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

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:

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.

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.

Run For The World

February 26th, I will be running a half marathon at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, out of the town of Moshi. I have been training hard (with a break for the month of December – oops). Support me by donating to VSO here!

Flocks of children have been entertained by my daily runs around Kamachumu (elevation: 1400m with steep hills galore), and I have found them useful for motivation, whether it’s racing boys up a hill, kicking a soccer ball on the way by, or clapping my hands along to their songs as I pass. Who needs an iPod when you’re the Pied Piper?!*

This won’t be my first race in Africa. Something like the third week I was in the Gambia, I took part in the annual Njawara Marathon, which raises money for the Health Centre. We were still in language training, and in the morning I’d head out and try to run a few kilometres in my long linen pants and t-shirt. The shirt was a gift from Crystal out of a Molson box but I took it for granted that the locals wouldn’t understand “Party Animal”.  In a country that’s 95% Muslim, you tend to keep covered as a matter of course. Running in long pants in sand is hard enough as it is, then add greeting every single person you see. It would go like this: How are you? I am here! How’s the farm? It’s here! The family? They’re there! I hope there’s nothing wrong with them? Nope! Good job for doing that farm work! Thanks, you are running! Yes, I’m running! At that point you would have to start the same conversation with the next person. Even if you saw someone far across a field, you would be expected to yell out to them, clasp your hands in an air-handshake and say “Jerejef!”, expressing how impressed you are at the work they’re doing.

At first the endless greetings seem at best, a waste of time, at worst, paralyzing, when you just can’t remember the proper responses. After a while it becomes a safety net. You know you’re safe, even with white skin, when you’ve greeted every person with a smile on your face. They will come looking for you if you don’t turn up. They’ll come looking for you either way, actually. Here in Tanzania that understanding has served me so well. It even has the ability to turn the tide on a bad day; walking down the street and being cajoled into smiling at everyone and yelling mpao! (mm-pa-OH – goodbye in the local Kihaya language) at the little children is an unbeatable mood lifter.

What with my mostly useless “training”, race day in Njawara crept up rather quickly. I don’t think I mentioned: the “marathon” is not. Men run 11km and women run 5km. Kids run 3km. All the participants got into the manure spreader on the tractor to be driven out to the start points. Prophetically, the village that the girls’ race started from was called Dares Salaam. I’m convinced it was closer to 7km back to Njawara. All along the way, the villagers lined the road and yelled “Toubab! Hurry! Don’t give up!”

I felt pretty awful as I crossed the finish line; thank goodness Leanne was there to take care of me for the next hour. I think I would have kept running straight through the crowds and tents if someone (Sambas, I think, who became a good friend) hadn’t caught me and directed me over to the table to sign my name. The sand and the midday sun were vicious rivals, but I managed third out of seven girls! For the rest of my stay, I was known as the girl who ran in the marathon. Apparently it was even on TV! Way to become popular, albeit while looking completely ridiculous:










This time around I have stepped up the training to match the intensity (a real half marathon of 21km) and importance of the race. Last time I ran it to build relationships and to prove that a not-so-tiny white girl could run. It worked. This time, I’m joining the VSO Tanzania team to raise money for Education programming and I have even made a fundraising page. Education is certainly the most important cause in Tanzania and VSO has traditionally made a huge difference in the area. Many successful Tanzanians recall VSO teachers from their school days. The school system in Tanzania is a mess of high fees, underqualified, underpaid teachers, and the preposterous system that Kiswahili is taught in Primary school, switching spontaneously to English in Secondary. The system flat-out doesn’t work. VSO Tanzania is working in a multiple-pronged approach, addressing policy, training teachers, and some actual in-classroom teaching. It’s an initiative that will help this country to step out of corruption and poverty if the players coordinate well.

I have set a modest goal of $500 but I hope to surpass it! Please donate a few dollars to support VSO Tanzania’s Education programming by clicking here. In exchange… I promise to only pass out after the finish line! I will need Venessa and Tijana to catch me (I don’t mind if it’s with one hand and a Serengeti in the other), but experience goes to show that some Tanzanians yelling mzungu! would be helpful as well!

