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Going the Distance

"Tanzania changed the course of my life, and opened my heart to new people and cultures I never could have guessed would grow to be so important to me. My future as a global citizen will be ever more loving and understanding."

Clare O'Kane smiles and gives a piggyback ride to a young Tanzanian boy, who is also smiling.

Going the Distance

In rural Tanzania, the residents of the Milola and Naitolia villages face a long, hard road to move from subsistence to prosperity. But they also know that tough trips go easier with a partner.

Diane Ruonavaara, the Tanzania Partnership Program Director at MSU, might not think of herself as a marathon pacer for Milola and Naitolia. Yet she does help people envision the finish line, and she serves as a beacon that lets all know Michigan State is in it with them for the long haul.

The villages are partners in the Tanzania Partnership Program (TPP) which is the first initiative of the Partnership for Sustainable Community Development (PSCD), a long-term collaborative alliance of local and international organizations dedicated to improving local livelihoods. PSCD’s goal is to promote resilience in communities that also model ways of achieving sustainable prosperity.

Karen A. (’63, Education) and Gerald (Jerry) A. Kolschowsky, an alumnus of Iowa State University, are the co-founding benefactors for PSCD and TPP as well as the Gerald A. and Karen A. Kolschowsky Foundation, now led by their son, Tim Kolschowsky. Karen is a former teacher and Jerry, who is retired, was formerly the chairman and co-chief executive officer of OSI Industries, LLC, a global food company. The family is deeply committed to doing all that they can to overcome hunger and poverty in the world.

“We wanted to help the neediest people around the world to become stronger and more resilient,” explains Jerry Kolschowsky.  “MSU has a long history of work in Africa in critical issues like food security, nutrition, education, health and community development. It seemed like a perfect partnership for us, MSU and the communities in Tanzania, to all work together to enhance their resiliency and sustainable livelihoods.”

Setting the Pace

Tanzania made an ideal location for the first PSCD program based on need, potential for success, university experience in the region and an array of engaged partners, including Tanzanian universities and a strong development network. The villagers are learning new ways to work together, to build partnerships with governments and other organizations and, ultimately, to have the ongoing capacity to respond to new opportunities that will improve their lives.

MSU and its partners also are learning. The program is expanding knowledge to solve insidious problems in education, water access and quality, human and animal health; and to maximize the role universities play in transforming communities and to expand research to identify and refine future activities.

There are many markers of success. But some of the most dramatic improvements can be seen in local schools.

Back in 2009, school attendance and pass rates were low. When children did come, they were met with buildings in need of repair, discouraged teachers in need of more training and few resources for learning. Often, they came to school hungry. By 2015, TPP had provided several rounds of teacher and school leadership training, supplied key teaching aids, and supported school farm and feeding programs that were providing meals to more than 2,000 children. TPP also worked with the local communities to repair or build new school structures, including playgrounds, food storage facilities and kitchens. Today, these schools have some of the highest pass rates in the district.

Access to clean water has been another pervasive challenge in the villages. Back in 2009, Naitolia women would commonly walk nine miles or more to fetch water, or use contaminated water, unsafe for drinking. In Milola, a 25-year-old water system had broken down. By 2014, with TPP support and work with local government, water was reaching Naitolia’s school and all but one sub-village.

The health of livestock due to ticks and a high incidence of zoonotic diseases—transferred from animals to humans—was yet another major barrier to community prosperity. In 2013, TPP worked with the Naitolia community to construct a cattle dip to treat animals for ticks. Additionally, four community members were trained to operate the dip as para-veterinarians. Today, the dip is treating more than 34,300 animals annually and is generating funds to sustain its operations.

The 2015 TPP annual report highlights more successes, in schools, school farms, prenatal health initiatives, animal health and expanded water systems. Ruonavaara can tell you how the communities are taking responsibility for change and maintenance and creating new opportunities for bright young people.

But some days, just one story makes success abundantly obvious. The day the MSU TPP team brought a poster and a faculty nurse to Naitolia was one of those days.

Baby steps

The poster outlined the seven danger signs during pregnancy. MSU Nursing Professor Patty Peek found it in an online poster contest. Ruonavaara tracked down the artist in Australia, and worked with him to adapt and translate it to Kiswahili and Maasai, the native language. Most Naitolia mothers deliver at home with traditional birth attendants, who, while experienced with child birth, have no medical training. The nearest clinic is a six mile walk away; never practical and, in cases when home deliveries do not go smoothly, too often the decision to go comes too late.

Peek, now professor emeritus, shared the poster with midwife and doctor from the nearest clinic. They then presented the poster at a special “Tea with the Midwife” village meeting sponsored by TPP to better educate the community on safe deliveries.

Later that evening, a young woman in labor and two traditional birth attendants traveled the distance to the clinic. The attendants had talked over the danger signs they learned about that day and realized their charge, who was hemorrhaging heavily, needed more help than they could provide. Without that poster and the program, this young mother would have delivered at home, putting both mother and child at risk of death.

The grateful mother named her baby in honor of that day and one of the MSU/TPP village partners: Patty.

“This is why I do this work,” says Ruonavaara.

A starting block for future leaders

In 2013, the TPP added a Study Abroad program for MSU students. In 2015, six students  from MSU, along with six students from Tanzania, gained first-hand insight on putting community development theory into practice. They researched animal health with community members, interviewed girls and women about reproductive health, completed research on water scarcity and safety, and educated school children on the relationship between drinking clean water and health.

Clare O’Kane, a senior in comparative culture and politics, was one of the Kolschowsky Scholars.

“Tanzania changed the course of my life, and opened my heart to new people and cultures I never could have guessed would grow to be so important to me. My future in development is more informed, and my future as a global citizen will be ever more loving and understanding than it could have been before,” she says

Investing in progress

To date, the Kolschowskys and their Foundation have committed nearly $15 million toward the TPP and the Study Abroad program.

Steven Hanson, associate provost and dean of International Studies and Programs at MSU notes, “Having financial support for students that will offset the enormous expense of this type of international experiential learning opportunity is invaluable. The student experience aside, what we have been able to accomplish in these villages to transform the resiliency and livelihoods of those living there is incredibly powerful. The Tanzania Partnership Program highlights MSU’s world grant values, and while we have accomplished much, we also know, with the enormity of the problems, there is so much more to do!”

For more on how you could make a gift or also have an impact in Tanzania or other international programs, contact MSU International Studies and Programs Senior Director of Development Angha Childress at or call (517) 432-9183.

Author: Lois Furry