The Spirit of Volunteerism

A slightly shorter version of this article appeared in the Cuso International blog and in the Atlantic Council for International Cooperation (ACIC) newsletter.

In my third year of university I remember coming to a realisation: there is no point in doing work you are qualified for without getting paid.  I proclaimed that I would never do such a thing again.  It was later that year that I began to recognize apathy as something harmful.

Seven years later:  In January 2013 I returned from Tanzania, having spent 16 months as a Cuso International volunteer.  I wasn’t sold on the volunteer experience when I applied; I was unemployed, and the position in Tanzania was perfect for my skill set.  It turns out that I was fairly well suited to the position, as well.  In non-profit settings it pays to be outgoing and speak for your cause, so, I took up the cause of my placement organisation, Kamachumu Vision for Poverty Eradication (KAVIPE).  A tiny grassroots farmers’ group in the far North-West corner of the country, they had gotten a Cuso volunteer (me) by their sheer determination.  Together we sought out opportunities and finally the right one came along: the UK’s International Citizen Service, partnered with VSO Tanzania (Cuso’s Tanzanian placement partner), wanted to place 40 youth volunteers in my region.  I spoke up and my organisation suddenly had 20 volunteers.  Arriving in two weeks.

Ma Yuliana serves tea at a public planning meeting before the ICS volunteers arrived

Ma Yuliana serves tea at a public planning meeting before the ICS volunteers arrived


Wilson speaks to KAVIPE members and community volunteers about the ICS program

When the first cycle of youth volunteers, 10 from the UK and 10 from Tanzania, all under the age of 25, arrived, the community of Kamachumu was skeptical.  They thought the youth were there to discourage Islam, or promote Western “values” (like promiscuity).  The idea that young people would be working at very little benefit to themselves (namely, for the work experience) to help the community, was not understood.  But the message rang through loud and clear over the first cycle’s three-month stay, and then through the second cycle.  All of a sudden I wasn’t the only white person in town, and I had 20 dynamic, energetic, incredibly willing people to work on issues I’d seen over and over again in the previous 8 months.  Ideas flew around and I discovered that working with people in their first overseas development experience was not only enjoyable, it was inspiring.  The model worked brilliantly.  My long-term placement with the organisation gave me considerable insight and let the ICS volunteers hit the ground running; their youth galvanised the projects and the town – volunteers from the community starting springing out of the woodwork, of all ages and experience levels.


Gavin, Merab, Simon and Sofia talk to a farmer’s group about gender issues

The people of Kamachumu began to change their views on volunteering, to allow that it can be a positive thing – something not about making money, as it is often perceived in Tanzania.  An allowance or a stipend is just as good as a salary when you don’t have any income.  People wanted to work with the ICS volunteers when they saw them working full time for a tiny allowance.  When they saw the wazungu (white people) working in close partnership with the Tanzanian youth.  When they found they could speak to the volunteers in the local language, when they could come to them with their problems, when they could laugh and learn with them.  Among many other things, the ICS volunteers worked with children in schools on gender issues, started a women’s soccer league, brought people living with HIV together to discuss stigma and quality of life, started a weekly Farmer’s Forum and offered pigs on loan – a new livelihoods project for Kamachumu women and youth.  It was an international group in a local, rural setting, and a glowing example of development work that really works.  The program continues into its third cycle in Kamachumu this July – both the town and KAVIPE have evolved, due to volunteering.

The ICS volunteers socialize together, forced inside by a downpour while picking up garbage

The ICS volunteers socialize together, forced inside by a downpour while picking up garbage

Upon returning to Canada I have set up residence just outside St. John’s, NL – further away from my hometown of Dartmouth, NS, than it felt from East Africa.  The challenge of a new place, I have learned, is best conquered by volunteering, and volunteer I will.  Last week I spoke to a class at Memorial University about livelihoods and farming in Tanzania.  I have been in touch with the Food Security Network and I will be promoting Cuso at events in St John’s and Conception Bay South in March.  It’s a good thing I didn’t stick to my third-year pronouncement.  I would really be missing out. [That being said it would also be nice to be able to feed myself, which is why I’m applying for jobs].


