Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Post by Bert Witkamp
Version 14 October 2014, edited 8 March 2015.

Education in Zambia 3Teaching in the vernacular is compulsory in Zambian public primary schools as of the 2014 school year for grades 1 to 4. English is be the language of instruction there onwards. Some notes about the pluses and minuses of this attempt at indigenization.

At the time when teaching in the local language at Zambian public primary schools grades 1 to 4 was made obligatory I published a post titled TEACHING IN THE VERNACULAR: PROBLEM OR SOLUTION?
( In the article I highlighted some of the positive and negative issues concerning teaching in the vernacular. Today teaching in the vernacular has been practiced for over a year. The national media, predictably, have highlighted the blessings the new regulation has brought, but is it really all roses and sunshine?

First, let us reiterate that English language deficiency under the old system was the single largest cause of poor performance for children that come from homes where English is not, rarely or poorly spoken. Most parents and guardians of children attending a public primary school  in Zambia are deficient in English; they pass their deficiency on to school going children that are in their care and the schools have not been able to make up for this shortcoming in grades 1 and 2. Consequently these pupils had a learning handicap as of grade two when English was introduced as the language of instruction alongside the prevailing vernacular language.  As of grade three English was to be the only language of instruction though in practice many teachers continued the use of both English and the local language in the higher grades.

The fundamental English deficiency problem was in a way perpetuated and institutionalized by schools that adopted excessively low passing thresholds. Pupils that should redo a class are promoted to the next class and their language deficiency with it. The learning career of most of these pupils therefore ended at grade seven or nine at best as they failed to satisfactorily perform at the exams presented to them in English.

That, however, is not the whole story. There are other major contributing factors to poor learning performance at public primary schools. The schools did not have (free) extra tuition facilities as part of the regular school programme; pupils requiring special education because of physical handicaps and/or psychological problems are kept at the regular school; classes  were/are excessively large with 60 pupils or more in one class not being an exception; teachers are overburdened by having to teach such large classes, or double classes, or simply have no genuine interest in teaching; parents are not supporting their children in their learning and the schools operate short teaching schedules. Pupils in fact are only taught ½ day or even less - no wonder primary school takes seven grades to complete. Most class rooms are used daily for several classes. This list of negative factors impacting on learning performance easily can be expanded but the current list is long enough as it is.

Clearly, a good many pupils have benefited from the new system as the English language handicap no longer is a factor in grades 1 to 4. There are, however, a number of buts. Such as:
  • Not all pupils at a given school speak the same vernacular language.
  • Teachers may not be sufficiently conversant with the vernacular language in use at the school where they have been stationed.
  • The choice of vernacular language is restricted to the official Zambian vernacular languages (e.i., of the Nyanja, Bemba, Luvale, Kaonde, Lozi and Tonga peoples); other languages are not taught. Example: chiTonga is an official language and hence a language of instruction. Ila, lenge and soli speakers are not taught in their languages. In other words, the official vernacular languages have taken over the privileged position the English language once had.
  • What to do with English words that have no corresponding term in the vernacular? This applies to a great many terms and concepts found in grade 2 to 4 primary school text books. This is a major issue when text books in any of the chosen vernacular languages are not available.
  • A vernacular language may vary considerably within the area where it is used; e.g., Gwembe chiTonga is different from Plateau chiTonga and both Gwembe and Plateau chiTonga have dialectical varieties of their own. It often is difficult or impossible to come up with what is supposed to be the Standard Vernacular Language.
In addition the proper use of a vernacular language in education is problematic as to date primary schools do not or may not have primary school text books (for pupils and teachers) for these languages. Note that even if these books are produced teachers and schools may not have them; a situation which unfortunately is quite common. This omission introduces a significant idiosyncratic element in the manner of education; leaving it up to the individual teacher to cope with the problems of teaching in the vernacular.

