A Supposedly Fun Thing That I Did Again or The Course of Expansion Takes Its Way

Where: Nairobi National Park, Kenya

When: March 26, 2018

Today, I went on my first safari in Kenya and my second this month. Giving me company for the day were siblings Michelle and Brian (with whose family I am staying in Kenya) and sisters Merlene, Myra and Melissa (whose acquaintance I had made in New Delhi back in 2010). Despite the touristiness of safaris in general, I have to admit that this second trip was as unexpectedly fantastic as the first. Perhaps more so because at Tanzania’s Mikumi National Park, which has a handsomely sized population of a multitude of animals including four of the Big Five (the lion, the elephant, the rhinoceros, the Cape buffalo), I did not have the opportunity to see the king of the jungle. We were told that this was probably because lions tend to sleep during the day.

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Taken right before his post-lunch afternoon nap

However, at Nairobi, we chanced upon a whole pride with three females and one male. Our tour guide drove us quite close to the pride as the patriarch began feasting on the carcass of a buffalo that the females had hunted but were not allowed to touch before he was thoroughly done. For perspective, our tour van was close enough for any of them to land atop it in a single swift pounce. The accompanying photograph should give you a rough idea. As we admired the prevalence of patriarchy even in the wild, our tour guide broadcasted the location of the pride on his walkie-talkie and pretty soon, our route was blocked on either side by many more vans similar to ours, filled with awestruck tourists similar to me.

 

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This one was more than happy to pose for us for a good 5 minutes or so

 

As the tour progressed, we also saw a significant number of elephants, giraffes, antelopes, zebras, ostriches, rhinoceroses and buffalos. Having seen all of the same in Tanzania as well, I was a little less impressed by these wonders of nature this time round. Since we are on the subject of wild animals, here is an interesting and easily Google-able bit of trivia about elephants, zebras, antelopes and ostriches: All the males in these species tend to hang out in all-boys groups called Bachelor herds until they are of age to go and head an all-female group called Harem. While the strong and virile enough alpha males get a lifelong supply of unconditional love from all members of their harem, the betas are often ostracised and forced to spend their lives as lone rangers or as a carnivore’s dinner. Rough.

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A crocodile sunbathing next to a herd of extremely unflustered buffalos

For anyone still reading, I do want to touch upon a matter of considerable importance regarding this national park. Nairobi National Park is spread over an area of 117 square kilometres, which is not a lot if you consider the fact that this is a wildlife reserve. For instance, you can very clearly see the skyline of Nairobi’s business district even after travelling several kilometres into the heart of the park.

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Nairobi skyline, from inside the national park

This is problematic especially in light of the recent expansion of commercial and housing infrastructure in around the park. Its boundaries are being encroached in order to accommodate bypass roads and railway lines, in an attempt to further modernise Nairobi. However, if expansion continues at this rate, the park, which at present allows for the annual migration of animals, will be reduced into a cordoned off island not unlike a zoo. Wildlife conservation activists like Paula Kahumbu, who is the head of Wildlife Direct campaign group, have been campaigning to bring attention to the pressure this encroachment puts on the wildlife inside the park for several years. However, she points out that there is a collective lack of concern for the environment among the public, in turn leading to the marginalisation and isolation of conservation efforts by groups like Wildlife Direct. This is partly understandable because as a rapidly developing nation, Kenya’s focus is on building its economy and ensuring the availability of adequate connectivity and infrastructure for the same. But does this development have to come at the cost of the loss of Kenya’s wildlife heritage? I do not have the answer to that question but I hope that those accountable for planning and building Kenya’s future do.

P.S: For those unfamiliar with David Foster Wallace, the title of this post is a cheeky reference to two of his writings “A Supposedly Fun Thing That I’ll Never Do Again” and “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”

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Fairly Obvious Travel Hacks

Saturday, March 24, 2018 (edu#8212)

I flew from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi today. In this post, I will share a couple of fairly obvious travel hacks with you in a manner that a grumpy, condescending grandpa would. Here goes –

  • Staying in a budget hotel is not worth the literal pain.

