Friday, August 29, 2008

Karagwe and Pedal Power

Somehow I thought Karagwe was a 5 hour drive from Dar es Salaam, but as I’m flying to the northwest corner of Tanzania, to Mwanza, where I switch to a small propeller plane to go to the farther northwest corner town of Bukoba, on the western side of Lake Victoria, close to Rwanda, I’m realizing how important it is to check the spelling of a town name (Karagwe not Korogwe?) before committing to something.

I was introduced to Gary Zieff, who runs a firm called dissigno, that focuses on appropriate technology solutions in developing countries. Gary and team are launching an initiative in Karagwe to install a system using human powered generators - Pedal Power -- which will charge battery-powered lights that will replace kerosene lanterns and candles. Most of the region, like 95% of Tanzania, is off the grid and so households use kerosene lanterns (which are toxic and expensive). The Pedal Power initiative aims to set up a system so that people can rent these human power-recharged batteries and lights at a price below kerosene cost.

Dissigno was one of the sixteen winners of the World Bank Development Marketplace Lighting Africa competition. They competed against 500 participants, were selected and awarded $200,000 to test their pilot project in Tanzania.

Flying from Mwanza, on one side of lake Victoria, to Bukoba, on the other, took 40 minutes. The lake, the biggest in Africa, is truly vast, covering 26,000 square miles, making it the largest tropical lake in the world. It is bordered by Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, and is home to more than 3,000 islands. Rocky outcroppings dot a landscape of folded hills with occasional villages of scattered houses of cinderblock and tin or thatch. I learn that this land is well suited for the coffee and bananas that grow here.

Gary had asked if I could meet with their NGO partner, KADERES (Karagwe Development & Relief Services) to assess their level of enthusiasm and interest in the project. I spent my first afternoon with the Executive Director. This should have been familiar territory as I’ve done this due diligence questioning with a hundred nonprofits in the U.S. But this somehow was different.

Questions I asked, such as - how do people choose which Savings and Credit Organization (SACCO) to join, were met with answers beginning with, “we don’t do things here the way you do in America...” There is a decided tension to this development work (based on my, oh, one or two data points). On one hand, western development work is truly needed and welcomed. The government of Tanzania relies on western donors for 45% (!!!) for its annual operating budget. On the other hand, I get the feeling that there is a real desire to develop and implement home-grown solutions, and a touch of resentment of mzungu efforts.

The Pedal Power project is, like so much of the appropriate technology work being done here, designed to be an intermediate step. Using rechargeable batteries is not a hoped for permanent solution. But until billions of dollars are spent on infrastructure - to wire the country and get clean water - it will be many many years before most people have access to basic services.

I was put up in the $13 a night Hotel at Home. Water in the bathroom was in a large plastic tub for washing, and in the morning, they’d bring in another tub of hot water. This was as remote as I’d been. I was out of safe ex-pat comfortable Dar and in real Africa. It was exciting and surprisingly, didn’t make me as nervous as I thought I’d be. (Although if I start an NGO here, it will be called Hot Shower-Aid, because in my book, you gotta have a hot shower in the morning.

Hotel at Home did have a bar with plenty of cold beers, and I spent the evening talking to the local priest, who apparently was at the bar each evening. He asked me if I wanted to go to mass. When I told him I wasn’t Catholic, he started a guessing game, “Muslim? Anglican? Bahai?” When I said Jewish, he started laughing and said, “I know about that from studying at seminary.”

I travelled with Optatus, the accountant at KADERES, who provides technical assistance to the SACCO’s in the region. We drove out rutted dirt roads for many miles to visit three of them. When we went in, each a small office the size of two office cubicles, we were formally handed a guest book to sign. I signed, and scanned the names above. On each page, Optatus’s formal sign-in over the past few months was officially noted, and little else.

Each of these SACCO’s had about 2,000 members, and served as the regional savings bank and lender as farmers weather the cycles of crop harvests. I learned that virtually all of the members of the SACCO’s depended on kerosene for light in their house. I also asked for estimates of the amount spent per month, and all replied that approximately 5 liters were used per household per month, costing about $12. This is a huge burden for families getting by on under $400/year.

Before the visit, I thought the project was innovative but maybe cute. After the visit, I realize what a significant difference in so many lives, such a simple idea can have. The groups were excited. The biggest issue that they believe will need to be addressed is the initial plan to serve 3,000 families when so many more will be demanding the batteries.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Goat Races

Yesterday found us crowding the outside of a track with 10 goats who, with no strong proclivity toward moving herd-like in any single direction, much less any interest in movement at all, were being shooed and pushed from behind around a race track. Over three thousand spectators cheered at the Dar es Salaam Charity Goat Races, but the goats didn’t seem to be relishing their moment in the limelight.

Launched in in 2001, the Goat Race was loosely modeled on Royal Ascot, but with noble racing steeds replaced by ornery goats. There is betting, of course, and tents serving champagne and drinks, and spectators in big floppy hats, loud music, and a kiddie area.

One of TechnoServe’s volunteer consultants (“volcon’s” is what they are called in Hillary's office) stayed with us for 6 weeks while she worked during the break in her MBA studies. Young and single, she quickly tapped into a nonstop nightlife culture -- late night restaurants, clubs, music and dancing -- that Hillary and I had no idea existed in Dar. There is a party society that parents of toddlers aren’t told about, much less invited to.

The goat races contained a melding of these different worlds. We saw some of Bodie’s young friends scrambling around with parents chasing after them. Hillary ran into colleagues from agencies with which she was working on projects. We also saw denizens of the night scene - women in strappy little dresses drinking champagne, and couples in dark shades (it was afternoon so unwelcome sunlight to the vampire crowd) crowding the bar tents.

