In Tanzania, a school with a mission: to uplift girls and promote spiritual values

IRINGA, Tanzania - Asked what makes their school different from others in this tropical East African nation, students at the Ruaha Secondary School are quick to point to a feature that usually "impacts" them quite directly: the total absence of "caning," as corporal punishment is known here.

"When the teacher walks in holding that stick you fear even answering a question because you may be beaten," said Clara Tomeka, a 16-year-old, third-year student at Ruaha, a private, non-profit school operated by the Bahá'í Community of Tanzania.

But when administrators, teachers, parents, and local officials are asked what sets Ruaha apart, they see the "no caning" policy as merely one sign of the distinctive approach to education, one that strives to create a learning environment based on the application of spiritual and moral values to the challenges of daily life.

In particular, those who know Ruaha talk about the school's emphasis on promoting qualities like patience, diligence, courtesy, trustworthiness, compassion and justice, while at the same time helping students developed the capacities, attitudes and skills - such as knowledge of appropriate agricultural techniques, computer literacy and basic commerce - that are geared to help students survive in one of the poorest countries in the world.

On top of it all, they also speak of the school's strong sense of mission when it comes to educating girls and proudly note its record of academic excellence.

"It is a model school compared to others," said Merchant Mtandika, the national school inspector for mathematics for the Ministry of Education and Culture. "In environment and discipline, it is very good; the environment is very much conducive to academic excellence. It has a good administrative structure. And I am impressed by the cordiality of the staff and their team spirit."

Although located in this relatively small and remote capital of the Iringa Region, the school draws students from all over Tanzania. The roughly 400 currently enrolled, for example, come from 17 of Tanzania's 21 regions, as provinces are called here.

Founded in 1986, the school is owned and operated by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Tanzania, the freely elected governing body of the Bahá'í community here. Overall, the school's primary mission is to serve the wider Tanzanian community by providing quality education at an affordable cost.

"We want to provide students with an education which is not only theoretical but also practical so they can be agents of change in their communities, so they can be examples of high moral rectitude, educational, academic and moral excellence, and so they can try to serve their communities and establish attitudes of service," said Becky Fairley, the principal at Ruaha.

"Our fees are moderate. We are not here only to serve the elite, though some elite choose Ruaha for their children. We are open to people of moderate means also. We attract students of different economic statuses," she said.

Focus on girls

More than two-thirds of those students are girls, a testimony to the school's success at achieving one of its major goals.

"We are really focusing on the education of girls, which is very important here, where traditionally only boys are educated, where traditionally boys are put first," said Ms. Fairley, noting that nationally, less than half of the students enrolled in secondary school are girls.

"We try to encourage girls, to improve their performance. We believe this contributes to raising up the status of women. It changes the way they raise children and this makes a tremendous difference in the community."

Ms. Fairley said the school requires an entrance examination, and girls are given preference in the scoring of that exam. She said the school also has special scholarship program for girls, and that it participates in the government-sponsored Girls Secondary Education Support Program, which is funded by the World Bank and gives educational opportunities to girls of low income.

Providing a good education is a difficult task in one of the world's poorest countries, where the majority of people are struggling to find enough food to eat. The average annual per capita income in Tanzania is about US$450 a year. The average annual tuition at Ruaha is US$175 a year, a fee which is higher than government schools but quite low compared to other private secondary schools of similar quality.

"It is difficult to help students see the importance of education," said Angresia Ginga, who teaches agriculture at Ruaha. "They see their university-educated relatives sitting at home jobless."

Ruaha strives to overcome these motivational barriers by focusing on subjects that will give students a better chance of finding a job. In addition to standard, nationally required subjects like English, Kiswahili, geography, history, mathematics, physics, biology and chemistry, Ruaha's curriculum also covers agriculture, commerce, computer literacy and "self-reliance."

One element of the self-reliance program focuses on practical experience in agriculture. Each student is assigned a plot and different crops are raised by each class. They also sell their produce to the catering program, so that students learn to see the "fruits" of their efforts.

"The self-reliance class helps because I can help my parents at home, to farm in the fields and to clean and do other small jobs," said James Iddi, a 17-year-old Form III day student. "The computer classes help because now there is email, internet. If you go to other countries they use computers. I think it's better to learn now so I will be equipped later on."

Spirit of Teamwork

Another problem faced by virtually every school in Tanzania is how to motivate teachers. In government schools, teachers are poorly paid and many skip class because they need to find alternate means to earn money.

