Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Gamble with Teaching in Local Languages

The use of local languages in government schools has begun. Children in government schools will be taught in the local language in their area from grade 1 to grade 4. Then from grade 5 onwards they will be learning in English. The exclusion from this policy it seems will be private schools. I pity the school children who have become our guinea pigs as we experiment whether this policy will work out. The results of every experiment are that it may yield positive or negative results.


The official local languages are Lozi, Kaonde, Lunda, Bemba, Nyanja, Luvale and Tonga. The children will be instructed in the language that is predominantly used in their locale according to the Ministry of Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Education. The curriculum has also changed in order to accommodate the shift of this new language policy. The background to this change is that children understand better when they are taught in their local language rather than English. Then there are some people who still perceive the use of the English language as a form of colonization. Oh get over it and move on. In as much as the research conducted may substantiate the claims of introducing local languages in schools, it still does not imply that it is the right decision for Zambia.


There is the notion that just because this is done in Kenya, Botswana, South Africa, or Namibia then it can be replicated in this country too. Zambia is a unique case and there are many underlying factors that should have been considered before such an aggressive decision was made. The fact that there are 72 or is it 73 languages is enough of a headache that needs to be taken into consideration. To somehow box those 73 languages into seven is absolutely unfair. If this is government’s idea of preserving the local languages then it may just backfire by making sure that the other 65 languages become extinct.


Even if this could be a good strategy to ensure that local languages are spoken in schools, we have not yet developed the capacity to handle the enormous task that lies ahead.  The teachers are taught in English at their various training institutions. The vernacular they know was probably taught at home. Therefore, we shall have teachers who will still be thinking in English and trying to translate in the local languages. There is the possibility of misinterpretation of some of the curriculum. Teachers will further be inclined to teach in regions where they come from to prevent the hustle of learning a new language in adulthood. I foresee a situation where Lozi teachers will stick to Western Province; Bemba teachers to Northern, Luapula, Copperbelt, Muchinga; Lunda, Luvale and Kaonde teachers to Northwestern; Tonga teachers to Southern and those that can speak Nyanja to Eastern and Lusaka. This will create a divide even if we pretend as if it won’t happen.


Why should the learning in local languages stop at grade 5? Is grade 5 the watershed point at which a person can fully comprehend being taught in English? I am not sure that government is considering the mental development of the pupils for the transition as a grade 5 pupil can be between the ages of 9 and 15 or it is the grade that is the main focus. My perception is that since some country somewhere starts teaching English at grade 5 then we accept it should work perfectly for us. I do not know why we are lazy to do our own research, study the findings and decide what the appropriate time to introduce English. It is not a one size fits all kind of situation, these are people’s children we are talking about and our future.


What about the parents? Why have they been taken out of the equation? Parents are supposed to be involved in the child’s education, helping them with their homework and other assignments. However, how do we expect parents to be involved when they cannot understand a word of the language their children are being taught in? This automatically means that the education of the child will solely be left in the hands of the teacher. Then we have those children whose parents are from different tribes. They will be expected to know both languages and if they stay in an area where neither of the parent’s languages is spoken they will be forced to add a third language.


The fact that government schools will be learning in local languages while private schools may still teach in English does not create a level playing field. This is because those students who begin learning English in grade 1 will have a head start over their counterparts. When counting your points in grade 12, English has to be included. Entry into universities and most colleges insist that you should have passed English. The issue now is that with so much emphasis placed on English why not start as early as grade 1 or there should not be as much weight placed on English in our grading system. Even though they may still claim that English will still be a subject, in the earlier grades it may not be sufficient.


The introduction of local languages in school leaves many questions unanswered. This is not a time to have wishful optimism that it will work if we impose it. We may just be creating a bigger problem than we found. In English, there is a word called Consultation, I wonder why it was never used in this case. By consultation I do not mean a group of 20 people seated in a room. There should have been debates, studies should have been under taken, and parents views should have been obtained, the teachers should have been part of it and the pupils too. There are other ways in which our culture could have been preserved without turning our children into guinea pigs to see if they will understand better in local languages.  If we do not have the capacity to help children learn more effectively whether in local languages or in English, then this is a hopeless cause.




