Middle School Math teacher Marna Herrity and Middle & Upper School Science teacher Kevin Cooney joined forces and spent two and half weeks this summer visiting and teaching at the Kisangura Schools in northeast Tanzania alongside the Serengeti National Park. Roughly 1,100 students attend the primary and secondary schools there, and they come from a wide area throughout the region, some biking or walking as much as 5 miles to attend.
Marna sits on the African Education Committee of the New York Quarterly Meeting. The committee was formed in 2000 by Jim Morgan of the Brooklyn Monthly Meeting after he attended a Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) conference in New Hampshire, a gathering of Quakers from around the world. His roommate was the principal of Kisangura Primary School, Emmanuel Kagoro. Kagoro showed Jim his 17-page report describing specific ways in which his students and staff urgently needed help. Jim flew to visit the school several months later and saw that it was indeed in a bad state. Despite the primary school’s free tuition, many kids couldn’t afford the uniforms, school supplies, travel and meal expenses required to attend because one or both parents had died of AIDS. At Jim’s urging the New York Quarterly Meeting responded by starting the African Education Committee to raise money to send orphans to the school.
“We’ve also built latrines, cisterns and staff housing. BFS donated art supplies, sports equipment and money to support the orphans fund,” said Marna. Her son Seth Congdon, a BFS alum, wound up volunteering to teach at the Kisangura Secondary School for four months in 2006 and Marna went to visit him. Like Jim Morgan, “Traveling to this rural, poor community in East Africa and living among the villagers I was also moved and called to action.”
She was instrumental in bringing BFS into the endeavor, facilitating fundraising drives organized by our teachers and students. The Middle School Student Council has donated money to NYQM’s African Education Fund every year since 2006. An Upper School art exhibit two years ago, “Jambo. Si Jambo,” was the result of a community service project undertaken by BFS alum Kamau Carter ’10 and then-seniors Max Scherzer and Nina Ryser, all of whom had been previously involved with the Middle School’s Kisangura fundraising projects. They designed the art show with the goal of connecting the BFS student community with the student community of Kisangura Secondary School through a collaborative exchange of visual arts. Max and Nina led BFS students in several workshops in which they created portraits or scenes that revealed some important aspect of themselves and their lives, and the Kisangura students did the same. “Who am I?” students were asked to consider. “What do I see when I look around me?” “What do I want you—someone who knows very little about me—to know about my life?” The school does not offer art classes, so local artist Frederick Nyansongo was hired to conduct special workshops for the Tanzanian students. Their art supplies were collected and donated by the BFS community.
Before their trip this summer, Kevin also met with Larry Weiss and got approval to take three of the science department’s unused microscopes and two unused netbooks to donate to the Tanzanian students. Director of Technology Greg George is now preparing to donate many more of our used netbooks. Marna and Kevin hope to orchestrate a three-way collaboration in which BFS donates netbooks, the Kisangura Village Council provides modems and the Kisangura School purchases air time, in order to get the students online to increase our abilities to communicate and collaborate with their students and teachers.
Although impoverished, Tanzania has struggled to become a leader in education. Since independence in 1961 literacy has risen from 10% to a remarkable 75%. “I realize we can’t save the whole world but here’s one little part of the world where we can and are making a difference,” Marna stressed. She cautioned that real change there will provide a longer-term commitment. “Primary school’s only mandatory there through middle school age,” she explained. “Tuition is free in Tanzania but parents have to pay for uniforms, testing fees and school supplies.” High school is optional and applicants must pass an aptitude test to attend. After high school, exams are required to make it into college. These exams are in English, a language that is not widely understood in Tanzania.
With all of the obstacles, the odds of a Tanzanian student making it to high school, not to mention college, much less graduating college and moving on to a financially stable career, remain slim. Have the recent Quaker initiatives had any measurable long-term effects to date? “There are definitely success stories we can point to,” she said. “One thing we’re now doing is sponsoring older kids beyond the Kisangura Schools through university. One of our first sponsored students, Richard Mwita, is about to start medical college. A second, Grace Mwita (no relation to Richard), is now working in the hospitality and tourism industry.”
Why should BFS go to all of this effort beyond merely teaching our students to be charitable? Marna and Kevin hope a sister school relationship will be of great benefit to the entire BFS community, especially regarding the Quaker value of stewardship of the Earth. “The reason we went is for our students to expand their knowledge of the world, of other cultures,” said Kevin. “I’m a science teacher, and one thing we talk about in 7th grade Science is the importance of water to life, and the water crisis is a major issue in that part of the world…We want to make our students part of a larger community. It’s an important part of service learning.” The passionate man of science admits that he also had a personal curiosity to satisfy in deciding to join Marna this summer. “The Great Rift Valley runs through Tanzania. It’s not that far from the school. That’s where human life originated.” Despite some mild difficulties in their journey and an adjustment to a bit of culture shock, Kevin came home fulfilled and eager to continue the work there. “It was good to combine travel and service. We were able to bring something useful to the people there. I took away a great experience.” He also took away malaria (thanks to medical science he was better in a few days).
As for the culture shock, Marna ended on a somber and sobering note about the culture shock she now experiences here at home on a daily basis. “Yesterday I found 150 pages of wasted paper in a printer at BFS,” she said. “That’s not just from our students, it’s from all of us. We don’t realize what we have. In Tanzania I was ripping pieces of paper in half because paper is such a precious commodity…What I think about every day when I wash my hands is, I can turn on the faucet and have fresh running water. Every drop of water they get in Tanzania they had to walk a quarter of a mile and if they wanted to drink it they had to boil it…How much are we wasting?