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Being the Change: Cal Alums Pitch in to Educate Girls in Tanzania

August 9, 2016
by Patricia Yollin
group of SEGA girls These are some of the students who were attending SEGA Girls School in 2015 in Morogoro, Tanzania. © Sarah Bones

Girls matter. That’s the philosophy behind a successful secondary school in Tanzania that is educating the perennially poor in a country where only one in four females continues past seventh grade.

The SEGA Girls School started out in a rented classroom in 2008. Now it has about 200 students, a 30-acre campus with 22 buildings, exceptional performance in national exams, graduates who have jobs or are enrolled in college, and a study-abroad program. Last September, it was named a changemaker school by Ashoka East Africa.  

“I think it’s extraordinary,” said Anne Wells, who attended the Graduate School of Journalism at Cal in the mid-1990s and is founder and executive director of Unite the World with Africa, a nonprofit with a foundation that provides grants to individuals and organizations in East Africa. SEGA (Secondary Education for Girls’ Advancement) is one of the grantees.

“They’re the best at what they do,” said Wells, who first visited the school in 2009.

Many of the students, who range in age from 12 to 19, are orphans, dropouts or victims of abuse and exploitation. Some are teenage mothers. Without the school, which covers all expenses, they simply couldn’t afford to continue their education.

SEGA, a boarding school, is located in Morogoro, a four-hour drive from Dar es Salaam. The campus relies on solar power for energy and a rainwater capture system and well for its water supply. It has a computer lab, library and infirmary, and its organic gardens supply much of the produce the school uses.

Female students working in a garden near their classroom
SEGA students work in the organic gardens, tending to fruits and vegetables that are used to help feed the people at the school. Photo by April Gilbert

SEGA combines a rigorous academic curriculum, where learning is experiential rather than rote, with entrepreneurship training and a life skills program that includes a focus on reproductive health, communication skills, public speaking and family planning.

“This is a lot better than what my kids got at Berkeley High School,” said April Gilbert, who received her doctorate from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in 2001 and is an adviser to SEGA’s U.S. partner, Nurturing Minds in Africa, which provides fundraising and technical expertise to SEGA.

Gilbert lives in Berkeley and is program director of the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco. A few years ago, she spent six months at SEGA as a volunteer, working as an organizational and business consultant. She researched several ideas for school-run enterprises that could help produce revenue and make the school self-sustaining. She evaluated the poultry farm the school was operating and figured out what it would take to launch a hotel and hospitality program. Thanks to her advice, the school decided to construct a multi-unit guesthouse, a precursor to a hotel, for short-term visitors. It opened in October. And SEGA is just now starting a tourism training and guest services unit.

Gilbert also taught students to swim and helped start an anti-ivory club to fight elephant poaching. Students have visited two wildlife parks, Mikumi and Ruaha, to learn about conservation, have written letters to government officials to try to stem poaching and have done educational presentations to local primary schools on the importance of protecting elephants.

“It’s a very optimistic and idealistic approach. It makes a huge difference for the girls to go to this school — but there aren’t that many.”

Gilbert is pragmatic, analytical and fairly sure that aid to developing countries usually does more harm than good. She grappled with this question in a blog she kept while she was in Tanzania and later Zambia. An early entry quoted from Tears of the Giraffe, a novel by Alexander McCall Smith set in Botswana, which she said sums up many foreign-led aid efforts in Africa: “Things fizzled out; you could not hope to change Africa. People lost interest, or they went back to their traditional way of doing things, or they simply gave up because it was all too much effort. And then Africa had a way of coming back and simply covering everything up again.”

Six months later, after reading books by Dambisa Moyo, Paul Collier and Tori Hogan, Gilbert concluded that international development aid to governments doesn’t work most of the time.

She said Moyo argues that aid makes it less likely people will build the economic and governance systems needed for successful development. Gilbert added that both Collier and Moyo believe aid funds are similar to money derived from natural resources, promoting corruption among officials. And then there’s Dutch disease, where a big gush of foreign money inflates a country’s currency and destroys its export market.

Although fraud can also come into play—it’s probably the case that scandals involving Greg Mortenson and Somaly Mam have cast a pall on many good charities—Gilbert said the biggest issue is the difficulty of changing the status quo.

And if there’s no big push in Tanzania to fix corruption or make things better, Gilbert asked, “why are those of us from outside the country so keen to come in to offer or impose our fixes and our values? … I wonder about the creation of the aid or handout mentality, a culture of taking.”

