Experiencing Tanzania for half a year

We had many community meetings Yesterday, I returned from Tanzania back to Austria. After six months of volunteering for the Kilimanjaro Hope Organization (KIHO), I am able to look back to a fantastic time in this East African country! It was a time full of learning and creating new bonds across cultures and boundaries. I have practically learned how to approach and work with local communities and realized the need to work with group initiatives. Also, I had the opportunity to meet and live together with various community initiatives from the rural areas. In this blog post, I want to share some of my thoughts and experiences with you during these six months in Tanzania.

I was lucky enough to be supported by the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department of the European Commission (ECHO), I have been part of a pilot program dubbed “EU Aid Volunteers.” With this program I went sent as a so-called “Young Professional Volunteer” for six months to Same District, the northern part of Tanzania, until 31 May 2013. As it is a European project, I joined KIHO, the local Tanzanian NGO, together with Pauline from France and Núria from Spain. Although we were supposed to work on humanitarian operations, we were actually working on development cooperation instead. And although I thought that a third of my work would include conflict resolution, my academic background, it was really local community development instead.

KIHO is an NGO founded in 2010 with the aim to work with and for the people of Kilimanjaro region, particularly focusing on Same district at the moment. Its areas of operation are water, food security, income generation and education. Until today, it has very limited resources available to assist the communities in the semi-arid lowlands as well as in the Pare mountains. The members of KIHO are very committed to and serious about their work. The official office hours are until 4pm but as a matter of fact we were usually until 7pm and quite often until 8:30pm in the office, sometimes even later. This was simply due to the fact that there was always a lot of work to do. I could learn a lot from my colleagues and the local communities in KIHO’s area of operation, particularly water, food security and income-generating opportunities.

Meeting in the office of KIHO
Meeting in the office of KIHO

In the office, we wrote reports, grant proposals and abstracts. A main part of our task was also to completely re-write the website, streamline the profile of the NGO and get active on social media like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. As the computer skills of KIHO’s members are somewhat limited, it really needed the boost of us volunteers to move things forward. At the same time, we tried to provide trainings so that they can continue with the activities on the web in the long-run. One main achievement was also the start of a blog so that the website has at least somewhat of an interactive element about current issues of the organization.

My work with KIHO mostly exposed me to local community development. We stayed in different villages for several days to get to know the target villages. We met community initiative groups, had community meetings, learned about their main challenges and identify their main needs and prioritize them together. Afterwards, we wrote reports and tried to translate the main priorities into grant proposals. I really enjoyed KIHO’s approach to be so close to the community and work according to people’s needs, and not the other way around (as it happens all too often in development cooperation).

Unfortunately, these kids were quite some of those that did not have a classroom and were thus thought under the tree.
Unfortunately, these kids were quite some of those that did not have a classroom and were thus thought under the tree

An exciting experience was a visit to the donor community in Dar es Salaam, where all the embassies are located. We organized meetings with five embassies and two UN organizations to network and potentially find support for projects. Although it was a good exercise, it was a bit sobering as many embassies, particularly the European ones, hardly have money available for this year, because of the crisis in Europe. Therefore we started to develop projects that individuals, like you, in collaboration with their friends or community can support with €45 to support a child to go to school for a year or €320 to establish a tree nursery run by a community initiative to plant 20,000 and allow an income-generating opportunity for a community initiative group as well as €3,500 to sponsor a new water irrigation pond that allows for dry-season gardening. Currently, an American friend of KIHO is running a campaign to sponsor three biogas plants in the Pare mountains. You can support the crowdfunding campaign here on Indiegogo.

Another task was to assess the potential of eco-cultural tourism in the area of the Pare mountains. This kind of tourism has a “lighter footprint” and is particularly careful of the impact on environment and the local culture. Eco-cultural tourism can be a means to alleviate people from poverty as it is a great income-generating opportunity for KIHO to finance their activities as well as for the people in the area as it creates job and income through home stay. As volunteers, we had the chance to do quite some travelling in the Pare mountains and beyond to assess the current touristic opportunities and learn from successes and challenges. Thus, we visited Tona Lodge in Mbaga, Shengena Forest in Chome, a traditional healer in Njoro, a Maasai boma in Mgagao and Lushoto in the Usambara mountains. Overall, I spent 17 days of travelling for this matter and could learn a lot but hopefully also helped the organization with some good mapping of the current situation and how to learn from the current situation when this project will be started!

Beauty of nature An unfortunate thing for me was just my disappointment not to learn Kiswahili, a language that is spoken by all 120 ethnicities in the country. Of course, each ethnicity had their own language and I did not even try to learn Kipare or Maasai. And despite five books that I brought with me, as well as lots of motivation, my efforts soon diminished. I remembered from my volunteering experience in Kenya during the summer of 2011 that I hadn’t achieved much. The problematic event, however, was my somewhat unplanned stay in Austria during January 2013, just one month after my arrival to Tanzania. To my own surprise, I made it to the second and final round of the entry exam to the Austrian Foreign Ministry. In the end, I was not selected to join the foreign service; however, during that time in Austria I was not learning Kiswahili anymore but rather French as well as Swedish. While I wanted to take the chance with the Foreign Ministry, it certainly disrupted my efforts to learn Kiswahili. I was very grateful to KIHO that I got the opportunity to go to Austria for these three weeks in January.

