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

Nonetheless, the Ministry of Education sets a huge task before them. Form III students, it says, should “develop the habit of reading for pleasure and for information,” as well as to increase reading speed.  It says they should complete 13 books during the third year.

But our school only has five of the books on the syllabus, and enough copies of only three to actually use.

Of the two we finally read—“Things Fall Apart” and “No Longer at Ease,” both by Chinua Achebe—we had 14 and 23 copies, and only a handful in good condition. These were shared by groups of three and four students.  But actually reading them would be like me reading “Don Quixote” in Spanish. Impossible.

Of course, this shows on test day.  We spent several weeks going over these books, and I wrote explicit outlines of everything that happened on the board,  which I watched them copy down.

But on test day, students who once seemed to have mastered the plot, or at least memorized the characters, answer question about Obi and his grandfather, Okonkwo, like this:

“Okonkwo Obi is falling apart.”

“Obi is republic.”

“Clara was very dislike because Obi’s parents they don’t want Clara to be wife of Obi.  So Clara want to kill himself for that.  THIS IS NOT GOD TO WANT TO KILL YOURSELF.  EVEN YOU MR. FRANK.”

Hmm. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind. But with many more days like this, it just might.

On the other hand, sometimes on test day, a previously illiterate student mysteriously becomes a brilliant literary critic.

“Okonkwo,” writes Godson, “through his fears, becomes exiled from his tribe and returns only to be forced in the ignonimy of suicide to escape the results of his rash courage against the white man.”

Godson is the class Rastafarian and knows the words to every Bob Marley song.  I know he doesn’t know anything about Okonkwo.

“Obi Okonkwo,” writes Tumaini in suspiciously good English, “returns from his studies in England to try to live up to the expectations of his family and his tribe and at the same time to breathe the heady atmosphere of Lagos.”

Such is the heady atmoshpere of test day. Martin writes in his letter,  “Just a quick note to let you know that I’ve had a rather serious accident in my holiday, and my leg is now in plaster. The doctor said that I’ve fractured it, and that I’ll be laid up for about six weeks.  After that I should be right as rain.  I will tell you more in another letter.  For now, let me end here. Yours ever, Martin Paul.”

There are about three students in the class who might be able to write something like this.  Martin is not one of them.  He is one of the other 44 who come to school, sit, talk, use cheat sheets I can never find,  and don’t pay attention, except on days when I give up on grammar and answer questions about America.

“Is it true,” they would ask, “that the government gives every American a gun at age 18?”

“Is it true that even the poorest Americans have 12 cars?”

“What’s up, man?” they would ask.

“Hey,” I’d say. “Not much.”

Those days were the best of all, the days when I felt that I really had something to offer, something they wanted to know. These were the days we connected.  These were the days when they sat rapt, as I unlocked the secrets of America, and they, in turn, unlocked their own country, giving me all the street lingo I could use.

But there was no slang on the national syllabus, and it didn’t help them on test day.

“So,” I ask again as we go over the test (we’ve been over the material before), “Obi and Christopher went out with some Irish girls.  Does anyone know what Irish means?”

“Irish potatoes!” someone shouts.

“Yes,” I say, “like Irish potatoes. But what does Irish mean?”

“Beautiful!” someone else shouts.

Next question:  “So, the girl tried to bribe Obi with sex.  What…”

Suddenly they are all fluent.  “Explain!  Explain!”  they yell.

“No!” says Seuri, “don’t explain in words. Give demonstration so we can see.”

The students hand in the tests, and the scores are abysmal again.  I’m not even sure how to grade them.  If I make it on a curve, it will be a very small bump.  The hardest part is that I know they could do it if they had chance, if they had some hope.  But there are too many obstacles and too few incentives.  Most of my students will be married off or end up putting their certificate to work in the fields.

Yet as with so many things in Tanzania, we move on.  Life is hard here, but giving up is even harder, and it’s not really an option.  So we go forward, to the next test, the next lesson.  Along the way, we look for hope and laughter and comfort where there is little, and make our own where there is none.

As class finishes, wooden chairs scrape across the floor again as the students stand up to leave with their tests.  I too move to the door, but accidentally step on Matthew’s foot.

“Oh, sorry,” I say.

“It’s cool,” he says.

“Where did you learn that?” I ask.

He looks at me and smiles.


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

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