An astonishingly successful story
Did you happen to watch Sixty Minutes Sunday, May 1? If so, then you are already familiar with the remarkable story of the Rift Valley Children’s Village in Tanzania and its indefatigable founder India Howell. For those of you who missed the show, click the link above. You’ll be mesmerized.
When India Howell, a Long Island native, arrived in Tanzania for the first time in 1998, she had no intention of setting up a home for marginalized children. She had come to Tanzania for adventure and to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, and planned to return to the States after the climb and buy a B&B. But almost instantly, India fell under the spell of Tanzania and decided this was where she wanted to settle down. She cancelled her plans to buy the B&B and took a job with a safari lodge instead.
It didn’t take long for India to realize that not everything about Tanzania is enchanted. She became increasingly aware of the hordes of children living in squalor on the streets and resolved to help them.
In 2004, together with Peter Mmassy, a native Tanzanian, India founded the Rift Valley Children’s Village (RVCV) in the Karatu region of northern Tanzania, not far from the famed Ngorongoro Crater. During that first year, India welcomed 17 children into a house she had rented on a hill overlooking the coffee plantations. She and Peter drew up plans to build more houses and support facilities in order to bring in more children. Today India is the legal guardian of 94 children, and the Rift Valley Children’s Village is a sprawling complex of 8 family houses and close to a dozen other buildings.
RVCV is not an orphanage in the traditional sense. Although it’s true that most of the children there have lost one or both of their birth parents, none of the children is available for adoption. The minute they enter RVCV, they become permanent members of the large and boisterous RVCV family, surrounded by love and laughter.
About a dozen children live in each of the family houses, together with two Tanzanian “mamas” and a rotating crew of international volunteers. Daily life is highly structured. After school, there are chores to be done and mandatory study time. But there is also plenty of time for play and for individual expression. Last year, the staff and some enterprising volunteers helped the children stage an unforgettable production of the Lion King, complete with costumes and scenery.
Probably the most daunting challenge India had to face during the early years at RVCV was the state of the nearby elementary school. Chronically underfunded, like most government schools in Tanzania, Gyetighi Primary had few textbooks or supplies and the classrooms were in a deplorable condition. Even worse, the teachers were often absent. Those who did show up for work often beat the children.
Buoyed by the financial support of some U.S. backers, India decided to confront the Tanzanian government officials. While it wasn’t easy, she managed to convince them that her educational vision offered a better alternative not just for her own growing family but also for the other 400 children who lived in the school district.
India’s vision called for hiring more teachers, curbing the widespread teacher absenteeism, eliminating corporal punishment, and introducing a nutritious lunch program for all students. She also took on the job of renovating classrooms and providing more textbooks and classroom supplies. The results have been astonishing: In 2004, only 25% of the graduating class at Gyetighi Primary passed the all-important National Exam, making it one of the worst performing schools in the district. In 2014, 100% of the graduating class passed the National Exam. When the school rankings were announced for that year, Gyetighi was rated the Number One government school in the district and was also ranked in the top 2% of all schools, public and private, nationwide.
These days, India and her team are trying to work the same magic at Odeani Secondary School, the closest government secondary school to RVCV. In 2013, RVCV signed a five-year contract to co-manage Oldeani. Renovations to the classroom buildings are well underway, as are the efforts to change the habits, and the mindset, of the teachers at the school to bring them more in line with their colleagues at Gyetighi.
As RVCV has grown, India and her team have also become increasingly aware that the best way for their children to thrive is for the whole community to thrive. To help achieve that goal, RVCV’s full-time registered nurse now runs a free clinic that provides basic healthcare for all residents of the nearby villages. India was also instrumental in helping FAME (Foundation for African Medicine and Education) get the requisite funding to set up a clinic and 24-bed in-patient hospital in nearby Arusha. The FAME clinic sees 1,600 patients a month.
RVCV has also launched an array of community-based programs to help lift local families out of poverty. The most ambitious of these is a microfinance program designed to give local entrepreneurs not only the funds they need but also the training and support they need to operate a small business. The program currently has loans out to over 500 clients.
Plenty of other initiatives are on the drawing board. For example, now that many of the children at RVCV are becoming teenagers, India and her team are turning their attention to helping their own and other rural Tanzanian teenagers develop sustainable career paths.
To keep tabs on RVCV’s progress in this and other endeavors, visit www.tanzanianchildrensfund.org. The website also explains how you can help support the team’s efforts, both financially and/or as a volunteer. RVCV has hosted scores of volunteers of all ages over the years, including many mother-daughter combinations. There’s absolutely no reason you couldn’t be the next volunteer.
Article written by Linda S. Hayes