Teaching in Tanzania

Hi all!  Christopher here. 

This past summer, I was fortunate to be able to travel to Tanzania for two weeks.  To travel to a country that is so different from my own gives great perspective on the lifestyle that I take for granted.  While there, I engaged in a variety of activities – I went to small villages to watch musical performances and share meals with the villagers; attended a music festival of the Wagogo people, in a rural part of Tanzania; and I spent four days teaching music in an elementary school.  While all of it was a wonderful, transformative experience, I will focus here on the issues pertinent to this blog – the teaching experiences.

Teaching in Tanzania: Great thoughts about teaching music in a different country!

Chamwino is a small, dusty village, located a seven-hour bus ride away from Dar es Salaam, the largest city in the country.  The school is what you might expect, a group of cinder-block concrete open rooms, with a large number of children packed into a small space.  The students are invariably well-behaved, with a laser-like focus on instruction, both with their classroom teachers and with me.  Class sizes are large, with some classes having over 100 students.

I was excited to teach in this environment -- I thought the challenges of large class sizes, a language barrier, and a new school culture would really test my teaching chops.  Indeed, I was challenged, in the best way.  The students were great, eager to learn, and it allowed me to crystallize some of the thoughts that I have about good teaching - both what works and what doesn't.  Some issues that came up:

Choose your repertoire thoughtfully.  As with all teaching, a good music class starts with good repertoire!  After years of teaching at the elementary school level in my Seattle context, I usually know what songs will be successful at what grades – both in terms of the musical skills I want them to gain from the music and also whether or not they will like it. 

The first issue I had to deal with was language.  The home language of most students in Chamwino is Cigogo, the language of the Wagogo people.  The national language of Tanzania is Swahili, with the majority of primary school instruction occurring in that language.  In secondary school, all instruction switches to English, as the Tanzanian government recognizes that in order to be successful in our globally-connected world, students must understand English.  The students I taught took English class for part of each day, but they didn’t know very much – similar to the Spanish classes that students take at my school in Seattle.

As a first thought on repertoire, my Kodály-inspired brain went to the core of the philosophy: Teach the folk music of the mother tongue.  Well, I didn’t know Cigogo, and they did, so teaching in Cigogo seemed like a recipe for disaster.  Swahili, however – well, they didn’t really know it, and I didn’t really know it, so it seemed that we would be in the same boat.  I found the book Ukuti, Ukuti, which is a collection of singing games from all around Tanzania, most of which are in Swahili.  It’s a great book, one that you can buy through Amazon (and likely some other providers, as well): 

The book includes a CD of kids singing the games, which allowed me to learn the pronunciation and hear the bright vocal timbre.  Perfect!  Singing games are terribly kid-friendly, and I could honor their culture by showing that this mzungu (translate: foreigner) from the U.S. made the time to learn music from their country.

Choose your repertoire II: Know your objectives!  Once I arrived in the village and talked with the teachers and administrators about my plans, they nicely suggested that I consider teaching music from the United States.  It seems obvious, but: Of course!  Whenever I have a guest artist from another country in my classroom, I don’t want them to teach my music, I want them to teach their music!  As a citizen of the most culturally powerful country in the world, I worry that the world is becoming too American-ized, and that it is in the world’s interest to ensure that traditional musical cultures be honored and maintained.  But in this case, teaching songs in English from the United States was a way to share my culture with the students.

Choose your repertoire III: How to select songs from another language?
So as I went about choosing songs to teach, I looked through the variety of materials that I brought (see: Prepare to adapt, below), thinking through all of those considerations that make teaching a foreign language song in my teaching context successful:
-       Look for words that repeat, so that you don’t have to “line out” each phrase too much;
-       Look for ranges that are appropriate for the age level;
-       Look for texts that might support other objectives of the school, such as counting, days of the week, or body parts;
-       Look for music from children’s cultures, which students are more likely to relate to;
-       Look for good music!  My mantra this year is "No stupid music."
See the bottom of the post for the set of repertoire that I selected, along with some pictures.

Know your faults as a teacher, and plan accordingly.  We all have our weak points as teachers.  For me, I have the worst time remembering words to songs, a problem that seems to grow as I age.  With the younger students in Chamwino, I wanted to sing some of the songs, first in Swahili and then in English.  I carefully wrote out the Swahili words on large butcher-block paper, brought the sheet with me in my suitcase, and planned to tape it to the wall.  I also wrote some of the common Swahili phrases that I had learned in a small notebook, so that I could quickly glance down at my lap to remind myself of some of the words.

Prepare to adapt on the fly.  I thought my plans for the language issues were pretty good.  Problem with the Swahili lyrics on butcher-block paper: The tape didn’t stick to the wall!   Problem with the Swahili words in a notebook that I could see while sitting down: No chair!  As in any teaching situation, we’re constantly thinking on the fly, taking the input that we receive from the students and modifying our instruction accordingly.  But in a foreign country, you don’t always know what is going to happen.  I thought that it was a great experience for me to figure out in the moment how to modify my teaching. 

