After spending four months studying Swahili in Tanzania as Boren Scholars, Rebecca Gailey and Katy Merckel arrived in Karagwe, Tanzania, in January 2013 ready to put their new language skills to the test. As part of an independent service-learning program arranged through Amizade Global Service-Learning, Rebecca and Katy spent the spring volunteering with local community development organizations. While Rebecca researched gender violence and Katy research household meals and nutrition, they both spent significant time interacting with students and teachers in Karagwe. These interactions revealed an education system burdened by over-crowded classrooms, a lack of supplies, and teaching methodologies based on testing and rote memorization. Rebecca and Katy became even more drawn into Tanzania’s education system that spring when more than 50 percent of 10th grade students failed a national test, and Tanzanians erupted in protest over the lack of quality education opportunities.
That April, Amizade’s executive director, Brandon, asked Rebecca and Katy a simple question: If they could start any program in Karagwe, what would it be? Fueled by the frustration of the community around them and inspired by their own memories of the school-break programs that shaped their childhoods, Rebecca and Katy spent several coffee-fueled nights outlining the basics of what would later become The Ota Initiative. When they presented their idea to Brandon, he embraced the idea and pledged Amizade’s support in helping to start the program.
Upon returning to the U.S. in May 2013, Rebecca and Katy found themselves in a D.C. row house for the summer where they continued to plan Ota. They networked with U.S. teachers, Tanzanian teachers, and the U.S. non-profit Global Visions Empowerment to plan an arts- and science-based two-week program for that December. They chose these subjects as the base of the program because not only are they often neglected in Kayanga due to a lack of supplies, but they are critical for helping to develop student’s creativity, critical thinking skills, and self-confidence.
With the help of donations from friends and families, and a grant from the All People Be Happy Foundation, the friends were able to raise enough money to pilot the program. That fall, Katy headed off to Cornell to pursue a Ph.D. in International Development and Nutrition, and Rebecca headed back to Karagwe for two months to get Ota off the ground. After securing a location, hiring and training local staff, and adjusting the curriculum as necessary, Ota successfully ran its first program in December 2013.
Now, two years later, Katy is still working on that Ph.D., and The Ota Initiative is preparing to run its sixth program. While Rebecca continues to overlook Ota’s operations from the U.S., Ota is almost entirely run by its local Tanzanian staff. The program continues to use science experiments and art projects as the base of its curriculum, but it has evolved over the past five programs. Ota introduced English programming in December 2014 in response to parents’ requests for instruction in this critical language. In June 2015, Ota was able to expand on its English programming when it hosted a group of Amizade volunteers from West Virginia University. As Ota enters 2016, it hopes to expand its impact to educate more students and provide more jobs to youth in the Karagwe community.
The Ota Initiative Co-Founder Katy Merckel in Kayanga with The Ota Initiative group leader and local secondary student Fahimu.