Changemakers Talks: Samantha Peñalver (Born To Learn Tanzania)
Samantha is the founder of Born To Learn, an amazing NGO based near the Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. I met her back in 2014 when I decided to spend the summer volunteering in Africa and her story and the work they do there inspired me 4 years later to leave my previous company and start Comovita, to try to make the world a better place. I hope that during this quick interview with Sam, you can also be inspired by her strength and generosity.
Born To Learn was launched in 2010 but before getting into details of your journey in Tanzania could you explain us what were you doing before that?
Born to learn was launched at the end of 2010. Before this I was working in Telefonica, the biggest telecommunications company in Spain. After going through various departments like corporate and International relations, my last years there I worked in the Telefonica Foundation, which is focused on social projects and corporate volunteering
And why did you decided to launch Born To Learn?
I decided to launch Born to Learn based in a moment that various factors came into conjunction. On a personal side I have a daughter that was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at 17. The previous years to this diagnosis my daughter struggled so much through her education because of her incapacity to learn in the, let us say, conservative way. I realized after a lot of research that I had to find different ways to help her get through her education including social interaction. This after many years reaffirmed me that there was a necessity to include a different focus in education for those who are not under what society may claim as “normal”. This of course, due to my professional work in undeveloped countries gave the absolute confirmation that education was the only way to change the lives of those who live in adversity, and it had to be focused to a whole child development which included in the equation all aspects of the social, cultural, living conditions of each community. To continue just supporting the building of a massive number of schools, donating books or material or supporting the education of children around the world in the same educational system was not going to change the outcome of what education should be for a successful change to an individual.
I also realized after many years in the corporate environment, and seeing the picture from an indirect focus, where the aim for sure was to improve the life of many, but from a global perspective and not from a personalized approach. As well as the lack of research to adapt the support to a grassroots level made me reconsider where and what I wanted to do to change this. I knew that on my own I would not make big numbers but I chose quality over quantity.
How did you started?
Although there was a big personal objective to do something like Born to Learn, actually the beginning started more on a consequence of different factors that happened as I was travelling in Tanzania. An unsatisfied volunteer work I did in a rural area led to change that, into a community project for children with local support. We thought we would only have a few kids to start with and the moment we arranged to do the registration more than 800 appeared. Although my idea was to return to Spain to set up everything and then return after these 800 children shoed up I realized I would not go back home.
Did you do it alone? Why did you choose Tanzania?
No, the start of Born to Learn was together with 5 other volunteers that started the community project at first. The official registration and continuity of Born to Learn was together with my Partner up to today.
Tanzania was initially my choice because although I really like humanitarian intervention, due to my age, responsibility (mother of 5) and my absolute belief in volunteering as an incredible human resource support, summing the wonderful and welcoming people as well as Tanzania being a safe country to be able to work in development.
How did you start? If starting a project in your own country is already very challenging, I can imagine that doing it in Tanzania, has to be a really challenging experience.
The first stage of Born to Learn was 80 kids in five groups and from 8 to 1 as a community support and under a baobab!
Yes, the challenges of starting any project anywhere are really difficult. The different culture, language barriers, understanding how everything works from an official and unofficial way was frustrating in many ways and many days. But I really believe that if you believe in your mission especially when the objective is to help children you continue fighting all the obstacles and you never give up.
How did the first months/year go?
The first year was the “learning year” for us. As I have related above it took a while for our personal integration and to understand the people, culture and how to operate in the country. We also took very little steps on each implementation phase to make sure every next step was sustainable and accepted.
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
The biggest challenges were the language barrier and the lack of understanding of how the things worked in the country, it was really tough for us.
How did you find the students & teachers?
As I said before the students basically found us at the beggining. Now we work closely with the village leaders and every year they choose on a village committee those children that will opt to join Born to Learn.
Regarding the teachers we opened positions at the beginning and did a selection for the 3 first ones. From then on, we started working together with a teacher training center and young teachers come to do their practical work for three months and then we employee the ones we consider that have great potential. We have found that young teachers with lack of experience but with a high potential, open minded to learning and with a positive attitude are the best selection.
Where these professionals’ teachers or you “teached” them to teach?
All our teachers have some sort of certificate that in general is quite basic. We do continuous teacher training not only in supporting a higher level of certifications in Tanzania but also, we give training on a more holistic, project-based and creative education.
Volunteers I imagine are a crucial part of the project, how you do find them and how do you make sure that people that come for a short period of time, make a good contribution?
Volunteering is crucial for grassroots organizations. The most important thing about having volunteers is the preparation and organization you must do before they come. Once there is a plan for each volunteer, which we base on their experience, age and time coming you give them a timetable and they know exactly what to do and when to do it, this way the outcome is incredible. The other part of volunteering is not to think you are going to change a situation in a short period or even a long period of time but the sum up of everybody’s contribution on a time line makes an incredible difference even if it is one week. Therefore, the planning and organization needs to have a long-term strategy that can foresee the final objective. Basically, your part is important because it completes somebody’s previous part and will be ready for somebody after you!
