By Jonathan Gilbert, 2014 TSF Summer Fellow
I knew I wanted to visit Africa after attending the School Fund’s first birthday party back when I was in seventh grade. The School Fund (TSF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping underprivileged students in developing countries further their education. Matt Severson, co founder of TSF, gave a talk during the party. I remember being incredibly impressed and moved by Matt’s passion and commitment to The School Fund.
Last June I had the opportunity to visit Tanzania and see it with my own eyes. After a 44-hour journey from San Francisco to Tanzania including four flights, one missed connection, and a ten-hour bus ride, I finally arrived in Iringa. Iringa is located in the Southern Highlands where The School Fund sponsors more than 40 students. There, I taught science classes and played sports with the School Fund students.
I felt an instant connection with these students. Outwardly, they seemed like kids who could be from any part of the world. They enjoyed soccer and basketball, just like me. Their eyes sparkled and their smiles widened with recognition as I played Shakira and Justin Bieber’s music from my phone – music they had previously heard on their communal radio. We also shared the same passion for learning and insatiable curiosity.
Although they wore carefree smiles, as I got to know these students by talking to them about their life experiences and visiting with their families, I learned that outside of their schools, they face incredible hardships.
Only a handful of lucky students had two parents. More commonly, they lived with one parent, grandparent, or relative who struggled as a common farmer or market laborer to put food on the table for the entire family. Many also lived in orphanages because their parents were too poor to raise them or chose to abandon their children. Many children had to work hard to provide their family income.
The CIA World Fact book indicates that in Tanzania, the average person earns only $4.66 a day. Many families have lost parents to AIDS, malaria, and various illnesses that could have been treated if only they had a medical clinic nearby or enough money to buy medicine. Up to 10% suffer from HIV/AIDS. Three million of the 18 million children are orphaned due to a variety of causes, with HIV, alcoholism, and abandonment being most common.
Many children are undernourished and neglected, and end up living in orphanages or on the streets. In the rural areas, houses are made of makeshift cardboard and mud. The neighborhoods are lined with trash, and the air smells filthy from fire and rotten garbage.
Only a high performing one-third of Tanzanian children are able to go on to secondary school. However, these students routinely get expelled because they cannot pay their school fees.
What struck me the most was the students’ innocence and eagerness to learn, and what going to school actually meant for them. For these students, obtaining an education was the only escape out of their oppressive world. Without a good education, they would stay trapped in the dreaded cycle of poverty. I didn’t realize how much it meant to them until I saw on their faces the expressions of gratitude for the classes brought to them by The School Fund.
In this region of the world, with more than 44% of the population younger than 15 years old, I believe the future of Tanzania depends on the very young generation to break the dreaded cycle of poverty, disease, and violence.
I cannot think of a better cause than to give these eager students the gift of education that will allow them to achieve their dreams. With the help of The School Fund, today’s students can become tomorrow’s leaders, and bring a brighter future to their country.