Data, Data and Downtime: Thank you Zambia, for Sharing your Gift!

Hello world. My name is Sharon, I’m 54 and I’m the newest intern at Joel Village. I’m originally from England but I’ve been living in Southern Africa for 17 years and consider Knysna, in the Western Cape of South Africa, my home. I’ve had a long and very varied working life starting off as a Chartered Surveyor managing and valuing commercial property, then in to IT Sales, then to Africa where I ran my own business’s before working on the admin side of an International Investment Consultancy.


Over the years I’ve been attracted to the NGO sector and have applied for many jobs but to no avail, it’s a tricky nut to crack! After spending some time in Vietnam, teaching English, I was looking for my next position and there it was: my dream job with Impact Network, working in Africa, in education. I have a deep love of Africa and being given the opportunity to play a small part in raising the education levels in rural communities is very special indeed.

Fortunately, I love working with Excel and Databases. Just after I arrived here both month end and end of term coincided to produce a perfect storm of data!  I felt a bit overwhelmed at times especially with the month end reports as the raw data needs a lot of manipulation and cleaning (and chasing people to update) to produce the end result. There’s also a deadline to adhere to as a lot of the information goes to our funders; the people behind the scenes who make all of this possible. Monica, my predecessor, had explained what was required but watching somebody explain the ins and outs of compiling the reports and then actually doing it yourself is a very different process!  Anyway, I now have a month end under my belt and the next one should be a lot more straight forward, especially as I’ve started working on some strategies to streamline the production of the reports.

The end of term data is a whole other story. Results for the six examined subjects, (handwritten, on paper) were collected from teachers gathered for the training days. This task was overwhelming purely because of the sheer volume of information that had to be processed manually but everybody contributed with the data input, both in Zambia and New York including some volunteers (Thanks, Reshma’s Dad!). The resulting spreadsheet is standing at over 4700 lines (so far) and is the biggest data collection undertaken by Impact Network. I think I can speak for all of us when I say we’re waiting with baited breath to find out what the data will reveal!

Office View.jpg

With my head, ‘in the zone’, stuck in my laptop it’s easy to forget the realities of my present location. Until, that is, a cow or goat sticks his head in the office door to see what’s going on. Or, whilst figuring out a tricky data manipulation, I ask my best friend Google how to do it, and wait…… and wait….and wait. Eventually, I grab my phone and wander around outside to find a cell signal and repeat the question….and wait….and wait. There’s no 4G here people! There’s no point getting frustrated, it’s just the way it is. While you’re waiting it gives you a chance to appreciate the small moments happening around you: the beautiful clear, blue sky; the cows, goats, chickens and dogs living their lives; the lizard scampering up a tree; the crowd of children that have gathered; the women collecting water from the borehole. Having the time to recognise and appreciate the small moments in life is a precious gift that few of us experience.

 Waiting for the Internet.....

Waiting for the Internet.....

Thank you Zambia, for sharing your gift!

- Sharon

Data is Power


A few weeks ago the Impact Network team came together to support the biggest data collection and entry process in the history of the organization! With more students and teachers than ever before, Impact Network believes that it is even more crucial to have as much good information about our students and schools as possible.

Good data helps us to not only provide more help to our students and teachers - but better and more tailored support! It allows us to make informed decisions and be responsive to what is happening across our 44 schools and many different communities. 


But building a school information system to accommodate so many students, teachers and staff has not been easy. The more data we collect, the more creative we need to be in terms of how information is gathered, entered digitally and processed. 

By using a mobile data collection system we have been able to create a lot of efficiencies within the team. Teacher and student attendance is now all collected through the mobile app, among many other things.

Here is a picture of our teachers engaging with attendance and assessment data in a workshop in April. By identifying patterns among students and having access to essential information, teachers will be better equipped to tackle challenges that arise in and around their schools.


