Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship
Tanzania: Pay It Forward
March 10, 2008
Pay it forward. For anyone who never saw the movie, or heard of the concept, it is a simple concept of passing on aid to others for the greater benefit of all. In my first month in Tanzania, I have seen many small scale projects and organizations that embody this concept whole heartedly, providing direct aid and education to less fortunate people in Africa. I have also witnessed the inefficiency and corruption that can arise when greed and short-term thinking reign. In a country where more than a third of people are living on less than $1 US per day and often have a fatalistic mentality about life, sustainability is incredibly tied in to social, cultural and most fundamentally survival issues. The country of Tanzania is growing quickly, facing rapid urbanization, increasing levels of Western-style consumerism, and finding its infrastructure to be inadequate to support such patterns of development. By enabling and empowering those in need, sharing knowledge and skills, quality of life can improve in Africa. With the correct models and policies of growth, this could even happen without Africa completely losing its easy-going charm, cultural identity or natural resources.
Efforts to sustain life here range from getting access to drinking water, food and sanitation, to being able to create crafts to sell to tourists, or to build a durable home. In the past month, I have toured an array of grassroots projects working to give people better access to health care, housing, food or skills to make a living. Wonder Welders and the Mabinti Center are two examples of projects that train disabled people and orphans skills to create crafts from very basic materials, giving them access to a livelihood they would not otherwise have. The Heifer Project makes initial community investments (generally livestock) through a well-established process taking into account cultural practices and environmental constraints and calls for those who receive the aid to then spread the offspring to others, raising the quality of life for entire communities. The CCBRT Disability Hospital works to treat people regardless of income and to spread health education. Crucial to the success of these projects is the training of local people who will not pack up and leave when their Africa tour is done. Then these people can pass on skills and knowledge to others. Such projects can and should serve as models for larger aid efforts.
I have found Tanzanians in general to be very impressionable and susceptible to outside influences, which makes sense considering the long history of colonialism here. Over the centuries, local people have been impressed upon by Arabs, Portugese, Indian, British, and German colonialists—to name the major players—leaving them to believe that their own traditions, materials and lifestyles are inadequate. While the average person here is still far from living a highly consumptive lifestyle like we do in the West, I know that resource management and sustainable growth will become greater issues as the country develops and progresses. Already, I arrived to find that almost everyone has a cell phone, even if they can barely afford to put food on the table at home. The perception of what is modern is equivalent to what has been imported, evidenced in architecture by the use of concrete blocks, tin roofing, and an increasing reliance on cooling systems over climate-appropriate design. “People’s admiration of concrete blocks as good ‘modern’ materials could be said to be built on ignorance of how the materials perform, since not enough research is done in Tanzania to convince people of the positive aspects of local or traditional building materials”1. With power cuts happening multiple times each day, a high relative cost for concrete construction, and an uncertain future for energy sources here, why would people set themselves up to increasingly rely on air conditioning systems?
Fortunately some people are at work in Tanzania to research appropriate building materials and styles, and present alternatives for future development. I have been fortunate to meet with architects, scholars and head of NGO efforts here who have been a vital resource in understanding the current built environment and future issues in Tanzania. Architect Nadir Tharani works to promote climate appropriate designs that lower thermal gain and utilize passive ventilation. Jeremy Cross of Habitat for Humanity has made some research efforts on alternative building materials that can be procured at a greater affordability and lower environmental impact. Professor Victoria Heilman, Dr. Alphonce Kyessi and Dr. Huba Nguluma at Ardhi University are all doing research on alternative growth in Dar Es Salaam, looking at formal and informal development, modernization, and infrastructure improvement. Terri Place from the Baobab Home in Bagamoyo decided to build a project home constructed for Mma Rehema with the help of Elke Cole, an international leader in natural building, to demonstrate other possibilities for building. The home combined natural materials and advanced techniques to build with them, with an understanding of both the traditional style and climate appropriate design to create a structure that is more modern in appearance than traditional mud and pole homes, functional, and fundamentally more sustainable to construct. Mma Rehema told me that she is happy that she does not live in an ugly concrete home that gets hot and grows mold like her neighbor’s house. Now how do these people pass on this knowledge and experience to the greater public?