For students who plan to travel and stay in budget hotels, what little you gain in savings you will most certainly be losing in comfort and hygiene. Budget hotel pillows only look like real pillows. As a result of near complete lack of sleep, I woke up feeling dreary and with considerable muscle pain. More importantly, if you get dizzy at the sight/thought of a little worm crawling out of your shower drain, do not go two star. That said, the staff at budget hotels could turn out to be lovely, helpful people.

  • When travelling short distances via Precision Air, don’t bother with punctuality.

If you are travelling Precision Air, going from Dar to Nairobi/Zanzibar, take your sweet time browsing at the airport duty free. Boarding is not likely to begin until right before take-off. For my 4:00pm flight, we only began boarding at 3:55pm. Do not stress about it and/or pester the ground staff every 10 minutes.

  • When inside a small airplane, don’t shy away from the air sickness bag.

Until yesterday, I had underestimated the impact of flight turbulence on my insides. In small planes, it is likely that there will be some degree of constant turbulence. The change in altitude, drops especially, can be felt much more strongly than, say, in a Boeing. These planes come stocked with air sickness bags for a reason. You have nothing to be embarrassed about because at least half your flight companions will be using theirs as well.

  • When travelling to countries that offer visa on arrival, pay in cash.

Countries like Kenya offer tourist visa on arrival to people from most nationalities with a few exceptions. When you land at the airport, head straight to the ATM to withdraw cash instead of requesting to pay by card. That WILL annoy the immigration officer.

I hope you found my obviousness useful. On an unrelated note, I am now in Nairobi and look forward to a whole week of not having to worry about school visits and data collection. Habari!

Slipping away to Slipway

Friday, March 23, 2018 (edu#8212)

Today was my first day in Dar es Salaam. By 9am, Fran and I were on our way to meet David, supervisor of the Human Development Innovation Fund (HDIF) grants at their Dar headquarters. HDIF were kind enough to send us their official car, driven by the ever-so polite Mr Henry. As we travelled from our hotel in Kisutu to , Dar’s hustle and bustle made me a tad homesick for Delhi. Kist is part of the old city and retains a timeless charm with its narrow alleyways, small shops and old architecture. The city centre stood in stark contrast with its spacious, wide roads, malls and modern bungalows. Dar’s city centre itself was entirely different from that of Morogoro, which is very palpably smaller in scale and enterprise.

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HDIF office, TCRS building, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

We reached the HDIF office half an hour into the drive. At the reception, you are greeted by a visitors’ couch with the British flag on it. This is deeply uncanny to me as an Indian because wearing the Indian flag or making furniture tapestry out of amounts to disrespect and is a punishable offence. Never having sat on a flag before, I made a point to sit on this emblem of British pride. After Fran finished signing the visitor’s registry, Henry took us to the office of the HDIF team leader, Mr David McGinty. David is a friendly and insightful man and our conversation with him reemphasised the need for researchers like myself to study, understand and promote the need for sustainability of aid programs like Shule Direct and CSSC. We also found out that Geoff Calder, the organiser of our placement and HDIF researcher, is also a potter. (To be fair, this little tidbit is only amusing to anyone who has met Geoff). Our conversation lasted for an hour, where Fran and I shared our insights from our placement with HDIF and HDIF shared with us their own.

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Slipway, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

By 11, Fran and I were back at our hotel, getting ready to visit the famous Slipway. Determined to take a Bajaj like a local instead of the hotel taxi, we set out towards the auto stand on foot. In the next 20 minutes of sweating in the city heat and failing to find a single Bajaj, we would utterly regret this decision and call the hotel taxi. Slipway was a good half an hour from Kisutu. Our driver, Rizwan, dropped us at our destination, assuring us that Slipway, being a gated and monitored shopping centre-cum-beach, is one of the safest places in Dar. The place was basically Dar inside a safety bubble. As much as we wanted to explore “the real Dar”, it felt good not having to worry about our personal safety or our belongings. We strolled along the length of the beach, shopped for souvenirs at the overpriced stores inside Slipway and had a couple of beers at a bar called “The Bar in Dar” (sigh). In the evening, we had a rather lovely meal at a thai restaurant with a view of the beach. I had Thai food after nearly a month and it was absolutely smashing. At 11pm, I would go to sleep in the twin room I was sharing with Fran, only to be woken by her at 1am when she would leave for the airport. Stay tuned for my last day in Tanzania. Usiku muema!

