Dream Come True at Nanenane

Nanenane Secondary School students and teachers are the latest beneficiaries of a SPARC (Solar Powered Access to Raspberry Computing) computer lab program donated by Powering Potential Inc. (PPI) in partnership with Potential Enhancement Foundation (PEF).

PEF Executive Director Eng. Albin Mathias handed over the SPARC Lab to the Headmistress of Nanenane Secondary School Ms. Sarah Madabi during a brief ceremony held on July 27 in Morogoro Region where the school is located.

The newly installed system will enable students and teachers to access academic materials online without the need for electricity or the internet. It consists of a solar-power system, five user computers, a projector, a digital library, digitized Tanzanian secondary school curriculum, and training for students and teachers.

The donation is part of the mission of PPI in partnership with PEF to use technology to enhance education and expand opportunities for students and teachers especially in remote areas with limited electricity and internet.

“This is a dream come true,” declared Ms. Madabi excitedly after receiving the computers in front of a section of students and teachers who witnessed the handover ceremony. She said installation of the system augers well with the school’s renewed commitment to improve academic performances of its students.

She continued: “The SPARC program will surely transform all of us academically. Long-term we want Nanenane to be exemplary among public schools in the region and possibly the entire country in terms of academic performances. Installation of the SPARC therefore sets us on the right course towards realization of our dream since all the notes and materials required by students are readily available and can easily be accessed digitally.

We worked hard and actually had to be patient to convince PPI and PEF to install the system here, therefore it goes without saying that we shall fully utilize its benefits and jealously protect the system to ensure its longevity.”

The school contributed to the project by providing a secure room with tables and chairs for the computer lab and has also set aside funds for repairs and maintenance.

Ms. Madabi said the school is grateful for the donation and is not taking it for granted, well aware that numerous other schools are desperate to have such system installed at their schools but have not been as lucky due to budget constraints. However, with a population of over 1,000 students and 50 teachers, she says the school could do with the second SPARC+ lab whose package includes additional 15 computers and expansion of solar system.

The Executive Director of PEF Eng. Albin Mathias commended the school’s administration for its efforts and resilience to convince PEF and to prepare for installation of its first SPARC lab. “You kept us on our toes to ensure we install the system and today we are all glad and excited to see this happening.”

Eng. Mathias expressed hopes that the system would be properly used and serve as an eye opener to most students, hence trigger tremendous improvements in their academic endeavors as well as the overall performance of the school.

He challenged the entire school community to fully utilize the newly installed system and protect it to ensure it operates optimally and for the intended purposes. He pledged that PEF and PPI will continue to assist the school in whatever way possible including finding donors to facilitate installation of the SPARC+ lab.

SPARC+ at SoitSambu in Ngorongoro, Tanzania

SoitSambu Secondary School students and staff were all cheers and smiles in January as they received a SPARC+ program (Solar Powered Access to Raspberry Computing) from Powering Potential whose mission is to use technology to enhance education and expand opportunities for students and teachers especially in remote areas with limited electricity and internet.

Experience the installation during this one minute video.

Located in Ngorongoro District, Arusha Region in Northern Tanzania, SoitSambu Secondary School is among the latest beneficiaries of Powering Potential’s donation of SPARC+, a complete system that enables students and teachers to access a wealth of information without the need for grid electricity or the internet. It consists of a solar-power system, 20 user computers, a projector, an offline digital library, the digitized Tanzanian secondary school curriculum, and training for students and teachers. The school received its first SPARC lab (five computers) in 2014 and was excited to receive 15 additional computers this time.

We interviewed 15 year-olds Sofia Omar and PrayGod Godwin who could not hide their enthusiasm and expectations for the future following the installation of new computers at their school…

Sofia Omar:

At 15 years of age, Sofia Omar could not hide her joy when for the first time a computer came to life right in front of her, turning a new page in the story of her young life.The last born in a family of three, Sofia who enjoys science subjects believes availability of a computer means that she can pursue her dream without much effort.

“Having access to a computer has really changed my life and opened the doors of opportunity in my life, because with my dream of becoming a doctor, I know that this will help in so many ways,” she says, noting that she wants to become a doctor in order to help her community fight diseases and improve people’s health.

