Samantha Schwartz and her sister Jessica just returned from Tanzania earlier this month, and they’re already making plans to go back.
But this is no vacation. The Schwartz sisters — Jessica, 22, works for an India-focused NGO called Pratham; and Samantha, 18, an incoming senior at Shady Side Academy — were in Africa working through Bricks + Books Foundation, a group created in 2007 by the sisters and friend Ashley Speyer, that aims to create better learning environments at overcrowded, under-resourced Tanzanian schools. While past projects have included basic rebuilding of schools, the latest round of initiatives may be the Schwartzes’ most intriguing.
Bricks + Books is currently raising money to bring a biodigester to the newly built latrine at the Imbaseni Primary School, about 15 miles from the Kilimanjaro Airport. Now in lay terms: a biodigester is a chamber that, by applying pressure to the human waste of the latrine, produces biogas, which can be used as cooking or lighting fuel. At Imbaseni, the gas would be used to cook students’ lunch — a foreign luxury at present. The remaining matter can then be repurposed as a rich fertilizer.
“The former latrines at this school were totally full. So far past capacity that the school was threatened with closing, but the school couldn’t afford to fix them,” said Jessica. “We were trying to figure out not only an alternative solution, but a sustainable one.”
Bricks + Books raised the money to construct new latrines this year through mostly private donations, but Jessica hopes to raise the remaining $4,000 for the biodigester by Thanksgiving, at which point “it could be completed within a month,” she said.
The Schwartzes may not be so patient.
“I think we’re going to start funding it out of our own pockets,” said Jessica. “It’s such an important need. A lot of kids at the school can’t afford to purchase lunches; they don’t eat after walking two miles in the morning. Now all students will have the opportunity to eat lunch.”
One hurdle in the projects sustainability is “the stigma with human waste,” said Jessica. “When cow waste is used, people love buying that remaining mush [as fertilizer].”
Samantha took on a project of her own this year, fostering a different type of sustainability — ongoing friendship. Bricks + Books helped pair Imbaseni Private School with Shady Side Academy as sister schools. The first mode of connection was letter writing.
“I’d gotten about 36 sixth-graders to write letters, so I came [to Tanzania] with letters and pictures,” said
Samantha. Thirty-six students, chosen based on English ability, were then paired with the American students.
The idea has already caught on — a California teacher e-mailed Bricks + Books to get involved; students from Winchester Thurston also sent along letters. Samantha hopes to organize three letter exchanges this year before she graduates high school.
Students on both sides responded positively to their new pen pals, but certain things do get lost in translation.
“The way [Tanzanian children] might describe if one of their parents had run away would be ‘My dad’s not home,’” said Samantha. “It’s cool to see the culture difference: ‘In my free time, I watch movies,’ or ‘In my free time, I watch my goats.’ ”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)