*Instead I use my iPod to drown out the endless thumping bass from the local bars when I’m trying to sleep.

My Pikipiki Adventures

Right before Christmas I rode my piki for the first time here in Kamachumu. Although I completed my course in Dar successfully, I didn’t ever receive my certificate, so I had been unable to get a license. Similar to the way that even though I completed my course in Canada before I left, I didn’t have time to get my full Class 6 (motorcycle endorsement), because there’s a one-month waiting period after the course. Oh, guess what? The learner’s license expires after a year. I will have to retest when I get home, and no. There is nothing Access Nova Scotia can do about it. The least accessible service portal, ever.

I am reminded of a friend who told me about his first experience on a motorbike: they put him on it, on a big hill, and he promptly ran into a banana tree. Here in Kagera Region there are plenty of hills, really steep ones. These little pikis, never more than 125cc, sound like they’re going to explode, but it’s made up for on the downhill side; the drivers usually turn off the engines to conserve fuel. Unfortunately it also makes it hard to hear them coming….

I’m still trying getting the hang of shifting down early enough to handle the hills. Considering it was only a few years ago I learned to drive a standard, I think I’m doing well. Seems like not so long ago I was sitting in Amy’s car, in Truro, stalling. Through three, yes, three green lights. On a down-hill.

My piki driving is made more difficult by the fact that I always have someone on the back, usually a fairly heavy man. I’m thankful when Steven shows up, as he’s the smallest of the three. They are all surprisingly calm to have a mzungu girl driving them around. They probably don’t realize just how different driving here is. Pavement is a novelty. They drive on the left – except when there are potholes or a drop-off on that side. Villages are mazes of tiny tracks, more suited to goats than pikis. Half-naked children leap out, yelling mzunGU! The other day one of the town’s “crazy ladies” got in front of the piki and held on to the front tire until someone chased her away with a stick. Only a threat, don’t worry! No harm done.

I am becoming acquainted with not only the local crazies, but everyone else as well. People are beginning to recognize me not only as “mzungu” but as Margaret, which is gratifying. Last week I was returning from a visit to Marc and Djoke in Ndolage. I approached the bodaboda stand (bodaboda is the term for a motorbike taxi) asking for a ride to Kamachumu and the boys said, “lakini unaweza kuendesha vizuri kabisa pikipiki!” (rough translation: you can totally ride a piki well!). Bodaboda boys are king on the Ndolage-Kamachumu road. If they say I’m a good piki driver, it’s the truth.

My first day, I stalled coming up the big hill by my house. I almost got frustrated until I turned and saw two little kids on an oversized bicycle coming over the bridge behind us. Their eyes were popping out of their heads at the sight of me. The little boy steering didn’t blink and didn’t take his eyes off the mzungu girl trying (with minimal success) to drive a piki. They went straight into the ditch. Again, no harm done. It was hilarious*.

*Cultural context: it is completely normal here to laugh at people’s misfortunes, or because they look funny, or different. The sight of me out running induces hysterics in groups of children every single day. But that’s a story for next time!

On Power Dynamics

Meetings are a good place to observe power dynamics, particularly since I don’t understand much of what’s being said.

This thought came to me while sitting outside Bukoba’s nicest hotel, waiting for World Vision Tanzania representatives. Sunday (my boss) and I had come to town for a meeting with them at 9:30am. However, when we arrived at the office, nobody was there – they had gone for a year-end meeting up at the Walk Guard hotel. I don’t know where the fault lay for the miscommunication, but we went up to the hotel to give them our reports, bringing us to sitting outside, waiting.

