SAM's Adventures

The true cost of education

By Hilary Hoevenaars MNutrDiet ’78

View of Dodoma

View of Dodoma

If education is expensive, try ignorance!” So reads the hand painted sign above the doorway of a stationery shop, along one of the dusty roads of Dodoma, Tanzania.

My husband Roy (MNutrDiet ’79) and I are on our second visit to Dodoma. We have twice been able to use our long service leave to come and teach for a semester at St John’s University. As dietitians, we have taught nutrition and biochemistry in the Schools of Nursing and Pharmacy. We have both been blessed with a first-class education in Australia, and we felt that to share it in Tanzania would be a sustainable way to use the short time we had available. It has been a wonderful and eye-opening experience in very many ways.

St John’s is a relatively new university, set in the campus of what was once a secondary school. The school was founded in the 1950s by the Anglican Church, taken over by the Tanzanian Government after independence, and returned to the Anglican Church, to found a new university, in 2007. Its vision is to “be a Centre of excellence for developing humankind holistically to learn to serve”. Its mission is “to assume responsibility for providing and maintaining high-quality education and training in the theological, social, scientific and technological disciplines. The Anglican Church of Tanzania aims to increase access to university education in Tanzania, by giving more young people the opportunity of higher education”. It was established “to respond to the country’s needs of eradicating extreme poverty, hunger and disease and thus provide improved life expectancy to its people”. Tanzania is one of the 20 countries in the world that make up 80 per cent of the burden of under-nutrition. Being a relatively new university, St John’s is still struggling to provide resources, especially qualified staff, for its approximately 4500 students.

What has struck us most is the cost of education in Tanzania. Not so much the financial cost, which is high indeed, but the social and emotional costs. And it is difficult not to compare our students, with those back home in Australia, where though it’s free, quality primary and secondary education is often not valued or appreciated by students.

Many barriers to education

There are many barriers to education in Tanzania, including family poverty, distance to the nearest school, lack of teachers, other demands on children’s time (work around the home or land) and lack of electricity in the home. According to recent reports published by the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, less than 60 per cent of children aged 5 to 14 attended school in 2000 but, according to Education and Vocational Training Minister, Professor Jumanne Maghembe, quoted in The Guardian newspaper, in 2009 most students did not pass the national exam to move on to secondary school, so only a very small percentage receive secondary education. Anecdotally, I have heard that about six per cent of students attend secondary school. And because secondary education is compulsorily taught in English, after a primary education in Swahili, there are suddenly major barriers to learning. The percentage of students who go on to tertiary education is, as a consequence, minute (0.27% students).

At St John’s therefore, we are teaching the educational elite of Tanzania. However, their lives are often stories of hardship, struggle, pain and abuse. We have huge admiration for them, that they have reached university at all, for what they have endured to get here and for what they endure still to secure their tertiary education.

Students are often mature-age, with sometimes decades of work experience behind them. They have spouses, children and grandchildren, whom they have left behind in order to gain their degrees. Often, families are hundreds of kilometres away, and it may require a bus trip of up to three days to get home. Most students receive government loans for their fees, which have to be repaid whether they pass or fail, so the pressure to pass is high. A small portion of the loan (about $A3.50-$A7.50) is available for daily use – all food, personal expenses, stationery, photocopying and so on. Students either live on campus, mostly in small dormitories of six bunks with shared bathrooms, or off campus, boarding in nearby houses. On campus, they have no opportunity to cook, so they are reliant on the canteen or nearby “home cafes” for every meal. Their food choices are limited and of poor nutritional quality.

Their first-year program is very full, with up to 40 contact hours per week. They are learning in English – their second or third language. There is little time to digest and absorb lessons, and studying in their rooms is difficult because of the noise around them. It is common to find students studying in groups under trees or in empty classrooms, late into the night. Those who live off campus walk home in the pitch dark on uneven tracks and roads. Power cuts are common, interrupting lessons and studies. Students also look after their families’ many problems by phone. They suffer worry and despair, and are often too far away to help.

One student we know lives with his wife and four small children in one room in a house off campus. The room has a curtain for a door and one small window high in the concrete wall. There is a double bed and, resting against the wall during the day, a single mattress, on which the children sleep. They have a kerosene lamp; their few cooking utensils are stacked against the wall. They cook on a small charcoal stove in the front yard with the others who live in the house. Their toilet and washing facilities are out the back. Nine families share this house in similar conditions. Yet every day this delightful, 40-year-old man arrives in an ironed business shirt and trousers, at 7.30am, to attend chapel before starting classes at eight. He leaves campus when the library closes at 10pm. To go home for the holidays with his family, he will travel three days on the bus. They cannot afford to go home more than once or twice a year.

Front gate of university

Front gate of university


Students are often sick. Frequently they are diagnosed with malaria or typhoid, often both. They seem to attend classes regardless, unless they are extremely ill. Often students have musculoskeletal conditions that confine them to bed for days in crippling pain. Their friends bring them food and if they are lucky they have a hot water bottle for the pain. They may be able to afford the physiotherapist at the local hospital, but often they cannot get there. Death and dying is common and they are thankful to survive another day. When a relative is sick or dying, they may spend a day in town waiting in a queue at the bank for money for medications, and miss a vital class or test. Or, if they can afford the fare, they may miss a whole week of classes to take a bus back home to attend a burial ceremony or support their families.

Despite all these obstacles, they strive to succeed: education is so important. Some are backed by whole village communities, willing them to succeed. Others are trying to escape the village. No matter their motivation, my husband and I are full of admiration. Their stories are often heartbreaking, full of sadness and challenges overcome. Their resilience is remarkable.
What cost education? It depends on the currency.