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May 17

When we touched down in Mwanza, Tanzania we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Over the last 112 days we have immersed ourselves in the day-to-day life of this African community. We have learned a lot. In lieu of a journal entry this week, we are providing you with some of our experiences and observations of life in Mwanza.

First, a brief history/geography lesson (if you don’t need the tutorial you can skip ahead to Brian’s Impressions). Tanzania is located on the east coast of Africa (Indian Ocean side). It is bordered by eight different countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique. It is the largest country in the region known as East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania). It is also found in what is known as the Great Lakes Region of Africa, which is often associated with constant civil war and political unrest. Tanzania, however, managed to set itself apart from the violence, and achieved independence in 1961 without a single bullet being fired.

Mwalimu (teacher) Julius Nyerere was the first president of Tanzania (known then as the Republic of Tanganyika). Nyerere was a prolific leader who served as president from 1962 until 1985 when he resigned. He was trained as a schoolteacher and had deep socialist beliefs. Those beliefs resulted in a strong national emphasis on accessible and affordable essential services such as health care and primary education. For this reason, enrollment in primary education in Tanzania today is up by more than 85 per cent. It is an enormous number relative to many other sub-Saharan African nations. Nyerere was a staunch supporter of establishing a unified language in Tanzania -- Swahili. Swahili is taught in all public primary schools throughout Tanzania. Some people attribute the peacefulness of Tanzania to the unified language, which helps reduce tribal-based discrimination.

Nyerere was also responsible for introducing legislation that opened Tanzania’s borders to refugees. It has meant, at times, that there have been large influxes of people into the country -- a result of civil war and political unrest in surrounding nations such as Rwanda, Burundi, DRC and Mozambique. Consequently, Tanzania is populated with a mix of various races, nationalities, and religions. To this day, Tanzania continues to have strong socialist leanings and its people are very friendly and welcoming.

Tanzania is organized into 21 regions, which are divided into districts and subdivided into wards. The Western Heads East internship is based in Mwanza City, which is in the Mwanza region. The region comprises much of the south shores of Lake Victoria in northwestern Tanzania. The city is made up of several wards in the Nyamagana (nyah-mah-gah-nah) district, one of those being Mbugani (m-boo-gah-nee), where we are currently living and working. Mwanza City is located directly on Lake Victoria and is the second-largest city in Tanzania (next to Dar es Salaam). It is roughly 2.5 degrees south of the equator, where the sun rises at 7 a.m. and sets at 7 p.m. daily, all year round. It is sunny and hot, but its elevation at nearly 1500 metres means that the heat is not as bad as it can be in lower-lying places such as Dar es Salaam.

Mwanza is an industrial city and its ports serve as a transit medium for the land-locked country of Uganda on Lake Victoria’s north shore. Fisheries, petroleum refineries, and more recently, gold mines can be found on the shoreline and in surrounding areas.

The recent development of the nearby gold mines has developed Mwanza rapidly in the past few years. People from the small villages view Mwanza City as a bustling metropolis, but relative to other large African cities, such as Nairobi, Mwanza is a medium-sized city that is rapidly growing. Still, one does not have to travel far outside of the city to get to the villages, where there is no plumbing and people must fetch water from the village wells. This insufficient plumbing is a result of rapid growth combined with a lack of planning and funding.

Mwanza City has two nicknames: Bird City and Rock City. The first is due to the mass of yellow-billed kites (brown, relatively large-sized birds of prey) seen soaring high above the city. The second is due to the large boulders found throughout the surrounding hills, some in very precarious positions, sitting uphill to many small communities.

So, there’s a quick synopsis of the city's background. Here are our impressions of how it runs day-to-day.

** We apologize in advance for any over-generalizations. The following observations are simply those of two people who have traveled within a limited area of Tanzania over a relatively short period of time.**

Brian’s Impressions:

Mwanza is a city of great natural beauty. Many people here have managed to hold on to their tribal roots while accepting and integrating many of the ways of the developed world. The people are welcoming and friendly, and the social and political environments are peaceful. Children go to school and are learning to read and write at numbers exceeding those of many other African nations. These educated people are able to make informed decisions in life, in business, and in politics. Shops and small businesses line the streets and many of them are thriving under African and non-African ownership alike. Infrastructure is rapidly catching up with the needs of the city's growth. Construction is everywhere and one gets the sense that change is in the air. Despite all of these positive aspects, there still remain elements of great sadness. HIV, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, a lack of respect for the rights of women and children, poverty, racism, and corruption are a few of the major challenges still faced by this society.