The Form Two (grade 9) student further says that apart from learning subject matters, the computer and  its programs are a good one-stop center for refreshing the mind, which challenges her thinking capacity. Rural schools, by their very nature, are more isolated geographically, and tend to be less affluent as well. This can result in fewer enrichment opportunities for their students, but with the donation of computers, children can have the chance to peek at the rest of the world.

She is grateful to Powering Potential for the donation of the computers and urges fellow students to fully utilize the computers to improve academically.

PrayGod Godwin:

PrayGod Godwin, a 15-year-old and the last born in a family of seven, is always excited about the prospect of working on a computer and foresees great opportunities ahead of him. He says that since computers came to the school, learning has become easy and fun, which supports his ambition of becoming a doctor one day.

“I have gained a lot from the computer and transformed the method of learning since they were donated to our school, in terms of accessing learning materials,” he says. The Form Two (grade 9) student says that not only do rural students benefit from educational tools and increased access to information and resources through the computers, but they grow and mature from the networking and connection created by technology.

He says that when he informed his parents that he was using a computer at the school, they were thrilled with the news, foreseeing a bright future for their child, with loads of opportunities which were not available to them. He further says that with access to computers, he is sure that the performance rate at the school is going to improve drastically, because for them accessing information was a major challenge. He calls upon his fellow students to embrace learning through the computer and fully utilize the tool to improve their performance in class, because it will be the best for their own future.

“We are really happy about the donation of the computers to our school…..they make a huge difference to us, especially for remote schools like ours,” he says.

Zanzibar Pi-oneer Maintenance

In early October, staff from the Potential Enhancement Foundation (PEF), Powering Potential’s sister organization in Tanzania, traveled from the Tanzanian mainland to the archipelago of Zanzibar to perform system maintenance and parts replacement on Pi-oneer computer systems. The team was led by Eng. Albin Mathis, PEF’s Executive Director. 

Albin and his crew were warmly welcomed by the teachers and staff of the 16 Zanzibar secondary schools in which Pi-oneers are used. To make the best use of their one-week visit, the crew met with and trained these professionals at three separate training centers, where they also made the system repairs.

Pi-oneer was introduced to Zanzibar by Powering Potential in 2016. Pi-oneer is an innovative teaching tool, comprised of a Raspberry Pi computer with a mobile projector, screen, solar recharging unit and RACHEL offline educational content that includes Khan Academy videos and Wikipedia articles. The Pi-oneer emphasizes portability, in that teachers can take the system into classrooms to display video and other teaching materials to students.

Pi-oneer system. From top left, clockwise: projector, Raspberry Pi computer, speakers, mouse, keyboard.
Missing from picture: projection screen, solar recharging unit

At a unit cost of $1,000, the Pi-oneer system is a great starter set. It serves as the perfect initiation into solar-powered computing.

The visit to Zanzibar gave the team good insight into strategic planning for maintenance. In the five years since Pi-oneer was installed in Zanzibar, the technical team has been communicating with teaching staff via the WhatsApp messaging and video application. Zanzibar is at a distance from the mainland headquarters of PEF, making it difficult to plan frequent visits.  

The team learned that WhatsApp alone is insufficient as a troubleshooting tool. They found that the equipment was not, in a number of cases, being maintained optimally by those in charge of using it. This was due to a number of factors. Teachers were transferred from one school to another and newer teachers were not always well-trained. Some teachers lacked basic troubleshooting skills. Some were unfamiliar with all of the components of the system.

Several valuable lessons were learned as a result of this visit; primary of which is that onsite equipment maintenance and training of teachers needs to be done more frequently. New teachers need to be educated uniformly regarding the composition, functioning, and troubleshooting of the Pi-oneer system. They also need to be better trained on how to navigate the educational content. 

All in all, the trip to Zanzibar was a success, in that the systems are now up-to-date, the teachers are better informed, and the tech team is better equipped to deal with future maintenance and training issues.

PEF Technical Manager Denis Christopher demonstrates usage of the Pi-oneer system

A highlight of the trip was the team’s visit to the Ministry of Education-Zanzibar (MoEZ), where they met the Director of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), Mr. Omar Said Ali.

Mr. Ali is most willing to coordinate our program initiatives with MoEZ and he would like to see PEF one day pilot a SPARC computer lab in Zanzibar, as the next step forward in solar-powered computer integration.

