Simple gift of cameras develops ties between kids in Austin and Tanzania

Just outside the park boundary is a small school in a village called Makifu where children ages 6 to 12 are learning to read and write.  Thanks to the Friends of Ruaha Society (FORS), a small NGO that’s developing environmental curricula for schools, kids are also learning about weather, water and wildlife so they can take care of the land.

They’ve also learned that some 4-year-old Austin preschoolers like to collect pecans and explore Shoal Creek. 

The Austin kids have learned that Jackson, a 12-year-old Masai boy, likes talking and taking care of cows after school. Subira, 7, instructed them on how to light a three-stone stove: “Light dry grasses with a match stick, blow the fire and put the cooking pot on.”

Through an exchange of letters, photos and artwork, children in Texas and Tanzania are getting to know one another. The Texas-Tanzania Photo Exchange – or Ushiriki ya Picha, “the sharing of pictures” in Swahili – is a project of FORS and the All-Austin Cooperative Nursery School on Hancock Drive.

This bond between children is rooted in the bond between two sisters: Chris Coppolillo, who is living in Tanzania and volunteering with FORS, and Liz Garton Scanlon, an Austin writer with a daughter at the co-op.

“I’ve always wanted this kind of outreach and connection in my children’s lives,” says Scanlon, who is president of the board at the nonprofit pre-school. For her, it’s a way to show kids that our world is big and little.

It hasn’t taken much. Parents fill a box in the co-op’s common area with donations of disposable cameras, film, tape recorders and art supplies.  Fund-raising pays for developing film and postage.

The first year, co-op kids loved taking the box to a post office. The second year, Scanlon’s family had a great time delivering it on a family trip to Tanzania. This year, Coppolillo will carry it back after a visit here.

Why cameras?

“Documenting kids’ learning is a crucial part of who we are at the co-op,” Scanlon says. It’s a cornerstone of the co-op’s educational philosophy, known as Reggio Emilia. 

The Tanzanian children, many of whom had never seen a photo of themselves, also used the cameras to document field trips into Ruaha, which most had never visited.

“Being able to photograph their trip really added to the experience,” Scanlon says. “They had used every last camera we’d sent them, and they were thrilled.”

In Austin, parents and teachers read letters from Tanzania to the children and set up a display of photos. Kids studied maps and danced to African music. A model of a three-stone stove on the playground helped children learn through play. This year, project organizers hope to create a mini-Tanzanian village at the co-op.
“Children love to be able to connect with other children,” Scanlon says.

“We couldn’t have done it without FORS, ” Scanlon says.

What could you do?

This project began with a connection between two people who knew each other. Even if you don’t know anyone living in a developing country, there may be ways you could do something similar.

Here are some things to think about before your next trip:

  • Do a little research on the Web before you go and check out some NGOs in the area you’re visiting.
  • E-mail a group and ask how you can help or whether you can stop by for a short visit while you’re there.
  • Try to get specifics on what an area might need: Textbooks? Children’s clothing? Maybe you can do a small donation drive before you go and bring some things with you
  • Pack the items into collapsible duffle bags, which you can then fill up with mementos and gifts to take home.
  • Look for groups here that already have ties to the area and ask them what you can do. For example, Austin’s A Glimmer of Hope works in Ethiopia.
  • If you plan to collect and ship donations, you might be able to save on shipping if the group already has a container going to the area. They might also point you to a particular village in need.
  • Be aware. Stuff does get thrown away or stolen.  Be sure that you can fully realize your project on the other end.

Trip Tips

Travel companies that go to Ruaha

(Note: We can’t vouch in any way for any of these companies; we offer this info to help you narrow a Web search or other research. If you go with one of these groups, please let us know how it went.)

Good Earth Tours says it offers eco-friendly tours of Tanzania:

Don’t know who these people are, but they have a great Web site with tons of useful and entertaining info:

Mwagusi Safari Lodge is said to be posh but in a really relaxed manner. For booking enquiries, contact its UK representative:
14 Castelnau
London SW13 9RU
Phone/Fax: 44 (0)20 8846 9363

Foxes African Safaris/Ruaha River Lodge (The Foxes own a bunch of lodges and do  treks all over Tanzania.) E-mail info{a} for (you guessed it) info.