To Josiah Mchome, a veteran teacher, nothing is more disheartening than the scene at the start of the school year.
Early in the morning, he sees children fill this vibrant, crowded city at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, proudly sporting colorful, though tattered, uniforms. Some have walked miles to school.
By midmorning, many reappear along the dirt roads, making the same journey in reverse. They've been sent home because they can't pay the fees.
Like many primary school systems in East Africa, Tanzania's is supposed to be free. But in practice, schools have replaced tuition with fees for everything from textbooks to toilets, making education unaffordable to many.
To Mchome, that throng of disappointed youngsters is a vivid display of both the hunger for education in a country building schools by the thousands, and the still-huge gap between dream and reality.
"Often, they just go back to school and try to sneak back into class," sighs Mchome, who works with a small charity for destitute students.
With 60 or more students per class, the strategy sometimes works. But the children milling around this city of 150,000 during the school day — ranging from 6 or so to their early 20s — and the steady stream seeking Mchome's help, show that for many, sneak-back-in hasn't worked.
And even if primary school is now at least within reach of many Tanzanians, fees shoot up in secondary school, which increasingly is viewed as essential but is often still hopelessly out of reach.
Flora Mrema is a rarity. She recently finished secondary school with help from Mchome's group. She hopes to go on to university and become a lawyer. She coped with numerous interruptions, including one of five months for failure to pay fees.
"It's just a slogan that the government offers free education," said Mrema, 22.
Ten years ago, the U.N. set eight "Millennium Development Goals" to tackle the world's most pressing humanitarian problems by halving rates of affliction in such areas as disease, poverty and lack of basic education by 2015, compared to where they stood in 1990. A summit to review progress is set for Sept. 20-22 in New York.
In universal primary education, there has been much progress — 90 percent in South Asia, 92 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, 95 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean. Worldwide, said a U.N. report in June, the number of children not in school has dropped from 106 million in 1999 to 69 million in 2008.
Sub-Saharan Africa has also made gains; in 1999, 58 percent of its children were enrolled in primary school. By 2008 the figure was 76 percent, though it remains the lowest in the world, accounting for almost half of the unenrolled.
Over the last decade, donor countries and international groups have pushed for abolition of tuition fees, and in 2002 Tanzania followed East African neighbors like Malawi, Kenya and Uganda and made the first seven years of school free of charge.
The effect on school attendance has been striking, especially in Tanzania. A decade ago primary school enrollment was around 50 percent. Today, according to government statistics at least, attendance nears 100 percent.
Neighboring Kenya has seen primary school enrollment rise from 66 percent in 2000 to 82 percent in 2008, according to the World Bank. Enrollment in Rwanda rose from 76 percent to 96 percent; in Zambia from 69 percent to 97 percent.
But those figures mask a disappointing reality: many thousands of students who show up for the first day of class drop in and out over the course of the year because they cannot pay the fees that have sprouted to up replace the abolished tuition charges.
Another problem: The surge in enrollment has compounded classroom overcrowding to an average teacher-student ratio of 53-to-1, according to recent figures. Some believe it diminishes quality; when attendance goes up, completion rates go down. In Madagascar, primary enrollment rocketed from 68 percent in 2000 to 99 percent in 2008. But the World Bank noted that 80 percent don't finish primary school.
Some teachers and students question whether the trade-off is worth it if top students are dragged down by spending to include everyone. Tanzanians joke that the 1997 Universal Primary Education Program (UPE), "Ualimu Pasipo Elimu" in Swahili, actually stands for "teaching without education."
In short, it has proved much easier to declare a universal right to education and even build schools than to build sustainable education systems.
"The schools mushroomed in every corner of the country," said Mchome. Politicians "wanted to please their bosses — 'we have a school here, we have a school there.' But the facilities and teachers were just not there."
Sygifrid Saweru, the principal of a newly built secondary school in Moshi, agrees the expansion has been implemented poorly. He is deeply pessimistic about how his students will do on upcoming exams. Many can't write even in Swahili, let alone English, which the curriculum switches to in secondary school.
"We forced many to go to school, some capable, some not," Saweru said. In a decade, perhaps, the resources will be in place. But for now, he said: "I'm worried they will leave without anything."
