Red Sweater Project came from humble beginnings. Founded by Ashley Holmer in 2011, momentum was powered by a group of dedicated volunteers, who assisted Holmer in fundraising, planning, research, and construction. Now, though Mungere School is largely staffed by Tanzanians, it is with international volunteers that the staff becomes whole.
Red Sweater Project’s local volunteer team is composed of teachers, administrative staff, and a steady flow of individuals who offer services both on and off campus. Some volunteers come for a week, while teachers stay for at least six months. One of Red Sweater Project’s British volunteers agreed to stay for six months—four different times! Jane Wharton, an English language and literature teacher, just keeps finding meaningful reasons to stay.
With degrees in English and history from the University of Leeds and a postgraduate certificate in journalism, Wharton spent more than a decade in the news media as a writer, editor, and digital news director for a major daily newspaper in London. When she decided she was ready for an adventure, she retrained as a teacher and, after working at an international school, landed a volunteer position at Red Sweater Project. “I knew I wanted to travel but I wanted to work and be useful when I did it,” Wharton explains.
She arrived on New Year’s Day, 2016, and quickly got to work. Most volunteers experience an adjustment period and it was no different for Wharton. Being well-traveled, however, it was the differences in teaching that really took some getting used to. “The hardest thing was getting my head wrapped around the Tanzanian school syllabus and what the requirements are because it’s very different than just teaching language,” she said.
Originally brought on as an English language teacher, it quickly became clear that Wharton filled another need in the curriculum. “They had a need for literature and luckily it’s my degree, so it worked out quite perfectly,” she said. “I would have been happy with whatever I taught, but it is nice to be passionate about literature and get to pass that on, in addition to the nuts and bolts of grammar.”
During her first term, Wharton did a lot more than just teach English. When she saw that the Mungere boys were practicing football but the girls didn’t have an athletics team of their own, she started coaching a brand new netball team; she even solicited donations for a set of proper netball uniforms and personally gave the school their first netball as a gift. She organized Mungere’s first participation in UMISSETA, the national secondary school athletic tournament, and spearheaded Mungere’s involvement in the Kilamanjaro 5k Fun Run in Moshi, which is now an annual school event—and one of the students’ favorites!
At the same time, she was teaching the Form IV class English, which meant they needed extra study time for their upcoming national exams, which took place in December last year. Teaching late a few days a week and even hosting special study sessions on Saturdays to provide extra lessons, she became particularly attached to the success of these students, who were heading toward the biggest exams of their lives.
Wharton’s initial contract ended mid-year at the end of the first term and, as she was preparing to leave Mto wa Mbu, she realized she was having second thoughts. “I had said my goodbyes and packed up my stuff. I had given the big farewell speech, but because I was teaching the exam class—it gets to the point where you’re so far immersed in it, you want to see it through to the end,” Wharton said. “When you’re leaving, everyone is so sweet and you are reminded why you like it. I asked myself if I was really done and if there was a place for me still? I realized there was. I wanted to stay and finish the job that I’d started.”
For Wharton, that meant helping the Form IV’s prepare and excel at their exams. “We’d not read all the plays or made it through the syllabus. The job wasn’t complete. Getting them through the exams successfully was completing the job,” she said. She had also started teaching English to the new Form I class and began to feel a similar attachment to their success. “I had taken on Form I and they were just starting. It’s been nice watching them grow in confidence. When they first start, they are really quiet and won’t talk to you as they are taking their first tentative steps in English. But now, they are quite chatty!”
In November, the Form IV class sat for their national exams and each one passed, doing exceptionally well in English. Shortly after, in December, Mungere held a graduation ceremony and celebration for the first-ever graduating class. “It was very satisfying to get the exam results, but I really felt proud when I saw them all in their graduation gowns,” said Wharton. “It was quite emotional because we were all there together.”
In Tanzania, passing one’s Form IV exams does not guarantee a place in an advanced level secondary school program, so following graduation, it was not clear which students would receive placements. Though Wharton had agreed to stay through graduation, “I’d sown the seeds in my own head that I was coming back again,” she said. “I was motivated primarily by what happens to the Form IVs now that we’ve gotten them through these difficult exams. How do we carry them through their education and set them up after school? What further education possibilities are open to them and how do they utilize the education they spent four years getting?”
So, after taking a six week break to scratch her travel itch and explore the African continent, Wharton signed on to her third term at Mungere. Not only did she continue teaching English, she also served as head of the school’s research committee, looking for continued education opportunities for Mungere graduates. “Our school was set up for students whose parents don’t have money and college courses are prohibitively expensive,” she said. “So that can be quite frustrating.
“But the frustration is what drives you to do this work because you look for alternatives for these kids; teachers in other schools won’t go that extra mile but our students have people fighting in their corner to somehow make it work.”
This drive in Wharton continues, as she has committed to staying for yet another term through December and finishing her second full school year at Mungere. While she acknowledges that the work will never really be done, she wants to bring another class through their exams, as well as continue working with the recent graduates.
Though she has seen firsthand the challenges faced by a private school educating low-income children, she’s found the value Mungere brings is immeasurable. “We are educating the kids to a really high standard and it’s not just about academic grades; it’s about health needs when needs be. When there is a problem at [a child’s] home, we go the extra mile to help sort it out. I like the community involvement; whenever there is something big happening, the parents come to school. It’s not just a school plunked on a piece of land where the kids have no affiliation to where they are. It’s a real village school.”
Not only do international volunteers give the students an exceptional opportunity to learn English, they provide a unique life experience for the students and local staff. “They give a different energy to the place; different perspective and different skills. What’s nice is you very quickly just become part of the school. The fact that you are a volunteer or Westerner doesn’t matter. What’s weird is when you go to another school and they all stare at you, but our kids are so used to it. They live out in the village but, in some ways, they are a lot more worldly because of the exposure they get.”
After becoming a part of the community here, leaving is going to be difficult for Wharton. “It will be upsetting to leave because you invest a lot of time and effort and energy. The attachment comes from the people and I’ll be saying goodbye to them. The hope is that after I go, somehow I’m still involved. I’ve made some really good friends and that’s not going to finish when I get on my flight.”
Wharton says this term will be her last. But we’ve heard that before.
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