A blind man died and the village gathered for his funeral.  As it was about to begin, one of his grandchildren asked the pastor: “Has grandpa gone to hell?”  Astonished, the pastor answered: “Not at all, who told you that?”  The boy replied: “But grandpa was blind.  People say blindness is a curse!”

In Tanzania, there are a lot of tall tales like this one, demonstrating the lack of understanding and awareness about disability and special needs.  In addition to the stigma that accompanies disability, there is also a dearth of resources for the disabled, including children with issues such as subtle and complex learning difficulties.  Without a system in place to assist them, especially in the early years of primary school, they will grow up with little hope of remaining, much less succeeding in school, and thus have difficulties master basic life skills.

The Toa Nafasi Project, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, has been trying to bridge this gap since 2013.  Toa nafasi means “provide a chance” in Kiswahili, the national language of Tanzania, and addresses the fact that without some kind of intervention acknowledging each student’s individuality, many Tanzanian schoolchildren will not achieve their full potential.  With its unique public-private partnership, The Toa Nafasi Project seeks to augment the current educational system by locating itself within public primary schools and collaborating with local government authorities.  While working within the confines of the existing national curricula, we introduce new and innovative teaching methodologies for academically challenged students in a way that is socially relevant, culturally sensitive, and easily replicable.

Of course, the lack of awareness and understanding of special needs is not unique to Tanzania.  It exists in many other developing as well as developed countries.  In fact, more than one billion people around the world – of whom nearly 93 million are children – live with some form of disability, and suffer inequalities and fewer opportunities in their daily lives, including access to education (IASE website).

Enter the International Association of Special Education.  Founded in 1989 with the goal of improving quality of life and service delivery for individuals with special needs around the world, IASE fosters a culture of cross-collaboration in which members can share ideas and learn from each other.  They do this through research and published scholarship; Volunteer Service Projects whereby members serve in various sites around the world; and a conference which is held in a different locale and under a different theme every two years.

This year, in July of 2019, the conference took place in Tanzania for the first time and members of The Toa Nafasi Project played an integral part in the planning process.  Well-placed within the country to provide assistance, we helped publicize the event; researched transportation, accommodations, and entertainment options; liaised with other IASE members and stakeholders; and drummed up local participation on the ground in Tanzania.

The event was held, justly, at Sebastian Kolowa Memorial University (SEKOMU) in the Lushoto area of Tanzania where, for more than ten years, thousands of special education teachers have been trained at degree level.  These graduates are now serving learners with physical, sensory, cognitive, and behavioral challenges in Tanzania and abroad.

More than 350 delegates from 27 different countries were in attendance from July 14 to July 17.  We heard rousing speeches and calls to action from Her Excellency Samia Hassan Suluhu, Vice President of the United Republic of Tanzania as well as His Excellency Benjamin William Mkapa, former President of the United Republic of Tanzania.  We also participated in panels and sessions about different areas of special education from experts all around the world.

The theme of the conference was “Empowering Persons with Disabilities: Developing Resilience and Inclusive Sustainable Development.”  The thinking is that if development isn’t inclusive, it will leave others behind.  And if it leaves others behind, it won’t be sustainable.

This theme resonated strongly with the staff at Toa Nafasi, which after six years of operations on the ground consists of: Founder Sarah Rosenbloom, Deputy Director Augustino Valerian, Assistant Deputy Director Emmanuel Mnubi, Tutor Leader Hyasinta Macha, and 26 Tutors.  All our staff are Tanzanian with the exception of Sarah and Allison Taylor, our Fundraising and Communications Manager who works remotely from Australia.

Five members of our tutoring staff (along with Augustino, Ema, and Hyasinta) were able to attend the IASE conference and participate with like-minded peers in panels and sessions regarding special needs and disability.  For many of them, it was their first opportunity to travel to a new part of their own country and mingle with people from all over the world.

Among the panels that resonated with the Toa Nafasi attendees were those that focused on inclusive education.  In full agreement with the theme of the conference, The Toa Nafasi Project rejects the concept of segregating struggling learners in separate schools or centers.  Instead, by means of a daily one-hour “pullout program,” Toa Nafasi works with students determined to be flagging to help them reach their full potential and complete the standard Tanzanian curriculum but in a modified context.

Other sessions of particular interest to our tutoring staff were those that dealt with teacher training.  Because we at Toa Nafasi believe that an effective teacher is not defined by the degrees she holds, we are open to interviewing, hiring, and training staff beyond teacher college graduates and certificate-holders.  Believing that the most valuable gift a teacher can bestow upon her students is that of confidence and a chance to learn at their own pace in their own way, Toa Nafasi offers employment opportunities to those who believe in our mission.  Thus, we have hired, as tutors, local women from nearby villages who have struggled to find gainful employment.  Providing training and a path to professional development to these women both empowers them and benefits Toa students.

Since our return to Kilimanjaro where The Toa Nafasi Project is based, we have been hard at work disseminating what we learned at the 16th Biennial IASE Conference and making plans for the future: the rest of this year, 2020, and beyond.

2019 has already been a big year for us in so many ways and it is not yet over.  In addition to the conference in July, we were lucky enough to be awarded a grant from the Segal Family Foundation starting in April 2019.  The award has enabled us to expand our participating public primary school sites from 4 to 9, all of which are located in Moshi Municipality, Kilimanjaro Region.  We anticipate adding another 2 schools in 2020, and once we have a firm hold on Moshi Municipality, we’ll think about other districts in Kilimanjaro and other regions in Tanzania.

Segal believes that “development should be steered by grassroots leaders and power shifted into the hands of communities.”  So does Toa Nafasi.  After 12 years of living in Tanzania, Founder Sarah Rosenbloom will resume life in New York City, continuing to support from afar and fundraise for Toa Nafasi while the day-to-day management shifts into the able hands of Augustino, Ema, and Hyasinta.

Thus, polepole (slowly) and little by little, we at The Toa Nafasi Project like to think we’ve done our part to fulfill the theme of this past IASE conference.  We’ve aimed to empower young people with disabilities, as well as those who educate and care for them.  We’ve sought to develop resilience in both our tutors and students, encouraging them not to give up should they fail, but rather try another way around.  And we’ve built a model for development that is both inclusive and sustainable.  We look forward to a bright future at Toa Nafasi, the blossoming of our partnership with Segal Family Foundation, and the next biennial conference of the IASE in 2021, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam!

*This piece was written by the fundraising team of The Toa Nafasi Project for the purpose of wrapping up our participation in the recent International Association of Special Education conference in Lushoto as well as announcing our new partnership with the Segal Family Foundation in whose ethos we strongly believe.