The reluctant colonialist

Has the British Empire really ended? investigates whether student NGOs perpetuate colonialist ideology

My uninspired decision to lug Ulysses on a six-week African adventure turned out to be the most symbolic summer reading choice I could have made. Whilst I spent weeks ploughing through the density of Modernist syntax and Greek intertextuality, READ International – the student-led NGO I elected to spend my summer working for – spent weeks distributing British books to Tanzanian schools.

The complete incomprehension I encountered upon tackling James Joyce, as an English literature student who was reading a novel written in her own language and who emerged from a culture which harbours the virtues of a reading ethos, is surely incomparable to the complete incomprehension an East African, Swahili-speaking school child encounters upon opening a British school book?

I developed some serious crises of conscience during my first few weeks in Tanzania. The more I learnt about the Tanzanian education system which, in the birth of its independence from Britain in the 1960s, embarked upon an initiative under quasi-Communist President Julius Nyerere to build as many schools as possible without the significant resources to accompany them, the more I questioned our efforts to distribute English books to Swahili-speaking schools. Was such an initiative ever really going to develop a reading culture in schools, and were we entitled to decide that a reading culture – and specifically our reading culture – is a sign of civilised prestige and should be encouraged?

University students in Tanzania realise the limits of offering British books to a Swahili culture. Books alone do not embody educational authority: they need to be used; they need to be understood. I met a Law student from the University of Dar es Salaam named Shaby, who consistently emphasised the motive of education for most families in Tanzania. There is no acknowledgement of the spiritual and personal development gained from expanding one’s education: “The complete focus is on exams, exams, exams.”

The passing of exams is what gets kids into university and into jobs. But this is an aim which often flounders in its own futility. So few students are ever able to reach secondary school level and, even when they do, they are faced with the insurmountable task of developing a native’s standard of English in order to use our books and pass exams written in English. By distributing numerous books across numerous Tanzanian schools, we were perhaps developing the same quantity over quality that Nyerere instigated 50 years previously.

Another Law student from the university, Patrick, argued that if everything was taught in Swahili then more would be understood and there would be a lower drop-out rate. Shaby was passionate in his belief that the government should aim to teach only in Swahili. It would get more kids in schools and more kids staying in schools. A young female Tanzanian student, Ramla, explained the limits of such potential legislation.”English is everywhere. You can’t escape it,” she told us, with a hint of melancholy defeat in her voice.

Robert Wilson, the director of READ International, stresses that READ “works hard to ensure that it is not promoting any specific cultural view point. We are very selective with the materials that we send to Tanzania and ensure that we do not take any books in subjects that are very culturally specific … the only values that we do carry with us are a belief in the power of education and in the capacity of young people to change their world.”

But how far is this belief in the power of education shared by previously colonised nations in this supposedly post-colonial worl­d? Wilson argues that “these beliefs [in the power of education] are also widely held in Tanzania and many young people highly value their education and are passionate about improving their futures.” READ is about more than the development of East Africa, but the development of our own student bodies: “We want young people to learn from each other and to have access to the information that they need to enhance their opportunities and create the change that they consider to be important.”

It is questionable, however, how far young volunteers, who often anticipate life-changing epiphanies at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro or deep in the slums of Delhi during their meticulously-selected, ethically-sound gap years, really encounter such stock phrase ‘learning’ and ‘developing’ experiences. Louise Taylor, a second-year Politics student at the University of Huddersfield, took a gap year in Peru with the student-based volunteering scheme Project Trust. She explains how the biggest impediment was her lack of Spanish and knowledge of the culture she was entering. “There were times when you would get homesick or feel a bit pointless,” she says, “particularly in the beginning when you’re getting used to a project and you don’t have the level of Spanish you need to carry out your plans or lessons or even just to buy a drink … We occasionally stood on toes when we were ignorant of things like bedtime curfews or religious practices or something. But the majority of the time they laughed it off or it was forgotten about and no-one took offence. We just went with the way it was and adjusted our way of thinking to theirs.”

Project Trust places a greater emphasis in its mission statement on the opportunities young volunteers from our culture can have, rather than the beneficial extent of its work in places it is intending to help, such as Peru. Louise continues to explain that “the main focus [of Project Trust] is to benefit and expand the education of those volunteers who want to learn another language or fluff out their CV.”

‘CV fluff’, which is advantageously capitalised on by British students, seems to be precisely what such student-based NGOs offer in the long term; even if aims are realised on the basis of our cultural code of practice, impediments still remain in the communities were are attempting to assist. In Tanzania, passing exams and entering university is not a secure path to success. Unemployment is so widespread that the relatively few people who manage to have a university education are often left jobless. A Social-Care student I met in Dar es Salaam, Anita, told me how much she had yearned to go to a British university as the degree she will gain from Tanzania will be ignored internationally: “English employers are aware that a degree from Tanzania is not as good as a degree from Europe.”

