Click inside the red box to take a closer look at Tanzania.


The second-largest continent on Earth is extremely geographically diverse. Although it lacks any long mountain ranges on the scale of the Rockies, Andes, or Himalaya, it has the highest average land elevation of any continent. There are scorching deserts, steaming rainforests, rich grasslands, temperate farmlands, and frosty highlands. These represent climate extremes from tropical to arctic, which can be experienced over the course of a week-long hike of 19,340-ft Mt. Kilimanjaro, the extreme example. Africa is divided into two very separate entities by the enormous natural barrier of the Sahara desert. To give a sense of scale, the 48 contiguous United States would fit easily into the brown area of the Sahara on this map. The population of North Africa is largely Arab Muslim, and they bear little resemblance physically or culturally to the peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa. The latter group is the more diverse. "Black" Africans belong to no fewer than four major anthropological divisions, of which the Bantu is the largest today. Africa is made up of over fifty separate countries, most of these originally divided up among the European colonial powers of England, France, Portugal, Germany, and Belgium. As a consequence,the lines on this map do not reflect the divisions of indigenous ethnic and tribal groups.

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About Tanzania

The Role of the Peace Corps in Tanzania

About Tanzania

The nations of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda surround Lake Victoria and make up the region known as East Africa. Of the three, Tanzania is the largest, with a land area roughly equalling that of the combined states of Texas and Oklahoma and a population of over 36 million people (the results of the 2002 census in Tanzania are not yet out). The population of Tanzania is divided into over 120 distinct tribes, each with its own distinct language and cultural traditions. Tanzania is united by a common language, Swahili, which has its roots in the Bantu languages of coastal Tanzania and the islands of the Zanzibar archipelago, with extensive borrowing of words from Arabic and, now, English. This widespread use of a common, non-European national language is the exception among African countries, and a source of pride for Tanzanians. Although Swahili is spoken throughout East Africa, there is a joke in Tanzania that goes, "Swahili was born in Tanzania, died in Kenya, and lies buried in Uganda."


The other official language of East Africa is English, reflecting colonial history. Kenya and Uganda were both important English colonies in Africa---Kenya in particular, as it was known as British East Africa. The islands of Zanzibar and Pemba were also British protectorates during this period. The mainland of modern Tanzania, called Tanganyika, was German East Africa from 1885 until World War I, when Germany effectively lost its control to England. British rule in Tanganyika lasted until the territory won its independence on December 9, 1961. The other East African colonies followed suit in the next few years. Tanganyika merged with the newly independent Zanzibar on April 26, 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania. The Tanzanian flag symbolizes this union, with the green area of the land of Tanganyika separated from the blue area of the ocean and the islands of Zanzibar by three diagonal stripes. The two narrow gold stripes represent the mineral and natural wealth of the nation, while the central, wide black band is for the people of Tanzania.

Following independence, Tanzania was governed by the single party of the revolution, CCM, under Julius K. Nyerere. Nyerere, president for nearly three decades, is still revered in Tanzania as the Father of the Nation. He is often referred to simply as "Mwalimu," the Teacher, an honorific which reflects in and of itself the high regard in which educators are held in that society. He died in London on October 14, 1999. He is remembered as one of Africa's foremost intellectuals and statesmen, a member of the pantheon that includes the likes of Nelson Mandela. Although CCM is no longer the only party in Tanzania, it remains in a position of total political dominance, and its leader, Benjamin William Mkapa, has been president since 1995. The strongest opposition party, CUF, has the most support in Zanzibar, and protests surrounding the 2000 presidential election became violent in several incidences on Zanzibar and Pemba.

On the whole, Tanzania remains an exceptionally peaceful and politically stable nation, especially when compared to many other African countries. I believe the people of Tanzania to be among the friendliest and most welcoming in the world.


Under Nyerere, Tanzania experimented with a unique brand of socialism, "Ujamaa" in Swahili. Like many a good idea in principle, this system ultimately failed, and now Tanzania, like much of the developing world, practices the rawest form of capitalism, where nearly any price is negotiable and nearly everything can be bought...for a price. Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a Gross Domestic Product of $23 billion (est.) in 1999, a figure which is not significantly greater than the current $16 billion endowment of my alma mater, Harvard University. This means that the average Tanzanian produces only $550 worth of goods and services in a given year. The average Ugandan produces twice as much and the average Kenyan produces thrice as much. The explanation for the Tanzanian economy's lagging behind its East African neighbors probably lies partially in its protracted socialistic derailment, but is in larger part due to the fact that it was from the beginning the most neglected of the British East African colonies, exploited as a breadbasket to help feed the industrialization of Kenya.