The last big piece of the data puzzle is how to process student assessment data. With 6,000 students and 42 unique standardized tests each term- this a big undertaking! Over the past few weeks team members in the US and Zambia have come together to work on this. Led by our intern on the ground, Sharon, this process is almost done! A big thank you to everyone who has worked to make this a reality: Sharon, Noah, Caroline, Jackson, Solomon, Olivia, Lweendo, Richard, Katie, Sofia, Phoebe, Dilip, and Reshma!

Data is power – and now we have so many opportunities to improve the quality of our program even further and facilitate better decision making at all levels. 

Onwards and upwards!


Practice Makes Progress

It’s Mother’s Day in the US (Happy Mother’s Day to the moms out there!), and I came across this incredible story. 

I have to say, it particularly resonated with me because I have a two-year-old.  I also have to say, that Dolly Shivani Cherukuri has my son beat.

 The original Mockingjay!

The original Mockingjay!

Three years ago, Dolly became the youngest Indian to score more than 200 points at an archery event. She shot 36 arrows at a target 5 meters away, and then again at a target 7 meters away. Three years later, she created a new record by firing 103 arrows at a distance of 10 meters in only 11 minutes. She continues to break records each year! Her family claims that “archery is in their blood”, and that she started training after her older brother – international archer and coach, Cherukuri Lenin – passed away.  But the truth is that, archery is in their life.  Dolly practices every day for a few hours.  She also uses light carbon arrows when she is training so that they don’t weigh her down.

Two things I wanted to highlight from this story: First, and I could say this every week, practice matters.  Dedicating a set amount of time to the practice of a skill is the only way to improve it, to hone it, and master it.  Whether it’s reading, learning an instrument, or doing long division – practice is the only thing that is guaranteed to bring progress.  Some people are lucky as well, and others have better opportunities.  But for our scholars, the more hours they can put in, practicing their literacy and numeracy skills, the better students they will become, and the more chances they will have for success.  We want our scholars to be the change makers in Zambia, but to do that, we all need to put the time into their studies, hour by hour, week by week, year by year. It starts today!

Second, age ain’t nothing but a number. Dolly has been able to excel at a task at such an incredibly young age. Most kids are still trying to develop their fine motor skills at this age; Kian is working on holding a pencil correctly!  But Dolly’s dedication to her craft and her family’s steadfast support is remarkable. Providing that support to our students is what motivates each of us, every day, to improve, to change, to innovate, and to endure. 



Just Because you Can, it Doesn’t Mean you Should

Growing up, I remember my parents telling me “just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.” This is a simple message that is intended to make one think about their actions, though for many of us, the message changes with age.

I recall a lecturer of mine once saying the word ‘should’ can be removed from our vocabulary. Often the word is negatively tied to ‘obligation’ and can shape our thought process in an unhealthy way. The word is also described as debilitating, disempowering or coercive by those who professionally dissect this particular word. In a personal experiment, I omitted the word ‘should’ from my speech for several years. True enough, I didn’t need it, or particularly miss it. It has crept back into my vocabulary in recent years, though I often strive to replace the word with empowering ones such as desire, choose or want.


Back in January, the site managers and I had a session where we dissected the words ‘can’ and ‘should’ in relation to perceptions about women and their ability to perform certain tasks, part of what I consider an ongoing conversation about gender roles. We considered how we can be more precise in their use, in order to reinforce the point that our work is all about giving people the chance to develop their talent in a supportive environment.


Whenever things get challenging here in Zambia, I remember this:

We CAN mold high school graduates into amazing primary school teachers. Higher education has incredible value, but throughout my life I have seen individuals do incredible things with determination alone. The guidance our teachers receive will undoubtedly remain with them and benefit them for years to come.


We CAN provide a better quality education than the alternatives that exist where Impact works. The technologies we provide are a definitive advantage of our model, but the support we provide and standards we set also play a major role. 

We CAN shift perceived gender roles by building confidence in our scholars, empowering our teachers and maintaining an environment that is free from discrimination.


Whether or not you use the word ‘should’ is up you to decide. Impact Network has shown it CAN improve education for thousands of Zambian children and I am one of countless others that is grateful the organization has chosen to do so.


The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet...

I came across a quote that was not attributed to anyone when I read it:  “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.”