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels full of Goodbyes

Thursday, March 22, 2018 (edu#8212)

Today was my last day in Morogoro. It turned out to be more eventful than I had intended. I was up at 5:30, to wish my parents on their anniversary, finish packing and make photocopies of my questionnaires for our very last school visit in Morogoro. By 7:30, I was in the foodhall, feasting on a rather elaborate last guesthouse breakfast of toast, jam, omelette, roasted potatoes and tea, with Fran and Mahjooba. By 7:45, Fran and I were on our way to the local police station to collect my long-drawn out police report for my stolen phone. Fran had very sweetly conceded to my request to accompany me to the station.

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Morogoro police station, Tanzania

At the police station, it took roughly half an hour to procure the report. Rajab, the police officer originally in charge of the report (whom I have discussed at length in two of my precious posts) was on leave today. As we sat in the station waiting room, I called him to enquire about the status of my police report. He put me in touch with another officer. What I found more surprising than his unsurprising and conspicuous absence was a near-complete change in his demeanour. This time round he was neither inappropriate, nor unprofessional. This transformation was the consequence of his dressing down at the hands of the Indian High Commissioner, whom I had gotten in touch with the previous afternoon for help. By 9:30, Fran and I were on our way back to the guesthouse, my report in hand. For this, I have the Indian consulate’s timely and effective intervention to thank.

Once at the guesthouse, Oscar arranged for Fran, Mahjooba and I to visit the Kingolwira Secondary School. Our trusty Morogoro taxi driver and friend Juma would pick us up. As we waited for him, I said my goodbyes to the staff and sisters at Amabilisi. I thanked Eliwaza, Doris, Musa and Maria for their service and their delightful company during my stay. The people I did not get a chance to force goodbye hugs on include sister Auresta, sister Juliet, Cecelia and Faustini. All of these people had collectively made Morogoro feel like home and I hope to pester them all for extra pilipili sauce and cold beers sometime in the future.

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Kingolwira School, Morogoro, Tanzania

At roughly 10:30, Juma got the three of us to Kingolwira. Kingolwira is a co-ed day municipal school in Morogoro. The first sight that greeted us was that of a teacher caning four secondary school boys in the yard. We bit our tongues and entered the school campus in the hope that the remainder of our visit wouldn’t involve any more graphic scenes of corporal punishment. We were greeted by the head of school, Mr Chanja, who welcomed us into his office and quickly put us in touch with the deputy head of school Mr Alexander as well as the head of ICT, Mr Mkinga. Pretty soon, I was distributing my questionnaires to a room full of secondary school teachers who use ICT in their lessons either on a regular or semi-regular basis.

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Explaining my research to a group of seventeen predominantly male educators was challenging. They were more interested in attempting to exchange personal information with me than in my research. This was not the first time I had experienced unprofessional behaviour from teachers in Tanzania. The tendency of male teachers to not take a female researcher seriously was certainly an impediment to conducting research in male-dominated schools in Morogoro, Tanzania.  Once the questionnaires had been filled and handed in, quite a few enquiries were made about how old Fran, Mahjooba and I are and whether or not we were married yet. I followed my survey up with an interview with Mr Chanja and Mr Alexander. Talking to them only reemphasised the shift in academic and pedagogical interest from HDIF’s Shule Direct to African Digital Schools Initiative (ADSI). I will be closely following the direction that the ADSI takes in the months and years to come.

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Morogoro Bus Terminal, Morogoro, Tanzania

After we finished collecting data at Kingolwira, Juma dropped Fran and I off at the Morogoro bus terminal. We said our temporary goodbyes to Mahjooba and proceeded to buy our bus tickets to Dar. At precisely 1pm, we had begun our six hour journey to Tanzania’s capital. The ride was as comfortable as we had expected and I whiled away our time watching a documentary on Edward Said, catching up on Last Week Tonight episodes and Saturday Night Live clips. We reached the Dar bus terminal at 6:30 from where the hotel taxi picked us up. Our hotel is called Safari Inn. It is a budget hotel in the heart of the city with helpful staff and free WiFi. I am a content soul for the next two days.