The view from St. John’s Signal Hill in February – beautiful but cold. What a time to return from Africa!

Reflections on Tanzania from Kelligrews Kiwanis Club

Follow this link to hear my podcast interview with Marian White, the Atlantic public engagement representative for Cuso. This was her last interview for Cuso – I think it was a good one!

Cuso returned volunteers at City Hall in St. John's

Cuso returned volunteers at City Hall in St. John’s

My presentation in Kelligrews, Conception Bay South

My presentation in Kelligrews, Conception Bay South

Cloth Bags in Kamachumu

This post is actually my final case study for VSO Tanzania as part of our reporting format. But I thought I’d share it here since I’ve been so slack – and there are plenty of other stories that I still hope to tell on this blog!

Case Study: KAVIPE (Kamachumu Vision for Poverty Eradication)

Cloth bags as income generation for women’s groups

In the village of Rugando with MaGizela's family (my adopted Tanzanian family!)

In the village of Rugando with MaGizela’s family (my adopted Tanzanian family!)

KAVIPE works with community based organizations (CBO’s) in Kamachumu Division.  The CBO’s are generally made up of smallholder farmers and aim to improve income generation within the group.  KAVIPE works alongside the CBO’s to support their activities, foster the idea-generating process and improve market access.  Although KAVIPE was put in place by World Vision (WV) and was intended to maintain all WV’s activities, this is simply not possible with no funding and only 5 Board Members supporting.  KAVIPE has chosen to focus mostly on the agricultural aspect of WV’s work but still maintains a connection to the original, more varied projects.

KAVIPE’s role is restricted by lack of resources to support, lack of access to information and education to come up with new ideas, and lack of infrastructure and market environment in Kamachumu.  CBO’s that are established to increase income among the members are often short-lived, people losing interest, drifting away from meetings, until the group exists in name only.  Many such groups were established by World Vision as a way to distribute funds in the community.  The consensus among community members is that the projects funded by World Vision sometimes lacked sustainability.  An example of this is the establishment of two women’s groups to receive training and start-up materials for batik-making.  After the initial training in around 2009, the groups did not continue to make batiks, citing lack of materials and funds to purchase materials as the problem.  Lack of motivation to make batiks also seemed to be an issue. However, these women’s groups continued to ask KAVIPE for help and support in projects.  What to do?

Wapendanao women's group, with their batiking materials before the sewing project was initiated

Wapendanao women’s group, with their batiking materials before the sewing project was initiated

Thinking over the issue, the biggest barriers faced by the women’s groups was the inaccessibility of materials, lack of business know-how, and the complexity of batik-making.  The chemicals were difficult to source (not available in Bukoba, only in Mwanza or further afield) and the groups still felt they needed more training to become proficient.

Another aspect of KAVIPE’s work is that a partnership was established with the International Citizen Service (ICS) program through VSO.  We needed meaningful, useful activities to engage the 20 youth volunteers and the CBO’s.

One particular issue we wanted to address in Kamachumu was the use of plastic bags.  There was a lot of trash lying around in public spaces and there had been reports of livestock inhaling plastic bags.  ICS volunteers could easily engage in activities like litter picks and awareness campaigns.  The women’s groups agreed that sewing simple cloth bags would be a feasible activity and they liked the dual angle of creating stylish, hand-made bags and environmental preservation.

When searching for groups who might be interested in sewing as a project, the batik group in Kamachumu (Wapendanao) was eager to participate.  A livestock group in the village of Irogero elected to form a splinter women’s group, Upendo, and the ICS volunteers identified a third group in the village of Ruanda who were working in tree planting and environmental matters.  The Ruanda group, Inua Maisha, was not yet registered with KAVIPE so it offered an opportunity for expansion of coverage as well as reaching community members in need.

I wrote a proposal for the VSO Gender fund to support a sewing project in Kamachumu including a multi-day business training for the women, to be proactive in preventing some of the issues seen with the batik-making project.  VSO decided it was a worthwhile project and supported the initiative.

