Student’s work in African school is labor of love
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Lidia Botia was quiet when she began classes with Assistant Professor Paul Danuser at Grand Canyon University. But a story humbly emerged of her African village, which she’s helping to improve, and Danuser was reminded of how some people really can make a difference.
Botia, an elementary education major who just finished her junior year, came to GCU from Tanzania, where parents Luis and Sonia had moved from south Spain in 2010 to start an addiction rehabilitation center. From the shipping container holding the family’s items, he cut out a door and a window for an office.
All around them, the Botias saw need. Most families made less than $35 a week in a quarry crushing rock, Lidia Botia said. Many young children didn’t like public school, where she began to volunteer while in high school.
“I remember walking into one of the public schools and observing the teacher. There were 200 students in a tiny classroom, and I saw the fear in their faces toward the teacher,” she said. “They were taught through fear and not through love. I was blown away, and that’s when I got the call from God to be an educator to try to change that.”
The children were afraid of schools that focused on punishment instead of teaching through love, so they dropped out and went into low-wage work with their families, perpetuating the poverty cycle, she said. “They were robbing them of their education.”
Botia and two childhood friends, Ares and Eva Marti, who had moved to Tanzania two years later, began to tutor younger children in the evenings to try to break the cycle earlier and help prepare the children to pass tests required to enter public school. She calls Ares and Eva her “sisters.”
“My sisters and I started loving the kids and thought, why don’t we do something more for them?” she said.
The tiny container holding an office became a makeshift classroom, where Botia and her sisters started with Bible classes and grew into additional education for children who couldn’t afford preschool.
The Swahili word for container is kotena, so tiny room became the Kotena School.
They began teaching the children — most of them ages 4 to 6 — for free and adapted to what each child needed to learn. But, most important, they taught with tenderness.
“God was leading us to something more,” said Ares Marti, who with Eva operates the school that moved from the container to a bigger space and became a nonprofit in 2017. “We wanted to create a place to learn but also to create a place where kids can feel that they belong and are loved.”
Botia was passionate and hardworking in the quest, Marti said, but thinks her decision to leave and further her education overseas can be helpful to the school in the future.
Botia discovered GCU through a friend and quickly told God, “This is the one.”
She found professors who “know me for me,” she said. “I’m not a number, I am a name. It has impacted me how they cared so much about my story. I want to go back and do the same. I want my kids to know they are a name, not just a number.”
She had found instruction at GCU that was practical, not just theory, and a classroom where she felt safe to talk.
Danuser encouraged Botia to share her story with his Social Justice for Educators class in March and was struck by her humility. It wasn’t all about her; it was about the children.
“She kept talking about her kiddos, all those sweet little angels who have so little and appreciate so much,” Danuser said. “She is truly making a difference in those kids’ lives.”
The Kotena School upholds the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Today, it provides free education for 32 children, ages 4 to 6, and 10 children, ages 7 to 15, and in the last year moved into a new building. Marti says they ask for nothing but prayers (and classroom supplies).
Botia’s classmates at GCU, most of whom who grew up with access to quality education and economic security, were amazed to see children without shoes, Botia said.
“I remember one 10-year-old kid who is finally learning to hold a pencil to write,” she said. “If we hadn’t helped them, they wouldn’t be able to go to elementary school. God has been able to give them a second chance, a better future because of education.”
Botia, 21, may teach in the U.S. to gather enough experience and resources to eventually return to Tanzania and continue helping the school with added perspective.
“I want to say how privileged we are, and we shouldn’t take it for granted,” she said. “A lot of people want to make this huge difference in the world. But I would say it’s one kid at a time. That one kid will impact another one.
“I think we shouldn’t measure our impact by numbers. I think it’s quality time and relationships, one person at a time, one kid at a time.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.