2012 Kilimanjaro Marathon

It was a rough start for the marathon. The guard dog barked incessantly all night and then a massive thunderstorm sat right on top of us until we got up at 5am. We were sitting around half-awake eating breakfast when Jean comes in and tells us that we need to push the bus out of the mud. He wasn’t joking.

You know when mud builds up on your feet like snowshoes? Yeah, too bad I washed my running shoes.

We ended up piling into a daladala covered in mud. As soon as the last few passengers crawled out at their stops, the yelling began. Ten stressed out, tired wazungus are not so kind first thing in the morning. The driver had no idea where the stadium was, so we followed the stream of runners and taxis, with multiple wrong turns and getting stuck in traffic. We paid him 10,000 Tanzanian shillings, a far cry from the 300 Tsh each he gets for his regular route. Jean, Ishwar, Dan and Eddie, who were running the full, leapt out of the vehicle seven minutes before the start time.

Luckily the race was delayed half an hour (TIT… This Is Tanzania – I’m impressed it wasn’t later).

Originally I was the only VSO running the half marathon but at the last minute, Liesbeth and Fran decided to join me. They’re insane to do it on a day’s notice but Liesbeth does a lot of cycling and Fran has been a runner all her life. And I was so glad of the company!

We started slowly; this is not a rugby game, I didn’t need to pump up with “Move Bitch”. We ran through the suburbs of Moshi, climbing slowly past children, cook fires, the smell of shit, burning garbage and goats wafting in the air. The altitude differential from the start to the turn-around point was about 500m but it felt fine. All my hillwork really paid off; I passed people on every ascent. As we climbed we moved from traditional African-style homes to more colonial surroundings, coffee plantations in neat rows on both sides of the road.

We turned around at 10k and ran back along the same stretch of road. It wasn’t boring because of the people still running up, also the full marathon covered the same route for the second half of their run so we saw them coming through: the Kenyans… the first woman runner… the first white guy… the first mzungu woman…. Also, the guy running with his dog, the girl in the red tutu, the guy in cargo shorts and a Canada shirt, people running in jeans, people gasping for air or just cruising. To pass fellow VSO’s and high five was awesome. You really get to know fellow runners too, from running alongside them and having a brief chat before one of you moves off.

I finished in 2:07:31, first of the VSO’s and company (a friend of Jean’s ran too but I beat him ; ) ). I felt ready to run it again although all of us had some seriously sore knees and hips from busting it downhill on pavement for 10+k. In the full, Ishwar and Jean finished in style and our VSO Kenya guests (Dan and Eddie) came through shortly after them. Of course nobody got pictures of me running… but here I am at the finish:

It was such a great weekend. The lodge where we stayed was beautiful (Honey Badger) and everyone got thrown in the pool (except Liesbeth… she’ll get it next time for sure). The boys even threw in the randos who were hanging out by the pool. Everyone was part of the VSO family during this event!

Don’t worry. All the money we raised goes toward education… but sometimes being a VSO volunteer doesn’t look so bad!

*Thanks to Lesley Reader among others for the photos – I took the weekend off photography

Beauty In Karagwe: Perched On The Edge of The World

“A beautiful view does not fill your stomach” – Peter Moore in Swahili for the Broken-Hearted

I could fill ten blog posts with what I’ve seen in the past three days. Not to mention that the two previous weeks still have blog-able events pending.

During In Country Training, we had a presentation in which someone said “there is no doubt that this picture shows abject poverty”. All I recall is that it was a mud house. I remember thinking, how does one make that statement from looking at a picture? I feel the same way about the images of World Vision children – protruding bellies and flies in their eyes*. I’ve been to some very poor communities in West Africa and having spent time with the families, in the farms, in the kitchens, lounging in the hot afternoon during Ramadan, dancing with my girls and roaming the village, I would not call it abject poverty, although it almost certainly was. When traveling in Mali, we passed through village after village that I swear were being kept poor just so the tourists would have something to look at. On a boat trip up the Niger River, I just stopped getting out at villages. I couldn’t stomach being the rich white girl with the camera for one more second. But would I ever have noticed, if I had not forced myself to face up to it? Probably not. And for some reason it feels different when you’ve taken the time to learn the language and behave respectfully in the culture. Is it? I don’t know.