The word that came to mind was marginalized. Now, maybe that feeling was only partially accurate, since Sunday is a well-respected businessman and I am, well, white. But he doesn’t speak English and is computer illiterate, and I was dressed in sandals and carrying a backpack. The feeling was magnified when we were pulled in to the room during tea break. At every seat there was a laptop and a slide show was being projected onto a screen at the front. They had dismissed us before we even walked in the door, but Sunday tried his best to adhere to the formal process of greetings and introductions. Upon asking them to explain a call for proposals to me, the two men looked pityingly in his direction and said, “they just think that you have arrived with some money, but that’s not true is it”. And proceeded to tell Sunday that I was still learning and perhaps later I could be of some financial assistance. Out of politeness I did not say, “perhaps you could explain the grant to me and I could be of some assistance now”. We were shuttled off immediately and the two men rushed to their tea. We, of course, were not invited to share it.

A meeting I attended yesterday allowed me to get a different picture. It was a quarterly meeting of KALIDEA, a larger organisation on the same model as KAVIPE. Some of our CBO’s also belong to KALIDEA, and Mkinga, the livestock officer, spends much of his time on their animals. It was an honour to be invited, I soon learned. Let me set the stage: me and Joseph (another VSO) at the head table along with the Muleba District government vet, and three Board members of KALIDEA. The rest of the room was filled with Division representatives and extension officers. I was the only woman in the room and the youngest person by at least 20 years. The meeting went on for four hours while representatives read aloud every word of their quarterly reports, and discussed pressing issues like stolen livestock and insubordinate splinter groups. The meeting finished with the government vet reaming out Mkinga publicly for insufficient rabies control in the area (!!).

Although the meeting was extremely formal, and a rather shocking representation of the old boys’ club, we managed to make some concessions. When I introduced myself (in English with Joseph translating – this was no time for bumbling along in Kiswahili… I am called Margaret, I come from Canada, my work is a livestock advisor… *shudder*) I smiled, explained exactly what I was doing here and for how long, and said, “I admit, I am quite young,” and received a gratifying, and somewhat embarrassed guffaw from the men. In turn, the Chair greeted me, his last sentence being “and you can help us out with gender!”, prompting an equally humble laugh from me. We had managed to clear the two elephants in the room, which is more than I can say for the World Vision fiasco. From this meeting, I hope I gained some respect. I certainly gained many an invitation to visit other Divisions and to meet the players in the government ag offices: this good. I exist.

Now comes my admission that I am more comfortable in a room full of older, well-educated male farmers and extension officers than I am in a meeting of KAVIPE stakeholders; poorer, the baseline of the population, less educated. My worldview differs from both groups, but the latter is removed by another degree. So my challenge evolves: how do I engage the farmers that really need to be heard? The ones who have little power, and as such, are so much harder to communicate with? How can I avoid marginalizing them as Sunday and I were in Bukoba? How do I help make them exist?

When I went to the equivalent KAVIPE meeting a few weeks ago, the attendees were at least of mixed gender; the age thing is another can of beans altogether, as hierarchal cultures can be somewhat unreceptive to youth. I was expected to give flowery greetings, make light of my marital status and whether I had any children, and summarize every village and type of farm I had visited thus far – all in Kiswahili. The reports handed in were all handwritten, not typed, and the presence of our Chair, Sunday, did not elicit the same deference as did KALIDEA’s. Toward the end of the meeting, one of the farmers stood up and began to rant to the audience about the need for a change of attitude, the need for hard work, the need to take opportunities like VSO volunteers and run with them. The need for innovation and movement forward before the entire place stagnates.

So my relative discomfort retreats. If people like that are part of KAVIPE, the stakeholders are accessible. Instead of wishing I was speaking English and theorizing about improvements to the local systems with government employees, I can latch on to the people who create grassroots momentum.

I am currently writing a proposal for a workshop to do a rough organisational assessment of KAVIPE with some of the key stakeholders. I hope to learn how to communicate and identify with them more than the old boys’ club. KAVIPE has access to the people who hold the key to change around here, I think. But I will make nice with the government boys too. I will be needing their support, it doesn’t hurt to debate theory from time to time, and it doesn’t hurt to show a young female face in the midst of their institutionalized ways.

*I have a video of this that I will share when I can upload larger files!