Aside from the development of a mentality that local and traditional are inferior, history has created some other obstacles. Following the independence of Tanganyika (now Tanzania after joining with the island nation of Zanzibar) in 1961, a social experiment was attempted by the government to unify the nation through decentralized service centers called Ujamaa villages. Because of the heavy handed method of implementation, underlying communist sentiment, and the dependence on the government it fostered, the movement ultimately was unsuccessful. However, I think the concept is worthy of a second look. Basically the government wanted to be able to provide services for a population scattered all around the large country without having to deal with mass urbanization to a few urban centers. The growth of downtown Dar Es Salaam is a good example of the current lack of a vision for growth and modernization that has resulted here. With the help of Chinese contractors and their incredibly cheap labor forces, concrete skyscrapers are popping up all over downtown, at a loss of many historic structures that reflect Dar’s diverse colonial history. However, the city already faces major traffic jams throughout the day and lacks the transportation systems to support such density. The government is lacking the long term vision, public support and policy here to prevent such growth patterns, and needs education from those who have perspective and experience to understand the impacts and alternatives.
But many Tanzanians remain extremely optimistic about the future. Hakuna matata. Mr. Bahati Nzunda of the Heifer Project here in Dar argues that the traditional values of sharing and community support that are ingrained in the culture here serve to prevent rampant greed and individualism of consumer societies. And his community projects demonstrate that maybe people can pay it forward and grow together. Dr. Alphonce Kyessi from Ardhi University is optimistic about the development of education, health and basic infrastructure in Tanzania and the future of growth and progress. He believes that the government only needs to have a policy of what and how that growth will take place “so we are not trapped in the same experiences as the West.”
This brings me to the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and large scale aid in Tanzania. When local people here learn that I am an American, they are always very excited and happy to tell me “I love your president.” In response to the question why, they say because he is a generous man and he is giving them money. Fair enough. But when asked where the money is going and how it will truly benefit them, most people are at a loss to explain. So I was very happy when Kris Maddens took me to a meeting where a man from the MCC was speaking about how the money will be used. If you missed this, President Bush approved a near $700 million US contract with the Tanzanian government to fund infrastructure, health and education projects in the country. This came following the resignation of the prime minister Edward Lowassa for a financial scandal—which many people consider a small gesture to demonstrate to Bush that the country can handle its corruption—and was followed by Mr. Bush’s infamous Africa tour. The MCC speaker explained that the majority of the funds will be allocated to existing systems of transportation, energy and water infrastructure with a 5 year deadline for completion. At the end of the speech, I asked about the sustainability of investing in existing infrastructure as opposed to taking the opportunity to educate and demonstrate possibilities like renewable energy or alternative development. His response was that the US funding was designed to meet the requests of the Tanzanian government, and that the US does not take on the role of diagnosing what the country needs. However, it seems that with all of the money and research we put into our fancy concepts of sustainability, we could at least bother to share some of that with developing countries. Pay it forward. Why do we input millions of depreciating US dollars into a system that leaves other people bogged down in the same energy and resource intensive systems that we are currently working to move past in the United States? As Thomas Blair wrote in his article “Shelter in Urbanising and Industrialising Africa” in 1971, “African cities need not suffer through the same mistakes of western industrial societies.”
Karibu sana. You are very welcome. These words come at the end of the Kiswahili greeting process that has become a ritual repeated many times daily and come to embody my first month in Africa. The people here in Tanzania—whether expats or locals—have welcomed me into their homes, their shops, and their lives whole-heartedly. I was welcomed to Africa by the Maddens family, who have been incredibly gracious hosts, including me in family dinners, cooking lessons, and even heavy metal band practice. Kris has been amazing in helping me make new contacts as well. I have also had the pleasure of getting to know tourism gurus Nicola and Carolina, who have much to share from their more than 30 years in Tanzania. Then there are the people that I meet on the street, in a daladala (local version of a city bus), or I come knocking on their office door who do everything they can to answer my questions and make my stay enjoyable, even if we do not speak the same language. I was even allowed to enter a mosque, provided that I wore the traditional kanga! The pace of life in Africa is frustratingly slow at times, but at least the people here take time for each other and to enjoy life. The traditional urban housing type here, the Swahili house, always has a front veranda for receiving visitors or just greeting those who pass on the street. To the people here, there is a sense of pride in showing me their country and their lives because I am their guest, simple as that. Someday I will find a way to reciprocate, or at least to pay it forward.Photos: www.vanderbilt.edu/travelfellowship/feeney
1 Nuguluma, Huba M. Housing Themselves: Transformations, Modernisation, and Spatial Qualities in Informal Settlements in Dar Es Salaam. 2003.