Mark Weston

About Mark Weston

Mark Weston is a writer, researcher and policy adviser, and the author of The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World's Poorest Countries.

How English-medium education is hobbling Tanzania’s children

Imagine yourself as a 12-year-old. Perhaps you’ve just squeezed your first zit or been crippled by your first crush. You’ve also just graduated from primary school, and are about to begin secondary.

You haven’t learnt that much during your first years in school – the teaching is so bad that half your colleagues failed to graduate. From primary school. Class sizes averaging 50 and sometimes hitting 200 didn’t help, nor having to share a textbook with four other students.

Often there weren’t enough chairs or desks in class, so you would have to stand all day at the back in the 35-degree heat (the fans overhead never turned). Your teachers were poorly paid and trained, demotivated, often absent, and when they did teach they used such antiquated methods that all you ever did was copy down whatever they wrote on the blackboard and, if you had the time or energy to study in the evenings, try to learn it by heart without ever understanding what it meant.

Not surprising, then, that some of your 12-year-old peers can barely read a word in your own language, much less a whole sentence. And forget other languages – although the study of English was obligatory in primary school, the teacher masked his weak grasp of his subject by conducting lessons entirely in your mother tongue. Since you could barely read or write in that, there was little hope that you’d be able to do so in a language of which you knew nothing.

So you’re getting ready to start secondary school, probably feeling a little daunted after just scraping through primary. Possibly feeling more daunted still because the rest of your schooling is to be conducted not in your own language, the language you’ve been working hard to familiarise yourself with for the past few years (it is itself not the language of your tribe, and not always spoken at home), but in English, a language neither you nor anyone you know speaks.

And you won’t just be studying the subject of English in English – this might actually be useful, or it would be if your teacher were better trained – but all other subjects too. And if you thought your English teacher had a weak knowledge of English, wait until you hear how your biology teacher speaks it, or your maths teacher. Most of the time they won’t bother, of course: they admit to using the local lingua franca – in Tanzania’s case, Kiswahili – reasonably arguing that since their students don’t understand English there’s no point trying to educate them in it.

But the textbooks you share with your colleagues are written in English. Your homework is supposed to be written in English. All the exams you take are in English. Throughout your secondary school career, therefore, you will be taught in one language but expected to produce the outputs you need in order to progress through the levels in another.

In theory, increasing your exposure to English makes sense. It’s the most important global language, after all, and while research shows that you will learn more effectively in primary school if you’re taught in your mother tongue, it also shows that young people can learn a second language well if they are confident in their first language and if it is introduced gradually, “in carefully managed stages”.

There is nothing gradual or careful about the introduction of English in Tanzania. English is supposed to replace Kiswahili wholesale. Students have a six-week English crash course before they begin secondary school, delivered by a teacher who has been through the same dysfunctional system. After that they are left to fend for themselves. The old-fashioned teaching methods, with a distant disciplinarian handing down diktats to cowed and silent subjects from the front of the classroom, allow no scope for thrashing out an understanding during an interactive discussion.

Teaching is bad enough in Kiswahili – asking teachers to use an unfamiliar language makes it worse. Asking children to learn in one language while they take exams in a different language that they can’t speak is likely to be a fundamental reason why 60,000 drop out of secondary school every year, why only 12% complete lower secondary education when they should, and why only 1.9% enrol in upper secondary school.

Before Tanzania’s last election, in October 2015, the ruling party suggested that it would ditch English-medium education and revert to using Kiswahili at secondary as well as primary level. No progress has been made on this pledge, and the new government has had little to say about it. This was one of the previous administration’s better ideas. Tanzanian students are hobbled by the current system. Teaching English well as a subject and teaching everything else better in Kiswahili will free them to realise their potential.

