The Headmaster’s Dream

A few weeks ago, Sadath woke me up at 9:30am on a Monday morning (yes I admit, I was sleeping in and had no intention of coming in to the office before midday) to tell me that we needed an extra £50/$65 per student to confirm their place at our local school in Moshi, Tanzania.

“What for?” I asked, annoyed by his intrusion of my beauty sleep. And that too, with the news that we needed to find another £700/$910 for 14 of our students, who had just arrived at Kijana Kwanza.

“They need to take a desk and chair to school on their first day,” he answered, unapologetically. He had been awake since 5:00am, and he couldn’t quite understand how I got away with turning up to work when I felt like it. (Dude, it’s called volunteering).

“They need to take WHAT on their first day?!”

I had never heard such a bizarre request. Bring your OWN desk and chair to school?

“And why are we finding this out right now?” I asked.

“It’s a new rule,” Sadath explained. “We found out when we went to the school this morning.” It would appear that the visionary Headmaster’s new desk and chair policy had quite literally been dreamt of the night before.

We had no choice, of course, but to stretch our budgets and comply. But I was curious to understand the rationale behind this nightmarish policy and decided to pop into the school to meet the Headmaster with my good friend Retus.

Mr Headmaster (I can’t remember his name) is, according to our boys and girls, a fearsome character, but he managed to crack a half smile for our benefit. He invited us into the staff room, and promptly left in search of some chairs. The staff room was, at best, sparsely furnished. There were 2 wooden desks with exercise books piled high, a broken photocopy machine (the front panel was open and it seemed like someone had taken out all the inside machinery in a feeble attempt at bush-mechanics) and a row of overflowing and dusty boxes on the floor. No cupboards, no shelves and as Retus pointed out, no ceiling above our heads.

In no time, the Headmaster flurried back into the room dragging a green plastic garden chair and a three-legged foot stool. He was quickly followed by a group of 7 teachers, who appeared to notice the arrival of the chairs with unrelenting enthusiasm. The plastic chair and the three-legged foot stool were quickly claimed (you could almost hear the lanky geography teacher whisper the equivalent of “shot gun” in Swahili), whilst the slower-kind (such as the oblong-faced mathematics teacher) stood around like sulking children who had failed yet again at this daily, repetitive game of musical chairs.

Before the embarrassed Headmaster (who obviously no one takes too seriously when it comes to claiming a chair) could respond, I turned to him and asked if we could see the classrooms. On the way, he explained to Retus and I, his newly dreamt policy.

This academic year, 917 students have registered to study at Reginald Mengi Secondary School, compared to 811 in the previous year, a rise of approximately 13%. The success of pre/post natal healthcare in Tanzania is having the natural consequence of a rapidly growing population. The country has a median age of just 17 years, and this too is falling, year after year. Each child needs to go to school, and so the annual intake of boys and girls progressively increases, whilst the school budget remains hardly unchanged. Reginal Mengi Secondary School receives just Tsh. 2,072 (£0.69/$0.90) per student every month to cover all its running costs. It would take 2 months of the school’s annual budget to replace the broken photocopier in the staff room.

The school budget must cover ALL the day to day running costs, including school meals. Whilst students are asked to contribute Tsh. 75,000 (£25/$33) per year, less than one-third have made payment so far. The school finds itself in an awkward position of either subsidising meals from the general budget or having a 2-tier system, where some students get to eat and others are forced to go hungry. The 2-tier system is preferred, but I am told there are plenty of counterfeit school meal vouchers in circulation.

“We have this new policy because we are now desperate. There are more students every year and we are short of at least 200 desks and chairs. Even the desks that we have are not suitable and some are broken,” explained Mr. Headmaster (I still can’t remember his name).

“But the cost of a desk and chair is Tsh. 150,000 (£50/$65),” I protested.

“How can the students’ families afford that if they cannot pay for school meals?” I continued, in valiant defense of the students who were being denied an education.

