Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bikes of Kagera

The bicycle: so simple, so elegant... and so frequently relied upon in our region, where cars are few and far between. Some of the ways Tanzanians use their bikes are very similar to the ways we use them in the States, and some are quite different. Here are a couple of the many photos we have featuring two-wheeled wonders.

These are stopped at the Uganda-Tanzania border.

This one is pretty in (front of) pink.

This bicycle carries a lot of water...

... and this one carries at least one chicken.

These bikes are powered by hand and are used by amputees.

This bicycle (loaded with peanuts, bananas, and our neighbor) is headed to market.

And this bicycle is behind a four-year-old with a machete.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cash Rules Everything Around Me

Jambo marafiki wa Ploceidae! Our apologies for having fallen silent for a while. Life here has been pretty full since we returned from Bukoba. Besides our normal class-related duties, Graham has been busy assessing Mavuno’s Microfinance Program, and Kerry has been hard at work trying to raise funds for a massive girls secondary school that Mavuno is in the first phases of building. Here’s a little bit about the microfinance program; we’ll write later about the school project.

Those are some real-live Tanzanian Shillings. As you can see, we’re rich: we roll with stacks of Gs. Of course, a G here, which features the face of Tanzania’s founder Julius Nyerere, is only worth about $0.80. And when a currency with a lot of zeros in it isn’t worth one US Dollar, you know what that’s likely to mean: lots of folks around here are very poor.

To help the poor work their way out of poverty, Mavuno offers a number of services, one of which is the Mavuno Microfinance Program. If you aren’t familiar with the idea of microfinancing, Muhammad Yunus’s Banker to the Poor is worth a read. (Aside: we were able to buy the book here on, and then Graham downloaded and read it on the Kindle. Thanks Graham’s Mom for the Kindle, and thanks Kerry’s Mom for the Amazon funds!) Yunus is the guy who invented microfinancing in Bangladesh in the 70s, and Banker to the Poor is an extremely readable autobiographically based account of his bank’s successes. The idea behind microfinancing is painfully simple: poor folks need credit with non-usurious interest rates. The solution is equally simple: give them small loans that they can repay. With the help of just a little outside funding for seed money, Mavuno has been doing just this for over a decade with, from what we’ve seen, fabulous results.

The vast majority of the loans are for around 350,000 Tsh, which is around $300, and their primary use is to pay school fees. Education isn’t free here, and twice a year students are required to pay several hundred thousand Shillings as fees for the term. Lots of families have lots of difficulty coming up with that much money at once, so Mavuno loans them the money and then lets them repay it in monthly installments. The interest rate is 10%, which makes the math easy. All money gained through interest goes back into the pool available for loans—the pot grows with every loan repaid, but the point is not profit.

Other folks use their loans for agricultural investment. Some of these people have done very, very well through the program. We met many such entrepreneurs a few weeks ago in the village of Mabira. Here’s one, with a (massive) pig she’s invested in:

She was getting ready to sell some (similarly massive) piglets. She has also used loan funds for a cow, whose milk she is able to sell. We met another woman who had invested in solar panels and was making money charging her neighbors a small fee to charge their cell phones (no one’s house in Mabira is connected to the electricity grid). These people are movin’ on up.

While lots of folks are doing well, many of the poorest in Karagwe still have trouble getting access to microcredit. Many cannot take advantage of Mavuno’s program because they have difficulties forming or joining a borrowing group. Mavuno only loans money to individuals who belong to borrowing groups, whose job it is to make sure that the individuals in the group repay their loans on time. If a member is more than three months late with repayments, then the whole group’s access to funds is frozen. The success of this structure is astonishing—there hasn’t been a single default since the group structure was implemented in 2006 (prior to this, Mavuno lent directly to individuals). Existing groups don’t want to include the very poor, however, because the groups fear, reasonably enough, that the very poor will have a very hard time paying back even the smallest loans.

To solve this problem, we’re inviting Mavuno to institute what we’re calling the Mavuno Microfinance Mentor’s Program. To be a Mentor, a person would have already to be a successful participant in the microfinance program, and s/he would help the very poor by forming them into borrowing groups and then advising them for a year or two on sound financial practices. In return, the a Mentor would have the maximum amount that s/he is allowed to borrow, which is currently 500,000 Tsh, raised. The ceiling would be raised once for being a Mentor and then again if the mentored group meets certain benchmarks its first year of operation. Many people want their loan ceiling raised, so there shouldn’t be a problem getting people involved as Mentors, and there is also no shortage of very poor folks who want and need a loan. We’ll be meeting with Mavuno’s microfinance committee next week to discuss implementation of the plan.