Too many Americans live in poverty. Many of these people nevertheless manage to live in houses equipped with hot and cold running water, a TV with a satellite dish and DVD player, and drive around in their own cars, albeit rusty ones. More than half of the citizens of Tanzania live in poverty. African poverty is an altogether different beast, under which these people must somehow try to feed themselves on less than one dollar per day. A Tanzanian who owns a car or small pickup truck is solidly a member of the very tiny (and recently created) upper- or middle-class population of that country.

The vast bulk of the Tanzanian economy is based on agriculture, and much of this is carried out on the subsistence level. Cash crops are sisal, cotton, coffee, tea, maize, cloves, and sugar. Even members of the professional class, such as teachers, usually need to supplement their income in some way, and some combination of farming maize, beans, or bananas, or raising cattle, chickens, or goats provides a ready source of cash. A career teacher at a Tanzanian government school makes no more than $80 per month.

While Tanzania does possess some mineral wealth, primarily in the form of gold, diamonds, and Tanzanite, a blue gemstone mined only in Tanzania, the only other substantial contribution to the national economy comes from tourism. Tanzania is home to the most famous big game parks in the world, the Ngorongoro Crater and the fabled Serengeti Plains. Large portions of the country have been set aside as wilderness preserves, many of which are significantly larger than the Serengeti, if less well-known. Tanzania (not Kenya) is also home to Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, its snow-capped peak attracting thousands of climbers each year. And if that weren't enough, the Zanzibar archipelago is a tropical paradise of palm trees, white sand, crystal blue water, and coral reefs. Tanzanians are well aware of their dependence on tourist money, and many complain about how the recent disruptions of world travel due to terrorism and war are extremely bad for business. The U.S. Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, were both destroyed by bombs planted by Al Qaeda operatives in August 1998. The numbers of Africans killed in these blasts were many times greater than the American casualties.

The currency of Tanzania is the shilling. When I arrived in Tanzania in September 2000, the exchange rate was about 850/= (shillings) to the dollar, the current rate is over 1000/= to the dollar.


If poverty is the number one challenge facing Tanzania, then disease remains a close second. Like the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, Tanzania has been hit hard by HIV/AIDS. While attaching precise statistics to the epidemic has always been difficult, the best estimates place the current adult HIV infection rate in Tanzania at upwards of 10%. This means that more than one in ten Tanzanians between the ages of 15 and 49 years has been infected with the virus that causes AIDS. In urban areas, the HIV prevalence tends to be above the national average. In Dar es Salaam, it is believed that over 20% of the population may be infected. AIDS is, of course, a death sentence anywhere in the world, but while HIV+ patients in the developed world have access to drug regimens that can keep them alive and healthy for decades, all but the wealthiest Africans have no hope of affording these expensive treatments. To compound the problem, AIDS patents in the developing world are vulnerable to numerous other deadly "opportunistic infections" like malaria, cholera, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis. The majority of HIV+ Africans develop full-blown AIDS and die within five years. Tanzania alone has one million children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

The problems of poverty and disease are intimately linked, of course. Lack of money and poor sanitary conditions contribute to the prevalence of all sorts of serious diseases that have been eradicated elsewhere in the world and the rapid deterioration of patients infected with such diseases. Lack of education and employment opportunities contributes to a sense of fatalism and hopelessness, whereby many people believe that they cannot prevent themselves from getting sick no matter what they do, and they do not care to think about their future, as the future does not seem to hold much in the way of a better life. Meanwhile, the AIDS scourge threatens to wipe out an entire generation of Africans, along with all of their immense potential as leaders, educators, workers, and innovators. In short, poverty facilitates the spread and impact of disease, which disease binds people into poverty by reducing or destroying economic productivity. It is a vicious cycle which shows no sign of breaking soon.

As an educator in Tanzania, I was keenly aware that the AIDS crisis could easily undo all of my hard work, not to mention that of my Tanzanian colleagues and my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. I still worry about the futures of my students and the other young people who were my friends and neighbors there. Every other week, it seemed, brought news of yet another person who had died "following a long illness." I had students and neighbors who were AIDS orphans. Many Tanzanians are reticent to discuss matters of HIV/AIDS and its main mode of transmission, which in Africa is almost always heterosexual intercourse. But in spite of all that, I have reason to hope that the tide of the pandemic in Tanzania may turn one day. Members of the younger generation, in particular, are generally more aware of the disease and its life cycle, spread, and consequences. They are more open than their parents, and eager to learn. But there is still a long way to go, and many misconceptions, especially surrounding the issue of condom use, persist.


It's pretty much a cliché, but young people are the future of any nation, and education must be the key to that future. Unfortunately, in a country like Tanzania, a formal education is a bit of a luxury.

