Taking off for Tanzania

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
Forget fancy perks and cash bonuses, career satisfaction can be found in basic African classrooms. Jennie Harvey explains why bucket showers and intermittent electricity are good for the soul

It was half-term and we were in the Serengeti, a two-hour drive from our home. At a water hole, we were treated to a view straight from a wildlife programme: elephants, hippos, lions, crocs, giraffes, zebra and wildebeest all milling around for our viewing pleasure. Tula, my five-year-old daughter, yawned and said: "Mum, next year I want to go to Butlins."

Spending a year teaching in Africa with my husband and two daughters was the best thing I have ever done. And it was all on a whim; no lengthy planning or years of saving. I saw the job advert on the web, emailed for details, had an interview and got the offer - all in the space of five days. Three months, and lots of form-filling later, we were off.

Naturally, a year in a remote part of northern Tanzania in East Africa would not suit everyone. Electricity supply was intermittent at best, so if you struggle without hair straighteners, think candles are for romantic suppers only, or can't face a cold bucket shower in the morning, then perhaps this is not for you. But, for the opportunity to have a paid year away, the chance to form your opinions through first-hand experience rather than media-delivered bias, and a year of teaching a small class of children that actually want to be there, I can recommend giving it a go - partner, children and all.

Jasmine, my eight-year-old, wasn't sure what to expect on her first day. "I look like a St Trinian's reject," she said after donning the school's hideously old-fashioned uniform (both the children were given free places). It wasn't easy for her to settle in at first. But she got through, made friends after a while, and actually became an eight-year-old, playing with dolls and skipping ropes, rather than the mini-adult that life in the Western world had created. And all the while, she was receiving an excellent education from a qualified British teacher.

The children attending the school came from wealthy families, and you rarely encountered the parents. There was no packed playground full of gossiping mothers in fake Armani, just drivers employed by the families to ferry their offspring between school, tuition and, often, the mosque. The children were fabulous - keen to learn, polite and well behaved. My behaviour management skills were hardly needed, I could focus solely on teaching.

The classrooms were basic but adequate. I nearly wept when I first saw my blackboard and the prerequisite pieces of crumbling chalk - no interactive whiteboards here. But it allowed me to be more creative, finding ways of bringing lessons to life that didn't involve a computer screen. And classes were small - only 17 in mine, half the number I was used to.

Our house was one of seven on a gated compound. It was kind of shabby-chic, without the chic. And the noise. Bongo music blared all day and night from the never-ending parties, weddings and funerals, and we would hear every Muslim call to prayer by the imam. At the 5am call, the local Christians grabbed a megaphone and competed by preaching their message, accompanied by dogs howling, cows mooing, fruitbats beeping and birds squawking. Sleep was hard to come by.

We had a houseworker, Erica, who did our cleaning, washing (by hand) and ironing. I couldn't believe how much this freed up my time. How on earth did I get everything done in the UK? We bought a car after a few weeks, because leaving our compound on foot quickly became an unpleasant experience. Jasmine and Tula, being pretty and blond, attracted endless attention just walking along the dirt tracks into school or town. Local children were fascinated by them and would pull their hair, tug at their clothes, follow them and mimic them. Everyone had one phrase off-pat: "Mzungu ('white person'), give me money." These encounters led me to take my Kiswahili language lessons seriously; I would learn phrases to tell these children to leave us alone.

School followed the shorter terms of the private system, which meant there were longer holidays and lots of opportunities to travel across East Africa. But be aware of costs: with a take-home salary of pound;500 a month, a single teacher could travel by local transport, stay in cheap hotels and have a great time on a small budget. Multiply the costs by four to accommodate a family, and the money quickly disappears.

We had fantastic camping safaris, spent a month at Christmas driving through Kenya, swam with dolphins in the Indian Ocean, tasted exotic spices in Zanzibar and spent weekends by the pool or visiting islands on Lake Victoria. Equally though, we lived without constant electricity and with undrinkable water, got hassled wherever we went, got ripped off in markets and dukas (shops), suffered endless mosquito bites, Delhi belly and even bouts of malaria. Jasmine and I caught the disease more than once, although my husband and Tula mysteriously avoided it. We took Lariam, but it wasn't totally effective. Fortunately, treatment was available over the counter in the form of a drug called Coartem, and after a few days of aching, fever, and the strange kind of depression that typifies malaria, we were usually back at school.

Christmas was wonderful. Santa found the girls even in the depths of Nairobi National Park, but of course he didn't have access to wrapping paper or expensive gifts. They were happy as Larry with their wooden carvings and trinkets. With no advertising and no fancy shops, they simply didn't have the same expectations. Christmas lunch consisted of packets of crisps and bottles of beer and soda in a packed, lively "Hotel and Butchery". Happy days.

I off-set my niggles about being a private school teacher in a poor country by taking classes in a rural school on Saturdays. We helped out local people we met, sharing meals and giving financial support. We carried biscuits and bottled water wherever we went, which my children would hand out to the street kids. Every day we would see beggars, lepers, the homeless and helpless, and I can't pretend that I didn't want to protect my children from the harsh realities of life there. But I'm sure these experiences have changed us all for the better. Back in Devon, I now juggle part-time teaching with charity work for Bridge2Aid, which provides free healthcare in northern Tanzania. I have more time with my family and we simply enjoy being together. Although we didn't change the world, it certainly changed us.

Jennie Harvey is a primary supply teacher in Devon. She taught in Africa from 2006-07

How to teach in Africa with a family

- Check if your school takes teachers with dependents and whether they can provide free places for them (mine did).

- Ask if the school employs staff who are trained and experienced in delivering the English national curriculum.

- Don't believe everything the school tells you: they are trying to fill vacancies after all. Ask as many questions as you can at interview and ask to be put in contact with a teacher already there.

- Ensure your contract doesn't get subtly changed between interview and arrival, and don't return to the UK without having all the money they owe you in your pocket.

- If your child has special needs, bear in mind the school may not be able to provide them with the same kind of support as in the UK.

- Bring your own supply of any medication you need as local healthcare is variable. If you are protective about your children's health choose a big city with a decent hospital.

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