All three groups took the initiative to access sewing machines (by renting or borrowing) and to attend the small-scale, half-day trainings offered by KAVIPE and a sewing trainer from Kamachumu.  They experimented with bag designs alongside ICS volunteers, the sewing trainer and supervisors from the KAVIPE Board.  After a long period of collaborative working through designs, the second step, business training, was carried out.  This spanned the first two ICS cycles at KAVIPE.  There were 40 attendees at both days of business training and topics included managing group finances, making a business plan, and registering a CBO (with the government and being part of KAVIPE).

All three groups received a small amount of fabric and thread of different colors to make a first batch of bags.  Results were excellent! Each group developed a look for their bags and since we couldn’t find an accessible way of screening logos on the bags, the women innovated yet again to develop cross-stitching method of writing the name of their group and KAVIPE on the bags.  A community member experienced in cross-stitch volunteered her time to train all the women in the technique.

Djoke sports a lovely bag made by Wapendanao!

Djoke sports a lovely bag made by Wapendanao!

Each group has now received more fabric, their last start-up input.  KAVIPE, through the VSO funding, has purchased 3 sewing machines which will be leased to the member groups for 8,000 Tsh per month (compared to the lowest previous rental price of 15,000 per month).  The machines will be rented only if the groups submit a business plan to KAVIPE and the rentals will be reviewed every 6 months.

A total of about 133 bags had been produced when I left Tanzania in January, and are being sold at a cost of 1000-1500 depending on the size.  Each group had made at least 25,000 Tsh, and will be supported to use some that money to purchase more fabric to continue and expand production of the bags.

The community is absolutely in love with the idea. You see people on the streets carrying bags of different designs, with papers, shopping, supplies.  One group (Wapendanao) have received a contract from a local school to make bags for children to carry their books.  In Bukoba, two shopkeepers have shown interest in buying or selling the bags.  The owner of Fido Dido, the “mzungu shop” (aka supermarket) in town, has commissioned Upendo to make a sample 5-10 bags with “Fido Dido” cross-stitched on them, which he plans buy and distribute to customers for free.

The winning aspects of these bags are the simple design and the novelty, sparked by the enthusiastic ICS volunteers and the three women’s groups.  VSO volunteers appreciated the design and bought the bags when I brought them to VSO Tanzania’s Annual Volunteer Conference (AVC).  Community members are proud to be able to afford and carry a locally-made bag and in general, are not interested in something more polished or “nicer”.  The bags commissioned for Fido Dido were to be simple and cheap, so that when people lose them it wouldn’t be a disaster.  Of course, such a cheap product is not immensely profitable – so the future of this project could be to get further training for the women to diversify, including more complex and high-quality bags for higher-end markets.  Already Upendo group has innovated further and started to make cloth change purses, of which they sold 22 in February-March alone!  Another shining achievement of the project is to have increased the women’s confidence and knowledge in innovation, marketing and business planning.  All three groups, and KAVIPE, have increased their networks and reputation along the way.

The KAVIPE community selected this project as the most meaningful impact thus far of the KAVIPE-VSO partnership because it is so visible and has increased the income-generating ability of the women of Kamachumu.

The three women's groups select bags for me to sell at the Annual VSO Volunteer's Conference

The three women’s groups select bags for me to sell at the Annual VSO Volunteer’s Conference

Litter Pick

This morning the ICS Volunteers in Kamachumu – more on them soon – organised a litter pick in town.  Canadian translation: picking up garbage.  The 17 volunteers (citizens of the UK and of Tanzania), members of their host families, me, some KAVIPE staff, miscellaneous community members and an army of children set out kusafisha mazingira (to clean up the environment).


Those of us who speak Swahili were given the task of explaining to the people of Kamachumu what we were up to.  Everyone was asking questions once they saw the volunteers outfitted in their VSO headbands, gloves and garbage bags; an excellent opportunity to increase awareness on protecting the environment, community spirit and volunteerism.  One of the Tanzanian volunteers got a text from his friend in Dar es Salaam saying, hey, I hear you guys are picking litter in Kamachumu!  Word travels fast by African mobile….

One thing we discovered is that the Western idea of taka taka (trash) is not the same as the Tanzanian concept: to us, things foreign to the environment, that don’t break down, are litter, i.e., plastic, glass, metal and to a lesser degree, cloth and cardboard.  People helping out were initially bringing lots of leaves, banana stems, sticks; which to us are not such an issue when you see them on the side of the road.  We took the opportunity to explain why plastic is worse than banana leaves.

