Tracing the Brain Drain to its Roots

by Rebecca Trupin:

Esther Nkya stood in the entrance of her chemistry lab, a long cement-floored room with scarred tables, dusty glass bottles, and rusting faucets. “If you ask any Tanzanian student if they would like to study abroad they would say yes,” said Nkya, surveying the room with a grim half-smile. “And if you ask them if they would like to come back, most would not want to.”

Nkya is an A-level Chemistry teacher at Jangwani Secondary School, a government school in the capital city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Students and teachers from throughout the country echo her views, acknowledging that Tanzania’s educational system plays a role in motivating students to leave. This is not only because poverty and poor management weaken the classroom. It is also because country’s few teachers are badly educated; their students face a lack of educational resources and a severe lack of institutions of higher learning.

Students at Jangwani Secondary School. Almost every student here harbors hope of going abroad, and many of those who do leave never return to Tanzania, taking their skills and talent elsewhere. (Trupin/TYG)

Moreover, Tanzania’s government and NGOs mostly ignore a serious problem: that the country’s educational system helps lay the psychological foundation for the brain drain by overvaluing Western lifestyles, resources, and culture, while downplaying or ignoring the value of indigenous knowledge and traditions. As a result, severe “brain drain” (the exodus of the educated elite to Western countries) continues to undermine the economies of Tanzania and other African countries.

A Passion for the West

“It is difficult to tease out the economic issues from cultural issues,” says Rakesh Rajani of Twaweza, an East Africa-wide initiative that seeks to increase citizen access to information and basic services. Professions popular among students, such as medicine, business, and entertainment, tend to enable and encourage study or life abroad. According to teachers at Jangwani Secondary School, students choose these jobs simply because they are well-paying. But Rajani believes that nevertheless, “whenever one makes life choices, part of it is what job pays but part of it is what passions one has in life.”

Godfrey Nyato, a 19-year-old student at Laureate International School in Dar es Salaam, who dreams of a career in the music business, has set his sights on Beverly Hills. “I want to live a rich lifestyle,” he said. American hip-hop and the accompanying lifestyle have captured the imagination of students and youth all over Tanzania. Despite Tanzania’s dependence on agriculture, few (particularly among the elite) are passionate about careers in farming.

Like other traditional careers, farming is not often viewed as modern or profitable. Tanzania is rich in natural resources, but it is foreigners who most often reap the benefits. “The Chinese come here and use our forests and produce low quality things and sell it to us for a high price,” complained Gervas Zombwe, a former teacher and program officer with the educational NGO Haki Elimu. Meanwhile, said Zombwe, following secondary school a typical Tanzanian “leaves his father’s farm, leaves his land, his forests, and comes to work in town as a security guard.” A young professional emigrates to the West and is “used there like cheap labor, but he’s happy because his mindset has been colonized.” There is a perception, particularly among urbanites, that “Western culture is the best culture from God,” said Zombwe. A job’s Western image can be valued as highly as its salary.

“One of the sad things about Tanzanian culture is we have a tendency to think that salvation will come from outside,” said Rajani. Tanzanian youth, from the young professional to the farmer’s boy, are removing themselves from traditional culture and lifestyles. The trend among urban youth is to seek Western-styled modernity, and perhaps live abroad, while the trend among rural youth is to become modern urban youth.

The Role of the Schools

“These kids are brain-washed into thinking African things aren’t good enough,” fumed one teacher at Laureate International School. While the media is largely responsible for the influx of Western culture, westernization is particularly evident in education. “The more educated a person is, the weaker the ties with any living culture,” said Rajani.

The British-based national syllabus teaches little about how to make use of Tanzania’s natural resources and even less about the country’s human resources — indigenous values, knowledge, and skills that are quickly disappearing. On the rare occasions when Tanzanians are taught about their cultural heritage, the approach is, in Rajani’s words, “tokenistic” and “fossilized.” To demonstrate his point, Rajani brought up the example of the Village Museum of Dar es Salaam, where classes come to study Tanzania’s tribal history: In effect, the museum “takes a native and puts him in a box for students to go in and gawk,” said Rajani. “If you ask a young person in a secondary school: ‘What about your heritage are you proud of?’ I think you’re likely to get a blank face.”

A history teacher at an elite private school corroborated Rajani’s statement. The tribes are not studied, he said, except in context of agriculture, trade, kingdoms, and the colonial struggle. After independence they are barely considered at all.

Quantity over Quality

Activists like Zombwe concede that the government has put significant resources into the education system. Or rather, as Zombwe put it: “the government is doing a lot in the name of improving education,” things like building more schools and increasing enrollment. But official efforts seem more concerned with quantity rather than quality of education. Often, more than half of the students in a seventh-grade class cannot read or write, according to research by the NGO Haki Elimu. The curriculum, based on a British model, contains information irrelevant to Tanzania, written in English that is far too complicated for many teachers, let alone students, to understand. In primary school, students are taught in Swahili, the national language of Tanzania. For most students, in secondary school the medium of instruction switches suddenly to English, regardless of whether or not they can understand the language. Students are often punished for speaking Swahili outside of Swahili class. For many students, understanding and creativity takes second place to the ability to memorize English phrases. On top of this, teachers’ insecurity, combined with old-fashioned teaching models from the British colonial system, restricts the ability to ask questions. According to Rajani, it often feels as if one needs permission to think in class.

Curricular weaknesses are not only a factor in brain drain but also affect the economic and social welfare of the country as a whole. The lack of emphasis on individual thinking and dearth of education about financial literacy are especially harmful, according to Ane-Kirstine Bagger, a consultant for Femina Health Information Project, a Tanzanian initiative focusing on HIV/AIDS, health and reproduction. Among the Tanzanian youths Femina works with, the unemployment level is nearly 40 percent, leaving many idle, frustrated, and with little hope for the future. To cope with the scarcity of jobs in Tanzania, when youth leave school they must “be creative, be entrepreneurs” and “take initiative,” said Bagger. “But people are in no way trained to think like this in the school system.”

An Alternate Vision

While the brain drain leaves many reasons for pessimism, there are some reasons for optimism as well. According to Bagger, the government is aware of the need for a program in financial literacy and has encouraged NGOs like Femina to work in its secondary schools. Meanwhile, organizations such as Twaweza and Haki Elimu focus on educating and empowering communities to hold government accountable for the quality of their children’s education.

The psychological roots of the brain drain have a far-reaching impact on Tanzanian society, on those who remain as well as those who are wealthy enough to leave. Thus, all Tanzanian citizens must stand together to demand a better education from their government. At the moment, there is no real effort to transform the education system, and although people are more cynical, according to Rajani: “The ground is there for change to happen.” But there are still no alternate heroes or ideas poised to revolutionize the system. Until a vision for Tanzania’s future is developed, the old, inadequate models will remain in place.

Rebecca Trupin is a junior Ethics, Politics and Economics major in Jonathan Edwards College.