The Hare, the Tortoise and Shule Sirect

Wednesday, March 21, 2018 (edu#8212)

Disclaimer: The hare and the tortoise are figurative and represent specific government and private schools in Morogoro, Tanzania, respectively.

In an effort to compensate for our lack of punctuality during our last trip to Kilakala, Fran, Mahjooba and I reached the campus half an hour early to collect our student and teacher questionnaires. After exchanging pleasantries with the headmistress, we were escorted by her secretary to Leonard’s office, which is also the school’s computer lab. At precisely 10am, Leonard arrived with both of our questionnaires. After thanking him for his cooperation and efficiency, the three of us left the campus.

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Note: This photograph was procured from the internet. This photograph is not my intellectual or creative property.

What I failed to mention to about Kilakala in my last post was how interesting it was to visit a government school after visiting three very distinct private schools. The administrative and academic efficiency of Kilakala government school stands contrasted with St Peters Secondary School and Kigurunyembe Secondary School, both of which are private. On aggregate, the private schools were visibly lacking in quantity and quality of amenities, infrastructure, funding as well as staff. The only exception to this rule was SEGA school which was a class apart from the other two private schools due in no small part to its generous USAID sponsorship. On the other hand, Kilakala – a government school – has an impressive and reassuring student to teacher ratio, adequate number of computers in the computer lab, well-maintained and clean classrooms, sensible utilisation of available funding as well as very motivated teachers and staff. For instance, all 60 of the teachers at Kilakala have to undergo regular ICT training under the guidance of the ICT head at the school and undergo regular assessment on ICT-integration in the classroom. This is but one of the many steps taken by the school to maintain the ICT standards stipulated by the African Digital Schools Initiative (ADSI) currently overseeing integration of ICT in Tanzania, Kenya and Côte D’Ivoire.

In addition, Kilakala’s administrative efficiency also warrants mention and credit. Within a half hour of us arriving at the school to collect our data, head of ICT Mr. Leonard, handed me and Fran all of our questionnaires duly filled out and signed. This came as a complete surprise to us because in the private schools, it took us a considerably longer period of time to distribute our questionnaires among teachers and students and later, to collect them. However, these delays in the private schools might have well been a result of the school’s routine being disrupted by our research work.

The ultimate point of contrast for me, in terms of the process of data collection was not between the schools as it was between the HDIF grantees facilitating ICT integration in these schools. The two grantees are Christian Social Service Commission (CSSC) and Shule Direct. It took less than an hour to explain our research objectives to CSSC and to receive permission for entering schools. By comparison, it took over a month to achieve the same results from Shule Direct. While extended waiting periods are understandably a feature of the due diligence necessary for conducting research, Shule Direct’s inaction proved to be especially unsavoury for me since I undertook my placement on a tight time frame of exactly one month. However, I am ultimately grateful that Fran and I managed to collect data from the fantastic Kilakala.

Moral of this story: If you want to be a researcher, practise patience.

Kilakala Secondary School

Tuesday, March 20, 2018 (edu#8212)

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Fran and I at Kilakala Secondary School

After nearly two weeks of uncertainty about the possibility of visiting a Shule Direct school (of which I spoke at length in my last blog post), Fran and I got the green light from Oscar to visit one of them. The school in question – Kilakala Secondary School. It is an all girls boarding school located at a convenient distance of less than one kilometre from our guesthouse. A slight gap in communication about visiting times led us to be nearly two hours late to the school. The headmistress, fortunately, turned out to be an accommodating Tanzanian lady who gave us permission to conduct our survey anyhow. She then put us in touch with the assistant academic master, who would sort out the logistics for us. He listened to our objectives, glanced over both of our questionnaires and briefed us about the African Digital Schools Initiative (ADSI) that a group of ten Kilakala teachers were presently being trained in.