I have some deep-seated aversion to calling attention to people’s misfortune, it’s the Single Story of Africa, and the world deserves to know more. So when I was asked to take a picture of some elderly people living in a house made of corn husks this weekend, I initially refused. I did, in the end, mostly because we were on a Monitoring and Evaluation trip and one must document to see change. But why the hesitation? Is it just too hard to see? Am I creating my own single story by refusing to cater to the one that already exists? Or am I being respectful, as I would like to think?

This may seem like a picture of despair, but it really shows hope: the shack next to her used to house all five members of the family plus a battered woman who hid there with her two children when her husband was abusive. SAWAKA donated the sheeting for the roof on the house in the background, and with much persuading (they were not enthused), the community helped build the walls. Now the family has a more permanent structure and were also given a goat, which looks shiny, healthy and gave birth a few months ago.

Even if I had tried to hide from abject poverty this weekend, I would not have been able to. We were traveling in Karagwe, a district North-East of Muleba (where I am) on the Rwandan and Ugandan borders, the uppermost corner of Tanzania. It’s beautiful, breathtakingly so. We were working mostly with an NGO called SAWAKA, who have a contingent of very capable, English-speaking staff, and nice office facilities. In fact, Karagwe town surprised me. It’s bigger and more developed than Kamachumu. However once you move outside the town, which I’m sure few do, you find a different story.

The red circle is our base, Kyanga. The green are project sites that we visited.

Up in the hills, roads made slick by the rain (a month and a half early, I might add), we visited families and groups supported by SAWAKA and VSO’s gender fund. There were projects ranging from tailoring to selling fish to cultivating pineapples to raising chickens. We met people; widows, divorcees, volunteers; providing for their communities, their extended families, for people living with HIV, for orphans, for battered women, for girls forced out of school by “poor moral character”, i.e., pregnancy. Most of all these people are struggling to send children to school; school fees are a constant problem. But other things are a problem too: blankets, roofs, walls, food, sleeping space….

These two lovelies (I’m not talking about myself) have a beautiful home, and the Mama leads their women’s group deftly. What is not apparent is that her husband left her and her daughter (on the left) got pregnant and now will likely never be allowed back to school although she qualified for secondary. She is participating in the income generation projects and learning a lot about business, though! She also has a brilliant role model in her mother. 

On Saturday we stopped on the way home to visit a man living in a beautiful compound. The first thing I noticed was Noam Chomsky on the sizable bookshelf, then the flatscreen and the white reclining couches. He’s a retired diplomat who has lived all over the world but chose to retire to Karagwe, his home. Exclaiming over the magnificent scenery, I was brought up short when he said that scenery doesn’t matter when you’re poor, that lack of infrastructure requires these people to haul water and produce up and down those sheer, picturesque hills, that even if power lines were to mar the vistas, the villagers wouldn’t be able to afford electricity. Reading my book that same night I came across the quote I opened with.

I don’t like writing these things any more than I liked seeing them. I don’t feel holier-than-thou with solutions and reasons and having been the person taking that picture of poverty. But I guess it’s part of the story too. It’s just as real as dancing and clapping and laughing and skinny cows and banana disease and drunk driving and crappy roads and entrepreneurial women making wine and donuts and loving parents and people who do talk to their children, every day, and girls who climb onto your lap and speak fluent Swahili at the age of 4, and dishevelled clothing and dropping out of school and rape and the difficult coffee markets and strong women mentoring their communities and orphans growing their own food and husband-wife teams and social isolation and the divide between rich and poor. It’s all real, so real most of us close our hearts to it, so the real challenge is to face it head on, I guess, and don’t block it out. But not to revel in poverty like we’ve been anointed to save the world. It’s a fine line. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s invisible, and who can contend with that?


*Ironically enough I am now working somewhat closely with World Vision, and just the other day got to hear about the developing-country side of the child-sponsorship funding mechanism. I hope to visit a Canadian-sponsored Area Development Program within the next few weeks.


You are reading the blog of the semi-official Kagera Volunteer Representative. For a while now I have been keeping my nose to the ground when it comes to opportunities for more involvement in the VSO Tanzania Country Office. When our previous Regional Rep finished his placement, I took the chance to make some inquiries. Turns out nobody else was interested, and we have not had any Regional activities since I’ve been here – but I hear stories of Zanzibar volunteers having social/networking meetings poolside, and Dodoma vols had a great weekend in Kibaya checking out the projects there, along with the Maasai culture. I want to make those things happen in Kagera! I want to meet the Karagwe vols; an elusive bunch so far.