In other news, we’re off to Uganda this weekend! We’re picking up Corinne, who is flying into Entebbe. Corinne is a good friend of ours and an Amizade board member, and she will be with us for the remainder of our time in Africa. We’ll write soon about our Ugandan adventure.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A member of the Karagwe Steelers Fanclub

She's not happy, at all, with Ben. Her expression changed though once we told her that Larry Foote will be back next year.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Spring Break 2010

We spent the past weekend in the lovely town of Bukoba, which sits on the shore of Ziwa Victoria. Lake flies and a student’s sprained ankle aside, it was an idyllic weekend, due in no small part to the fact that we spent a lot of time at a campground that served us meals on the beach. Here’s a sample vista:

Looking inland, the view was of goats (which we are used to) and gigantic birds (which we are not). Sample bird:

Friday we enjoyed a hike up the bluffs and our first swim in Africa (in a pool!) before an evening of music & dance on the sand. Saturday’s agenda included a walk to the Kagera museum and the cool drum-making operation next door. Budap is an initiative to employ disabled Tanzanians in the construction of percussion instruments and other curiosities. The men working there impressed us with their enthusiasm as well as their elegant, simple process for turning cowhide and native trees into ngoma.

Just after leaving Budap, we were overwhelmed with a delightful cacophony of bird sounds. Looking up, we were amazed to see a tree hosting dozens of weaver birds (ahem, ploceidae) furiously constructing their nests. It was a made-for-blogging moment.

Saturday afternoon, we were lucky enough to visit Masira Island (visible in the background of the first image). Our boat was awesome:

So were the boats anchored just off the island:

We climbed to the summit of the small hill in the middle of the island, took in the sights, and came back down. The island is great for fishing, birdwatching, and taking oval-framed pictures. Just look:

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Ndiyo tunaweza, wanawake!

If only our internet connection supported the posting of audio. March 8 marks International Women’s Day, a holiday that has passed without great fanfare for both of us – until now. This afternoon Juma Masisi, the executive director of our partner organization WOMEDA, took us to an incredibly memorable event we’ll be thinking of for quite a while. If we could post the sounds, you’d hear a number of local women’s groups singing songs about development, education, work, and empowerment. A refrain that keeps replaying itself on our borrowed mini-disc recorder and in our heads is the title of this post: “Women, yes we can!”

Speeches from dignitaries and incredible dancing were also a part of the celebration, as was recognition of local girls’ exemplary academic achievement. After the festivities, we were able to interview two groups of ladies from partnerships that work collectively to advance the interests of women and children in their respective villages. These conversations left us impressed and invigorated. To continue our celebration of a holiday we’ve ignored for too long, we’ve collected some pictures of inspirational women we’ve met during our time here. Enjoy!

These two ladies are traditional healers. They spent an afternoon with us telling stories (through a translator) and showing us medicinal plants used to cure ailments ranging from sore throats to muscle problems.The woman on the left here (a widow raising four grandchildren) received an Amizade water tank last summer. At sixty, the enthusiasm she showed at being able to devote more time each day to farming (as opposed to gathering water) was a startling reminder of how much WORK women do here. The other ladies in the picture are also widows who live nearby. They are all fabulous singers.

These young tailors-in-training are participants in a WOMEDA vocational program that provides a one-year course of study to young women unable to attend secondary school. In talking with them we learned that they expect that their apprenticeships will position them to be independent, allowing them to help their communities, their families, and themselves.

This is a teacher at a different vocational training site who has a very powerful, feminine presence. Excited to teach disadvantaged youth a skill she herself developed only in the last two years, she created elaborate teaching materials including her own textbook.

This one is sort-of cheating... we haven’t met this baby-carrying girl, we just accidentally captured her while we were trying to photograph the door of a saloon in a nearby village. We’ve included this picture because it’s pretty, and because it demonstrates something we see every day: young girls, with heavy shoulders.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Mambo sawa sawa

Everything is alright. Since we last wrote, we’ve been getting very comfortable in Karagwe. We’re becoming accustomed to the pace of life here; we like the forty minute walk into town along the red clay road, we love the hikes through the hills. We don’t admit it before we’re drinking coffee, but even the practice of building a fire to boil water in the morning has it’s charms (enhanced by the fact that we only need to do this by ourselves once a week). We’re very actively appreciating the sun, the calm, and the monkeys.

