A couple of weeks ago, Justin Morgan, Gaspar Leboy and I had the opportunity to roam around for a few days in Ngorongoro district in Tanzania. Oxfam implements a number of programmes in the region. All of these are rights based and broadly in the economic, social and gender justice spheres.  In this district, these programmes focus on the Masaai, a predominantly pastoral community. The idea was simple – we were trying to understand if

  • Our programmes were making any difference to the lives of the people.
  • In what way were they complementing each other or whether in fact they were pulling in different directions.
  • What were the aspirations of the community and how they saw their future.

We tried to keep it strictly informal. We wanted to explore and explore we did. We met government officials, traditional leaders, women, youth – boys and girls and village leaders. We did not restrict to those that Oxfam had worked with but looked at community on the whole. The meetings were around a fireplace in dark huts with the smoke trying to kill us, under trees, in the market place,  while walking with the pastoralists as they tended to the cattle, in the car as we moved from place to place and in government / partner offices. We did not make use of notepads, pens or recorders. We wanted interactions and discussions with people. Pulling out pads and pens would  make the setting artificial and the conversation, already stymied by the need to translate, even more stilted. We would meet each evening, have a debrief on what we had learnt and plan for the next day.

It was an heady experience. Possibly one of my best spent weeks in this part of the world. A few aspects that came forth clearly and unequivocally from a cross section of the people were

  1. They no longer wished to remain without choice and voice. The community, marginalised in the overall socio-economic-political context of Tanzania, wanted to take a more active part in the decisions that affected their lives. They want more say in governance and want the government & others (bureaucrats, private sector, NGOs etc) to be accountable to them.
  2. The spectre of climate change was no longer a theoretical construct for them; they could see the impacts of erratic rains, changing seasons and the havoc this was playing with their livelihoods.
  3. The hunger to see the children educated was to be seen to be believed. Not just the boys but the girls too.  Almost everyone we spoke with believed that education was the key to opening up different opportunities that the changing world had to offer. Sure they were looking at jobs – teachers, government officers etc. They were also looking at the children and youth going and exploring the world.

It is in the middle of our wandering that we ran into this group of traditional village Village elders in Piyayaleaders in the village of Piyaya.  They were on their way to a meeting when we hailed them. What started as a casual conversation, took interesting turn as we discussed the agenda for their meeting.

It seems that over the last few years people in and around the bomas (homesteads) realised that by the time their children went to primary school, they were already falling behind the kids in the central village which had better facilities. They studied what was happening and realised that it was the pre-primary schooling that was making a difference.  Just sitting in the pre-primary for a few hours, playing and learning something was making some children better adapted to the rigours of primary school. The village elders decided to come together and do something about it. The option of going to government was rejected because it would take too long and there was an urgency of now. The only way forward was to help themselves. In the first meeting itself a plot of land was identified. Someone took responsibility to get the Village Executive Officer to agree to earmark the plot for a pre-primary school. This happened in a short while too, since the VEO was from the same village and knew what the problem was. In the second meeting of the elders, contributors were identified – someone to do the flooring, someone to put in the money for the roof, someone to get the timber and others to work on the construction. Voila – a few weeks later the pre-primary school was done. Then the elders, with help from the VEO, identified an educated teacher and appointed her to the school. Salary of the teacher comes from the contributions that each family makes; it does not matter if the family has a pre-primary kid or not, everyone contributes.

The meeting that they had been going to, was to decide on books and teaching learning material to buy and how much to increase the teacher’s salary by! The community has decided that they will run the school for a year and then try and handover a successful experiment to the government. Till that happens, they will run it themselves because like a woman told me “our children are benefiting, so we must do it.”

This chance interaction, made our day. It was wonderful to see people just going ahead and helping themselves.  It was also chastening to an extent – never again would any of us ever be even remotely patronising in our interactions with any community.


PS: I wrote this post specifically for the Oxfam East Africa Blog. Then decided to keep it here as well.