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MarjoleinĀ“s blog: the stick

In every classroom in Tanzania, there is a stick next to the old-fashioned blackboard. It is used as a pointer. Even outside, under the tree where many children are still taught, the teacher holds a pointer. Because the stick is used not only as a pointer, but also to hit children, and hit them hard.

The local newspaper recently carried a story about a young woman, who was only 25 but had four children. Her oldest was ten and the youngest just four. The woman had never had any schooling, but was now attending primary school. She was in her oldest son’s class. She proudly described how she was learning to read and write, how difficult maths were, and where she had been able to buy a school uniform big enough to fit her. The only disadvantage, she said, was that her hands hurt so much from being hit with the stick that she could no longer do her household chores. Washing up, sweeping, cooking, everything hurt now.

Later I spoke to a teacher who had learned the following mantra during her teacher training: ‘teach, beat, teach, beat’. You explain something and every child who cannot repeat it receives a blow on the palm of his or her hand. Until the answer is right, even if this draws blood. He had never even considered the idea that all the beating might actually prevent children from learning. ‘Really,’ he asked with genuine astonishment. ‘Could it actually have the opposite effect?’

There are no beatings at our school. Not with a stick, and not with the hand, and pinching cheeks is also forbidden. All of teachers who work in our classrooms know this. Sometimes it’s difficult; even I sometimes have the urge to reach for a stick when my own children are driving me to distraction. That is why a Dutch trainer comes once a year to help the Happy Watoto teachers deal with difficult situations without using violence. Together they discuss alternatives to beating. Rewards, setting a child apart, ignoring him or her. The naughty chair has been introduced for the smallest children at Kikatiti: a little red plastic chair in the corner. Naughty children are sent there, but the number of minutes spent on the chair can never exceed their age.

Participants use roll playing to put what they have learned into practice. It is hilarious to see a teacher imitating the most obnoxious child in the class. It is encouraging to see how a group of teachers can help each other to find solutions. But also discouraging to hear them suggest that there are exceptions when children should be beaten anyway.

But we are determined to do away with beating altogether. The stick has been banned from our school. Teachers who do not observe the rules are given a warning. If it happens again, they are dismissed. It is difficult for an outsider to see how deeply rooted the practice of beating children is in this society. At the end of the day I was approached by a young teacher who has only worked for us for a few months.‘Marjolein’, she said, ‘can I ask you something?’ ‘Sure’, I said. ‘I know that we can no longer beat the children at school, and I won’t do it anymore. But at home, surely I can beat my own children, can’t I?’
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