The Tanzanian educational system is based on that of England, having its roots in the period of British colonial rule. Each course of study follows a standardized, national syllabus, complete with standardized, national exams. The National Exams are the primary means of assessing students, and they effectively serve as gatekeepers to the next higher level of school.

There are seven years of primary school, which are theoretically free and mandatory for all children in Tanzania. There are not enough primary schools to hold all of the school-aged children in the country, and since many families cannot afford uniforms, pens, and stationery supplies, they elect to keep their children home, where they can help earn a living for the family. These same factors cause a wide spread in the ages of students entering Standard One, the first year of school. Standard One students can range in age from 5 to 16 years old or even older, although the average age to begin school seems to be around 7 or 8, still older than in most developed countries. Most primary students live at home with their parents and commute to school each day on foot or by riding the local public minibuses known as daladalas. Wealthier families may elect to send their children to private schools, some of which are boarding schools. Primary school is normally. taught in Swahili and comprises the basic subjects of Reading, Writing, Science, and Mathematics. English is also required, and taught as a second language at this stage. The most coveted (and expensive) Tanzanian primary schools are the English-medium schools, as they offer the best preparation for secondary school. At the end of Standard Seven, students spend one day writing their National Examinations, covering Swahili, Mathematics, and English.

Students passing their Standard Seven Exams with an average of 64% or more are selected to join a government secondary school for Form I, the first of four years of "Ordinary Level" education. Students with exceptionally high marks may be chosen to join one of a handful of "special" schools, while students with outstanding marks in English and Mathematics are selected for one of the technical schools, of which my own school, Moshi Tech, is one of the oldest. Students failing to make the grade for government school have the option of enrolling at one of a growing number of private schools---if they can afford it. Secondary school in Tanzania is not free. Government schools cost the equivalent of $80 per year, while most private schools range from $300 to more than $500 per year. Historically, the government schools have been stronger academically, but that is rapidly changing, to the extend that well-off families will often elect to send their students to one of the better private schools or seminaries in place of a government secondary school. About half of Tanzanian Secondary Schools are boarding schools, and many are single-sex.

Upon entering Form I, students must quickly become proficient in English, as the instruction of every subject save Swahili is carried out in that language. The core subjects of O-level study include English, Swahili, Mathematics, Civics, History, Geography, Chemistry, Biology, and Physics, but the actual courseload varies depending on the specialty of the school. For example, students entering Form II at Moshi Tech must choose a specialty of Civil, Mechanical, or Electrical Engineering, and they will take special courses for the next three years within that specialty. At the end of Form IV, all students must spend two weeks taking National Exams in every one of their 9 or 10 subjects. These exams are two or three hours in length, covering material from all four years of O-level, and they are challenging. The science subjects also require a laboratory examination. Pass marks in the 50% range are considered more than adequate for progression to the next level of study.

Grading Scales (%)
O-level A-level
A: 81-100
B: 61-80
C: 41-60
D: 21-40
F: 0-20
A: 75-100
B: 65-74
C: 55-64
D: 45-54
E: 35-44
S: 25-34
F: 0-24
Roughly one third of Form IV students qualify for selection into Form V, the first of two years of "Advanced-Level" study. The breakdown of A-level schools is similar to that of O-level schools, in fact, many secondary schools offer both O- and A-level programs. But A-level is significantly different, and the programs are distinct, from the admissions process onward. Students are selected not only to join a given school, but also to take a specific combination of three subjects for two years. Examples of A-level combinations are PCM (Physics-Chemistry-Mathematics) and HGL (History-Geography-Language). This specialization of study parallels many European educational systems, and occurs much earlier in the school career than is typical for Americans, who often do not specialize until the second or third year of university. The combination subjects are covered in greater depth and at an accelerated pace than students have experienced in previous Forms. The grading scale for A-level is also different, as the table at right shows. The Form VI National Examinations are far more rigorous than those of Form IV, with each subject requiring two papers, plus a laboratory component in the case of the science subjects.

By now it should be apparent that students who make it as far as Advanced Level study are a very select group. While the coursework is certainly university-preparatory, few students get the chance to further their studies, because there are only three universities in Tanzania, and the cost of pursuing higher education in another country is quite prohibative for the average Tanzanian high-school graduate. Those who attend University join an elite the professional class of Tanzanian doctors, scientists, engineers, politicians, and educators.

