Female, Young, Daring – Writing the future of life skills in Tanzania

International Women’s Day 2022

By John Mugo

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”. (Alice Walker)

Today is the international women’s day. Join me to celebrate two young Tanzanian women, and break the bias. Who says that young women cannot lead? When the first celebration of this day was held in 1977, none of these two was about to be born. Today, they are leading one of the toughest education projects in East Africa. They are daring to assess life skills and values. In 50 words, their collaborators describe them as superwomen.

Khadija Shariff comes from Zanzibar and works with the Milele Zanzibar Foundation. Devotha Mlay comes from Kilimanjaro and is the CEO of the Girls Livelihood and Mentorship Initiative. In my view, the mountain has met the ocean, and now in tight, eternal embrace. They first met in 2017 at the inaugural country meeting of the Regional Education Learning Initiative (RELI) in Arusha, and established the Values and Life Skills learning cluster in Tanzania. Three years down the line, they co-founded the Assessment of Life Skills and Values in East Africa, the multi-year, regional collaborative project developing contextualized, open-sourced assessment tools for the region. The assessment hopes to assess around 50,000 adolescents across the three countries, in problem solving, collaboration, self-awareness and respect.

 “We knew where we wanted to go, to learn new, and hard things”, says Khadija, a highly introspective and ambitious young lady. “But then, it was not easy, because we had to believe in this, put our heart in it, and we did, and now work like twins”, recalls Devotha with infectious energy. The two have mobilized participants beyond imagination. On the 7th of March 2022, a graduation ceremony was held in Dar es Salaam to honour 14 test developers and item writers who collaborated with counterparts in Kenya and Uganda over a period of 10 months, to develop the assessment tools. The ceremony was attended by, among others, Dr Fika Mwakabungu (Director of Curriculum Training at the Tanzania Institute of Education), Abdalla Musa (Director of the Zanzibar Institute of Education), and Honourable Nusrat Hanje, a member of parliament. They all dance their hearts away in memorable style.

“I am driven by hope, that this thing will turn out to create the impact we need for our children. Each day, I feel that we are heading towards something”, discloses Khadija. For Devotha, her motivation is “the future that we all anticipate and work hard towards. That our children, girls and boys, will get the life skills needed to achieve the best they can”. Truly, the room is full of energy with many people who believe in this course and working towards the future that they all anticipate.

In her speech, Hon. Hanje makes a strong case: “Through life skills, we shall get a generation that interprets the vision of our country, and makes it real and liveable”. She thanks Khadija and Devotha for leading such an outstanding initiative, and welcomes them to share the assessment results as soon as they are ready – because the parliament in Dodoma will have to hear about and understand life skills.

Like Khadija believes, it’s all about hope. The two ladies hope that through ALiVE, they will achieve the five positions that their learning group has prioritized. That teachers will be brought on board to understand these complex competences, and figure out effective ways of nurturing them in our children. That evidence will reveal the effectiveness of the existing curricular interventions, and help make decision between the embedded approach and that of a separate subject. That by assessing at the household, there will be evidence to make the case, that initiatives targeting out of school children and youth must sit in one place, for better targeting and service provision. Also, that parents will be drawn into the mix, and would be more aware of the importance of life skills and values for their children. Lastly, that only a multi-sectoral approach can make sense for Tanzania, if our children are to acquire life skills and values. The silo effect across education, health, youth empowerment and other sectors visibly does not serve the interest of the child.

On this celebration day, Khadija and Devotha are in Bagamoyo, leading a team of 30 other people, to test-run the assessment among adolescents aged 13-17. Their way of celebrating is by convening, inspiring, connecting, and writing the future of life skills in Tanzania. Besides, they are not about to hang up. They say almost in unison: “There is still so much to learn here. When we learn one thing, it opens up space for two new questions. We are curious about how this will end, because we think it may never end. Only when our children will acquire the life skills”.

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