Then, the rain came.


We hid at the Paradise Hotel Tea Room.


We got a range of responses to the activity.  Most people were really thankful and thought the site of a bunch of mzungu picking up trash was hilarious.  Some people just stared blankly.  A few derisive snorts, and one guy who asked, unpleasantly, if we were going to recycle all the plastic (I wish!).  Wilson, one of the KAVIPE Board members, said that although people generally keep the areas around their homes/farms clear of litter, nobody is responsible for the public areas, and little care is taken about the litter issue.  

My take-home idea was to put the legion of willing children and young adults to work every Sunday after the weekly market, by far the dirtiest part of town.  Kamachumu’s Environment Warriors?!  I’m in for that task! 

We also plan to find some garbage cans/rubbish bins to place around the busy areas in town – made of local materials like woven banana leaves!

Next time, we’ll budget for more gloves.  More gloves = more potential participants!


Banana Mnyauko

Pronouced mm-nya-ou-ko, this crippling banana disease is number one on famers’ list of problems here in the Kagera Region of Tanzania. Its English name is Banana Xanthomonus Wilt (BXW). Don’t ask me how that’s pronounced.

In 2001, this bacterial banana disease was detected in Uganda.  Despite quick action to control the disease at every level – commercial production down to the subsistence farmer – within five years it had spread to Rwanda, DRC and Tanzania.

Why is it such a big deal? First of all, cooking banana is the main food source, usually boiled with beans and lots of salt in a dish called matoke (ma-toh-kay).  Most of the population eat it at least once a day and it’s often the only thing eaten, all day.  Every family has a little farm (shamba) in their backyard, which is principally a small banana plantation with other crops grown in the understory. Bananas are perennial, so it works well as a holistic system, with corn, pumpkin, coffee, fruit trees and beans all under the shade of the bananas. Since banana is the staple food, and everyone has them growing year-round, people generally can feed their families from the small shambas. Generally. Until banana disease comes into play.

Beautifully diverse shamba, or small backyard farm, complete with banana, corn, beans and goats!

Cultivated bananas are naturally susceptible to disease outbreak since they propagate through clones, small offshoots of the main stem, called suckers. Once the main stem produces a fruit, it dies and a sucker grows up to replace it, producing its own fruit in 7 months or so. When you want to plant a new banana tree (not actually a tree but a pseudostem!), you simply take a sucker and plant it somewhere new; thus bananas of a certain variety are all genetically very similar, with similar susceptibility to invading pests. So disease spreads fast.

It’s only a matter of time until an intensively cultivated banana population becomes challenged with serious disease pressure. The bananas we eat in North America – bright yellow, having been artificially ripened in rooms flooded with ethylene – are of the Cavendish variety.  Cavendish replaced the previous popular variety, Gros Michel, when it was all but wiped out by the fungal Panama disease in the 50’s.  Wikipedia informs me that Cavendish has 10-20 years before it goes the same way as Gros Michel (from a different disease, of course).

The staple food here in Kagera is going the same way as Gros Michel unless a solution is found, which will probably involve genetic modification for a resistant variety.  Think potato famine.  Right now, extension officers preach cutting down infected stems and burying them, sterilization of tools used in the shamba, cutting off the male flower to discourage spread by pollinators (insects and birds), and ensuring that new stock is disease-free.  Lack of adherence to these measures, and the highly infectious nature of the bacteria, mean that not much control has been achieved.

Farmers say that about 1 in 5 new banana plants produce viable fruit.  Not only is it the staple food but many people make their living from bananas as well, so lack of food and lack of income with which to replace that food has meant a severe decrease in standard of living since 2006.  People complain they are no longer able to buy soap and pay their children’s school fees.

Banana plants infected with mnyauko

I heard some of these stories the other day, when I went with some of my youth volunteers (two from the UK and two Tanzanians) and the Ward Agricultural Officer (a woman!) to meet with a banana producer’s group.  I sat back to take notes, letting the volunteers direct the meeting, as they were collecting information about the group’s knowledge of mnyauko.

