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.

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!

Cuso International Shows Up In Dar!

CUSO-VSO has recently undergone a facelift and transitioned to a new name, Cuso International. Umeeda Switlo, who works with Cuso, is currently in Rwanda doing a placement. She popped over to Dar for Tanzania’s, and VSO Tanzania’s 50 year celebrations which happened alongside our Annual Volunteer Conference (AVC). She interviewed most of the Canadian volunteers, and managed to grab a few minutes of my time between breakfast and my first Intermediate Kiswahili lesson. Needless to say I was only half awake, having come off a very busy week, but I think I sound reasonably lucid!

Listen to the interview by clicking here!

Merry Christmas! And The Gift Of Dependancy

The tale of my Christmas visit to Peter and Debra; yes folks this is pure gold: Peter and Debra Become Guest Dependant

My Christmas vacation in Kibaya, a town between the cities of Dodoma and Arusha, has been spent relaxing;

with cats, on the verandah;


visiting a Masai village, where we

compared Western toilet paper to Masai toilet paper – the fuzziest, softest tree leaves around,

commiserated with the head of the family,

tried on traditional Masai jewelery (check out Peter and Debra’s blog, above, for a picture of me trying it on),

admired the lovely children,

and of course, back at the ranch, exchanged gifts and had Christmas breakfast!

The Masai are fascinating people, whom I will perhaps blog about at a later date in more detail. To start, having spent an entire day at their compound, they did not once ask for money. In fact, they downright turned it down when I tried to buy jewelery from them (I thought they were trying to sell it to me, but apparently not!). Further, they feed their families (read: children) well with diets high in protein, and take excellent care of their livestock. However, I have just been informed that not only can Masai men have as many wives as their please, but they can also share wives, as in when a wife marries into a family, all the brothers of the husband can also come visiting to her hut at night. Debra recommended a few books about the Masai* that I will try and find someday.

This has been a great Christmas, a great break from worrying about my Kiswahili apart from market visits, a chance to get a bit of a tan, thanks to the enclosed verandah, and some quality time with fellow Canadians. Oh, and if you ever get a chance, check out this British TV comedy show called Gavin and Stacey. We’ve been on a marathon of it and have started referring to the characters like they’re our friends. Creepy, but satisfying.

* The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior by Tepilit Ole Saitoti (really worth it, according to Debra) and My Maasai Life: From Suburbia to Savannah by Robin Wiszowaty (somewhat worth it)

Doing Development Differently

This week, we learned how to do development differently.

On the weekend, this involved drinking copious amounts of alcohol and dancing late into the night. We danced barefoot on the beach and in the bars, we danced on counters and we danced in hotel rooms. This barefoot dancing was so whole-hearted that one night I lost my shoes. Thanks to some efficient, kind-hearted beach boys (for those of you who know Gambia, think bumsters but less aggressive), I recovered my favourite flats the following night.

I know what you’re thinking. She goes to volunteer, to help, to lend a hand, and now it turns out she’s partying on the beach. And you’re right, it happens a lot when people work overseas. But coming off over a month in the bush, and spending time with my fellow Canadians on a beautiful beach blessed with Captain Morgan and Serengeti baridi (ba-ree-dee – cold), I think I am past due for a weekend of all-night dance parties.

Luckily, I am not only here to drink but also to learn, like I mentioned, about development. Our Annual Volunteer Conference was held at a convent in Dar es Salaam (they serve beer, along with Jesus). On the day after the conference our Country Director, Jean Van Wetter, put together a seminar with the same title: Doing Development Differently, attended by higher-ups in Tanzania’s development scene. I will start with this quote from the Country Director of UNICEF. She stood up without coming to the podium, put her prepared remarks aside, and spoke about her daughter applying to study development in university. “Oh my God, please don’t do that,” was her response to the idea. Her view is that International Development as we know it will be a dinosaur in the foreseeable future; not something you’d expect to hear with such frankness from a UNICEF director. She asked the audience to envision a Tanzania free of development assistance. The rest of the program also worked to challenge the status quo, namely the director of Foundations for Civil Society, John Ulanga.

His talk ended with a shockingly bare-bones statement about government spending: “look at the big cars our brothers drive.” The representative from the President’s office, sitting in the front row, chose that moment to get up and walk out of the meeting, to which Mr. Ulanga faced up, calling out to him, “I hope I have not upset you; are you walking out?” The man made some excuse about his phone, and Mr. Ulanga’s thank-you slide came up. What a conclusion.

I am actually writing this on a notepad while listening to the facilitator’s commentary, in the workshop itself. Admittedly, I am hungover. Free wine at the Canadian High Commission last night, paid for by your hard-earned tax dollars, led to some double-fisting by we Canadians who are loath to turn down such an opportunity. My hangover is not preventing me from being really surprised and impressed. I registered for this seminar expecting participatory process. The flouf is growing on me, I admit, so give me post-its, small group brainstorming, and yes, god forbid, flipcharts. But that’s not what we saw when we walked in. We saw a head table, a schedule with “remarks by the Permanent Secretary to the President’s Office”, among many others, and block seating for the audience. Doing Development Differently? As Chloe aptly put it; “if you wear dark suits like that, you can never do anything differently.”

I prepared to pinch my wrists to stay awake, and started writing this post to look engaged. Surprise again. Jean has done a very slick job of walking the line, pushing boundaries, because to lull government reps into a sense of security, to bring in an MP from Calgary and a VSO Trustee, a Baroness, to hold proceedings at the British Counsel, whose goal is to “spread the British way of life” – awfully American of them, no? – to do these things, to spring challenging subject matter on them and on us, comments on the sensitivity of his approach. Make it look official and sneak-attack an alternative message. Nice.

A rep from one of the oil and gas companies doing exploration in Mtwara spoke, even taking the microphone to answer straight-up questions from the audience. VSO volunteer doctors spoke about catalysts for change, an opposition MP about government spending, a Tanzanian about why Tanzania has a mentality of waiting for help instead of acting, “we are what our actions indicate”, and the facilitator about a spot banned by the government which asked “if we are so rich in resources, why is this country poor?”. The private sector was brought to the forefront despite Tanzania’s socialist leanings, and the surprisingly engaging DFID rep (surprisingly, because we’ve noticed a lack of liveliness in British speakers this week) finished with “Good development is not done with the heart. It’s done with the head.”

It wasn’t a day out of a Robert Chambers book*, in terms of methodology. All the better, if change is really what they’re after. It was challenging, it was outside the box, it spoke in plain terms to influential people, and it was definitely Different. Oh, and we had tiramisu and ice cream for dessert after lunch.

*Robert Chambers has written a few milestone books on participatory development practices, particularly (but not exclusively) in the field of agriculture. Whose Reality Counts?: Putting the First Last gives a good overview of participatory methodology. Plus, you don’t need to read the whole book… it’s so repetitive that you get the gist of it from a few chapters!

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!