On engaging one’s “self” in a cultural “other”: Brief Reflections on Prof. Amy Stambach book : Lessons from Mount Kilimanjaro: Schooling, Community, and Gender in East Africa.

In her concluding chapter, Stambach reminds us that reading an ethnography is a matter of engaging one’s “self” in a cultural “other”. Throughout the book, however, I was engaging myself in a cultural “me”. I think this is more difficult than engaging in the cultural “other”. The book is an ethnography about my own culture and people.  Through reading it, I have not only learnt a whole lot about my culture but also reflected and questioned myself on my life realities as I constantly interpret the world around me- which is, as I’ve realized based on the values from my own culture.

Through observations and participation across many months in Machame – on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, Stambach presents different stories that collectively make a complex yet beautiful tapestry of cultural meanings and interpretations that occur in the daily lives of the people in Machame. Most of the setting in the book is in classrooms of secondary schools in Machame, whereby the world – from family/home (expectations, values), community (Chagga culture), national (policy), and the international world (modernity, wishes/desires, expectations)- is manifested as viewed and interpreted by the teachers, students, parents, elders and religious leaders- in a mutual way. “Schooling”, Stambach argues, “has provided school-goers the language for objectifying social practices and for contrasting seemingly different life-ways with one another”. In light of that, the book focuses on how that played out in terms of gender and generation.

The book, thus, examines how gender is reflected in different practices from policy (education policy and curriculum), pedagogy, family expectations of education as interpreted through cultural lenses, students’ social interactions and various relational spaces including religion, education, and family.  In reading the book, one gets to learn not only about gender and generation realities as played in schools but also gains an understanding of the cultural dynamics and features of the Chagga traditions including the meanings given to furrows, banana grove and mbege (traditional banana alcohol). Moreover, the book describes how modernity is perceived and interpreted through these features thus showing the mutual constitution of traditional and modernity. There is constant negotiations and interpretations through practices of the two – tradition and modernity. This is how Stambach’s argument critiques literature that narrows schooling as an abstract means through which external (and mostly Western) influence passes through to students hence impacting their society in the same direction.

In reading the book, I kept reflecting on the current education policy and dynamics in Tanzania. I realized that much has not changed. The pedagogical style is the same in our schools as Stambach observed 20 years ago, the underlying policy assumptions and interpretations are the same. Interesting, Stambach explained the meanings of adults vs. youth and how those are manifested through schoolings with an example of how pregnant girls are not allowed to continue with schools. These similar issues are still persistent in our schools with the recent Presidential ban for pregnant girls  to go back to school. Gender dynamics are still manifested through politicians’ directives, practices in schools and various references including those from the curriculum.  Reflections on this show – as Stambach rightly put- “…there are fundamental disjunctures between policy and practice”.

Before getting into the last chapter of the book, I kept wondering what would be the implication on the analyses in the book from the current context whereby there is proliferation of secondary schools in Machame and more access to information through internet and mobile phones?  I am confident to say that the dynamics would be the same- i.e. continuous constant interpretations and meanings given to the culture and the surrounding world- which leads to a mutual construction of the world view without much erosions of the fundamental ideals of the Chagga culture. The banana grove, mbege, and the meanings as well as expectations from schooling including the realities of the after schooling are the same. Issues of unemployment, compromises (‘education is my husband’ vs.the ultimate desire for marriage and family), respect to cultural values amidst complex world view including religious beliefs, society expectations of an educated girls, desires to conquer the world and see places as an outcome of being educated, etc are still playing out in the lives of Machame people and girls – me being one!

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