ADSI is an initiative of African governments to provide an inclusive and educational experience to secondary school students studying in schools like Kilakala through the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). According to the The Global E-Schools and Communities Initiative website, the goals of the ADSI are as follows:

  • Professional development of teachers through the use of ICT
  • School-wide ICT-integration at secondary level
  • Better teaching and learning in STEM subjects
  • More effective and regular use of open education resources like Shule Direct
  • Provision of basic and affordable ICT to schools
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Kilakala Secondary School

This ambitious initiative, which takes into consideration the sustainable development goals for the year 2030, is still in its early stages of execution in schools. Executing it successfully will doubtless require a lot of perseverance on the part of the governments involved and more importantly, on the part of school heads, teachers and other relevant functionaries. This is where Kilakala makes an impression. The teachers at Kilakala are enthusiastic about the use of ICT in their lessons, to say the least. While the thirty responses on my questionnaires proves this on paper, interacting with the ICT head of the school, Mr Leonard made it abundantly evident in person. A scrappy young man of 23, Leonard is not only supervising the inclusion of Shule Direct in all classrooms at the school but is also spearheading the creation of student accounts on the school website. I found his argument for individual student accounts quite compelling. He says students should be able to access their reports and results privately. Privacy is something one usually takes for granted in Western higher institutions of learning because they provide you with your own private account the moment you register as a student. Schools like Kilakala and St Peters, on the other hand, are only just considering the importance of this one simple step due to the efforts of a new and ambitious crop of teachers like Leonard and Kubalyenda (who I mentioned in my post on St Peters School), respectively.

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Computer lab, Kilakala School

To return to the task at hand, Leonard took charge of both of our sets of questionnaires and promised to return them to us, completed, at 10am the following morning. With this reassurance, we returned to our guesthouse. In the afternoon, I had a chance opportunity to watch the students and sisters of Bigwa Sisters Seminary School perform a rather lively choir song routine. Michael and David joined us. It was a comforting way of commencing one of our last evenings at the guesthouse.

Shule (In)Direct

Monday, March 19, 2018 (edu#8212)

Fran and I got up bright and early, in preparation for the busy day we expected to have, collecting data, interviewing teachers/students and conducting focus groups. Oscar had offered to connect us to the government schools in Morogoro, Tanzania that use the Shule Direct online platform. For those of you that like random trivia, Shule Direct is “an online platform that provides educational learning content for students and teachers in secondary schools”, to quote the official website. This platform is available for students of forms 1 to 6 for all major subjects including languages, sciences, social sciences and impressively, life skills. This platform was launched in the form of an app as well as an SMS-based e-resource in government and private schools in Tanzania after it received funding from the Human Development Innovation Fund (HDIF). HDIF is an international aid organisation funded by the British government.

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My research seeks to understand the degree to which this platform has been assisting school teachers and students in Morogoro to teach and learn, respectively. I wish for my findings to be inclusive of the perspectives and experiences of the platform’s designers, supervisors and users with the aid of surveys and personal interviews. The users of this app, naturally, are teachers and students in schools in Tanzania. In order to conduct this research, I need to be green lighted by Shule Direct itself. However, getting permission has proven to be an uphill battle for both me and Fran. Shule Direct had been informed of our visit to Morogoro in February, before our arrival in Tanzania. The slow-moving administrative process at the organisation delayed our plans to visit Shule Direct schools for three whole weeks after our arrival in Morogoro. This is despite official intervention by HDIF researcher and our trip coordinator Mr Geoff Calder. Our local coordinator, Mr Oscar Llowe, has also been subjected to considerable cold-shouldering by the officials in charge at Shule Direct. As a consequence of this delay on the part of Shule Direct, the government schools that use the Shule Direct app have been unable to grant us permission to conduct our research in their school campuses. Shule Direct’s attitude has been stressful, to put it mildly because at this stage in our placement, I intended to finish collecting data from the concerned schools. Instead, we sit in our guesthouse, swatting mosquitoes and hoping that tomorrow will be more productive. On the upside, our experience with Shule Direct is giving us first hand experience of how frustrating working in the development sector can be and the need to practice more patience and perseverance in order to conduct and accomplish meaningful research.