TO cross four rivers to reach school is travelling a long way. The distance from my home to school was longer than that.
Before I reached the first river I walked the distance on the hump of the first hill that may as well pass for a plateau. It was three miles.
There was another hill like that before I crossed the second river. The distance from the fourth river to the school gate was almost equally long.
In my hand, like my other fellow schoolchildren, I had a hoe, a broom, some firewood for the teacher and some food mother had wrapped up for me in one of her head scarves. My fellow schoolmates travelling the same route were similarly loaded.
I travelled more than eight miles either way. In total, by the time I was back home in bed, I had travelled over 16 miles. I slept deeply, visiting in my dreams a strange world where either the angels sang for me or a threeheaded demon chased me. Some other schoolchildren travelled even a longer distance.
It meant waking up at second cock-crow and returning home at dusk, dead beat, often on an empty stomach that had announced itself for hours on end with rumbles of hunger, but getting no answer, decided to keep quiet. Taking some food along with you did not mean you would have a meal during lunch-break at noon because while we hid the food in a bush, there were always cleverer boys watching. Hunger made reading difficult.
The 1961 unrelenting rain we called Uhuru Rains generally made going to school a severe punishment. Our feet were not shod. I had my first pair of shoes when I joined Standard Seven. They weighed two kilograms. Yet despite all these difficulties and painful escapades, all suffered in the name of education, schoolchildren of those days hardly missed a day to school and read hard.
On holidays or weekend one would carry a book to read as one looked after the cows and goats grazing. It was fun and pride to beat everybody else at school. When we played, we also played hard. In retrospect, it all answers well the adage: "All play but no work makes Jack a dull boy, and all work but not play makes Jack but a dull boy."
Schoolchildren of the 1960s and 70s were not dull. Tanzania today is a different world. With all the newspapers, TV and radio all bombarding the community with various forms of education, we would expect today's child to be better educated and more knowledgeable.
They may be. What is clear though is that they are mostly toys. Their academic performance has slumped. The present day mode of life has spoilt them despite the fact that they are more advantaged than their academic counterparts five decades ago. I asked one recently if he knew what Limpopo was and where it was.
He said Limpopo was an animal in Argentina, far off the fact that there was no link at all between this African river in South Africa, flowing through Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mazambique and an animal in Argentina. I could have forgiven the boy for that, but when I asked another Primary Seven schoolchild to tell me the biggest fresh water lake in Africa and he told me it was Lake Natron, I thought there was something wrong with learning and teaching today.
When a Primary Six schoolchild tells you that the Prime Minister is the Parliament's Speaker Samuel Sitta, it is hard to believe that teachers are doing their work well at all or if they are qualified to teach in the first place. Ironically though, the same child could recite all the English football teams in the Premier League and tell you the Manchester United first eleven, arranging the team with surprising ease as though he were the team's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, himself.
At Standard Four we could already recite the whole Tanganyika's cabinet. We knew all big rivers, ethnic communities and mountains in the country. At Primary Eight we could tell how River Amazon and River Nile ranked in the world and many other global physical features. The present-day students academically contrast sharply with their counterparts just some decades ago.
There are complaints they know less. However, it would be unwise to wholly blame it on the children. The environment they are growing up in today needs a re-examination. Poor academic performance has to a good measure been blamed on some of the modern inventions such as the television (TV). Addictive, TV consumes most of the study hours of schoolchildren. It is by interfering with one's sleep does the TV harm a student's performance.
A study termed the Complex Model of Television Viewing and Educational Achievement by one Micha Razel found that for each age, there is an optimal viewing time, up to which point television viewing is beneficial, and above which it is harmful. Razel found that this optimum was 2 hours a day for nine-year olds, 1.5 hours a day for thirteen-year olds, and 0.5 hours a day for seventeenyear- olds.
"The benefit of the optimal viewing decreased with age," the study elaborates. Briefly, answering whether TV impairs intellect, Razel says: "There is little doubt that television is on average bad for a person's intellectual development." More modern inventions like the handset too have likewise, interfered with schoolchildren's performance.
With the curiosity of a cat the youth remain talking for hours on end with the handset glued to their ears, giggling at love words their friends utter to them. The longer 'longa' business mode for 24 hours some telephone companies have started has made many people, mostly schoolchildren, keep the phones longer glued to their ears. A brain expert, Dr Vini Khurana, says young people are at particular risk from exposure to radiation because mobile phones could kill far more people than smoking or asbestos.
The award-winning cancer expert adds that there is a huge rise in tumours and calls on industry to take immediate steps to reduce radiation. However, it is particularly interesting to note how mobile phone use interferes with schoolchildren's academic performance. A study has found out that radiation from mobile phones delays sleep and causes headache and confusion.
The research, sponsored by the mobile phone companies themselves, shows that using the handset before bed causes people to take longer to reach deeper stages of sleep and to spend less time in them, interfering with the body's ability to repair damage suffered during the day. The research was carried out by scientists from the bluechip Karolinska Institute and Uppsala University in Sweden and from Wayne State University in Michigan, USA.
"The findings are especially alarming for children and teenagers, most of whom - surveys suggest - use their phones late at night and who especially need sleep," says the study. It adds that: "Their failure to get enough can lead to mood and personality Are today's children performance worse despite exposure? changes, ADHD-like symptoms, depression, lack of concentration and poor academic performance." However, it takes two to tangle.
A committed student without a good teacher does not bring the required result and nowadays teachers too do not appear to fare as well as their counterparts a couple of decades back after independence. A study says student disrespect toward teachers is another factor that reflects personal as well as societal attitudes towards teachers and the teaching profession.
"The status of teachers has been eroded to a point where teachers feel themselves devalued as professionals," says the study. This acts to increase the reluctance of potentially good teachers to enter the profession. No doubt therefore Tanzania today stands in a dire need of teachers with some areas of the country having a shortage that makes classes go without a teacher for months as recently announced in the country.
Leakage of examinations reflects the inefficiency of teachers as a method to hide their inefficiency. Corruption surrounding it all makes matters worse by encouraging schoolchildren from reading hard and parents from ensuring the kids do so. The evil means the law lacks teeth to deter any potential offenders. Parents may have the affluence to give their children the comfort of watching TV and having a mobile phone. However, at the bottom of all this material comfort and luxury is the parents' stance towards the child's learning.
Such dear gifts and riches could delude the child into believing that making it in life does not entail hard work. "What does it mean to give your schoolchild a 400,000/- mobile phone and 50,000/- to spend in a week when you drive her to school every morning?" asks Said Rau Kalembo, a businessman in Dar es Salaam.
"Does she need to study hard to get a mobile herself?" Apparently, studying hard for many people to get anything stopped a long time ago because they do believe that there are a many ways today to get whatever they want without reading a book.