The Tanzanian educational system is clearly inadequate to meet the needs of the Tanzanian people. What happens to the vast majority of Tanzanians who are left behind at one level or another of schooling? As a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher, my job was clearly to try and help my students reach their goals and continue their schooling as far as they possibly could go, but I always had to keep in mind my responsibility for preparing them for life after school, and that this new life might begin the next year. This is a difficult task for any Tanzanian educator, and more so for an outsider like myself. Tanzanians with some level of secondary education have more options than those with none, but still their options are limited. Many will become teachers, others will find jobs in the tourism industry, and still others will attempt to start their own small businesses. All options seem to require creativity, problem-solving, and language skills, hence I tried hard to cultivate these qualities in my students.

The Role of the Peace Corps in Tanzania

The United States Peace Corps was created in 1961 by an executive order of President John F. Kennedy. The goals of this organization are those of aiding developing countries in building capacity in the areas of education, health, business, and agriculture while building cross-cultural understanding between the citizens of these countries and Americans. Indeed, the creation of a government-sponsored, international service organization at the height of the Cold War was hardly coincidental. It was, in part, a thinly veiled attempt to reach out to poor countries which might otherwise align themselves with the Soviet Communist Bloc. The newly independent Tanzania, beginning its period of socialism, was, along with Ghana, one of the first two countries to receive Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). But although the Soviet Union is history, the mission of Peace Corps continues, as it serves a far larger purpose than political propaganda. Lest one begin to see the mission of the Peace Corps in an overly negative light, I think it is important to emphasize the fact that Peace Corps serves only those countries which actively request assistance in specified fields. For example, Tanzania has a chronic lack of qualified Math and Science teachers, hence they have always requested a good number of PCVs who are qualified to teach these subjects. Since Tanzania's economy depends heavily on agriculture, Peace Corps also operates a smaller Environmental Project in which Volunteers work closely with village farmers. The last three years have seen the addition of a School Health Education Project, in which PCVs do double-duty as classroom teachers and community health educators. As an hospitable and peaceful nation with severe economic problems and educational needs, Tanzania has been a perfect place for PCVs to live and work productively for the last forty years. Only twice during that time has Peace Corps pulled its presence from Tanzania, the most recent being during the Gulf War of 1991 and for the following couple of years. Currently, Tanzania is home to more than 80 active PCVs, and there are nearly 6,678 Peace Corps Volunteers and trainees serving in 69 countries around the globe, according to the official website. The entire program is set to expand over the next few years.

Most of the Peace Corps staff running the operation in Tanzania are Tanzanian nationals, from Assistant Country Directors to the Swahili language teachers to the drivers. They work very closely with both the American staff and the PCVs themselves. In addition, there is a very close cooperation between Peace Corps Tanzania and the Tanzanian government. Peace Corps has independent operations in every country served, each running off of a slightly different operational model, and while the experience in different countries, or even in different parts of the same country, varies wildly for each Volunteer, the overall idea remains the same.

As an individual Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), I find it difficult to estimate, so soon after finishing my service, the effect I may have had on the people whose lives touched mine in Tanzania, for good or ill. Change comes gradually, one small success at a time, and often only upon visiting their country of service years later and reconnecting with former students and colleagues will an RPCV finally realize the positive impact that their work has made on the lives of these people. Since Peace Corps has such a long history in Tanzania, it is easier to see some of the effects now. Schools, libraries, laboratories, computer labs, sports fields, fish ponds, and all sorts of other facilities have been built or improved by the cooperation of PCVs and Tanzanian nationals. Funds have been brought into the country in the form of scholarships and grants. But certainly these sorts of material gains, while significant, are not the main success story. That lies in the strong relationships developed between individual PCVs and their Tanzanian friends, neighbors, colleagues, and students. Many adult Tanzanians in prominent positions in the government, education, and industry, recall with fondness the American Peace Corps teacher they had thirty years ago, the one who lit a fire under them in school. PCVs differ from other expatriate populations, such as diplomatic and military personnel and their families, in that they live and work at the level of the citizens of their host country, elbow to elbow, as it were. They speak the language, and understand the culture, at least, as much as possible. This makes all the difference in the world.

Speaking from personal experience, I can say with confidence that the attitudes of Tanzanians toward the USA, its citizans, and Peace Corps remain overwhelmingly positive. My school, having hosted PCV teachers at intervals over the past fifteen years, welcomed me as a star member of the faculty even before I had begun teaching. I could tell that I had a great deal to live up to. My main challenge was to carry out my job in my own way, which often departed wildly from the standard Tanzanian model, without being overbearing, preachy, or arrogant. I was there to help within the framework of the existing culture, not to impose my own culture, as hard as those rules were to follow at times. All I can say at this point, as I am still so close to the entire experience, is that I am sure that I learned vastly more than I taught.

Back to Welcome to Tanzania!

Last updated: Sunday, May 25, 2003
Questions? Comments? Write to Matt Povich.