A moment after I had spoken, I realised the stupidity of what I had just uttered. Everyone ‘knows’ that the students cannot afford to buy a desk and chair. This new policy is the only way in which the Headmaster can restrict the number of students joining the school. He is, after all, dealing with a crisis. If anymore students enroll, classrooms would break out into fights as students vie for a place to sit. (Thankfully, the teachers in the staff room are, it appears, content with sulking although a wrestling match between the lanky geography teacher and the oblong-faced mathematics teacher would be amusing.)

The Headmaster led me into the first classroom where he proudly displayed the desks he had salvaged from a closing primary school. Each desk could comfortably sit two 7-year olds, but in this classroom, four 14-year olds shared the same space. It reminded me of another awkward visit to a school back in London, where I had to squeeze my bum into one of those infant chairs that are common in primary schools. The only consolation here is that Tanzanian children tend to be small (one-third of young people resident at Kijana Kwanza arrive under-weight or malnourished) but, even by my low standards, this was quite literally taking the mick. It is no wonder that the school appears less reluctant to starve the kids at lunchtime. It would be a nightmare trying to squeeze four well-fed teenagers into a 2-seater primary desk and chair.

As I looked around the classroom, which was also no less bare than the staff room, but did (on this occasion) have a ceiling, I wondered how it was possible to learn in such an environment. From what I could see, the students were struggling to fit their exercise books on the communal desks and take notes off the blackboard.

We continued down the corridor to the second classroom. If the first was bad, this was far worse. The primary school desks I had seen now seemed plentiful. Here, there were some 10 students standing at the back of the classroom. Many of course, tried to share. But even that can only go so far. I noticed 3 boys sitting on a single chair at right angles cowering over their exercise books, which balanced precariously on their laps. And, somewhat amusingly, were it not a tragic indictment of what these dedicated young people undergo every day, a young lad, sat on a bucket, at the front of the classroom.

I had seen enough.

“I will get you 200 desks and chairs,” I said to the Headmaster, without thinking. “Leave it to me.”

Retus, who watched my outburst, quickly concluded that it was not just the Headmaster who had crazy dreams about desks and chairs.

As the two of us walked back to Kijana Kwanza, there was absolute silence, albeit for different reasons. From my side, I was coming to the realisation that it was pretty stupid to promise the Headmaster 200 desks and chairs in 6 weeks at a cost of £10,000/$13,000, when I had no idea where I could find the cash. But after seeing the young lad on a bucket, emotion took over, and I refused to accept the status quo. (Meanwhile, Retus was silently cursing me, thinking that this mzungu walking alongside him was probably going to make him work non-stop for the next 6 weeks to fulfil his crazy fantasy. To be fair, he was probably not wrong about that.)

But this is not just about desks and chairs. It’s about dignity. Both the dignity of the young lad on a bucket and the more abstract dignity of what education is, or should be. Back home, our children begrudgingly attend school, whereas here, in this small town in Tanzania, the children and young people are thirsty for the opportunity to learn. They come every day, knowing that they will spend the day in class standing up (or sitting on a bucket to the amusement of their peers) and forgo lunch (having probably not eaten breakfast) in order to receive a skeleton education at a school without any educational resources.

Today, Kijana Kwanza (Young People First) is launching a special appeal to buy 200 desks and chairs for our local school in Moshi, Tanzania. And I am appealing to you on behalf of the children and young people at Reginald Mengi Secondary School, to give them the opportunity to study with dignity and break the shackles of poverty in which so many of them were born.

But I need your help. Each desk and chair costs £50/€65. Please try and give what you can afford. Or just a little more, because you too share my emotion. Donate here.

And if you’ve already given or can’t donate yourself, please share our appeal on social media, message your WhatsApp contacts or forward on your school or work mailing list.

Mohammed S Mamdani

(PS. Whilst we need 200 desks and chairs for students, the school also needs more tables and chairs for staff – so if we can do better, we can make a bigger impact).