[This article first appeared on Daily Maverick, and is reproduced here with permission]

Embrace immigrants, whatever you vote on Thursday

A couple of weeks ago, realising that it was struggling to make a convincing economic case for Britain to leave the European Union, the Brexit campaign switched the focus of its message to the threat posed to Britain by immigration. Almost immediately, Vote Leave surged in the polls. The bookmakers’ odds against Britain leaving the EU plummeted, from 5-1 in May to around 7-4 last week. The Leave campaign had found the Philosopher’s Stone.

Leave or remain, therefore, immigration matters to Britons – whatever happens on 23 June, concern over it will not go away. But while the case against immigration has been made repeatedly and vehemently by the Leave campaign and an often-rabid tabloid press, few prominent figures, and nobody in the Remain campaign, have put forward a cogent case in its favour. Boris Johnson, a descendant of immigrants who is now the leader of the Brexiteers, claimed in 2013: ‘I am probably the only politician I know of who is willing to stand up and say that he’s pro-immigration.’ Now that Johnson has changed his mind, there is nobody left to make the case.

As an immigrant myself, formerly to Spain and more recently to Tanzania, I would urge those fearful of immigration to reconsider. Migration is one of the good things about the EU, not one of its flaws. Regardless of Thursday’s result, Britain will be a poorer place if it closes its doors.

The ethical case for immigration to rich countries is easily made. Those of us who were born in Britain won life’s lottery. We were about five times more likely to have been born in a developing country than in the developed world, with atrocious healthcare, bad schools and no jobs. We were as likely to be born in the Democratic Republic of Congo as in Britain, and to have our lives racked by war and disease, our life expectancy slashed by 20 years, and our incomes (and our purchasing power) reduced by 99%.

But we were born in Britain, and having benefited from such a stroke of luck, many of us wish to exclude everyone else from sharing in our booty. At least part of the reason why Britain is rich and developing countries poor is because it enslaved and colonised some of them, plundering their resources and destroying the lives of their most talented people. Even if this were not the case, however (or if you disagree with this analysis), it still seems incoherent for a society that values equality of opportunity to limit this to those born within its borders. It is akin to allowing only winners of the National Lottery to get jobs, while everyone else must languish in poverty. Yes, there are only so many jobs to go around (although as job-rich, immigrant-rich America shows, migrants create jobs as well as filling them), and integrating new arrivals is difficult and will take time, but unless we value somebody born in a distant corner of Britain more highly than someone born in a different corner of the globe just because he or she is a lottery winner like us, our aspiration – as Christians or devotees of other faiths, as democrats or egalitarians, or simply as unselfish, big-spirited people – should be to share the opportunities, not hoard them.

Many won’t be convinced by this, but what of a less high-minded argument? Immigrants create jobs and do the jobs native workers don’t want to do, but they also take jobs, with low-wage native workers particularly vulnerable to being undercut by new arrivals. The net economic effect on receiving countries is disputed, with the balance of research suggesting it’s broadly positive but not by much. There is a strong case for compensating the small minority of domestic workers who suffer from immigration, just as there is a strong case for providing safety nets to those whose jobs are taken by cheaper workers overseas, or for those whose jobs disappear under the advance of new technologies.

But the effect on migrants themselves is almost never mentioned in such discussions. Migrants are people too, and the economic impact of migration on migrants is enormously positive. If it wasn’t, they wouldn’t leave their homes and their often very close-knit families to do it. And as well as improving their own living standards, economic migration also improves the lives of those they leave behind. Migrants – be they from Poland, Ireland or Senegal – send money back to their families, to feed and clothe them, to help them in times of distress, to put their younger relatives through school, or to help them set up businesses. Many migrants eventually go back to their home countries and start businesses themselves. All this spurs the economic development of these countries, and economic development of other countries helps Britain. It means, for example, that British exporters will have more and wealthier customers, and that British consumers will have access to cheaper, better goods. By making countries more stable, it means Britain won’t have to send troops to tackle conflicts or have to accommodate large numbers of refugees from such conflicts. It means Britain won’t have to spend so much on overseas aid (aid to poor countries from rich countries is already dwarfed by migrants’ remittances, and unlike aid this money goes directly into poor people’s hands). And in the long run, it will probably mean less immigration to Britain, too.

