How It All Began by Sam Barnett

I was at the end of my first year studying History at Trinity Hall, Cambridge and decided to spend the summer break in East Africa with my brother.

 We had a vague plan about working in a school near Musoma in Tanzania and so landing in Nairobi, we made our way overland via Kisii and then onto the Tanzanian border. In Migori, we bumped into a gentleman called Joshua Mogaka who urged us to come and work in the secondary school in Nyakorere in the Kisii district. After failing to find the school in Musoma and instead finding ourselves in an uncomfortable situation with some local youths – we returned to Migori and took Mr Mogaka up on his offer. 

Arriving in Nyakorere, we found that when Mr Mogaka had said ‘working in’ he had really meant ‘reviving a school that had closed’. So without the experience to know any better, we allowed ourselves to be placed at the front of a community project to revive what had been Nyaorere secondary school. I was the ‘headteacher’, two other teachers joined from the village and 15 students pitched up. The village formed a Board of Governors, the school was recognised by the government and after 3 months when we left there was a small but functioning school.

We followed the progress of the school during the year, and next summer I returned with some friends from college and funds we had raised in order to procure books and science equipment for the school. While we had gone the school had grown and was now supported by government teachers and a headmaster. In the past, the school had failed partly because of a legacy of mistrust in the community. We therefore tried to work with the Board of Governors and the wider village to develop the school.

In subsequent years, further groups of students from Cambridge raised funds for the school and came to the village to participate in the development projects. We built a science lab, developed the school library, fixed the school infrastructure and stayed for periods of 6 months to a year to teach. Support from the Ministry of Education enabled more teachers to come and thus the number of students increased. The interest in the project grew in Cambridge and we attracted more people and more resources – and started to work in other villages from 1995. This pulled in yet more students from Cambridge and created more interest and more commitment.  This dynamic helped the project to grow, develop and eventually institutionalise and become an established charity with a mission and goals similar to those held today.

The team of people who worked in Nyakorere in the early 90s learned a number of lessons and over the years we developed methods of working – some of which appear to be echoed in the work that is done today.

a.       As students ourselves with only a limited period of time during the summer months, we couldn’t provide effective long term teaching assistance – so we decided to focus on resource investment.

b.      The communities we worked in tended to have resources and be reasonably good at spotting when schools were likely to succeed. We therefore tried to invest our funds only when the community was ready to invest theirs.

c.       The students who had worked on these projects were often highly motivated to continue their support on returning to the UK, and we could use this dynamic to continue the projects year after year.

d.      Taking the time to learn and study aspects of life in the village was a useful way to build respect for the people we worked with  – and sometimes essential when certain of us weren’t overwhelmed by self-doubt.

e.      We learnt a huge amount and had a very significant ‘growth’ experience – and while perhaps unintended – the impact it had on us and our future careers has been a long lasting effect of these projects.

The organisation today appears much more professional, structured and well organised than the ‘guerilla’ type operation we ran. The communities and their aspirations are similar though and the ways of addressing these aspirations seem to be consistent. Moreover, the commitment of the students from UK universities who support the projects and their ability to reflect on what they are doing and what impact they are having – remains a backbone of the charity.

Good luck for 2013