Oswin’s Return

As COCO celebrated our 15th birthday last weekend with our annual ball, we were fortunate to welcome Oswin, the director of the Hoja Project and our co-ordinator in Tanzania, back to the UK.

Oswin is from humble beginnings in Tanzania. In his home village of Mpandangindo opportunities were scarce for the majority of people. Mpandangindo village is typical of many in the Songea region no houses have running water or electricity and a water pump has only recently been installed in the village. Many of the people in the village earn their income from small scale farming or charcoal digging. There is a desperate desire from the whole community for their children to be educated and to be able to attend school, however low income is preventing many from fulfilling this wish.

2009 07 Hoja Secondary LP (128)

Ahead of the Christmas of 1979, a prosperous member of the Mpandangindo community announced that anyone helping him to cultivate land would receive pork for their Christmas dinner. As meat was difficult for Oswin’s family to come by, Oswin’s mother, Leokadia, took part in the cultivation of the land despite being 9 months pregnant!

On Christmas Eve morning, Leokadia began cultivation at 8am. Just after lunch her work was interrupted as she went into labour. Unable to afford transport to the nearest clinic, 25KM away, Leokadia attempted to walk. However, 15KM into the journey Oswin was born in a bush.

As a child, Oswin was very small. His parents nicknamed him Aswinili, which meant very thin in the local language of Ngoni. When Oswin hoped to start school, rather than being based on age there was quite a novel test for whether a child was ready to enrol in school. Each child had to put their arm over their head and touch the ear on the opposite side of their body. Unfortunately being quite small, Oswin was unable to do so and missed out on joining the school.

Thankfully in spite of Oswin still being unable to touch his ear the following year, he knew the head of the school and was so given an exception and allowed to enrol. Clearly the head was eager for Oswin to enrol for good reason, as later that year he was entered into a competition to find the best Standard Two student in the ward… Despite Oswin only being in Standard One!

Two representatives from the nine schools in the region were tested in English and Maths. Out of the 18 candidates, Oswin remarkably finished first! Oswin’s exceptional performance in school continued with him being one of only two students from his primary school to achieve sufficient results to continue to secondary school. Oswin had a choice of schools, but chose to attend a religious school as if he achieved grades of over 88% he would not have to pay school fees, which his family could not afford.

1a Shelter

Oswin was confident of achieving sufficient grades to avoid paying school fees, but still had to fund his uniform, mattress and school equipment. In order to pay for these items Oswin entered the dangerous charcoal industry, which was a major source of income and, equally, a major source of death in his local community. Fearful for his health, Oswin soon began selling cigarettes, nuts and eggs instead.

Unfortunately Oswin did not earn enough to purchase all that he wanted for school, but his creativity and resourcefulness helped him to get by. Since Oswin was unable to afford soap, he used to offer to wash the clothes of richer students, so that he could use the soap to wash his own too!

Achieving over 88% proved tricky, and without achieving this Oswin would have been forced to pay school fees or, more likely, leave the school. Oswin began to work in the toilet stalls after curfew. He used a kerosene lamp for light and told any teachers or students who passed by that he was feeling unwell.

Unfortunately the kerosene and smoke in the confined space of the toilet cubicle was harming Oswin. Seven months after graduating from secondary school, Oswin started to lose his sight and suffer bad headaches. The problem was so bad that Oswin had to take some time off his new school at which he was studying his A-Levels.

Despite visiting several different hospitals, no one was able to identify the problem Oswin was suffering with. His family even suggested that Oswin visited a witch doctor, though Oswin refused. On one visit to the hospital, a doctor gave Oswin eye drops which completely blinded him.

Six days passed with Oswin anxious about how he was going to continue in his life. Thankfully there happened to be some eye specialists from Germany working in Oswin’s area at the time. The specialists were able to identify Oswin’s problem and prescribed medicine and foods which Oswin should eat. Four days later, Oswin’s sight began to return and continued to improve.

Eventually, Oswin was well enough to return to his A-Level school, but had missed nine months of education. The school suggested that Oswin repeated the year, but scarce resources made this very difficult for Oswin so the school agreed that if he could pass a mock exam, they would allow him to sit the real exam.

With only a month in which to catch up on nine months’ worth of material, Oswin spent a month sleeping around two hours each night. Thankfully Oswin passed the mock and was able to sit the real exam, which he also passed. Things ran more smoothly for the remainder of Oswin’s A-Level studies, enabling Oswin to qualify for University.

University fees were far too high for Oswin to afford. Whilst he considered how he would cover his costs, Oswin got the opportunity to volunteer at Student Partnerships Worldwide (now Restless Development?). Whilst volunteering, Oswin shared two dreams with his fellow volunteers. Firstly, Oswin shared his dream of attending University and, secondly, his dream of constructing a school at which vulnerable students could study for free.

Oswin’s fellow volunteers helped to ensure that both of his dreams came true. One volunteer, Julia Brownlow, told friends and family about Oswin and King Alfred School of North London agreed to sponsor Oswin through University.

Oswin at COCO's last annual ball

Oswin at COCO’s last annual ball

Oswin and five volunteers established an NGO with the mission of providing education to vulnerable children. The organisation was named The Hoja Project, with Hoja being some of the volunteers’ initials and also meant “the reason for doing something” in Swahili.

A couple of years later, COCO began partnering with The Hoja Project. The partnership has led to the establishment of Hoja Secondary School, which caters for vulnerable children. Oswin’s dream was finally being realised. As many of our supporters will know, The Hoja Project has gone from strength to strength. Graduates from Hoja Secondary have achieved the highest grades of 173 schools in the region for the past three years. The school is also self-sustainable, which ensures that many more children will access education without facing the same difficulties that Oswin did.

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GREAT NORTH RUN 2015

Alex Shand was one of 57,000 people who took part in the Great North Run last Sunday! Here’s how he got on…

‘Having arrived in Newcastle in September 2014, I missed the chance to take part in last years Great North Run. I was not about to let that opportunity pass a second time and started the search for a place. Having spent a short period of time volunteering with COCO in the summer while researching effects of sport on impoverished communities, it was a natural choice to raise funds for them!

Prior to GNR 2015 my experience of competitive running was limited, consisting of a half marathon in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan in 2008, as well as a handful of park-runs with my family this year. I set an ambitious target time of 1 hour 30 minutes and quickly went to seek the advice of a friend who was happy to inform me of the amount of work that lay ahead!

My training started well, and two months of four runs per week saw my time per mile drop rapidly. Expectations that I’d meet my goal were sky high! Unfortunately, with only two weeks to go I suffered a hamstring injury and was unable to train. It looked like this was the end of the “hour thirty” dream…

Race DayALEX

The atmosphere on the day was phenomenal and the phrase “it’s not what you know, but who you know” played a part in me starting the race next to Frank Bruno and Professor Brian Cox (I finished before both). The lost training time showed as the 8 mile point loomed and my pace slowed dramatically. Thankfully, I found a new lease of life after spotting a pantomime horse closing in behind!

The generosity of the people of the North East was evident throughout with the offer of hundreds of jelly babies, ice pops and even a cheeky beer at 10 miles. Team COCO picked the perfect place to cheer the runners on- spotting those white banners as I hit the last mile gave me a final boost and saw me cross the line in 1:43:49.

A huge thank you to the staff at COCO for letting me have the opportunity to take part in this wonderful event, and of course all those who have sponsored me along the way. I look forward to next year and hope that COCO will keep a space for me to beat my time and raise more money for a great cause!’