Tis the Season ... for Graduations!

It’s the beginning of June which means graduation season is wrapping up in the U.S. We’ve taken graduation to a whole new level here -- there are tons of first and last day of school photos flooding social media and every grade now has a graduation. Last week I even attended a ceremony where my 3-year-old walked across a stage a received a diploma for going to a nursery program two mornings a week.

A big part of graduation ceremonies is the commencement speech. Universities invite people from former presidents to celebrities to give the keynote address, and highlights tend to circulate online. One of those stories that received a lot of attention recently is about Robert Smith, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist who gave the commencement speech at Morehouse college. In his speech, he forgave the debt of the entire graduating class of 400 students - an estimated 40 million dollars. The gift averages out to $100,000 per student and has lifted a huge burden off of students who were starting their careers heavily indebted.

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While this is great news for those students, it made me think about my own education, the impact of a $1 and our students at Impact Network. Unlike our students in Zambia, I always took going to school as a given. I’m not sure I would have had the commitment to walk up to 3 hours each way to get to school as some of our students do, but I never had to find that out. Whether I would go to university was not ever a question; the question was around which university I would enroll in. I sometimes take for granted that my 3-year-old has close to a dozen different schooling options and the decisions I have to make are between Montessori, dual language, traditional programs or outdoor-based schools. These are things that most people in the world do not have access to – early childhood education, university and a schooling options in general.

Working in Zambia has made me realize the enormous impact you can make with a small amount of money and it is one of the reasons I love the work that we do – not everyone has 40 million dollars to donate after all. We can provide a quality education to students for just $5 a month. This education will change the future of many of our students lives just as the gift from Robert will have a great impact on many of the students from the 2019 graduating class. The students of Morehouse's graduating class have been encouraged to pay it forward. I look forward to hearing more about their stories in the future.


Little Learners!

For a few years now, Impact Network has been thinking about what happens to our students as they enter grade 1. For almost the entire class, it’s their first time being in school. They are learning how to hold a pencil, mastering the fine motor skills necessary to write the letter “A”, and learning the alphabet. It’s an important time for them – but it can also be quite challenging.

There is unquestionable evidence that Early Childhood Education (ECE) can drastically improve student outcomes later in schooling, but there remains very few options for school for students aged 3-6 in many African contexts. Where we work in Zambia, while there is a stated desire for more ECE, but without additional resources, classroom space, and dedicated teachers, it’s impossible to implement in rural areas.

That’s why Impact Network opened its first pilot ECE class earlier this month! I was thrilled to be able to observe our first classes at Joel Community School earlier this week. The classroom was filled with brightly colored chairs, a few clusters of desks, and play mats where the children sat for circle time, songs, and discussions. Their teacher sat with them in a large circle and they used dolls to discuss the people that make up their family. Some students were shy explaining who they have – mama, daddy, umbuya (grandmother), aunts, uncles, cousins. The teacher used dolls to explain how families worked together. I cannot wait to see these students progress through our Impact Network schools!

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And I have to say – the kids were so cute. I say that as someone who has seen thousands of kids walk through our schools over the last six years. But they were absolutely adorable.


In no other country on Earth is my story even possible

Bwanji from Zambia!

As some of you know, a few weeks ago I became an American citizen (don’t worry, I still have my Canadian passport just in case!).  In the waiting area as your paperwork is checked with hundreds of others and a judge swears you in, no electronics are allowed. So I grabbed a book before I left home and made my way through the first two thirds of President Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father.  A memoir written 13 years before he became President and while he started his Senate campaign in Chicago, it maps a journey of his time in Hawaii, Indonesia, California, New York, Chicago, and Kenya. And, as luck would have it, I started the section on Kenya as I departed for the Global Schools Forum taking place in Nairobi.

What struck me most was that while Obama’s story of success is an unlikely one, tracing his origins and early career was enormously powerful in understanding why he has been successful. In particular, he details the painstaking work he did organizing small, impoverished communities in Chicago in his early years. He discusses all of the failures – all of the times he set out to meet with a particular group of parents, or churches, and 8 people showed up instead of 50 (imagine being one of those 8 people now!).  He discusses his successes – but truthfully, they seem like little tiny wins that wouldn’t really move the needle much on his goals. He describes the tedious process of organizing communities around a common goal, how he built relationships built on trust and mutual respect, and how he ultimately became successful. 

He also discusses his journey back to Kenya and meeting his father’s family. As he described the landscape and economic opportunities in some of these rural villages, it is impossible not to be in awe of the fact that just one generation before him, the possibilities for someone born into the Obama family were limited by geographic and financial constraints. His father, Barack Obama Sr., was born on the banks of Lake Victoria, attending a local primary school in Kendu Bay. He eventually attended secondary school in Siaya, an Anglican boarding school in Maseno, and then, the University of Hawaii. While Obama Sr. was a complicated man, it is undeniable that education shaped the opportunities he was given, and that this ultimately offered a better future for his son. Indeed, without his schooling and the opportunities it gave him, we would not have had President Barack Obama.