It is, at least on paper, possible to address some of the present flaws of the new system: text books can be produced in the vernacular* (mind you, this is not easy for reasons mentioned above, and also costs money); teachers can be posted to schools where a vernacular language is used in which the teacher is competent; it may be possible to formulate Standard Vernacular Languages where that now not is the case or allow accepted variation.

Adopting a vernacular language as language of instruction does not solve any of the other factors negatively impacting on the learning performance of the public primary school pupil: lack of facilities for underprivileged/handicapped children, overpopulated classrooms, overburdened or disinterested teachers, parental apathy, lack of teaching aids, poor standards generally and especially concerning promotion to the next grade, and teaching schedules that as a rule are at least 6 hours/week shorter than those of private schools. Improved public primary school performance can only be achieved if these issues are addressed, and these issues are not addressed merely by adopting a vernacular language as language of instruction.**

Teaching in the vernacular helps many pupils of public primary school to grasp the subjects taught and enhances their participation in the learning situation - if they happen to be a speaker of one of the official vernacular languages taught at the school they happen to attend. Teaching in the vernacular does justice to historical origins and contemporary cultural heritage. That is all very well but does not explain why learning English, the national no. 1 official language, has been scrapped from the grade 1 to 4 syllabus. Pupils now start learning English in grade 5 and have to master English sufficiently well to pass grade 7 exams in order to continue education to grade 9 and hopefully beyond. Furthermore, the better the exam result, the better the school that the child can access.

Late learning of English, predictably, creates another stumbling block for many pupils and therefore contravenes the intention of the recent primary school reforms. English should be taught as of grade 1. Perhaps by turning the learning day of a primary school pupil into a full day rather than the present half a day. As it stands public primary schools pupils with few exceptions shall continue to be the suppliers of cheap labour; of maids, gardeners, security guards, general workers, cleaners, farm hands and so on. And such future prospect for these pupils highlights the more fundamental issue of the capacity of public primary schools to make good the learning disadvantages their pupils have that issue from the environment in which they are born and raisedan issue which this educational reform is supposed to address.

The reality to date is otherwise. One consequence is the widening gap between private and public primary schools. A small municipality like Choma to date has seven private primary schools, all save one located in the “better” neighbourhoods. Parents that can afford it, mostly belonging to the strongly expanding middle class, send their children to private schools. Those who can’t send their offspring and other dependents to the public schools. Hence we now have a bifurcation in the educational system that reflects a socio-economic bifurcation in society; crudely put between the haves and the have-nots; a division that is increasingly supported and created by the very educational system itself.

*   Text books for pupils in the vernacular and for teachers in English have now been produced (July 2015). The first impression is that grade 1 subjects ordinatily should be taught at pre-school level. The books, as usual in education, are very well produced.** It should be appreciated in all fairness that government over the past years has made substantial efforts to improve the situation at public primary schools. A lot of schools have been build, expanded or renovated. The conditions of service for teachers ensures them a very decent income and no longer should be used as an excuse for poor teaching performance. Teachers, moreover, have access to a great many educational services - long distance learning in particular -  to upgrade their skills and qualifications. Teachers now need to have a diploma rather than a certificate - another step forward. And, last but not least, the current primary school text books, all in English, are of good quality.

You can access more posts on on Education in Zambia by clicking on the "Education in Zambia" label at the right side of your screen.

Sunday, August 31, 2014


Agriculture in Zambia 8: Some notes on broiler chicken light management and stock feed.

Photo 1: Keeping broilers naturally.

I thought  I had my broiler management system well into place when two things happened.

