Written by Leah, September 2022:
For those who might not know as much about my personal history with Kisimani School in Tanzania, here’s a little backstory.
(Sometimes it’s like a game of telephone - between the enthusiasm and genuinely good intentions that others have around wanting to share about the project, sometimes my story can come out the other end sounding a little different…a little more white savior-y than is appropriate. According to hearsay, I run an orphanage, I run a school for girls, I do mission work, I started the only English-speaking school in Tanzania, I swooped in and saved a whole community.)
Here’s the real deal. We first went to Tanzania back in 2008 when Aidan had an internship at the UN for the summer between his first and second year of law school. I had just reached a point of sustainability and health in my Arbonne business where I felt I could take the summer off and go with him, no agenda.
I had been working as a teacher at the time, so I figured I would keep my eyes and ears open once I got there and if a good opportunity arose for me to be of service in some way, I would do that. I ended up volunteering for the summer or a small local school, where I met my good Tanzanian friend James, who cofounded Kisimani School with me. The more I learned about the systemic inequity in the public school system there, the more conversations the two of us had about how we might be able to rattle the cage from within.
In Tanzania, higher education is always taught in English. However, public elementary school is taught in Swahili and private school is taught in English. This gives families who can afford school fees for their child to attend a private English language school a significant advantage over public school kids when it comes time to take the huge exam required to get into secondary school.
James and I thought, what if a public school could get a charter to teach the private school curriculum in English…what would happen? How much more progress might those kids be able to make in life? We originally intended to partner with the school where I had volunteered , but after one of many rodeos with internal corruption and mismanaging of funds we decided to start fresh and look for a community that already had a need for a new school.
After more than six months of James organizing meetings with various village leaders, we finally met the parents in Mkonoo village.
They were in this so-close-yet-so-far-away forgotten zone: close enough to town to see what they were missing, but far enough away that their kids were lacking access to education. The closest public school was 7 or 11 km away walking distance - too far for any parent to comfortably send their young child, especially during the rainy season when roads and bridges would get washed out with mud. They had their own vision for a community school, and had already set aside a village land for their project. They had already been advocating for a school for five years to the government before we even met.
You know those moments when you 'just know'?
I remember so clearly standing on that side of land, hearing through James who would translate for me, what their vision was, how committed they were, and how they could already see it even though we were standing in a dusty empty open field. We just knew.
We listened to the need, and instead of asking how can we swoop in and do this for you, we asked "how can we work together and how can we help your vision come to life"? We asked them if they would be open to the idea of our charter school taught in English, and they were so enthusiastic and excited about potentially being able to model positive change for the whole education system. We agreed on a three-pillared cost sharing model, where we (the eventual nonprofit), the community and the government would all share the cost and responsibility of developing and operating the school.
We were really just two late 20s idealists at the time. One of us from America, female and white, one of us from Tanzania, male and Black, both coming from certain privileges In the context of our own countries and cultures, with a shared enthusiasm for helping make positive change. Did I have pretty much only white savior stories to model myself after? Yep. Did I Iearn what that meant and how not to perpetuate those harmful narratives along the way? I sincerely hope so. We have never arrived, and I am always learning.
We failed a lot. We failed over and over again, in fact. We failed and failed forward more times than I can count, and it’s only because of all of our missteps, mistakes, learning, trying again, knowing better (then doing better), that we have the story that we have to tell today.
After nearly a year of initial fundraising, we completed construction on the first for classrooms of school in summer of 2011. We had less than 200 students and roll to start school when it opened a few months later. Each year, we found our way through sharing the responsibilities and cost of building out the infrastructure of the school, thing to add one new class every year for the next seven years. Only a few years in however, word had spread quickly that there was a tuition-free, sliding scale donation-only public School teaching in English in the area. We quickly reached 500 students enrolled.
Then 700. Then 1,000 - and we all ran together to keep up with the growth. (The parents, the government and my non-profit, Friends of Kisimani.) Families started buying plots of land close by to be zoned for our school. The government started to invest in improving and building roads to connect the growing Community to the services they needed. Women who used to be an hour away from a hospital during childbirth were able to get to town in time. The stories went on and on, and we re-committed each year to rise to meet the moment.
In 2018, our first class of 7th graders took the big exam required to continue to secondary school when they graduated. If they pass, their access to higher education continues. If they don't, it does not. This is the way the system is.
In 2018, Kisimani School was ranked the number one performing School academically in the District. 100% of the 7th graders passed their exam and continued to Secondary School.
They have repeated that graduation rate every year since.
And here we are. Looking ahead to the future and imagining how our school might be a model for change country-wide.
I do not share all of this for you to sing my personal praises, however, I will be honest and say that Kisimani School's continued success is one of the things I am most proud of so far in my time on this Earth. But isn't it what we're all really here to do? To grow ourselves, we can give to others?
The most beautiful thing to me at this point is that, over there, I am pretty much invisible. What we see is a thriving community school, a government that is proud of what they invested in, kids succeeding, teachers growing and evolving...and the rare mention of some friends in America who helped light the initial match and stoke the fire over the years.
That's the story. And it's still being written.