I looked it up and found that it was actually a quote from Aristotle – the Greek philosopher and scientist (hopefully most of you remembered at least that much from your own schooling!).  At 18, Aristotle joined Plato’s Academy in Athens to pursue a higher education under Plato’s direction. His time here proved him to be an exemplary scholar, but he did not inherit the position of director of the academy when Plato passed away.  Aristotle also tutored Alexander the Great, giving him access to a number of resources.  He was able to create a library and school in Athens, called the Lyceum. It was here where Aristotle spent most of the rest of his life – teaching, studying, and writing.

Aristotle, along with Plato and Socrates, is known to have laid much of the groundwork for western philosophy.  His views on physical science shaped the work of medieval scholars. Some of his zoological observations were not confirmed (or refuted, as it were) until the 19th century. He is often regarded as the “first genuine scientist in history” and his works contain the first known formal study of logic.  The world as we know it would look profoundly different if it weren’t for three parts of Aristotle:  his teachers (Plato and Socrates), his students (Alexander the Great), and Aristotle himself.  It’s interesting to remind ourselves – that we are all teachers, and we are all also students. And particularly on the teaching point, at least to me these days, our children are learning from us every day – from our language, from our actions, and from our behavior.

20150129_KU_Impact Network_Zambia_013.jpg

The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.  When we are learning something new – whether we are 6 years old or 60 years old – it can often be hard, it can often be overwhelming, and it can often be frustrating.  But in the end, our hard work in obtaining that piece of knowledge (whether big or small) leads to better things.  It was a good reminder to me, that our 6,000 students may struggle at times, but it is our duty, and collective responsibility to help them persevere so that they may eventually enjoy the fruits that education has to bring.

-- Reshma

Kids Don’t Learn From People They Don’t Like

Last week I watched a TedTalk by Rita Pierson, a teacher for 40 years, about the importance of positive and supportive teachers. She posits that no significant learning can occur without a genuine human connection between student and teacher. Pierson heard a fellow teacher once say, “they don’t pay me to like the kids”. I’m sure we’ve all had teachers like that -- the ones who don’t bother to get to know their students.


One of the lines that got the biggest audience reaction was her response to that teacher: “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like”. This definitely rings true for me. Thinking about my favorite classes in high school and college, they’ve all been taught by teachers and professors who I had a genuine connection with. My favorite professor, Dr. Bent, has taught four of my classes in college. Two of those classes have been my favorite courses I’ve ever taken. Dr. Bent has this way of engaging with her students like I’ve never experienced before. She commands the respect and attention of everyone in her class. She’s funny and is able to relate to us. She feels like a friend and a confidant, but is also one of the most intelligent and captivating people I have ever learned from. I could sit there and listen to her lecture for hours without being bored. I took a Feminist Theory course with her (one of the hardest courses I’ve ever taken) and she made it easy to understand the complex theories. She talks to us about her life and wants to hear about ours. Dr. Bent makes a point to form genuine relationships with all of her students, and that is the mark of a great teacher.


Pierson says, “Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them. Who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best they can possibly be.” This reminded me of some of the interviews I’ve seen with our teachers in Zambia. When asked what they hope for their students, many of them have said that they hope their students achieve more and have a better life than they have. They say they want more for their students’ futures. They want to see them become doctors, nurses, and even teachers. The connection between these kids and their teachers are special. Teachers have the opportunity to play a huge role in our lives. I hope our kids in Zambia are forming the same bonds with their teachers as I have with mine.

Do you have a favorite teacher or professor that had an impact on your life? Click here to watch the TedTalk!


Remembering Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

Earlier this month, the world lost Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a South African anti-apartheid activist, and the former wife of Nelson Mandela.  Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is the lesser known of the Mandelas, of course.  But some would argue that she was the more powerful, though not without controversy.


She was born in what is now the Eastern Cape province, to two teachers. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international relations, and married Nelson Mandela when she was in her early twenties. Five years after their marriage, he was arrested and jailed, where he remained for the next two and a half decades.

