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Archive for August, 2011

The Apprentice


For the project I signed-up for I will be working with Sam, FutureSense Community Coordinator in the Ilboru, Sanawari and Mianzini neighborhoods. So what will Sam and I do? Well, first we headed out to meet the neighborhood elders, group leaders and local Tanzanian partner organization to gage the general need of the area.  They, in collaboration with Sam, have spread the word among the women and mothers whom are in need and would like to start or expand their business, to come and meet with us. All were waiting this mzungu (white person) who will give them money.

Local Ilboru office

But that’s not what we do! We never hand out cash and the project is much more structured and has more depth as they will soon learn. Painstakingly and one by one, we explained to the mamas our role, our purpose and the way we work.  We then interviewed each women privately to gather as much info as possible regarding their personal life and work: I want to know all about their families, their health (especially HIV status), if they afford getting appropriate treatments, their living conditions, their kids and do they attend school, the husband and if he’s abusive,… bref, I was not only trying to determine the neediness level but also the ability to cope with the extra responsibilities that accompany any new business venture and most importantly, the ability to succeed in their new endeavor.


You soon realize that one of the major cause contributing to the mamas’ poor living conditions stems from the countries social background: many in rural Tanzania still live in a patriarch society, clinging to their tribal past were inequality of women is a defacto status, were abuse and violence against them is rampant, were access to education is practically non-existent and so on.  Unfortunately these women are not helping their cause either. Yes, I do understand the power of a culture and its social traditions or the repercussions stemming from a lack of education; but still few women get organized to change that misconception and most bow to their husband’s behavior.


They also fail to really take care of themselves: many get pregnant at a very young age, have multiple relationships (as do men) but rarely if ever practice safe sex (even if Tanzanians are religiously devout, whether Christian or Muslim, few follow abstinence). This is the daily situation we face and we try to improve it on multiple fronts, concurrently while conducting the grant round: we give seminars and talks on Human rights, Women rights and on HIV/AIDs & how to protect against it.

Cow barn

Coming back to my livelihood project. After the above mentioned subject analysis we do an initial candidate selection, eliminating the non-starter (mostly based on having a “good” income or a livestock: 50+ chickens, 3+ cows,… or a land to cultivate and sell its crops, etc… Technically, we are aiming to help candidates in poorer conditions to attain the aforementioned levels!). Sam and I will now visit each mama’s home, talk to her family & kids and then head to evaluate her work or business. Most are self employed while a few live from whatever her garden or home’s surroundings can provide.

They will manually water these lands from the nearby streams...

...to grow green onions

Let’s be clear her, we are talking bare-bone basic businesses: frying and selling fish, frying or roasting banana or cassavas on the side of the street, selling 2nd hand clothes door to door, raising chickens to sell eggs, working as seamstress in front of a convenience store, hair braiding or rasta on the front porch, etc.  But believe me when I say it’s not easy to grasp their state of affairs; it takes time to figure out their true business state: few really know their actual profit or even daily revenue or why they sell a particular product at a certain price. Doing the math is definitely not their forte and unfortunately a few of them are illiterate.

Same idea

After struggling to gather as much info as we can, we move on to the most important question: “How can we further help you?” …and the real challenge starts. Being patient does not even come close to describing what I went through with these mamas. First, I needed to know the fundamental of their new business idea, yet that core plan is often made up as we go along. If I re-phrase the same question or ask it again the next day, half the time I get a different answer. As simple as “How much will you sell your item?” or “How many items can you sell per week?”… and from 1 day to the other an unprofitable business become a cash cow.  Yet Sam & I had to perceiver: we do role playing scenarios, I used coca-cola bottle caps to do math analogy, we gave examples which they can relate too in the hope of finally “succeeding???” in extracting an answer. Throughout our discussions nearly half the mamas realized their business idea was flowed… only for them throw another idea out of the blue.