PEF and Powering Potential have enjoyed good relationships with all levels of national, regional, and local leadership throughout the fifteen years of our existence. During this time, the country’s president, ministers, and ambassadors have met with our Founder, Janice Lathen, and they all have been impressed by and supportive of our work. 

In 2015, Tanzania’s then-president, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, wrote to Janice, who participated in an Education Week fair, 

“I was really very impressed with the good work you exhibited at Dodoma. I therefore encourage you to continue with your efforts to enable people in rural areas to enjoy the benefits of information and communication technology.”

Our maintenance team received positive feedback as well from those whom they trained at Zanzibar. Among the quotes was this, from teacher Mkubwa from Makoongwe: “I would like to welcome the team again …as this was a very useful session.”

The teachers are now better equipped to use and maintain the Pi-oneer system. The PEF team returned to the mainland energized and with increased knowledge about educating teachers and keeping equipment in top physical condition.  A win-win for all!

Please continue to support Powering Potential so we can reach more students and upgrade existing equipment. Thank you!

Students and staff from Zanzibar schools

Virtual Lunch and Learn

On June 24th, Powering Potential Inc. (PPI) was pleased to host a Lunch and Learn event, via Zoom. The event was moderated by PPI board member Laszlo Schneider. The panel included Janice Lathen, PPI’s Founding Director and President; Mr. Sabasaba Moshingi, Treasurer of PPI’s partner organization in Tanzania, the Potential Enhancement Foundation (PEF), and Eng. Albin Mathias, PEF’s Executive Director.

PPI is celebrating happily its 15th anniversary this year. Janice Lathen spoke about how the idea for Powering Potential came to her. While on safari in Tanzania in 2006, Janice visited the Bankija School and greeted the students in their native Swahili. The youngsters were thrilled to hear their language spoken by a visitor and Janice mutually was overwhelmed by their enthusiastic response.

Janice knew right then that she wanted to do something to enhance the students’ education. As a computer entrepreneur, she decided to return to Tanzania with 10 computers and stay for one month to teach the students how to use the computers and to engender in them the joys of technology. She was then informed that there was no electricity to power the hardware and thus was born the idea for Powering Potential, whereby solar power and offline digital educational resources would make computer usage possible in underserved rural communities.

Today, Powering Potential can proudly report the following milestones:

  • 97 programs have been implemented;
  • 34,000+ teachers and students have embraced digital education in rural settings;
  • 60% of respondents report continuing their education beyond secondary school;
  • 58% of respondents report securing employment because of their technology skills;
  • 3,000+ students have enrolled in Tanzanian national ICT curriculum for secondary schools.

Eng. Albin Mathias of PEF can appreciate these statistics more than most. He told the Lunch and Learn attendees that when he was a student, he was eager to learn about computers, but he “never had the chance.” To him, access was everything and, when he finally met Janice, he understood that what was not possible for him would be so for the thousands of students who follow in his footsteps. Today, as Executive Director of the Potential Enhancement Foundation, he helps to make realities of students’ dreams.

Mr. Sabasaba Moshingi, a banker by profession, faced a great workplace challenge by not knowing how to turn on a computer. He understood all too well how important computer knowledge and access are to young people, and when he met Janice Lathen and he learned what she was doing in Tanzania, he quickly “fell in love” with PPI and PEF. Today, he enthusiastically encourages others to join in supporting the work of the partner organizations, so that many more students can consider a computer a necessity and not the “luxury” it currently is for so many.

Right now, we are raising funds to install a SPARC+ lab at the SoitSambu Secondary School in the Ngorongoro District of Tanzania. In 2014, the school received a SPARC lab complete with five computers. Presently, 700+ students attend SoitSambu. SPARC+ will increase the total number of computers available to them from five to 20. The program requires expanding the solar energy system, upgrading the computers and software, installing the Tanzanian digitized secondary school curriculum and providing training to students and teachers. This project is budgeted at $24,000. Please help us to reach this goal by donating to SoitSambu.

After SoitSambu, our next project is an installation of a SPARC lab at Nanenane Secondary School at Morogoro, Tanzania, where 800 students attend classes. And we have big plans for future installations.

The Lunch and Learn attendees were curious if PPI plans to expand outside of Tanzania and Peru, the two countries in which PPI now implements its programs. Janice Lathen indicated that she receives lots of requests from schools in other countries eager to utilize PPI’s programs and she hopes that PPI will be able to entertain such requests, going forward. Expansion will be possible with the advent of additional funding, which is why our kind supporters are the lifeblood of Powering Potential.

