July 31, 2011
A large part of my time here has been creating a home life, getting to know my community and host family, learn the language and local dialect, and adapting to the culture. But I have also been working. I apologize for this entry not being as exotic or interesting as others, but it describes what I do with most of my time, and the reason I'm here in the first place, why these two countries decided to unite to construct an imaginary pipeline funneling recently graduated left wingers across the globe to live in huts, unsuccessfully start fires, and fumble with shortwave dials to pick up the slightest taste of home.
To understand what I'm doing now in context, a little background is necessary. Peace Corps has been in Zambia since 1994, and started with water development and branched off into education a few years later. The first project was "Learning at Tonga Market", a radio-based learning program aimed at rural and remote community schools. One doesn't have search hard to find clunky plastic shortwave radios branded with the USAID logo in most schools, barely working remnants of a development project that, for various reasons, never was popularly used. Maybe radio as a format is irrelevant as Africa and other continents leapfrog to cell phones and satellite television. The Rural Education Development (RED) program offered by the Peace Corps went through an evolution, adapting to challenges and trying to find a niche in between the Zambian Ministry of Education and the goals of Peace Corps (the goals are, my criticisms aside: to provide a volunteer workforce for development, to share American values, and to share host country culture to Americans). The last inception of RED was to work doing Continuing Professional Development (CPD) with primary school teachers, to basically provide training outside of the classroom to improve teaching methods and develop teaching aids in the absence (or deterioration) of existing government-supplied resources. For reasons elaborated below, this project failed. I am the second generation of volunteers working under a different project framework, which includes co-teaching (teaching with primary teachers, what I consider to be CPDs in the classroom, rather than outside of it), working to create teaching aids, facilitating co-curricular activities like clubs and sports, and developing non-formal educational opportunities in the community.
So this is pretty verbose and jargonish language, so I'll elaborate. First of all, why does Zambia's schools need me, a white man with little knowledge of the local language? When most people think of African schools, they might picture a bunch of children sitting under a Baobab tree, with a young teacher, probably a seventh-grade dropout. Maybe there is a chalkboard. This is not the case in my context. Zambia has a relatively well-established school system, but in my opinion it carries too much remnants from colonial and missionary schools which have little relevance to contemporary life in the village. A rural school, particularly those with government funding, have buildings, and salaried teachers, all with training in some with degrees. But the atmosphere in the classroom has little relation to the frenzied and dynamic environment outside of it. After fifth grade, much of the instruction is done in English, and below that it is in only one of the major languages. Children in areas where dialects are spoken, like mine, have to quickly adapt to both the regional language and the official language, English, another remnant of colonialism, but arguable a tongue uniting the politics and regions of a country with 7 major languages and 78 other languages and dialects.
Much of methodology used is rote memorization, a teacher will write an entire section on the blackboard to compensate for the lack of available textbooks. Students repeating the teacher is so commonplace that experienced teachers develop a call-and-response manner of speech, drawing out the last syllable so the children can follow, as echoes ("The capital of Zambia is .... Lusaka"). An emphasis on presentation and formality is heavily emphasized, content is not as important as how it looks; this phenomenon is found everywhere, in the orderly handwriting of barely literate students to the suits, ties, and polished shoes of the teaching class (I argue that teachers, displaced from the urban areas to work and live in rural schools, constitute a class separate from the village). End of the year tests define who passes from seventh and ninth grade, the latter going to high school, thus constituting the minority of Zambians (most children drop out at seventh grade, due to a number of factors, including requirements of school fees and uniforms at that level). The school system is heavily academic, and can be seen as a pipeline passing pupils from first grade to university; despite recent improvements in curriculum to increase its relevancy, much of it doesn't reflect the fact students are coming from mostly undeveloped and remote African villages: textbooks explain how to use land phones, elaborate on the geography of polar regions, and, until recently, focused on Western history to the expense of African culture.
There is a spectrum between centralization and decentralization which is found at all levels of the Zambian school system. The institution was heavily centralized during the social-ish presidency of Kenneth Kaunda, and only recently efforts are being made to decentralized it. This is being done for a variety of reasons: 1) To increase transparency by having resources and funds locally processed and local officials held responsible for disbursement; 2) To localize the curriculum, to increase the relevance of schools to their surrounding communities. I consider myself part of the decentralization process, because I operate at one of the lowest levels of the Ministry, for better or worse. I am attached to a School Zone, which has four Government schools (GRZ) and more than seven community schools, under the loose supervision of the District Office, which is conveniently located less than 20km from my house.
I argue that decentralization has to be taken further, not just as an excuse to hold communities responsible for costs the Ministry should be taking care of (for example, school fees and basic resources for community schools, which fall under the supervision of the District Ministry Office), but a major change in how education occurs. Hierarchy reigns at school, a combination of a structured traditional governance system (all areas have chiefs and headmen/women) and leftovers from the colonial system. Students do not address adults standing, but must sit or kneel on the floor; corporal punishment was only recently banned in schools, but is still prevalent; most of the school pedagogy centers around the teacher at the head of class lecturing, a perfect representation of Freire's banking system of education. Of course no reform of the school institution can be taken outside of politics, a sphere I am not allowed, as a guest of the country, to tread in. But interventions can be made to introduce diverse teaching methods, to train peer educators (particularly in the sphere of HIV/AIDS prevention) and community school teachers (often whom themselves have only seven years of education), and to facilitate informal learning, in the style of traditional education, the sole form of passing knowledge before the introduction of missionary schools. My question, my mantra, is not how to introduce American values into the education system, for most may not even be relevant (the same way British models lack relevance sixty years ago, although they are still perpetuated in Africa until today), but to make Zambian schools more Zambian. This is an unanswerable question, but I believe one worth asking. Given that the tradition of informal/traditional education is different from Western notions of learning, and African communalism (basically, but not limited to, the sharing of stuff and the extended family) is distinct from the roots of capitalism and Western individualism, what would an African learning institution look like? What about an African library?
But these are big questions, and are intended to background my work, rather than act as starting points. Right now I'm just learning about life in Zambia, Bemba and Lala culture, the local language (which I'm sure I will talk later on, I find it very interesting), and the education system which exists, and in which I operate. It's one thing to theorize, and it's another thing to work, but it's a greater challenge, and also my goal, to unite both.