Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Learning All Around

Today was Day 1 of our first “camp” for the Kilimahewa teenagers – a Day of Learning for just about everyone involved. The day began on a rough note when rains – much desired on any other day – came. Rains complicate the long walk for Kilimahewa students as dirt paths morph into mud pits and small streams become impassable. Nevertheless by 9:30 camp was underway – 4 one-hour sessions of math games, English, computers and art and a great lunch of beans, corn and vegetables (makande) made by Mama Neema.

Professional teachers from Tanzania and the U.S. teamed up with U.S. volunteers and Tanzanian sponsored students to share lessons that would be both educational and fun. I have often thought that teaching in under-developed societies would be the best practicum for a teaching major. Without the bells, whistles, enhancement materials and resources found in U.S. schools and on the internet, the teacher has to muster all the creativity and ingenuity possible to bring the subject alive to the student. This is what happened today.

Not only did teachers test their own ability – so did the U.S. teenage volunteers and Tanzanian sponsored students. It was remarkable to watch as 14 and 15-year-old Tanzanian students sent by EdPowerment to quality boarding secondary schools took over teaching – with confidence and pride. Similarly, it was gratifying to see American young adults bridge language and cultural gaps to get their point across. To see both U.S. and Tanzanian students teaching math concepts, computer commands, English grammar and art activities to their friends and peers was to witness the real meaning of empowerment.

By 3:30, nearly 100 local teenagers left Kilimahewa for their long walk home – filled on this day with new thoughts, new experiences and we hope a renewed desire for learning.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Transcendent Value of Movies

On Thursday ACT's (Autism Connects Tanzania, an EdPowerment program) managers, Kerri Elliott and Jillian Swinford, hosted a showing of Temple Grandin, a biographical movie about Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who overcame the limitations of her condition to become a Ph.D. and expert in the field of animal husbandry. Watching the movie was one of the first special needs teachers in the area, several other educators, a local drama class, and Brenda Shuma, Director of the Gabriella Children's Rehabilitation Center. The attached photo shows Brenda discussing the characteristics of autism and translating bits of the plot that the teachers may have missed because the movie is in English.

Because there are so few forums to talk about special needs here, everyone stayed afterward to discuss early intervention, perseverance, and how to garner community support. Participants were anxious for others to see it because much of Tanzanian society does not believe that students with disabilities can become successful/productive members of society.

We are making copies to give to the teachers in Arusha, Brenda's husband, Anthony's, class at the Kilimahewa Christian Medical Center, and a few other schools in the area.

Friday, June 21, 2013

From Student to Mentor

Yesterday was a typical and an atypical day for EdPowerment in Tanzania.

First, the typical part - while some might deem this the "bad news" - it's better to think of it as the ongoing challenge. EdPowerment's U.S. and Tanzanian management visited Mrike Secondary School, a rough drive into the northern hills near Kenya, to check on our sponsored students and the progress of the school itself. Because of its remote location in an area that has poor access to water, Mrike struggles to develop its "campus." The school, however, did get an allotment of new computers from a British organization last year, and EdPowerment pays for a qualified computer science teacher to build this program.

We were able to review the report cards of our 11 students and while some fared better than others, all struggled mightily just to pass math. (It's interesting that this "national disease" in Tanzania seems also to have afflicted the U.S.). Our students' grades were, quite honestly, awful and so ensued a discussion of what to do, particularly because those who do not pass the math portion of the final National Secondary School Exam receive an extra penalty deduction. The larger problem (challenge)that emerged is how to motivate students to study something they do not understand and see no use for. This led to the underlying issue - a lack of educational methods to build critical thinking, and motivational tools. Students here simply learn to repeat, therefore, when a question is posed differently, they can not respond. It seems that "application" - the real test of whether one understands a subject - is often left to post-secondary education. Imagine being 18 before learning how to apply rather than memorize a topic! So we are left tackling this obstacle.