Yes, monkeys!

We don’t see them often, but to our delight we have spotted a few playing around in fields and in trees while on our ventures through the cultivated terrain surrounding Mavuno. They seem particularly fond of eucalyptus (which is understandable; it smells fantastic). This monkey, however, was not photographed by us. If you look closely, you’ll notice a rope tied around the little guy. Amizade’s site coordinator, Stephanie, captured this image while the monkey was being held in captivity. It turns out that with their highly effective brains and fingers, these fellas are troubling pests who excel at thievery. Locals will capture the monkeys and kill them to prevent the destruction of their crops and disappearance of their belongings. This particular monkey got lucky and was purchased by someone who eventually released him.

Monkeys are not the only charismatic pests in Africa. We are really fond of our geckos; few-inch long ubiquitous lizards that roam our walls and munch on mosquitos. Geckos > spiders. That’s all there it to it. (Not that there aren’t any spiders... we’ve got plenty. A tarantula even showed up in our bedroom last weekend.)

On the other, absolutely-not-enchanting end of the pest spectrum are bed bugs. We’ll spare you the details, but do want to share our at-least-somewhat effective solar bedbug reduction technique, pictured here:

What else have we been up to? We’ve continued to assess water containment tanks and create tip taps . Here’s a Graham action shot:

Later today, in honor of International Women’s Day, we’ll post an update on what we’ve been learning and doing related to women and water in Tanzania.

One of us had a birthday since our last post, which was celebrated with all due pomp and circumstance, including a surprise dance with the district commissioner (!). A fire-baked cake, gifts including a package of markers and can of diet coke, and a rare red wine treat were greatly appreciated. The day was rounded out with a gorgeous walk in the hills where we met up with our neighbor Manase and some of his friends.

They really enjoyed playing with our camera, and we really enjoyed watching them play with our camera. They captured lots of fun images, including this one:

And, Dad-in-Iowa, this gratuitous shot of the hills is just for you:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ndizi tangawizi!

We’ve now been living in Karagwe for over two weeks, so it’s fair to say that we’re beginning to settle in. Our Swahili is coming along slowly, but it’s fast enough for one of us to have invented a corny phrase that, sadly, he doesn’t expect will catch on. Ndizi tangawizi! This literally means “banana ginger,” and the inventor of the phrase thinks it has the ring of “Holy moley!” or “Jeez Louise!”. It seems like a pleasant way to express a not unpleasant shock, and even with settling in there are still plenty of these two go around.

Here’s one: we have a digital Poloroid camera that functions, well, like a digital Poloroid camera. Here’s what it, and a picture it has produced, look like:

The stick of lip balm is included for scale. You can see that the pictures it makes aren’t as big as good old-fashioned Polaroid pictures, but because they’re produced on a digital camera, you can select which image you want to make and thereby skip printing any duds. The thoughful folks who got this for us as a wedding gift should be pleased. It has not only made us happy, but it has made this family happy:

We printed this image for them. They were at least as impressed as we are with this technology.

Here’s a picture of a way, way simpler technology that we built and supplied them with:

It’s called a “tip-tap,” and it is used for hand-washing. These folks have a water tank (seen in the background of the previous picture), but it doesn’t have a tap. To get water out of it they drop a bucket down the top, as if it were a groundwater well. Because they don’t have a tap, they don’t tend to wash their hands. Enter the tip-tap. There are two small holes that you can’t see in the picture bored into the top of the narrow side of the can that is tilted to the ground. You fill the can with water up to those holes. Then, when you need to wash your hands, you step on the stick, which pulls the rope down, which causes water to come out of the holes, with which you can wash your hands. Oua-la! You’ll notice that we added a handy soap dish to the frame as well.

Here’s a picture of the woman of the house, putting the tip-tap to use:

Ndizi tangawizi!

As you can tell from the pictures, it is still very warm and fairly dry, but we got our first taste of what the rains will be like last Tuesday. They will be hard. It will be interesting to see how the rains affect our upcoming work, for we are to start a few tank-building projects in the coming weeks. We’ve also been told that the cold showers are much harder to bear once the rain takes the heat out of the air and drops cold water into our tanks.

You can bet what we’ll be saying when we have to deal with this.