Imported 2nd hand cloth killed the local economy

Selling fries won’t work? “How about if I sell vegetables? Or you know, I can do hair braids. But no, I think selling kangas/kitenge is better (traditional colorful garments worn or wrapped around the body). Oh wait, underwear! 2nd hand underwear is good business, everyone must wear underwear”. It doesn’t matter if there are 100 other vegetable sellers in the neighborhood, if so many people wander the streets selling used clothes or if they don’t realize how many underwear someone needs to sell to make a living… “Hey, the neighbor said it was a good business. Besides, I can assure you it will work!”.  Anything since it’s not their money they are gambling with. Sam and I met at least 5 times with each mama, some of them up to 10 times. I had the advantage of time as my stay here is long enough and I was determined to establish a good working base. Not to mention I could not give up on some of the candidates who were in so much need.

Yet even with my best efforts, I will be had by a few mamas (you will read about in my future stories).

Hi mzungu

The hardest part of my work? I had to choose who will make it to the final stage. Imagine having to say no to someone who makes U$D0.80/day for each child, because I have many other candidates making less than U$D0.50/day. Or how can I be really sure a kangas + kitenge business would not succeed?  In other instances I am left flabbergasted: some women as needy as they can be, just refuse to do any effort: they do not attend classes, don’t show up to our meeting and so on… like nothing really matters to them.  Let them be? Yes, I have no choice and we are flooded with other applicants. But it is heart wrenching when you see the situation their own children live in.

Class is on

We narrowed down our candidate list to the few who seemed most adept to receive our grant and Sam & I start conducting the trainings. Everyone had to attend a 2 day basic business and entrepreneurship class and we also offered specific training in each candidate field of work (when applicable): e.g. a veterinary to teach farmers the basics to raising livestock, tailoring course for seamstresses/tailors, hairdressing techniques for braids and rastas,…

Once concluded and in light of the training outcome we conduct one final review with each mama, now that she has a better understanding of the situation: we re-evaluate her business case and improve her plans. Unfortunately, sometimes we also had to stop our engagement with a few candidates.

So who succeeded in receiving a grant?

Read my next blog!   .




Call it a baptism of fire

Call it a baptism of fire! I arrived to Arusha on Sunday at 22:00 and the next morning at 9:00 I was already at work.  My first steps into my volunteer job were to assess the current situation of a couple of our partner organizations.


First, I headed with Sarah, FutureSense Tanzania manager, to visit a kindergarten school where FutureSense recently placed a couple of volunteers. The kindergarten school consists of 2 small & simple rooms with corrugated metal roof and handmade wooden benches.  There are no glass windows yet and the desks were recently constructed by other FutureSense volunteers. But the mere sight of the kids learning in class, then happily running around and playing in the schools yard during lunch break before devouring their daily porridge snack (compliment of our volunteer’s contribution) and I was overwhelmed by a sensation of accomplishment and satisfaction.  Everything seemed to be running smooth until I was invited to assist a “call to action meeting”; our volunteers Bene and Kate had some serious concerns on how the place was run: kids are lacking notebooks, the 2nd teacher barely speaks English yet is supposed to teach it, the teachers are not getting paid, the teachers not always attending class and/or regularly take a half hour tea break, kids getting spanked with a stick,… and Sami crashed back to earth.  I saw the school’s figures before we came here: there are a couple of foreign organizations continuously funding the school.  So what’s really going on here?  Listening to the discussion & reading between the lines, it was obvious someone was skimming off the top.  Definitely not the sort of news a freshly landed volunteer wants to hear.  The pathetic part is, it wasn’t even a guessing game on who our suspect might be: this is a small kindergarten with 2 teachers and a sole, 22 year old young manager!  Nowhere to hide now, is there?  And not only “he” was present at the meeting but so too was the school’s major sponsors, a middle aged couple who were on their yearly visit to “their” school.  Well, the best way to describe what happened next is to recount part of the conversation.

