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Lessons from my first day as a student in a Tanzanian university

This semester I am auditing ‘Literary Theory and Development of Kiswahili Literature’ in Swahili! The main purpose is to push my Swahili forward, especially my listening comprehension over longer periods, but I’m also hoping it will give me more of a connection with students on campus. So far there’s only been one lecture. Seminars start next week. I was pretty excited on my first day (see pic below!) and here are some of the things I learned:???????????????????????????????

  • I will never be able to fade into the background. Despite my hope of sitting in the back row and soaking it in, my skin colour sets me apart. I elicited curious looks as students came into the lecture hall and one guy announced to everyone, ‘We have a white visitor today!’ The teacher introduced me specifically to the class, and stopped periodically to ask if I was keeping up. Of course, I was mortified by all this, but it’s pretty standard ‘welcoming behaviour’ in Tanzania.
  • When you enter the classroom, the first thing you should do is to greet each person, or at least the people around you. I knew this already but now I also know that the onus is on me to do this because people are unsure of whether to greet the white lady. I set the tone of the relationship by being friendly.
  • There is a class leader. I haven’t worked out how this person is appointed or elected, but they do a welcome, make announcements and have a few other responsibilities (see below.)
  • No handouts! The lecturer gives an outline of the course to the student leader and students go to him or her to borrow the handout in order to make a photocopy. The ‘no complimentary photocopies’ thing seems to be pretty standard in Tanzania. For example, if you’re getting a driver’s license or a new phone and need a copy of your passport, you’re expected to bring it with you or pay for for it; they don’t just do it for you.
  • Sit in the front few rows. It’s easier to hear the closer you are to the front, since there’s no microphone and a fair bit of echo and reverberation. Also, the people up the back got in trouble for mucking around and were made to move down the front!

The teaching methodology was also different. Perhaps it was just that it was the first lecture, and I didn’t pick up everything that was going on, so I could be off the mark here, but two things struck me.

1. Learning seems more objective. When I started uni in Australia, one of the things I had to get my head around was that lectures were not unbiased. Rather the, lecturer was presenting their contribution to a broader discussion. They weren’t giving ‘the meaning of Jane Eyre’, but ‘a reading of Jane Eyre’, their own take on it. This was especially tricky because I don’t remember them ever telling us that was what they were doing or explaining how the process of literary criticism evolves. However, the whole first lecture of my Swahili class was asking questions like, ‘what is theory?’ ‘what is literary theory?’ ‘what is literary criticism?’ and the answers were given as expanded dictionary definitions rather than as one person’s opinion.

2. Facts were more important than context. In the discussion about literary criticism in my Swahili class, Aristotle was identified as the father of it. This was stated, re-stated and talked around quite a bit, but almost no information about Aristotle was given! Perhaps it was assumed students already knew who he was or had learned about him, but I would normally expect that if you were going to say that Aristotle was the father of literary criticism, you would also talk about his context, concerns, and why they have come to be so influential. On the surface, this looks like rote learning without understanding but I feel like I don’t yet have enough experience or understanding of the class to make that call.


Categories: Tanzania Uncategorized Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

5 replies

  1. Got an offline question about this post. I’m not heaps good at estimating but I’d say the lecture had about 100 students in it. There are 5 slots to choose from for seminars.

  2. Very interesting observations and experiences for your first day. I look forward to hearing how the course goes and what else you learn, both about Swahili literature and studying in the university.

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