This Tuesday was the first official day of school for students in Swaziland.  I have been very excited for school to begin again; since school ended for summer break the beginning of December I have felt rather unproductive in terms of what I am doing as a PCV and in working with youth.  The last nearly two months have been mostly spent attending workshops, working every day in the garden and fields with my family, biking, and a lot of time just spent in my room watching films and listening to music either by myself or with my little brother. While I loved all of that, I am ready to hit the ground running and getting projects started.

As I have been reading a lot about the school system in the US and what might change with new leaders in office, I want to share my experience and experiences of students in my family and community to give you a different perspective on the school system and life of students in Swaziland.  I want to preface this by saying the school system and the recognition of receiving an education in Swaziland has changed so much in the last couple decades.  Neither of my parents finished school, many adults are fortunate if they know how to read.  While my parents’ generation didn’t experience growing up in an era that had an emphasis on education, they recognize the importance of it and want their children to succeed in getting an education.  Unfortunately, an increase demand in quality education doesn’t immediately equal an adequate supply of quality education.

The school I work at is a new high school and only teaches three grades instead of five like a typical high school.  While it has plans on adding forms 4 and 5 in the future it doesn’t have the capacity or funds to do so at this time.  As a result, students who pass form 3 must attend different high schools.  We have two that are within a 5 mile walk from our community.  I say walk because that is what they do every day, even today when it was already 90 degrees by 7am.

I asked the teachers at my school of the number of students in my school who had to repeat their previous form due to not passing.  Most often when a student doesn’t pass it is due to not passing English, which is required to pass in order to pass that form.  This past academic year the pass rate was the following: Form 1 39/65 (60%), Form 2 28/48 (58%), and Form 3 14/15 (93%). In other words, 36% (thirty-six percent) of the students at my school had to repeat their previous grade before they can move on to the next grade.  I am delighted that so many of the Form 3 students passed, one of my brothers and one of my sisters were amongst the 14 who passed.

One of my brothers will be attending one of the two nearby commutable schools, and my sister was planning to attend the other.  I say was intentionally because it turns out a faculty member in my school failed to do his/her job of informing the school my sister was going to attend this year that 10 of our students will be transferring to their school and to save a space for them which is the way a student transfers in Swaziland.  As a result, when my Make and Sisi went to this certain school, they went excited but came back devastated.  All they intended to do was to pay the E2,000 (one cow) which is the cost of attending the school.  Since our designated staff member didn’t inform this school to expect these 10 students to transfer, the school didn’t save them a position in the classes and turned her away, as well as the 9 other students.  This left my sisi three days to find a school that would take her before school started, the other nearby school was also closed for admission.  She found a school three hours away in the capital.  This school cost E3,800, basically double the cost.  She is going to be living with our other sisi who is attending university in the same city.  While I am still irate about how a single educator can compromise so many children’s chance for education I am so happy that my sisi didn’t give up and decide to just stay home.

While that is my sisi’s experience to start the 2017 school year, here is a different perspective from one of my bhuti (brother).  Students in form 5 didn’t know if they passed their test from last school year until yesterday… two days after the school year began. They had no idea whether or not they will be able to attend college, or if there will even be a place for them to attend school for 2017.  As is the case with one of my brothers who was waiting on his Form 5 test results, they came out yesterday and unfortunately he, like 40 of the 55 students in his class didn’t pass enough of his classes to be admitted to any of the colleges in Swaziland.  Right now, my family is struggling to figure out what my brother should do now, even if he finds a school that will take him this late after the school year began my family can’t afford for him to attend a more expensive school.  So what is he to do? More than likely, he will have to wait until 2018 to retake Form 5, leaving him a year to try to find a job in a country where there are near to no jobs available for someone without a degree; deciding to go find employment in the nearby mountains growing illegal marijuana would look like a great option for any young man needing money and something to do. Or he can just stay home and hang out with his other friends and drink all day like many end up doing. Or, he can decide to participate in risky behavior, possibly contract or give HIV to a girl, or even get her pregnant.

So, what did the first day of school look like at my high school? Here are the main things I observed from it:

As far as I can tell, school faculty do no work or preparation before the academic year begins. It isn’t like the US where teachers have meetings or teacher work days the first couple weeks before school starts to make lesson plans.  The first couple days of the school year have been spent by teachers deciding what the daily class schedule looks like for the year.  Yup, they don’t even know when they are teaching. I know if I was a student in a school structure like this I wouldn’t have even showed up the first week because no classes actually happen the first week.

A long line of parents desperate to find their child a spot in the school was at the school the first day.  Hopefully some/most/all of them get their child into the school but I am uncertain because we are already stretched thin on teachers for the number of students, even though the Head Teacher said in a staff meeting we are actually at good class sizes in the 60s and shouldn’t worry until there are 70 or 80 students per class.  One determination of whether or not a new student will be admitted will be on if the school decides to kick out current students who failed to pay the school fees last year.

The first all-school assembly the students attended on the first day wasn’t the warm-welcome I experienced from the teachers I had growing up.  One of the things that stood out to me and made me cringe was when the students were told “if you get into trouble, you must first take the punishment.  After you have served your punishment (most likely corporal punishment, maybe detention if the teacher is nice that day) then you can make your complaint and protest the punishment.” I would not have been a good student in Swaziland.

As a realistic person I recognize that no educational system is perfect, neither in Swaziland or in America. But after reading the challenges just discussed showing what my siblings have to go through just to get a basic education (their challenges are a breeze compared to even some of the other children in my community). I want you to just take a moment to think about how fortunate we are to have the quality of education and educators we have in America.