My father always told me, education is the most important gift you can give yourself... just go for it! - Sante Nyambo Click To Tweet

“I remember standing still in a dark room for a long period of time with one hand on my face and the other on my phone… On that day, the news beaming from my phone lit up my life forever.”

This is how Sante Nyambo recalls the moment she received the acceptance letter from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, where she later obtained her B.Sc in Civil Engineering. At only 18 and filled with courage and a desire to positively impact her nation, she flew across the world to pursue knowledge that would change her life forever. This Tanzanian probably never dreamed that her story would be told in film. She’s now one of the stars of “One Day I Too Go Fly”, a documentary film about 4 African youths’ journeys to become engineers at MIT. It is directed by Arthur Musah, a Ghanaian engineer/filmmaker who seeks to create powerful new narratives about Africa and Africans in cinema.

You can view a glimpse of the footage of the film on Kickstarter, where Arthur and the team are rallying up support to fund post-production editing of all the footage: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/arthurmusah/one-day-i-too-go-fly-documentary-post-production


Take us back to that moment when you got the acceptance letter from MIT, what went through your mind in that moment?

I was still up at 3am on Pi day (March 14th 2011). I stayed up because I could not fall asleep. The letter came in around 3:30 am via an email portal notification. As soon as I read the beginning of the letter, I immediately thought I was on the waiting list. I had the biggest smile on my face. I felt happy to have been considered. I sighed with relief. As I kept on reading on, I began to cry. I remember standing still in a dark room for a long period of time with one hand on my face and the other on my phone. I was overwhelmed and overjoyed with happiness as my smile turned into a pool of tears. When I read the end of the letter saying “Now go party and have fun! See you on campus…”, it was a day that I will never forget. On that day, the news beaming from my phone lit up my life forever.

Before you left for MIT, what ideas did you have about the world and about yourself (as a young African woman) and how have they been refined since your studies at MIT and your exposure to a different way of life in America?

I was 18. I did not know a lot about myself at the time as I do now.  I still feel have not changed much. I am still all about having fun with life and remaining strong and persistent to follow my dreams. As I got to America, I thought I knew what I wanted out of myself and life. My way of thinking gradually changed slightly during the school year and internships.

I vividly remember the look on my father’s face as I made my way to the departure gates in 2011. We both felt the same way. I was nervous. My father was skeptical about letting me leave. I literally had to convince my family. It was not easy because I could not predict or control the future. The fear of the unknown. I never thought a lot about myself. I cared more about my family, cousins and grandparents. I grew up with a very close knit family with my mother as my best-friend. I knew that I would be leaving a void. I also strongly felt that I would eventually strengthen the bonds when I returned home. I felt that I was given a great opportunity to be challenged and one of tremendous growth.

Being introduced to a different way of life in America, have you found it hard to decide how much of Africa to hold on to and how much of America to absorb? What are you holding on to that is African and what American ideals are you absorbing, without losing your African heritage?

Coping was a combination of a sine and a cosine curve. It had ups and downs. Immersing yourself in a new environment really has a way of molding you. It reinforces your foundations. After graduation, time to time, I watch the first “One Day I Too Go Fly” Kickstarter video that was launched in 2012. It looked back into the past and it captured moments in my dorm room where it showed how I decorated my room with Arusha region decorations (Maasais dancing). I do hold on to my memories of home and my heritage as a chagga woman. I think the ability to cope presents a challenge, however it is a function of resiliency. We can to some extent control that.

What new narrative about Africa and Africans is the film, ‘One Day I Too Go Fly’, aiming to share with the world?

7 years ago in Dar es Salaam, I was sitting on a curb on a very warm sunny day after a long basketball game. I was waiting to catch a daladala when a young lady walked up to me looking for directions. In our conversation, she told me she attended MIT and how much she enjoyed it. She went on to mention that it is the best university in the world and I should consider this opportunity to study abroad. I had never heard of such a college or considered being an engineer at the time. I enjoyed and loved STEM and despite my strengths lying in engineering, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I went home that night, I reached out to her for help with the applications. For me, the film is a way to create exposure to the world about opportunities in general. The exposure about life abroad while in college. The film will tell a story that may inspire people. It captures a glimpse that most people are scared to share. Their lives. It is difficult to be very transparent to everyone and potentially the world. I want to be part of making a positive impact. Even though I cannot give riches, I can give and share other things. I would like to encourage people to strive above and beyond their abilities. The film has the potential to be what the young lady I met was to me. My father always told me, education is the most important gift you can give yourself, therefore we should try and not let circumstances dictate when or how it should happen, just go for it!