What works everywhere?  Clear, concise language.  I tried to learn some basic Swahili phrases before I left and worked on common terms while I was there, but I still couldn’t communicate terribly well.  While I had some help with a teacher who could translate my English in Swahili, that affected the rhythm of the teaching moment, so I tried to use Swahili as much as possible.  In my classes in the US, I try to minimize my talking in order to maximize music-making, but the language issues in this setting allowed me to work very hard at being concise.  When you do this, it is amazing how much the students can accomplish in a short period of time.

What else works everywhere?  Good sequencing.  I had one class period with each group (which was unfortunate: If I had two class sessions, I could have seen if they retained any of the songs from one class to the next.  Without assessment, I couldn’t really know how well they learned the material).  I had to carefully think: How could they best learn each song?  When we teach a song by rote in another language, there are a number of issues we take into consideration:
- When to model the whole song
- How much vocal support to give the students when they’re singing 
- How much text to ask them to learn each time
- How and when to incorporate movement
How and when to teach an accompanying game
When to allow students to fail, in order to motivate them
When the students’ interest or focus lags
How to use visual representation of the words
Each teacher will find their own way to answer these questions.  But teaching in a new context, I felt that my brain was on fire as I tried to determine my best next step, based on the students’ response to my instructional style.

The lesson plans.  Ultimately, I created two lesson plans, one that was roughly appropriate for K-2, and one for 3-6.  All of these songs can work in classrooms in the U.S. as well. 

For lower elementary, I had three songs:

-       Who’s That Tapping at the Window: This song allowed me to learn the attend to individual students, and invite students to come up and perform the various actions.  Initially, I had hoped to sing this song around the circle, with each student singing their own name.  But the large size of the class (100 students!) and the small room made this impossible.

-       Mary Wore Her Red Dress: This classic folksong and accompanying picture book by Merle Peek has repetitive words, with an emphasis on changing colors.  In the book, the addition of the colors are cumulative.  On the first page, singing about Mary’s red dress, the entire painting is in black and white, except for Mary’s shoes, which are shaded red.  On the next page, the color green is added to the red coloring, while you sing about “Henry’s green sneakers.”  In this way, as the students sing about each color, they are able to see a visual representation of it, allowing the meaning of each color to stick in their heads a little bit better – ideal for teaching a song in another language.

-       Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes: This is actually not a song that I like particularly, but the song has accompanying movements, would help the students learn body parts – plus it is a classic song that most kids from U.S. preschools know.  So even though I think it’s kind of stupid, I still went with it.

Upper elementary also had three songs:

-       Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.  In addition to the reasons outlined above, I thought that the older students could sing it with increasing speed, which would make it fun for them.

-       Busy Monday Morning.  I first learned this lesser-known song from an Amidons recording, Hymns and Ballads (which is, incidentally, one of the best recordings I’ve ever purchased – great music, soulfully sung).  Then, when visiting Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, I came across an old picture book of the song, now out of print. I purchased it, and it has become one of the big hits in my classroom each year.  (Check Amazon.com for discontinued library copies of it).  The song tracks a boy and his father through a week of farm-related chores, ending on Sunday, when they rest. Many of the children in Chamwino worked with their parents when they were not at school, and the story could connect to their personal experiences.  Plus, the text allowed the students to learn the days of the week, and the book has simple, beautiful pictures.

-       Quack Diddlioso.  This beat-passing game is a classic one that kids play in the Seattle area.  It’s like Aquaqua or Down By the Banks.  My students in the States love children’s musical cultures from around the world, and I thought that this song would allow the Chamwino students to feel connected to my students in Seattle.  It appeared that the song was a hit: When I returned the second day, the students had been taught the song and game from the children who had learned it on the first day.

Quack Diddlioso: The last two!

Collected by Christopher Roberts in June, 2007; Seattle, WA
Spoken:  1, 2, 3, 4!
Translation: Vocables, with no meaning.
Game:  Seated circle.  Students extend their left hand to their left, palm up, and then place their right hand in their neighbor’s open hand on their right.  As the song is sung, the beat gets passed from hand to hand around the circle.  Once the song is finished, the students count from one to four, passing the beat all the while.  On “four,” the person whose hand is about to be (gently!) patted tries to move it before being touched.  If they move their hand in time, the player trying to tag him/her (“three”) is out; if not, player “four” is out.  The game then begins again.  During the counting portion of the game, it is appropriate to go out of tempo, i.e. as fast as they can!

Overall, I felt that I gained so much from this experience, both as a person and as a teacher.  You never know when these opportunities will present themselves.  On a church mission trip, for example, you could make a connection with a nearby school, and see if you can come in and do some teaching – even if it is not part of the program.  The rewards will be beyond measure. 

Like many schools in the developing world, this school is underfunded.  If you feel the desire to donate to the school, click here, and note that you would like the money donated to the Chamwino Elementary School.


  1. Fantastic post, Christopher. Such a pleasure to see the world through your eyes - with the added benefit of self reflection and new children's book resources!

  2. What a great post! Thank you for sharing. It's awesome to see how great teaching and musical experiences can be found all around the world. I hope to some day be fortunate enough to do some teaching abroad, as well. I can only imagine how much is learned from such an experience.

    Music With Mrs. Tanenblatt

  3. What a wonderful post, Christopher! Thanks for your insights!


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