BUT.... here's the atypical and encouraging part of the day. Elizabeth Massawe and Veronica Gaspar, two sponsored students who graduated from Mrike last November and now have begun "A level" (Form 5 & 6) pre-university studies, accompanied us to urge on their former classmates. Eliza and Veronica gave the current graduating class "a reality check" on the National Exam coming up in November. This exam will determine the students' future educational possibilities, so who better to give a pep talk than Eliza and Veronica? They shared their own test results, as well as the dejection of many of their peers who lost a chance at further studies because of low scores (over 60% of Tanzanian students failed the exam, which was subsequently regraded for better results). E and V entreated their peers to practice...practice... practice... math, civics and other subjects that can be stumbling blocks. Veronica and Eliza are exceptional - with no parents, no family resources and no strong educational foundation, they have been able to use our sponsorship program to turn around their lives. They now attend highly competitive post-secondary schools, realistically anticipate university studies... and serve as ambassadors for what a second chance and hard work can do. Now they can return to their community to teach and serve as role models for other "leftover" youth.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Our Blog is Back

What to do when I can't sleep anticipating the next page that will be written in the EdPowerment story left off nearly two years ago? Resume the story, of course.

In September 2011, EdPowerment was celebrating the joy-filled appearance of water on the grounds of the Kilimahewa Educational Center. Although water might have seemed peripheral to the educational focus of EdPowerment, it served as the wellspring - literal and symbolic - for the intellectual, physical and even psychological nourishment and nurturing that was to come.

Today, June 19, 2013, EdPowerment remains in some ways the same organization it was when founded. Our mission to bring educational opportunity where none exists has not changed. Our three focal programs - Long-Term Sponsorships, support for the community-based Kilimahewa Center, and a pioneer program of advocacy and support for the autistic and otherwise intellectually disabled (ACT) - remain our core; and the same management team is working together harder than ever... boosted by our invaluable Operations Administrator, Tom Kway.

What has changed is the scope and impact of this small, personal, hands-on, grass-roots initiative.

(1) Our sponsored students now number 35 and include three university students studying computer science, law and medicine. Literally each student has a story that could featured in any human interest publication. And while not every story will end with some kind of miraculous triumph, each member of EdPowerment's sponsored family will gain passage to a purposeful life because of the intervention made possible by our supporters.

Not only have we supported students... we have also bolstered some of the schools they attend. We have purchased hundreds of texts so that book:student ratios can approach a reasonable number such as 3:1 versus over 10:1. And when one of the secondary schools our students attend was given desktops from another NGO, we jumped in to fund a qualified instructor so that the computers would not become dust-covered objects as happens in too many cases.

Thomas Massawe, one of our first sponsored students, will graduate with a B.S. in Computer Science this fall. Here he stands with Program Manager, Jillian Swinford.

(2) Kilimahewa Educational Center now consistently serves over 60 local teenagers, who have been excluded from government schools, with a staff of Tanzanian teachers, a full battery of books and supplies, a formalized curriculum, refurbished classrooms.... AND, as of today, 10 laptop computers that will open an avenue into the world outside of village confines. Water enables a lunch program, sanitary toilets ... AND vegetable gardens that serve as both a source of food and agricultural-based education. Today, June 19, 2013, we are also completing a chicken coup to begin yet another kind of learning - husbandry. We start with broiler chickens - and will expand into layer chickens. Yes, there are different kinds of chickens... as a girl from New York, who knew?

(3) In business, the apt expression is "bang for the buck." This describes our outreach for the intellectually disabled in Moshi and the surrounding villages. In a society still marked by stigmas and beliefs such as disabilities come from witchcraft or disabilities are contagious, the impact of our ACT workshops for teachers, parents, health providers, and society in general can not be overstated. Hundreds have attended our forums (I think they total 7) and in a few weeks our third Resource Fair will once again unite groups and leaders serving the disabled. No other organization in this region provides this kind of advocacy for an otherwise shunned population.

And speaking of no other organization... just a little over two years ago, we met a young couple - both occupational therapists - Brenda Shuma and her husband, Anthony, who had poured their energies and vision into creating a place where the disabled and their caretakers could learn life-altering strategies, The Gabriella Children's Rehabilitation Centre. Struggling to survive, the Centre, with the support of EdPowerment and another NGO now services more than 25 families and other local children and undertakes outreach services throughout the community. The Gabriella Centre even hosted an unprecedented two weeks of diagnostic services last summer thanks to a U.S. professional volunteer whose visit EdPowerment facilitated.
This recap of nearly two years certainly can't replace the missing blogs that communicate the every day stories - some amazing, some heart-breaking, some inspiring and many frustrating - that mark our path since September 17, 2011. But from here we can move forward to share the lives that we impact each and every day. Karibu tena - welcome back!

Tom Kway and one of our recent Form 4 Secondary School graduates introduce Kilimahewa's teens to computers.