What do you do when faced with someone in need? That beggar at the robot, that mother with a baby on her back asking for work? For most of us who live in South Africa, poverty and need are something we encounter on a daily basis. But how many of us think of doing more than just handing over some spare cash or some food when we can?
Not so for Donna Duggan. The Australian came to Tanzania in 2005 to celebrate her 30th birthday by climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. After the trek, her Maasai guide offered to show her his village, and Donna was astounded to see children going to school, using each other’s backs as desks, and “writing” with sticks on their skin – a novel solution to having no pencils or paper to use. She also learned that for most Maasai children, their first encounter of speaking Swahili is when they go to school, where they must not only get used to the restrictions of a school – very different from their early childhood, often spent out in the bush herding goats – but also learn a new language. And they have to do so quickly enough to be able to keep up with the lessons.
Moved by what she had seen, Donna returned to Australia and spent her evenings baking cakes and biscuits – and whatever else would sell in her parents’ vegetable shop in Brisbane – in order to raise money for the Maasai community she had visited. Eventually she had enough to start building classrooms for the school.
Since then, Donna has moved permanently to Tanzania, and, with her late husband Nas – himself a keen believer in empowering the poor communities in and around the town of Arusha where he grew up – has now built five nursery and/or primary schools in different Maasai communities. Of the 5,000 or so children who now attend these schools, roughly 4,000 of them are also part of a meal programme whereby each child receives a bowl of porridge a day – for many, their only meal for the day.
Through her company, Maasai Wanderings, Donna also sponsors 118 students to attend secondary school – something only a small percentage of the population has the opportunity to do – and even has four students currently enrolled in university.
I recently travelled with Donna to visit one of her schools, Matim Primary School, about 30 minutes from Arusha. Despite it being a Sunday, a group of close to 100 Grade 7 students were waiting for us with banners of welcome, singing a song which included the lyrics, “Visitors are a blessing . . .” We were met by the headmaster Mr Lang’o, who showed us around the school and listed its many accomplishments since Maasai Wanderings began supporting it.
It may look like a simple, even rudimentary school to us, but in many ways it is a massive success story. The school has nine classrooms, with two more on the way, and an unprecedented 98 % of the students have gone on to secondary school. Last year they had more female students than male, which is virtually unheard of in other Maasai communities. The school also boasts a library, a small computer lab, and a garden with large, shady trees – a lifesaver in the equatorial heat.
As we entered the Grade 7 classroom, we were met with shy smiles that became broader when they heard that they were each to be gifted with an exercise book and a pencil. “If they had access to same opportunities our children have, they would all be geniuses,” Donna said. “They are dedicated to their school work and all work so hard – some walk as far as 7 km to attend school.”
The children may still have to share a desk between three of them, and a classroom with 100 other students, but that already makes them considerably more fortunate than the majority of Tanzania’s Maasai children – most of whom go to school outside, if at all.
One can’t help but be humbled by an experience such as this one, not to mention be inspired by just what a handful of people – people with heart and kindness and determination – can achieve.
As the winds of change sweep through our own country, we all have the choice of whether we will stand belligerently with our backs to the gale, go with the flow, or add out own voices to the windy chorus. We may not be able to change the lives of 5,000 people, but even if we each touch the lives of just one other, just think what a world we could live in.
Nicky Furniss Editor