A classroom made of mud. Twalib Ahmed Mfumbulwa gazes out his office window as he explains the village of Azimio Mswiswi’s predicament. Outside, schoolchildren scream and jostle under the glare of the April sun. As village executive officer, it’s Mr. Mfumbulwa’s job to oversee infrastructure development, and he knows that Azimio Mswiswi needs a school. But the village can’t afford the cement needed to build a proper kindergarten classroom, and government support is erratic.
A vein of anxiety runs through his words as he describes the dilemma facing many villages in rural Tanzania: too many children, not enough classrooms.
“There is some funding set aside by the government, but it is just luck if it happens to come your way,” Mr. Mfumbulwa says. He planned to start building with mud and wish for the best. “Our hope was to get the classroom up to a certain level and see if the government would come and help us, but there are so many schools in so many villages.”
The road to Azimio Mswiswi is unmarked and rocky. On a glaringly hot day in April, Deborah McCracken-Nangereke grasps the handrail of her donated red Mazda truck - possibly the only Mazda in Tanzania, she believes - as her husband, Putiyei Kimala Nangereke, manoeuvres around potholes in the dirt road. Ms. McCracken-Nangereke, 31, is petite and fair skinned, with red curly hair. She’s made the trip to this small outpost of subsistence farmers and cowherds dozens of times, and knows to hold on tight - she’s seven months pregnant.
Ms. McCracken-Nangereke is the founder of The Olive Branch for Children, a Toronto-based NGO that works to bring early childhood education to remote communities.
As the sun begins to rise over the village, teacher Helena Sichali ushers her students into a bare, cement-floored room that serves as a makeshift kindergarten classroom in one of the village’s communal buildings. Dressed in yellow and green uniforms, some barefoot, the children stake out spots on the floor and spread out their materials. The mix of well-used picture books, flashcards and puzzles are bathed in a thin layer of dust. A single wooden desk sits in the corner, stacked with papers and lesson plans for Ms. Sichali and her teaching assistant, Aneth Kayange. With two teachers and more than 40 children squeezed into the small space, there isn’t room for much else.
Access to early childhood education is a growing problem in Tanzania, where a booming population is straining the country’s agriculture-dominated economy. Nearly half of all Tanzanians are under 15, and there’s an increasing need for skilled graduates. Children who receive a good kindergarten education are more likely to stay in school for the long-term, but the bureaucratic and financial obstacles to building schools in rural areas are overwhelming. The country’s decision makers are nearly 700 kilometres away in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s bustling, traffic-choked commercial capital. In an overwhelmingly rural country of nearly 44 million people, it’s easy for a village of 2,500 to be forgotten.
Yet halfway around the world in Toronto, a group of philanthropic strangers had Azimio Mswiswi in their sights. In the fall of 2010, The Olive Branch for Children made a pitch to The Funding Network (a Toronto-based philanthropic agency that describes itself as the Dragon’s Den of giving). They asked for $10,000 to build and furnish a Montessori kindergarten. TFN holds two fundraising events a year where selected organizations present their cause, name a price, and field questions from potential benefactors. The audience calls out pledges auction-style, ranging anywhere from $25 to $500.
Ms. McCracken-Nangereke, meanwhile, waited anxiously for the news at her home in Mbeya. She first travelled to Tanzania in 2004 to spend a year volunteering at an orphanage. For her, that was it - “I never came back,” she says with a laugh. She started The Olive Branch for Children in 2005, riding a rickety bicycle through the potholed dirt roads to reach remote villages. She met her husband when he volunteered to be her bodyguard during those early bicycle trips through the bush. The two married in January 2010 and settled into a chaotic routine as newlyweds running an NGO.
Their organization has established 22 village-run Montessori kindergartens in remote areas of southwest Tanzania. Like many villages in the Mbeya area of Southwest Tanzania, Azimio Mswiswi is a relic of Tanzania’s faded education system. Julius Nyerere, the first president of the united Republic of Tanzania, introduced secular schools, universal primary education and decreed Swahili as the national language. But his socialist-communal dream collapsed under the reality of a booming population and mounting debt. Agricultural output plummeted. Starting in 1975, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank stepped in to stave off bankruptcy.
In the midst of slow economic reform, education took a backseat to farming. Those days are over. Today, nearly 85 per cent of Tanzania’s 43.8 million-strong population farms the five per cent of arable land. As population continues to grow at a steady 2 per cent, inherited parcels of land shrink with each generation. In 1961, Tanzania’s population was just six million people. The UN estimates that number will skyrocket to 138 million people by 2050, making Tanzania the 13th largest country in the world.