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Mlangarini For Life

All year, every year, she’s helping African schoolchildren

Olivia Leventhal ’18 had just completed ninth grade when she made a fateful decision.  

Inspired by Nelson Mandela’s words, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” Leventhal joined 14 other teens with the Putney Student Travel organization to visit the rural village of Mlangarini in Tanzania.

From mixing cement for local builders to planting a vegetable garden, the students spent five weeks constructing a primary school classroom large enough to contain 50 of the village’s 600 children, ages 4 to 14.

Local administrators demand much of students. Attending classes in English, Swahili, math, history, science, and geography, all children must pass final exams every year to advance. 

Teachers maintain discipline through corporal punishment, such as spanking and beating with sticks, and girls face pressure by family members to complete housework rather than homework.

“That was hard for me to see,” says Leventhal. “The system needs changing—unless you’re really bright and a hard worker, it’s tough to succeed.”

In particular, her bond with one girl—Salima, 7 when they met and now 12, with four brothers and the housekeeping responsibilities of an adult—sealed Leventhal’s desire to make this a lifelong commitment.

“Salima and her family have opened my eyes to the lives of these children and to what is truly at stake,” she says. “The system in Tanzania makes it almost impossible to get a higher education coming from a public school, so anything we can do, big or small, to help students succeed means everything to us.”

In fact, Leventhal was the only one of the original student group to return to the village, and she has gone back every year since—founding the Mlangarini Project, a federally registered nonprofit corporation to better the lives of these schoolchildren, in 2011.

“As CEO,” she says, “I’m always thinking of our next step. How can we raise more money? What should our next major project be? What smaller projects need to be done?” 

Backed by a team of advisers that include the Mlangarini school’s current and former principals, Leventhal and her parents raise funds for general improvements to the school. They also work with businesses in Tanzania to purchase books, desks, building materials, school supplies, and uniforms—it’s important to them to support the local economy.

“Besides providing for the Mlangarini School, it is nice to see our efforts also help the community,” says Leventhal’s mother, Cindy Kolodziejski. “The swing sets we built have personally touched me the most: I see them as hope and joy in a tangible form.”

Although Swarthmore has not directly supported the Mlangarini Project, Leventhal is applying for a Project Pericles Fund grant for summer 2018. 

Her next goal is to bring clean water to the village; eventually, she plans to go to medical school. No matter where she goes or what she does, however, her work in and for the village—and especially her ongoing friendship with Salima—will always guide her.

“Whatever I do, I’ll come back to it, and Swarthmore’s part of that,” she says. “At Swarthmore, I’ve grown intellectually and socially, and because of this I value higher education more than ever. I’m even more committed now to giving every kid at Mlangarini Primary School their best shot at excelling because education is so deeply a part of who I am.”