Do you want to teach?

Let’s start with the manager: “So there are no notebooks for the kids to write and draw.  How much does a notebook cost anywayZ?”.  “Oh, hmmm, they are expensive now…” turning to his teachers “how much?”. “300Tsh” (or 20 cents US!).  O-key, let’s move on: “And why didn’t the teacher get paid?”. “They didn’t? well, we don’t have money”.  Did I mention the school and the teacher are fully subsidized?  The worst part, not only the main sponsors did not seem to grasp the severity of the situation, the wife couldn’t stop diverting the conversation and recounting how she started her beautiful school.  They were on vacation in Tanzania and whiles strolling in Arusha they saw this teenage kid which they just had to take his picture.   At first, she thought of adopting him before deciding to come back and start a beautiful organization to help other kids.  And today thanks to her help the teenager she first saw is our young manager.  “… then I realized I can’t save all the children!” To which Sarah quickly snapped back: “They do not need to be saved!! They can do fine by themselves. All they need is a helping hand to get them started, that’s all”. But the women kept padding herself on the back: “Look at the one we did save, look what they have become”.  The meeting continued with our saved-teenage-kid-become-manager explaining how he wants to expand the nursery to become a primary school… wow buddy, easy.  How about crawling, let alone walking, before you run?

Rush hour traffic

OK, enough sarcasm but seriously, I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth.  And please, do not get me wrong: I definitely appreciate and regard the donor’s intentions.  It’s the show-off attitude behind it and definitely the miss-management of their aid that just diminishes any good intention, not to mention wastes much of the help offered.  Luckily we had great volunteer placed there and they took it on themselves to get things straightened out, starting by doing a full review of the situation.  Until the final report is released and correction items are implemented, the school has been black flagged on our list.

Neighbourhoods where we work

My second visit on the other hand was the complete opposite of the first:  Shocking to see but encouraging to witness the work accomplished.  This time I accompanied Dan, FutureSense assistant manager and a proud Tanzanian, to visit “BEST Center For The Blind”. BEST is run by a couple of local entrepreneur whose aim is to help blind people from his neighborhood by not only offering them lodging but also food and clothing.  Nestled on the slop of a hill on the outskirts of Arusha, BEST center consists of a rundown 1 floor complex built around a small cement courtyard where sixteen rooms serve as residence for 24 blind individuals and their family.  It’s really crammed, some rooms are shared by 2 families so most residents spend their day sitting outside under the porch.  Another room serves as a chapel and the last one is assigned to be a classroom.  Unfortunately, they can only afford 1 teacher so all kids aged 7 to 13 will attend that same class.  If you think the way I am describing the complex make it sound bad, you should have seen for yourself their living conditions; I couldn’t even bring myself to snap pictures of the center and it’s resident… it was really heart wrenching.  But BEST organization is making a difference, just ask its residents how would they fair on their own? Quoting them: “We were beggars and homeless, roaming the streets and wondering if we would eat tonight or live to see tomorrow”.  FutureSense is looking to place volunteers there as well as raising funds to support building more rooms.   For now, neither is available and we had to leave BEST with a promise to come back.

Water source

Gas shortages

But what about my job?  As you know, some of my great family and friends donated to FutureSense and supported me in raising funds for the purpose of helping impoverished individuals improve their livelihood situation.  It’s worthy to note that I actually chose the job and its challenges, not the location, for my volunteer stint and here I am in Tanzania, calling in for duty.  My FutureSense volunteer role consists of finding candidates, mostly women/mothers, some living with HIV/AIDS, who want to start a new business or expand on their current one.  I would have to sort through their ideas, analyze the pros & cons, establish with them a business plan and evaluate the business’s potential before finally selecting 8 to 10 recipients which will benefit from our support.  We will provide them appropriate training for their business, a small grant to buy them initial equipments and stock needed to start their new venture and an on-going support for 1 year to help them overcome the many problems their business will face.  Our main target is reach sustainability and we strive to build for the long term.

