Next Stop Tanzania

Adventures travelling and volunteering in Tanzania

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

This is Life in Tanzania

Photo courtesy of Mark Tipple

There were around thirty women sitting on both sides of the narrow hallway on colourful woven mats. All were dressed in mtandio, traditional Muslim headdress, and long flowing dresses. Sometimes the door to a bedroom would open and two women would whisper urgently back and forth in Swahili before the door was swiftly closed again. I felt the gaze of two young girls watching me closely from beside their mother, perhaps unsure what to make of a strange munzungo (white person) in amongst the familiar faces. They did not return my hesitant smile. From somewhere outside floated the muffled sounds of Arabic prayer, a sudden burst of cheering, a baby crying and being shushed.

Arriving at the wedding, I had been asked by one of the groom’s relatives to respect the “traditional way”, which meant men only participating in the ceremony while the women -including the bride – waited inside. My “bodyguards”, three of the students from Kigamboni Community Centre, had urged me to stay with them, but I wanted to be respectful, and to at least try to fit in. An hour and a half later, I started to question this decision. I felt sweat trickle down my back, shifted position on the floor in the hallway. In broken Swahili I attempted to ask Mata, my designated carer, when we would be allowed outside. The answer was “ci jewi” (I don’t know) – it was difficult to tell whether it was a response to my question or my terrible Kiswahili.

There was another eruption of cheering and singing, followed by a long silence. Mata nodded at me and got to her feet, “We go there now.” We walked out to the front of the house where a large group of men were sitting underneath a tarpaulin, a sea of white kunzu robes and golden hats. One of them stood in the very centre with a microphone, one arm outstretched toward the groom who nodded gravely as he spoke. I still had not laid eyes on the bride, who was to remain in her room until the very end of the ceremony. My friend, a photographer, was constantly directed this way and that, inside and outside, from guest to groom to child to grandmother, with the command “Make photo!”

After several more songs, speeches and prayers, the husband and a small group of the men disappeared inside. The loudest cheer of all arose from the bride’s room and eventually she appeared in the doorway, her gaze downward, her face emotionless. Her dress was a dazzling turquoise, covered in delicately threaded sequins that glinted in the fading sunlight. I turned as someone offered me a plate of wali (rice) and when I looked back the bride and groom had slipped into a white car that was already halfway down the street. The wedding guests slowly meandered behind them to the spot where buses usually stop. When a bus failed to appear after ten minutes, they spontaneously broke out into a dance circle in the middle of the road. This involved jumping forwards and backwards around the drummers in time to the beat, stirring up clouds of dust. I was dragged into the circle by my “body guards” who showed me the steps and laughed and cheered at my attempts to imitate them.

Eventually the bus arrived and everyone travelled to the groom’s home where there was a huge crowd of neighbours and friends packed into his front garden. I squashed into the front row along with the KCC crew and watched our acrobats, dancers, and a stilt walker who was challenged to a dance-off by an elderly woman in the crowd. She pointed a crooked finger up at him before lying down on the ground, groaning and rolling back and forth. While the rest of the crowd found it hugely amusing, the humour was completely lost on me.

Just as the speeches were beginning, our bjaji driver yelled for us to “Go, go!” and hurriedly ushered us out of the crowd and into the bjaji. Then we were careening around the narrow dirt roads in the darkness, thumping over rocks and potholes in order to make the fast ferry back to Kigamboni. It had been a crazy and brilliant day. Like most days, it was full of contradictions. The joyful dancing wedding guests and the still and silent bride. The formality and seriousness of the ceremony followed by the absurdity and fun of the performances. I had felt like an outsider in every sense of the word. I could not communicate with most of the guests, could not understand the rules and customs, and yet somehow simply taking part in it all, amongst my new KCC friends, made me feel deeply connected to the community.

As yellow car headlights blurred past us on the streets of Dar, I leaned forward and shouted over the roar of traffic for our bjaji driver to go more pole pole (slowly). He laughed and he began to sing at the top of his lungs in a mixture of Kiswahili and English. I couldn’t make out most of the words, but every now and then I heard: “This is life in Tanzania!” Indeed.

Photo courtesy of Mark Tipple


African Child Day, KCC Style


 At Kigamboni Community Centre, Tanzania, as in many places around Africa, the Day of the African Child is one of the most important days of the year. And rightfully so – the day is held on June 16th in honour of hundreds of children who were killed during an uprising in Soweto, South Africa on the same day in 1976. They took to the streets to demand their right to equal education and to be taught in their own language. Security forces under the apartheid regime responded with tear gas and bullets, killing close to 200 children and injuring hundreds more.

