TWU alum honoured with humanitarian award

Sarah reads with a local volunteer that worked on the construction of the Kwekitui Library, November 2004. Photo Credit: Colleen Campbell.

Langley, BC- Born and raised in Comox, B.C. Trinity Western University Alumnae Sarah Switzer is Canadian by birth, but her heart is with the people of Africa. She first realized her passion for Africa at a young age when she burst into tears watching a World Vision commercial. "Something inside me ‘started up' or ‘booted up,'" she says, "and that feeling has faithfully never gone away or even wavered." Switzer's passion for helping people of other cultures has led her all over the globe, and her humanitarian work has recently won her one of two prestigious Jacques Hebert Global Citizenship Awards.

By the age of 21, Switzer had already travelled to Cuba and Guatemala to do humanitarian work. But she was still in shock when she received the email from Canada World Youth (CWY) informing her that she would soon be Africa-bound. "I cried when I got the email that said I would be sent to Tanzania. I never thought I would get to visit and work in Africa so young. It was a dream come true. More than I had ever asked for or imagined," she says.

It was while in Tanzania as a participant in a Canada World Youth Core Program during the spring of 2004 that Switzer learned to understand "so much about how to work with communities in Tanzania, and work alongside a diverse group of people," she says. One of the issues that Switzer soon identified in the community was illiteracy, a result of a lack of access to textbooks. "Many schools and students do not have enough textbooks for all the students," she explains, the result of which is low enrollment in the schools. And low enrollment in the schools results in an illiterate population, something that Switzer notes as a major problem in African communities. "Literacy empowers those who become literate. Literacy breaks through ignorance. Ignorance causes many destructive, painful, violent situations," she explains.

Switzer picSo Switzer and Tanga Youth Development Association, a non-governmental organization with whom she had connected while in Tanzania, teamed up to launch their own initiative: the library projects. Together they sought funding and support for the construction of a library for the schools and community in Kwekitui. The African Community Technical Services, a volunteer based Christian technical mission that helps rural African communities in cooperation with grass roots initiatives in achieving their development goals, agreed to endorse the Kwekitui library project. Switzer's cousin Colleen Campbell also joined the team, helping Switzer spearhead numerous fundraising efforts throughout the summer of 2004.

In October 2004, Switzer and Campbell arrived in Tanzania, and construction of the library began. "The first library, Kwekitui, is built next to a Primary School and was filled with text books bought in Tanzania and therefore the same ones that are used in the public school curriculum," Switzer explains. Switzer speaks enthusiastically about the success of the project. "Since the textbooks have been made available to all the students, graduation in the primary school has gone way up," she notes.

Under the Reading Tree, an organization dedicated to promoting literacy and education in East Africa has since adopted the Kwekitui project from Switzer, agreeing to fund the librarian's salaries and sustain general upkeep costs until the library can become self-sufficient. Students in near-by primary schools have shown "a marked improvement in their grades, and adults (including elders) are regular visitors as well," boasts Under the Reading Tree's website. The library now sees an average of 100 readers per day, with some high school students travelling from a village two hours away in order to study and read.

Library constructionWith the first library project completed, Switzer returned to TWU to continue her undergraduate degree in Christianity and Culture. But Switzer's passion for bringing books and literacy to Tanzanian communities continued to flourish, and she began to dream of another library - this time in the village of Chamazi. Receiving encouragement from TWU professor Kent Clarke and her CWY Tanzania supervisor from the 2004 core program, Switzer asked African Community Technical Services (ACTS) to endorse a second project. She also sought support from TWU's Global Projects department, envisioning the Chamazi library as a TWU student volunteer experience. With both ACTS and TWU's Global Projects on board, Switzer and a team of seven other TWU students began fundraising, and in July 2008, went to Tanzania to build a second library.

Since September 2008, Switzer has worked as a Student Ministries Intern in the Global Projects department at TWU, a position that allows her to remain active in her work with East Africa. In October, she found out that she had been awarded the Jacques Hebert Global Citizenship Award. The award, as Canada World Youth's call for nominations explains, aims to honor individuals who have participated in a CWY program and who have gone on to initiate "innovative community projects that promote the principal traits of global citizenship: peace, tolerance and intercultural understanding." This is the inaugural year of the award, created in honor of Canada World Youth's founder Jacques Hebert (1923-2007).

Switzer was nominated for the award by Steph Lam, a friend who participated in the CWY core program with her in 2003-2004. Lam didn't hesitate to nominate Switzer for the award. "The Tanzanian Libraries Project promotes peace, tolerance and understanding explicitly, and Sarah is a great project leader that represents these same values," says Lam.

Kara Bergstrom, the Director of Global Projects at TWU, highlights the fact that Switzer is a true global citizen. While in Tanzania, "when she referred to ‘the team' she never thought about it in terms of just the North Americans," says Bergstrom. "Rather, the Tanzanians and North American counterparts formed the team, together."

The Jacques Hebert Global Citizenship Awards will be presented at a conference marking the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Montreal on December 8th 2008. There are two awards, one granted to a Canadian citizen and another to a resident of a CWY partner country, each accompanied by a cash prize of $3000.00 Canadian. Switzer and the international recipient, a man from Kenya, will sit on a panel at the conference and respond to questions about their experiences.

When asked how she felt about being nominated for the award, Switzer responds that she was "so deeply touched and encouraged. It was so encouraging to just be nominated. I didn't even feel like I needed to win. It filled me up and left me steaming full bore ahead."

books africa 2Switzer hopes that the fact that she won the award will bring greater awareness to the library projects cause. "I don't work in this field so that people will believe in me, but that they would believe in the work that I do and see that the work is valuable and that it needs to be done," she says.

This summer, Switzer will return to Tanzania to conduct research for future projects, establish a Community Library Association, and work on getting the Chamzai library up and running. There are also plans for two librarians from the Vancouver Public Library to spend 2-3 weeks volunteering in the Chamazi and Kwekitui libraries. While she is in Africa, Switzer hopes to attend the bi-annual literacy conference (August 2009) at the University of Dar es Salaam with a group from the Ugandan Community Library Association.

Trinity Western University, in Langley, B.C., is an independent Christian liberal arts and sciences university enrolling approximately 4000 students. TWU offers 41undergraduate majors, ranging from biotechnology, education, nursing, theatre and music, to psychology, communications and biblical studies. TWU's 17 graduate degree programs include counseling psychology, business, theology, linguistics, and leadership, and interdisciplinary degrees in English, philosophy and history. TWU holds Canada Research Chairs in Dead Sea Scroll Studies, Developmental Genetics and Disease, and Interpretation, Religion & Culture.



Last Updated: 2008-12-03
Author: Laura Ralph