), and so on.  However, the following examples have made it abundantly clear to me that---despite our school’s being on the “enlightened” end of the Tanzanian public school spectrum---we, well, still are a Tanzanian public school, and with that come some of the more peculiar aspects of being a Peace Corps volunteer in this country.

Corporal Punishment and the Disco Fiasco

In most schools in Tanzania, caning is the preferred method of dealing with troublesome or uppity students, closely followed by public humiliation or forced labor, should the beating be insufficient in driving home the point.  Indeed, students typically begin to get hit with sticks for their infractions by the time they reach secondary school, although some overzealous primary schools begin the practice even earlier.  As it turns out, corporal punishment is such an integral part of the learning process in Tanzania that there is literally a “rule of thumb”-esque clause in the national public school charter, although I’m pretty sure they use the metric system instead (you know, to add a little more preciseness to the term “light, flexible rod”).  Regardless, the general support in Tanzania for institutionalized whoopings has had a major effect on the way schools are run and classes are taught in this country, as students are forced live in constant fear of their teachers, or, barring that, they are motivated to become increasingly sneaky in their misdeeds.

Songea Boys’ is no exception to this rule, and the kids here are beaten something fierce on a daily basis.  Seriously, we don’t go an hour each day without a few students being rounded up and hit for some stupid reason, and, trust me, it is not a fun thing to watch: the discipline master typically makes the condemned kneel on the ground with their hands behind their heads---as if they’re about to be executed by firing squad---and summons them up one by one to bend over and receive their beating, typically three to five hits with a fimbo (switch).  For the particularly bad infractions, these canings can increase to up to ten or fifteen hits, and they are usually held in front of the school during morning parade.  It’s not like these kids get hit lightly, either: the fimbos often break mid-punishment, and students are constantly sent on “fimbo detail”, i.e., going out into the woods to cut new switches to replace the ones broken that day.   Moreover, depending on how enthusiastic the discipline master is, the kid may get smacked around a bit before or after the punishment, I’m assuming just to make sure that the student gets the message.  It’s not a pleasant experience.

What kills me is not so much the beatings, but the inconsistency of the punishment.  Students are frequently beaten for being late to class, but this is only when the discipline master feels like it.  A student may show up to a class thirty minutes late one day and five minutes late the next, and he’ll get beaten the second day because the discipline master that day just happened to be walking by with a fimbo handy.  This is particularly vexing for me since I tend to teach my classes “college style”; that is, I hold a class at a particular time and it’s up to the students to show up and listen to what I have to say.  I’ve gotten in numerous arguments with the academic master regarding this issue, as he frequently feels compelled to drag kids out of my class and have them punished for being late, even if I had already notified the students and teachers ahead of time that I would be holding class later that day (and, to be totally honest, I don’t really care if my students are late or not).  The situation is even worse for the new O-level students, who pretty much get beaten at random on a daily basis.  The reason?  According to the academic master, “to show them who’s boss.”  Unreal.

In fact, I find the reasoning behind most punishments here somewhat discomforting.  For sure, I understand why the kids get hit for major breaches of school code---truancy, fighting, disrespecting teachers, etc.---but, more often than not, it’s something utterly trifling, or, even worse, out of their control.  I would have to say that the most common reason for a beating at Songea Boys’ (aside from sneezing out of turn) is lack of adherence to the dress code---dirty clothes, mismatching socks, no belt, improperly tied tie (although I would contend that the whole country doesn’t know how to tie their ties properly), or something else trivial.  This is followed by perhaps my least favorite reason for punishment here, which is falling behind in school tuition payments.  Never mind that it’s the parents who are responsible for paying school fees… the punishment for being poor is placed squarely on the kids, who usually suffer a caning proportional to the amount owed to the school by their families.  Call me crazy, but that seems incredibly unfair to the students, and despite my unabashed disagreement with said practice (I’ve made it no secret among the teachers and administration that I think it’s stupid), it continues unabated here at Songea Boys’.