Powering Potential looks forward to future Lunch and Learn sessions. Please sign up for our newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn to keep up with the latest developments.

SPARC Plan for Nanenane School

Powering Potential is excited to announce that the next scheduled SPARC project will occur at the Nanenane Secondary School in the Morogoro District of Tanzania.

SPARC (Solar Powered Access to Raspberry Computing) is a complete system that enables students and teachers to access a wealth of information without the need for electricity or the internet. It consists of a solar-power system, five user computers, a projector, a digital library, digitized Tanzanian secondary school curriculum, and training for students and teachers.

The Nanenane School is populated by 50 teachers and more than 800 male and female students and they are uniformly enthusiastic about the installation to come, according to the school’s headmistress, Ms. Sarah Yassin Madabi. Ms. Madabi added, “I am very excited to have this project in our school. We have been waiting for a long time to have this opportunity, so we can fulfill our goals of improving academic performance.”

The Morogoro District is a town rich in vegetation and it is surrounded by the beautiful Uluguru Mountains. The region also boasts a number of colleges and universities, which is good news for secondary school students in the area. The success rate for students who complete the programs offered by Powering Potential translates into 60% of students continuing their education beyond secondary school.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Powering Potential Inc. The Nanenane School will be the 35th school to benefit from a PPI program. To date, more than 34,000 students and teachers have benefited from our unique brand of digital education. These statistics are very meaningful to us and we have reached these milestones with your help!

Everything we do at Powering Potential depends on the wonderful support of kind friends, and for this, we thank you most heartily. Please donate generously so that we may continue to bring education and enlightenment to deserving students in Tanzania and Peru.

(Photos by Muhammad Mahdi Karim and Thomas Sauli)

SPARC Completed at Serengeti School

Powering Potential is pleased to announce that the Rigicha Secondary School in Tanzania’s Serengeti District is the latest recipient of a SPARC solar-powered computer lab, with installation completed in May.

The SPARC (Solar Powered Access to Raspberry Computing) program consists of five Raspberry Pi user computers, three servers, a 300-watt solar energy system and training. The computer lab is equipped with offline digital educational content and the Tanzanian digitized secondary school curriculum. Content includes Wikipedia articles, Khan Academy videos, medical reference books, e-books of world literature from Project Gutenberg and other materials.

Solar energy is employed because it is reliable and green, with negligible running costs. Raspberry Pi computers are specially designed to withstand heat, humidity and dust. They use low energy, which makes them the best choice for solar. They are also powered by open source software.

In 2014, the Rigicha Secondary School received its first computer installation with the arrival of a Pi-oneer, an innovative teaching tool consisting of a Pi computer with offline educational content that includes math and science videos, a mobile projector, a projection screen, and a solar recharging unit. 

Powering Potential remains deeply grateful to Mr. Sabasaba Moshingi and Tanzania Postal Bank for getting us started at Rigicha with a grant in 2014.

SPARC is an important step forward for the school, which currently welcomes 541 students and 14 teachers. The students are so pleased and grateful for the advent of SPARC.

An informal poll of students indicated that they have big plans for utilizing the computer training that they received. Esther said she’d like to go on to teach others how to use computers. Amina wants to be a doctor. Ester wants to be a pharmacist. Mashaur is focused on becoming a journalist. Janeth wants a career in nursing. Bhoke wants to be a lawyer. Others mentioned careers in teaching, science, and technology. They all felt strongly that learning to use computers will help them achieve educational goals and obtain good jobs. And a number said that learning computers will help them to achieve their dreams.

When was the last time that you helped someone achieve his or her dream? Isn’t it wonderful to know that you are doing so when you make a gift to Powering Potential? Please donate today, and help to make a student’s dream come true! Thank you!

As we celebrate our 15th anniversary, we look forward to our next implementation. SoitSambu School is slated to receive a SPARC+ computer lab, the phase that follows SPARC. SPARC+ includes a total of 20 computers for students and teachers. Onward and upward, as we say at Powering Potential!

SPARC+ Plan at SoitSambu School in Ngorongoro District

Powering Potential has set its sights on installing a SPARC+ computer lab at the SoitSambu Secondary School. SoitSambu is located in the Ngorongoro District, Arusha Region of northern Tanzania, home to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Arusha National Park among other natural wonders.  