The first thing was an unexpected increase in mortality of apparently healthy broilers in week 5 and 6. What happened was that we were managing our chickens so well that they grew too fast and became overweight in relation to the development of vital organs. Helped by a snippet of info by Sebastian Scott I suspected that the light management we had into place was wrong, and that broiler chickens should NOT be given the opportunity to eat 24 hours a day. Checking recent internet manuals (COBB, ROSS) confirmed this presumption. We now give chickens as of 21.00 hours a period of genuine night. Problem solved spectacularly: mortality rate dropped to almost 0 and all of the sudden we saw the emergence of a lively, energetic broiler.
The schedule that works for us is: Day 2-6 lights off from 21.00 to 22.00 hrs; week 2 and 3 lights off from 22.00 to 05.00 hrs BUT we switch the infrared bulb(s) on at night when it gets cold; and finally as of week 4 light bulbs off at 21.00 hours till 05.00 hrs and heating bulbs as well. By that time the birds normally do not need artificial heating anymore.

The second issue in a way was and is more problematic. Over time I had more and more questions about commercial/industrial stock feed. The key issue is the incorporation of medication in the feed, starter and grower in particular, and the presumed absence of such medication in finisher. Most stock feed manufacturers add antibiotics and coccidiostats to the feed. They do this as a preventive measure against disease for industrial growers who keep immensely large flocks under fully artificial conditions. They also do it to reduce mortality for small scale farmers who don’t know how to keep broilers well. The addition of hormones to the feed of chickens is forbidden in the USA and I think in the EU as well. Hormonal additives presumably serve to improve the feed-meat conversion rate; the desired effect is a saving in stock feed cost – or a shorter rearing period. Unfortunately, you, the consumer of fine broilers, may involuntarily also become the consumer of the antibiotics, coccidiostats and hormones administered to the chicken you eat. 

Producers using commercial stock feed must observe a ten day period of feeding finisher*, and of withdrawal periods in case they had to administer medication during the finisher feeding period. (This may turn out to be very costly and I bet many producers do not abide by such regulation!). Producers should also insists that stock feed manufacturers state in full on the sack the pharmaceuticals they have added on and must push for better regulation possibly through the Poultry Association of Zambia (did you know we have one such organization?). Personally I am inclined to think that the only safe solution is to make your own feed, but that is not easy for the very small scale farmer and has its own problems. In any case that is the direction we are taking.

Lastly, medication is not the only controversial additive in stock feed. Another issue is the recycling of slaughter waist (bone meal, blood meal. meat meal) and the concomitant chance of (cross-species) transmission of diseases. And, increasingly so, is the possibility of incorporating GMO crops into the feed; maize and soya in particular. This currently is forbidden in Zambia, but that does not preclude the possibility of it eventually happening.

* Read the sequel to this post about pharmaceutical free finisher. Most stock brands continue to add pharmaceuticals to the finisher feed, therefore to the the chicken and therefore to you, the consumer at the end of the food chain. Check your finisher out before you buy!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Keeping Broiler Chickens Well

Agriculture in Zambia. In which the announcement of the publication of the booklet "Keeping Broiler Chickens Well."

“Keeping Broiler Chickens Well”

has been written for the backyard and small scale chicken farmer who wants to rear chickens with a difference.

Chickens walking freely in and out of the chicken run.
The author promotes a manner of raising broiler chickens in which the well being of the chicken and of the consumer comes firsts. The small scale farmer, unlike the industrial producers, should not as a matter of routine put chicks on antibiotics from start to finish or treat them as part of a mechanical production process where numbers are more important than quality. You, broiler keeper, must seek to avoid antibiotics by good management and stay away from feed supplements that contain hormones and other undesirable substances. You, this booklet says, can avoid these and other harmful practices because you are a small scale grower. Exploit that position!

And, this booklet says, you consumer, be mindful of the fact that whatever has been put into this chicken might wind up in your very own system!!!

The writer: Alias O. Teur
The author is an artist/art teacher/cultural anthropologist/project manager/development worker/internet publicist who likes keeping chickens.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Doc initiated: 28.01.14
Current version: 08.03.15

Post by Bert Witkamp*

Education in Zambia issue 2: By government measure Zambian primary school pupils shall be taught in grade 1 to 4 in the dominant vernacular language of the area where the school is located and English during these years shall be abandoned as language of instruction. Shall this measure result in lasting better school performance or not?

