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Teaching, touring and learning in Africa

Our family’s trip to Tanzania stirred thoughts, once again, on whether committed North Americans can make a meaningful difference in the communities they meet.


On our family’s second trip to East Africa, we were hoping for somewhat less adventure than we experienced on our first. In December 2007, we arrived in Kenya in the midst of the fraught, and ultimately rigged, national elections which were followed by several months of unspeakable political violence. We spent almost four sobering and fascinating weeks in the country, returning to Canada unharmed but unfinished with our African journey.

Our most recent trek in May 2014 took us to Tanzania, drawn there by two primary school teachers, my nephew Jamie, a York University faculty of education graduate, and his wife Elif, a Turkish national, specializing in the use of educational technology. They are part of the contemporary brigade of international teachers sharing their expertise and enriching themselves culturally in countless ways.

We began with a visit to the Majengo Children’s Home, a facility opened in 2006 near the town of Mto wa Mbu (pronounced Mtwambu) in northeastern Tanzania. Founded by an energetic Canadian, Lynn Connell, and Charles Luoga, a Tanzanian engineer who is director and project coordinator of an NGO called ICA (Institute of Cultural Affairs) Tanzania, it is home to 84 children. Some of them are orphans and most are deemed “vulnerable” – neglected, abandoned, or abused. Majengo also operates a preschool for its youngest residents, which is open as well to families living in the town.

Overseeing 17 local employees, Charles manages the site, including the construction and maintenance of residential buildings (recently completed), the development of a new water facility, and much more. Over the past year he has been aided by two North American volunteers, Matthew Brewster, a stone-mason from North Carolina whose skills have added immensely to the sustainability of the project. He was about to return home to paid employment but planned to continuing volunteering at Majengo for three months each year.

Heidi Wiebe, a regional planner with an MA from the University of Calgary, works in the ICA office in Mto wa Mbu and performs a variety of other tasks, from attending to the children’s health needs to helping them with homework. Although the local government provided land for the establishment of Majengo, the facility receives no other public funding and is entirely dependent on Canadian and American private donations channeled through ICA. For 2013, its entire budget was $130,000.

The staff and Tanzanian preschool teachers treat the children with incredible gentleness and care, and the affection between the local employees and the two foreign volunteers, both of whom had mastered basic Swahili, is equally poignant.

Lynn and Charles are determined to ensure that this project endures, unlike other initiatives that have begun with similarly lofty intentions. Africa is riddled with one-off ventures that simply “fall apart” when foreign interest and funding wanes. Majengo’s future appears promising though far from certain.

Located just outside the town, Majengo has a special relationship with a local primary school owned by Mama Anna, which we also visited. MwalimuAnna’s, a non-sectarian private school (half of the students are Muslim and half Christian), opened six years ago on about three hectares of land purchased by Mama Anna’s husband, Mr. Moshi, who intended to use it for farming and eventually pass it on as an inheritance to his children. “I changed my mind,” he explained, undoubtedly influenced by his persistent and visionary wife, herself a former teacher.

Charles Majaliwa, the head teacher, describes the philosophy of the school as “child-centred,” though it is clearly subject to standardized curricula and national exams, the questions and answers for which are published in the Tanzanian Daily News at the end of term. There one can find the six causes of the French revolution, suggesting a textbook-driven, memorize-these-facts approach to pedagogy, even in nominally progressive schools.

There is a severe shortage of teachers in Tanzania, generating opportunities for foreigners. Mama Anna’s employed Simone Lee Hamilton, a Queen’s University faculty of education graduate, who came to the school as an unpaid intern and returned to work as a certified English teacher, earning a modest wage at local rates. Admired for her creativity and devotion to the children, she also volunteered at Majengo and remains very active in the life of the organization.

I discussed the possibility of arranging for the placement of future York teacher candidates and/or fully qualified teachers who could engage in professional development with Mama Anna’s staff and, conceivably, be assigned their own class. But as Charles, the head teacher, emphasized, the school does not require judgmental, missionary-minded Canadians interested only in teaching, not in learning. Westerners who fail to engage indigenous educators and communities through the medium of cultural exchange, and who are perceived merely to be imposing knowledge, will not fare well.

A puzzling adventure

Our trip included some remarkable outdoor educational experiences as well. We visited the magnificent Ngorongoro Crater followed by a two-day 30-km hike along the breathtaking Great Rift Valley Escarpment. On our walk, a surprising episode occurred, which reflected the collision of traditional African culture with our own interest in tourism that felt meaningful and not simply indulgent.

Justin, our Masai guide, took us to the village of Naiyobi where local women and children were preparing to greet us with welcoming songs, dances and jewelry for sale. We arrived too late for the ceremony and, after a brief break, had to hike to our campsite in a national park. To our amazement, some 30 women and children followed us for the two-hour trek, and upon our arrival they presented the welcome performance, displayed their crafts, and then returned for the long walk back to the village. We were moved and puzzled by this experience. Were we exotic objects of deference, complicit in the rise of the “money economy,” or were we visitors appreciated for our genuine interest in engaging with people, rather than simply in photographing exotic animals (which, like other tourists, we certainly did)? We left uncertain, and the jury is still out.

Another piece of our trip raised similar questions about the relationship among aid workers, foreign investors (or philanthropists) and Africans. Mambo Viewpoint EcoLodge is a stunning eco-friendly facility, built at the peak of Usambara Mountain near a town of the same name. The Dutch owners, Herman Erdieck and his wife, Marion Neidt, secured the property in 2008, resolving to live there permanently and contribute innovatively to local community development. To build the lodge, they employed some 1,000 villagers, the majority of them women, who honed skills transferable to their own communities. With the aid of volunteer specialists from abroad, the enterprise has repaired broken water pumps and built new ones, constructed a badly needed bridge, taught farmers how to make cheese and yoghurt, built toilets in the schools and offered scholarships for advanced education.

There are risks and complications associated with these types of initiatives. Making promises and raising expectations that are not fulfilled can inspire resentment and cynicism among Tanzanians who are already familiar with governments and NGOs that don’t deliver.

Schooling is one example. After a remarkable campaign through which universal primary schooling was essentially achieved, the government has not provided the necessary supports to ensure that quality is sustained. Class sizes average 50-plus, educational resources are in short supply and secondary schooling is still not tuition-free. Power outages occur frequently throughout the country and the state of infrastructure, including treacherous, unfinished roads, is grim. The country still struggles from stringent public spending restrictions imposed by the International Monetary Fund in the 1980s in exchange for development loans, and the international market implosion of 2008 has left its mark on African economies.

Corruption, too, is pervasive and this poses challenges for foreigners who arrive with high ideals. Payoffs to local authorities may be required to get projects off the ground, but at what point do such practices destroy the integrity of otherwise admirable and necessary work? Do the ends justify the means?

Moreover, can committed foreign teachers, builders, planners, health workers and social entrepreneurs, among others, make a significant difference in the communities they adopt? The answer, in my experience, is a qualified yes. Such adventurers needs to contain their expectations, prepare themselves for challenges and disappointments, and work in genuinely collaborative ways with the communities they encounter. They must be prepared to learn as well as teach.

They will not change the world. What they may do instead is change many worlds, of the individuals and families whose lives they touch with their skills, services, compassion and respect. In our African journeys, we’ve witnessed many examples of such people doing well by doing good.

Paul Axelrod is a professor and former dean of the faculty of education at York University. He has written widely on the history and politics of schooling and higher education, including The Promise of Schooling: Education in Canada, 1800-1914.

Paul Axelrod
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