Flying into Mwanza was filled with much anticipation and anxiety. I had prepared like crazy, but knew that much of what I would encounter, I could never have truly prepared for. As Mwanza came into view from the window of the airplane it was hard to miss the massive Lake Victoria (the second-largest freshwater lake in the world) and the rolling green hills and surrounding valleys filled with lush agriculture. It was hard to look away from the natural beauty, but we did have to prepare for the landing of the small dual propeller, 20-seater to touch down on the grassy runway. That gets your attention pretty quick.

Getting off the plane, I quickly noted that Mwanza has quite possibly the smallest airport I have ever seen. The small plane we flew in on is known to locals as “the big plane from Nairobi.”

Larger cargo planes also frequent the Mwanza airport, but they are typically loaded to the brim with tilapia (a white fish that is native and plentiful in Lake Victoria). Tragedy struck the area recently when one such cargo plane overloaded with fish crashed into the lake, killing the entire crew on impact. It is an example of the corruption still very much prevalent in the area. Apparently, overloading cargo planes with fish is commonplace here or at least up until this recent crash. The planes have a maximum cargo limit, but their crews receive cash for anything over and above that limit. I’ve been told that many crews fall victim to this temptation, and every overloaded cargo plane tempts fate as it struggles to gain altitude upon takeoff over Lake Victoria. The temptation of monetary gain plays a major role in many professions here in Mwanza, and many people are severely underpaid and overworked (compared to Western standards at least).

The first people we met upon landing in Mwanza were some of the staff from Kivulini. They were all incredibly friendly and welcoming to both Cynthia and I. One of my greatest concerns was that I would be in a country where no one spoke English, but to my surprise, all of the staff at Kivulini spoke English quite well. They learned to speak English while earning their secondary school diplomas, and many of them have post-secondary degrees and/or certificates. Within the first week, I realized that these people at Kivulini -- highly educated, English-speaking Tanzanians -- are a rare breed.

In Tanzania, typically the first language learned is often one's tribal tongue. It is at primary school where Swahili is taught and only at the secondary school level is English taught. In Julius Nyerere’s dream of having a country where all people read and write in Swahili, his emphasis on primary education resulted in widespread construction of primary schools. Everything followed as per Nyerere’s plan, but it was soon realized that a lack of forward planning resulted in a shortage of secondary schools to accommodate students' progression. Limited spots meant high enrollment requirements and high tuition. So, while all Tanzanians learn to speak Swahili, very few speak English (roughly 0.6 percent of Tanzanians graduate from secondary school). It became evident to me that these people at Kivulini were all part of that upper echelon of Tanzanian society -- that top 1 per cent -- and were not representative of the population.

On our first full day in Tanzania we ventured out with the help of a Kivulini staff member. We went to the market to stock our fridge with food. This trip was the most stressful event I have experienced in Tanzania to date. The mass of people, the organized chaos, the foreignness, our feelings of confusion, and our fears of being exploited in any number of ways all contributed to this incredibly stress-filled event.

We arrived home hot and sweaty, with an overwhelming feeling of relief to be back in the safety of our home. Although we made plans to go out dancing that night with our new friends, the experience at the market was quite draining and I had had enough new experiences for one day. The dance clubs would still be there next week, and I would venture into the Mwanza nightlife when I was better prepared to deal with it.

Working closely with Kivulini we have been exposed to many interesting elements of Tanzanian culture and how it differs from that of the Western world. Kivulini’s staff welcomed us into their organization and invited us to learn more about what they do, and participate in brainstorming sessions. It was in these sessions that Cynthia and I learned how our North American ways of doing things differ greatly from those in Tanzania. In Tanzania, decisions are made based on unanimous support. Everyone is invited to give input on even the simplest tasks, such as how to go about doing introductions at the beginning of a meeting. I found myself becoming frustrated with this apparent waste of time. In North America, the person chairing the meeting would have decided, often in advance, how introductions would be done, and this relatively simple task would be conducted promptly. A task that would take five minutes in North America could easily exceed 30 or 40 minutes here in Tanzania.

One particularly frustrating example of inefficiency was when we were helping to write a funding proposal. We resisted Kivulini’s desire to come up with a title for the proposal before even deciding on what the program would entail. In assisting with the creation of this proposal, I began to see a lack of forward planning and an inability to budget resources. I have since spoken to other westerners who are here doing aid work and they agree that these seem to be common problems here in Tanzania. It is easy to see how such problems can severely hamper planning and progress.