The original SPARC lab was part of our three school project in the Ngorongoro District that we completed in July 2014. One of those three schools, Nainokanoka Secondary School, was successfully upgraded to a SPARC+ lab in January 2017.


Nainokanoka Secondary School in 2017

The SoitSambu Secondary School has faced hardship. An accidental fire in 2015 completely destroyed one of the boys’ dormitories, rendering them homeless. Thankfully, there were no injuries, but the year-long rebuild caused delays for other initiatives. This school has more than 700 girls and boys and they continue to flourish with active enthusiasm for their education. We are excited to return there.  


Solar energy system equipment

Our plan involves increasing the number of computers to 20, expanding the solar energy system, upgrading the Raspberry computers and software, and installing the Tanzanian digitized secondary school curriculum from Shule Direct. The staff will also benefit from new training. The arrival of the PEF team always creates excitement among the student body. (PEF is our partner organization in Tanzania.) The students are inquisitive, eager to learn and even volunteer to help!

Every project we undertake is made possible by dedicated individuals like you. Your role in our cause is vital to enhancing opportunities for students lacking resources that we take for granted. Give the gift of education by donating today!

SPARC+ Upgrade at Kabasa & Mekomariro Schools

Last month Powering Potential completed SPARC+ (Solar-Powered Access to Raspberry Computing) upgrades at the Kabasa and Mekomariro Secondary Schools in the Bunda District of Tanzania, Africa near Lake Victoria.

Three Bunda schools received original SPARC labs in 2015 and with this project all three schools now have a SPARC+ lab with 20 Raspberry Pi computers and digital content. In the video below, check out what Dorcas thinks about the new computers at her school.

The Bunda District is one of seven in the Mara region. Home to just under 350,000 inhabitants, it is also the birthplace of Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere. Rolling grasslands and wooded hills dot the landscape for children walking to both Kabasa and Mekomariro for their education. Electricity and other resources may be scarce, but the enthusiasm of the students for learning is abundant. 

Students unpacking computers at Mekomariro
Students unpacking computers at Mekomariro

Upgrading to a SPARC+ lab entails expanding the solar grid, increasing the number of computers in each lab to 20, and providing additional training for the staff. This means a combined total of 900 students at the Kabasa and Mekomariro Schools, girls and boys, will benefit from the programs we provide! Technology education will also give these students a stepping stone towards both higher education and employment in Bunda’s more populated areas, which in turn will raise the standard of living in their native villages.

The schools built additional tables and chairs for their expanded computer lab and the other expenses were funded by Moneygram Foundation, an initiative started by Moneygram to increase educational resources for the world’s children. We thank them sincerely for their generosity in allowing us to expand education opportunities for students in Tanzania.

Founding Director Janice Lathen also highlighted Hon. Stephen Wasira for his participation. “These two SPARC+ upgrades complete a Bunda District project that was started in 2015 with then Minister of State, Hon. Stephen Wasira. The involvement of this high level government official smoothed the path to implementation. We thank him for his facilitation efforts and the Bunda District Council for their support.”

Powering Potential remains committed to a future where accessible education is a reality for remote schools. By utilizing solar power, open-source technology and Raspberry Pi computers, we are bridging gaps in regions which traditional infrastructure has left behind. Our next project is a SPARC computer lab in the Serengeti at the Rigicha Secondary School. 

Our efforts continue because of amazing readers like you who are moved to contribute to our cause. Donate today. Thank you!


Tanzanians Kickstart SPARC Lab in the Serengeti

Rigicha Pi-oneer

Mr. Sabasaba Moshingi, CEO of Tpb Bank (formerly Tanzania Postal Bank), knows the power of a good investment.

For years, Mr. Moshingi has partnered with Powering Potential and invested his time and energy in the education of Tanzania’s students. He is the treasurer of our counterpart organization, the Potential Enhancement Foundation (PEF), and in 2014 secured a grant through the bank allowing Powering Potential to install a Pi-oneer at Rigicha Secondary School in Tanzania’s Serengeti District.

Now Powering Potential is excited to announce the next phase of this collaboration: installation of a SPARC lab (Solar-Powered Access to Raspberry Computing) at Rigicha Secondary School.

