Lack of education among sisters a challenge for Tanzania formators

by Melanie Lidman

View Author Profile

Patience. Self-awareness. Confidence. Humility. Trustworthiness. Emotional sensitivity. These are the trademarks of Tanzania's formators, the sisters who are responsible for shaping the next generation of sisters.

But many of the formators lack a high school diploma. And they will be the first ones to tell you that it's a problem.

The challenge to educate Tanzania's sisters, which is affecting many aspects of congregations aside from formation, can be traced to three major difficulties. First, Tanzania has a struggling governmental education system, with abysmal graduation statistics. According to UNICEF, only 9.7 percent of female Tanzanian students enroll in high school, and even fewer graduate.

Second, the country also has the highest number of sisters of any African country, with more than 13,000. Finally, compared with other East African countries, Tanzania has a much higher percentage of local diocesan congregations versus international ones. Diocesan congregations, which are under the auspices of the bishop rather than the Vatican, often have fewer connections and resources.

A failing grade for schools

Tanzania's education system is challenging for those who cannot afford private education. There are an average of 66 pupils in each public primary school class, and in poorer regions, such as Mwanza, this figure climbs to an average of 89 students.

The lingua franca in Tanzania is Swahili, a mix of the Bantu language and Arabic. But secondary school is taught only in English. This means that if a student does not have passable English, which is their third language after Swahili and a local tribal language, they cannot continue to secondary school. Similarly, if they fail the general examination at the end of sixth grade to go to secondary school, that test can never be retaken.

Those students must either drop out or find funds for a private school. If a student wants to continue on to college, they must pay for a private institution to finish grades 11 and 12 (called Form 5 and 6 locally). This creates a situation where very few students are able to complete their schooling, much less continue on to higher education.

Education and aspiration

Girls who are interested in becoming sisters in Tanzania can join a congregation after finishing primary school (sixth grade).

The education and formation process varies by congregation, but generally, aspirants have approximately four years of formation upon joining. Only after that do the girls continue with secondary school (seventh to 10th grade). This means that if the aspirant joined at age 15, they are approximately 18 or 19 when they start secondary school, and they graduate from 10th grade at age 22.

This is done for a number of reasons. There are about 13,000 sisters in Tanzania, a country of more than 50 million people. This is the highest number of sisters in a single country in Africa. Nearby Kenya, with 46 million people, has approximately 5,000 sisters. Approximately 60 percent of Tanzanian sisters have only a primary school education.

Congregations simply cannot afford to educate all of their sisters, especially those who drop out during the course of formation. By waiting until after formation is completed, the congregation ensures that the sister is the right fit for their community, so their "investment" in her education will benefit the congregation.

Most congregations do not require girls to finish secondary school before joining their congregation because parents are unlikely to allow graduates to join religious orders. A girl who has graduated from 10th grade — a rare occurrence — is expected to use her education to benefit her family.

"They think if they paid for an education, they must get something back because parents can't educate all the children," said Sr. Tryphina Burchard, the Tanzania coordinator for African Sisters Education Collaborative. "So if someone has seven kids and one is educated, and that's the one that wants to go to the congregation, sometimes it's hard for [the parents] to release them."

More isolated orders

For girls who may never have gotten the chance to further their education, joining a congregation can offer alternate paths. One direct benefit of becoming a sister, especially in an international congregation, is increased exposure to English.

"In the congregation, we only use English," said Sr. Sara Nyingo, 26, a sister with the Ursulines of Mary Immaculate, an international order. "We had a year of English instruction, and during that year, we had to pay 100 shillings for each word of Kiswahili that we said. Our pocket money was only 500 shillings, so we were very careful!"

Nyingo is one of 80 sisters studying in 11th and 12th grade at the Bigwa Secondary School. The Tanzania Catholic Association of Sisters, the umbrella group for Tanzanian nuns, runs the Bigwa School, which is open to sisters as well as paying students. The African Sisters Education Collaborative sponsors these 80 sisters to study so they can continue on to higher education. Nyingo hopes to become a doctor.

Although the collaborative operates in nine countries in Africa, Tanzania is the only country where they sponsor sisters to complete high school. Normally, it sponsors sisters to get bachelor's degrees, but the organization found that the number of Tanzanian sisters who had completed 12th grade was so small, they needed to create a high school program, as well.

The education collaborative is funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters, which also funds Global Sisters Report.

The fact that Tanzania's congregations are predominantly local ones presents another obstacle.

"Financially, [diocesan] congregations are struggling compared to international congregations," said Burchard, a member of the St. Therese of the Child Jesus, a diocesan congregation in the northern Bukoba region Tanzania. "[International congregations] have more connections because they're working in different countries, so they can support their programs."

In some situations, congregations will split the cost for continuing education with a sister's parents. But this means that only sisters from wealthier families can continue learning. It perpetuates social classes within congregations, creating an "educated" class and a "servant" class.

Sr. Pacis Massawe of Our Lady of Kilimanjaro Sisters, former general secretary of the Tanzania Catholic Association of Sisters, said that sometimes these uneducated sisters end up working as unskilled laborers for the dioceses. They do things like cleaning and cooking, and the church pays as little as 10,000 Tanzanian shillings (approximately $5) per month.

The formators are especially aware of the effects of their lack of formal education. Formators are only required to finish sixth grade. In an association of sisters' class of 60 formators, only a few had finished 10th grade, and the vast majority had only completed sixth grade.

"One of our major challenges is that, for example, in our group here, most of us don't know how to use computers," said Sr. Patricia Mwelu, a formator with the Sisters of St Joseph, originally from Kenya. "So much of our world today is part of the world of science and technology. So the formees we are going to get, most of them will come with the knowledge about computers. As a formator, if I don't know how to handle the computer, it will be difficult."

Teaching the girls things like self-confidence and self-acceptance won't be a problem, added Sr. Christina Panga, a Daughters of Mary of Tabora sister training to be a formator. But she is clueless how to approach the science and technology. Only five sisters out of 60 said they regularly used the internet.

Sr. Christina Njuu, the coordinator of the formators course, knows that while education is important, it's only one piece of the puzzle. Part of being a good formator is developing emotional intelligence that cannot be taught in a classroom, but must be nurtured through experience.

"We have 'growth groups,' where they are sharing their experiences," said Njuu, a sister with the St. Gemma Gargan of Dodoma diocesan congregation. "It is really wonderful for them to know and to learn from each other and to support each other and give advice."

"It's like each sister's individual problem becomes the problem of everyone, and they try to see how they can advise each other," Burchard added. "They are from different areas, so they're really sharing across the cultures."

Sr. Gaspara Samba is a Grail Sister. (The Grail Sisters is an international ecumenical organization of women but locally is under the auspices of the Tanzania Catholic Association of Sisters.) Her congregation focuses on education, so she knows it is especially important for formators to have a proper education.

"Can you imagine how much we formators are going to teach [future sisters]?" she asked. "We're going to be with girls for six to 10 years. Think about how many girls we can help to become good sisters!"

"Being an educated nun helps to hearken our ears to the voice of the voiceless," said Nyingo, the student in Bigwa. "When a sister gets educated, it makes us change and go another step further. When you educate a religious person today, you can educate the entire society."

[Melanie Lidman is Middle East and Africa correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Israel.]