She explained to me that the only way out is to gain a degree from South Africa or, as she had hoped, come to England. But this is beyond hope for most Tanzanians, even for wealthier citizens such as Anita. She informed me that fees cost up to six million shilingi a year for a university education at an institution such as Sunderland.

There is no easy solution. To westernise or not to westernise? If not, then limit the amount of facilities and opportunities available to students in their futures. If so, then limit the level of basic education a Tanzanian child can actually have. Wilson adds: “READ International recognises that Tanzanian students struggle to cope with the introduction of English as the language of instruction in secondary schools. Our research into the development of education in Tanzania has also made us aware of the views of many in the academic community who believe that Swahili as a medium of instruction right through the education process would be better for the cognitive development of the students… the Tanzanian Government has held its belief that, because English is the language of business and commerce and is widely used in the global community, students should be immersed in English and working with in from secondary school level. Recognising that this is unlikely to change, READ International chooses not to question these choices, but rather to provide resources to schools that will help students and teachers to improve their English.”

My meeting with the students in Dar was tough: up until that moment I had my doubts about the effect a group of British students dumping a load of British books across Tanzania would have. Reading is tough. Education is tough. It requires dedication and a belief in success. If these kids can’t envision the benefits of education then the books will remain unopened. Anita’s impeccable English and ability to levitate herself into a position of educational power – especially as a woman – made me realise that little steps, the drops in the ocean, are essential to the improvement of the bigger picture, and that Wilson’s idealism may just be right.

Anita highlighted to me one crucial impediment that will take longer to overcome, however. Gender roles are still massively limiting factors in the education system. Whilst girls may have the opportunity to go to school like their male counterparts, and whilst the Tanzanian government may purport that they want and aim for sexual equality in education, the reality is much different. The culture is still embedded in every area of education. Anita told me that the best opportunities for women were in the urban areas, where women were not so restrained by the working day, taken up looking after the children, cooking and cleaning. In the village, she told me, life is so tough that the idea of a woman having a job is inconceivable.

Not only is female employment impractical, but the village attitude also tends to be against the equality of women. Statistically, only 5% of girls finish secondary education and the literacy rate of women is more than 15% lower than the literacy rate of men. Women are placed in impossible situations. If they become pregnant, education is completely out of bounds. Employment, if you ever find it, is just as problematic. Anita told me that often the boss will offer young female employees money or a promotion in exchange for sex, which can often end up in the inevitable situation of pregnancy – a situation that equally ousts a woman from employment immediately.

Such factors exemplify the ultimate limits of NGOs bustling into previous colonies and attempting to improve their quality of life. We may attempt to suggest westernised snippets of liberalism, but the macrocosm of a country’s infrastructure is what is always going to be most culturally influential.

Thomas Babington Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Indian Education’, written during the century of colonial questions, the 1800s, shows how education plays a strategic role in ruling over colonised peoples by supporting ‘cultural colonisation’, which inculcates Euro-centric values. Such an argument is just as potent in the functioning of NGOs today.

Esme Anderson, a third-year English literature student at the University of York, is a founder and trustee of The WAM Foundation, a charity dedicated to the promotion of musical cultural exchange between India and the UK. “One of the most common questions I’m asked is whether I feel that WAM imposes onto the Indian culture,” she says. Her answer to such cynicism is simple: “I don’t think it does. I believe that we have only fitted into an already existing infrastructure of the teaching of western classical piano, and hopefully have improved the children’s experience of learning piano by focusing on enthusing the Indian children and helping them learn how to enjoy their playing rather than seeing it is a chore.”

Like READ, the WAM foundation is a very young charity still finding its feet in the developing world.

READ is ambitious. READ is idealistic, and is potentially growing too fast. Next year, READ is aiming to cover regions in Uganda, in addition to the regions it is already covering in Tanzania. Uganda ticks all the boxes for READ. The problems it is encountering in Tanzania at the moment will be overcome, potentially, in Uganda – students are taught in English from primary school, which eliminates many of the communication problems, and has more teachers in schools, eliminating many of the issues with schools not actually using the books. But what about all those schools in Tanzania, which still keep the books stacked up in boxes in the corner of classrooms, which still have students unable to go to university because they have not had or used the resources needed to help them pass exams? READ seems to be becoming a little too big for its very young boots. And the one thing READ needs is time. That time should be concentrated in Tanzania, improving evaluation and pre-distribution, before it’s used in Uganda. Once again, Mr. Orwell helps me to elucidate my thinking: “Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.”

But ambition is what will keep these NGOs afloat. Change will happen, one day. Maybe not exactly as it should, maybe under the guise of westernised idealism, but it will happen.

If you would like to learn more about any of the charities mentioned in this article, then please visit:

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