It has been suggested that STEM subjects be taught in indigenous languages for African students to understand mathematics and science subjects better and fear them less. What is your take on this?

I have had this debate before with some friends. Most of us agreed that as long as something is taught despite fear, the subject matter will eventually stick regardless of language used in administering the topics. If we make language of instruction the barrier, this will be impeding growth. May be the individual can take initiative to learn other languages. It is possible by creating an encouraging environment to do so in schools. For example, I have a friend that moved from West Africa to America at 16. She learnt how to speak English in two years by reading books with her friends for fun. My father and his family grew up in the mountains of Kilimanjaro, speaking and being taught only in their indigenous language (kichagga). But they ended up being doctors, engineers , diplomats, etc, and fluent in English. My take away was that it is possible, however I do not deny that learning how to speak some universal languages early is a good thing.

Do you perhaps foresee a future where Africans no longer necessarily need to cross the ocean to get ‘world class’ studies and degrees, and if this dream is ever possible, how would you propose we get there or how do you propose we start?

I think this is very possible. Being educated in the West grants us new networks and exposure to a new culture and ways of operating. Education is knowledge at the end of the day, it is where and what you do with it that counts. Therefore, yes, I do foresee a future in which we do not have to cross the seas if one opts not to. I believe that I live in this era and the trend is booming. Examples I’ve heard about are Ashesi University in Ghana and the African Leadership University. Both of those were started by Africans who stepped out into the world, picked up knowledge from other countries, and returned to the continent to experiment with new ideas for teaching and learning.

On 4th July weekend, while waiting to party with my friends, I watched a TED talk by South African former investment banker, Euvin Naidoo, that talks about investing in Africa. As I watched the talk, I recalled the conversation I had with Mohammed Dewji at Harvard Business School (HBS) this year. As we sat at the roundtable discussion with my fellow Tanzanians that morning, I truly felt that we had the same goal and we shared a vision. We have to let people do what they can to improve themselves so that they can actively contribute to the goal. Away or while in the west all contributions count. If they do decide to head back to the continent, they have to have a plan. The plan is the most important part. You need to figure out what problem you are going to tackle and how. Despite your education, the moment you get the drive and figure out how to implement or execute your plan, you will define your own excellence. Most people that are educated in Africa, move on to be Presidents, doctors, lawyers, engineers, nurses, teachers etc.

In the Kickstarter video of ‘One Day I Too Go Fly’, very few hands went up when you asked pupils from a school in Tanzania how many of them were interested in doing engineering. How will you use your position as a qualified engineer, whose ideas about the world and herself have been refined, to change this?

8/13/13 {Brighton Xxxx}

“hello sante,

mambo, hope you doin good .i like how u presented when u came at ardhi university u motivated & inspired me alot …..thanx for dat! I have got so many questions to ask but I guess it would be best if contact you via watsapp [xxxxxxx] or facebook {xxxxxxx} if its fine with you, looking forward for your reply

regards.”

This is one of the many letters I received from my trip. I spoke to over 400 students on separate occasions. Junior year in college, I spent some weekends speaking to some of these students via social media, email and calls. As I sat in my dorm and discussed with my friends at MIT’s Women’s Independent Living Group (WILG), I realized that the recurring problem is systemic. I think that people not only feel that STEM is a challenging field but also that the rewards are not worth pursuing. The question is how do we engage people to build a nation when we offer no significant incentives. The growth seems to only benefit a few. The students that I spoke to throughout the trip are well qualified in STEM, however, they are scared and some told me that they do feel helpless. The what if question always holds people back. No incentive and fear is a bad recipe. Solutions need to be at the personal and the government policy levels. Individuals can mentor others, which is why I am taking part in the film, to show that engineering, even though it is tough, is tractable. That could help remove the fear factor. And then our governments need to create an environment where the people are rewarded for developing their talents for engineering and science, and for applying them to their country’s needs.

You are in a bookstore and you have to choose between buying a captivating novel or a good textbook on Thermodynamics, with your last money. Which do you choose?

:)) Trick question. I would pick up the narrative. Two reasons. I did so much of thermo in college, I am all thermo-ed out now lol. I can never say no to some quality time with a great book, some tea and a snack!


A documentary about Sante’s experience is currently raising funds on Kickstarter. Click here if you’d like to support.

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