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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.»