The Man Who Feeds His Cow Everything

“Here, take this passion fruit. I can’t get the cow to eat it.”

Many of my days are spent traveling around Kamachumu Division, tagging along with one of the KAVIPE board members while we check up on the loaned dairy cows. We set out on a pikipiki (motorbike), or on foot, and trek through the most confusing networks of tiny roads, among the banana trees. Today, I went to Bulembo (boo-lay-m-bo) with Steven.

We saw more cows this morning than we do most days. We saw both the best and the worst I’ve seen so far. The worst was a family with two cows, who had complained they weren’t getting pregnant. This is a common complaint, although I can rarely figure out whether or not the cows have actually been bred. Usually, when I ask that question, we get pulled into a rant about how badly the farmers need access to AI (artificial insemination). But that is a debate for another day.

These two unpregnant cows were pacing franticly in their rickety pens, causing liquid manure to fly everywhere. Meanwhile, a few feet away, a woman and two children were within flying-shit-flecks reach, hulling beans! I got splattered standing next to them. Both pens had empty feed troughs, whose wooden bottoms were falling out, and no feed was produced even when we asked. Suffice it to say that both cows were extremely skinny. As to my question, had they been bred, I really hope they hadn’t wasted their money taking them to a bull, since generally in order for conception to occur, the animal must be fed. In this case, we advised to clean the pens, add bedding, fix the troughs and FEED THE COWS! We will return and check within the next two weeks that the issues have been addressed. To blame? Lack of education on proper care, lack of money, lack of time… but the first is the major issue, that I hope to help change.

I contrast now with the last farmer we visited. He had clearly been waiting for us (word travels quickly when visitors are around!) and when we pulled up he leapt, as only an old man can, from his porch and started to show us all the different feedstuffs his cow was eating: grass, bean hulls, avocado leaves, a green avocado (I doubt she’ll eat it, but he said she does…?!), young corn plants, and a coarse grass I’ve seen before. To top it off? Fresh, clean water and 5 inches of dry grass as bedding. I told the old man I wanted to bring him in to train the other farmers. It’s not really fair to compare this retired man with all the other families we saw this morning, but it’s also difficult to avoid. In some ways, I guess it’s the same anywhere: some people are passionate about cows and some aren’t. Difference is, at home, the people who aren’t passionate about cows can afford to buy milk from the grocery store, and don’t keep cows. Maybe having children to care for and no help also decreases your passion, about anything.

I was glad to finish the day smiling, however, when the old man ran into the house and emerged with a single passion fruit in his outstretched hand. I’m used to receiving gifts, but this one was more of a cast-off: “I have many, many,” he said, gesturing to the gardens surrounding the house, “but I just can’t get the cow to eat them! So here, I guess I can spare this one for you.”

Oh yes, and please let me know if you’ve heard that avocados are poisonous to cows.


It’s long past time to introduce my workplace. KAVIPE has welcomed me with open arms and exceeded my every expectation. As with anywhere, it’s the people that make KAVIPE wonderful. My coworkers, the Board, are all volunteers. I can say with certainty that they appear at the office more often than many a paid worker in Africa.


KAVIPE’s mission is to promote agricultural development in the region. They work throughout Kamachumu Division, in 18 villages and with many more Community Based Organisations (CBO’s). The biggest ongoing project is the provision of dairy cows to members. Spread throughout the Division, there are 138 Friesian cows (Holsteins, in North American terms, but these girls are much smaller like the European variety), on loan to suitable KAVIPE members. For a moderate price, a member gets a heifer and training to keep a dairy cow. They must have an appropriate facility, which entails a partially-roofed enclosure, a little crush gate and a feed trough.

Female calves are property of KAVIPE and are again distributed to members. The idea is that families can supplement their diets and add income from the milk, and this has been somewhat successful. As you can imagine, however, the cultural adjustment from keeping Zebu cattle with a hired herdsman for traditional free-grazing, to keeping Friesians on zero-graze, is huge. In a zero-graze system, the grass is cut and brought to the cow. I have yet to encounter a cow producing more than 5-6 litres per day. My first training priority: nutrition.