While canings are a daily occurrence at my school, the weeks following the end of break in April saw a particularly high level of disciplinary measures around campus.  During this time, the administration, for whatever reason, felt the need to punish students who were arriving late for the semester (remember, we’re a boarding school) as well as administer punishments that had been left unfulfilled from the previous term.  The result was non-stop, round-the-clock beatings---so many that we effectively didn’t have class until after Easter (I held some impromptu physics sessions, but most of my students were too busy getting caned to attend).  It was a huge mess, and it took a whole other week after Easter for school to finally resume its normal pace.

While many students ultimately fell victim to “Caning Week” for one reason or another, most managed to scrape by with simply a perfunctory beating.  Among the particularly screwed during this time, however, were a group of eight or so boys who had unwisely decided to go AWOL for about four days after break, electing to spend most of the time hanging out at a local discotheque in Songea town.  Now, why they would ever decide to spend their precious hooky time at a Tanzanian dance club is completely beyond me: those places totally suck, and what two or three women are present there are almost invariably prostitutes.  Regardless, Songea is a small place, and, unsurprisingly, they were caught by a few teachers in town, who promptly delivered them to the headmaster the following Monday during flag raising.

What followed was perhaps the most prolific beating I’ve seen in a long time.  Over the course of about ten minutes or so, the headmaster (and, by extension, the secondmaster since the headmaster got tired) went through about ten switches on eight kids, reducing nearly all of them to tears (remember, these are 17-18 year old guys).  One of the kids begged the headmaster to stop because he was bleeding.  Another one fainted.  Most of the students here tend to take their beatings with stolid resolve, but by the end, these kids were a complete wreck.  And, to top it all off, the headmaster expelled all of them.  It was pretty crazy, and I have the distinct feeling that no one’s going to make a run at that disco for a long time.

In any case, that’s a brief look at discipline in my school.  Granted, this particular incident was more brutal than normal, but whenever I see something like this happen, it serves as a jarring reminder of where I am and, unfortunately, what the realities of living here are.

The Children of Songea Boys’

While I may not like the way that students are disciplined at my school, they are far from saints themselves.  This was clearly illustrated to me during my first few weeks at site.

One of the cool things about my school is that both the teachers and the students get fed every weekday, and, at least for the teachers, the food isn’t half bad---bread and maandazi (Tanzanian donuts) for chai break (i.e. the standard 10:15am coffee break), and rice, beans, and mchicha (spinach) for lunch.  On Thursdays, we even get meat, although it’s boiled and mostly gristle (I actually prefer the rice and bean days, although I seem to be in the minority on that point).  The kids definitely get the short end of the stick on this deal, as they primarily get uji (boiled corn flour porridge) for chai break, and they get beans and ugali (a slightly different form of boiled corn flour) for lunch and dinner.  Life isn’t fair in the Tanzanian school system.

Anyway, after about three weeks of being at site, I began to notice that there were a bunch of little kids who were always hanging around the kitchen, usually begging for scraps.  This is a pretty common sight around Tanzania, so I didn’t think too much of it at the time.  I found it peculiar, however, that these kids seemed particularly unkempt and dirty, and there were way too many of them to say that they were simply from the surrounding village.  As a result, one day after lunch I inquired as to their origin from the school cook:

Me: “Hey, every day I see these same kids outside the kitchen.  What’s their deal?  Do they live on campus or something?”
Cook: “They are beggar children from the village.  They like to come here because I give them the leftover ugali the students don’t eat.”
Me: “Don’t they have parents, though?  I don’t think our village is nearly large enough to have that many orphans.”
Cook: “Yes, they have parents, but they don’t feed them.  These kids are mostly the children of prostitutes.”
Me: “But who are the fathers?  Again, our village is really small… how can these prostitutes turn a profit?”
Cook: “Isn’t it obvious?  The fathers are our students!” [laughs]

So yeah, apparently there is a burgeoning prostitution ring outside my school that is single-handedly supported by my students’ “donations.”  I’ve since seen some of these girls, and, well, it’s pretty messed up: these girls are always decked out in their best plastic jewelry and horrendous makeup by the main daladala turnabout, and none of them look a day over 16.  It doesn’t help that my students aren’t too much older, either---for A-level, roughly between 16 and 22 years-old.  I understand that the kids here tend to start early, but that there’s now such a large population of unwanted and abandoned offspring roaming the school campus… well, that just doesn’t sit right with me.

