Passion Points: Giving Back
After falling in love with Tanzania and witnessing the plight of its children, American-born Meghann Gunderman founded The Foundation for Tomorrow in 2006, where she is now the executive director. TFFT aims to offer equal education to orphans by helping them overcome the structural shortcomings of a developing nation. Here, she shares with Indagare some of her inspirations and goals, and her love of the complicated but overwhelmingly beautiful Tanzania.
You launched TFFT after volunteering at an orphanage—what is your strongest memory from that impactful experience?
My first time in Tanzania was in 2004 while I was volunteering and doing research during college. I have so many memories from that trip that helped shape who I am and what I am doing now. The strongest memory, and something that motivates me to this day was as simple as watching children pass by a trash heap. Rather than turn away, the kids dreamt of the trash’s possibilities. They created soccer balls or toy cars from junk, thereby turning garbage into smiles, laughter and sports. It’s that mentality, that ability to do something with so little that makes me constantly ask myself, “What am I capable of doing with the resources at my disposal?”
Specifically, a set of triplets captured your heart during your first summer volunteering—where are they now?
I met Helena, Yusufu and Matayo in 2004 when they were four-years-old, and they inspired me to launch TFFT. They are still very present in my life and remain an inspiration today. The triplets turned 13 on Nov. 2nd and have become loud, sassy, fun, smart, creative and happy kids. They are being fostered by a TFFT staff member, so during their school holidays they stay nearby.
What is your proudest achievement?
Our scholarship model is what I am immensely proud of because of its individualization and longitudinal scope. Beyond that, it is our 94 students on full 12-year scholarships.
I’ve had the privilege to watch Irene, one of the TFFT Scholars, start to fulfill her dream of becoming a pilot. She recently got to “co-pilot” a plane to Lake Manyara (read about her experience on the foundation’s website). I was just talking to her this week because she has a six-month break from school and we’re trying to find her an internship. We are hopeful she’ll get the opportunity to work with the airline responsible for her first flight. It would be an incredible way for her dream to come full circle.
What is your biggest frustration with the Tanzanian orphanage and education systems?
With regards to orphanages, we stand by the philosophy that children, when possible and safe, should be reconnected with their families or any existing relatives. All too often in Tanzania, if one parent dies and the other thinks they can’t handle raising the child, they will drop their son or daughter at an orphanage. It sadly becomes an easy out. We at TFFT believe in the limitless potential of our scholars, and that these children will become contributing members of their societies, develop into independent and responsible people and reduce the orphan-hood and vulnerability problems. We are very careful as an organization to only empower and to not become a crutch for people.
Tanzania’s education program is a systemic problem that has been an issue for decades. We are hoping our forthcoming Transformer program will contribute to the solution, but overall there needs to be more focus on the educators, who tend to be poorly trained and severely under staffed. The Tanzanian government’s approach to the education crisis—haphazardly constructing new schools—has resulted in an extreme teacher shortage, and educators who have not been all the way through school themselves. The results are devastating. Only 28% of primary students (lower and middle school) carry on to secondary (high) schools. Sixty percemt of 2012’s high school graduates failed their national exam, and the numbers are getting worse, not better.
Have you traveled around much of Tanzania?
The country’s mix of beautiful land, culture and people come together to make Tanzania welcoming, warm and so much fun to explore. Over 25% of the nation’s land is national parks and wildlife reserves. Tarangire National Park, which is home to countless elephants, is not far from our offices and I’ve been to the Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti, Lake Manyara and Lake Natron, which are each unique and beautiful. I’ve climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, which was an exhilarating feat, and I wake up to Mt. Meru each day. I mountain biked the 400-miles from Usa River to Tanga, a stunning journey full of fascinating topography. My favorite part is going up the Usambara Mountains. I’ve also gone out to the west to Lake Tanganika. The lake itself is stunning, and I love the entire Kigoma region. It is much more rural and visiting makes for quite an adventure. My next trip is hopefully to Mahale, a remote paradise known for having the largest population of wild chimpanzees.
Read more about The Foundation For Tomorrow.
Read Indagare’s Tanzania Destination Report.
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