Ruaha seeks to overcome this by promoting a spirit of teamwork among the teachers, a spirit that is enhanced by the school's policy of making salary payments on time.

"At Ruaha, the Principal consults with the students and teachers," said Boniface Mbungu, Coordinator of Student Affairs.

Likewise, said Mr. Mbungu and others, the administration consults extensively with the school's teachers, holding weekly staff meetings where teachers are encouraged to voice their concerns.

"Instead of fearing and hiding feelings, and doing things backhandedly, people feel free to express opinions," said Mr. Mbungu. "As a result, there is more unity - all are involved in the planning."

One result of the faculty's sense of teamwork has been solid academic performance, something especially noteworthy considering the school's high percentage of girl students, who often come under-prepared because of traditional neglect of girls in Tanzania.

Based on the 1998 National Form IV Examination results, Ruaha School ranked 3rd in the region, 5th in the zone and 35th out of 611 schools nationally.

Another measure of the school's success can be seen in the percentage of students who are selected by the government to go on from Form IV (11th grade equivalent) to Form V (12th grade equivalent). Nationally, the average acceptance rate is about 5 percent. In 1998, however, 26 out of 33 Form IV graduates at Ruaha were selected to go on, a rate of 78 percent.

Last year, Ruaha School won an award of $5,000 from the Ministry of Education and Culture for the best "Academic Improvement Plan."

"The teachers work hard here to get high performance," said Mercy Mushi, a 16-year-old Form III boarding student. "They teach us in many ways. In other schools you might go a whole day and find that only one teacher has come to class."

Moral Education

Ruaha is also notable for its incorporation of moral education into the curriculum. Using an activities-based approach, the moral education program, for example, might employ a tree-planting session to teach the importance of environment and ecology, as well as team decision-making.

"The focus is on moral capabilities," said Ms. Fairley. "For example, perseverance. In any activity, many morals are to be learned." Ms. Fairley said the school seeks to integrate moral education into every subject. "We have a virtue of the week program, stressing qualities such as 'honesty,' for example, to bring to the students' attention one virtue each week."

Students learn to be service-oriented by taking turns cleaning the school compound, gardening and doing other maintenance work.

The moral education program also stresses the importance of religion, taking an interfaith approach and teaching about all of the world's major religions. In religious beliefs, the Tanzanian population is evenly split between Christian, Muslim and traditional religions, and the school's effort to teach about all religions has helped to foster tolerance among students, who are likewise quite diverse in their religious and ethnic backgrounds.

"Ruaha School is different because it is a religious school," said Moza Said, a 17-year-old female student. "This religion unites people instead of differentiating between them. Our moral education class helps us learn to live with different people in society."

Parents and guardians like the emphasis on moral education. "There is a lot going on at the school beyond academics, which helps students become good citizens," said Cecilia Shirima, the Regional Administrative Secretary, who sends her niece to Ruaha. "Over the past two years, my niece has changed a lot for the better. She is more serious and responsible, so I do have cause to believe that Ruaha is developing in the right direction compared to other schools."

Ruaha itself also stresses service to the wider community by operating several ongoing social and economic development projects. A shop was built recently to serve both students and the surrounding community. It sells products at comparable rates to town and was built to provide students with the things they might need on a day-to-day basis. A dairy farm provides milk to the catering department and to the teachers and surrounding community.

Computer classes are available to the general public in the evenings for a small fee, which helps improve skills in the wider community.

In interviews, students and parents acknowledged all of these distinctive points about Ruaha and more. But for many, the fact that Ruaha has banned corporal punishment still stands out.

Even though condemned by the Government, virtually every other school in Tanzania nevertheless relies on the cane to motivate students, a holdover from colonial days.

"Caning makes students become afraid and not feel free because they will be afraid they might be caned," said Ola Jahanpour, a 16-year-old boarding student, who took first place in the national Oral English Competition in 2000. "In primary school we were caned for not greeting the teacher properly, for making noise, for not plaiting our hair in the correct manner and for saying the wrong answer in class."

Claire Dawson, who taught English for six months at Ruaha in 1998, said caning is indeed the norm in schools throughout Tanzania, even though it is against Government regulations. "Even in secondary schools, where most students range in age from 15 to 23, caning is used at other schools," said Ms. Dawson.

"But from my point of view, if anything stands out at Ruaha, it is the overall sense of respect for students as human beings," Ms. Dawson added. "That is what is different. That they respect each person and try to empower them in a country where life is quite hard."