Two Amizade alumni, Becky Gailey and Katy Merckel, created The Ota Initiative, to give the children of Karagwe, Tanzania a place to build a foundation of creative and critical thinking skills through arts and science programs. Ota means to dream and grow in Swahili, and the mission of the project is to build skills that students can use to become confident, successful and engaged, and inquisitive citizens. The Ota Initiative aims to foster critical thinking skills that students will use to excel academically and in life in general; to provide a creative learning environment that will keep students engaged and learning outside of school; to nurture creativity and show children the power of their own ideas; to build self-confidence so that no citizen will be afraid to voice his or her ideas, and; to support and promote interest in the arts and sciences.
The project was based on two concepts:
- Studies show that children who actively learn year round perform better in school. Keeping children actively engaged throughout school breaks has a direct impact on their performance in school and increases their likelihood for graduating and going on to college.
- Arts and sciences are essential to an education because they teach key skills. They teach children to think about the world around them and how they interact with it.
The Ota Initiative works to create learning experiences for students during their two breaks from school in December and June. There are two programs:
- Elementary School Program: A three-hour daily program that will run for students between the ages of 4 and 8 during the schools two breaks. The program will focus on creative projects that will involve the children in storytelling, theater, drawing and other artistic endeavors. The activities will relate back to scientific subjects that will be explored through small science experiments. This program will also include aspects of leadership development and teamwork skills.
- Secondary School Program: This program will focus on giving students practice preforming lab experiments. In Tanzania, Form 2 students (the equivalent of 10th grade in the U.S.) must take nationwide tests and if they fail they cannot continue to study in the government schools. Often times, public school students fail the science subjects because the schools do not have access to lab equipment or the funds needed to replenish the supplies every year.
The Ota Initiative was a recipient of an AllPeopleBeHappy Volunteer Service Award to help kick off the project. They have also secured funding through an impressive Indiegogo campaign. Once the program is established it will be overlooked by a local board of directors and run by a locally hired head teacher who will be in charge of the day-to-day operations.
After months of planning, The Ota Initiative launched their inaugural program on December 9. Here is some of the highlights from Becky on how the first day went:
A lot of what we are doing is a bit strange for Tanzania, so I was nervous that our group leaders would struggle through the training seminar. Once again my fears were proven to be oh so unnecessary. All of our leaders put a huge amount of effort into the training program, and I truly believe they are ready to help us run this program.
At the end of the day when we asked the leaders for comments on the program. The overwhelming chorus was that although they had come in prepared to learn how to teach children, they had really learned so much more about themselves and how they want to live their lives.
Another leader talked about how before the seminar he didn’t really understand Ota’s ideas, but now the seminar has showed him how education could be. He said during the program he was just having fun participating in our exercises. Then when we talked afterward he was surprised to hear there was actually a lesson hidden within the exercise, a lesson that he would remember better know than if he had just been told it. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect summary of what we are trying to accomplish here.
I will leave you with one final comment. Before the program I had a conversation with the grandmother of one of our students. She talked about how her grandson doesn’t like school and gets horrible grades, despite his parents’ attempts to talk with his teacher and hire him tutors. She said when they heard about a nontraditional learning program they immediately wanted him to attend because they are running out of options for how to help him do better in school. I watched this student the first day of class, and he did amazing. He was energetic, laughing, participating in every activity. He is the perfect stereotype of the child who cannot sit in a desk and learn because it is just not engaging enough for him. We can’t say for sure now whether this program will help him do better in school, but I hope he has at least finally found a learning environment in which he can flourish.