As well as being a migrant myself, I have a second personal interest in this topic. Like the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, I am the husband of an immigrant. Farage’s wife is German, mine Turkish, of that tribe whose vilification (by a campaign led by a descendant of Turks, Boris Johnson) helped swing the polls in Brexit’s favour. My wife’s opportunities in life increased greatly when she moved to Britain, and she now works as an English teacher and teacher trainer overseas. Turkey, contrary to what the Leave campaigners want you to believe, has no chance of joining the European Union in the foreseeable future. But keeping Britain’s doors open to people like her from both inside and outside the EU is not only the right thing to do, it’s the sensible thing to do.

Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré and the Secret of [Almost] Eternal Rule

My book The Ringtone and the Drum turned two last Sunday. Conveniently, one of the countries it covers, Burkina Faso, promptly had a revolution. Yesterday a great crowd of protesters set fire to parliament, invaded the state television studios, and may have succeeded in dislodging long-serving president Blaise Compaoré. It is still unclear who is in control in the country, with the army announcing the formation of a transitional government and the president inflaming the ire of the protesters and opposition parties by saying he will hang around to oversee it.

I wrote quite a lot about Compaoré and his ill-fated predecessor Thomas Sankara in the book (by this stage of my journey around West Africa I was too busy having a nervous breakdown to do much actual travel writing). Here’s an excerpt analysing how and why Compaoré and dictators like him cling to power for so long: Continue reading

Patching Up Nigeria’s North-South Divide

In the post-colonial period, African politics has tended to look something like this (as excerpted from my book on West Africa, The Ringtone and the Drum):

The French anthropologist Emmanuel Terray, drawing on his experience in the Ivory Coast, identified two distinct but parallel systems of government in Africa. The first is the world of the air-conditioner. This system, which is inspired by the Western style of government, gives off an impression of bureaucratic and technocratic efficiency. It is a world of presidents, constitutions, parliaments and laws, and speaks the language of democracy, development and modernisation. It pertains to certain places and certain hours of the day, to ‘office hours (as long as one defines these relatively flexibly),’ to government buildings made of cement and steel and glass, to presidential palaces and airports with VIP lounges, to ‘glorious official soirées in illuminated gardens.’ While the air-conditioner hums in the background, the leader, in his three-piece suit and tie and speaking in fluent metropolitan French or the smooth American burr favoured by Charles Taylor, announces grand development plans to his spellbound foreign backers: hydroelectric dams, a new motorway, airports, universities – the appurtenances of a modern state. He promises elections free and fair, and looks businesslike, not awestruck, when he takes his seat at the United Nations.

But much of this is display. As Terray observed, the principal function of the world of the air-conditioner is not to govern, but ‘to show, particularly to the outside, that the country works, that it holds rank in the concert of nations’ (recall the Sierra Leone government’s gift to Haiti’s earthquake victims, and its explanation that the country needed to play its part as a member of the international community). The serious business takes place not here, but amid a second world, the world of the veranda. This is a world of palavers under baobab trees, of sharing what you have, of the impenetrable African night, of obligations – personal, not bureaucratic, obligations – to your ancestors and your community; a world, at its most extreme, of human sacrifices in sacred forests. For our leader’s real concern is not democracy, nor the provision of services to his nation, nor that nation’s prosperous future. His real concern is in meeting his obligations to his narrow band of supporters, in feeding them in the here and now so that they will sustain him in power. This second system acts as a brake on the pride and greed of the Big Men, who are allowed to enrich themselves only if part of the material and political booty they accrue is generously redistributed. Like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians, Terray noted, the Big Man is ‘far from being entirely the master of his choices.’ As long as he produces the goods, the little people will sing his praises, vote for him, pass on rumours and render him other services. But if he fails to deliver, and to keep delivering throughout his time in power, they will jump ship. It is a tit for tat relationship, which requires the leader to be permanently on his toes.

