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The Unpaved Road to Tanzania: Kathleen Kost Extends the SSW's Reach

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Summary: Kathleen Kost Extends the SSW's Reach to Facilitate the Education and Economics of a Remote Land

by Jim Bisco

The Buffalo Tanzania Education Project (BTEP) began as an informal initiative that focuses on the Mara Region of Northern Tanzania as a partnership with the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa, an order of Catholic nuns who run successful schools and health clinics throughout Tanzania.

Kathleen Kost, associate professor in the School of Social Work, was part of the original group of 10 university-wide faculty and staff who journeyed to Tanzania from Buffalo in July 2009. She sought to identify field placement opportunities for social work students, along with potential research opportunities.

That trip led Kost to develop a three-credit, 10-week summer elective course for graduate social work students desiring a grass-roots experience in remote Africa. In July 2011, two students in the course traveled to Tanzania for 12 days with Kost. They worked closely with Sister Annunciata Chacha, who received her BSW at Daemen College in Buffalo. “We flew to Dar where the National Institute for Social Work is. Then we flew to Musoma and traveled to Kitenga, a village near the Kenya border,” she says. “Extremely rural, very tribal, no water or sanitation, no electricity, not even any paved roads. We’re in the bush.”

The students engaged in the ongoing work of the BTEP as they and Kost evaluated the projects as a field experience. Sr. Annunciata, familiar with the academic requirements, expressed her support of international field placements. “The sisters can provide housing, so the students could have a place to stay where they could also do street work,” says Kost, who adds that placements provide much potential for students desiring international aid work.

In fall 2012, Kost returned to work on her own research project, “Assessing Readiness for Change Among Village Leaders in Tanzania,” funded through a university-supported 2012-13 Civic Engagement Research Fellowship. Despite the area’s location near Lake Victoria, drought is rampant, leaving the area prone to malnutrition with limited food sources. Her research work, in connection with the order of nuns, includes helping reconnect street kids with their families whenever possible.

In this tribal area, Kost discovered it’s not unusual for a girl to be married as early as age 10. “This is a very traditional society where the father has control over everyone. If a young girl is married early, very often it is an economic issue because she is traded for cows. That’s her value. So the cow goes to the family, providing not just milk as a food source but also a source of income because those things can be sold.” Consequently, early pregnancy with all its associated health risks is a common danger, along with genital cutting and exploitation. She observes, and “There are a certain number of girls who appear to be trafficked. Unlike the United States where the rights of women are a very political issue, this is an economic issue.

“Our project is helping families see that by educating girls beyond primary school, they can actually be productive in other ways. They can learn skills and go on to university and bring even more income back to their family. So the emphasis has been on educating girls in secondary schools.”

Kost is in the process of summarizing her research efforts. “What I’m hoping to learn is who the community identifies as leaders, what they see as barriers to change, what they see as opportunities and how supportive are they,” she explains.

Endeavoring to develop a master’s in social work field placement site for UB students in Tanzania, Kost arranged a formal agreement for faculty and student exchanges with the National Institute for Social Work there. “This is a project that is far beyond just establishing a secondary school,” she says. “The role of our project is really to provide students, and potentially others, with the opportunity to become involved in the education of social workers.”

Kost detects a growing curiosity among UB students in exploring such field placements. Financial resources to support students are being developed to offset the expense of travel to the remote region, though unfortunately interest exceeds resources.

The BTEP has now grown to nearly a hundred participants from across UB and the Western New York community.

With a son who works in the area of international aid, Kost has some insights about organizations like BTEP. “This is an opportunity to get the kind of experience to get a job,” she observes. “This global perspective is really important because it opens our world to other ways of approaching problems and creating solutions. And it opens up our imagination in a way that’s otherwise not possible.”

Story appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Mosaics.


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