Friendly neighbour

Selling used cloth door to door

Before I dive into my job, what better way for me to understand the challenge I face other then meeting with last year’s candidates?  Not only it turned out to be a very constructive task but it was also a refreshing one, giving me the boost I needed after yesterday’s 2 visits.  I could witness firsthand how FutureSense Livelihood program helped make difference in these women lives. More than half of them are boasting great success stories while out of the remaining women, a few are on a slower route to increased earnings with tangible improvements compared to the previous year (3 meals aday, school for the children, etc…) but sadly (and as expected) a couple just couldn’t break the mold, they wasted the help we provided and are stuck in their poverty cycle.

Car insurance

Soon I will be starting my own grant round and I hope in 1 year time I will be part of a greater success story.

2010 Grant recipient graduation

International Criminal Court over Rwanda

In the meantime I was also meddling in all sorts of projects trying to extend the help I can offer to more individuals and organizations, both on a personal level and via FutureSense.  As Sarah quickly remarked: “When will you have time to tackle all these tasks?”.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t be more right.  Still, with 6 month in Tanzania, I just might be able to pull it off.  Of course, my main goal is to complete my grants round but alongside it, I was analyzing several other possibilities: There’s Upendo, a women group looking for a loan to collectively open a corn mill venture.  Or Mr. Everest, one of our Community Coordinator and an expert chicken farmer who is looking to grow his coop.  I also want to follow up with local banks, financial institutions and clubs to explore possibilities of securing more donations.  On top of my list, I want to help Jacob who with his parents runs LOHADA orphanage, kindergarten and primary schools: They are looking for volunteers as well as financial support and a way to secure a constant food source for their children.  I also approached my neighborhood secondary school to teach math and physics in the morning.  Not to forget, I am also helping my brother Gady establish his Safari Company as well as building its website.  I am also aiming to issue a 2nd grant round in the later part of my journey.  And who knows what else might pop-up tomorrow?  It seems I have fallen into a sort of Shindler’s list syndrome: there is so much to do and I have so many possibilities to make a difference. I know I can help and I want to tackle all issues.  Yet the toughest part is to manage myself and know my limits.  Still, I couldn’t head my own advice: I am happily working until 1AM daily, reminiscent of previous slave days some might say, and I am not declining any request for help….  I am overloaded.

Mama Rafael home

Going to visit a Mama Siroyan

Remember the story of the washed ashore starfishes? For those who might not know it, here it goes:

« A guy was walking along the beach one day when he stumbles upon a huge stretch of sandy shores littered with thousands upon thousands of washed ashore starfishes.  And the strong waves kept bringing in more.  Our guy knew that out of the water the starfishes will soon die so he rushes to t water’s edge, picks up starfishes and start throwing them back in the sea.  Half an hour goes by before a passerby strolling along the shore stops to see what’s going on here.  He walks up to the guy throwing the starfishes back in the sea and asks: “Hey dude, what are you doing?”, “Saving the starfishes!”.  The passerby astonished looks at the distant shoreline filled with washed away starfishes and exclaims: “It’s useless man, there are millions of them. You’re wasting your time and energy. You can’t make a difference”… to which our friend replied: “It did for that one” as he threw back into the sea a starfish he just picked up.»



Jambo! Welcome to Africa

At Boston Public Gardens

I planned several stops on my long journey to Tanzania. First, I took the overnight bus to Boston to spend 5 days with Adriana before my long exodus in Africa. It was the perfect getaway we both needed in one of North-America most beautiful city… 2nd to Montreal of-course ;).  And since Adriana is a Harvard graduate, she knows Boston inside out and I was treated to a deluxe tour of the city. To top it off, both of us also have many good friends there and we shared some great time together.  In particular, I spent 2 extra days with Alex and his family for some quality and fun times with close friends.