Some countries may have moved away from this model in recent years; a few may even have been blessed with leaders who attempt to govern for all their people. On the ground, however, this is how African governments continue to be perceived – their reputation for cronyism has yet to be shaken off.

And perception is important. In Nigeria, which has been no exception to the above rule, the perception of many people is that the informal system of rotation of the presidency between northerners and southerners that had prevailed since 1963 has been broken. It may or may not be a coincidence that the murderous activities of the northern terrorist group Boko Haram, which some influential figures believe pose an existential threat to the country, ratcheted up after the accession to the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan in 2010. Jonathan, a southerner, succeeded the northerner Umaru Yar’Adua when the latter died after just three years in office. The informal rotation had hitherto seen the eight-year tenure of a northerner followed by a roughly similar period in charge by a southerner, but Jonathan’s victory in the 2011 election meant that by the end of his term southerners would have been in power for thirteen of the previous sixteen years. That he plans to run for re-election in 2015 has exacerbated northerners’ concern.

Northern Nigeria already lags behind the south. All ten of the country’s poorest states are in the north, school attendance is lower, and infant, child and maternal mortality rates are all much higher than in southern states. With a northern president in power in a patrimonial polity, northerners at least had the hope that they would have their “turn to eat” every few years. Without that reassurance, even in the unlikely event that the gulf between north and south does not continue to widen, many northerners’ perception is that they have been cut loose, and that the ‘material and political booty’ accrued by presidents will now be the exclusive preserve of southerners.

There are a number of measures that must be taken to quell the growing anger of the north, but in a country that threatens, as Foreign Policy magazine has recently put it, to ‘come apart at the seams’, political representation is among the most important. While it waits for leaders that govern for the many rather than the few, or for institutions that force them to do so, formalising the regular geographical rotation of presidents by enshrining it in the Constitution (thereby obliging the major parties to abide by it in putting forward candidates) may help narrow Nigeria’s north-south divide. In an ideal world this would not be necessary – leaders would take into account the interests of all their countrymen and distribute resources equally. But Nigeria is not an ideal world. The north-south divide has been accentuated by the long rule of southern presidents, and has helped bring about the emergency the country is facing. Formalising the rotation of the presidency is only a patch on a wound, but it may be a necessary one for northerners again to feel that they have a future as Nigerians.

Why Witchcraft Works

lakevUkerewe, the island in the Tanzanian half of Lake Victoria where I am currently spending a few months, is famous for witchcraft. Witches are found in every village, in every street. They earn a living by selling curses. If you want to punish a friend or destroy an enemy, you pay a witch to smite him with some misfortune – illness, injury, impoverishment, death. Because these things are so common anyway, it is easy for witches to claim that it was the curse that did the damage, and easy therefore for them to stay in business. And there begins the vicious circle – bad things sustain belief in witchcraft, belief in witchcraft absolves you (or your government) of any responsibility for your lot, so more bad things happen, and the witches grow ever more powerful.

Taksim, Tayyip and Turkey – a balance sheet

The sultan's pavilion, Aya Sofya, Istanbul

The sultan’s pavilion, Aya Sofya, Istanbul


During my annual visits to Turkey over the past fifteen years, I have taken a great interest in the country’s development. My wife was born in the southern town of Iskenderun, and most of her relatives still live either there or in Izmir or Istanbul. I have seen how many of those relatives have prospered economically over the past ten years having struggled greatly before that, and also how they have grown increasingly frustrated with the government that has helped create that prosperity.

I should say that most of those I have spoken to about Turkey’s progress (or in some areas lack of it) live on the coasts, where secularism is strong and where people value highly the freedoms Westernisation, since the time of Ataturk, has brought them. I have also had long conversations with Kurdish students, but very little dialogue with the religious conservatives from the interior who form the bulk of the governing AK Party’s support. Despite this deficit, however, I have usually found myself arguing in favour of the AKP’s record in often heated discussions with the secular liberals with whom I spend most of my time. My support was based primarily on economic arguments – and I accept that money isn’t everything, but it’s pretty important if, like too many Turks in the early 2000s, you are struggling to put food on the table – and I was also unconvinced by the secularists’ prediction that under AKP rule Turkey would soon become a new Iran.