Monday, 13 January 2014

We Continue to Die Young

Happy New Year! Now that the fireworks and hullabaloo of the festivities are over, it’s time to get back to the reality of a frustrating world. This last week I read an article that listed the 10 countries with the least life expectancy that a friend had posted on Facebook. Amazingly I was not really surprised to find Zambia among the candidates. Often I am skeptical about statistics that place Zambia among the worst of anything. I definitely do not believe that Zambia is the worst country in anything; however, it keeps popping up on such lists. It is either the researchers see something that I don’t or I am disillusioned by this city life.


According to the article, I am expected to die before I am 51 years old, guess I better rush completing my bucket list. Frankly, I thought this article was pretty generous of their life expectancy of Zambian’s because the last time I checked such a statistic, I should not be expected to live past 39 years. The authors of the article attribute this to poverty, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases. In the past, I would have disputed this statistic adamantly and rubbished whatever research would have been brought my way. Sadly in 2013, I lost some of my friends and my very own brother. They did not get past the age of 30 years old. The circumstances of their deaths may be different but it still does under pins one thing, they died young.


Zambia has never experienced a civil war neither have we had any major natural disasters that would set us back decades. We had an economic crisis but which country didn’t, so where are we getting it wrong? People in Monaco are expected to live nearly twice as long as us at 89 years. I know that there are many places we can look at for an explanation, and to some extent they may give us the answers. My friend on his Facebook post raised some very valid points regarding our lifestyles and the health care system. I would not agree more.


When was the last time you went to the clinic for a routine medical checkup? No I don’t mean when you felt you had malaria or you had to go because you were applying for a scholarship. I will be honest and say the closest I get to a medical check-up is to check my sugar level when student doctors pitch up by Arcades.  I only visit the dentist when I need a tooth removed or filled. When I have a head ache I often self-prescribe sleep or Panado, and I am not the only one who does this. I am subscribed to a gym but I hardly go. Yes, I am guilty as charged; I may be contributing to this terrible statistic. An initiative by government regarding our own health is treated with apathy. I remember the time when the circumcision campaigns started people were skeptical saying, “What are the Americans up to now.” Free screening for cervical cancer for the female folk the first lady has to constantly beg women to go and yet it is for their own good. In short we just don’t care. Then we have the obvious, HIV/AIDS. It is almost a crime to talk of health without mentioning the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We still have some reckless individuals who still believe that they are immune from contracting the virus. There have been campaigns, posters, peer education, even Love Games, but still we pretend like we cannot contract it. It calls for an urgent attitude change.


I spent my new year’s celebration counting down with ZNBC on the tele somewhere in Mumbwa. It was a farm some 30km away from any civilization, you cannot imagine the things we take for granted like cellphone signal. This place was about 30km away and so was the nearest health centre. I prayed that during my short stay there I should not suddenly fall sick because I wonder what would have become of me. When I asked the people there what they did if someone fell sick they told me they would have to travel all the way to the health centre on the gravel road. This is just one scenario of many across this country. If you never go outside Lusaka where you have the luxury of both public and private clinics in near proximity, you may never know the struggle others go to just to get to a health facility. Spare a moment for a person sick in the rural areas who has to think of going 30km to the health centre either on foot or by bicycle. Of course, most would opt to use the traditional healers who are close by or hope that the illness will just go away. The end result is that illnesses are not properly treated or not treated at all. Forget about such people going for a routine medical checkup. Health centres having adequate medicate, facilities and equipment is another issue altogether.


The life expectancy statistic also means that children may consider themselves luck if they have their grandparents around. Articles such as this one have been written before and it definitely won’t be the last. If in its own small way it can make remind you to be more conscious about your health or it may make you consider helping those individuals who do not have access to health facilities, then the reminder is worth it. Now time to get back to find a way to squeeze my bucket list in the 20 or so years that I have left.