Test Day

Travel Stories: Frank Bures administers an English exam to his students in Tanzania, where life is hard and giving up isn't an option

09.10.03 | 9:49 PM ET

test day, tanzaniaPhoto by Frank Bures.

From the doorway, I can see the last of my students walking up the dirt road into the school grounds. They’re late as usual, but Mr. Ndyogi isn’t here to beat them, so no one is running. Their crisp blue and white uniforms move slowly beneath the outline of Mt Meru. I can see they’re even less eager for class to begin than normal, less enthused about English grammar than ever.

They know, as they drag their feet through the dust, that today is test day.

The last students straggle into class as I write the final questions on the blackboard.  When the talking and the scraping of wooden chairs dies down, I tell them to put their notebooks away and begin.

Testing is a futile exercise in so many ways. For most of these students, all 47 of them on a good day, English is their third language, after Swahili and Maasai.  My own Swahili is very bad and even though we’ve been working on prepositions for some time, I still have no idea what the Swahili word for preposition is, or if there is one.

Instead, I’m reduced to crude hand gestures and bad drawings on the board. Walking around the room,  glancing at the papers, I can see this hasn’t worked as well as I thought it would. Instead, judging from their writing,  preposition roulette is the favorite strategy once again.

“Go apologize to your brother by punching him in the nose.”

“Where should I get inward the bus?”

“What sort of things are you interested nothing?”

Our school is a small one, not far from Arusha, the semi-cosmopolitan urban center of northern Tanzania.  We have eight classrooms, which are staggered at intervals down a hill.  The students begin at the top and after a four-year downhill slide, they end up with their “certificate.”  My students are about mid-slide,  in Form III. I’m here for the year on a mostly self-funded teaching program, the idea being that, as an English speaker I should have enough grasp of it to pass it along.  This, in other words, is test day for me too.

The walls of our classroom are whitewashed and the room is packed tight with desks and stools.  The blackboard at the front is badly chipped and overhead are corrugated iron sheets, with one plastic panel to allow the sunshine through. Our school is called “Ekenywa,” which in Maasai means “Sunrise,” because (as our headmaster told us) with education, the area around the school is waking up.

If some of my students would wake up, they might do better on this test.

My only real ambition here has been to leave them with a few practical English skills—how to write a letter, for example, or what the plot of “No Longer at Ease” is. Something to help them get a job in town,  or at least to pass their national exam.

On test day, walking between the desks, I see how far we are from such lofty goals.  Take, for example,  their “Letter to a friend.”  I don’t know how many times I told them—how many times I made them write in their notebooks—to end a letter, any letter, with,  “Yours sincerely.”

Around the room, there are many interpretations of this:  “Your thinthially,”  “you thinkfully,”  “Yours sincefully,”  “Your sincilier,”  “your sceneially,”  “Senceally,” “Your friendly,”  “Yours be love friend.”  A few students do get the basics. John signs his, “Yours in the Building of the Nation,”  which I’m quite happy with. But mostly test day is the day I wonder why I’m here.

My students wonder this too. Imani even writes in his letter:  “The aim of sending this letter to you is to tell you about my exam I do.  The test I taking was very hard. I try to think, but I am not understand anything in this test. The teacher who make this test was not like the Form III to go in the Form IV.”

A good effort, and not a bad letter, as they go.  Rukia takes a more flattering tack.

“I study in Ekenywa Secondary School, and the teacher is the very good and the teacher of English is come from America so they teach very well.”  Or, “Frank was teach me English very well. I like it because I trie to speak English and I want to go some o my town to teach a young girl and boy, like Frenck teach me.”  Or, “I will get 18 points on this test are very big points.”

Her points, I’m afraid, will be the same size as everyone else’s. But they try so hard, in spite of everything working against them. At primary school everything is taught in Swahili.  Then they hit secondary school and suddenly all their classes are taught in English.  In this kind of immersion, most students drown.  The school provides no life rafts either, such as dictionaries or grammar books or workbooks.  Never mind school supplies.  Some days there aren’t even any teachers.

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Frank Bures is a World Hum contributing editor. This story was selected for the "Best American Travel Writing 2003" anthology.

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