At end of 2015, Neema International’s reach grew exponentially when we were selected as the first ever recipient of a Digitruck, an invention that would promote education and further our students’ learning through the use of technology. The Digitruck is a 40-foot shipping container that has been converted into a fully insulated, solar powered and furnished classroom equipped with 20-networked laptops, a printer, a TV. Expanding the village roads and maneuvering this massive piece of equipment through the village was a task that required way more manpower than two Mzungu (the non-derogatory Swahili word for white-foreigner) girls alone. We worked along side dozens of adolescents who for one reason or another were no longer enrolled in school. Having this phenomenal classroom in the middle of a dire village gave us the perfect opportunity to take these kids’ education into our own hands and give them a second chance at a bright future. We decided that we would make an official Digitruck class for individuals aged fourteen to twenty.
“The road that Ali, the kids, and I worked on was a total length of 1.2 kilometers. When we tried to offer the kids some sort of payment or even lunch during the days they worked with us, one of the boys looked at us and said, ‘The only thing I want is to be able to be one of the students who gets to study in your classroom once the truck arrives.” He mentioned not wanting to go down the same path as his older siblings and thought there was something better out there for him. The other children all agreed and said that they too would give anything to get the chance to go to school. There was no doubt in my mind that these 6 individuals would be the first students on the roster for the Digitruck class.” — Mandy Stein
With 64% of Tanzania’s 55.57 million people being under the age of 24 and a secondary school enrollment rate of less than 50%, there were hundreds of applicants. We designed a remedial curriculum for these students, focused highly on English literacy, mathematics, science and life skills that would give them the foundation that they need to eventually re-enroll in school. In October of 2015, we took 18 teenagers off the street (including the original six) and began daily classes in the Digitruck.
“These students are bright and want SO badly to succeed and get an education… and that was immediately apparent to us when we first put them in the Digitruck classroom—They didn’t fail the PSLE because they were lazy or because they weren’t smart… Instead it seems that the fault lies in the hands of the education system (the teachers, classrooms, schools, resources, etc)—these students had hardly learned anything in their 7 years of primary school education… and now, at 13 or 14 years old, their academic career is over— unless we could do something about it…” –Ali Hanson, Neema Assistant Director
What could Neema International do to give these kids a better future?? There had to be more out there waiting for them besides a life of destitution.
While public government schooling was not an option for these students, they are still eligible to attend a Private Secondary School if they can pass the test, get accepted, and pay the school fees. There was a phenomenal remedial school called Kilimahewa, that is supported by an American non-profit organization called EducationEmpowerment. The school was built to help students just like ours, who would need to test back into the system in order to complete their schooling. This would be the perfect school for our students… all we had to do now was get them prepared!
In order for this to happen in just one year, Ali and Mandy would have to teach at an extremely fast pace and the majority of the studying and memorization would have to take place outside the classroom, on the students’ own time.This placed a lot of responsibility on each student and gave him or her the power to decide what their future would look like. The only behavioral guidelines that we have set for these students are that they don’t get pregnant/get anyone pregnant (if pregnant, they will not be granted admission to any school no matter how smart the individual may be) and that the students keep their Digitruck grade average above 50%.
If they held up their end of the deal, we planned to use Neema International’s Education Sponsorship Program to find them a sponsor who will fund their education all the way through to their completion of university.
For children who grew up in a safe home filled with positive influences, these guidelines would have been a no brainer, because getting pregnant or doing drugs or failing classes weren’t things that existed in their sheltered world. Additionally, schooling and getting an education would have been a given, instead of something that you wished for like a Christmas present or a reward. Unfortuantely, this wasn’t the case for the Digitruck students.
The aforementioned 15-year-old boy (who helped us prepare for the Digitruck’s arrival and wanted nothing more than to go to school), is the youngest of 6 siblings, all of which whose educational career ended after Primary School. His two older sisters are both married with children and have moved to a different village but are still living in poverty. His 24 year old brother is an alcoholic and has been in and out of jail multiple times and has 4 children—his 20 year old brother, who has a two year old daughter, hangs out with a crowd that resorts to drinking all day instead of being productive members of society—his 17 year old brother, a victim of rape himself, has gone on to rape two younger girls in the village. And this sweet 15-year-old student of ours is stuck living in a two-room mud hut alongside of his parents, all of his brothers, two of their ‘wives’ and their offspring. This is not exactly a conducive environment for a teenage boy who is trying to write a different ending to his life story. After the first day of class, when all the students were leaving, he looked Ali and Mandy in the eyes and said in the most sincere way possible, “Thank you so much….”
Our classes evolved more when we received an incredible contribution from Brisbane Rotary— they donated a program called Teacher in a Box, which was an entire curriculum and academic network on one small network hard drive that all the computers in the Digitruck are able to connect to. This allowed the students to move at their own pace with their studies, and utilize programs like Khan Academy and Wikipedia for Schools to aid their individual needs.
By the end of 2016, all of the students had made significant progress and we were so proud of all their hard work and accomplishments. 13 of them showed exceptional ability and in January 2017, these 13 students got to re-enroll full time at a private English Medium boarding school where they began their Secondary School studies. The other students who weren’t 100% ready to go back to school were given options about if they wanted to continue learning in the digitruck throughout 2017 or if they wanted to try their luck at something else, like a vocational school. Three of the students decided not to return, and the other two enrolled in vocational schools and are doing beautifully there.
We received dozens and dozens of applications for the 2017 year for new Digitruck students, but each week, we wound up having to refine our selection, because some of the students who were the first to apply were SO far behind and were not taking class seriously at all. In the end, we found only 12 that were truly ready to commit to their studies, and so we decided it was better to have a small dedicated class than to have irresponsible/non-serious students disrupting the class or potentially harming the equipment. These 12 students are doing very well, and a handful of them will definitely be ready to re-enroll in school come January. We are very pleased with how our program is working and know that as we continue to learn new ways to use these computers and the Teacher in a box program, we will be able to help even more children.
The children who live at the orphanage facility adjacent to the Digitruck are also using the computers on the weekends and LOVE them.