I am reminded again of this quote from President Obama:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

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In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

I hope that the story of Barack Obama will become less exceptional as our world becomes increasingly flat. In the context of our work with 6,000 students – any one of them is the future President of Zambia. And maybe one of them is the next President Barack Obama too.


A Beautiful Mind

Four years ago this month, famed mathematician John Nash was killed along with his wife Alicia Lopez-Harrison de Larde, in a car accident in New Jersey.

While some of us may remember John Nash from the portrayal of his person in the movie A Beautiful Mind, the movie could not do justice to the work and contributions Nash had to the fields of game theory, differential geometry and partial differential equations. Today, his theories are used in a seemingly unending list of specializations – computing, economics, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, accounting, politics and military theory. In 1994, he shared the Nobel Memorial Peace Prize in Economic Sciences, and is best known for his discovery of the “Nash Equilibrium.”

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But somewhere between his beginning years as a budding mathematician, and his incredible success as a Nobel laureate, Nash was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. He battled with this mental illness, and spent time in and out of psychiatric facilities. Each time, after he had been hospitalized for a period, he would renounce his “delusional hypotheses”, go back to a more balanced mental state, and make progress in his mathematical research. And with the support of family members, colleagues, friends, and most importantly – his wife – Nash had figured out a way to cope with his illness, without the use of medicine.

Nash’s story is so striking to me because it displays a clear struggle with an illness that was generally not discussed. At the time (and even now) there were few people in the spotlight who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. For him to learn how to cope with his diagnosis while in the public eye, remaining successful in his field, is virtually unheard of. And rereading the many tributes on his life and work today, he is a reminder that we all have our demons, we all have our struggles, and we can all have our redemption too. Nash may be remembered for his diagnosis, but he will be revered and beloved for the contributions he made to the sciences, and the advancement of human knowledge.


Inspiration comes from all places

As some of you know, I recently got to (finally!) see the Broadway production of Hamilton. As anyone who has seen it can attest – it’s incredible.

Hamilton tells the story of one of America’s founding fathers – Alexander Hamilton – and is inspired by the biography of his life by historian Ron Chernow. Hamilton was a promoter of the US Constitution, created the country’s financial system as the first Secretary of Treasury, and wrote a number of George Washington’s economic policies. In particular, he wrote much of the Federalist Papers, which helped to ratify the constitution in America’s founding years.

But, I’ll leave the telling of Hamilton’s story to the history books. Today, I want to tell the story of Mr. Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda is a composer, a playwright, and the amazing creator of the Hamilton production. He studied at Wesleyan University, where he wrote his first big production, In the Heights. It would go on to win four Tony Awards, and really put Miranda on the map as someone who could write compelling stories and compose lyrics and beats that appealed to a wide variety of audiences. While on vacation in 2008, Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography on Alexander Hamilton (an 800-page odyssey that my father-in-law insists I should read). He spent the next year composing a song called My Shot, which he performed at the White House. He slowly started performing more and more pieces telling Hamilton’s life and created the show Hamilton.


Hamilton, of course, went on to be a huge sensation. What strikes me about Miranda’s story is not that he was able to take American history, set it to hip-hop music, and make history fun. It’s not that for decades going forward, our school children will learn American history from a Broadway show in addition to a text book. It’s not even that the cast is almost completely people of color, telling a story of the white men who created this country. It’s the fundamental fact that inspiration comes from all places. From life, from music, from stories, from people. It comes in all genres, mixes, forms, combinations. Miranda was reading an 800-page memoir on someone who lived over two centuries ago – and he was able to take that, and create an edgy, innovative, ground-breaking Broadway show. Truly, he redefined a genre and pushed each of us to redefine our own limits.

In the work that we do at Impact Network, we are fortunate that there are 6,000 students that continue to inspire us every single day. That push us to do the best that we possibly can so that they can have a good education. Sometimes, it’s important that we step back, reflect, and remember that. 


Talking with the Impact Team: What I Learned and What I Gained

Over the past several weeks, I have been fortunate enough to speak with some members of the team at Impact Network. I spoke with Hope Zimba, our Education Program Officer in Sinda-Petauke; Lweendo Maanya, our Head of Operations in Katete; Karly Southworth, our Director of Operations; and Felicia Dahlquist, the Director of Academics and Evaluation.


Hope studied at The University of Zambia, where she earned her degree in arts with education. At university, she studied the motivations of students in the classroom. Hope is inspired by the progress that she sees within the students. Hope believes that “we are reaching so many students, and with the education that we are providing, they will grow up to become better people in society.


