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May 13, 2009

A School Grows in Zambia

Tujatane
The new outdoor performance space at the Tujatane Trust School, donated by a guest of the Tongabezi Lodge.
Photo: Ryan Damm

by Brook Wilkinson

After a safari in Zimbabwe's Matetsi Private Game Reserve (which I raved about in last week's post), I headed to Livingstone, Zambia, for a few days of R and R near Victoria Falls. Although I stayed at an inexpensive hostel in town, I took the opportunity to check out a few of the more luxurious properties in the Vic Falls area. My scouting took me to Tongabezi Lodge, where the rooms are beautiful and the views over the Zambezi River are stunning. Most impressive, though, was the school started by Vanessa Parker (the wife of Tongabezi's founder) 13 years ago, which is just about to see one of its first graduates off to college in the United States.

Vanessa started the Tujatane Trust School in 1996, intending to fill a few classes with her employees' children. But the demand from the nearby villages was so high that Tujatane now has more than 160 students, and classes from preschool up to seventh grade. The school, which is run entirely on donations, has some of the highest test scores for the area, and it has excelled in national competitions for traditional dance, poetry, and drama (I got to watch a rehearsal when I visited, as Tongabezi guests are welcome to do). 

Most of the students live in mud huts without running water or electricity. Education is their best chance to improve their situations in life, and the meals they receive at school are often the best nutrition they get for the entire day.

Tujatane hires its teachers from the same pool of Zambian applicants as the local public schools, so I asked Vanessa why she thought her teachers were so much more successful. Her explanation painted a sad portrait of life in a government-school classroom: Teachers are paid whether or not they go to work, and there's no such thing as a substitute--even if a teacher is out on maternity leave. Vanessa, on the other hand, pays teachers only for the days they work, expects them to take part in extracurricular activities, and keeps classes to a maximum of 25 students. She also relies on the help of the students' parents, who chip in at the school by taking on such roles as assistant teachers and janitors.

Though Tujatane doesn't provide secondary-level classes, Vanessa helps her students get placed at the best government schools, where nearly all of them continue to succeed. Generous donors (many of them guests at Tongabezi) have stocked the library with 6,000 books, filled the computer lab with laptops connected to the Internet, and built an ampitheater for performances. It costs just $700 to sponsor one child for one year, which covers books, teachers' salaries, school upkeep, and more. You can donate through the Web site, or stay at Tongabezi and see the school for yourself.

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