Prakriti, Katy, Stuart,... of FutureSense

Next stop was London: There, I wanted to visit my NGO’s headquarter and meet FutureSense and INSPIRE staff and directors.  And what a breath of fresh air was it to meet face to face with the team, especially Simon and Prakriti. Many NGOs exists but few if any have the visionary skills Simon brings in directing FutureSense organization. Any hesitation I had prior to my trip vanished in a wisp while listening to Simon and sharing opinions & ideas about volunteering and its role.  I then headed to London to meet with my very good friend Laura where I spent the next couple of days. Unfortunately, Laura had some business emergency and we couldn’t hang out much but on the other hand, I managed to re-unite with Adele after my 2 year hiatus and we had so much to catch up with.
I “escaped” London prior to the riots (and no, I had nothing to do with them ;). Ironically, we were just discussing about London and what a beautiful, socially active and overall safe city it is and that I might want to live there after my endeavors.  I guess if it can happen in Vancouver it can happen anywhere, eh?  AnywayZ, I personally blame it on Apple: it’s all this iPhone/iPad craze. Everyone wants to get his/her hand on one.

Jambo! “Welcome to Africa”!

Mount Meru... a gorgeous sight

Here I am, setting foot for the first time ever on the African continent! It was a glorious feeling landing in Tanzania, as if I just discovered a new land to explore. Quickly, where can I buy a motorcycle?? ;).  As I walked out of the airport and took a ride to my hostel, my senses where absorbing everything around me.  Although I am over any culture shock when visiting a new country, Tanzania still caught me by surprise on a couple of fronts: for one, it is way poorer than I had ever imagined and two, the locals are extremely nice.

Vendors outside our local school

Allow me to explain: Tanzania is a top tourist destination catering especially to Europeans. My Swiss Air plane of 300 was full of white tourists while African origin travelers could be counted on 1 hand. And if the people coming in and out of Dar Es-Salam airport are a sample of the tourists visiting Tanzania than I can safely gender them as: white, middle aged and rich, many wearing spanking new shoes, cloth and backpacking equipment. Yet as we were driving to our hotel I could see the poverty engulfing this country: un-asphalted and extremely rough roads, litter lining the streets, electricity shortages, run-down houses, hundreds of street vendors selling everything from food, fruits & vegetables to Chinese flashlights and 2nd hand cloth. The Dar Express bus station is a simple dusty parking lot with many tin shops around. Internet shops are few and I would have sworn they were using 56k modem for connections. I thought Tanzania, at least in its major touristic centers, would be on par with Ecuador or Peru in term of living standards… but it was far from it: even Bolivia seems years ahead compared to Tanzania. Disclaimer: My opinions are uniquely driven by my stay in Arusha; however locals and tourists alike keeps reminding me if I am surprised at what I am seeing here, just wait until I visit the non-touristy city & towns. In Arusha, only the major thru fairs are asphalted as well as a few side roads. Otherwise, the city streets are worthy of an off-road moto-cross track: gaping holes litter the rough & rocky streets with the only “reprieve” (sarcasm intended) being the sections of deep sand. Only Land-Cruisers can safely tackle these streets while cars shake & rattle violently, scraping their bottom on every bump in a loud screeching sound, an agonizing scream of something on the verge of disintegrating into pieces.

It's cooking time

Here, everyone and everything is covered by a brownish dust layer; never take white or light colored cloth with you to Africa!  We have 10-12 hrs of electricity shortage per day and the water pressure varies constantly. My homestay is a lot better than the average Tanzanian home, yet it’s as basic as the homes in remote & small villages I stayed at in South America. We use a bucket and a cup to shower but at least we have a “western” toilet vs. the “hole in the ground” type. Hey, it could be worse; we could be like many of our neighbors who have to go fetch all their water from the public taps spread sporadically around the neighborhood.  I do my laundry by hand in the garden using regular soap and couple of buckets of water (for wash and rinse cycles ;)).  Mama cooks over charcoal while water for tea is boiled using a kerosene burner.