Other projects include dairy goats and poultry (also on loan), small-scale irrigation, provision of certified vegetable seeds, and community animal health care. The first week I was here, everyone was under the impression I was a vet. Due to the fact that my Kiswahili is only slightly worse than KAVIPE’s cumulative English, I was unable to explain that M.Sc. does not equal D.V.M. This led to awkward situations, for example a CBO meeting in which Wilson cried “and that is why they’re so happy to have you… you’re a DOCTOR!” followed by a visit to a sick calf where I tried to look intelligent while saying “ahhhhh yes, East Coast Fever….” I was pretty happy when some guy showed up with antibiotics because I was terrified they were about to hand me a needle and syringe.

After that, I got my fellow VSO, James (from Uganda, he also works in Kamachumu), to call the Chairman of KAVIPE and explain the situation. The Chairman, Mr. Sunday Buberwa, apologized profusely to me, as is his usual reaction to the slightest hiccup. He is always worried about my wellbeing!

Back to KAVIPE. The organisation was put in place by World Vision upon the phase-out of their 15 year presence in Kamachumu Division. Also established were a Community Care Coalition – Safina, dealing with vulnerable people (people living with HIV, orphans, etc.), and a credit entity, or SACCOS (Savings and Credit Cooperative Society) for lending money to members. World Vision left very little capacity in terms of procuring funding, starting new projects, or even maintaining what was there. An example is the on-site processing facility with a grinder and oil press for peanuts, sunflower seeds, blenders for making fruit juices, etc., none of which are operational. It’s the typical story, after the funding agency pulls out, things grind to a stop…. I think KAVIPE has done very well, considering. They meet regularly, do frequent inspections on loaned animals, and most importantly, recognize the need for more capacity. They strived to acquire someone (me!) to get the organisation energized, to build the knowledge base, and, I pray, to get them some funding.

I couldn’t ask for more. Motivation to work is not a problem when you have a team of willing and enthusiastic people surrounding you.

Take a Dip!

This morning we visited Mr. Mkinga, the Livestock Extension Officer, at the bi-monthly acaricide dip. Sunday and I took the piki, and as usual I had no idea where we were going (language barrier… again). As we traveled, we began to pass herds of cattle going in the same direction. We crested a hill and in the valley before us were hundreds of the local Zebu cattle:

When we tracked down Mkinga, he filled us in on the proceedings. Waving a Burdizzo (a type of bloodless cattle castrator that crushes the cords), he explained that the cattle are treated for ticks by swimming through the acaricide dip, and he is available for castration. Ticks carry three of the major diseases in the area; East Coast Fever, Anaplasmosis, and Heartwater. Mkinga estimated that about 10% of calves are lost to East Coast Fever. There was hardly any hesitation among the cattle to jump/slide/fall into the dip; they’re clearly used to the procedure.


It’s the first time I’ve seen a Burdizzo used. They cast the bull, tied his hind legs, pulled them back, and then with four squeezes; squeeze squeeze – check – squeeze squeeze – check – repeat, Mkinga castrated the bull. They got him up and I could see his testicles shrinking up… ouch.

The dip was built in the 70’s by the government and is one of 5 in the division. The acaricide is completely replaced about once a year, and should be good for 10,000 immersions. After each session, they measure the dip level and fill it back up accordingly with water. This dilutes the existing dip and is intended to discourage “people who are good at evasion”, since herders will run their animals through outside of the official sessions, to save money. Immediately before the next dip, Mkinga and the dip committee top up the acaricide so it is at full strength for the paying clients. It costs 100 Tsh per animal, per dip (less than 10 cents). They do 800-900 cattle every time, and any sheep that come along. They even threw a tiny lamb in! Each animal is supposed to leave with one litre of acaricide, so after they go through the dip, they stand in the slanted drip pen, which allows the additional acaricide to run back into the dip. Little boys with sticks keep the cattle in the drip pen until the herdsman is ready for them.