Government funding has risen, but lags behind demand and population growth. A 2008 study of the Kilimanjaro region estimated that the real cost of primary school has doubled in the years since fees were "abolished."
To educate several million more students, the old tuition charges have morphed into fees. In government primary schools, these may not seem like much — around $25 dollars per year in Kilimanjaro — but they are still beyond reach for many in Tanzania, where the average woman has around five children to support.
And in secondary school, they jump considerably: perhaps $20 per year for uniforms, another $20 for a "building fund," $50 for food, plus charges for desks even if students bring their own, to give examples Mchome calls typical. Most demoralizing is a common fee for supposedly "supplemental" tutoring where teachers actually cover essential material. Students who can't pay must leave the classroom.
Those burdens come to life in the office of Mchome's charity, called "Watu," Swahili for "people." The group supports about 120 students per year, but turns away seven in eight applicants.
A recent visitor was 71-year-old Anthony Assenga. A retired irrigation engineer with no pension, he carries a dignified smile but also the sadness of a man who cannot provide for his three grandchildren whom he adopted after their parents died of AIDS.
"Education is the only way for a child in the future," Assenga says. Without it, "he is going to be a thief." He worries most for 12-year-old granddaughter Irine, who won't find a job or a good marriage without more schooling.
For now, Irine has gotten a reprieve from the headmaster, but still must find about $80 to stay enrolled.
"I feel very sorry, but what can I do?" Assenga says, adding he has hit up friends and his pastor but is still well short. "I have nothing to give."
Salum Geofrey is a bright-eyed 20-year-old who says he wants to become a journalist to expose corruption.
Money problems got him kicked out of the government school in his home village, so he traveled 12 hours by bus to Moshi because he heard there were schools here. It's critical that he sit national exams this fall.
"If I don't take the exam, my life and ambition will be very badly destroyed," said Geofrey. If Mchome cannot help him, "I will try to find another way ... but I don't think I will succeed. There is not enough time left."
Geofrey shares a home with friends on the outskirts of Moshi, at the end of a dirt path through a maize field beside a prison farm. His small room is covered with newspaper photos of soccer stars and Barack Obama. On his desk sits an Oxford dictionary and old textbooks he borrowed from housemates. In the afternoon, when his housemates return from school, he asks them to repeat the day's lessons for him.
He blames Tanzania's government for his predicament.
"When they go outside the country, they say we have invested very much, we have free education," Geoffrey says. "When you come here, you see it is vice versa. All that money, I don't know where it goes."
Repeated phone calls and e-mails to Tanzanian government officials went unanswered.
Undoubtedly, Tanzania's sclerotic bureaucracy is part of the problem. But there is also a feeble tax base built on almost impossible demographic arithmetic: Because of AIDS deaths and a high birth rate, half of Tanzania's 42 million people are 18 or under.
Many schoolmasters try hard to avoid sending students home. Some play hardball, cracking down on fee collections just before all-or-nothing national exams.
The law says students can't be sent home for nonpayment, but it routinely happens through verbal finesse.
"They don't say 'go home because you haven't paid your fees,'" Mchome explains. "They say 'go home and bring the fees.'"
But overall, he and even hard-pressed students like Mrema and Geofrey are sympathetic to the school administrators' bind.
Msaranga Secondary School is one of about a dozen new secondary schools in Moshi, with 624 students in a cluster of half-finished buildings. There are 11 teachers, including headmaster Saweru who teaches 18 classes a week; his one lone math teacher teaches 50. Desks fill the dirt-floored classrooms wall-to-wall, each shared by two or three students. Others sit on the floor.
In a closet-like office, Saweru shows off his meticulous records. The government, he says, has promised him about $13 per student per year. But for the first six months of 2010 he got less than $1 per student.
As a secondary school, Msaranga is allowed to charge about $13 per year in tuition, but only half its students have managed to pay. So it imposes fees: $3.25 per year for security, $6.50 for supplemental teaching, $3.25 for an ID card, $40 for food. About half can afford lunch, and sometimes they share the food with those who can't buy their own.
"We don't want to tell students to go back home," Saweru says. Warning letters are sent. But "when it becomes very hard and we cannot run the school, we have to tell them today you will not come to school unless you come with money."
Source: The Associated Press.