Toa Nafasi: A Tanzanian Education

It started with a brochure.

Living in Washington DC, it seems silly to mail a passport off to another country’s embassy when they are all within 1 or 2 miles of my own house. In case you forgot, I had a terrible passport renewal experience in 2014. That add’s to my hesitation around mailing my most precious document.

While I was at the Tanzanian embassy to get my visa, Mr. Os was looking at the pamphlets and literature. I’d love to go on Safari again, but I have very strict criteria around this (that’s another story, however.) So those brochures were out. But, then he handed me this and said “isn’t that where you are staying?” Talk about serendipity.

Stamps on my Passport
The brochure that sent us back to school.

I got home, read the brochure more thoroughly and then read a few of Toa Nofasi’s blogs. After completely my very “scientific” research, I decided I had enough data to verify this was a “legit” organization. I fired off an email, asking if we could bring some school supplies during our trip. Honestly, I was not really sure what to expect. Boy, was I surprised.

And it followed with some emails.

In a few days I had a very warm response from the organizations founder, Sarah. She told me a bit about the project, how she got started and provided a list of potential supplies we could bring. I liked her instantly (interestingly, she grew up in DC and lived in Manhattan before moving to Tanzania. Hello, immediate connection!) and her style. It was a mixed of open, friendly but straight forward.

We ended up exchanging A LOT of emails. I think we covered life stories, climbing Kilimanjaro, an agreement to bring some shirts for her students and in exchange her Mom giving me a lit to the airport. Oh, and we also arranged a visit to the school.

Until Finally We Got Schooled

In Swahili, Toa Nafasi means “provide a chance.” This pilot program has come up with a holistic approach to provide a chance for children with learning difficulties. It’s also providing jobs for village women in the form of teacher training.

What we observed, with interest, were massive classrooms with 80 students and one teacher. Just observing from the back you could see how a child with learning difficulty would struggle. With the help of Toa Nafasi, these kids leave their classroom with a handful of other students for help with language, math and overall comprehension.

Stamps on my Passport
This is a level two classroom in Moshi, Tanzania. The teacher to student ratio is roughly 80/1.

We spent the morning playing with the students. (They loved the jump ropes we brought. The bouncing glow balls were a hit. Orgami was like “mind blown.” Until we tried to show them how to make a swan on their own. But, the thing they loved most was the iPhone. They were enthralled with taking, and looking at, pictures of themselves. We probably could have beaten Ellen DeGeneres for biggest selfie. And if that wasn’t enough, video taping the young boys dancing was an hour of entertainment. We developed a swarm of student paparazzi. Each of them wanting to look at the video or have a picture taken.)

The students were enthralled with the iPhone. We actually couldn't fit them all in this photo, though they did try.
The students were enthralled with the iPhone. We actually couldn’t fit them all in this photo, though they did try.

Following some good clean fun, we listened to Sarah talk about the project to visiting administrators. This is where things came to life for me. She spoke with conviction about how the students need skills to navigate their own village. Not to attend Harvard or Oxford.

Class Dismissed

While that’s not the “American Way” I couldn’t agree more with this approach. Helping people often means helping them in the ways they need help. Not helping them in ways we *think* they need help.

For instance, their village in Tanzania is land locked. Knowing marine life for these kids is ridiculous. Not because they shouldn’t know but because the odds of them being in a situation where this information is applicable are extremely remote. Instead, it’s about helping them with syllables, reading, numbers and simple math problems. Things that will be very relevant in their village.

I can never do this project justice and refer you to this story on Calvin, one of the students enrolled in the project. Calvin is a doll and I agree with Sarah’s assessment. He’s got some more learning to do but the individualized and small group work is making a tremendous improvement in his life. It was rewarding to see how Sarah’s outside the box thinking is helping Calvin as well as other students.

The Toa Nafasi Project is a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization. You can read more about Toa Nafasi on their blog. If you are interested in contributing or volunteering, you can reach the project at or on their website I don’t want to speak for Sarah and say that visits are routinely offered. However, if you are offered the opportunity, I highly recommend it. It will open your eyes to a variety of things: education, travel, and charitable giving to name a few.

And, for me, this is why I travel. I made a new friend in Sarah and was exposed to things I never anticipated in Tanzania.