The Dog Dilemma

Dogs and cats are all over Tanzania, and since most owners don’t bother neutering or spaying their pets, there are strays everywhere you go in country.  For cats, this isn’t a big problem, as most strays are solitary, and the only time they become particularly annoying is when they’re in heat.  Dogs, however, can be a little more difficult to deal with, mostly because they tend to roam in packs, thus increasing their annoyance factor exponentially.  For example, since dogs tend to get a little wild after the sun goes down, I’ve spent many a night in country being lulled to sleep by some random group of dogs who have decided to gather outside my window at 3am for their nightly fight club/howling session/orgy.  Pro tip: no matter how loud the dogs are or how curious you may be, don’t look outside to see what they’re doing.  You’ll only come away scarred.

This general inconvenience is compounded by the treatment most animals receive in Tanzania, which, at times, is downright cruel, leading to highly antisocial behavior.  Under normal circumstances, dogs and cats live on nothing more than table scraps (or whatever they can find and kill), and most are beaten on sight by Tanzanians, usually with sticks and stones.  I had never seen a cat punched in the face until I lived with my host family, nor had I ever seen a dog get his leg broken by a stick until I moved to site.  Perhaps the clincher was the time at the daladala stand when I saw a group of five year-old children kill a kitten and then kick the carcass around like a soccer ball.  It’s, well, kind of horrifying (at least by our American standards), and it ingrains a strong aversion to humans in all cats and dogs at a very early age.

As a result, there’s nothing worse in country then walking home alone at night and encountering a pack of emboldened, sociopathic mutts that think you’re trespassing on their territory.  I’ve had some pretty narrow escapes in both in Morogoro and here in Songea, and it’s one of the main reasons why I always try to find a makeshift fimbo to bring home with me whenever I’m coming home at night.  If there’s one thing dogs always respond to in country, it’s a large stick, undoubtedly due to the beatings they received as puppies.

Now, the strays at Songea Boys’ are actually pretty cool.  There’s a few I see pretty often, and they often elect to just leave me alone.  There’s also a couple that like to hang around (non-menacingly) when I’m outside my house doing chores and whatnot.  There’s also one particular dog, “Gili” (short for giligilani, or coriander, since she likes to sleep between my coriander plants and thus always reeks of cilantro), who’s actually really sweet: she likes to wait for me at my house, and when she sees me, she gets really excited, wags her tail a lot, and runs around me, but she won’t let me touch her for fear of getting hit.  It’s a classic example of a dog that would have gotten along great in America, but is now completely warped due to a lifetime of abuse.  It’s kind of sad, to be honest.

Back in February, however, we had a new arrival---“Bastard.”  You know that quote from the “Bart Gets an Elephant” episode of The Simpsons… how, like people, some animals “are just jerks”?  Well, this guy was a textbook d-bag.  His preferred pastimes included---but were not limited to---beating up on other dogs, scaring local children, and hanging around the staff quarters, barking and snarling at anyone who was trying to get back into his or her house, including me.  In fact, it was he who gave one of my favorite mutts, “Popeye,” his namesake: after seeing the two of them get in a particularly physical altercation one day, I noticed that Bastard had torn off part of Popeye’s left eyelid, leaving Popeye with a new, “googly eye” look.  Granted, Popeye’s face was already pretty messed up and gross, but this made him even uglier than he was before.  Yeah, Bastard was a real piece of work.

Things got to a head in April, when I got back from break.  Bastard had apparently been busy when I had been away, quickly climbing the social hierarchy to alpha position.  As a result, he now had a small squad of strays at his command, which only served to embolden him further.  Over the course of the week, I heard reports from my neighbors of his killing chickens, attacking goats, and harassing cows, and in some rare instances he had even tried to bite some of the neighborhood kids.  Moreover, on the same day as the discotheque caning, I had to extract myself from a particularly tense confrontation with his little posse when leaving the house in the morning; I think it really speaks to a dog’s self-confidence if he’s willing to mock charge you in front of your own house, especially if his subordinates aren’t really helping (I guess all of those days of feeding them my meat scraps paid off).  Luckily, after a well-aimed rock and some discretionary use of my panga (machete), I convinced him to leave me alone and go pester someone else.

