Room to Read (RTR) believes that world change starts with educated children. As part of IMC's two-year commitment to this extraordinary organisation, a group from all three of our offices travelled to Tanzania in September 2017. We visited six IMC-funded schools and met with the teaching staff, community members and government stakeholders responsible for implementing RTR's literacy program. With Giving Tuesday on the horizon, we wanted to share our four key takeaways from the trip and some of our favorite memories.
RTR sticks to their mission. Specifically, to teach six and seven year olds to read. In the countries where they’re active, it’s tempting to veer from the mission because there are so many other needs. But they stay focused and that's why they succeed. Besides building libraries, publishing age-appropriate readers in the official languages of the communities and providing literacy coaches to train teachers, RTR also works with schools to create split schedules and reduce the teacher:student ratio (which is often 1:50-100).
“It’s a simple idea, but not simple to do well.”
"… as we traveled around to schools, I kept reflecting on the story of RTR's evolution described by John Wood in his books. RTR is rooted in his simple belief that kids should have access to books. A belief that compelled him to buy a bunch of books and deliver them to Nepal himself. Fast forward 20 years and you see that this simple idea requires so much coordination and planning to pull off. Books need to be published in local languages, teachers need to be trained to teach reading, classrooms and libraries need to be constructed, adults need to learn to run a library - I could go on and on. In one library we visited, I picked up an English language kid's book about snow, and realized how absurdly out of context that was. Not only could the children not read English, but they have no notion of snow! I could imagine a generous westerner thinking that they’re really going help kids in Africa by sending books. Nope – its more complicated than that. Through our visit, I deepened my understanding of all of the components of the literacy program and more fully appreciated that we are funding a group of committed professionals who are true experts in making this simple idea a reality."
Tanzania clearly values education and it matters. For example, school fees were eliminated in 2015 and it’s now law that children go to school. The result: 98% of first graders show up.
"I went back in time to when I was in first grade."
"As we sat in a classroom observing a phonics lesson, I was transported back to my childhood. I also sat in wooden seats and I remember the compartment in the desk where I used to store my books. We were taught to read using similar methods where we would repeat after our teacher and then practice in our books. I remember feeling so happy and proud that I could read some words - I couldn’t wait to go home and tell my parents! Half way through the class, I found myself repeating the teacher along with the students. At the end of the class, as I watched the children practicing reading in their own books, I could imagine how they probably felt. And thanks to RTR, each student had his or her own book, rather than having to share with classmates!"
Local ownership is crucial. RTR provides 85% of the funding needed to build and stock libraries and run their programs. They then challenge the community to come up with the balance, which results in ownership and investment. We got to witness this collaboration with the community first hand.
"This project will succeed because the community is invested in its success."
"On the third day after many introductions like: “Jambo, jina langu ni Paul”, an elderly Tanzanian man in a pink shirt finished our introductions. His name is Mohammed, one of the community members involved with the school. In his 70’s, Mohammed has no front teeth but an ear-to-ear smile, and explained to us in perfect English how much he appreciates the work of the RTR. We learned that he'd been a teacher for most his life. He is retired now but as a grandfather with grandchildren at this school, he wants to contribute as well: he will be the school’s librarian and he can’t wait until the newly built library is open! At that moment I realised that this project will succeed because RTR, the (local) government and the community are all invested in its success."
"As the projects IMC has funded are still in the implementation / start-up phase, we could only see a glimmer of the impact. To understand the true impact of being able to read and share the passion for it I was struck by Mohammed's story. In his 70's, this former teacher is now a farmer, grandfather, poet, head of the school committee and, starting in 2018, the librarian at one of the schools we visited. Thanks to the skill of reading he was able to improve his life and that of his family. He was able to read up on new farming methods, rather than relying on second-hand information. This helped him improve yields and his (grand)children are no longer destined to be subsistence farmers. Thanks to learning to read early, they can pass the high-school entry test and potentially attend university."
The impact is visible. In Tanzania, RTR operates in the districts of Bagamoyo (well established) and Kibaha (just entered). The school district of Kibaha was #1 in the region until RTR began working in Bagamoyo, which soon rose to #1. The results were so clear that Kibiha asked for help.
"I started reading out loud, trying to make it as fun and lively as I could."
"On one of our school visits we spent time with the kids during their library hour. While sitting on the floor talking to one of the RTR literacy coaches, a girl approached me with an English book in her hands - did I want to read to her, she asked in Swahili. Before I knew it, countless children gathered around me, ready to listen, with other books in their hands. I started reading out loud, trying to make it as fun and lively as I could. When I needed a second to flip the page, the girl that asked me to read to her started to translate. I read book after book, with her translating every few sentences. Or, I guess so. I don’t speak Swahili and as her laughter became louder by the page, I started to wonder whether she was actually translating me or if she was telling the kids some random story. Does it matter? I don’t think so! We all had so much fun and I will treasure the memory of sharing a love of reading with children who appreciated it."
"It's the local ownership and passion that will drive the program forward and make it a sustainable."
"One thing that sticks with me after the trip are the smiling faces and the passion for education. In the classrooms and schoolyards we met the kids, super energetic, studying and playing. We met the teachers, government representatives, and community members, all working together with help from RTR to improve the schools. We got to see the collaboration that is at the heart of the challenge-grant model around which RTR bases its efforts. While RTR provides knowledge and support, it's the local ownership and passion that will continue to drive the program forward and make it a sustainable and lasting effort past RTR's presence."