However, like most of the people involved with SEGA—overwhelmingly women—Gilbert is passionate about the value of educating girls and convinced that the school’s approach is both ethical and effective.

Another blog entry, “Portrait of a Social Entrepreneur,” analyzed why Polly Dolan, the director and co-founder of SEGA, has succeeded.

“Polly really values every girl,” Gilbert said. “It’s a very optimistic and idealistic approach. It makes a huge difference for the girls to go to this school—but there aren’t that many.”

Scalability isn’t everything, however, Wells said: “To do it with a few girls and do it well is better than to do it with thousands and not do it well. SEGA works because it’s not trying to be all things to all people. It’s not worried about metrics.”

Wells, who also serves as an adviser to SEGA, said her year at Cal’s J-school has proved invaluable in her humanitarian work. “I’m always trying to get to the root of the story, and my work in Africa is very much about storytelling,” she said. In fact, she was going to be giving a talk that very night at the library in Norwalk, Connecticut.

She added that Tanzania is unexplainable to people who haven’t been there. “Nothing works,” she said. “It’s a very, very difficult place to get anything done. There are a lot of shots on goal. So the hardest thing for us is to deal with donor expectations.”

Wells and Gilbert were both drawn to SEGA because they want girls to stand up for themselves. Gilbert said she got involved for much the same reason she’s at Renaissance, which offers entrepreneurship training to Bay Area clients, of whom 70 percent are female.

“Throughout my career, I’ve been interested in women’s and girls’ economic empowerment,” Gilbert said. “I think there’s a very strong parallel between Renaissance and SEGA, especially the cohort effect and seeing how getting people together changes them.”

One of the intangibles in that process is self-esteem—instilling it and reinforcing it in females who believe their lives have no value.

“At SEGA there is a transformation within a year or two,” Gilbert said.

In a video about SEGA produced last year, Dolan said: “One of the very important things for girls at our school is that they see they can actually do anything. They’ve been told that, ‘You’re not good enough’ or ‘You’re not really that important, you don’t have much of a voice.’ We aim to provide an environment where they are important, and they’re listened to.”

Student Yustina John, 18, said via email that her pre-SEGA life was “very bad.” One of five children, she had to drop out of school to supplement the family’s main source of income: selling ice cream with her mother. A friend told her mom about SEGA. After an interview, she was invited to take an entrance exam and gained acceptance She now wants to be a physician.

April Gilbert teaching girls how to swim
April Gilbert, who received her doctorate from the Haas School of Business, taught girls how to swim when she volunteered at SEGA three years ago. Courtesy of April Gilbert

“I want to reach somewhere,” said John, who grew up in Modeko, Tanzania. “When I was in Standard 5 (the fifth year of primary school), my father was in very bad condition, so my mother took him to the hospital in Dar es Salaam. But he was very sick. After reaching that hospital, there were not enough doctors and nurses to help my father, so he died. I want to be a doctor so that I can help to save people’s lives.”

As part of SEGA’s new study-abroad program, John spent five weeks in the Boston area last autumn, living with an American family and being a SEGA ambassador of sorts, making public presentations on the East Coast to tell people about the school and raise money for its efforts.

“When I started at SEGA, even to talk in front of my fellow students was hard for me. I was feeling shy,” John said. “And my English was bad. But SEGA has really changed me. I can speak in front of 200 people now, which is not easy. But I have confidence, so I can do it.”

The visit to the United States was eye-opening, even though she’d heard a lot about the country from American volunteers at SEGA.

“America is so developed. They have good infrastructure. In Tanzania, we have bad infrastructure, so we cannot transport our goods from place to place,” John said. “Everything just seemed different—the trees, the houses, everything. It has changed a little my hopes for the future. Now I know how many options there are.”

John was accompanied by another SEGA student, 17-year-old Jesca Juma, who stayed nearby with another family. The visit had a big impact on her, too.

“I feel like I am a different person because I know that I am a change-maker,” Juma said. “Before I came to SEGA, I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to be—I didn’t have ambition. But now I know myself and what I want for my career. I want to be a businesswoman or a flight attendant.”

Juma also feels a strong sense of social responsibility.

“Education in villages is very bad, and girls get married and get pregnant when they are young because they have such poor education,” said Juma, who grew up in Bigwa, Tanzania. “I will help them, through volunteering to teach them while I have my job, and also provide different materials for them to study. I hope I can donate money for their basic needs.”

