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Photo Essay: What's the Quadratic Equation? 

May 8, 2014 — By Dana Schmidt

If you’re like me, you probably haven’t used the quadratic formula since high school. You may remember bits of it (there’s a “-b”, and a “4ac” involved) but struggle to put them all together. Your first instinct, like mine, is probably to Google it. (In fact, maybe you already have Googled it!)

Last year, I found myself struggling to remember the quadratic formula, but I didn’t have access to Google. I didn’t even have any textbooks to consult. All I could refer to was my own fuzzy memory and a couple of colleagues with equally fuzzy memories. I was with Ruth Levine and Margot Fahnestock in Kitanga, a rural village in Tanzania about 60 kilometers outside of Dar es Salaam. We were sitting in the living room of the local primary school teacher, struggling to help her 14-year-old twins prepare for their examinations by the dim light of a kerosene lantern with 60 goats bleating loudly outside. While we strained our eyes (and our brains), about a kilometer down the road Eric Brown and Hewlett Foundation Board member Rakesh Rajani were in deep conversations with the village chairman, learning about the local party politics that prevented the community from investing the $20 it would take to fix the village's only well. Nearby, Foundation President Larry Kramer was enjoying his first taste of mandazi and watching a cheaply-produced Tanzanian movie that villagers paid a few shillings to view in the local video shack.

We were all in Kitanga for an “immersion” visit organized by our grantee Twaweza. Every year Twaweza staff spend one week in a village in East Africa in order to gain insight on issues like how people get and share information, how they access fundamental services like education, and how they make change in their lives. We were in Kitanga not for one week but for one day and one night, at the start of our weeklong visit to the region to give Larry a more tangible sense of the work of the Global Development and Population Program. Our program aims to help people around the world reach their potential as individuals, citizens, workers, and parents through grants that seek to expand women’s choices and amplify voices calling upon governments to deliver better results for their citizens.

While visiting one village for one day by no means gave us a deep and comprehensive understanding of the complex realities in which our work occurs (indeed, one must consciously fight against giving undue weight to anecdotal experience), it did provide a glimpse into the daily lives of the individuals whom our grantmaking is meant to affect. For example, I emerged with a renewed appreciation for the constraints students and teachers face that limit opportunities to learn: from inadequate light for nighttime studies to teachers struggling to facilitate learning for an entire class with only two books.

Over the course of the week that followed our immersion—joined also by Kevin Bohrer and our Nairobi-based consultant Peter da Costa—we had a chance to deepen our village experience with site visits and conversations with other grantees in the region working to improve education quality, expand access to reproductive healthcare, and improve governance. It was a good opportunity to see the problems we work on through a fresh set of eyes as Larry engaged with grantees and as many of us met grantees from other parts of the program portfolio for the first time. This was just the sort of deep dive that helps us gain insights on our work—and brush up on our high school algebra! The photos below help tell some of these stories.

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Third grade students at Kitanga Mango Primary School. We did an informal learning assessment and were impressed that most of them were able to read fluently and perform basic math operations despite having only two textbooks for their entire class. The School's Head Master was very engaged and seemed to run a tight ship, which may help to explain the pupils' relatively high learning levels. According to a nationwide survey by Uwezo, a Hewlett Foundation grantee, in Tanzania as a whole only 30% of third graders are able to read a simple story that students are expected to be able to read by the end of second grade. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

Rakesh Rajani, Hewlett board member and head of Twaweza, in Kitanga village with one of the 14-year-old twins who would later stump us on the quadratic equation. Rakesh and his colleagues at Twaweza graciously helped to organize our trip. His extensive experience tracking the Tanzanian development sector also helped to put our village observations in historical perspective.   (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

Community members wait to be seen at the health center nearest to Kitanga village. Although modestly resourced, the center was staffed by two well-informed health workers who were busily serving their patients. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

Mukuya, a primary school teacher from Kitanga and our village host, shows us around her extensive farm. My Swahili vocabulary was too limited to extend to the full breadth of the crops she grew in her fields, which she cultivates every morning. As far as we could tell, this was an entirely female-run household, and a well-run household at that! In addition to her crops, Mukuya raises 60 goats, two cows, and dozens of chicken. About twenty minutes after this photo was taken, Mukuya emerged from the house in a sharp looking skirt and suit jacket and walked down the road to teach kindergarten, first, and second grade at the school nearby. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

Daniel Kijo, Senior Presenter of Tanzania's Minibuzz TV series facilitates a discussion on unemployment in a daladala (or minibus, used ubiquitously for transportation in Tanzania). Minibuzz is a daily TV and radio program--supported by Hewlett Foundation grantee Twaweza--on which everyday Tanzanians who are commuting to and from work, school, or elsewhere, express their opinions on a variety of issues affecting their daily lives. Millions of Tanzanians tune in to these programs nightly. I was impressed by how freely and emphatically the commuters on this daladala shared their opinions on the causes and cures for unemployment, seemingly unfazed by roof-mounted cameras and microphones. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

A reproductive health counselor at the Marie Stopes clinic in Dar es Salaam shares her process for helping clients decide which form of birth control is right for them. Marie Stopes International is a longstanding Hewlett Foundation grantee. It was hard not to be impressed with the incredibly high quality of care provided at the clinic and the personalized, one-on-one attention women get to understand their birth control options. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

Kenyan youth from a Nairobi-based organization named Miss Koch act in a humorous play about manhood and birth control. Miss Koch, an organization supported by Hewlett's grantee Planned Parenthood International, works in the Nairobi slum of Korogocho to empower youth including through education on reproductive health. The local youth who skillfully acted in this drama had the entire audience doubled-over in laughter and deeply engaged in topics that are otherwise difficult to broach. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

A volunteer for Uwezo Kenya looks at a calendar which says "I ask the teacher 'Is my child learning?'" in Swahili. Uwezo mobilizes citizens from across Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania to conduct annual assessments of how well children can read and do basic math. The assessments are done by volunteers in people's homes, and these calendars are left behind as one device for encouraging parents to engage in their children's learning. The Uwezo assessments have helped catalyze a new dialogue across East Africa about whether children are learning in school, and have encouraged many volunteers to engage more in education. As I walked with this volunteer to test children in several households she shared with me that she had started mentoring and tutoring another girl at her church after participating in the Uwezo assessment. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

Larry Kramer looks at a list of "sheng" vocabulary (Swahili slang) from the Shujaaz comic book. The comic and its counterpart radio program, created by Hewlett Foundation grantee Well Told Story, engage readers and listeners in important subjects like jobs, education, and voting. The format includes role model characters who offer examples of how young people can take action to improve their lives. Shujaaz is immensely popular among rural and urban Kenyan youth nationwide: Well Told Story estimates that in 2010, over 30% of Kenyans under age 35 read a Shujaaz comic, and engagement is growing over time. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

The Hewlett delegation with Uwezo staff and volunteers outside the Rays of Hope Initiative offices. Rays of Hope is the partner that facilitates the Uwezo assessment in Limuru District in Kenya. The findings from the Uwezo assessment have also inspired the organization to do even more to improve education outcomes in the district. Titus, a dynamic leader at the Rays of Hope initiative, told me that the organization has started a community library in the hopes of helping to strengthen reading outcomes. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)