It’s not that I’m bored with my placement, or not busy enough. Quite the opposite, in fact, it’s at the point where my timetable starts to fill up that I feel motivated to seek out new projects. There are cool things happening at the VSO office and I want in on them. If I’m going to volunteer for two years, I better come out with something on my CV, and it’s not going to land on my lap. Especially not if my networking is limited to Kamachumu Division….

My inquiries, to the Country Office and some of my fellow Kagera vols, on Monday (Feb 6), were quickly followed up by a suggestion I fill in for Kagera Rep at the Rep meeting on Thursday (Feb 9). By Tuesday evening I had a ticket and Wednesday at 11am I left work and jetted off (in the daladala) to catch my flight. Off to Dar, land of plenty. Well, the Econolodge offers little sign of plenty – and this time I had the wonderful good fortune of being on the sweltering fifth floor (good marathon training aid?).

I got to meet the new intake of 19 volunteers from the Philippines, Kenya, Uganda, Canada, UK, the Netherlands, including two lovely ladies joining us in Kagera. The Rep meeting was great, casual and informative. I learned that I will be the sounding board for all the complaints coming from our 16 or so Kagera vols, some combination of suggestion box, talent scout, social coordinator and meet-and-greet committee. I think it falls under a few VSO dimensions: “Adaptability and Flexibility”, “Commitment to Helping Others”… Man oh man will I ever do well the next time I get interviewed for my soft skills.

Now, I had no intention of turning my Dar trip into a vacation. At best I thought I would be able to buy shaving cream and a decent pillow. But Liesbeth, Rep for Dodoma Region, has the pulse of Tanzania’s cultural scene under her thumb. She informed me that Sauti za Busara, a music festival on Zanzibar, was happening… that very weekend. And that I could probably stay with Winnie, a vol from Uganda.

Never being one to resist peer pressure, off I went to Zanzibar. Best choice ever. I spent $140 over the entire weekend (I’d say that’s pretty damn good for Stone Town, one of the hottest tourist spots in the country). The music was decent, with a few outstanding exceptions: Nneka and Tumi and the Volume were phenomenal. The Sunday evening I danced non-stop and it was the most satisfying thing ever.

Actually, let me take that back. The most satisfying thing ever was what I think of as A Different City (listen to Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica), the feeling of being invisible in a crowd of people. There were so many tourists around, an mshamba* girl from upcountry who could ask to be left alone in Kiswahili was the least of the locals’ concerns. I sat in peace, reading, people-watching, sipping espresso (!!!!), listening to the variety of languages being spoken around me. I watched a boat burning as the sun set over the harbour (until it mysteriously moved away – pretty sure there was a tugboat involved as the entire ass end of the thing was on fire). I watched the local boys do death-defying flips off the jetty. I strolled among the open-air kitchen vendors, with delicious-but-questionable-looking seafood laid out beautifully on their tables. I went for a run with my iPod on and vaguely smiled or waved at people instead of going through the entire greeting sequence. It was like being home except with taarab music and daladalas and way more sweating. Heavenly.


*Mshamba (mm-sham-bah): literally, a person who farms. Used as a derogatory term, roughly equivalent to our “ghetto”.



Wafugaji Wapya

New livestock farmers

Last week we (I use the term “we” loosely, especially since I left on the Wednesday) held a week-long training for famers who will be getting dairy heifers in the next few months. It was also a moment of truth for me, because KAVIPE wanted me to help teach the course. Of course, I am still very much in the process of figuring out what they are advising people, and for me to cut in with all my own recommendations to a bunch of brand-new cattle keepers would be stupid to say the least. Stupid and impossible, since I don’t have very many.

Luckily it turns out that the whole course is taught out of a book designed especially for this purpose, in Kagera Region. Although World Vision and KAVIPE have only been working with dairy cows in Kamachumu for ten years maximum, there are older organisations with the same strategy. So here is what I did: I read parts of the book I wanted to “teach”, translated them to English in order to understand, spoke to the farmers in English and had Fransson translate to Swahili for them. Ridiculous? Yes. But everyone loves a mzungu teacher!

It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. The two men who were actually there to teach, Nkinga, our Livestock Extension Officer, and Victor, a vet from the next Ward over, were there to help if anything went wrong, and they taught most of the material. I probably learned more than anyone else in the room. My reading pace at least doubled and my Swahili farming/livestock dictionary is getting fatter.

