Building a school for Tanzanian girls
“The school will change the girls’ lives. But it will also change the community.”
With a storyline that is part international documentary and part reality series, a growing coalition of UB educators and community members has set its sights on helping to build a school for girls in a remote Tanzanian village, a community enhancement that for these young girls will give them opportunity beyond the harsh limits of their reality.
The effort includes enough human elements to stir the civic consciousness of everyone from teenagers to veteran academics. It also road-tests an institutional model for collaboration UB educators believe has great potential to link the university’s resources with those most in need.
The strategic model was created through UB’s partnership with the Buffalo Public Schools. Those who have nurtured this model for collaboration see the development of a school as an opportunity to test it in Africa and see if it works as well there as it has in the university’s own backyard.
The ongoing effort includes engaging local high school students in fund raising, educational and cultural activities to benefit the girls in Tanzania, who wait with hundreds of others in their region for educational opportunities beyond their primary schooling.
This year’s preparation includes a nine-day trip in July in which six representatives from UB and Western New York will travel to the Tanzanian coastal capital of Dar es Salaam. From there, the group will take a three-hour, commuter-airplane trip to a small airport in the interior of the country, where they will take another three-hour truck drive through the Serengeti grasslands to reach the village of Musoma.
At the center of this grassroots initiative with global aspirations is Mara B. Huber, special assistant to the president for educational initiatives, who first learned of the urgent need for a school during a serendipitous encounter with Tanzanian nuns visiting her mother-in-law’s Amherst home during a recent Christmas.
Since then, the idea to collaborate with the Musoma community to build a school to replace the log in a field where a handful of girls now get an informal education has moved many at UB and in Western New York. Huber, director for UB’s Center for Educational Collaboration, is spearheading a campaign to raise money and consciousness for a project its organizers hope will develop two classrooms by summer 2010 and will someday educate 1,500 girls a year from the Musoma area.
Joining Huber on the July trip to Tanzania will be Katie Biggie, educational outreach coordinator, Center for Educational Collaboration; Mary Gresham, dean of the Graduate School of Education; Brian Carter, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning; Catherine Dulmus, director of the Buffalo Center for Social Research, which is housed within the School of Social Work; Hadon Isse, assistant professor in the School of Management; and Brenda McDuffie, president and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League.
Their mission: change the fate of these girls through education. And their ambitious objective has caught on—throughout UB, in Western New York and in the interior of Tanzania, a developing nation as beautiful and scenic as any African country, but one that retains tribal customs and such substandard health practices as often-lethal female circumcision, forced marriage for girls as young as age 10 and a high rate of HIV-AIDS.
“The school will change the girls’ lives. But it will also change the community,” says Huber. “In our country, folks talk about whether they have a good education or debate the quality of their school. But for these girls, there is no school. And because there are no educational opportunities, there is a lack of choices, which leads to negative outcomes for these girls.”
“The nuns that will run the new school are Catholic,” says Biggie. “However, the area is very tribal. They believe lineage is passed through the man, and the woman is essentially a nonmember of the household. Because of that, families put all their resources into educating and helping the man develop a life and opportunities, whether they be economic, educational or social.”
“For the women, there really isn’t much. They get what is left over or nothing at all. So now these girls are a burden in the sense their families have to feed and clothe them. The girls are typically forced to marry men much older, in their 20s and up. And the girls could be as young as 10.”
UB is working with the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa (IHSA) to create this school, says Biggie. Founded in 1950, the IHSA numbers more than 140 nuns, all of whom will be involved directly in the day-to-day management of the school and education of the girls.
“They believe in the Swahili saying ‘Kama Ukimwelimisha Msichana, Unaelimisha Taifa’ or in English, ‘If you educate a girl, you educate a nation,’” says Biggie. “It is the belief in that statement that led them to operate the successful Kowak School for Girls in the Kitenga Village and now take on the development of a large-scale comprehensive school in Musoma.”
The strategic model UB officials are calling on was created through the university’s Partnership with the Buffalo Public Schools. Its key ingredients include a strong foundation of respect; understanding for all partners; identifying areas of need, as well as resources and expertise; an emphasis on research and evaluation; and a term known as capacity building, which means an ability to expand the possibility for helping those in need by mobilizing available resources.
“Through establishing this model, it will allow different groups and individuals throughout UB and the surrounding community to find their place and contribute,” says Huber. “And it is through these contributions that we can help the community reach its vision.”
The unusual and notable features of the project include:
• The region in Tanzania where the school will be built is called the Mara Region, exactly matching Huber’s first name. It was a coincidence the nuns who first met Huber at the Christmas celebration acknowledged with “a funny look on their faces,” Huber says, a coincidence that continues to fuel Huber’s drive. “I consider myself a spiritual person, but not a religious person,” says Huber. “But at that point I looked up and said, ‘This one is mine. OK. I got it.’”
• A growing slate of activities—many involving local young people—to benefit the campaign. Sweet Home High School honors students have started a bracelet sale to raise money for the school. “The bracelets are imprinted with, ‘If you educate a girl, you educate a nation,’ the phrase we believe captures the spirit of the project,” says Biggie. The Sweet Home students also are holding a Tanzania Awareness Week May 26-29, with a main event night on May 28 to highlight African culture. Other school projects include the “Education Is a Right” campaign at Buffalo’s Grover Cleveland High School and Nichols High School, in which students will write letters to the young women in Tanzania to learn more about their lives, culture and educational opportunities—and also have the opportunity to reflect on what education means to them, according to Biggie.
• Children in the Elmwood Village area will raise funds and awareness through a KidsFest on June 14. The event, the idea of which was developed by Huber’s oldest daughter, Elena, 8, is being organized by local children.
• The growing presence of the Tanzanian nuns who happened to meet the woman with the same name as their region. “I connected with these women,” says Huber. “They just had a way about them. I knew immediately I would help them any way I could.”
At stake is finding a mechanism and structure that can be used by other universities and agencies. “Really effective engagement comes with alignment,” says Huber. “You have to align resources. You have to create a way to actually mobilize them. You have to help the infrastructure to support them. So collaboration isn’t as easy as people think.”
The Tanzania situation fits the model very well, Huber says.
“You have an opportunity where there is a strong foundation already in place through the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa,” she says. “They are educated. They are committed to the community. You have land. And you have a government that feels strongly that their country needs more schools for girls.
“So you have all the contextual components in place that makes this project a great opportunity for UB to take a model we have already developed in Buffalo and extend our reach.
“Because at UB we’re all about reaching others.”