“One of the very important things for girls at our school is that they see they can actually do anything. They’ve been told that, ‘You’re not good enough’ or ‘You’re not really that important, you don’t have much of a voice.’ We aim to provide an environment where they are important, and they’re listened to.”

The first student in SEGA’s study-abroad program, Nusura Gundi, spent six months in Philadelphia in 2014. After she returned, SEGA decided to send students for shorter periods and two at a time to provide mutual support.

“We learned a lot from the experience with Nusura,” said Laura DeDominicis, executive director of Nurturing Minds in Africa. “It’s inevitable to be homesick. Also, there was jealousy from the other students, and it took a little while to get reintegrated.”

She said all three students handled the experience well. “There was so much stuff coming at them: It was the first time in their lives that they’d seen an elevator. And it’s OK to drink the water out of the faucet. And how come the doors open automatically when you go to Target?” DeDomenicis said.

In a major milestone for SEGA, Gundi was recently accepted to the prestigious African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa. She’ll start her studies in September. Her scholarship is contingent upon her commitment to live in Africa for a decade after she graduates from college. Otherwise, she’ll have to pay back the money.

“SEGA aims for its graduates to stay in Tanzania, not migrate to the West,” said Dolan, who has resided in Africa for 20 years. “The school provides exposure opportunities to the U.S. and our neighboring countries of Kenya and Uganda, but intends for its students to return to their communities to assist with their nation’s development.”

DeDominicis, who lives in the Boston suburb of Newton, has visited SEGA three times. “Things have changed very quickly,” she said. “Our campus has grown so much.”

She has been equally astonished by the students’ metamorphoses. “These girls come in looking at their feet,” DeDominicis said. “And they become really confident and self-aware young women. It’s a beautiful campus and that’s important, too. It will be there for many years to come and it tells them: ‘You’re worth it.’ “

SEGA works hard to avoid perpetuating a white-savior image. Leadership through community service is a key component of the school’s approach. DeDominicis said students volunteer at an orphanage, a women’s prison and the homes of the elderly and disabled. In a new pilot program, SEGA graduates are mentoring girls in rural communities.

“They’ve always been on the recipient end because they’re so vulnerable,” DeDominicis said. “But they can see themselves in a very different light when they’re able to give back and see what they’re capable of. That’s a big part of what makes SEGA different.”

Angela McManus of Fairfax, who is operations manager for a fabric company in Berkeley, stayed at the school for five days in October to attend the commencement of SEGA’s third graduation class. She was invited by two girls she had sponsored. One hopes to go into law enforcement and the other intends to be a bookkeeper.

“There aren’t discipline problems. They’re like sponges and they’re so excited to be there. To see how they interact with each other and support each other—I wish it happened in the U.S.,” McManus said. “And I sat in on a chemistry class. Some of it was like what I had in college. I was amazed at the education level of these students.”

What struck her the most, though, was the dedication and passion of SEGA’s 45 or so teachers and staff, all Tanzanian, and the huge community presence at the four-hour graduation ceremony.

“Polly really reaches out to the community,” McManus said. “She doesn’t decide things by herself. SEGA works because of community involvement and grassroots networking there and here.”

Overview of the SEGA campus
The SEGA campus has grown enormously in eight years. There are now 22 solar-powered buildings on 30 acres. © Sarah Bones

McManus is a good example of that networking. She knew of SEGA from a neighbor who was sponsoring two girls and had visited the school. She heard the stories, saw the pictures and signed up to be a sponsor herself—there are two levels, $750 and $2,500 a year. She’s on the board of the Lacewing Foundation, which she enlisted to help support the school’s new computer lab. Her relatives, including great-nieces and great-nephews, have become penpals with SEGA students. The company she works for, Laura & Kiran, donates fabric for arts and crafts workshops.

Most students stay at SEGA at least five years—a minimum of 15 months of remedial work and then the four years needed to earn an “ordinary” high school diploma (an advanced degree requires two more years of continuing education, which SEGA subsidizes with scholarships). Primary school in Tanzania is taught in Swahili, but in secondary school the language of instruction switches to English, which was simply one class for most students before that. It’s a hard transition.

To deal with the challenges, SEGA introduced an English-immersion program in October. At 26, Hannah Wilson was the youngest of the 14 volunteer teachers in the program. She took time off from her job as a financial regulatory consultant in San Francisco and taught 42 students entering Form 1.

