Women Talk: 10+ Questions With Elizabeth Kallop, An American In Africa

January 7, 2013 by
Elizabeth with students
EducationGood CausesWomen Talk

This is the first part of a two part series.

A few months ago, WYSK co-founder, Cynthia, had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Tanzania, East Africa. “I was instantly captivated by the beauty, wildlife, wilderness, culture and wonder of Africa, but it wasn’t until I met the people of Tanzania that I truly fell in love.”

Her trip was filled with adventure, but one of the highlights was a visit to Tumaini Junior School, located in the town of Karatu.

Here she met American volunteer, Elizabeth Kallop, and two local teachers, Cecelia Joseph Albert and Christine Akiny Ogeya. These three women have dedicated their lives to helping children better their own. Inspired, encouraged and amazed at what challenges these women face every day to bring a basic need like education to the community inspired us to share their stories, as surely, at the very least, they are Women You Should Know.


Women Talk: 10+ Questions With Elizabeth Kallop

Elizabeth with girlsHow did a New York City event planner end up in Tanzania?

EK: God’s Divine Plan and my insatiable appetite for adventure! In 2008, while working at the American Cancer Society (ACS), I learned about an extreme fundraiser to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to benefit ACS. Many family members and friends had been affected by cancer so I wanted to honor and pay tribute to them with every step up to Uhuru “Freedom” Peak at 19,340 feet. Since childhood, I envisioned myself working in Africa so I also treated the climb as an opportunity to finally see the land I had always dreamed of. Little did I know that the trip would completely change my life!

After returning home, I couldn’t shake the memories of my time in Tanzania, especially visiting the Shalom Orphanage Centre. Memories of my bold teenage proclamation, “I am going to move to Africa and work with people who have AIDS” kept playing in my head. I knew I wanted to become more involved, but did not know where to begin, so I contacted a friend, Rick French, who had just started a volunteer run non-profit, Journeys of Solutions (JOS). Upon sharing my hopes to become more involved, Rick said, “Sure, create something and then we can talk about running it through JOS.”

Soon enough, I was back in Tanzania in the throes of creating a sponsorship program for Shalom children to attend the nearby English-medium primary school, Tumaini Junior School, which is where I am now working.

Has your family been supportive or are they wishing you’d come home?

EK: My parents always knew I had a desire to do development work—though perhaps we all were (and are!) a little surprised at the lengths to which I have gone! The initial announcement in July 2009 that I was going to resign from my job in New York and return to Tanzania for three months was one of the more difficult conversations though they slowly began to see that my travels were not just for fun or adventure, but that I really loved the work there. Even when my parents and brother could not fully understand why this work was so important to me, they were always supportive of me.

Elizabeth with her dad JohnOver the last year especially I think my family realized just how much I adore this work. In July 2011, just days before I was to sign a one year-contract to move to Tanzania, my father was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Without hesitation, I traveled to our NJ home and told them I was moving out of my Crown Heights apartment and would return to NJ to be Dad’s caregiver as, “Tanzania is not going anywhere.” During the nine months that followed, I had plenty of opportunities to speak about my life in Tanzania with my parents and brother, and at length. It was an incredibly rich time for all of us, if not bittersweet to say the least.

Prior to my Dad’s passing, he informed me that he wanted memorial donations to go to Journeys of Solutions so that we could finish a water well project at Tumaini. In February 2013, my brother and mom will travel to Tanzania for the first time for the water well dedication.

Was there a moment in your life that inspired you to change the course of it?

EK: I was particularly restless around the time I learned about the Kilimanjaro climb in June 2007. I had graduated from New York University just one month prior and knew I wanted to travel and see the world. I dared hope that the trip to Tanzania would somehow provide an opportunity for change…though admittedly was a little shocked how quickly it happened!

What are you currently working on in Tanzania?

Tumaini SchoolEK: I volunteer for the US-based non-profits Tanzania Education Corporation (TEC supports Tumaini Junior School) and Journeys of Solutions. I am the Program Director and International Volunteer Coordinator for TEC. Both organizations have sponsorship programs aimed at helping needy children to attend school. Likewise, they each work to bring volunteers and skilled professionals over to Tanzania. I work primarily with sponsored students as well as those in need of sponsorship. I give tours to individuals and groups visiting the school. I’ve combined my love for music with my life in Tanzania and have written and taught songs to various classes, worked on Pen Pal letters and helped to set up the temporary library. Simply, I wear many hats!

What is life for you like in Tanzania?

EK: Life in Tanzania is incredible. It is definitely uncomfortable and challenging at times, especially as a mzungu, a young, single blonde woman, though I do feel most happy when I am there. Each day brings new lessons—whether I am ready to be confronted with them or not! I have learned so much about people and life through my experiences in Tanzania—and so much about myself. Life can be so raw, yet so simple at times.  I’ve seen how little it takes to have true and genuine happiness.

Hadzabe_ShelterFor example, one day I visited several tribes that live about 100KM from Karatu. The Hadzabe men are hunters and the women are gatherers and they literally had the clothing on their backs and their families around them. They made their bows and arrows and hunting/gathering tools from their surroundings; their existence was so simple. I will never forget how I felt in the moments I sat with the women around the fire before we all went to dig for the root vegetables we shared. As I looked around, I saw their makeshift homes made of nothing more than some branches and several plastic bags and felt so far from my life back in New York City. That experience gave me much perspective about what is really important and what one really needs to live and survive.