Mr. Moshingi has pledged $5,000 for this new lab and the school community is contributing a secure room with tables and chairs. To open the lab in the fall of 2020, Powering Potential needs its supporters to join Mr. Moshingi and the school community to fully fund this $20,000 project. Donate today

This project builds on Tpb Bank’s grant to Powering Potential to install a Pi-oneer at Rigicha Secondary School in 2014

With the Pi-oneer — a solar-powered Raspberry Pi computer loaded with digital educational content, a handheld projector and projection screen — teachers enhance their lessons with audiovisual aids without needing electricity or the Internet.

While the Pi-oneer introduced digital content to Rigicha’s classrooms, this new SPARC lab will give the students a hands-on opportunity to explore digital content themselves. One SPARC lab has five Raspberry Pi computers, three servers containing educational content including the Tanzanian digitized secondary school syllabi, two solar panels, three batteries, and supporting equipment, and ten students can use it at once. Just like the Pi-oneer, the school does not need grid electricity or the Internet to operate the lab. 

This computer lab is essential to furthering Rigicha students’ education. Without enough teachers and with outdated textbooks, these students simply do not have the same opportunities as students in other countries. This lab will supplement the formal education they receive, and it is an opportunity for students to learn computer skills that will prepare them for the job market. 

As Mr. Moshingi says, technical knowledge is necessary for everyone: “Janice and her teams (Powering Potential and PEF) are doing a great job in helping a good number of students from disadvantaged poor and rural Tanzania to have access to ICT (Information Communication Technology), a prerequisite knowledge in today’s globalized world. Any support that can be offered to them to expand their noble services to Tanzania is highly appreciated.”

Because of the bank’s generosity, we have a good start towards our goal, and now we are calling on our supporters to join Mr. Moshingi and complete the funding of this $20,000 project to install and administer the lab. This cost includes the solar and computer equipment, local transportation to the school, program administration, and two weeks of training and materials to teach the school’s teachers and students how to use and maintain the computers. 

We know that just like Mr. Moshingi the supporters of Powering Potential understand the power of a good investment too. You know that education and opportunity are the keys to unlocking the full potential of students. Invest today in the futures of these students, and help us reach our goal of fully funding this lab. Donate.

Peril in the Amazon during Covid 19

Just before Covid-19 began dominating headlines around the world, Dana Rensi, Powering Potential’s Regional Director for Latin America, was back at work in the San Francisco School located in the Belen District of Iquitos, Peru. A brand new SPARC lab with 25 Raspberry Pi computers had been installed in the school last summer by the Powering Potential team with a grant from Learning Equality.

Dana arrived on February 23, 2020 to train nearly two dozen teachers in the lab on its maintenance and usage. Mid-March marked the official start of the school year in Peru, which meant only in-service meetings among the teaching staff were conducted. It was an opportune time to get the teachers ready. 

Then the shutdown happened.

Martin Vizcara, President of Peru, at the 3/15/2020 press conference

On March 16, the Peruvian government entered a state of emergency after informing the public of a mandatory shut down. Since March 16th was also the first day of school, students across the nation were alerted to stay home. Businesses were shuttered. Waterways, airports, and roads were closed throughout the nation. In less than 24 hours, Iquitos became a ghost town.  

“I’d been watching the Covid issue even before I went back to Peru,” Dana said. “When the shutdown happened, I got online, bought another plane ticket for March 31st even though I already had one for April 15th. Then I immediately started emailing the Fulbright commission in Peru, the U.S. government, and everybody else.”

Along with the government mandate came the nationwide closure of schools and strict quarantine guidelines. A curfew was instituted from 6 p.m. – 4 a.m. Food became scarce at the local markets. Fresh water delivery, a critical service due to the polluted water surrounding Iquitos, suddenly became difficult to acquire. Regulations required officers to arrest and fine people for failing to wear masks outdoors. 

The Belén District in Peru

The shutdown would eventually strand more than 7,150 travelers within Peru’s borders. Of those 7,000, Dana was among the 1,400 Americans facing a global pandemic that was quickly spreading to the jungle. She was sequestered blocks away from the Plaza de Armas de Iquitos and turned her tiny apartment into a command center. Manning two mobile phones and a computer, she began contacting everyone she could regarding the situation. 

“You have to understand something about the situation in Peru,” Dana said. “They don’t really have medical care there. They don’t have Covid tests. They have only one hospital in Iquitos for Covid, but there was an infected nurse. So they had to move everyone and sanitize everything. Their best defense was to lock everything down.”