It was during this time that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela became a leading activist in the fight against apartheid and to free her husband. She was often detained, subjected to house arrest, harassed, and held in solitary confinement. She was held in exile, and allowed to leave only to visit her husband on Robben Island.  She was tortured on various occasions. But it was her voice that consistently reminded the world that her husband remained behind bars, and that apartheid was still the rule of law in South Africa.

“They think because they have put my husband on an island that he will be forgotten. They are wrong. The harder they try to silence him, the louder I will become!" – 1962


When Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, they had spent close to a quarter of a century married but apart. Two years later they separated, and they divorced in 1996.  Winnie Mandela’s involvement in 1980s human rights violations were revealed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established as part of Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid government.  She was dismissed from her post with the ANC amid allegations of corruption, and she was later convicted of theft and fraud. She attempted a return to politics, but continued to be a divisive figure in South Africa.

Winnie Mandela is a reminder always to me – of the humanness of our leaders.  Without her, Nelson Mandela surely would not have become the face of the apartheid movement. It was “Madikizela-Mandela, unbowed, courageous and unyielding, who kept the untethered hope of the people focused and alive during the horrors perpetrated by the apartheid regime.”  And while it might be easy to try and elevate her to some sort of superhuman status because of all that she endured, all that she suffered, and all that she accomplished – it would be unfair. She was, after all, only human, and thus susceptible to moral errors that haunt us all.

“The years of imprisonment hardened me.... Perhaps if you have been given a moment to hold back and wait for the next blow, your emotions wouldn't be blunted as they have been in my case. When it happens every day of your life, when that pain becomes a way of life, I no longer have the emotion of fear. There is no longer anything I can fear. There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn't any pain I haven't known."

Building Literacy and Academic Potential


Earlier this year, I wrote about reading and math assessments in a small sample of students in Katete West. While there was much to celebrate, one finding was that some students were still struggling to read and comprehend what they were reading.  In grade 5 in particular, students struggled with English reading since this is the year that the language of instruction switches from Cinyanja (local language) to English.  In order to combat this issue, a literacy initiative is being piloted in two school in Katete West.


There are a lot of solutions out there, but finding the right ones to fit in this specific context, a small NGO in a rural environment with limited resources, can be tricky. We finally came up with a low-cost option that we think will provide good outcomes -- a literacy boost initiative in two grade five classes. At the outset of the pilot, we discovered that some students struggled to read English, or could read but struggled with comprehension. This is a particular concern because later grades are taught wholly in English. I also learned that some of those struggling students transferred from other schools and had not been with Impact Network for grades 1-4.

One potential reason for low reading scores is that students do not have access to enough materials or time to read at their level to improve their reading fluency.  Additionally these same students may have limited access to literate adults to help develop their reading skills. Thus, in this literacy pilot, students will be reading silently or with a partner for 20 minutes each day after school using reading cards with short English passages grouped by their reading level.


In order to give students targeted support, guided reading is done once or twice a week by Impact Network staff. The students have been divided according to their reading level – this allows those students with limited reading ability to go back to basics and focus on phonics and use texts at the appropriate level, while other students who are able to read fluently can focus more on comprehension. 


 We are tweaking the program as we go, but two grade five teachers participating have reported that they have seen some improvements in the students’ reading already! We will be measuring oral reading fluency after the end of the term to determine the level of improvement, but I can say that I have observed students reading more confidently and eagerly. I was expecting some push back and reluctance in having to read every day, but during the guided reading sessions I sat in on, students have been very willing and participate actively.

It has been quite fun so far! When I visit, I walk around to a few students at a time and they are excited to show off what they can read. It is, after all, not their native language. I keep reminding them and their teachers, even in the U.S., where students have access to libraries and so much more, many can’t read in a second language. It is something to be proud of and celebrate!


The Importance of Investment in Education for ALL Children

My father-in-law forwarded me Nicholas Kristof’s most recent Opinion piece in the times – entitled These Kids Could Tutor World Leaders.  It’s a passionate piece about the importance of the investment of education, highlighting the millions of students who are still left out of the education system.

