Mercer project helps Tanzanian children find brighter futures

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“It’s actually kind of amazing what you can accomplish in three weeks,” said Dr. Amy Nichols-Belo, assistant professor of global health studies and anthropology in Mercer’s College of Liberal Arts.

She and Dr. Natalie Bourdon, associate professor of women’s and gender studies and anthropology, accompanied 11 Mercer students to Tanzania this summer. By the end of the Mercer On Mission (MOM) trip, the team was able to present a local organization with a full curriculum to use with the children it supports.

Tanzanian organization Upendo Daima works with boys who have lived on the streets of Mwanza, the second largest city in the country. The staff provides counseling, shelter and education for the children and reunites them with their families when possible.

In 2016, Mercer On Mission worked with the organization for the first time and built lesson plans related to healthcare topics, Dr. Bourdon said. Using staff feedback, the participants improved and expanded upon the curriculum this summer.

“I think we’re very lucky to have gone back to the same site for a second year because we were able to accomplish even more this year,” Dr. Nichols-Belo said.

“I’m incredibly proud of the kinds of innovative ideas that our students came up with. The curriculum was very well researched and well evidenced, but also very child friendly.”

The MOM team designed interactive lessons, practiced them with the staff and made modifications as necessary, before sharing the lessons with the 28 children there. The Mercer students had two weeks of classwork prior to the trip and learned basic Swahili.

The curriculum included modules on infectious and noninfectious diseases, drug and alcohol prevention, first aid, goal setting, and the English language, Dr. Nichols-Belo said.

Senior Anastasia Winfield, a global health major, said she developed the module on goal setting and created activities to help the boys plan realistic career goals and visualize the steps to get there. She studied Swahili in Tanzania for two months last summer through a Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State and returned to Tanzania for this year’s MOM trip so she could put her language skills to use.

Another big component of the new curriculum was yoga as a form of post-trauma recovery for the boys, many of whom suffered sexual and physical violence while on the streets.

The Mercer group improved and expanded on a curriculum for the Upendo Daima organization in Tanzania.

The Mercer group improved and expanded on a curriculum for the Upendo Daima organization in Tanzania.

The yoga paired nicely with movement-based meditation therapy that the organization had already introduced to the children. The staff has been doing yoga with the boys at least once a week since the MOM group left, Dr. Bourdon said. It was amazing to see how the yoga sessions helped the children let go of some of their trauma, Winfield added.

Upendo Daima works with a transient population since the boys only stay with them for three months, Dr. Bourdon said. The staff will be able to use the educational materials with many children for years to come, and they now have the tools to adapt them as needed, Dr. Nichols-Belo said.

“I felt like it was a really successful program in the sense that the lessons and the curriculums that we’ve built have emerged from a collaborative process,” Dr. Bourdon said. “We really encourage getting feedback.”

Winfield said she gained a lot from working with the Upendo Daimo staff. They had open conversations about their perspectives and differences but also were able to laugh with each other.

“I’ll definitely carry the things I learned and the dialogue with that staff with me,” she said.

The Mercer students cherished teaching and interacting with the children. For many, it was the first time they applied the global health concepts they learned in the classroom to the real world. They learned not to view children who have suffered trauma as just victims but as empowered individuals. The boys at Upendo Daimo were resilient, energetic and optimistic, Dr. Nichols-Belo said.

The Mercer students also learned how to translate abstract or technical information into practical skills, and how to work collectively and efficiently.

Dr. Nichols-Belo, Dr. Bourdon, two students who went on this summer’s MOM trip and a Mercer graduate who went on the 2016 trip will give a presentation on their curriculum development process at the annual African Studies Association conference in Atlanta in late November.

“It’s one thing to do service. It’s another thing to look back at your service at what worked and what didn’t and how we’re serving our partners,” Dr. Nichols-Belo said.

An big component of the curriculum the Mercer team developed was yoga as a form of post-trauma recovery for children.

An big component of the curriculum the Mercer team developed was yoga as a form of post-trauma recovery for children.

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Andrea Honaker