When I applied to work at Ubongo, I knew that I was making a decision which would impact my summer, but I did not fully understand how much it would alter my trajectory beyond those three months. I was itching to go abroad and work at a company which prioritized education and I found the perfect opportunity with Ubongo. Their edutainment programs Akili and Me and Ubongo Kids were the perfect continuation of previous working experiences as well as a new opportunity to utilize my skills in another country. Having interned as the Education Coordinator for the Houston-based non-profit Advancing STEM for Students in Southeast Texas (ASSiST) the previous summer, I took my knowledge of managing small teams, creating educational videos, and working to fill young minds will 21st-century skills to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to serve as a Pre-Production Intern.
This position entailed researching topics related to social-emotional learning for the two programs, writing scripts that would turn into content watched by 6.4 million households weekly across East Africa, coauthor grants to ensure production could continue, and even voice my favorite character Bush Baby for a few episodes! The 10 weeks I spent in Dar taught me what it means to be a member of a team so focused on their craft and dedicated to producing unparalleled content. When I would brainstorm with my coworkers Annette and Esteria on ideas for an episode, I felt what it meant to take an ugly, half-formed new idea, put it out there, and transform it into a well-rounded end product. I changed from shyly offering my thoughts to actively taking a role in operating meetings throughout the course of my internship.
Writing grants with Shehz taught me an immense amount about the interworkings of Ubongo from viewership to impact studies and how to best leverage the show’s proven effectiveness to potential donors. Investigating the ways in which funders sought out the enterprises which they awarded grants to turned into an invigorating puzzle of reviewing past recipients and discovering how their pitch lined up with the vision of the funding organization. This philosophy turned out to be pretty effective as I recently learned that we were selected for the Templeton World Charity Foundation grant I co-authored worth about $250,000 USD.
Perhaps the most personally enjoyable aspect of the internship for me was working directly with the production of the show through directing the child voice actors and trying my hand at voicing myself. I had learned enough Swahili during my time in Tanzania to be able to guide a group of local students through voicing the script for a segment on the phoneme D I had written, instructing them “semeni ‘-oll’ kama ‘wote’ kwa kiingereza” or “say ‘-oll’ like ‘all’ in English” when the children had difficulties pronouncing the -oll in “doll.” For my own voice, I recreated muffled recordings from the actor who usually voiced Bush Baby and gave the rambunctious character a crisp sound. Every day at the office was something new, and there was never a time which I felt as though I was not using my full creative and analytic capacities.
This unbelievable opportunity has made me reconsider what I want to do with my education and where the trajectory of my life is heading. Because of how much I loved Tanzania and learning Swahili, I am currently applying for the Critical Language Scholarship to return to the country this summer and formally study the language. My writing abilities improved astronomically through collaborating with such talented individuals, and I now am certain that I need to have that sort of interactivity and exchange in whichever field I end up pursuing. I am forever grateful to Ubongo and IPD for providing me with this life-altering experience, and I am more than happy to discuss the program with any prospective applicants. My one piece of advice for it? Tumia Ubongo!
Nicole Pownall is a third year International Relations & Global Studies major focusing on Latin American Studies and International Security. Additionally, she is completing certificates in Core Texts and Ideas & Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies. As a member of the Governance team, Nicole has contributed to projects focusing on natural resource extraction and collection worldwide. She aspires to work in foreign service in the future.
Eight years ago I moved to Tanzania to teach at a failing international school. This past summer, I went back to Tanzania to carry out my own research. It felt amazing to be back in a country that I love. I had the opportunity of working as a research intern for 10 weeks at Ubongo in Dar-es-Salaam. I spent my time assisting with finding curriculum resources, helping to write curriculum for episodes, being a soundboard to the full time staff with early childhood related items and lastly, I was able to carry out my own research that I designed.
My two research questions were 1) What are children’s attitudes on gender and gender roles? and 2) Can Ubongo Programming serve as an intervention? These question emerged because I believe and research also shows that cultural norms that stratify boys and girls are still alive and well in Tanzania. Additionally, Tanzanian society is largely patriarchal and women are socialized to become homemakers and child-bearers and less value is placed on their economical and educational attainment. This also means women and girls are less represented. This history puts women in the roles of being submissive and men to be stronger and dominant. My focus is to disrupt this.
The research design was created by me with language and cultural support provided by three full-time Ubongo staff. This research could not have happened without them and the autonomy I was given, so I am forever appreciative of that. The research design was simple and child-friendly. I created three different activities that served as both the pre-test and post-test. The activities included drawing, a survey and storytelling. The responses to the activities provided insight into what children thought about gender roles and the possibilities of boys and girls. After the pre-test activities, children watched five short Ubongo episodes over the course of two days. The same activities where administered again for the post test after the children watched the episodes.
Findings from my pre-test study revealed that both boys and girls believed 1) a girl can never grow up and be President, 2) a girl will grow up to be a woman whose main job is to have children and take care of the household and 3) jobs are gendered and a girl can only have specific jobs (i.e hairdresser, selling food on the street and or being a teacher). Their responses portrayed the emotional, financial and physical vulnerability that girls face in East Africa. Additionally, the data revealed that girls internalize these norms more than boys and seem more challenging to shift. The post test showed a shift in thinking: 1) maybe boys and girls can grow up to have similar jobs, 2) a man should also help around the house, and 3) women are just as strong as men and can be stronger.
I feel proud of what I did in Tanzania with Ubongo because it showed me the work that still needs to be done and what is possible. Additionally, it reaffirmed my desire to pursue this opportunity with Ubongo because the work they are doing is clearly changing mindsets and opening up opportunities for change. My work is inspired by a vision of Black girls being able to live and exist freely but I realize this work cannot be done without chipping away at masculinity and hetero and patriarchal beliefs that are bigger than just gender. My findings helped me realize how socioeconomic status, cultural history, religion and etc. can be at play in concert with one another. This realization has helped be even more curious and read more, so maybe I can return to Tanzania for the 3rd time and do something even bigger and better.
Maureen Nicol is a PhD candidate in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus in Early Childhood Education. Her background is in teaching. Her research interests include education throughout the continent of Africa, Black girlhoods and Black female teachers.