At the beginning I should make the proviso that at the time of writing (28.01.14) many Zambian teachers are not clear about the ongoing educational reforms, both as regards content and manner of implementation. The article below hence may require adjustment as more information becomes available.

Primary schools in Zambia as of 2014 by government instruction have to use the dominant vernacular language of the area in which the schools are located as language of instruction in grade one to four. As of grade five English shall be the language of instruction and the “local language” shall be only one of the subjects taught. The measure serves in the first place to create a school environment better suited for the large majority of Zambian children as these come from homes where English is not or poorly spoken. Being taught in the language familiar to them should enhance their chances to perform well at school. The second argument has to do with a re-appreciation of the indigenous, and hence is ideological.

New school, new curriculum, better future?

Public primary schools, until this measure, had to use a vernacular language as language of instruction in grade one, use English and local language in grade two en employ English solely as of grade three.  There is no doubt that this system was disadvantageous to pupils coming from homes where English was not spoken en where the parents or guardians did not master English. There is a direct relationship between performance at school and language skills in the language of instruction; and between such language skills and those prevailing at home. Many pupils from public schools come from lower class or downright poor families and the English language backlog of these pupils is not made good by the educational system.  The school thus becomes an instrument in the perpetuation of inequality; destining the underprivileged kids by poor grade 7 exam results to the poorest post primary schools willing to accept them where they are bound to have even less chance for satisfactory post grade nine education.

That such a situation needs to be addressed is not a point of discussion. It must be, but how to do so is less evident. Let us first look at the old situation in which after grade two English was in principle the main or sole language of instruction. Can poor performance of a great many (often more than half) pupils of public primary schools be attributed to this factor alone or are other variables at play as well? The answer is that a number of significant negative circumstances contribute to poor performance; English language deficiency being a major one but its prominent position usually arises from other contributing negative factors. Below a list of these negatives, definitely not complete, but surely revealing.

1.       Excessively large classes with 60 pupils in a class or more not being an exception.
2.       Public schools practically teach a class part-time only (either mornings or afternoons).
3.       The schools have no system into place to assist pupils with learning difficulties - in this case those caused by English language defieciency.
4.       Too many teachers doing a shoddy job despite now being well paid.
5.      Ordinary public schools have pupils that should be send to special schools because of physical, social or psychological disabilities or disorders and have no facilities to deal with these pupils requiring special education.
6.       Many primary schools do not have (sufficient) teaching aids, including text books.
7.       Pupils are promoted to the next grade even when their results are grossly insufficient. This system, affecting large numbers of pupils, creates backlogs in all subjects that are increasingly difficult to make good.
8.       Domestic problems and obstructions such as:
a.       Parents or guardians have or give no money for writing books, pencils, uniforms &c.
b.      Parents or guardians do not encourage their children to do well at school and take no interest in their school performance.
c.       Parents or guardians cannot help the pupil with homework  because they lack the knowledge or skills.
d.      Parents or guardians don’t master English sufficiently; English is not spoken at home.
e.   Various forms of child abuse including sending the child to work rather than to school or burdening the child with excessive amounts of domestic or agricultural labour.
f.        The pupil is not loved and well cared for by the parents or custodians.
g.       Problems of parents or guardians such as death & disease, family quarrels, alcohol abuse, or social conflict and acceptance.

It is obvious that lack of English language skills is only one of the many factors negatively impacting on the performance of pupils at public primary schools; be it a major one. It follows that the change from English to the vernacular as language of instruction alone shall not be enough to substantially improve the primary school performance notably of pupils raised in poor, non-English speaking families. The truth of this statement is in fact underpinned by the situation prevailing now (i.e., at the time of writing, January 2014): many schools in rural areas and in urban or municipal townships de facto teach bilingual: both in English and in the dominant vernacular language; with the latter often being used most.