The Fulbright Commission was among the first of the organizations to respond to Dana’s alert. Representatives there put her in touch with the Peruvian Embassy, which asked her to be a Citizen Liaison Volunteer (CLV). After a background check, the Embassy had her gather information on all U.S. citizens in Iquitos. Dana made a Google Form for people to enter their information and forwarded daily updates to the Embassy. She also found vital information on everything from the availability of medical supplies to viable transportation companies and permits. The Embassy used this data to obtain permission letters enabling these services to work during the quarantine and solidify travel arrangements. Through Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp groups like #StuckinIquitos, Dana also strove to keep everyone calm during the next two weeks. 

Alia Afshar, DAI Director of Project Delivery in the Middle East & North Africa

It was through one of these social media groups that Alia Afshar, DAI Director of Project Delivery in the Middle East and North Africa, got in touch with Dana. In Peru on a spiritual retreat for two weeks to celebrate her birthday, the shutdown stranded Alia and several other tourists at the sanctuary. 

“Dana is, to me, a real hero,” Alia said during a discussion with Powering Potential. “She was frantically working with the authorities. It really blew my mind, and I work in war zones where everything is down to the details.  She did such an impeccable job. ” 

Barbara Land, Executive Director of the Nevada Building Hope Foundation was also doing work in the Peruvian jungle in March. Her organization provides a variety of critical services to remote villages along the Amazon River and had just finished building a new high school for students last October. Barbara would eventually join the #StuckinIquitos group chat regarding her own situation. “I would see Dana telling people to continue working with the Embassy,” Barbara told us. “For people who work down there, we know how wonderful the Embassy is. We became friends that way. She understands the culture.” 

Peru’s shutdown created panic among the tourists. Within a week, throngs of people arrived in Lima with the intent to leave, only to find the airport closed. Entire groups camped out at the air force base waiting in lines that never moved. Others were still stuck in remote lodges without a way to get back to the main squares. Coming back required boats, none of which were allowed on the water. 

It fell to Dana to find boat drivers and transportation services so the Embassy could create letters and permits to ensure their businesses would not be fined for traveling during the quarantine. It would eventually require three permits from the water police to even take a boat for twenty minutes. After this, buses were hastily found and granted permits to pick up travelers from the remote sites on the rivers. Even so, a larger problem loomed: flights. 

With Lima and its airport bombarded by crowds, the Coronel FAP Francisco Secada Vignetta International Airport in Iquitos was allowed to open. Located only 4.5 miles from the downtown area of the city, it had not serviced international flights for some time. Locals spoke of popular routes to Panama and other regions of South America that had been long discontinued. Despite the Covid-19 crisis, very few there thought this situation would change. Lima, they said repeatedly, was the only way to leave.

Over the course of two weeks, the Embassy negotiated with the Peruvian government for approval regarding a flight. Once this hurdle had been cleared, the next one was asking for a chartered flight from Latam Airlines, the premier carrier for Peru. Through hard work and a touch of the miraculous, a flight plan was finally arranged that would fly directly to Miami. If successful, it would be the first such flight to leave Iquitos in over twenty years. Letters of transit for both river and land travel also had to be obtained from the Embassy for people to make it safely to the airport.

Trees recently planted by Project Amazonas

Don Dean, Tree Committee Member and Board Member of Project Amazonas, had also been affected by the shutdown. He is one of many dedicated individuals working on the conservation and restoration of the Amazon Rainforest. In addition, they reintroduce native species back into their natural habit there. In mid-March, he’d been overseeing a group of undergraduate students from North Carolina when the government went into a state of emergency. He was one of many people to secure a flight home due to Dana’s efforts.

“As Dana mentioned, it was a mess to get out of the country,” Don recounted. “They shut down the streets and rivers. The airports were closed. We were all in limbo after that. Dana took me by the ear, said ‘fill out these forms,’ and just got it done. She worked diligently to get everybody.” 

Alia concurred, further emphasizing the importance of Dana’s contributions. “To be fair, my position was unique — I was at a private sanctuary. Everything was running normally for us, but going to Iquitos for the 24 hours we were there was terrifying. Dana organized transport and a place for us. She worked locally through Peruvians. The confidence level and commitment were just through the roof.  She had printed packets for all of us with permits to travel to the airport. I was in awe.”

