Director | The Ota Initiative
Originally from Maryland, Rebecca received degrees in journalism and international studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2012. She spent six months studying and volunteering in Kenya in 2011 and then later returned to East Africa as a Boren Scholar studying Swahili in Tanzania in 2012-2013. It was during this time that she spent four months researching gender-based violence and volunteering in Kayanga with Amizade's local partner WOMEDA, a legal support group focused on women and other vulnerable populations. Rebecca has always been interested in the role education plays in development, but her research with WOMEDA showed her the reality of how lack of education can impact people's lives. Inspired by her experiences in Kayanga, and with the support of Amizade and local teachers, Rebecca and another Amizade volunteer began planning what would become The Ota Initiative in the spring of 2013. After spending a year getting the program off the ground, Rebecca now leads Ota's work as a volunteer while working with study abroad programs for U.S. college and university students at the U.S. Department of State.
Meet the Team
Head Teacher | The Ota Initiative
Pontian was born in Omukagando Village in the Kyerwa District of northwestern Tanzania to a polygamous family with eight wives and more than 50 children. When Pontian finished elementary school, his father refused to pay for him to attend secondary school because he wanted him to help tend his livestock, but one of Pontian’s older brothers worked to pay his way through school. Pontian earned his teaching certificate from Katoke Teachers Training College, taught elementary school for several years, and then returned to school to earn a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Education from Saint Augustine University of Tanzania in 2011. After earning his degree, Pontian began teaching at Rugu Secondary School in Karagwe, where he also serves as the school’s Second Master and its Sports and Cultural Coordinator. In 2013, Pontian joined The Ota Initiative as its head teacher.
Executive Director | Amizade Global Service-Learning
Brandon Blache-Cohen, named one of Pittsburgh’s 40 under 40 in 2012, has over ten years of experience in the nonprofit, service-learning, and international education sectors. Blache-Cohen first began experimenting with social entrepreneurship and service-learning while an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh. After sailing on Semester at Sea, he combined his passions of travel and social justice by helping to create a student-initiated NGO, FORGE. As Associate Director of FORGE he worked in three refugee camps in Zambia and Botswana on a slew of small-scale development projects. Since then, Blache-Cohen has worked in development for the Tahirih Justice Center in Washington, DC, as a researcher and program assistant for aids2031 in Worcester, MA, and as a consultant for several other small nonprofits and foundations. In 2007, Blache-Cohen was named as a Social Change Fellow at Clark University, where he earned an MA in International Development and Social Change, focusing on nonprofit/NGO management. In addition to his work with Amizade, Blache-Cohen was a US delegate to the One Young World Summit in Zurich, Switzerland in 2011, has published several articles on responsible global service-learning in peer-reviewed journals, and since 2009 has sat on a planning committee for the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center. He has helped build The Ota Initiative since its inception in 2013 and continues to provide expert guidance. To date, Cohen has worked, studied, or traveled in around 70 countries, and has work authorization in the US and EU.
Tanzania Site Director | Amizade Global Service-Learning
Sam Kayongo is a Tanzanian national residing and working in the northwestern corner of the country. He obtained his first degree in the field of social work and social administration. Later, he specialized in the field of public administration and management after attaining a Master's degree from Makerere University in Uganda. His first work experience was obtained in Uganda where he worked in the central region doing administration and extensive project work dealing with programs geared toward poverty reduction through agriculture modernization, education, and health. In 2007, he began working in Tanzania as a planning and development officer for a protestant church diocese in Karagwe, where he was also nominated to be a member of a task force committee spearheading the establishment of the first university college in the area. He began working as Amizade's site director in 2013, overseeing American volunteers and managing Amizade's relationships with its local partners. In this capacity he helped establish The Ota Initiative and has continued to provide logistical and managerial support to the organization.Sam is also a founding director of a non-profit organization based in Kagera region called Kagera Development Facilitation (KADEF) whose long-term vision is to contribute towards achieving equitable development for the rural communities of Tanzania.
The Ota Initiative
Helping our head teacher Pontian each program are five local youths we hire as "group leaders". Each of these group leaders is assigned a cadre of five students that they oversee and perform activities with throughout the program. Hiring youth to work with us serves two important purposes.
First, it allows us to conduct many of our projects in small groups, increasing each student's opportunities to express him or herself and the amount of individualized attention he or she recieves from an instructor. Instead of having one teacher tracking 25 students (or one teacher tracking 50 students as is often the case in rural Tanzania), each group leader has just five students they are in charge of monitoring and assisting. This allows them to gain an understanding of each student's strengths and weaknesses and more effectively guide him or her through the learning process. The small groups also offer a safer place for students to grow comfortable and begin expressing themselve before they develop the confidence they need to speak up in front of the class as a whole. During a typical day of class, the head teacher usually introduces a concept to the class as a whole, students explore that concept through small group activities like science experiments or skits, and then the class comes together as a whole to reflect and connect what they observed in thier group work with the initial lesson.
Hiring group leaders also allows us to provide professional development opportunties and paid work to Karagwe's youth. In Tanzania, secondary school is not free, and many families often struggle to pay their children's school fees. This burden is exacerbated in Kayanga - and many other rural areas - because no local government school offers 11th and 12th grade classes, meaning families must also be able to pay for travel to and room and board at a school in another area of the country. Many secondary school students spend their school breaks working odd jobs such as hauling charcoal or farming to try and gather enough money to cover their school fees. At The Ota Initiative, not only do we provide our group leaders with a decent wage that will help them pay for school, but we also develop their leadership and other professional skills that will help them in their future job searches after they complete their educations.