Clearly, something had to be done regarding this issue.  In America, this would be the time we would call Animal Control to perhaps take the dog to the pound where, after a little bit, he may get euthanized discretely.  In Tanzania, however, the standard course of action regarding this situation lacks such subtlety: namely, you get your mkuu (headmaster) to hire a guy with a gun to hunt the little S.O.B. down.  As a result, for the next week or so, we had some mzee (elder) with a .22 caliber rifle patrolling the school grounds, ready to act if Bastard decided to make another appearance.

So, one fateful morning a couple weeks ago, the inevitable happened: I was in the middle of describing the First Law of Thermodynamics to my Form VI students in the main lecture hall when I heard a gunshot, followed by a whimpering sound, followed by about thirty seconds of silence, followed by another gunshot.  After about a minute, my curiosity got the better of me, and I stuck my head out of my classroom to see what was going on.  Sure enough, there was Bastard, dead as a doornail, slung over the shoulder of a particularly proud-looking mzee, who was heading to the main office to collect his bounty---not really your average physics lecture experience.  Bastard had had the misfortune of being the only white dog in the vicinity, which had made him an easy target for disposal.  And, now that his reign of terror over the good people of Songea Boys’ was over, a small crowd of teachers and students ran out to congratulate the heroic dog-slayer for his noble deed, which, while kind of cool, still ended my class prematurely.

So, in closing, it’s tough being a dog in this country.  I still like seeing the other strays around, and I feed them if I have any bones or gristle left over from dinner, but I also realize that they live day-to-day, and there’s a good chance I won’t be seeing them again.  In any case, as long as they don’t make a ruckus outside my window, I’m happy to live and let live.

The Cellphone Controversy

Perhaps the quintessential example of my school’s not-American-ness is the now-infamous cellphone controversy, which, like the dog issue and the disco caning, happened shortly after A-level break ended.  First, a little background:

Cellphones, while extremely prevalent in Tanzania, are still generally considered a luxury among the general population.  This, in fact, makes sense: your average non-crappy cellphone will cost you about 40000/= (~$27), which typically separates your average, middle-class Tanzanian with the truly impoverished people.  Regardless, it’s safe to say that most Tanzanian families have at least one cellphone, and although the technology may be a good seven or eight years behind what it is in America, cellphones (and, by extension, how fancy they are) are considered a major sign of wealth in this country, almost as much as excess sofas in the living room.  I can’t tell you how many offers I’ve had from Tanzanians to buy my American-bought cellphone… most Tanzanians are simply awestruck that it’s a flip phone and are willing to pay any price for it, despite the fact that it’s a lower-end, four year-old Samsung which is full of dust, half-broken, and generally less functional than their “inferior” non-flip Nokias.  Were it not for the fact that both transferring contact lists and unlocking new phones were major hassles, I’d be sorely tempted to take some clueless Tanzanian to the cleaners and sell my phone at an exorbitant price, just so I would have a little more breathing room with regard to my ridiculous Peace Corps living allowance.  But no, I doubt “exploiting Tanzania” is on the Peace Corps Tanzania mission statement, so I guess I’ll hold off for now.

In any case, cellphones, due to their relative worth here, have had a storied (and non-flattering) history here at Songea Boys’.  As of last year, all students were allowed to have cellphones on campus, although there were certain restrictions regarding their use; that is, the students could only use them on the weekends or when they were on leave in town.  Failure to adhere to these restrictions would result in a caning, followed by confiscation of the cellphone until the end of the term.  Most of the time, my counterparts tell me, this system worked well, and students were largely willing to accept the responsibility of owning a cellphone and making sure that it didn’t interfere with work or the school environment as a whole.

There were, however, incidents.  For the years that students were allowed to have cellphones, all confiscated cellphones were locked in a special contraband closet located in the main office to await return at the end of the semester.  Unsurprisingly, this closet soon became the number one priority of any enterprising student with basic door-smashing skills and a general distaste for authority.  As a result, every year the contraband closet was subject to repeated break-ins coordinated by disgruntled students, sometimes clandestinely under cover of darkness, and sometimes overtly during the course of a student riot (I’ve since learned that my students have quite a reputation for rioting).  By the end of last year, the school carpenter was sick of making replacement doors for the closet, and the administration’s patience with the student body was wearing thin.

