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From Canada to Africa - a school rises in a dusty Tanzanian village

A school in the Tanzanian village of Azimio Mswiswi.

Jane Switzer/Jane Switzer

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."

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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.

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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.

The nation's collective anxiety over the population boom has trickled down to the parents of Azimio Mswiswi.

Maiko Mwansinad, a farmer and father of three, made his son retake Standard 7 (the last year of primary school in Tanzania) after he failed the exams that would let him continue to secondary school. Mr. Mwansinad believes education gives children structure and life direction.

"It's important as a parent that I raise my children properly and they go to school, but not with a battle⎯that they go to school because they want to and because I've encouraged them to," he says.

Lifelong Azimio Mswiswi resident William Mwangloo, 79, learned to write his own name in his 40's at an adult learning centre established by President Nyerere, but is otherwise illiterate. Still wiry and spry, Mr. Mwangloo is a feisty presence at village meetings.

"I keep begging them to put education first," he says of his own two children, who have kids in primary school. "Now that I'm still around in my 70s and I can't do anything anymore, I see that I could be doing something productive now if only I had been educated. I could be helping myself."

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Like most of his friends, Mr. Mwangloo spent his childhood herding cows. "I didn't get to study, not even once," he says. "I never walked into a classroom."

He isn't the only one. Official numbers peg Tanzania's primary school enrollment rate at close to 100 per cent, but that reflects only initial registration, not actual attendance. Education is compulsory until age 15, but the rural reality of Tanzania's interior means many children have to walk up to 10 km to get to school. The added stress of costly uniforms and supplies means some children simply drop out⎯and no one follows up.

Teachers Ms. Sichali and Ms. Kayange often play the role of student wranglers in Azimio Mswiswi, knocking on parents' doors if their children stop showing up at school. It's often the girls who play truant, a symptom of some parents' reluctance to invest in girls.

"A lot of parents get worried because girl children will get married and leave home," Ms. Kayange says. "Or they'll pass their exams, find out that they're pregnant and drop out."

Ms. Kayange, 23, became orphaned in secondary school and had to drop out when her relatives wouldn't pay for her to continue. She says when girls enter the school system at a young age, they're more likely to stay for the long-term.

Education is also fundamental to slowing Tanzania's birthrate. According to a Tanzania government report, women with no schooling have an average of 6.9 babies. Women with a primary school education have 5.6 babies on average and those with secondary and higher education have 3.2.

"Early education definitely gives the girls courage," Ms. Kayange says. "We can teach them from early on to pursue education and make better decisions with their lives."

Just hours after the TFN event wrapped in Toronto, Ms. McCracken-Nangereke received word from Canada that The Olive Branch for Children's pitch was successful. In less than an hour, TFN raised $11,800, enough to build a tin-roofed brick structure with two classrooms, an office and a small storage room.

Azimio Mswiswi was getting a new school.

Construction began in April, when the end of the rain season gives way to the dusty summer heat. Each family in the village was responsible for casting 180 bricks for the school's walls. Local tradesmen trekked up and down the village's mountain to gather rocks for the foundation, a steep climb fraught with jaunty tree roots. By the end of April, a new brick and mortar shell stood across the village square, just steps from the old, makeshift classroom.

The new school was completed in May, and was officially opened a month later by the district commissioner. Proper glass windows, a rarity in Tanzanian construction, protect school materials from the damaging dust and rain. The two white-walled classrooms are equipped with large chalkboards and child-sized furniture for 45 pupils.

A plaque nailed to the wall commemorates the contribution that made the school possible. The inscription is in Swahili, but two English names stand out clearly: The Olive Branch for Children, and The Funding Network - Toronto, a group of philanthropic strangers from a city nearly 12,500 km away.

The school will graduate its first set of kindergarteners this spring. Most of the children are only five years old but Mr. Mwangloo readily lists his ambitions for them:

"I'd be really happy to see the children of this community become teachers so they can come back and teach the future generations," he says. "And doctors. We want our children to become doctors so they can teach the kids and adults of this community."

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