Posted by: Katherine Primus | February 15, 2010

Open Mind for Africa: Zambia

The Open Mind for Africa program in honor of Dr. Louise Shoemaker, Dean Emerita of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, builds on the Christian Association’s foundation of promoting open minds and working faith. The program provides travel grants to Penn students for service work in Africa as well as cultural awareness dinners during the school year. In the inaugural year four students received travel grants and we will be sharing their stories with you over the next few weeks. Heather Curl (EdD ’12) traveled to Zambia where she worked at a community school. Read her story below.

This year’s grant application is now available. See upennca.org to download an application, which is due Feb 22, 2010.

The residents of Jowell, a village outside of Katete in the Eastern Province of Zambia, have a hard time sending their children to the government school nearby. Because everyone farms in the village, money is hard to come by and the fees for the government school are difficult for each family to pay. In reaction to this issue, community schools have started all over Zambia which enables farmers to send their children to the community school where they pay in corn instead of cash. Uniforms are not required as they are in the government schools, and the teachers come from the community.

In June, 2009, I had the opportunity to travel from Philadelphia to Jowell through the connection of a colleague and friend at Penn, David Seidenfeld. I flew on my own, via South Africa, and was met at the bus station in Katete by Daniel Mwanza – a leader in the community.

My goal in visiting was twofold. First, I hoped to speak with the two teachers in the community school, as well as the board of the school, and offer some support. This is what I currently do as a visiting instructor in the teacher education program at Bryn Mawr College and what I previously did through mentoring first year teachers in Teach For America at Penn.

I was hoping to offer support in whatever way I could in the village while also expanding my own knowledge and attempting to translate skills to a new context. In addition, because money is scarce in this community and particularly for this school, I came with funds ready to buy new supplies for the school from local stores in Katete. The money for the supplies came from a grant from the Open Mind for Africa, a program run by the Christian Association at the University of Pennsylvania.

While in the village, I met with the school board twice and the teachers of the school three times, spent time with the children in the school each day and went to a nearby government school and met teachers from many different schools in the area. After learning what supplies were needed I purchased many of them in Katete and shared them with the teachers and the school board. These supplies included copy books, pencil sharpeners, science, English and math “text” books, math instruments, crayons, large paper for posters, paste, markers, English dictionaries and chalk.

In addition, I have since sent a box of other supplies that I wanted to offer that were not available in Katete, such as a world map for the wall, children’s books in English, flashcards for English vocabulary and math concepts, more pencils and pens and planning and record keeping books for the teachers.

The conversations I had with the teachers included important ideas around group work, getting to know one’s students, critical thinking and student ownership of their own learning. Both teachers and members of the board mentioned many times feeling encouraged by my presence and thankful for my involvement. I expressed the same sentiments!

In addition to these immediate supply related needs, I also learned of other needs including desks (as you can see, they only have benches right now) as well as a larger supply of books. They are quite expensive and so I could only purchase 2 or 3 copies of each math, science and English textbook I bought. While this added greatly to the small collection they had of textbooks already (1 for each teacher), they are still in need of more so that each student, or pair of students, can work directly with a textbook instead of sharing it as a class, as you they currently do.

Finally, this school is attempting to expand and add another building in the next year. I have become part of the efforts for fundraising for this new building and am working with David to help in whatever way I can. David has started a foundation (called the Impact Network) for this community school and information can be found here.

This experience was profoundly important to me because of the amazing people I was able to spend time with and learn from. Not only am I now a part of a community across the world that became very important to me in the two weeks I was there but I also now have better direction for my own career and where it might take me.

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