I went there in 2014 and from what I see now on social media, the project has changed quite a lot. What are the differences from now to when you started?
Yes, the change is incredible from 2014! We had probable 120 children in 2014 and we where still operating in lent old classrooms. Today we have our own center built on our own land and where there is 1000 square meters of construction, all done with PET bottles ( we have used 32.460), ten classrooms, a sports center, music and theatre rooms, a library and a big kitchen and dining room where we feed 3 meals a day to the 400 children that attend Born to Learn
What are the biggest success stories you had in these 5 years?
Although it takes time to really make an impact in education, a generation I would say, we do have success stories from our first kids! We have three kids that have finished a wildlife diploma, another in graphic design, one has only one year left to complete an undergraduate program in pharmacy, another one is studying 2nd year of medicine. Then we also have 7 kids who will finish secondary this year and have excellent grades, they will for sure succeed in university in a couple of years! We have two girls studying accounting and more than 15 doing vocational training in different trades.
How do you fund the project?
We have different strategies for funding the project. When we started, we were mainly supported by friends and family, we then set up our Hostel for backpackers and volunteers where all the benefits are reinvested in the project. Today the hostel is still ongoing but as Born to Learn has grown and the number of hostels in the area has increased, we had to find different funding streams. Our strategy is mainly getting support from small and medium companies that contribute to our project, on the other hand, we have a membership scheme for our sponsorship and micro-projects and this year we are starting a sewing project which has two parts, one as production business to sell our designs (mainly in Tanzania) to different wholesale businesses and also to different hotels. The second part will be a training center for 20 students each year. We then will have the hostel and the retail business as sustainable funds towards the fixed costs for Born to Learn and grants and company donations for our ongoing projects.
If some of our readers wanna contribute, how can they do so?
The best way to contribute is first to take a look at our website (new one will be out in a couple of weeks) www.borntolearnglobal.org where they can find all the information on Born to Learn. Then they can download the membership form where you have the option to do a monthly contribution, a one-time donation and send it to us. If anybody would like any more information or would like to focus on a specific project they can contact us at email@example.com
If any of our readers are thinking about starting their own NGO, what advice would you give them?
The most important thing to start an NGO I would say is that it must be a life mission. Remember that an NGO is a company, a nonprofit one, but still a company and the management must be as strict. Strategy, accounting, planification, logistics and most of all evaluation and measurement must be taken very seriously. A lot of patience, humbleness, and empathy, and most importantly, remember to listen to all counterparts before implementing any project.
And as a person who left the corporate world to do something radically different as moving to Africa and spend her whole time, living for others, what advice would you give to people living here in wealthier countries?
I don’t like really giving advice and also, I don’t think everybody has to or are prepared to come to Africa to live for others. I believe that the attitude you put into anything can make a huge difference. I do believe you can live for others anywhere and it starts with recognizing each other. A sum of small actions every day creates a change in all you do and what you can achieve as an individual and as a community.
I’m curious, after so many years living in Tanzania, I’m sure you have some really good stories. Want to share any of them with our readers?
For sure! Living in Tanzania means every day is a crazy story! Still today after nearly 11 years I get into the most absurd of situations and still fall into the Tanzanian way of thinking and acting...
One day I bought a small tree to plant, and I asked our gardener to dig a hole for this 10 cm baby tree. I left to do some errands and when I came back, I saw earth flying out of the surface and when I got near I saw the gardener digging the hole as if he was Julio Verne going to the middle of the earth ! he had gone down more than 12 meters to plant a 10cm tree !!! I quickly told him to stop and asked him why he was digging such a big hole for such a small tree… flat answer… Mama you told me to dig but you never told me to stop !!! .. …logical if you see the dimension of their baobabs.
Another funny story, I was walking around Moshi town to buy some shorts for our kids and a guy came up to me and told me to follow him because there was a shop up the road much cheaper than where I was... I followed and indeed he took me to a cheaper shop and there he asked me where I was from, I told him and then he says: Ahh I have a very good friend from Madrid here in Tanzania and I asked him who that friend was and there he says my friend is Mama Sam, do you know her?
A travel story too… I was driving with a couple of friends in Tarangire National Park, we saw a few elephants over the river so we drove over and as we went around the corner and up a small hill suddenly we were surrounded by more than 80 elephants that were moving to the grasslands… my car suddenly became the size of a matchbox in comparison to all those elephants. I stopped the car, we sat paralyzed in silence and they walked past literally 2cm away! It was the most incredible but scary moment ever!
I hope you enjoyed this quick interview with Mama Sam. I really encourage you to take a look at their website and if you are thinking about volunteering in Africa, Born To Learn for sure will offer you a life-changing experience.
Thanks for reading. If you'd like us to interview someone who is a real changemaker, don't hesitate to email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we will be very happy to consider your proposal :)