Building a successful ministry for the blind in Tanzania

April 11, 2010

In the last nine years, graduating students from the Buigiri School for the Blind in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika taking Tanzania's national exams have consistently placed their school in the top one percent of the 14,000 primary schools in the country.

In 2009, the school placed 81st in the nation, while in 2006, it ranked sixth overall.

Central Tanganyika Bishop Mdimi Mhogolo and Brian Atkins, the diocese's business advisor, outlined the school's success during a recent visit to the Diocese of Virginia. Mhogolo and Atkins travelled to the U.S. in support of Carpenter's Kids, another diocesan education project that partners Tanzanian villages with diocese, churches and groups abroad.

Located just outside the capital city of Dodoma, the Buigiri primary school is home to 100 pupils: fifty-nine students are totally blind, 11 have severe visual impairment and the others have normal vision. (Tanzania's government requires schools for the blind to be integrated.)

"In most cases," Atkins said, "the blind pupils come from very poor, rural families who simply cannot afford the fees for boarding and tuition."

The Tanzanian government pays teachers' salaries plus the cost of food for the children and the diesel for the children to travel to and from school. The diocese is responsible for all other fees, including non-teaching staff salaries and ongoing maintenance. But in 2000, the school was on the brink of closing after losing donor support in 1996.

Face closure, the Buigiri School for the Blind Project was formed. Chaired by the Dodoma regional commissioner who is the top government representative in Dodoma, the project committee also includes a retired Tanzanian ambassador, the diocesan general secretary, the regional education officer and the school's head teacher. The project was established in 2001 with two main goals: to completely re-equip and rehabilitate the school, and to set up an endowment fund.

To date, the project has purchased 55 new Braille machines, plus supplies of Braille paper and a Braille duplicating machine; rehabilitated most of the building facilities and rewired the school campus; established a medical fund for the students and a modest monthly budget for the school; reinvigorated the teaching of a basketry and weaving program; supplied a new school truck and motorbike; built new bathroom facilities; drilled a borehole; and cleared all debts.

One of the challenges that primary school students face in Tanzania is that, while primary education is free, secondary school is not. To help resolve this dilemma for Buigiri students, the project committee signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Tanzanian government's Ministry of Education to enable the blind and visually impaired pupils who graduate from Buigiri to attend the Diocesan Mvumi Secondary School where a special blind unit has been built with funding from the U.K. In January 2009, the first blind pupils from Buigiri enrolled at Mvumi.

The next step for the Buigiri School for the Blind Project is to build up an endowment fund, with sustainability being a key goal. Administered by the Church Mission Society in Oxford, England, the current trust fund stands at $250,000 thanks to donations from individuals and corporations; the goal is to grow the fund to $700,000, Atkins said.

Led by head teacher, Sylivanus Hosea, "the school is now seen as the center of excellence within Tanzania for teaching methods and standards for blind students," said Atkins. "When we have built up the endowment fund, the future of the school will be secure."

In the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, "Our theology is holistic," explained Mhogolo. "We go wherever God's presence is."

The Buigiri School is one of those places, and Central Tanganyika has established 30 other business and services to support the 550,000 Anglicans in the diocese.