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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Read my next blog! .