We need to, irrespective of the issue of the choice of the language(s) of instruction, clearly be aware of structural problems of the current public primary school teaching situation – a context larger than that of the language of instruction. The basic issue is: Do the public primary schools presently have the capacity to provide primary school education in a satisfactory manner? The answer is that there is a great variety in the quality of these schools, and of those that work in them, but that too many schools suffer from the negatives mentioned above: over enrollment, poor teaching, lack of teaching aids and books, insufficient number of teaching hours, lack of provisions to deal with backlogs and, perhaps worst of all: lack of educational standards. None of these issues are addressed by a change in language of instruction.

Prior to the discussion of the practical merits and demerits of the teaching in the vernacular I would like to consider a few of its ideological aspects. Point 1: Loosely you can say that intellectually you are what you think and conventionally intellectual thinking is done in language; and the language you are closest to normally is your native language. Your local, indigenous language therefore is part of your personality, and this again is embedded in the all pervasive linguistic culture of your environment. Elevating the status of the vernacular languages by prolonging its usage as language of instruction and by obligatory teaching and learning thereafter hence is an acknowledgement of the value of these languages as cultural practice and heritage. Point 2: I strongly support that all those attending primary and secondary school in Zambia (Zambians and non-Zambians alike) should obligatory learn a vernacular language; meaning such leaning is part of the school curriculum. The issue of the extent to which a vernacular language should be the means of instruction might best be left to the schools themselves, certainly in the case of the private schools but also in circumstances where pupils come from a large variety of linguistic backgrounds or where teachers don't master the locally dominant language.

On the practical side we may positively note that for most pupils learning in grades one to four shall be made easier when taught in their vernacular language; and that generally vernacular language ability shall improve. However, these benefiting pupils must be prepared to capitalize on their gains as of grade five, and that shall only happen if the English language is well instructed as of the onset of primary education.

Negatively a number of issues arise that may compromise the envisaged positive outcomes.
1.       Not all pupils of any area A are necessarily native speakers of the dominant vernacular language of area A; and that is in particular true of municipalities and towns. These kids, in fact, may be handicapped by the measure. Kids that have to move from one area to another, for example because of family circumstances, or because the parent/guardian has been allocated to another place of work may be severely disadvantaged.
2.       Presently a significant number of teachers in any given area is not a native speaker of the dominant vernacular language of that area; a situation directly consequent to the current placement policy of teachers by the Ministry of Education. Teachers do not choose their work station, they are assigned to one.
3.       Text books for grade one to four all have to be (re)written in, or be complemented by, textbooks in all of the vernacular languages that shall be taught at primary schools. I am happy to note that the current (English language) books covering the subjects taught from grade 1 to 7 are good to excellent. Text books for the vernacular languages to be taught also must be available for the period or classes that these languages are taught.
4.       The vernacular languages tend to be a series of dialectic variations rather than a single, standardized language. Gwembe Valley chiTonga, for example, differs from Plateau chiTonga, and each of these two major divisions has numerous local varieties. So which one is right and which one is going to be used for testing and exam purposes?

In conclusion I’d say, with reservations, that the measures make sense for public schools in rural and lower class township areas provided English is also taught as of grade 1; that in private schools learning a vernacular language should be compulsory but not its introduction as language of instruction; that these reforms in public schools can only work if the teacher school allocation system of the Ministry of Education is geared towards it (that is, a teacher must be fully conversant in the vernacular language used at the school where he/she is to be posted) and that the necessary teaching or texts book have been designed, printed and made available. And even if those issues are addressed nothing much will change if other structural problems of primary education in Zambia are not tackled: problems of overcrowding, lack of standards and of commitment, of poorly qualified teachers and poor Teachers Training Colleges (some of which may now call themselves universities), of lack of classrooms, facilities and teaching aids; and of too many parents or guardians taking no interest in the school performance of their children.

*The author is a cultural anthropologist and long time Zambian resident with one child at a Zambian public secondary school and one child at a Zambian private primary school.