The recent unrest, although predictable, has forced me to question my stance. While it is true that Turkey is nothing like Iran and that those fears have not been borne out, the heavy handed response to the protests by the police and the brittle reaction from the prime minister Tayyip Erdogan are indications that the government has taken an authoritarian turn. The decision to ban alcohol purchases in shops at night also seemed needlessly provocative (you can still buy drinks in bars) in a country where a significant minority of the population is convinced that it is on its way to theocracy.

I will be visiting Istanbul next month for a wedding, and have been told to expect an ear-bashing from my secular friends, many of whom have joined in the protests. So I thought I’d better arm myself – and work out whether my praise of Erdogan was misplaced – by gathering some data on how the country has done since he came to power in 2003. I looked at the economy, quality of life indicators such as health, education and equality, and the controversial topics of freedom of speech and corruption which fuel much of the criticism of the prime minister. I relied on the most recent available data from the World Bank, Freedom House and Transparency International. My research didn’t cover the harder to measure impacts of events such as the PKK ceasefire, Turkey’s support for the Syrian rebels, the reduction in influence of the military, or the jailing  of army generals in the Ergenekon affair. I hope I haven’t been too selective with the indicators I’ve chosen, but here’s what I found:

The economy:

  • Per capita incomes have almost trebled since Erdogan came to power, rising from $3790 in 2003 to $10410 in 2011. On a purchasing power parity basis (at current US$), they have almost doubled, from $8700 to $16940. 
  • The poverty rate has fallen from 28% in 2003 to 18% in 2009.
  • Turkey has risen slowly up the UN’s Human Development Index (which incorporates measures of life expectancy, education and income) from 96th place to 90th.


  • Turkey has made slow progress in reducing income equality, its Gini Index score falling from 43 in 2002 to 40 in 2010 (lower is good). The share of income earned by the highest 10% of the population fell from 34% to 30%, and that of the top 20% from 49% to 46%.
  • On gender equality, women’s labor force participation rate has barely shifted, from 27% in 2003 to 28% in 2010.
  • The ratio of females to males enrolling in secondary education has increased from 73:100 to 92:100.
  • The proportion of parliamentary seats held by women has risen from 4% to 14%.


  • Life expectancy at birth has increased from 71 years in 2003 to 74 years in 2011 (for comparison, the global increase was from 68 years to 70 years).
  • Immunization rates for DTP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) have increased from 68% of 12-23 month old children to 97%.
  • The infant mortality rate has fallen from 22 children per 1,000 live births in 2003 to 12 children per 1,000 in 2011.
  • Under-5 mortality has fallen from 28 children per 1,000 live births to 15.
  • The share of pregnant women receiving prenatal care rose from 81% in 2003 to 95% in 2009.


  • Net primary school enrolment is up from 95% to 99%, net secondary enrolment from 71% to 79%.
  • Gross tertiary school enrolment is up from 28% to 55% (Mr Erdogan may be regretting this particular success…)

Freedom of speech:

  • Freedom House rated Turkey a “partly free country” in terms of freedom of speech in 2003, and that assessment has not changed today. Scores on press freedom, civil liberties and political rights have shown no improvement, but nor have they declined. However, Turkey’s civil liberties score was downgraded from 3 to 4 in 2012 – back to its 2003 level – due to what Freedom House describes as ‘the pretrial detention of thousands of individuals—including Kurdish activists, journalists, union leaders, students, and military officers—in campaigns that many believe to be politically motivated.’


  • In 2003 Turkey ranked 77th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2012 it had improved to 54th.