I also saw exactly how to improve these courses, which are held regularly as new batches of heifer calves are distributed as loans among group members. The material is good, it’s the delivery that lacks substance, and for good reason. Nkinga and Victor do not have time to run an entire week-long workshop, they are run off their feet being rural vets in a place where every single spread-out house has an animal. Good thing it doesn’t take someone on a government salary to teach out of a book; I hope to find funding to train some designated trainers, experienced members of the community who will be in charge of these courses. If we add some more practical time, with actual cows (imagine that!), in the slots where the participants were sitting around waiting for people to show up and get organised, perhaps by the end of the week they will start to be ready to keep a cow.

I’ll give one glaring example: the agenda was only discussed, typed and printed at 9:30am on Monday morning, while all the participants sat and waited in the hall, having arrived for 8:30. Now that is something I can tangibly improve for next time. Typical development moment: but now I can do the atypical; I can actually stick around and see that something gets done about it. I can also follow those 16 people trained to ensure they have the support they need. I am starting to see ways to move forward and it’s pretty cool. I didn’t dare hope for that feeling, but I’m damn glad it’s there.

Building Bridges: Hapa Mpaka Wapi?

From here to where?

Last week, we held our three-day seminar using a tool developed by VSO, Basic Concept for Capacity Development. It outlines an organisational self-assessment and lays out a path to developing capacity using participatory methods. VSO provides funds to organisations who wish to use the tool to strengthen their planning and self-evaluation skills.

For me, that means “get people together and give them time and space to come up with ideas”. It’s exactly what I’ve been needing in my placement. Over and over I’ve heard people’s impressions of what their problems are with no background, no tools and no language skills to get to the bottom of things. One thing is for sure: I am not going to implement a single initiative without hearing it first from the farmers. Gambia showed me the uselessness of enforcing Western project ideas; the country is a mess of failed projects. Working with dairy cows and goats is a good place for me: I want to ruminate fully on everything before I draw conclusions.

I’d been provided with the perfect grassroots-information-gathering tool. We invited group leaders from 21 of the 64 member groups of KAVIPE, along with the five board members to “build bridges” made of ideas for goals, activities and resources.

Having never planned or facilitated my own workshop before, particularly in a new language, I can honestly say I was terrified. I think I had stress dreams for at least three weeks prior. I planned it out minute by minute and ran the entire thing by my fellow Kamachumu volunteers and my KAVIPE coworkers to see if it was within their expectations and norms. Every time they reacted positively, I was surprised and relieved, so that by the day before, all the nerves had melted away and I was ready to be an attentive, enthusiastic facilitator with the help of one of my VSO colleagues and my brand-new local National Volunteer.

It went like a dream. I had a blast all three days. Of course, there were some slow moments, but they were few and we reacted quickly to re-engage the participants. To encourage feedback, we posted flipchart pages with three headings: sipendi, napenda, and napendeleza (I don’t like, I like, and I suggest). I started with examples, such as “I don’t like it when participants sleep in the seminar”. When our time-keeper fell asleep, the men on either side grabbed her, shaking her awake so that she leapt to her feet, staring at her phone, thinking our time was up. Another slow moment was resolved when I, in desperation, simply got everyone to stand up, join us at the front of the room to discuss the issues facing the Community Based Organisations (CBO’s) and KAVIPE. It worked so well that one of our group leaders, a teacher by trade, actually had to plug his ears to block out the din. Everyone was contributing (at once, but I’ll take what I can get!). It goes against the traditional teaching methods in Tanzania, the rote style of be-told-and-repeat-after-me*.

One of the participants, Johnnie Bosco, who just oozes charisma, stood up and told us that his goal as a group leader is to increase the standard of living for his community. He said it with such sincerity it brought tears to my eyes. These are such well-intentioned, hard-working people. I truly believe they will fight their way into a better life, and not selfishly. They will bring everyone up with them.

At the end of the seminar we reviewed the experience and the comments that we got astounded me. Participants wanted us to have similar workshops at a community level, they wanted to construct strategic plans for their groups based on the goals and activities we’d mapped out, they wanted to plan exchange visits to other CBO’s, and they wanted to make sure they fully utilized all the resources we’d identified. It was a successful venture that I expect will pave the way to a productive partnership between KAVIPE and VSO Tanzania.

*Passing through the Primary School yard one morning, I heard the teacher say “Why are you singing?”. The answer, recited as a class: “I am singing because I am happy.” “Again.” “I am singing because I am happy.” “Again, WHY are you singing?” “I am singing because I am happy.”

The effect was somewhat creepy.