I wavered between annoyance and tears upon hearing the outpouring of desolate stories; the latter because I know they’re true, the former because people try hard to make their words resonate when they see three white faces sitting there.  From experience I know how to highlight that I am only offering the exchange of knowledge, before I even walk in.  It’s best to keep expectations low even if you do have hopes of finding funds, otherwise you end up with a room full of people yelling at you; what are you going to do about it?!  “It”, mnyauko, has researchers across the region stumped.  No, we are not offering loans, chemical pesticides (none are effective), or money.  The worst part is that in cases where a crop variety must be replaced by something more pest-resistant, farmers tend to be resistant as well… to the switch.

The meeting was informative for the volunteers and for me.  We managed to mitigate expectations after a few tense moments.  People are sick of hearing about control measures in the face of their potato famine.  They’re sick of talking, of knowledge exchange, of pamphlets.  Solutions are in demand, but nobody has any.

Daily banana market on my street in Kamachumu – people mostly bring their bananas by bicycle

A few [poorly cited] sources.

East African Highland Banana:

Bouwmeester et al. 2010. The Potential Benefits of GIS Techniques in Disease and Pest Control: an Example Based on a Regional Project in Central Africa:

Viljoen 2010. Protecting the African Banana (Musa spp.): Prospects and Challenges:

Biruma et al. 2007. Banana Xanthomonas wilt: a review of the disease, management strategies and future research directions:

Adriko et al. 2011. Banana Xanthomonas wilt sampling procedures: A technical publication:

The Space Between: Fourteen Hours At Heathrow

One of my homes in Nova Scotia which I am reluctantly leaving behind for a few more months

Fourteen hours at Heathrow airport.  Waste of time?  Perhaps.  But this trip isn’t about site-seeing, so here I am sitting in the airport, freezing my butt off, napping on benches and trying to make up for four lost hours.  Besides, London is grey and foggy and I’ve seen it already.

St. John’s, Newfoundland. So beautiful when the weather cooperates!

This trip was about home, and now I’ve taken off from the Atlantic Provinces.  On my way back to Tanzania, on the cheap, meaning layovers at Heathrow and Nairobi.  It’ll be a four-day haul before I unlock my hopefully-intact apartment in Kamachumu and assess the situation of my home away from home.

Kamachumu now has 1000% the mzungus (white people) than when I left five weeks ago.  Twenty volunteers under my organisation’s care.  Did I prepare everyone?  Was my plan realistic?  Did anyone even understand it?  How are the two Program Supervisors making out in my little community?  Especially with the colleague I left in charge having presumably left, based on a cryptic email from another volunteer.

Hotel in Entebbe, Uganda for Thursday night?  Not settled.  Place to crash Friday night in Bukoba?  Haven’t heard back.  But despite the uncertainties, here I am on the road again and it is strangely comforting.  One foot in front of the other, no matter how daunting it seems from afar, is actually pretty simple when you’re taking the step.

For anyone who has done the transition from home to Africa and back again, you know it’s a strange creature.  But for all of us, I think, it develops a pattern.  For me, crash time – culture shock; the end of the honeymoon period – happens at around the three month mark.  But what happens when you go home for a month then return to your East African village?  This is a new thing altogether for me.  I have no idea how it’ll play out.

Baby animals were only one of the highlights of my trip home

Coming down from one of the best months of my life, which was kind of like a premonition of my “real” life (wait, what is that again?), being launched back into development work, trying to make it all meaningful for me and for the people I’m working with, is going to make for a very interesting time.

More blogs to follow, I promise!

Sunsets over the Bay of Fundy make my heart melt

Caution: This Post Is About Menstruation

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s issues. Of course it’s entwined in my everyday activities, as I move around Kamachumu Division as a mzungu female, but I don’t really count; the two are mutually inclusive, no-one will ever see me as just female. For the Tanzanian, for the African woman, it’s different. I am constantly confronted with their strength.

That's right.. she IS your equal!

One woman I know was given a loan by World Vision to buy a plot of land and build a house of her own after her husband left her. Now she works tirelessly for her children and her community. Having paid back the monetary loan, she is now paying back the support she was given in her time of need.