Then, a couple months before I arrived in Songea, THE incident happened.  One particularly dense student decided that it would be a good idea to steal his classmate’s cellphone, despite the fact that all the students live together and they all see each other on a daily basis.  Predictably, it took about two seconds for him to get caught, and the students, like most good Tanzanians, decided to take the law into their own hands.  I’m still not clear about what they did to this kid exactly, but the general account (or, rather, what my headmaster told me) is that they used a knife to do something horrible to his genitalia.  Needless to say, when news of this broke, there was a big hullabaloo, including police involvement, multiple expulsions, and (I assume) lots and lots of caning.  Also stemming from this event was the school’s total ban on cellphones, which was enforced by sending letters to all the students’ respective households informing them of this rule before the new term (i.e. this current one) began.

Fast forward to mid-April.  All the students have slowly filtered in from their respective hometowns, and---surprise, surprise---they all have cellphones with them.  I don’t really know what their parents were thinking, but many students have told me that their parents gave them the cellphones and simply told them to hide them from the teachers.  Regardless, you’ve already started the semester, and a good 500 out of the 870 new students have blatantly disregarded school policy by bringing cellphones with them… I mean, what do you do?

The answer is simple.  You send a message.

Songea Boys' doesn't **** around.
Yes, apparently re-confiscating and breaking five hundred cellphones in front of the students isn’t enough.  You have to call a giant assembly on the main road of the school, give a brief lecture on the evils of cellphone usage, and incinerate all traces of temptation in a giant bonfire.

School spirit, Tanzanian style.
Mercifully, there were minimal beatings as a result of this punishment (to beat more than half the school would be pretty impractical, even by Songea Boys’ standards), and the kids took the loss of 40000/= (or more) remarkably well.  It was all quite fair, to be honest: the school sent out letters beforehand telling parents not to send cellphones, the kids came with cellphones anyway, the administration gave the students a chance to fess up, the students who did fess up were spared the fimbo, the kids who didn’t fess up received a light beating, and all cellphones---whether relinquished willingly or forcibly taken---were thoroughly disposed of.  The administration was even conscientious enough to remove he batteries from the cellphones beforehand, lest any explosions or acid leaks occurred during the burning (of course, it was the students who were forced to remove said batteries… teachers don’t do manual labor here).  So the whole disciplinary issue went quite smoothly, all things considered.

Incidentally, the kids still totally have cellphones here.  The school turned the dormitories inside-out in their search (even checking under the floorboards and in the rafters), but somehow a few crafty individuals managed to get away with their cellphones still intact.  I hear them every now and then when I walk by the dormitories, and when I do some tutoring in the class president’s office (he gets a freaking office and I don’t), I sometimes hear muffled ringing under a pile of old textbooks or clothes.  I don’t bother reporting these infractions because I think the rule is kind of silly, and I think the kids know that their secret is safe with me.  However, a couple of kids have asked me to hide their cellphones in my house, and that isn’t happening.  I’m trying to make a good impression here… I don’t want to be an accessory to anything duplicitous.

In any case, these are some of the more extraordinary events that have occurred here at Songea Boys’ since my arrival.  It’s not every day that a dog gets shot or a pile of cellphones gets burned, and, believe it or not, I actually spend most of my time here teaching and grading papers… at the end of the day, school is school wherever you go.  That being said, there’s a definitely a certain uniqueness to working at a Tanzanian public school: sometimes it’s shocking, sometimes it’s uncomfortable, and sometimes it kind of works out nicely.  Either way, I guess it’s all just part of the ride.


  1. Ooh I remember that day...hundreds of phones were burnt in front of the mass plus a series of strokes whenever they found you guilty.

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    1. I think the presentation seem to be so extreme. During our time there(1974-1977) I can say that the situation was not so bitter like that.Songea Boys was a model school that many would like to belong.But alas leadership changes with time and perhaps that is the problem of many schools that one being an example.