I always have a hard time returning to the US after living in Tanzania. Yes, I miss high speed internet and using the water straight from the faucet however, I definitely do not miss the magazine stands full of the latest celebrity gossip, all the reality television and the other rather empty aspects or distractions from life.

What sets Tumaini Junior School apart from other schools?

EK: Tumaini Junior School is a private English-medium primary school, so therein lies the biggest difference between Tumaini and other schools. All courses, with the exception of French and Swahili language classes, are instructed in English. Government primary schools use Swahili as the language of instruction, with just an English period offered to their students. Since all secondary schools use English as the language of instruction, Tumaini students have a much stronger foundation and better knowledge of English than their government school classmates upon entering the US equivalent of grade 8. (Sadly, the government teacher’s own comprehension of English may not be very high so this fact further exacerbates the frustration felt by students who suddenly find themselves in secondary school with all courses taught in English.)

Additionally, Tumaini has several teachers from surrounding East African countries like Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, so the students are exposed to various cultures. Even more, Tumaini has visiting volunteers, both short term and long term (like myself and another US volunteer Andrew), who come from all over the world.

Students in new libraryThe school has grown immensely since its start in 2005 when it had just 17 nursery school students. Now, Tumaini has nearly 600 students, from nursery school to grade seven, about a third of whom are boarding students. Tumaini’s reputation is well known and respected with some students traveling from as far as Dar es Salaam to attend. (Dar is 790 KM from Karatu). Further, Tumaini has sports teams, scouts, and various other extra curricular activities like Choir and French club so that students can become more involved and express themselves.

Food is provided to every student and staff member: a mid-morning tea/porridge break and lunch. At some government schools, the children are released for lunch to return to their homes.

What is the current state of education for young children in Africa?

EK: The children I have met in Tanzania, both in and out of the classroom, are so hungry for education. They realize the value of it and know that it is truly their passport to opportunities. In my experience, compared to students of their age in the US, Tanzanians appreciate school so much more because it is not free for them.

To clarify: government school in Tanzania is free, however in order to attend you must have a school uniform and school supplies. On average, the total may be less than $50USD for such items, an expensive figure for the average Tanzanian family. Private schools usually start around $1,000 per year, and depend upon school fees to pay operating costs, staff etc.
 

Classroom size differs greatly between government and private school too. On average, there may be anywhere from 50-100 students per classroom with one teacher in a government school. At Tumaini, the ratio is more like 25-30 students per classroom with at least one teacher.

computer roomIn the past, I have been invited to several government schools to visit classrooms and teach basic English lessons. Each time, I was surprised by the lack of school supplies, both for students and teachers. When I inquired why several children just sat at their desk watching the lessons instead of writing them down, the teacher blankly replied, “He does not have a pencil or paper and we do not have extra supplies to give him. So, he can only listen and hope to remember.” Later that same afternoon upon visiting the teachers’ room, I watched as they shared a red pen between about five. The chalk too was in short supply.

I recently learned that only roughly 5% of Tanzanians continue to secondary school after completing Class 7. This is a staggering statistic and thankfully seems to be changing. Tumaini had its first Standard VII graduating class and 100% of these students continued onto secondary school. Currently, we are awaiting the results for this year’s graduating class and are certain 100% will also continue to secondary school come January.

What is the state of education like for girls?

EK: In the past few years I have been in Tanzania, more often than not, sponsors request educating the young girls. I am sure some of this stems from the popularity (and truth) of Nicholas Kristof’s book and now movement, Half the Sky. Traditionally, the boys are those chosen for education over the girls, especially if the family does not have a lot of money, though more and more girls are being enrolled at school.

Girls in classDuring my middle school and high school years, I had young classmates who became pregnant and after having their children, they returned to school. In the case of Tanzanian students who become pregnant, their school career ends abruptly upon pregnancy. The young girl may be ostracized by her family and thus abandoned, left with little education and little promise of success. Prostitution might likely be her way of making money.

There are programs and organizations that are targeting these young women in the hopes of teaching them a trade so they can provide for themselves and children.

Tumaini means Hope, what does that mean to you?

EK: Children are the hope of the future and educating them is how change can happen. A strong English foundation like the one they receive at Tumaini is so very important for students because it enables them to be prepared for further education while daring to dream AND seeing those dreams come to be. Many of the students aspire to be pilots, doctors, lawyers, tour guides, and business owners (to name a few!); no doubt they will achieve their dreams!

Standard I ClassWhat is the most surprising thing you have learned while in Tanzania?

EK: Through spending time in Tanzania, I have learned the importance of the present. One day I said badaaye (see you later) to a Tanzanian friend, whom I planned to see in several days time. Immediately he stopped me and asked, “So I will see you later today then?” We were both confused, lost in translation. He then explained, to say badaaye means you will see the other person later that same day. To say see you later in a few days/few months etc., one must say tutaonana mungu akipenda which translates to “see you if/when God wishes.”

Admittedly, as an event planner from NYC I still have a color-coded Excel to do list, however I am more aware of being present than always looking ahead and forward to the next thing.

What does the future hold for you?

EK: Good question! I know that Tanzania will always be a part of my life though it is hard to say how that will manifest itself in the years to come.

I do have hopes to attend graduate school, most probably for International Development or education. I definitely want to have a family and children one day. Polepole – “slowly slowly” or “baby steps” in Kiswahili.

Is there a woman who inspires you?

EK: Mother Teresa for her selfless service and dedication to people. I often remember her quote, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”


Be sure to check out Elizabeth’s blog  Adventures of a Delicate Flower, and to learn more about Tumaini Junior School click here.