top of page

Tanzanian childhood and education

4 (1).jpg

Children attend daily classes in their primary school five days a week. A few classrooms house over 800 children, and it seems that the building is about to burst at the seams. When the school runs out of desks, children sit or lie down on the cement, diligently taking notes. Some share copybooks if they do not have enough of those too. Those notebooks all look the same, they are gray and stapled twice in the middle. One of the girls extends her hands in the air proudly presenting to me her conscientious handwriting. Her movement is too enthusiastic and sudden; the copybook tears in half. She immediately bursts into tears knowing that this is the only one she owns, and her family might not be able to buy another one right now.

In recent years, Tanzania has made significant changes in expanding school enrollment to include children from the poorest environments. Nevertheless, many of them do not continue education past the primary level. The most affected seem to be girls from rural areas who drop out for several reasons including lack of washroom facilities at schools (which becomes particularly problematic when they start menstruating) or child marriage.

In addition to these fundamental challenges in the educational environment, the broader sociocultural context plays a crucial part in affecting Tanzanian children’s performance. Parents expect their children to actively participate in domestic chores and supervise smaller children. They must also show a great level of independence in securing their own needs (I watched in both awe and terror as a three-year-old skillfully carved out pieces of coconut with a sharp knife handed over to her by a family member). Children are taught responsibility from the early stages of life. Families that do not instill this sense of liability, cooperation, and simultaneous independence in satisfying one’s own needs are considered neglectful. Simple work around the household offers a context for acquiring valuable collaboration skills. Cooperation is therefore seen as one of the agents of socialization, creating a strong sense of collectivism and interdependence. Society emphasizes collective accomplishments (within, for example, a shared family system), rather than individual styles of achievement such as educational ones. 


Many children tend to perform poorly in standard oral educational and psychological tests, even though otherwise they can be very vocal, active, smart, and outspoken. They might have trouble producing thoughtful responses in tests that are catered to a strikingly different, individualistic, Western audience. Once again, enculturation and early childhood socialization might play an important role here. Child language socialization could offer an example (Harkness and Super, 2014). Unlike in many places in the Western world, African mothers do not tend to adapt their speech to that of children. For instance, they do not normally simplify words used when babies are around. Nor do they play an active role in teaching their children to talk. They, of course, communicate with their babies frequently while giving instructions, directives, warnings, comfort, suggestions, etc. Children learn how to understand language and respond well this way. Many African mothers do not, however, tend to focus on language teaching as such. This may be one of the direct reasons why their children are not used to responding verbally to testing situations the same way as Western children do. Consequently, African youngsters tend to be oriented towards understanding words, situations, stories etc., rather than producing responses. They are more likely to be socialized to be a responsible member of a community or collective, rather than an individual focused mostly on self-expression.

Zanzibari parents also instill moral principles in their children from the earliest stages of their existence. A kushindiliwa ritual which is performed at birth, includes whispering to a child in a repetitive manner that they need to be humble, resist temptations, avoid jealousy, and abstain from greed. Such statements are repeated throughout their childhood. Traditionally, children were also told not to play with wahuni. Among other meanings, that concept stands for anyone who has bad manners, is disrespectful towards the group that raised him, and disregards communal values. This is certainly a much less sentimental style of raising children than our individualistic “Western†kind, yet also one that prioritizes preparing a child to be a responsible, active, cooperative, and valuable member of the community. It is strikingly different than our mode of socialization, yet also one guided by strong and meaningful principles functional in African contexts. As Swahili people say: “he who was not brought up well by his parents, will be taught a lesson by the world†(asiefunzwa na mamae hufunzwa na ulimwengu).



Sara Harkness and Charles M. Super. 2014. Why African children are so hard to test. In Robert A. LeVine and Rebecca S. New (eds.). Anthropology and child development: a cross-cultural reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing pp. 182-186.

2 (1).jpg



Marta Wieczorek jest antropolożką kultury. Od dziesięciu lat pracuje jako wykładowczyni i badaczka na uniwersytecie w Dubaju. Jest również ubiegłoroczną stypendystką centrum badawczego Uniwersytetu Oxfordzkiego. Prowadzi badania w językach angielskim, portugalskim, hiszpańskim i polskim, publikuje w czasopismach naukowych w kilku krajach. Pasjonuje się dalekimi podróżami i fotografią; w przeszłości udostępniała swoje wizualne eseje antropologiczne na wystawach fotograficznych. Słucha rocka progresywnego, gotuje wegetariańskie dania, jeździ na pustynię, medytuje. Na publikuje eseje łączące antropologię wizualną, fotografię z fenomenologicznym doświadczaniem kultur świata. 

bottom of page