Jennifer Mejia recalls the moment her trip to Africa “got real.”
It wasn’t going on safari, listening to hyenas while she and other Northern Illinois University students slept in tents in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
It was approaching the shore of Iriga, an island in Lake Victoria, and seeing fishermen at work and children at play.
“You could immediately tell a lot of the kids were very malnourished,” she said. “You could definitely see their ribs and their big, puffy bellies. I saw the conditions these people were living in, in shacks made of palm trees or sticks with a little laminate for a roof, and it humbled me.”
Mejia, who this month completed her master’s degree in public administration, traveled to Tanzania with a group of NIU students for a four-week study-abroad course this summer with Kurt Thurmaier, professor and director of the Division of Public Administration at NIU. Thurmaier is also the founder of Tanzania Development Support, or TDS, a DeKalb-based nonprofit that raises money in the U.S. for development projects that support education, especially for girls, in Tanzania.
The students were joined midway through the trip by a group of TDS volunteers, and together they worked with community members and contractors in the village of Nyegina to begin laying the foundation for a library and community resource center. The students also attended seminars and completed coursework related to the roles of government and non-governmental organizations in development.
“We are working in one of the poorest districts of one of the poorest countries in the world,” Thurmaier said. “And I make sure they see abject poverty. You can go to the south side of Chicago and see poverty, but this is several rungs lower than that poverty. This is people living in stick huts with no toilet facilities, no running water, not even a well.”
Thurmaier and his wife, Jeanine, started TDS in 2008 after spending their 25th wedding anniversary in Nyegina, where a close friend is the head of a Catholic high school. Thurmaier met his friend, a Tanzanian Catholic priest, when they were studying public policy administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the early 1980s.
“We followed him around for two weeks and we saw a tremendous need for money,” Thurmaier said. “They don’t lack brains; they have strategic plans, priorities, blueprints, they just don’t have any money to build things. …At this school there were 600 kids, but no computers, no library, 10 kids to a textbook. To say this is a 21st-century high school is ridiculous.”
The first priority of TDS was to build a girls’ dormitory at the school. With that building completed, the group has turned its attention to the library, which is being built on the grounds of the school but will be a resource for all people in a five- to 10-village area. It will have Internet access, resources for teachers and space for continuing education for adults.
The reasons for Tanzania’s poverty are largely related to government policies that discourage investment, Thurmaier said. Some of those policies are changing, but progress is slow.
“Change is possible. It can be done. But if there’s nobody stepping up and saying, ‘We can’t wait for other people. We’ve got to do this ourselves,’ nothing is going to change,” said Nelisha Gray, a senior studying sociology at NIU. “I would ask these students at the school what they wanted to do after they graduate, and hearing how hard it is for them just to go to school is sad and frustrating.”
Students and volunteers were also inspired by the people they met. Matthew Simpson, a graduate student in public administration, said the challenges faced by local governments in Tanzania make the challenges faced by his hometown of Rockford seem less daunting. The students were also impressed by the lack of self-pity they saw in Tanzanians. Several members of the party fell ill and had to go to a clinic, said Rachel McBride, a nutrition student beginning graduate school this fall. Their medicines cost about $3.50, an amount out of reach for many Tanzanians.
“I’m not struggling. There are real struggles going on in the world, and the ups and downs I have, those are not struggles,” Simpson said. “People are going to great lengths to get things we take for granted, like water, and they don’t feel sorry for themselves.”
Many of the students called the experience “life-changing,” and said it refocused their post-graduation plans.
“I’m still experiencing how I’m changing as a person because of this trip,” McBride said. “It makes me think about my future, and how I can incorporate my career into the greater good.”
On the Web
For more information about Tanzania Development Support, its projects, or to donate, visit tdsnfp.org.