Although quite some Western visitors as well as the abundance of volunteers in northern Tanzania complain about the local food because it is too plain to them and there is not enough variety for them, I really and truly enjoyed Tanzanian food. However, for a coffee addict like me it was a pity that only instant coffee was available in the lowlands although coffee is grown nearby in the Pare mountains. While wine is hardly available and if so it is expensive, one can chose among a big variety of beer which also tastes great. The only thing that is still hard for me to understand is the fact that many locals prefer to drink warm beer, even if they have the option to get a cold one. While I had twice the opportunity to taste the local brew, which is made out of sugar cane, I rather continued to have a cold beer from a glass bottle instead.

Solar drying of fruits, vegetables and mushrooms as a great income-generating activity
Solar drying of fruits, vegetables and mushrooms as a great income-generating activity

One thing I really appreciated is the politeness of Tanzanians. Swearwords can basically be not heard in the rural setting. Also the importance to greet has absolute priority, and there are dozens of ways to greet each other! While the northern neighbours, Kenyans, would make a lot of jokes about the Tanzanians (probably similar of Germans about Austrians) that they are slow etc., I met a lot of hardworking people and would be clearly unable to confirm these stereotypes that a lot of my Kenyan friends would have told me. One of the things that I have enjoyed most is the fact that I hardly interacted with any expats. Although I was constantly together with my two fellow volunteering colleagues from Europe, there was literally only a handful of expats in the town where I stayed. I hardly went to Moshi for partying but instead I tried to get the “real” experience in a small rural town.

While Tanzania is mostly known for Serengeti, Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar, of course it has much more to offer than that. One of the great opportunities was the chance to travel during my time in Tanzania. I had the chance to do quite some extensive travelling inside this fascinating country. And I indeed realized that Tanzania is ten times as big as Austria, as I spend many, many hours in the bus to arrive to my next destination. A journey of twelve hours is absolutely common and once it took me 18 hours in the bus and I arrived at 3am in the morning…

During my Christmas vacations I went to the north-western corner of the country, visiting Arusha, Mwanza, Kasulu, Kigoma, Tabora and Dodoma. I did some couch-surfing in Kigoma and met an amazing individual, Benedicto. He plans to build up a rural farm after finishing his studies in Dodoma this summer and he showed me around a lot. Without a doubt, we will continue to stay in touch so that his plans will become successful. I also met another initiative of elders in Kasulu and we are still in touch to get them support for their beekeeping project ideas. Together with Benedicto, I took a train from Kigoma to Dodoma, a distance of more than 700km that took us some 30 hours! As we travelled by third class, it was indeed quite an adventure and I could not sleep at all. We arrived “punctually” at midnight of New Years in Tanzania’s capital. However, I was only able to count four fireworks. Clearly, the year 2013 did not seem to start in a particularly exciting or colourful way for many Tanzanians.

On a societal level, I noticed that there is a rise of tensions between Christians and Muslims which is mostly due to the high socio-economic inequalities. Ever since independence in 1961, the country is ruled and controlled by the same party, “The Party of the Revolution” (CCM). However, it has to be seen at the general elections in 2015 whether a change will be possible or not. As of now, the rural population is still highly influenced by government propaganda and is hardly informed by the “real facts” due to the very bad conditions in education. Although many beautiful plans exist on paper, hardly anything is implemented that way, if at all. Interestingly, there is still the question among people to be found, and it is a serious one, whether Tanzania should be a socialist or a capitalist country. For sure, one would not find such a question in many countries anymore these days! But that’s just one of the many socialist legacies of Mwalimu (“teacher”) Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania.

Interviewing Kenyan voters outside of a polling station
Interviewing Kenyan voters outside of a polling station

One of the main highlights of my stay in East Africa was not in Tanzania but in neighbouring Kenya. I had the opportunity to be an election observer of the Kenyan general election on 4 March 2013. Thanks to the help of two Caux Scholars from Kenya, I was able to join the VUP Foundation, a local youth NGO in Eldoret in the Northern Rift Valley, for one week. On election day, I visited together with my new friend Diphus a dozen polling stations in three constituencies and monitored the counting of these complex elections. While Kenya was badly affected by the 2007/8 post-election violence leaving more than 1,000 dead and up to 600,000 displaced, this time around the elections were in comparison very peaceful and without intimidation. I could observe free and fair elections. A very interesting experience was the fact that there was a huge wave of anti-imperialism going through Kenya, at least in the areas where Kalenjin and Kikuyu dominate as a common feeling was shared that the West is favouring one candidate over the other on a very unfair basis.

In the end of May, I had to say good-bye - but full of good memories!
In the end of May, I had to say good-bye – but full of good memories!

Overall, my experience as a volunteer in Tanzania was a big learning experience for me that very much enriched my perspective on life. Although it was not my first experience in East Africa as I volunteered for Sisi ni Amani, a peacebuilding NGO in Kenya for three months during the summer of 2011, this time around I was much more exposed to rural local communities. The fight of daily survival and how to eradicate poverty was the burning issue throughout my stay. It was crucial to find ways through community-led efforts of how poverty can be overcome. Clearly, it is hardly possible to provide support on an individual basis but rather work with and bring change through local community initiatives. In short, I had the privilege to share ideas, hearts, hopes and the culture of Tanzanians.

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