This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Helping Hands Make a Difference

            In the summer of 2008 our son Nick, then 17, went to Africa to help build a school. It made enough of an impression that next year he asked to be sent back as his high school graduation present.
            Don Stoll and Marianne Kent-Stoll, two teachers from Nick’s high school, had been on vacation in Africa a couple of years earlier when they decided to visit the remote village of Bacho in Tanzania. There they learned that the town’s aging school was in danger of being closed owing to health hazards.
            They promised the villagers that they would return to help build a new school, then later held a meeting after school at Kirby Prep in Santa Cruz to see if there would be any interest in supporting the project. There was. More than two dozen students and parents, along with a few community members, signed up to work two weeks in Bacho, providing the sweat equity for the new Ufani School, as it was called.
            Don and Marianne created a foundation named Karimu (Swahili for “generous”) to raise funds for school supplies. They held fund-raisers, including a dinner featuring African cuisine, and rounded up support in the community outside the school where they taught.
            Getting to Bacho, even in the jet age, is an ordeal. The group flew from San Francisco to Heathrow in London; then after a long layover, from Heathrow to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya; then from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania. From there a long bus ride took them to Bacho, where the villagers greeted them with an elaborate, and quite long, ceremony.
            Building the school was hard work. With no machinery, everything had to be done by hand, often in a choking cloud of dust. One morning the crew came across, and removed, a venomous snake from the interior of the school building. The work crew subsisted largely on rice, beans, bananas and fried dough, with an occasional helping of local chicken.
            It took more than one summer, but the school was built and equipped, and is now in operation. Nick came back from that first trip more mature and aware, changed in several subtle and positive ways, and we figured that the cost of it was money well spent for that reason alone.
            But in a situation like that you always wonder, or at least I do, if it made any lasting difference to the people being helped. All too often, well-meaning volunteers put in a heroic effort on a project like that, then things go sideways after they leave.
            Last week we received word that this was happily not the case at Ufani School in Bacho, Tanzania. Before leaving on their fifth trip there, Don and Marianne sent out an e-mail reporting some good news.
            Primary school students at Ufani, and elsewhere in Tanzania, take high school entrance exams to see if they can proceed with their education. In a poor country with limited educational resources, this is a one-and-done process. If you don’t pass the first time, you don’t get another chance. This year the students at Ufani School had the fourth best success rate in the country on their exams, and many of them will be moving on with their education. It would appear that in this case the project transformed the beneficiaries as well as the participants.

            A Huffington Post article on the Ufani School project can be found at