Dana Rensi waiting to board the flight to Miami

On March 26th, 2020, 107 Americans left from the airport in Iquitos after health screenings, Dana among them. All wore masks and gloves. Some spoke openly about the people and work they’d left behind. Others stood silent with pensive expressions, fearing the flight would be canceled. Yet the flight and its passengers landed without incident in Miami. 

It would take two additional flights for Dana to return safely to Oregon, but her work didn’t stop when she landed. Even during her self-quarantine, she continued working to gain transportation and flights for others still struggling to get home from Peru. When asked to expound on their feelings at being back on American soil after such ordeals, all of those featured in our story expressed various levels of shock and gratitude.

“Police and military were everywhere in Peru,” Dana explained. “They checked your papers. You were arrested and fined for not wearing a mask. I am shocked that some people are not taking it seriously. I know my connections were what enabled me to help people on the ground. I am really thankful for the U.S. Embassy and the Peruvians. It was a huge operation.” 

Barbara Land & students at the new high school in Ayacucho Village

Barbara had a similar reaction. “Peru is on total lockdown. We got into Dulles airport in the middle of the night and not one person had a mask on. Nobody was taking precautions. That’s the way it was all the way to South Carolina to Phoenix to Reno. I’m still surprised.” She added that those with a calling to help in the Amazon should prepare now. “We all are there to help one child, one person at a time. That’s better than nothing. But if your project is not sustainable, you’re wasting their time. It’s their responsibility to love and respect that jungle and all that lives there. See the world through the eyes of the people you are living with. Do your research. Then join us.” 

“It was humbling,” Alia said of her experience. “Latam Airlines was wonderful and had medical staff there. They took temperatures. It was jarring that there were no quarantine guidelines in Miami or JFK.” She also offered some advice to her fellow Americans. “Being safe will cost us things in the long run. Sure, everybody wants to go back to their old lives, but it’s going to slow down a path to recovery. Remember: there’s no playbook for this.”

“I think the Peruvians were way ahead of the states in terms of preparing and taking action out of necessity,” Don commented. “They could also impose huge fines on people during the quarantine that stick because the authorities attach them to their national identity card. So these are effective deterrents. I understand that. It’s easier to enforce. But it’s all a waiting game now to get back to our work.”

Dana, Alia, Barbara, and Don felt they’d left behind a situation without easy solutions. According to a statement from the United Nations Development Program, the first indigenous leader in Peru tested positive for Covid-19 mere days after the shutdown. In addition to national quarantine protocols, non-residents were immediately restricted from entry into the Indigenous and Territorial Reserves under orders from the Ministry of Culture. Over 2,000 communities also chose self-quarantine measures to further isolate themselves from exposure from tourists. 

Though vital steps have been taken to ensure the health of the Peruvian people, the state of education there remains critical. According to the World Education Blog, MINEDU (the Peruvian Ministry of Education) has created Aprendo en casa as a distance learning initiative for the nation’s students operating through telecommunications companies. Most children in impoverished districts like Belén and remote areas of the jungle, however, do not have computers or the Internet. The children are simply at home without even access to food. For them, the pandemic is a very real struggle for survival.

Dana is currently collaborating with Patty Webster, CNN Hero and Founder of Amazon Promise to address these issues. In a recent letter published on the home page of their website, Patty explained her organization’s commitment to delivering medicine, medical supplies, and infant formula to local hospitals in the fight against the pandemic. Dana is also asking the Peruvian government to release the food stored in the nation’s closed schools to feed the poor, including the children of the San Francisco school whose only meals consisted of those they received during the school day. 

A photo taken by Amazon Promise during a food distribution drive

“I do want to go back,” Dana said. “Powering Potential has the only solar Raspberry Pi computer lab installation in Peru working among the poorest of the poor. Anita Gil Avila is such a dynamic school principal. She’s there day and night. We picked the right person to partner with. I am so grateful to Learning Equality and the other team members of Powering Potential. This is a huge opportunity for the people. They really need our support.” 

If you would like to learn more about the Covid-19 situation in Peru you can follow the latest updates on the website for the Ministry of Health – Peru. We encourage our readers to support Powering Potential’s effort to provide technology education in the Peruvian Amazon when the schools resume regular operations. To donate, click here.