Working closely with Kivulini you hear about the best and worst of humanity. Their legal aid department is filled, on a daily basis, with individuals, couples, and families seeking information, counseling, mediation, and legal representation. There is no such thing as a quiet day for this department. Every week, Kivulini helps domestic workers from street leaders, families who have been victims of domestic violence or impoverished persons infected with HIV/AIDS. Despite all these successes, there are so many more people who are victims of the same injustices who do not know where to turn or are unable to free themselves from their current situations.

HIV and AIDS carry with them a negative and complexly devastating stigma here in Mwanza, and in all of East Africa for that matter. Any reliable statistics on the prevalence of HIV and AIDS are made inaccurate by the fact that there are so many people who are infected and refuse to get tested because they do not wish to know the results. For many, knowledge of HIV infection will not change anything about their life, at least not until they begin to feel the debilitating effects of full-blown AIDS. For many, Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) is often too expensive and is not reliably available. It is for this reason that children who have been orphaned by HIV and AIDS are rarely tested, as they are all assumed to be HIV positive until proven otherwise. The stigmas are so strong that individuals will risk the health of their partners through practicing unprotected sex, and mothers will transmit the virus to their babies via breast milk in order to avoid being socially recognized as having HIV/AIDS. Kivulini, along with many other NGO’s, are working hard to break down these stigmas, because until then, HIV and AIDS will continue to kill men, women, and children alike.

We have had several opportunities to observe many of the most beautiful natural beauty Mwanza and the surrounding areas have to offer. Our safari in the Serengeti was my greatest experience of this country's natural beauty. I was completely blown away by the mass of free, wild animals inhabiting the park. The animal that stood out the most for me was the giraffe. There is an astoundingly large population of giraffes in the park and they act much differently than the giraffes in zoos back home. In the wild, they are majestic and regal animals. The giraffe struts around the plains with such confidence, one would think that it was the king of the animal world. Giraffes in the Serengeti are incredibly relaxed and are content to eat at the side of the road while the various safari vehicles pass by. My only previous experience with giraffes was at the Metro Toronto Zoo, where they were contained to a very small area by a tall chain link fence. The giraffes there appeared to be nervous and uncomfortable in their surroundings. They displayed the behaviours of caged animals as they licked and gnawed on the chain link. I felt guilty looking at them, as if the very act of my being there was somehow supporting and contributing to their confined existence. When I compare them to those of the Serengeti, I quickly begin to lose support for the idea of zoos. Nonetheless, I am truly grateful for having been able to see the many natural wonders the Serengeti had to offer.

Walking the streets of Mwanza City, I soon became aware of the great diversity in the area. Maasai tribesmen in their traditional garb, with their braided hair, stretched earlobes, marvelous beaded jewelry, spear in hand, and sandals made from automobile tire treads casually walk around the city. People from all tribes interact with little or no concern for tribal affiliation. People of different religions associate together and go about their daily lives showing great respect for the spiritual beliefs and values of others. People from various nationalities work side-by-side in relative peace.

There is a large homeless population in the city. Many of these people are stricken with physical disabilities and deformities. There are also many street children. Speaking to locals and foreign aid workers, you learn that there is a great pay inequity. Few Tanzanians are unemployed. However, many are underemployed and have multiple jobs that pay very poorly. The number of people who earn less than 35,000 Tanzanian shillings (less than $35 USD) per month is unbelievable.

Many of the shop owners here are of Indian decent, and you easily pick up on the undertones of racism expressed by the Tanzanian people towards these individuals. This phenomenon was addressed in some of the books that I read prior to my departure. The cause of it is attributed by most academics to the fact that African-owned businesses in the past tended not to survive while Indian-owned businesses thrived. Indian shop owners were well trained in how to run a business, while their African counterparts were generally untrained and often unsuccessful. The playing field has begun to level out, as Tanzanian people are becoming more educated, and organizations such as Kivulini are offering courses on how to successfully operate a small business. More and more, Tanzanian-owned shops are making profits and competing well with other local businesses.

