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.

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.