“It was very intimidating for them to be speaking only English for three weeks with strangers,” said Wilson. “And I was intimidated because I’m not a teacher.”

She used music to help break the ice. “I put together a playlist for the group and it worked out really well,” Wilson said. “We’d start out the day with something fun and chill. Everything from the Jackson 5 to Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, Alicia Keys and Aretha Franklin. We’d sing and listen to music and talk about lyrics.”

Wilson, who’s heading off to Emory University in Atlanta to get a dual master’s degree in business and public health, said the biggest challenge she faced was cultural.

“A lot of the girls apologized for their mistakes,” she said. “They were ashamed and worried it reflected poorly on me. In Tanzanian schools, it’s really not OK to make mistakes. You can get physically punished or shamed in front of the class. But you have to make mistakes to learn. It’s really hard to change that. They did admirably, though. I can’t say enough good things about them.”

“Today there’s more relevance than ever to what we’re doing. The point is to create strong, independent women who will become leaders of their country. I think that’s so important when you talk about poverty and what poverty breeds.”

She said students wrote elaborate goodbye cards for her when the program was over. “At the end, one girl said, ‘I want to become a teacher like you. I never wanted to do that before, but now I want to be one,’ ” recalled Wilson. “Being there was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”

Tanzania is among the world’s poorest economies in terms of per capita income. The people involved with SEGA believe that educating girls can alleviate poverty, and an increasing number of studies back them up.

“There is a strong body of research demonstrating that the most effective way to change the world is through investments related to women and girls,” said a Bank of America Corp. report on philanthropy, which noted that a country’s economy grows by 3 percent when 10 percent more girls go to secondary school.

Nurturing Minds board member Lynda Spence, a travel consultant in San Francisco who was an editor at UC Press in Berkeley in the 1960s, said, “Today there’s more relevance than ever to what we’re doing. The point is to create strong, independent women who will become leaders of their country. I think that’s so important when you talk about poverty and what poverty breeds.”

Spence has been involved with Nurturing Minds since the early days, when it started out as “just a group of people determined to build a school thousands of miles away.” House parties, small events and other grassroots strategies were the main ways to raise money. For instance, Beth Goldstein, who was a nurse in a low-income clinic in Boston, discouraged gifts at her 60th birthday party—instead, she requested that people donate to the school.

The goal, however, is to be completely self-supporting someday without the need for a fundraising arm in the United States. Easier said than done. “We’ve all realized that sustainability isn’t going to come as quickly as we hoped,” Spence said. “It’s a complex issue but it’s still a big part of our strategic planning.”

To get there, Nurturing Minds is trying a combination of things: developing school-run businesses, such as the six-room guesthouse with 14 beds; admitting a small number of paying students—14 out of 191 this year—who are eager to get into SEGA because of its academic reputation; seeking an endowment to provide guaranteed income each year; and increasing the number of student sponsors, now numbering about 200.

In 2014, the school received more than $1.6 million from a variety of sources, including individuals, foundations, corporations and USAID, the single biggest donor, which provided $671,000.

Marin County resident Heidi Kane, who oversees communications and marketing for Nurturing Minds, said they are trying to create relationships with American schools. A few student exchanges have already occurred, with classes from the United States spending about a week at SEGA.

“It opens up a whole new world here,” said Kane, who visited SEGA in 2013 when her daughter was 10 and her son was 8. “My daughter went from not caring about her school and how she was learning and how she did her schoolwork to—she owns it now. Before, she was barely getting by. Now she’s getting A’s and B’s. It changed her perspective.”

Kane, like all the sponsors, stayed in steady contact with two girls she was funding, and still keeps up with them. One works as a nanny in Dubai and the other is enrolled at a teaching college.

“We want to know how their lives are unfolding,” Kane said. She added that emails, Skype, letters and Google Hangouts make it easy to stay in touch.

Dolan, who co-founded the school with her sister, Tracey Dolan, in 2007 and bought land for it a year later, said SEGA keeps close tabs on students after they leave, arranges internships and is available to help, no matter what path they pursue. There have been three graduating classes so far, totaling 80 students, and two-thirds of the graduates from the first class have continued their studies.

“When I look at SEGA now, I feel so fortunate,” Dolan said. “In only eight years, our initial vision has already come to fruition.”

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