I’ve learned that life in Africa is a daily adventure. You have to expect good news and bad. Despite corruption, poverty, racism and underdevelopment, Mwanza is a great place that is getting better. The people are welcoming and friendly. Far more people are willing to help than are trying to exploit you. If Mwanza City can be looked at as a microcosm of the whole of Tanzania, then Tanzania is in the midst of great change for the better. People are becoming educated at higher and higher levels, and this growth will hopefully lead to a more prosperous future for them. I have hope and faith for the successful future of this wonderful nation.

Cynthia’s Impressions:

When we first arrived in Mwanza, Tanzania from Nairobi, Kenya the first and most noticeable difference was language. I was quite surprised at the amount of English used in Nairobi, yet when we arrived in Mwanza, there was the hum of unrecognizable words being spoken and the "hissing" of taxi drivers. The use of hissing as a means of getting someone’s attention was not something that I was accustomed to. Before leaving the airport, which was a very small airstrip, our bags had to be checked at the customs office, which consisted of a table in a small room with a single entranceway and exit. The customs officers did not have high-tech equipment, such as x-ray machines, so we were asked to unlock our bags for them to be physically examined. After we cleared customs and security, we were greeted by Maimuna and a group of Kivulini staff. They were all really nice. They took our suitcases and we all piled into the Kivulini-mobile. While on the drive into town I experienced one of my most memorable moments since being here in Mwanza. I was a bit motion sick from the flight and so I sat in the front with Jimmy (one of the Kivulini staff members) at the wheel. When passing a daladala (mini bus), a little boy who was looking out the back window did a double take when he saw me -- a mzungu (literally meaning European). It was really funny! Both Jimmy and I had a good laugh. We then proceeded to make funny faces at the child.

The next major thing I noticed was how clean the city was in comparison to Nairobi. Nairobi does not have a formal garbage collection system and garbage is everywhere. In Mwanza, garbage is at least picked up from the homes and streets, but it isn’t taken very far before it is usually dumped in or around a nearby dumpster (typically found on the corner of a street) and/or is burnt. This is a bit of an eyesore, and sometimes in the blistering heat the garbage can get really smelly!

Much of the scenery here is absolutely stunning. Mwanza is located right on Lake Victoria giving us some incredible views of sunset from atop the many rolling, rocky hills. In the area where we live -- Mlango Mmoja -- we are nested between several hills that are spotted with little huts and massive teetering rocks. It looks quite incredible and picturesque. However, living up on the hill is not all that it’s cut out to be. For example, our friend Jonathan, a young, local artist, lives up on the hill near our apartment. He used to live on the streets, but was able to save up enough money from selling artwork to rent a small one-bedroom hut. Jonathan invited us to visit his place to see his most recent work. The trek up the hill was interesting as we weaved through ‘backyards’ and climbed up rocks. Because of the landscape, there are no plumbing or sewage drains so there was a pungent odour of urine now and then. Nonetheless, the people who live up in the hills are truly appreciative of what they have. From what I understand, Capri Point is one of the only hilly areas that has water and plumbing piped up to the homes. It is also were a lot of the wazungu (Europeans) or government officials live and where the houses are huge and lavish, with satellite dishes and other luxuries. The funny thing about Capri Point is that, although it is a very rich area, the roads up the hill are some of the worst roads in Mwanza. They are all very rough, and cars scrape along the rocks as they try to make their way up the grade. The view from the top, as it is from most hilltops around Lake Victoria, is astonishing.

I was very thankful that Kivulini’s staff members spoke English as it was difficult arriving in a totally new environment and not understanding what was going on around us. On our first Monday morning we met all the Kivulini staff who were incredibly welcoming and friendly. Throughout our transition to Tanzanian life, most of the people we have meet have been very patient and understanding.

There are several ways that I can describe the people here. In general they are very welcoming and we can all learn a thing or two from them. Whenever you visit a Tanzanian home, even if it’s an impromptu visit, they will typically insist that you eat with them and they are always very hospitable. For the most part, even the people you meet on the street are very friendly and say, “Hallo, how are you?” with an African accent. The things that I find different from back home come from me being a white female. So when I walk alone into town or up to the institute, I tend to hear several cat calls, lots of whistling and young men saying, “Sista, njoo!” (sister, come here!). I know many other women may have this experience back home in Canada, but here, white women seem to be such a novelty. I have received more than 25 proposals of marriage (not to mention other more indecent proposals)!