So take your pick. If the past is a guide to the future, those Turks who support the AK Party will seize on improvements in incomes, corruption, health care, education and poverty reduction, while those involved in the recent protests will point to recent declines in freedom of speech, limited advances in reducing income inequality, mixed results on gender inequality, and Turkey’s rather sluggish rise up the Human Development Index, which compares Turkey’s progress with that of other countries. To me, although there is clearly much work to be done, the balance still looks favourable. It is to be hoped that the protests will act as a constraint on Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian side and inspire him, with the help of all Turks, to make even stronger efforts to advance the country’s development. In the meantime, I shall be taking a flak jacket along with my gas mask when I visit next month.

The African Exodus: A View from the Ground


Sunday’s El País carried a surprising article detailing the increase in immigration from Africa to Spain in the past two years.

Although Spain is in the midst of a debilitating economic crisis, with an unemployment rate of over 27%, the number of would-be migrants crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco in the first quarter of 2013 has quadrupled compared with the corresponding period in 2012. Alarmingly, the proportion using inflatable rubber dinghies – the kind your kids play on at the beach – has risen from 15% to 90% in the past year. These dinghies are designed to be used by two people, but in the Strait they are often intercepted with up to ten on board (Spain’s coastguard has yet to hear of one that has completed the fourteen kilometre journey – the lucky ones are rescued before they sink). In Morocco, the market in these vessels is thriving – a 2-3 metre boat that can be had for €300 in the Spanish beach resorts will set you back over €600 in Tangiers.

This continued flow of migrants from Africa to Europe gives the lie to the “Africa Rising” story peddled by some Western media outlets of late. Although GDP is growing in many parts of the continent, most Africans see nothing of this. The millions who have migrated from villages to cities in search of a better life too often end up with nothing to do, and in their desperation are forced to look further afield, to Europe, for a way out of poverty (as the chief prosecutor in the Spanish port town of Algeciras noted, ‘many people would love to have our crisis’).

While researching my new book, The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries, which as well as analysing the great social upheavals the developing world is going through as it modernises is an attempt to give voice to the people experiencing these changes on the ground, I observed this frustration at first hand. The population of Bissau, the capital of the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau which was the first stop on my trip, has quadrupled in the past thirty years. Whole villages in the interior have emptied out as the land has become too crowded to farm and the lure of modernity entices people to the cities. My wife Ebru and I spent a few weeks in one of Bissau’s poorest districts, where, as the excerpt below shows, urbanisation’s losers face a constant dilemma over whether they too should undertake the perilous journey to the West:

Since there is no power and the heat quickly rots anything perishable, Bissau’s residents must lay in a new supply of food each day. Every morning, therefore, we walk down the paved but potholed road that leads from our bairro to Bissau’s main market at Bandim. The market is a labyrinth, its narrow dark lanes winding between rickety wooden stalls whose tin roofs jut out threateningly at throat height. A press of brightly-dressed shoppers haggles noisily over tomatoes, onions, smoked fish and meat. The vendors know their customers – you can buy individual eggs, teabags, cigarettes, sugar lumps and chilli peppers; bread sellers will cut a baguette in half if that is all you can afford; potatoes are divided into groups of three, tomatoes into pyramids of four; matches are sold in bundles of ten, along with a piece of the striking surface torn from the box. In the days leading up to Christmas and New Year, which all Guineans celebrate regardless of their religious persuasion, the market is crowded and chaotic, but after the turn of the year, when all the money has been spent, it is empty and silent.

Only the alcohol sellers do a year-round trade. On a half-mile stretch of the paved road there are thirteen bars or liquor stores. They sell cheap Portuguese red wine, bottled lager, palm wine and cana, a strong rum made with cashew apples. Bissau has a drink problem. Its inhabitants’ love of alcohol is well-known throughout West Africa. Back in Senegal, a fellow passenger on one of our bush taxi rides had warned us that Guineans ‘like to drink and party but they don’t like to work.’ Later in our trip, on hearing we had spent time here, Sierra Leoneans would talk in awed tones of Guineans’ capacity for alcohol consumption. The liquor stores near our bairro are busy at all hours of the day and night. Christians and animists quaff openly, Muslims more discreetly.  Continue reading