Bodie jumped and cheered on the goats. As he did so, I thought that if his intellectual pursuits don’t work, he he may well have the perfect build to be a fine goat jockey.

The goats were “bought” or sponsored by locals and companies and we can only imagine that much of the intellectual firepower of Tanzania has been tied up for weeks in thinking of clever names (Fartaway Faraday, Kid Rock, Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying, Ghoti, Furcoatnoknickers, and Deep Goat, among them.)

The races raised $50,000 for a eight charities working to help those with disabilities in Tanzania. It was a great way for these charities, which work quietly in the shadows with a poor country’s most disadvantaged, to have some visibility and support.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy Marathon

Hillary has been busy working. She has taken over an organization that was in decline and needed a turnaround. She is very competitive, and this helps drive her. It can also have her running off a cliff. Or at least through a game preserve. Our friend Laura tapped into this instinct of hers and challenged, although she’d say invited, Hillary to run a half-marathon at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. Hillary, who was – pre-Bodie, pre-Alfred – a runner of marathons, accepted.

Bodie, Hillary, Laura and I, along with Laura’s good friend Kalin, (aiming for the medal to be awarded to the first Bulgarian to cross the finish) left Nairobi early on Friday morning to make the four-hour drive north, past Mount Kenya to Lewa Conservancy. Lewa has 62,000 acres that include black rhinos, elephants, lions, warthogs, a rare, endangered type of zebra and pretty much any African animal you can think of. The area is savanna, vast grasslands with clusters of trees, and stretches as far as you can see. Driving through the park to the campsite, we saw grazing elephants, giraffes and zebras.

A sign welcoming everyone to the park read: "Warning. Endurance running in a a wildlife conservation area is an inherently risky activity. You participate entirely at your own risk."

The campsite teemed with hundreds of tents. Sponsored by, the largest cell phone company in Kenya, there was a bar tent, music, and Masai dancing. About 600 people (fact checker - please verify) were running, of which 150 were running a full marathon.

We camped around a campfire with others from Laura’s company, Pesa Point, who were part of the team. Here is where some of our planning fell short. When camping with a two-year old, it is important to think through a few basic questions in advance. Like, for instance, where is he going to sleep? We had a tent, two pads and two sleeping bags. In camping, it is protocol to bring your own stuff. “Bodie, where’s your stuff?” we asked. Nothing.

So we zipped two mummy-style sleeping bags together and tried to settle Bodie down to sleep. Sleep? Why? There is a tent to bounce in, and soft sleeping bags to bounce on, and animal noises and people talking around a campfire outside, and, did I mention that there is a tent?

Strike 1: Hillary had been busy at work and had amassed total training mileage the month before of, oh, zero.

Strike 2: According to experts, sleep may be a factor in how one feels and performs the next day. This thing that we call “sleep” was not so evident the night before the marathon.

But offsetting the strikes – we camped in a stunning game preserve. We heard animals through the night – elephants, a cheetah (Hillary swears) although I’m guessing it was a warthog, maybe hyenas in the distance, and saw more stars glittering in the night sky then we’ve ever seen before. We stood at our tent and watched the sun setting with an elephant no more than a hundred yards away. A family of baboons sat on fallen trees, staring at the campers waking from tents when we woke up.

During the marathon, Bodie and I raced around in a pickup truck to catch up with Hillary, Laura and Kalin and cheer them on. I scanned the savannah, trying to eye different game. Bodie was more preoccupied with the two helicopters that were hovering in the near distance, scaring off the animals so they wouldn’t munch laggardly runners.

At the mid-point, Bodie handed bottles of water to passing runners. Well, he stood for a good four minutes, arm outstretched, but everyone seemed to choose water at waist height. When Hillary showed up, Bodie yelled, as we’d practiced, “go mama go!”. She stopped, hugged him, and started to go. He burst into tears, to which Hillary replied: “I feel your pain.”

The folks running the full marathon were mostly Kenyans, with many world-class runners taking part. This is a different type of runner than we normally see jogging around the park. They are thin, all muscle and sinew, with legs that run from the ground directly to their shoulders. At the finish, they were ahead of most of the runners completing the half-marathon, and strode in, after 26 miles in the hot sun, at full bore. It was stunning to see these human gazelles effortlessly loping across through the savannah.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Camp Graduation

Camp Msasani ended for the summer. It was wonderful to spend time with Bodie and 14 toddlers beach combing, making art, singing and dancing. What was amazing, and unforeseen, was how the nannies (each kid was accompanied by one) gelled so that they’d start singing at a moments notice. The songs, all from their youth and in Swahili, have certain movements, and these two year old kids learned to put their hands on their hips and shake, or raise their hands to their heads, singing, “ay ay ay kipepeo, kipepe”.

One of my initial goals in coming to Dar was to get to know Tanzanians, and I’ve felt thwarted in that. But over the summer, I’ve been able to spend a good part of each day with 14 Swahili-singing, dancing and drumming women.

Last Thursday, after a mind-challenging exercise of finding and counting 10 things on the beach, the kids came up to the house for a brief graduation ceremony. Each received a certificate of achievement and a Camp Msasani t-shirt with primary colored handprints stamped by each camper. Each nanny received a camp t-shirt with “staff” emblazoned on the sleeve.

Parents came for this first graduation and the nanny’s started dancing and singing the songs they’d been singing to the kids all summer. All the parents stood and cheered the show, and I thought smugly to myself that I’ve had the luxury of being a part of this for six weeks. If anyone is considering starting a Tanzanian summer camp, a good selection of songs include: Jambo, jambo bwana, Mauwa Mazuri, Ukuti Ukuti, Watoto Wadogo, Kofia Yababu, Lingu Lingu, Tulingeba yuyo, Saa yakwenda kwetu, and the classic Simama kaa.