It is the nature of working as a University lecturer that there are three components to my work: teaching, administration and research. As head of teaching programmes, I have a large administration role, some of which can be planned for in advance, a good bit of which can't be. I like to think that I'm good at the teaching and administration, which in practice means that establishing and maintaining an active research role is difficult.
Alongside that, I have brought with me to Tanzania an interest in how children learn algebra. This largely arose from working with beginning teachers in my previous job, some of whom had very strong mathematics profiles, others of whom had stronger profiles working with children more children more generally. All students were prone to finding it hard to establish clear links with number and to teach algebra in a meaningful way.
I was delighted to be awarded a small amount of research money to pursue this interest here in Dar es Salaam. First thing to do is obtain an Education Ministry research permit, a new requirement on me - this is in itself is no mean feat! Then establishing contact with schools is not easy for a variety of reasons: I'm only slowly building up a network of contacts, I have no clear sense as to when terms dates are (which are very different in independent and state schools), and it is necessary to speak with headteachers directly with no clear mechanism for making appointments, which in practice means that one has to go to the school and wait hoping that it will be possible to see 'mwalimu mkuu' (literally, big teacher).
So, this is where Samson comes in! Samson is one of our masters students from Kenya, and has recently been appointed my research assistant to work on the project for 8 hours a week. Still early days, but so far he has far, far, exceeded my expectations! Very quickly he has found out where schools are, got on the bijaji, and hand delivered letters about the project, then making appointments for the two of us to go back. It is difficult to describe how wonderful it is to go to a school with the initial contact already made. So, we've been interviewing teachers, with appointments made to go back to see some algebra lessons in action. We're also offering to go back to share some thoughts, it will be interesting to see if anybody takes us up on this.
One of the unexpected side benefits is the opportunity to learn a bit of Swahili - as we're going round the school Samson is translating for me. So, new words on Friday include 'utawala' which means management, this came from a sign on a toilet door indicating that it was for the use of staff only. And 'tangazo' is announcement. Najifunza kidogo kwa kidogo - I'm learning little by little!
So, thank you, Samson, for your help so far, very much looking forward to continuing to work with you over the forthcoming year. Apart from anything else, we're together helping to establish the principle that, if academic staff need research assistants, then we first look to see if the work can be done by members of the student group.