Soweto shootings, 1976

In 2012, the Day of the African Child not only commemorates those children but also draws into sharp focus the many issues still faced by African children today. According to the UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2011, young Africans still face high levels of poverty, hunger, child and maternal mortality, inability to access education, gender inequality and homelessness. With the powerful UN spotlight fixed on these issues, progress has undeniably been made, but reports suggest there is much more work to do. While many more children are living past the age of five, the rate of mother’s dying in childbirth is still high meaning they are growing up without adequate parental care. And while the percentage of children enrolled in primary school has jumped significantly, recent studies have found this does not correlate with increased learning. Many children are still completing primary school without being able to read Swahili, English or do basic mathematics (UWEZO Tanzania Key Findings 2010).

At the Kigamboni Community Centre students and volunteers alike have stories of days without food, years without a home and lives without parents. The centre was set up by local volunteers who wanted to help children overcome these challenges that they themselves had faced in their youth. And yet, on the Day of the African Child, the dusty air swirls with nothing but pure joy and excitement as hundreds of local children take to the streets of Kigamboni. It is a scene of chaotic exuberance, with clowns and stilt walkers leading the group of young Tanzanians as they dance, sing songs of ‘watoto’ (children) and pound drums as strong and steady as a collective human heartbeat.

Photo courtesy of Mark Tipple

After the march, the KCC children flood into the centre to watch their acrobats, dancers, actors and singers put on a show. The KCC children perform proudly and fearlessly, whether launching themselves into a triple back flip or a theatrical exploration of the moral dilemmas faced by youth today. This is nothing out of the ordinary – they have the opportunity to practice their talents with skilled teachers six days a week at KCC, as well as attending English classes, academic tuition and for the younger children, nursery education. Jackson, a local 16-year-old, is one of the stars of the show. A few days previously he told me of his childhood spent on the streets and unable to afford school. He is now top of his class and hopes to be a professional actor.

While the Day of the African child reminds us of a dark time in African history, and highlights the many challenges that African children still face, stories like Jackson’s serve as a testament to the overwhelming positivity and resilience of African children. He explains that despite what he experienced as a child, “I know I am strong … I believe I will have a good life. I will be able to help my family if they are struggling, and that makes me very happy.”

The Motivation to Give

Some say it is our soul, some say it is our ego. Some believe in selfless good deeds but most are willing to admit that when they give (time, materials, money) it is because they get far more out of it than anyone they might be giving to. International volunteers here are Kigamboni say they can be more creative, more useful, more appreciated, more innovative than they ever were in paid jobs back home. The experience and knowledge they are gaining is far more valuable than money. Everyone I have spoken to so far – both locals and foreigners – agrees that Tanzanians generally do not have much motivation to volunteer. Understandably, their main priority is to ensure they get money to eat and provide for the families. And yet, at the Kigamboni Community Centre there are nearly thirty people volunteering their time, energy and skills. Many of them are at KCC seven days a week, often turning down paid work to fulfil their responsibilities at the centre. This means relying on friends, family or sponsorship for their basic needs.

Since I have been in Kigamboni, the most common words I have heard apart from “Mambo” (hello) is “Karibu sana”, meaning you are very welcome. The local people have welcomed me into their classrooms and their homes. I have met their families and been offered food and drink. They have readily shared their struggles and their hopes for a different future. In short, they do not hesitate to give of themselves in every way, to anyone that may need it -whether they are a homeless local child or a Western tourist. Everyone is welcome and everyone has something to contribute. So if volunteering is unusual here, what is it exactly that motivates this unwavering dedication to giving?

Sakina, one of the local volunteer teachers at KCC tells me “you must have volunteering in your heart, otherwise you will not live your life in the right way.” Although she is a full time volunteer with no paid income for herself, she dreams of opening a house for street children to live. For Nassoro, the Entertainment & Activities Director and one of the founding members of KCC, giving is about leaving a legacy worth being remembered by.  He says he could have used his acrobatic skills to make money for himself, but he prefers to dedicate his talents to the centre because it is the only way he will feel satisfied at the end of his life. “I could have ten cars and ten houses, but when I die no one will cry for me,” he explained. However, “If I do good things for my community, even when I am no longer alive it will be like I left a part of my body behind, because many people will remember me and the great things I did.”

The Business Director and handicrafts teacher, Fanuel, has a very different take on why it is worth giving his time and energy to volunteer at KCC. He believes that if they all continue to work hard for a good cause, they will eventually be recognised with wealth and fame because that is the way it should be. He spoke with such passion that it seemed perhaps he could make his vision come to be purely by his unwavering certainty that it would. For now, however, he says “We are okay without money. We are struggling but we are happy. We help each other, we share, and we live through friendship.”

Although their specific motivations and expected outcomes may be somewhat different, all of these volunteers possess the same unwavering dedication to continue giving no matter what. So it presents the age-old question: Does it matter what our motivations are, as long as the end result is a positive one? I’m not sure what my personal answer would be, but for most people at KCC it seems the only thing that matters is working hard, collaborating with one another and believing. With these three ingredients, they are sure KCC can only get bigger and better, and with so many passionate individuals giving so wholeheartedly, it would be difficult to doubt it.

By: Cat Wright

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