When I stepped into my first Swahili class, I had no idea where in Africa the language was spoken. I wanted to learn a new language in college, and perusing the course offerings my freshman year, I picked the one least familiar to me.
My decision to study Swahili seemed inconsequential at the time, and I had no intention of ever using my skills outside the classroom. From my first semester of the course, however, something about the language gripped me. Perhaps it was the rolling syllables or the melodic flow of the words. Speaking Swahili always made me smile, and because of that I continued to study it throughout my four years at Bryn Mawr. By graduation, I had spent a summer on a Fulbright language program in Tanzania, studied for a semester at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, and passed another summer in East Africa researching refugee aid organizations through an Alumnae Regional Scholarship.
Carrie Oelberger, Hfd '99, and I first met in a Swahili class at the University of Pennsylvania in the spring of 1999. When I graduated from Bryn Mawr in 2001, we flew to Tanzania together to begin on-the-ground work for our non-governmental organization, The Jifunze Project, founded in 2000. In cooperation with a team of Tanzanian teachers, we set about establishing an educational resource center in one of Tanzania's most rural districts, Kiteto.
Named after the Swahili word for learning, "jifunze" translates literally as "teaching oneself." Kibaya, with approximately 20,000 residents, is the largest town in northern Tanzania's isolated Kiteto District (population 160,000). Although Kiteto District is at the southern point of the Masaai homeland, Kibaya town itself is a diverse mixture of different tribes. The majority of individuals in Kiteto are involved in agriculture and livestock management, although a percentage engage in small-scale business and professional work. Kiteto is one of the most impoverished districts in the country because of its remote location, a shortage of clean water, and a very limited supply of electricity. Literacy rates stand at a dismal 15 percent. Despite these odds, there are still more than 11,000 students district-wide who arrive at school each day hoping for an education.
The idea for this education resource center first arose in the classrooms of Kibaya as a dedicated group of female secondary school students expressed their hunger for a place where they could study under electric lights, with the support of dedicated teachers and a plethora of resources. Before the project began, these students would spend their nights nestled around the flickering flame of a kerosene lamp, straining to read their textbooks and talking until late in the night about science, history, and geography.
Our educational resource center began in these students' minds as a single-room building. After nearly three years of preparation, the center opened in July 2003 with 12 rooms, an educational garden, a computer center, and the district's first active kindergarten. It is among the largest educational resource centers of its kind in Tanzania. On opening day, more than 1,000 children flooded through the doors of the center. By the time they had all found a space to settle in, not a single book was left on the shelf. Our initial goal was to reach out to young women, and statistics from the first month of operation show that for every man or boy to walk in the door, three females walk in as well.
School children in remote Togo, Africa, have modern sports equipment and team uniforms thanks to Susan White, Associate Professor and Chair of the Chemistry Department. White's first teaching post was in Togo from 1978-1981 as a Peace Corps volunteer. She has returned frequently over the years, demonstrating computers to schoolchildren on a laptop donated by Bruce Saunders, Professor of Geology, delivering soccer balls and basketballs, or assisting the high school and the town librarian in ordering books, magazines and word games.
When the town recently cleared trees for an athletic field, White donated used athletic equipment and team uniforms. Then she enlisted the help of Amy Campbell, Director of Athletics and Physical Education, who organized a sneaker drive. Campbell and White sent a big box of sneakers to the school this summer. White has invited Togolese molecular biochemist Koffi Tozo to use her laboratory for three months. "It's just so hard to do research where he is," White says. "Plus I figured he could help my students purify their proteins!" Tozo is researching ways to improve yams, a staple of the Togolese diet. For more information, see: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_edu/Togo/
In addition to our educational resource center, we have set up a girls' scholarship fund to help female secondary school students continue their education. We have provided scholarships to students to study at nursing schools, technical colleges, and other advanced educational institutions.
The Jifunze Project is staffed entirely by volunteers. Since 2000, we have had volunteers from Hawaii, Michigan, Virginia, the Netherlands, California, and Portugal working with us to develop the center and the capacity of the local teachers to manage the project.
Our staff and support network includes a large number of alumnae/i. Victor Kimesera, Hfd '65, and Sue Kimesera '64 were our original connection to the district in which we now work, and we stay with them whenever we are in Dar es Salaam. Alice Harrison 'and John Whitehead, Hfd '43, both serve on the boards of foundations that sponsor our project. While in Tanzania, Carrie, who is Executive Director, and I have also met up with Diana Putman '78, MA '81, Ph.D. '84, and Wairimu Ndirangu, M.S.S. '85, Ph.D '93 to share thoughts and plans for the project.
The 20-ft container of supplies we shipped to Tanzania in 2002 held more than 1,000 books donated by Bryn Mawr and Haverford students. Gwenn Rosenberg, Hfd '04 was our first bi-co intern. This past year, Becca Brown '03 joined us after her graduation from Bryn Mawr and played an instrumental role in the development of our environment and health education programs. She took on the challenging task of facilitating our local Steering Committee. Becca's work has inspired us to expand our internship program to accept one-two motivated Bryn Mawr students for summer internships as well as develop year-long opportunities for recent graduates. We hope that Becca will be the first of many Mawrters to join our work!
Hana Brown joined the Jifunze Project in September of 2001 as the Assistant Director for Tanzanian Programs. Until September 2002, she lived in Dar es Salaam and Kibaya, managing all aspects of centre development and construction. Since her return to the United States to work on applications to graduate school, she has continued to support the Jifunze Project as the U.S. Country Director. Based in Washington, D.C., she is responsible for grants management, hiring, and the international volunteer program. For more information about The Jifunze Project, please visit its website.
How things work in AfricaMy Alumnae Regional Scholarship supported independent research on refugee aid organizations in East Africa. As a result of my experiences, I returned to Tanzania after graduation with a understanding of the hierarchies in international development and had a good sense of the challenges I would face, particularly in working with donor agencies and local communities.
Building and implementing our educational resource center has forced me to balance the often times competing interests of international donors, local governments, teachers, parents, and students. The biggest challenge in all of this has been planning with the teachers who staff the center. They live in a world where there is no such thing as a financial savings. Thinking ahead and planning for the future are a luxury, and these concepts are not even easily expressed by the Swahili language. It is no wonder to me now that so many international projects fail because so many development workers don't speak the local language or live in local communities.
One of our Tanzanian teachers once said, "This project works because we aren't afraid of you. Her statement is testimony to the strong relationship between our expatriate and local staff. My undergraduate training in anthropology helped me recognize the moments when my own cultural assumptions were in direct conflict with the assumptions of our Tanzanian teachers and staff. The ability to make and accept these realizations has been crucial to the success of this project.
Time after time I heard expatriates in Dar es Salaam complain that, "Things don't work right in Africa." All they saw was the inevitable corruption, inefficiency, and delay in government offices, schools, and local businesses. We too confronted these challenges. Trucks broke down en-route to Kibaya, delaying construction for months. One year into the project, we learned that our carpenter used illegal timber. Close government allies died of AIDS. The frustrations were immense, but standing beside our teachers as they negotiated through the politics, bribery, and delays, I began to understand that things do in fact work in Africa. They simply operate on a different set of assumptions and within informal rather than official chains of action.
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