As a little girl, born and raised in Texas to a family that afforded her tremendous opportunities for travel and education, master’s candidate Mandy Stein was already acutely aware of systems of inequality. She volunteered with animals, children with physical and mental disabilities, and the homeless — populations, she now observes, that had a lot to say but whose voices and rights were not always heard.
“I was given this life but understood that wasn’t how it worked for everyone,” Stein says. “I had two things I wanted to do as a child: I wanted to change the world and I wanted to be a mom. Now looking back on that, I’ve found a way to do both with the work I do in Tanzania.”
Stein is the founder of Neema International, a nonprofit organization that invests in the children of Tanzania through sustainable building projects and education. She fell in love with East Africa after visiting with her family in 2007, then went back to Tanzania a few years later to volunteer and soon found herself entrenched in the community. Stein saw children and families who had tremendous strength and resilience but were weighted down by poverty, violence, and a lack of education. She left promising to build a new children’s home for one of her volunteer sites. She ultimately raised half a million dollars in independent donations to fulfill that vow.
Since its founding in 2013, Neema has built a children’s home that runs on solar power and a biogas stove, and it has launched several other initiatives as well: Uru Academy, the first full-service early childhood education center in the Kilimanjaro region, that now serves over 100 children; Neema Bags, a social entrepreneurship project that empowers women through employment and provides sustainable funding for the organization; and the Digitruck Bridgeway Program, an educational undertaking for teenagers who failed or could not afford secondary schooling and are ready to recommit to their education.
Neema’s educational scholarship program, which covers all costs associated with attending school — including textbooks, tuition, uniforms, and transportation — has grown from sponsoring four students in 2013 to 125 for the 2019 school year.
“I believe very much in a bottom-up approach,” Stein says. “My co-director and I both speak fluent Swahili and attend all cultural and traditional events and practices. ... I am very aware of the white savior complex, the international arguments, the history of imperialism, and skepticism of a white girl coming over.”
As a result, it’s important to her that the impetus for change and growth comes from the community itself. One of the school’s goals, for example, is to work toward reducing corporal punishment and domestic violence in the community. “We’re trying to reduce corporal punishment from a scientific background, for reducing toxic stress, not because [we think] ‘the way you’re doing it is wrong and this is how you should do it,’” Stein says. “Many [parents] say to us ‘I hated being hit as a kid and I don’t want to hit my kid but I don’t have any other way to discipline them.’ When they’re given that alternative and they see how we’re doing things in schools, they become very involved.”
Her year at HGSE has given her time to think about the best ways to bring change from the ground up. “I came to HGSE to get the tools to … take the curriculum in the school model that I had, introduce it to the government, and scale it up,” Stein says, “but what I didn’t realize was how much we invest on a [personal] level, so it’s not something that is easy to scale up.” However, if she can change the lives of 200 individuals, providing them with the supports they need to become “architects of their own futures,” Stein will give it her all.
At Harvard, she learned to write grants, started to think about reproductive health as a lever for change, learned about toxic stress, and made connections with like-minded educators. Stein had originally hoped to come to Harvard to find individuals who had the solutions to the problems she faced in Tanzania. “I came here with questions no one could answer. But the questions people have asked of me have led me to my own answers,” says Stein.
After graduation, Stein plans to return permanently to Tanzania and is currently working to organize study abroad programs with Neema International and Harvard through the iLab and the African Language Departments. She is also looking to transfer pedagogy and approaches through teach abroad programs for HGSE students, particularly with arts education. Of course, the situation on the ground is complicated and trying, but Stein is resilient.
“I’ve buried children. I’ve seen children murdered, children starving. But I’ve seen them flourish, families get jobs, mothers leave abusive situations and build their own homes,” she says. “The bottom line [for me] is not if I’m happy, not if I’m struggling, but if I am making a difference.”
Photo by Jonathan Kozowyk