Two inspiring ladies, Imisa, VSO Tz's Gender Rep, and the leader of a women's group in Karagwe

In Gambia, we would often hear the men muttering about “50/50”. It was a big joke to them, and an annoyance, that women were favoured by projects and funders. Here, you will hear people stress the importance of gender mainstreaming in one breath, only to turn around and grumble about having to include women all the time. People in countries like Gambia and Tanzania, donor darlings, quickly learn which words they need to say.

A quick photographic shout-out to my beloved Gambian and Senegalese ladies (these pictures bring tears to my eyes, and there are so many I’ve left out):


Haddy Faal

Me and my namesake, Alimatou Badji

My beautiful Kaur ladies

Some of the girls at my Senegalese village stay

Okay, I promised to write about menstruation. Periods are acknowledged as a barrier to girls’ education in developing countries. In Africa, sex and reproductive health are still rather taboo subjects, leading to a lack of education for girls. Combined with the lack of money to buy sanitary products, and sometimes insufficient toilet facilities at school, girls often stay home during their period. It’s unfathomable to me to be limited in such a way. Of course there are many other issues which many women worldwide deal with, like cramps and heavy or irregular periods. I think that at the very least, the average girl with the average period should be able to function during that time.

Girls and women everywhere should be able to access sanitary products, end of story.

Which sanitary products? First of all we have the pad. Makes me cringe, personally! Now that is an invitation to constantly have your friend walk behind you checking for leakage. On the flight from London to Dar es Salaam in October, I sat next to a Tanzanian woman who, unfortunately for both of us, was on her rag (a word I hate but hey, gotta mix it up!). I have no idea how many times she leapt up, grabbing an old-school 3 inch-thick pad, asked me to check her skirt, and booked it down the aisle to the bathroom. I understand, of course, having done it all before, but here’s the thing: it’s not really necessary!

Whatever brand name you choose, Keeper, Diva Cup, the menstrual cup is, if there is a God, God’s gift to women. And the environment. And, as this article seems to think, against the health risks of tampons (I’m not that convinced – tampons are pretty great too).

As much as biodegradable, organic tampons and pads may be available in hippie stores in the West, I don’t exactly think they’ll stopper the flow (pardon the pun) of plastic and chemical waste generated by our monthly requirements*. But menstrual cups? They last up to ten years (unless you lose them, more on that in a minute), and can you imagine the money you save! So convenient. Seriously, I am not ashamed to say that my Diva Cup is one of my favorite things. Pop it in, no worries for 10+ hours, and I definitely don’t notice it’s there.

I can’t believe I had never heard about them until January 2010. Pre-Africa, I was in Northern Alberta picking pinecones and my dear roomie Meriel informed me of the existence of the menstrual cup. I thought, well, that’s a bit gross! But it turns out her advice was spot on (ha..).

The seasons changed, I traveled from Manning, Alberta, to Edmonton, Jasper, hit Vancouver for the Olympics, hitched down the West Coast to Northern California, back to Vancouver and was ready to roll out for [what would have been] an epic summer tree-planting with my best friends. Fate, or something, intervened.

The day before I was to leave for Northern BC I was offered an internship under the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)’s IYIP program. It wasn’t something I could turn up. I went to be briefed by an internship coordinator in Vancouver and, chatting about Africa prep, the menstrual cup came up again! It was a perfect solution: who wants to carry 6 months worth of tampons with them to Gambia when you can pack one plastic cup instead?

The only problem with the menstrual cup: sometimes, they get lost. I was on a ten-day village stay in rural Senegal, with rudimentary Wolof, no phone credit to speak of, minimal power, no running water, no way to get back to the city until the organisation showed up (they were 3 days late). What do I do? Drop my menstrual cup down the squat toilet on Day 1 of my period.

In the scene that followed, I cursed, ran panicking out into the compound of 30+ people yelling in French that I had a serious problem (trying to find the one girl who had gone to school, thus spoke French – the 17 year old 3rd wife of the village’s 60+ year old Imam), cried openly (cultural no-no), closing by Isatou and I laughing hysterically. Thankfully, she had a stash of pads. She gave me 3.

Luckily Shelly arrived for a visit only a month later and was able to bring me another cup. Luckily Leanne had the forethought to pack tampons as backup.