Lweendo enjoys working with community members and developing relationships with the PTA – Parent Teachers Association. This gives him the chance to engage with our parents and involve them in various school projects. Lweendo measures his value as ensuring that inventory within the schools is up to par so that learning is not interrupted by a lack of resources or broken technology. Education is important to Lweendo because he feels as if it is the duty of the educated to share their wealth of knowledge.

Karly is inspired by seeing the progress of the team in Zambia and seeing them take more initiative as the organization grows. I discussed my background and interests, my mission work and interest in helping people, along with my uncertainty regarding my career path. Karly assured me that I will take many different paths before I find what works. She also advised me to not settle and that I should always strive for more, whether that be education, experience, travel, or simply inspiration.


Felicia is inspired when a teacher, student, or staff member understands something that he or she has been trying to make sense of. She described these instances as “lightbulb moments.” Felicia enjoys witnessing the development in knowledge and know-how of her team members. She also appreciates digging into our data, and seeing what level of progress our schools are making and how much reach our teachers are having.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Although this may be a challenging ideology to live by, the Zambian team succeeds in doing things that are unexpected with a vigorous passion! It’s inspiring to watch, and I’m here for the journey.


Financial Literacy - A valuable tool for the inclusion of women into the financial world

Katete women participating in financial literacy training.

Katete women participating in financial literacy training.

In February 2019, Impact Network in partnership with FSDZ and Mwabu/iSchool conducted a pilot study on financial literacy with grade 7 pupils at Joel, grade 10 pupils at Chimutende and NetGirls women in Dole community. The objective of the pilot was to test out the materials to be used in the larger project on financial literacy, which will be carried out later this year. The project’s goal is to increase financial literacy in women and girls– particularly adolescent girls. It will also increase the financial capabilities of low-income Zambians in rural communities across three provinces in Katete District. The project is targeting 15,000 girls and boys including young people in primary and secondary schools, as well as 2,000 out of school women and girls through NetGirls.  There was excitement among the  NetGirls  women who participated, as they expressed keen interest in learning more about financial literacy. They used the tablets during the mixture of facilitator-led and participant-led pilot sessions, navigating through each module passionately and participating fully. The women indicated that they learned a lot about how to generate, save, and manage money. Program participant Bathsheba Banda, for example, stated that she “enjoyed the financial education sessions because they cover so many things that she did not previously know, such as managing, saving and using money.” The pilot was thus proven to be a success as the digital content was well-received and there was full participation among the participants. It showed that Katete women are very interested and eager to learn about financial literacy because they do not want to be left out on financial inclusion.

Attendance and interest in the sessions were both high.

Attendance and interest in the sessions were both high.

Globally, there is a gender gap in financial inclusion among women that needs to be closed. This gap makes women have more financial problems and be more financially unstable than men. Closing this gender gap in financial inclusion could go a long way in solving  financial problems and creating financial stability. However, the gap can only be closed if women are educated on money through financial literacy education, which has been recognized to be a tool that plays an important role in the financial inclusion of women. Financial literacy is defined in different ways but is usually understood as the knowledge and understanding of personal financial concepts and the skills, motivation and confidence to make informed financial choices and participate in economic activity. Program facilitators for the Katete pilot strongly agree with this message, with one of them emphasizing that financial education “incudes women and girls in the financial world. It gives them knowledge as well as skills to help them become self-sufficient and financially stable.”

Day 2 of financial literacy training with youth learners .

Day 2 of financial literacy training with youth learners.

Financial literacy leads to making good financial choices that can have positive outcomes on the financial wellbeing of an individual. It is a form of education that provides an understanding of various financial topics, including those that relate to money management, personal finances, income and investing. It focuses on the ability to manage personal matters in an efficient manner and includes the knowledge of making appropriate choices about personal finance. It also involves the proficiency of financial principles and concepts such as financial planning and profitable savings techniques. With the benefits of this program, women gain the skills to make financially literate decisions so that they are no longer excluded from the financial world.

A strong spirit transcends rules

Three years ago yesterday, the legendary artist Prince died of a fentanyl overdose in his home – the prolific singer, songwriter and innovator was beloved for his varied and funky music, and extravagant stage presence. I admittedly, have never been the largest Prince fan. But in college, I was always impressed by his genuine talent – Prince (for the most part) wrote his own songs, played each instrument, and arranged all of his own music. At that time in my life, such independence and autonomy over music was rare, and it’s even sparser now. 

