PhD student builds school and offers hope for a future

Joash Gambarage takes a break with school children in Mugeta | Photo courtesy of Joash Johaness

Joash Gambarage takes a break with school children in Mugeta | Photo courtesy of Joash Johaness

Joash Gambarage, a Tanzanian PhD candidate specializing in African linguistics at UBC, is the only one in a community of approximately 20,000 people to pursue higher studies outside of the small town of Mugeta in rural Tanzania.

There were very few families that were well-off [in Mugeta],” says Gambarage, who attributes his success to his family’s strong support of education. “For most families, the challenge was putting food on the table, so things like shoes and clothes were luxuries that parents couldn’t afford.”

Gambarage witnessed several children from impoverished households being forced to drop out of school because they had to work or because their parents could not afford school supplies or uniforms.

“My family was lucky because we had my father’s salary [as an elementary school teacher] to depend on, but he couldn’t afford luxuries like shoes,” he says.

Gambarage walked barefoot to and from school until his grade seven graduation ceremony, when he borrowed his first pair of shoes from a boy belonging to a more affluent family.

Paying the opportunity forward

When he received his scholarship to UBC in 2010, Gambarage used some of the funds to start the Mugeta Children’s School project, which strives to make elementary school education accessible to children who do not have the means to go to public school.

“It is not only a way of giving back to the community,” says Gambarage. “It’s also a way of celebrating education as a powerful weapon that changed [my life] and [can] change the lives of so many children in Mugeta.”

The school has over 105 students enrolled in kindergarten through grade five, and provides students with all the resources they need to excel, including reading and writing materials and food – to ensure that their focus is on learning and not on an empty stomach. The school also sets itself apart by its bilingual approach to learning.

“Teaching English as well as Swahili from an early age gives [students] an added advantage because [in Tanzania] only English instruction is offered at the secondary level onwards,” says Gambarage. “We are doing our best to equip them with the tools they need to succeed in secondary school.”

Strong community support

When the school first opened, only children from low-income families were admitted. But as word spread about the new school, there was demand from the community to allow children from middle-income families to attend as well.

“We were hesitant at first because children from middle income families can go to the community public school, whereas the more impoverished children don’t have that option,” says Gambarage.

They held a meeting with members of the community and a mutually beneficial solution was reached: children from middle-income homes would be allowed to attend the school, but would pay a small tuition fee to help sustain the school.

“We have about 45 children who are contributing [paying tuition] to the school and they are only paying what is equivalent to $100 a year,” explains Gambarage. “But we have over 105 enrolled, so the majority of students get free schooling.”

Overcoming challenges

The school has had to overcome a lot of obstacles, some of which still remain ongoing, but Gambarage notes that the school’s achievements have surpassed its challenges. One of the biggest challenges faced by the school was unreliable electricity because it hindered the use of the computers donated by UBC.

”In the last few weeks, we’ve been able to successfully connect a power line to the school, so this problem of electricity has been overcome,” says Gambarage.

The second challenge is a lack of safe drinking water, so the goal is to build a sustainable well that will provide a vital and permanent water supply for the school and the community. This is a necessary but expensive project, and Gambarage estimates that it will all cost up to $9000.

“[Mugeta School] is still heavily reliant on donations to continue to operate, so my vision is to put it on a self-sustainable path so that it can stand on its own,” says Gambarage.

A fundraising event in collaboration with UBC’s Africa Awareness Initiative (AAI) and Hope for Happiness is being planned for November.

“By supporting the Mugeta School Project, you are joining in the empowerment of young boys and girls who otherwise would not have access to an elementary school education,” says Gambarage. “I don’t think that people need saving and I’m not a saviour; I think that people just need opportunities.”