The Ota Initiative

By Rebecca Gailey

When I first arrived in Kayanga in January 2013 to volunteer with a local human rights group, I was immediately struck by the beauty of region and the welcoming, loving nature of its people. But as I talked with friends and community members, something became very apparent to me – Kayangans worked hard, too hard. Wives walked an hour to haul water from the river to cook for their families and husbands farmed all day only to feed their children bananas and beans meal after meal. Education was seen as a way out of subsistence farming, and yet 70 students crammed into classrooms with one teacher and zero supplies. They then listened as the teacher spent the entire class reciting from one of the few textbooks word-for-word in English, the national language of secondary education in Tanzania, and yet a language that many of the students and teachers did not fully understand.

I spoke often with students and parents about their frustrations with the education system throughout my time in Kayanga, and these frustrations erupted into nationwide protests in the spring of 2013 when the government announced that more than half of the country’s 10th grade students had failed a national test and would not be permitted to continue studying for their high school diplomas in secondary schools. In an instant, thousands of children were denied an education. Parents and educators that I was talking with all had the same questions for me, “How can we help our children succeed?” Out of these conversations was born the backbone of what would become The Ota Initiative.

The Tanzanian education system is riddled by the same problems that we fear here in the U.S. – untrained teachers, a lack of supplies, and an emphasis on standardized tests that makes memorization the most common method of instruction. Children go to school, listen to lectures in a language they do not fully understand, and leave the classroom uninspired, unprepared to pass the tests required of them, and unable to address the issues within their own lives and their community. The Ota Initiative cannot fix all of this, it can however, help create a cadre of youth who have the self-confidence and skills they need to succeed in school and positively impact their community. Guided by numerous studies that have shown the effectiveness of hands-on learning and year-round classes, I worked with Amizade Global Service-Learning, another American volunteer in Kayanga, and local teachers to create The Ota Initiative.

plant

During each school break, 25 elementary school students gather for three weeks to engage in arts and science projects that help develop their creativity, critical thinking, and leadership skills while also reviewing key subjects from Tanzania’s national curriculum. We emphasize hands-on learning, and each session has a scientific theme that is explored through experiments, games, craft projects, stories, and theater. Students engage in public speaking to help build their self-confidence, play cooperative games to improve their teamwork skills, and read stories about world leaders to inspire leadership development. The final component of our program is our English curriculum. While English is the language of  secondary and post-secondary education in Tanzania, for most students it is a third language, and they struggle to learn it in primary school from teachers who often times do not have a complete grasp of the language. Every morning of the program, our teachers explain new vocabulary words and hold conversations in English with our students to help improve their language skills. All of the stories used throughout the program are also read to the students in English and Swahili to reinforce their use of both languages.  

Since we ran our first program in December 2013, The Ota Initiative has successfully run six school-break programs, and the results have been impressive. At the beginning and ending of each session, our teachers orally interview students to see how much they understand the program materials. We knew we had a successful program model when our very first session students’ scores increased by 60 percent. When they returned for the next program and were quizzed on the previous session, students on average still scored 40 percent higher than the original pre-test, demonstrating that our students retain most of the information they learn.

team

This is not to say though that establishing and running The Ota Initiative has not been without its challenges, the greatest of which was preparing out staff to run our programs. The idea of teaching children about scientific subjects through art projects and games is still novel in the U.S., nonetheless in Tanzania. We therefore invested a lot of time into staff development purely because we needed to make sure they understood our motives and methods or the program would fail. I am proud to say that the program is now almost entirely locally run, with me just providing guidance and fundraising from the U.S. Our program is also slowly expanding and growing as we continue to add new elements. For example, in 2015 we welcomed a group of volunteers from West Virginia who ran training for our staff to help better prepare them to teach our English curriculum. This collaboration was immensely successful, and we plan to welcome more volunteers in the future.

Demand for our program is high, with more students consistently wanting to sign up than we have room for. We would love to expand but we must first figure out how to do so sustainably. We run 7 weeks of programming each year out of a local elementary school on a budget of around $3,000, which breaks down to $120 per student. In order to expand, we will need to raise enough funds to create our own space for programs, hire and train new staff, and restructure our organization. We have seen such tremendous results with such little funds and resources, so we know we can do great things, but it is just a matter of carefully exploring how to add new programs without compromising quality.  Tentative plans are in place to begin expanding next year, so it is now a matter of consolidating our plan of action and raising the requisite funds. I have an amazing team that I am working with, so I know that regardless of how we expand, we will continue offering quality arts and science programming to the students of Kayanga.

Support the Ota Foundation here.

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