Two minutes into Present Tense, a short film made by three high school students in a fishing village in the East African island of Zanzibar, a set of subtitles lay out their mission:
The film examines one of the oldest debates in African education. Should classes be taught in the colonial language of English (or French) or in local languages that students speak and understand more fluently?
For the filmmakers, this question charts their future. Tourism is one of Zanzibar's main industries, and learning English is vital to attain a highly prized hotel job. It's their ticket out of the hardscrabble life their parents lead in the fishing industry.
But their primary school education was all in Swahili. Now that their high school is taught in English, as the law requires, the students can hardly read the questions on the science quiz, let alone absorb the science.
The short film is the work of a student film club launched by a retired pilot in Zanzibar. He set up the Matemwe English Speaking Student Cinema Club so the teenagers could practice English by making a film with the pilot's old iPad.
Yakubu Fimbo Suleiman, whom everyone calls Yaks, is the film's student narrator. He wants to improve his English, he says, but that's not so easy to do. His teachers barely speak it. Though they are required to teach in English, they don't have to prove English competence to graduate from teacher's training college. Many teachers, Yaks says, simply sound out the words from the textbook.
Present Tense argues that a language policy that was designed in the name of equal opportunity — to give poor kids in government schools the same valuable English skills that they'd get in private schools — has become a barrier to their getting any education at all.
The film was submitted to EYE Want Change, a film contest in the United Kingdom for socially conscious short films shot with an iPad by people under age 25.
At first, Yaks felt embarrassed that British judges would see the film. He thought that when they heard his broken English, they'd laugh.
Instead, the film won first place and a cash prize of 500 pounds (around $785).
A bigger surprise came this spring, when the government announced that Swahili would soon replace English as the language of instruction in government schools. English will still be taught as a foreign language.
The Matemwe English Speaking Student Cinema Club has also adjusted. Their latest short film, about the shortage of drinkable water in their village, is filmed in Swahili. English-only speakers can read the subtitles.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're going to spend the next few minutes with young filmmakers. One is a comedian who's made it big on YouTube and is now trying to make money.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
First, though, we'll go to a group of students in Africa. They're caught in a fierce debate that's gone on since the colonial era over what language they're taught in. English is seen as a key to jobs in the global economy, but the local language is what students speak best. So some students in the East African island of Zanzibar have made a film about it. NPR's Greg Warner reports.
GREG WARNER, BYLINE: Early in the film, there's a series of subtitles that read as follows. (Reading) We are a group of friends from Matemwe Village, Zanzibar. Next year, we will sit our final exams in English. We will probably all fail. We are making this film to try to understand why.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
WARNER: And then the film opens on a hillside school. The teacher is teaching in English as the law requires. The Swahili-speaking students stare blankly back, and then comes a voice-over.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)
YAKUBU FIMBO SULEIMAN: And this is our problem. The teacher must speak English, but for students we don't understand.
WARNER: Their primary school classes were all taught in Swahili. High school is taught in English. They can hardly read the multiple choice answers on the science quiz, let alone learn the science.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Poikilo - poikilothermic.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: B. Hydrostatic.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: C. Sympathetic.
WARNER: Sympathetic. Biology terms hard enough for a native speaker. And as a result the percentage of high school students in Matemwe who pass their final exams is usually in the single digits. Like the film begins, we will probably fail. The short film is the work of a student film club launched by a retired pilot in Zanzibar. Tourism is one of the island's main industries. Locals struggle to compete for jobs in the fancy hotels against better English speakers from the mainland. The Matemwe English Speaking Students Cinema Club was set up to practice English by making a film with the pilot's old iPad. Yakubu Fimbo Suleiman, who everyone here calls Yaks, is the 17-year-old student narrator you heard before.
SULEIMAN: In tourism, you must know English in order to get a job.
WARNER: But he says his teachers barely speak it themselves. Teachers may be required to teach in English, but English competence is not required to graduate teachers college. And many teachers, he says, simply sound out the words from the textbook. It means that a language policy that's meant to give poor kids in government schools the same English skills that they get in private schools can become a barrier to absorbing any education at all. The short film is called "Present Tense," and it was submitted to a British film contest open to socially conscious short films shot by people under 25 with an iPad. This was apparently the only African submission. Yaks, though, felt embarrassed to have his film seen by British judges.
SULEIMAN: For me, I think that's they can laughing our English.
WARNER: You thought they'd laugh at your English?
SULEIMAN: Yes, because it is broken English.
WARNER: Instead, they gave you an award for it.
SULEIMAN: Thank you (laughter).
WARNER: The film won first place. The biggest surprise came this spring when the government announced that Swahili would soon replace English as the language of instruction in government schools. English will still be taught as a foreign language, and the English Speaking Students Cinema Club has also moved on. Their latest short film about the shortage of drinking water in their village was filmed in Swahili. If you're an English-only speaker, you'll have to read the subtitles. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Zanzibar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.