It’s a piece that has been written before, with different words and phrases.  And while reading about various schools in the Central African Republic it felt like I could have been reading about our schools in Zambia.  Kristof writes:

This remote village doesn’t have an official school, and there’s no functioning government to build one. So the villagers, desperate to improve their children’s lives, used branches and leaves to construct their own dirt-floor schoolhouse.

It has no electricity, windows or desks, and it doesn’t keep out rain or beetles, but it does imbue hope, discipline and dreams. The 90 pupils sitting on bamboo benches could tutor world leaders about the importance of education — even if the kids struggle with the most basic challenges.

This was the situation that led Impact Network to start our first school, in Joel Village, a decade ago.  Our communities would come together, provide a volunteer teacher, a space to learn, and whatever resources they could muster.  And as we continued to work in community schools, it’s a situation we’ve faced time and time again – dedication and potential, in some of the toughest conditions I’ve seen. From that first school in Joel we’ve grown to over 40, encompassing 5,000 students just like the 90 in Kristof’s articles.


Above: One of our early schools that was operating out of a church before we built a new structure.

Perhaps even more telling, is the commitment that our teachers have shown each day, to help their scholars, to improve their own skills, and to enhance the villages that we serve.  On a recent trip to Zambia, I caught Petros in one of the classrooms in Joel on a Saturday.  Petros was one of our first teachers; I remember seeing him teach first graders at Kanyelele Community School on my first trip to Zambia in 2011.  Since then, Petros went on to be the Teacher in Charge at Kanyelele and eventually a Teacher Supervisor for Grades 3-4 across all of Katete West.  This is all to say, Petros doesn’t have classroom responsibilities anymore and he doesn’t teach students directly.  But on this particular Saturday, I happened to walk in and see him with about a dozen first-graders.  When I asked what he was doing, he said that the kids had shown up, and so, he was teaching them.  It was a small thing to him perhaps – but it spoke volumes to me about the commitment that he and his fellow staff members have to our students and parents.

The full article is here:


Reflecting on Micro-Moments from My Trip to Zambia

Greetings from Zambia! About two weeks ago I embarked on my very first trip to Zambia. While here, I am getting a closer look at our program, staff, teachers, and students and it has been very enlightening.  Within my first week, I had the pleasure of reviewing one of our teacher training presentations. This particular training outlined the steps to building a positive learning environment in the classroom. One of the components that really stood out to me and somewhat followed, or rather guided, me through this trip, was “Micro-Moments”. Research has indicated that our memories are based on tiny moments, micro-moments, which generally last a few seconds. These moments are divided into three categories: Positive, Negative and Neutral. We tend to remember the positive and negative and often push the neutral ones to the back of our minds. I will take you through a few of the positive micro-moments of my trip.

Mirco-Moment: Awestruck

6:13 A.M. on a chilly Tuesday morning, I come out of my room to take in the sunrise. And to my surprise, I was stopped in my tracks gazing at an unexpected marvel. As I turn to close my door, I notice one of our students, Pagalani, being wheeled to school by his mother with his two younger siblings sitting in his lap. Once they arrive at our school, the mother, with our security guard’s help, picks up her son and places him on the school steps. Waves and hugs are exchanged between Pagalani and his siblings as they jump into his wheelchair to leave with their mother and Pagalani patiently waits for the school bell to be rung (at 7 A.M. sharp) and learning to commence. The commitment of our students and parents were evident at this moment and motivated me for the rest of the day.


Micro-Moment: All Smiles

During my first field visit, I was able to sit in on Mervis, a 1st-grade teacher in Kathangwira, deliver a Cinyanja (local language) lesson to 57 students. After class, the students are in the standing in front of the school, so I decided to take pictures. I take a few group pictures and then I noticed a very stern-faced tiny person. I choose her and a few other friends and ask them to smile in the local language. Little did I know that this four-letter word, “Seka”, would brighten my day and inspire me to smile like the world is watching.

image (1).png


Mirco-Moment: Teacher Appreciation

After observing a very interactive lesson on counting and utilizing the number line with our 1st graders, Tesila, a teacher supervisor, begins to coach Kennedy, one of our newer 1st-grade teachers. Just as we begin to examine the positives of his lesson, one of his pupils’ returns, holding a gift. This student has returned after dismissal to offer a symbol of gratitude, an ear of roasted corn, for an admittedly great lesson. The student shyly hands off the ear of corn to a deserving Kennedy and runs off giggling.  To see this little girl showing gratitude in the grandest form she knew and watching Kennedy humbly accept this token, truly warmed my heart.


