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A conversation with the sister

It was Elliot’s fourth day of going to school. For the first time, he didn’t cry when I dropped him off: just held out his arms to the teacher with a little wobble of his lip. When I came to pick him up, they told me hadn’t cried the whole morning. I was pleased; he was obviously getting used to it.

So when I chatted with the sister on the way out, and she told me he wasn’t used to it yet, I was surprised. As I questioned her, it turned out the reason she thought he wasn’t adjusting was because he wouldn’t sit at a table and listen to the teacher. He’s not conforming, she says, he’s wandering around the classroom or going outside.

How do I tell her it’s not just a matter of learning a new skill (like sitting still)? The far bigger currents of worldview are swirling in this situation. Since Day One of his life, like most middle class western parents, I’ve been programming my child to be an active explorer in his world. Tanzanian children are taught to be passive recipients.

When she says to him, ‘Elly, why don’t you want to fit in?’ I feel myself becoming defensive. I want to say to her, ‘If you want him to sit still, why don’t you give him a book or a puzzle or a pen and paper?’ But of course, that kind of statement would be nonsensical; this is an oral culture.

Likewise, the sister’s concerns are different from mine. She’s worried he’s not in class enough – perhaps we will be disappointed in the nursery school because he has not learned by rote the same things the other children have, yet she can’t teach him if he’s not in the room! Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. I care very little about the content of the classes as long as what he’s doing is in Swahili. However, as I hear that he’s receiving one-on-one care from one of the junior helpers, I become concerned. Is the one-on-one attention a drain on their people resources? Is he too demanding? She assures me it’s fine, as long as I understand he’s not in the classroom ‘learning’.

The sister tells me Elliot must come to school every day instead of the 2 mornings a week he’s been doing. She says if he comes every day he will adjust. Of course, her assumption is that I will be working full time and the approach I take with him at home of learning through play doesn’t look like education to her. I’m sure to the sister, it looks like we’re making things harder for Elliot (and probably for her staff) than we have to. Perhaps it frustrates her that we listen politely to her advice and then don’t act on it.

So this is yet another unexplained strange foreign thing that we do, only putting our child into school for 2 mornings a week instead of 5 full days. To us it feels like a massive compromise to put him into this kind of environment even though it means he will learn Swahili, but I have no doubt it feels like an imposition from the other end.

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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