Bringing Education Closer to Home

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An Introduction to New Firelight Partner, Safina Women’s Association

Safina Women’s Association (SAWA) was established by a group of 12 Tanzanian widows who provided support to each other as they transitioned into a new part of their lives. Since its inception in 1996, this organization’s work has included the establishment of two model schools, primary and preprimary, as well as the formation of village savings and loan programs for women’s economic empowerment. The crux of SAWA’s work, however, is identifying and addressing barriers to education within pastoralist communities.

Within these communities, one of the salient barriers to education is language. Children in Maasai communities grow up speaking their mother tongue, Maa, but the schools they attend are taught in Kiswahili. Compounding this barrier is the fact that children in pastoral Maasai communities often don’t attend school until around age 10, which is about three years later than their non-pastoralist counterparts. Maasai communities are often located a great distance away from the closest school, and it is too far for young children to walk. Additionally, this organization has noted that poverty greatly affects parents’ ability to meet the basic needs of their children, which ultimately hinders their educational experience.

After identifying these major barriers, SAWA has introduced holistic initiatives to mitigate them. They have supported Maasai communities to children playing in a classroommobilize in order to establish their own early childhood development centers, which help to eliminate the issue of distance. Local government and parents are involved with the planning process, making it a truly community-owned project.

In order to combat the language barrier, the organization has focused on training paraprofessional teachers within Maasai communities. They have seen positive results when children are able to start learning in Maa, and gradually make the transition to Kiswahili. In order to someday institutionalize this paradigm, Safina Women’s Association liaises with local and district-level policy makers to advocate the use of children’s mother tongue in early education.

As a complement to their education-focused programming, SAWA conducts thorough assessments of families’ economic capacities. They are then able to provide families with support to engage in income-generating projects and access to village savings and loan programs. SAWA’s programmatic evaluations have shown that children have better learning outcomes when their parents are able to provide for their basic needs.

With support from a Firelight Foundation grant, SAWA embarks on a three-year project, which includes the development and strengthening of new early childhood development centers within pastoral Maasai communities. These centers will increase communities’ capacity to provide young children with the opportunity to engage in comprehensive and culturally appropriate learning.

girls dancing outside a building in Tanzania