Article for Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday, August 25th, 2014
Manitoba Support Essential to Tanzanian Development
By Zack Gross
This is my second article in a series based on my family trip to East Africa last month. The title may seem like an exaggeration, but it truly isn’t. Due to the support of organizations, families and individuals in our area, communities in northwestern Tanzania are much better off than they would have been otherwise. And, due to cutbacks in funder support in recent years, many initiatives to improve Tanzanian lives have slowed.
Brandon and southwestern Manitoba first connected with people in the Mwanza and Lake Zone Districts of Tanzania when Beny Mwenda and his colleagues came to study at Assiniboine Community College about 15 years ago. Those who have met Beny know that he is an engaging sort, so it was not long before he had gotten involved in the Marquis Project and St. Augustine’s Church, as well as “recruiting” interest at ACC, Manitoba Agriculture and other places to connect with his rural community development efforts in his home country.
As Humphrey Bogart said at the end of Casablanca, “This is the beginning of a beautiful relationship” and it has been. Numerous projects have been funded from Manitoba and also from the Ontario-based Agricultural Institute of Canada (AIC) to supplement other funds found from European agencies. Dinah Ceplis, a Minnedosa-area retired horticulturalist and adult educator who visits Tanzania regularly, says that thanks to Manitoba and Canadian efforts, life has changed for the better in this region.
The projects undertaken have included development and promotion of fuel-efficient stoves to ensure better health and safety in local homes as well as reducing the number of trees being cut down. We had a chance to visit “Mama Shigela”, the legendary, award-winning innovator and producer of ceramic stoves.
Another effort has been HIV/AIDS education and prevention as well as caring for orphans of AIDS-affected families. Organic vegetable production has been another initiative, leading to better nutrition and some revenue to gardening families.
Young Manitoba interns have made a huge impact on youth and development projects in the area. Although the funding hasn’t been in place for a number of years to send more, people still talk about the Ashley Mushumanskis and the Megan Wiltons who spent months working with them more than a decade ago. The Marquis Project’s Worldly Goods store for many years sold baskets made by women in different parts of the country, bringing in needed income and showing Manitobans one aspect of Tanzanian art and culture.
Recent funding has supported a new initiative and seemingly a new way of thinking for Beny Mwenda and his staff. They have taken a more entrepreneurial tack and work with young people to identify “tangible goals” that they would like to attain through profits they make in setting up small business ventures. Some people might choose as their goal the purchase of a new bicycle so that they can deliver produce more easily. Others might want to refurbish their home or indeed build a new one.
We visited several very successful ventures of this sort in July. The area itself, around Tanzania’s second city, Mwanza, and particularly in one community, Usagara, seems to be booming as new business comes in, related to resource extraction as well as the local fishery. We were taken to a busy commercial spot, what we might think of here as a “strip mall” at an intersection of roads.
One young man, who seems to have the entrepreneurial knack has, with his wife and family, not only set up a thriving “convenience store” here, but also has built himself a house and developed rental units nearby for others seeking housing. Just down from him, a local woman has set up a food store specializing in local products. She also supplies food in a canteen at a local agricultural centre. Finally, we stopped by a shop that specializes in carpentry and welding. The young people working at this spot had attended our welcome a few days before and were happy to show us how they were using both their physical and entrepreneurial skills.
So, what’s the problem? The fact is that this is only a beginning and there is still much more poverty and lack of opportunity to overcome. In a meeting with the local District Commissioner, appointed by the Tanzanian President to oversee development in the region, we were told of the high unemployment rate that affects young men who – educated or not – have little that is productive to do. While some communities that are near major roads are improving economically, more remote ones are suffering.
We were also told how organizations no longer supported by our Canadian government have been forced to cut their programs and therefore their support for work in the Lake Zone. One young man said: “We have many good ideas but no money to work with!” My wife, as a nurse, visited a local clinic that seemed to need everything and have almost nothing to deal with malaria, accidents and other daily occurrences. We were moved by the energy and ambition of the young people we met, but concerned about their chances to reach their goals.
As we left one meeting attended by several entrepreneurial groups, a young fellow came up to me and said “Thanks for what you’ve done! Are you still with us?” Of course, I said, I promise that we are.
Zack Gross was Executive Director of the Marquis Project for twenty-five years and now sits on its Board of Directors. He and his family visited Tanzania in July of this year.