Micro-Moment: Welcome Committee

image (3).png

Mere minutes after I arrived in Joel, I was welcomed by several children who decided to take a break from herding livestock to greet me. They stop what they are doing to stare, then they disappear and I do the same to settle in. About five minutes pass and I hear faint whispers of  “Hello, How are you? I am fine”. Upon hearing this, I take a break from settling in to get to know my new friends. We don’t speak the same language, so we just sit and examine each other with our eyes. To make me more comfortable, I begin to play music to fill the moments between smiles,  awkward silences, and our laughter. We begin to dance and our dance session gets serious so I whip out my phone to capture this moment and my new friends stop in their tracks and run from the front of the camera to my side of the camera… And from there some of the most memorable selfies I have ever taken are snapped.

Micro-Moment: Guest of Honor

After a long day at one of our most rural school, we took a detour to conduct an audit on one of our Expansion schools in Mthunya. As we closed out our visit, we were getting ready to leave and the Head Teacher request that we sign the logbook. Naturally, our Operations Manager for this region takes the book and begins to fill out the logbook. The Head Teacher stopped him and asked that I sign the logbook. Completely caught off guard, I ask if he is sure that he wants me to sign the logbook, as I am so used to blending in or at least trying to blend in. He assures me that I should sign because I am the newest visitor. He goes on to say that he has heard about me; I question what he thinks he knows about me, as we have only been there a few minutes. He rattles off a few facts: my name, my heritage (Nigerian) and that I was visiting from another country. I was so surprised. This offered a new and very personal outlook on my presence in Zambia and helped me to see that, try as I might to blend in; my presence is noted and impactful.

Micro-Moment: Exceeding Expectations

My first morning in Joel, I am having breakfast with Felicia, our Implementation Specialist and Monica, our Education Program Intern and we begin to recap my arrival. Felicia informs me that I am not what our staff, particularly what Caroline, one of our School Support Officers, expected. She goes on to explain that Caroline was not expecting to be greeted by “a young, cool, down-to-earth person that she could talk about things like hair and music with”.  While I am not exactly sure what she expected, I am happy that I was able to completely dismantle (and potentially redesign) her expectation of Americans.


Micro-Moment: The Looks

image (5).png

The looks from students as I walk into or past a classroom, past students in the schoolyard or past children in the village. Noticing their eyes being fixated on me; someone who looks like them but seeing that there is something new and different about me. These looks happened throughout my trip and I was able to capture one. This young lady’s gaze (pictured below) was replicated 100 times over on my short stay. It is these glances filled with admiration, wonder, and excitement that will continue to push me in this work.




In reflecting on the last three micro-moments I shared, I am reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s  Ted Talk, The danger of one a single story. Chimamanda speaks about differentiating the narrative of a people and the power attached to those stories, how they are delivered and who is delivering them. In these micro-moments, I am the one delivering a new narrative with the simplicity of my presence. By no means do I see myself as a superhero by walking into the communities that we serve as someone who looks like our students, parents, and teachers, but coming from similar heritage as the visiting American, that no one expected, is important! After thinking more deeply about the dangers that Chimamanda examines in her Ted Talk, I am confident that our students’ exposure to a varied narrative is not limited to me, but rather offered to our students on a daily basis. From the interaction with teachers from different backgrounds to reading books about African leaders like Nelson Mandela to using our tablets where their animated learning companion resembles them and speaks their language; our students are definitely receiving more than a single story. It is difficult to know something is possible unless you see it. And we are showing our students (and staff) possibility.