Making Sense of My Role

My first few days have been quite difficult as I try to make sense of how and why things are the way they are in Tanzania – without being too critical. What makes it that little more bit more challenging is that I do not speak Swahili, other than the few words I learned playing with the Duolingo app on my phone (for the record, some of the Swahili is wrong, as I have come to realise). From the other side, the students speak but a few words of English, even though the entire school curriculum in secondary school in Tanzania is delivered in English.

On that point, I should explain further. In Tanzania, primary school is taught entirely in Swahili. When students move to secondary school, the whole curriculum is taught in English. It’s quite an abrupt move that is rather disorientating for the student. Sadath explained to me that in the first couple of years of secondary school “we are just cramming – we don’t understand what we are learning.” There’s probably very good reason why most young Tanzanians do not pass their O-Level exams – which are taken at the end of the 4 years of secondary school. Clearly, the challenge we will face is monumental, if we are to ensure that our young people succeed in their formal education.

At the moment, everything in Kijana Kwanza is quite fluid. We are still working out our priorities and strategy – and discovering new challenges. For me, in particular, the learning curve is steep. There are so many things we take for granted. And everything takes so much longer in Tanzania. Back home, if you want to buy something, you go online, compare prices and the next day it is delivered to your door. In Moshi, you can ‘waste’ a whole day combing through every shop, just looking for a specific book or piece of equipment.

My role at Kijana Kwanza is also delicate. Regardless of whatever commitment I have made to the project, I am mzungu (this is a term used to describe white people but is now commonly used to describe all foreigners). Even the students call me Teacher Mzungu. It would be somewhat arrogant for me to turn up in a foreign country and “lead” a project as if I know what is best for local Tanzanian youth. I cannot make the same mistakes as many international NGOs that are led exclusively by ex-pats. It’s just another form of colonialism. 

We have formally appointed Sadath as TZ Director (Maulid continues as the Student Support Worker reporting to Sadath). My official role is UK Director, which makes me Sadath’s counterpart. We are on an equal footing, reporting to our respective Trustees, albeit with different responsibilities. The central aspect of my role is to provide transparency and accountability for our donors and supporters around the world, and work with the team in Tanzania to agree on strategy, policy and procedure. I am also responsible for training staff and volunteers on organisational management, generating new ideas and approaches – but without any imposition – and supporting delivery of an exciting programme for Tanzanian youth.

Crucially, I make few demands. Any idea or approach I suggest must be convincingly argued, and it remains the decision of local staff and volunteers on whether to accept. There are some red lines, but I know that we will not be successful if Tanzanians do not own the project, as their very own.

But my favourite role is neither formal nor technical. It’s spending time chilling with the young people and helping them to make conversation in English. With my few words of Swahili and their attempts to speak English, we understand each other perfectly. Well, almost.

Mohammed S Mamdani