Another observation I’ve made, especially when walking in town, is the staggering number of families living on the street. I know that in areas like Toronto and London you tend to see some individuals who live on the street panhandling. Although it is unfortunate, here the issue seems to be even worse as there are many young children with their mothers sleeping on the sidewalk. One day while walking home from aerobics with a female friend, we encountered a group of about eight street kids. They were asking for money and food, and followed us as we walked. Eventually my friend gave her almost empty juice can to the children. Seeing this, another child reached up and snatched the juice can from me as I was taking a drink. I was quite astonished as I was intending on giving the child the can, but that they literally took it out of my hands stunned me.

School children are quite funny, always tending to say “Give me my money,” or “Mia hamsini." Although they usually tend to be polite about it and begin with a “Good morning. How are you madam?” it is still quite unnerving that wherever you go in Mwanza, the colour of your skin seems to translate automatically into dollar signs. We recently experienced a perfect example. As we were trying to find a new milk source, we decided to head down to the ferry docks, where milk comes in several times a day. We were told that the milk was tested there and sold for about 350 shillings per litre. When we arrived, we had Omar, one of the Kivulini staff members, talk to the men about the milk. When he asked the price, one man said 500 shillings a litre as he had seen me standing near Omar. Another man piped up and said that it was actually 350 shillings a litre. At this point Brian and I began to ask questions about how to test the milk and at what times the milk arrives. Before leaving, we double-checked the price and the man who had originally said it was 350 shillings, now said it was 500. It was a perfect example of what we have come to call the “mzungu price.” It is truly frustrating, but unfortunately, there are not many ways to get around it. You either try your best to barter, or decide it’s not worth the aggravation and walk away. I’ve done the latter most of the time to find another shop that will sell it at the proper price.

Some other things that I find difficult to understand include the way meetings and organizations are run. I have two examples that I can share with you. The first one occurred back in February when we attended a conference at Kivulini. At the beginning of the session, each person was suppose to introduce themselves and say what organization they were part of. But, before this process could begin, the whole group had to have a discussion on how they wanted to do introductions. This process took close to 20 minutes before the introductions finally began. Brian and I were quite confused as to what was going on and why Jimmy, the Kivulini staff member running the conference, didn’t simply just implement the introductions as he saw fit, saving time and being more efficient. Tanzania has a very socialist influence and I believe this may be the main reason for everyone's need to contribute to such trivial things. I can understand the benefits of including everyone in the process, but at the same time, there is a level of efficiency and order that, in my mind, should be maintained.

Another example was when Brian and I were asked to join in on a brainstorming session with Kivulini staff to come up with proposal ideas for a Rapid Funding Envelope grant. We began the session by jumping right in and trying to come up with an idea. Since we were still fairly new to Kivulini, we were unsure as to what exactly the organization did. We asked the group to step back for a minute and give us some information on what kind of services they provide. Then we suggested that we try to and come up with ideas that would fit into what Kivulini is already doing in the community. After brainstorming for a bit, the group promptly decided on which idea they wanted to use. The next step we thought would be to discuss the target population, goals and objectives, and establish an action plan. However, the staff members had something completely different in mind. They wanted to select a name for the proposal. Something catchy. Brian and I tried to explain that once you complete the goals, objectives and action plan, then it's easier to come up with a title afterward. However, the group wasn’t very receptive to that idea and so we had a 30-minute break. It was quite odd for things to run kind of backwards, beginning with choosing a title. In the end, Brian and I came up with the proposal idea and Brian wrote almost the whole thing. It was the first time that a proposal from Kivulini to the Rapid Funding Envelope made it past the first round of selections.

My last impression of Mwanza involves food. The food here is excellent and there is a wide variety available. There are traditional dishes, such as roasted, fried or boiled tilapia fish, fried bananas, rice, ugali (stiff, porridge-like dish), kitimoto or ngurue (roast pork), mishkaki (beef kabobs) and chips mayai (french fries and eggs fried together). There is also a wide variety of Indian curry foods and Thai dishes. The fruit here is amazingly sweet and juicy, making for a refreshing and delicious treat. The juices made from the fruit are even more fabulous! In the late afternoon and early evening, street vendors sell roasted corn and cassava for 10 cents a piece. It’s a nice treat to munch on as you walk around town.

All in all, this has been an incredible experience and I would recommend it to anyone looking to do volunteering abroad. It has definitely opened my eyes to the hardship that people in the third world face on a daily basis. It has also made me more appreciative of all that we have back home, especially those closest to us -- our family and friends.

May 19, 2005 | Permalink


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Posted by: Elaine | Sep 22, 2011 12:40:00 PM

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