Realities Created, Maintained and Destroyed, WHILE-U-WAIT!

Saturday, December 18, 2004

African Lessons, the Ladies of English 2

One of the first things I discovered upon arrival in Tanzania was that racism is alive and well in East Africa.

There are three basic groups in Tanzania, The Africans, the Indians and the Europeans. Each views the other two with mistrust and fear (sometimes hatred as well)

Each of these groups makes gross generalizations about the other two based not on objective experience, but through the filter of a sort of racial dogma left over from colonial days.

My hosts in Arusha were a very well to do Indian family. They had come to Tanzania early on during colonial times to work for the Brits and had been Tanzanian for several generations.

The Family had done OK for itself under British rule only to see everything they owned be "nationalized" by the communist government that came to power after the British pulled out. They had, being consummate businessmen, rebuilt their fortunes, but the experience had left its scars.

I heard stories of prosperous farms and coffee plantations that were taken from them and given to Africans (mostly family members of government officials) which were then miss-managed into the ground.

This, as you may well imagine, had left my friends with a bit of bitterness. It also colored their perceptions of Africans. This perception was created by the British, Germans, and Dutch when they were fighting over ownership of Africa's resources.

This was of course that the African was a simple, childlike individual without the native capacity to do more than menial labor, and certainly no head for business. The British outlook was that at best Africans could be trained to be halfway acceptable servants as long as there was enough discipline to outweigh the "natural laziness" of the African. (for an incisive look at this attitude see the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence which is a good example, though it takes place elsewhere).

So my hosts assured me that Africans were "unreliable" and that they were not capable of the discipline necessary to do business and if given responsibility without supervision that would mess thing up.

No, my hosts would not have thought of themselves as racist, and I have to say that they had a love for their country and wanted to see all Tanzanians become prosperous, they had just been conditioned to their dogmas.

The thing is, I had heard all this before, just directed towards other people, my father's side of the family. Many Anglos hold the same sorts of beliefs about Native Americans, and I grew up hearing exactly these sorts of things about Apaches. Being as it was not true for my father's people I suspected that it was likely to be equally untrue for Africans.

I got a chance to find out.

English Class

As you may remember if you have been following these columns I mentioned that I had inherited two English classes along with my teaching duties in graphic arts.

Well the day I met the ladies of English two I had a chance to discover some interesting things.

The first was that none of them had ever had a white teacher, some of them had never spoken to an American. They were all very, very shy.


ladies_1
The Ladies of English 2

When I asked a question, the answer would be given in a whisper with eyes downcast and often with a hand covering the mouth.

This was caused by a number of factors. First they were just a little afraid of me, I was "the other". Second, there is still a respect for "elders" in East African culture, and I guess with my white hair and beard I qualified.

So I had to find some way to break the ice with my new students. I fell back on a family tradition, I told them stories. I was delighted to discover that Tanzania is still a "story telling" culture, so my new students were very receptive to me spinning stories for them.

I told them that the first couple of classes would be a test for them so that I could evaluate their actual understanding of English, but the test would be easy because all we were going to do was talk with each other.

Of course I was testing more than just their English skills, I wanted to know how smart these ladies were and what they were all about.

ladies_2
More Ladies of English 2

So we spent the first week talking. We traded questions. I would ask them something, like "tell me what you will be doing five years from now?" and they would ask me things like "Why don't Americans stay married to the same person?".

It took me very little time to realize that I was dealing with some very sharp young women. There was no one in this class that was not "Above average" in intelligence, some of these young women were brilliant.

I did discover something very interesting though, none of these young ladies had any skills at all in goal setting.

While the idea of having and achieving "goals" is less politically correct in the US than it once was, I still consider it a necessary skill.

If I posed the question "what will you be doing in six months?" I would get answers like "I will be a secretary" but not one person could tell me how she planned to get a job.

Now one thing you need to understand, being able to create well-formed goals is a learned skill, there is no "goal setting" gene that some people have and others don't. So if these young women didn't know how to form goals in a way that would allow them to make step by step advancement to those goals, it was because on one had ever taught them how.

I decided that this was one thing I could change.

So from that day my classes were divided into tow parts. The first was the basics of English, nouns, verbs and such. The second hour was "conversational English" which was actually a thinly disguised class in goal setting and critical thinking built around the understanding of the English language.

The results were very interesting.

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