Public tap

In sharp contrast, anything touristy is extremely expensive: A 4 day Safari to the Serengeti starts at a minimum of U$D800 in basic camps rising quickly if you choose to stay in lodges. Kilimanjaro climb is a U$D1,200 expedition – during the low season if you please –  while Zanzibar luxury hotels show no vacancy during the summer month. And there’s so much more (and expensive) things to do here in Tanzania. Yet, tourists spend, spend and more spend; every morning dozens upon dozens of Land Cruisers packed with Westerners (“wazungu”) head toward Tanzania’s many national parks and nature’s wonders. However, the money itself doesn’t seem to go on a Safari: A Kilimanjaro porter makes ~U$D 7 a day, a far cry from the stinking rich tour companies make or the National Parks Ministry.  The unofficial minimum monthly wage hover around 80,000Tsh == U$D 50. A local restaurant meal is U$D 1-2, a soft drink @ 35cents, taxi charges $2-3 for in city trip,… Tanzanian people rarely see any of the tourist money.

Yes, you will be hassled in the street to buy goods and souvenirs, to take a taxi ride or buy a Safari trip, but isn’t it the same in any other touristy destination? Here at least, most of the times a simple no suffice; Tanzanians are extremely nice and respectful people. I won’t lie to you; I did have some apprehension prior to landing her. You know, being lighter colored skin I will stand out in the streets and thought: “I am going to be constantly targeted”. Well I was right!! All these little kids running after me screaming “HowRyou?”  :).  Other than that, especially while walking in Arusha’s suburbs, I will answer a lot of respectful hellos. I feel safer here than in many South American cities I visited.

Baba leading the prayer

My host family is the Kimambo’s and I am their 8th member now… well, not mentioning the many family relatives whom drop by to stay with us for a week or 2. Baba is an assistant preacher, Mama works within a community group as well as farms maize in a small parcel of land she rents.  She’s a fun lady, always making the kids laugh and is a great cook.

Mama and Sarah

Gadyel (25) is the elder son but still my little brother ;). He’s an accredited guide although currently un-employed.  I am trying to help him start his own Safari company by working as a freelancer and partnering with established tour companies.  You’ll hear more about it soon but if you or anyone you know are coming to visit Tanzania, drop me an e-mail and your vacation will be in good hands; my sister Sarah (20) is studying with IATA to become an airline travel specialist or stewardess.  Godzef (“Godi” -17) is in secondary school and the do-it-all guy at home. A few cousins stay with us most of the time: Dominique (17), a very bright and hard working high-school kid who I accompanied once to visit his school and chat with his teacher. His brother, Wilbrod (26), is a fun guy and a freelance guide who has no problem being called upon to work. See, Wilbrod speaks 3 foreign languages (English, French and Spanish) and he’s pretty good at them too. So tour companies can send him alone on Safari with a melting pot of clients. I think he can do a lot more with his talent and personality, so let’s see how he exploits it.

My brothers: Gadiel, Godi & Dominique... oh, the white guy is Ishan, a fellow volunteers


And last but not least, Naomi, my 5 year old little sister. Naomi is a pretty fun little girl who just lost her 2 front teeth.  She loves to draw, so I will be getting a few souvenirs prior to my return.  She’s also trying to teach me Kiswahili but somehow I don’t think that’s going very well. One day sitting & relaxing in the garden, Noami was teaching me the animal names: chicken = “kuku”; Dog = “umbwa”; cat = “nyaw”.  That same night while having dinner with my family, our cat Pele jumped in my lap and I proudly said: “nyaw”. Everyone bursted laughing and I just smiled politely thinking “What’s so funny?”. Pointing to Pele, I said “nyaw” again… only to be interrupted: “Yeah, Pele, a cat or “paka” in Kiswahili. Are you trying to talk to him?” :).