New Construction at Banjika Secondary School
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New Construction at Banjika Secondary School

OAT Traveler Susan Rickert Inspires American High Schoolers to Give Back in Africa

Every year for more than a decade, Susan Rickert of San Francisco, California, has traveled to Africa with OAT, and every year, she asks the same question of the headmaster of one of the schools in the village of Karatu: "What do you need, and how can I help?"

In March of this year, marking her twelfth trip with OAT, Susan served as Group Leader to a group of 14 women from Sonoma, California, on the Safari Serengeti: Tanzania Lodge & Tented Safari adventure. The women brought a number of gifts to give to the Banjika Secondary School during the school visit that is part of the trip itinerary, including an electric keyboard, assorted rhythm instruments, and money for uniforms for the girls' netball team, contributed by a 15-year-old girl from Sonoma. (After the trip, another member of the group sent a shipment of science textbooks and DVDs on her own initiative.)

But Susan wanted to do more, so she posed her usual question to Justine Joseph, headmaster
of Banjika Secondary School. His answer was immediate: two smokeless cookers for the kitchen and finishing and furnishing the girls' dorm were the most critical needs.

Helping to Make School a Safe Haven

Susan quickly recognized the urgency of providing a dorm for the girls. "These girls are walking up to three hours each way to get to school," she reveals. "They start in the dark, when it's rainy and muddy and dangerous. A dormitory means more peace of mind. They will be protected there."

Susan pledged to raise the money needed for beds—and also agreed to help organize a work party of teenagers from San Francisco to partner with the Tanzanian work crew to finish a bathhouse adjacent to the dormitory. To fulfill this part of her promise, she turned to the private college-preparation high school her own children had attended, Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco. "Their motto is 'Head, Heart, Hands,' so they have a huge service component," says Susan.

The idea of their students' engaging in a service project with high schoolers in Tanzania intrigued school administrators, so Susan contacted World Leadership School in Denver to arrange the logistics, such as insurance, airfare, and hiring an in-country staff person to provide on-the-spot support.

The students' commitment to the project was enthusiastic. They immediately set about purchasing eleven microscopes and much-needed science equipment that had been on Justine Joseph's wish list for the Banjika school, and also raised the roughly $4,000 needed to purchase cement and other construction supplies.

Then, in July, a contingent of eleven students and two teachers found themselves transported to Africa—and a life-changing experience.

From the day they arrived, the students were each paired with an African "buddy" for the next two weeks and even spent part of their visit living with local families. They also devoted much of their time engaging in their service project—namely, providing the muscle power to build the bathhouse all the way to the roof level.

Raising Funds, Raising Hopes

In the meantime, Susan was busy raising money. The school chef had been cooking with wood on the floor—"vey toxic," according to Susan—so she quickly raised the $4,000 needed to purchase the two smokeless cookers.

Raising money for the dormitory beds was a somewhat steeper hurdle: $5,500 was needed, much of which was funneled to the Banjika school through Grand Circle Foundation. "I'm very thrilled to announce that that we've raised $5,400, and I have decided to add the extra $100," says Susan. "I did what I promised I would do. Glory hallelujah!" That contribution brings the total raised by the travelers in Susan's March 2011 OAT group and friends to over $10,000.

Students Share Their Experiences

Today, the dormitory project is nearly complete, and the young women will soon have a place where they can live and study in safety. As for their counterparts from Lick-Wilmerding, Susan reports that the students put on a half-hour assembly for their school, to share what they had learned. And while they were enthusiastic about their visits to Oldupai Gorge, where Louis and Mary Leaky made their famous discovery of early human fossil fragments, and the amazing wildlife reserve of Ngorongoro Crater, "What the students talked most about was what they learned about what they took for granted," as Susan puts it.

One young woman, for example, recalled meeting a Tanzanian peer who would have to drop out of school if she didn't have the $15 she needed to take the national exam—an amount the American student routinely carries in her wallet without even thinking about it. As a result, the Lick-Wilmerding students have formed an African Club and are fundraising to be sure that no Banjika student will ever be denied taking the national exam because he or she doesn't have $15. "To see the spirit behind these Banjika kids struggling to get an education was eye-opening and revealing," says Susan.

Perhaps it's no wonder, then, that, when Susan approached Lick-Wilmerding faculty advisor Kate Boyd about continuing the school's presence at Banjika, the response was equally enthusiastic. "She said, 'Absolutely!'" Susan reports. In fact, two or three of the faculty want to go to Tanzania to co-teach, to continue the school-to-school collaboration.

More remains to be done, of course. Now that the basic structure is built, an additional $12,000 is needed to buy the plaster, flooring, toilets, laundry tubs, and showers that will complete the bathhouse. Susan is optimistic about the future of the project, however.  "We're all in this together, trying to make Banjika a model of excellence in rural Tanzania," she says. "It is a challenge. But it's also a great opportunity."

Featured in our October 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.