Prince was born in 1958 in Minneapolis, and wrote his first song at just seven years old. His youth was largely spent recording songs with his cousin’s band, and he went on to make his first album at the age of 19. His next album went platinum and he became a legend thereafter – winning seven Grammies, a Golden Globe and an Academy Award. His greatest asset was being able to shift from genre to genre, never letting any one of them define him, integrating funk, rock, R&B, soul, pop, and more. As then President Obama said in a statement after his death:

Few artists have influenced the sound and trajectory of popular music more distinctly, or touched quite so many people with their talent. As one of the most gifted and prolific musicians of our time, Prince did it all. Funk. R&B. Rock and roll. He was a virtuoso instrumentalist, a brilliant bandleader, and an electrifying performer. “A strong spirit transcends rules,” Prince once said -- and nobody's spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative.


What I often find myself doing when a unique artist like Prince is recognized, is envisioning what that artist was like as a student. Who were his teachers? How did he grow up? What were his supports? If I had to guess, Prince was an unconventional child – he could have easily been discouraged from pursuing his dreams. But someone believed in him, and he was able to reach his full potential. He worked exceedingly hard at honing his skills, learning a variety of instruments, making sure each song arrangement was just right.

Each day, of each week, of each term in the school year, we welcome over 6,000 students through our primary school doors. Some of those students do exceedingly well in our schools. Some of those students work hard to develop their skills and improve. But each one of them has the potential to shine even brighter in their future academics, to invent, and to lead, if we give them the foundation they need to thrive. As we close our school doors for the first term of 2019, it’s important to remember the gravity of this responsibility.


One in a million...

Recently, a Kenyan teacher named Peter Tabichi made the headlines and won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize, awarded by the Varkey Foundation. Tabichi teaches in a small village called Pwani in Kenya, at a school called the Keriko Secondary School. The school serves a high proportion of impoverished communities, and one third of the population have lost their parents. But, Tabichi has gone on to empower his science students to win and compete in numerous competitions – even qualifying for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. On top of that, he donates 80% of his salary back to his students in the village. In just a couple of years, he has been able to double the number of students attending university from her school.

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“Africa’s young people will no longer be held back by low expectations. Africa will produce scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs whose names will be one day famous in every corner of the world. And girls will be a huge part of this story…

- Peter Tabichi

Tabichi is just one teacher, but the prize is meant to celebrate teachers from around the globe – many of whom work long hours in extremely tough circumstances. What strikes me is not that Tabichi’s story is not extraordinary – it’s that Tabichi’s story is both extraordinary and exceedingly common. In my time in Zambia, I’ve had the great privilege of seeing our own teachers reach incredible milestones with our students. We can build hundreds of classrooms, we can provide thousands of books and pencils, and we can fill our classrooms with eager young students. But without our teachers, none of it works. In truth, they are the heart and soul of Impact Network!


Literacy Day! The Key That Opens the Doors to Knowledge


“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” -Dr. Seuss

Literacy Day is an exciting day, which allows our learners in grades 1 to 3 to showcase their literacy levels to their parents and guardians. Parents come to school with their children to meet the teachers, engage in lessons, and see their children participate in educational activities. It is a well-established day in our termly calendar to highlight the importance of literacy to our learners, their parents and the broader communities that we serve. It is also a great opportunity for parents to learn about the Impact Network model, how tablets are utilized, and the way lessons are conducted for their children.

Literacy day is a way to involve parents in the learning process and to allow them to share literacy skills and knowledge with their children in an educational and fun way. The event not only sharpens the parent’s skills but strengthens the relationship between themselves and their children. With many parents having only basic literacy skills, they are excited to see their children read and share what they have learned in class. It is a nice space where parents also get the opportunity to meet and interact with other parents in the community and collectively celebrate the impact that quality education has on their children.

 The activities are coordinated by our Teacher Supervisors, Teachers and the Operations team across all Impact Network sites in three districts (Katete, Sinda and Petauke).

This year Literacy Day was bigger than ever before! Involved in the event were 36 schools, 2,014 parents, 112 teachers and 2,532 students in grades 1 to 3. Activities included: identifying vowels, reading words and sentences, matching objects with words, quizzes (parents vs students), word puzzles, games, spelling bees and poetry presentations. All the activities were structured in a semi-formal way and the results were great.


“Literacy opens the doors to knowledge and places. Literacy follows us every day, unconsciously: at home, on TV, in shops, restaurants, work, buses, and streets. Literacy is everywhere.”

It is with this in mind that we strive for our learners and their parents to be familiar with the world in which they find themselves through reading. We know that literacy follows them on their way home, at the farm, on the playground and in many other places that they visit. Above all, it helps them to get connected to places that they have never been and to know things that they have never heard before. This is why we celebrate and share all the knowledge and skills that students have acquired through reading with parents and community members. Literacy truly opens doors to new opportunities and we want everyone to take part!