The cup that Shelly brought me lasted about 5 months. I only noticed it was gone three weeks after the fact. I think it a) got eaten by the dog of the friends I was staying with or b) rolled under the bed and got forgotten. I didn’t ever mention this to said friend. If you’re reading this Laura, I’m sorry. I was too embarrassed to mention it. I hoped that the dog had eaten it. (As far as I know the dog didn’t get sick…)

Back to Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue’s gem Co-op du Grande Orme to buy my 3rd menstrual cup. This one’s lasted a year! Knock on wood! (I did pack emergency tampons for Tanzania and, like an umbrella stops it from raining, I think it has prevented me from losing the cup).

If I was ambitious I would calculate all the money, trees, energy, etc., that I have saved. I don’t need to, though, because I am already convinced.

Bringing this back to African women, I wish menstrual cups were available and acceptable. Fewer to produce, fewer to dispose of, cheaper, discrete. But in a society that may have a hard time accepting tampons, how would the menstrual cup go over?

Luckily, I’m not the first person to think of it. In Kenya and South Africa they are promoting menstrual cups for poor women.

If you have managed to make it to the end of this blog post, thank you. Popping into the store to buy a box of tampons, such a basic thing for us, is impossible for so many. So consider your options, just for a moment. Consider making the switch, for women, for the environment, mostly for yourself. Personally, I’m going to keep reading and find out how I can support initiatives to bring the menstrual cup to Africa!

[Or, as this article points out, perhaps we are again forcing our Western ideas.. duh duh duhhhh]

A women's group down in the village of Kizinga (near Kamachumu)

*These guys in Rwanda think that locally produced banana-fibre pads are the answer – COOL.

Pole Sana – So Sorry

Pole (po-lay) – sorry; sana  (sah-nah) – so

They stole all the planks from your bridge? Pole!

You’d think that as a Canadian, people saying “’sorry” all the time wouldn’t bother me.  It would seem normal.

In Canada, it’s normal for us to apologize if we get too close to someone in a line, or if someone steps on our foot.  The slightest space infringement inspires an orgy of sorries.  Avoiding confrontation is the name of the game.

Here in Tanzania, sorry is used in a completely different way.  For me it’s like the British always asking “you okay?”  It never ceases to startle me; I interpret it as “oh my goodness, you look awful, are you alright?!” when in fact they are merely asking “how are you?”

Socket can't handle a cooker? Pole!

To me, “sorry” is an apology, an admission of guilt, no matter how misplaced!  Here it’s an expression of sympathy: I feel sorry for you.  It’s used in the most obnoxious way, usually when you’re just about ready to explode with frustration, your face is turning red, and you’re about to a) cry or b) start swearing violently.

Let me take a moment to go back to the Gambia.  A person hard at work in the fields is always greeted with a hearty “Jerejef!”, roughly equivalent to “thank you!” or “congrats!” In Canada we would say good work, good job, keep it up.  Here in Tanzania?  Pole sana.  So sorry about the work.

Jeregenjef! (the plural form) - Threshing peanut in the afternoon sun

What? Why are you sorry? Yes, indeed, Tanzanians feel sorry for people working, exercising, studying, traveling, and basically anything that requires effort*.

At least pole sana is also used to console people.  This is the case when anything is sad, annoying, frustrating or painful.  Stub your toe or hit your funny bone?  Pole sana.  Your dog died?  Pole sana.  Got fired?  Pole sana.  Perhaps it’s culture shock, but pole sana quickly becomes one of the most annoying phrases around.

Unfortunately, the only way to beat em is to join em.  It’s culturally acceptable to apologize when you see someone doing a good job, as if it’s an awful shame that they’re weeding their garden.  It’s also a great opportunity to be seriously sarcastic when someone’s whining, or when you just don’t care!

It’s the government’s fault we can’t get enough grass for our cows.  Pole sana.  It’s raining so I couldn’t answer my phone.  Pole sana.  The town didn’t pay its power bill, so we don’t have water for two weeks.  Pole #^$%ing sana!!!

That, my friends, is why VSO Volunteers in Tanzania use the phrase “pole sana”, possibly more than the average Tanzanian.

Boat sank? Pole sana.

