She was part-way through her year as a volunteer English teacher at an East African secondary school. She and her twin sister, Haley, lived in a remote Tanzania village where they prepared lessons by lantern light and showered with buckets of water. Women in the village walked to distant watering holes to wash clothes or collect drinking water.
The Maasai people the sisters taught are traditionally nomadic, but the government limited their lands, forcing them into permanent residence. They live in bomas — thatched-roof huts made of mud and animal dung — and raise goats and cows for food and sale. A fiercely independent people, the Maasai govern themselves with a rigid hierarchy and cling to long-held customs.
When she wasn ’t teaching, Holmer coached soccer, the Maasai ’s favorite sport and one Holmer plays well enough to have gone to the NCAA Final Four twice while on Willamette ’s team. The young boys had never seen a woman play soccer.
Every day was an adjustment, but Holmer savored the adventure. She also found a problem, and when she met Grosper Mollel, a Tanzanian teacher from another village, a potential solution began to take shape.
The youngest learners in Mollel ’s village studied, free of charge, in their three primary schools. But to continue their education, they had to walk five miles over uneven terrain — avoiding deep ravines where flash floods can claim lives during the rainy season — to secondary boarding schools that charge more than $400 annually. Maasai families typically earn less than $200 a year.
Beyond the expense, parents who work their fields rely on their children to do chores at home. They fear the children will lose their Maasai identity if they live at a distant secondary school.
Only 3.5 percent of rural Tanzanian youths attend secondary school, according to estimates. Instead, Maasai girls marry — sometimes as young as 14 — and bear children while boys seek work in the closest cities. Unemployment is high. Six recent years of drought have left the Maasai unable to feed their own families, much less sell crops. Of the 3,000 people in Mollel ’s village, about half are children; AIDS has killed many adults, leaving children in single- parent homes or with guardians.
Holmer, Mollel and Peter Luis, another American volunteer teacher, asked the villagers what would help most. The answer was consistent: a secondary school. And so the three vowed to build one.
The Maasai were skeptical. “They ’ve been promised so many things, and none of it has been delivered, ” Holmer says. “Every Westerner who visits leaves and doesn ’t return. I told my students in 2005 that I would be back. They said, "We ’ll see. ’ ”
Holmer wasn ’t giving up. She knew these students had the potential to work in government or become college- educated professionals and step out of poverty.
Together, Holmer, Mollel and Luis created the Indigenous Education Foundation of Tanzania (IEFT). Their plan was anything but simple: raise money to build and run a secondary school to support students graduating from the area ’s three primary schools. Make the school affordable and close enough that the children could live at home. Build a water tank and pipeline to provide clean drinking water for the village. And finally, secure the villagers ’ support and show them how to sustain the project.
When they saw that IEFT was serious, the villagers rallied to help. Holmer traveled between Tanzania and the United States, where she raised money and support. She and her co-founders worked with the Maasai to clear land, build the water tank and pipeline, dig latrines and construct the walls of a two-classroom building. They built two staff offices and a kitchen to prepare wholesome lunches, critical for these students, who often eat only one daily meal at home.
Instead of seeing school as a hindrance to doing chores, the villagers started telling their children education was important. Before the school was even built, 120 students showed up to take a test that might earn them one of 40 spots in the first class.
Those chosen, ranging in age from 14 to 22, attended English lessons in a church before the school opened. When a donation provided each pupil with a free English dictionary, the students cried. “This was their first book, ” Holmer says. “They went home and started reading their dictionaries. ”
Holmer wants these students to receive a better education than that offered by many of Tanzania ’s other secondary schools, where English teachers often aren ’t proficient in the language. IEFT ’s school has a mix of volunteer English-speaking teachers and Tanzanian instructors.
Typical secondary schools in the country charge for supplies in addition to the $400 for boarding. IEFT ’s students pay only $25 per year, which includes all their supplies and uniforms. “When we tell the parents that, they kind of fall off their chairs, ” Holmer says. “They can ’t believe it ’s that cheap. ” Rather than offering the classes for free, IEFT charges the tiny fee as another way to get the villagers to buy in to the project.
For now, the Maasai have IEFT ’s help. In the future, the school must sustain itself. Holmer and her co-founders helped a group of village women start a goat-raising program to sell milk and meat, and they are exploring the possibility of a chicken co-op — money-making ventures to keep the school going.
On April 14, opening day for Orkeeswa Secondary School — named after the area of the village where it was built — more than 50 women arrived early to prepare a meal for the 400 people expected to attend the celebration. The villagers donated six goats for slaughter, along with four buckets of corn kernels and 10 buckets of milk to cook their traditional yogurt-like leshoro.
In a town where almost nothing happens without approval from the tribe ’s elders, the men ’s presence at the event was vital. The elders doused the classroom walls with a mixture of honey beer and medicinal plants and roots, blessing the building and its students while encouraging the villagers to support the school.
Then it was the students ’ turn. They gave speeches and performed a play in three languages: Swahili, Maa and their newfound English. Later came a soccer match, and for the first time in awhile, the players didn ’t vote to make Holmer the referee. Instead she joined them in their celebratory game after all their months of planning and work, capping off a day confirming the true partnership between IEFT and the villagers, essential for the school ’s success.
When Holmer first went to Tanzania, she discovered a distressing problem. In three short years, she created a solution.
— Sarah Evans
The school is open, but IEFT is far from finished. The organization plans to build nine more classrooms, multiple offices, labs and staff housing to reach its eventual goal: educating 400 students in six grades. Here's how you can help:
Recognize her name?
Ashley Holmer is the granddaughter of Freeman Holmer, a political science professor at Willamette from 1949 –59.