Ashley Holmer is the founder and executive director of the Red Sweater Project – named for the most important garment of the school children supported by the effort. The organization strives to create educational opportunities for children in rural parts of Tanzania, by helping communities to build schools, train teachers and develop curricula.
The project began in 2005 when Holmer moved to the East African country to work as an English teacher as well as a soccer coach in a Masai village, Monduli juu. The village chairman from a nearby community offered her 20 acres of land, upon which she built the community’s first secondary school, which today educates over 140 students.
Eight years later, she again partnered with the villagers of Mungere to build another secondary school on 15 acres of donated land.
Building schools is just part of the challenge. Unlike primary education, secondary schooling is not free and government tuition fees can be quite high. There are shortages of qualified teachers, and students have many hurdles: schools may be many miles away, too far to travel by foot. The project aims to lower fees and helps recruit and train teachers.
Some families can not spare their children from work at home. Most children are needed to help their parents by herding livestock or farming. As a result, approximately 18 percent of children in Tanzania enroll in secondary school, but only about seven percent graduate.
Girls have specific reasons for not attending, including early marriage. Holmer says in most cases, 13-year-old girls who are not in school get married by age 14 and give birth a year later.
Those who are lucky enough to attend school often face threats. Quoting a recent study, Holmer says a majority of the girls fall victim to sexual abuse, often perpetrated by school administrators. Most of the girls entering these institutions, according to Holmer, suffer under traditions that fail to value women as much as men.
The Red Sweater Project founded by Holmer attempts to create a school environment that values girls as much as boys and provides mentorship and health outreach services for students.
Since the color red is closely associated with the Massai tribe in Tanzania, in appreciation and respect to the tribe the project chose red to be the official uniform of the students.
Over the years, the Red Sweater Project has gained the support of community members who have donated land and resources and work hand in hand with the project. Holmer says it’s these partnerships that help guarantee success. She points out the importance of inquiry and consultation with local villagers about the needs and the goal of the intervention.
“Our project is not here to provide but to create educational opportunities by working in conjunction with the community. It’s their land, and they are in charge. They are involved in the development and construction of the schools. Our role is to facilitate,” Holmer explains.
She acknowledges that her years in Tanzania have involved encountering – and overcoming – challenges. Holmer points out that the country has over 120 tribes, each requiring different approaches to educational hurdles.
“You have to treat and change depending on what is acceptable and what is not,” she says. “You are dealing with centuries of history and tradition. You also have to realize you make mistakes and be open to learn from it.”
It also helps to learn the language. Holmer says Tanzanians appreciate the fact that she took the time to learn Swahili.
“When you stand up in front of village leaders,” she says, “how you speak can say a lot about you. They realize we have a lot of differences but with good communication in the end they realize we are working for the same goal.”
Holmer says her proudest moments include seeing buildings finished and teachers with full classes. As classroom voices ring out she realizes that, if not for the Red Sweater Project, thousands of students would not have the opportunity to learn, and live better lives.