*I have recently decided that since Tanzanian children work so incredibly hard, they are pretty much done with it by the age of 20, at which point many people simply relax – the solution is to have many children, the best way to get the work done! [I realize this sounds awfully judgemental. It’s a mostly sarcastic response to people’s constant cries of “Tanzanians are lazy”! This usually comes from Tanzanians. I always vehemently disagree. “We are inherently lazy” – now that is the worst, and most untrue, excuse I’ve ever heard.]

Africa By Boat

Passing through Mwanza on the way back from the marathon, I decided to take the ferry for the last leg of my journey. Mwanza is in a gold-producing area with active open-pit gold mines (such as the one at Geita) and ongoing prospecting. It is geologically similar to gold-producing areas in Australia and other parts of Africa, greenstone belts sandwiched by granite and gneiss. There seems to be some debate on the origin of greenstone terrains, and if you’re a geologist you can read more about it here. Others can read it too, but gneiss will only be the first thing to confuse you.

It makes for pretty spectacular scenery, which I didn’t capture as well as I could have, had I felt more comfortable taking my camera out on the bus from Bukoba to Mwanza. I sketched some of the rocks in my journal before realizing there’s a good reason I’ve never considered myself artsy.

Crossing Lake Victoria overnight by ferry was a nostalgic experience, although by definition I suppose I can’t be nostalgic about something I’ve never done before. The voyage carried tones of steamer boats, of times gone by, of belongings in wooden trunks. As well as way too many lake flies.

The toilets didn’t smell very nice, but my top bunk was more comfortable than my bed in Kamachumu. There’s nothing I love more than sleeping in a top bunk (could this be why I haven’t visited Marc and Djoke since they moved out of the house with bunk beds? Hmm).

The girl in the bottom bunk tapped away on her laptop, but it didn’t detract from the sense of being a half a century in the past. Also, I wasn’t scared she’d steal my stuff. It’s not nearly as shiny as hers was.

The ferry pulls out of Mwanza at 9pm sharp (well, it left within 5 minutes of 9 – I checked), and rolls into Bukoba at 6am, whistles blowing to raise the dead, or in this case, the poor sleeping citizens of Bukoba. My journey would have been about 17 hours shorter by plane, but I’ve seen Lake Victoria from the sky a few times already and I felt that crossing the lake by boat would perhaps be a more valid way of experiencing it. Besides, I’ve never been one to rush my travels. The thrill is in being on the move, especially in a place where I’m starting to feel quite comfortable.

If I’d flown, I wouldn’t have made friends with Agnes at the New Mwanza Hotel, where I sat for six hours between flight and ferry. I wouldn’t have had the ferry ticket-master check up on me as I boarded, remembering me by name and asking if things were alright. I wouldn’t have seen the lights on the shores of Africa’s largest lake*, the origin of the great Nile, recede into the vast darkness, that darkness Africa always seems to suggest to our imaginations.

The only other time I’ve felt that same sense of being utterly submerged in the Africa of literature was floating on the river Niger, watching the fishermen and herdsmen of Mali pass by as if on a film. Otherwise, it never feels like you’re in Africa. It’s just Tanzania, it’s just Kamachumu. Not so different from anywhere else.


*Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest lake by surface area, after Lake Superior. Its shallowness, the density of population surrounding it (read: sewage), and invasive species, both fish and vegetation, present quite a threat to the lake’s ecology and the sustainability of its fishery. However, and this bothers me an incredible amount, whenever you mention this to a Tanzanian or a Ugandan (I haven’t tried with any Kenyans), they seem completely unaware and actually deny that the lake is polluted at all. Someone had the audacity to tell me the other day that waste being discharged into the lake isn’t a problem. If Halifax harbour is polluted, let me tell you, Lake Victoria is POLLUTED. Mwanza is one of Africa’s fastest growing cities at 12% per year and has a population of somewhere around 2 million people – and that’s only one of many major ports on the lake. Let’s compare this to HRM at less than 400,000 people and our waste is going into the Atlantic Ocean. If Lake Victoria isn’t polluted, folks, I think I’ll go for a swim in the harbour when I get home and perhaps we better rethink treating that sewage. Waste of time.

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