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‘They’re survivors’: B.C. man wants to build new dorm for Tanzanian students

Successful girls dorm already built by Canadian Harambe Education Society, Stelly’s Secondary School

In 2019, it was Stelly’s Secondary School student Carlos Quintero’s first time being in a third world country.

Halfway around the globe in Katesh, Tanzania, the 18-year-old got a quick sense of how differently the students, who were sleeping in dorms there, were living.

“The beds and the metal was all rusty and it was really in bad condition. There wasn’t a lot of light. It felt like when you go into a warehouse and there’s a lot of old stuff that hasn’t been cleaned … mold … very tight spaces. So to be honest, it was really hard to see.”

Twenty-six grade 12 students from Stelly’s were there through Canadian Harambe Education Society (CHES), an organization with headquarters in Surrey which aims to improve the quality of life of impoverished women in Kenya and Tanzania through education. The group was there to help construct a dormitory for 150 girls at the remote Mwahu Secondary School, directed by Chris Harker from North Saanich.

Since that trip, Harker now is on a new mission: to build a dorm for 150 boys.

Harker, a past Stelly’s teacher and coordinator, is the volunteer director of CHES, which coordinated and oversaw the construction of the girl’s dorm from 2019-22. He has strong ties to Tanzania, having lived there with his wife between 1970-1972 when he was contracted with the Canadian International Development Agency. The couple’s first child was born there.

Having been back to Mwahu Secondary School twice since the girls dorm was finished, Harker described the success of the first project.

“They are so proud of it. They have 24 rooms, and they have three double bunks in each room. They just love it.”

But for him, seeing its success has further pushed the motivation to now build the dorms for the boys, who are living in the dismal conditions due to poverty in the community.

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“It was just so sad to see the grim comparison between the way that the girls are [now] supported at that school and the fact that the boys have to live in basically a tin shack,” he said.

The temporary dorm was put up almost 20 years ago and Harker said nothing has been done to it since.

“The boys are now sleeping on very, very thin, and I’m talking about less than an inch, foam mattresses that no longer have any foam in them on the cement floor,” said Harker. “There are cockroaches, there are spiders, there are mosquitoes … They’re all piled in together. It’s just unhealthy and just sickening to look at them.”

He added that despite their circumstances, the boys don’t complain.

“It’s just amazing that these kids have nothing and they’re so happy and joyous and friendly and warm,” Harker added.

Harker asked four boys to write a letter at the school. Titled ‘Importance of Having New Boys Hostel at Mwahu Secondary School’, the students go into detail about what they are going through.

“Many of us are coming far away from school premises which make us to agree to stay at the old hostel which is not conducive for us … Since it is build by using iron sheets (walls and roofs), they are now rotten and have holes and rust everywhere, the lumber used to make beds and divide the rooms, they are also rotten. This makes us to sleep on floor as there are no beds. Bats and rats are our friends as it is like we sleep outside. The hostel doesn’t have light. Our toilets and washing are very bad.”

The boys go on to outline several “advantages of living in a nice clean environment” including building self confidence, having enough light to study, and improved health and hygiene.

“They’re ambitious. They’re survivors,” said Harker, when describing the group.

Since the mandate of CHES is limited to support girls, Harker is pioneering the project outside of the organization.

The amount needed to build and furnish the dorm with beds is estimated to be around $90,000 or about $600 a student.

As the project is just kicking off, Harker said so far they have $38,000 in the bank and approximately $10,000 “pledged”.

Contacts in Tanzania have elicited a commitment from the local community into providing the foundation for the school, and the local District office has committed to providing the metal sheeting for the roof.

Harker is currently fundraising and is in talks with the school to bring Stelly’s students on board for the humanitarian trip in 2025 but he said the project will happen regardless if that can be coordinated.

Quintero, now 23, said that he felt grateful that he got to help build the girl’s dorm, which is named Stelly’s after the school. Students who opt to take the global perspectives class at Stelly’s get to go on the school’s annual humanitarian trip.

“It’s made me more conscientious and just willing to be more open-minded, especially when you hear things on the news,” said Quintero. “You meet people from different parts of the world. So yeah, I would say it made me grateful, a bit more open minded and just more self-aware of what we have.”

Harker said interested donors can make their contributions through the Royal Commonwealth Society; Vancouver Island (RCS VI), a registered Canadian Charity by indicating “ Mwahu Project” with the donation. Donations can be made via e-transfer to; by mailing a cheque to RCS VI #1110-6880 Wallace Drive, Brentwood Bay, V8M 1N8, B.C.; or through Canada Helps.

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Sam Duerksen

About the Author: Sam Duerksen

Since moving to Victoria from Winnipeg in 2020, I’ve worked in communications for non-profits and arts organizations.
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