More About the Girls and Meet Rehema!

A couple blogs ago, I wrote ago about Subira who is one of our students. I received questions about whether she is on scholarship and how one can help her or other girls here. This blog will answer both queries. Also, I did a home visit last week to a student’s home and have attached some photos and her story, written by her.

How To Become A Sega Girl:  The Sega Girls School (Sega) is committed to educating “vulnerable” girls from the Morogoro or Iringa regions in Tanzania. This means, to be admitted, a girl must have been out of school for at least a year and must also pass an entrance exam.

Preparing charcoal to bake bread.

“Vulnerable” means the girl dropped out because her family is too poor to pay school fees or the transportation to get there and sometimes it’s because she has become pregnant and had a child (abortion is illegal in Tanzania), resulting in her being kicked out of school.

Many of the students have one or both parents who are dead. About half have fathers who have died and about a quarter have lost their mothers. 15% have lost both parents. The average household size of these girls is 7.5 but the range is huge with many living in households with more than 10, or even 20, people. 11 girls have children of their own but 68% of the girls report having others they are totally responsible for when they are home, mostly siblings, with many of them having more than five people to care for.

Paying For Sega:  The Sega girls and their families cannot afford to pay for this education. One of my tasks while here is to produce a business plan showing how the school can become financially self-sufficient by running several businesses, the profits from which will pay for most or all of the education of 210 girls within a decade.  I am helping to figure out which businesses make sense  But, in the meantime, here’s how it works:

Preparing the bread to bake.

The girls’ families are asked to pay a nominal fee of 100,000 Tanzanian shillings, which is equal to about $65 per year. The rest of the $2,200 per year it costs to educate each girl is raised from donors in the US by Sega’s sister organization, Nurturing Minds.

There are two ways to be a Sega supporter. One is to make a tax-deductible contribution of any amount to Nurturing Minds. The other is to become a sponsor, also tax-deductible. Sponsorship means that you are making a specific connection with one girl and should want to be in contact with her by mail. The girls love being sponsored, receiving letters from their sponsors and writing back. Subira will be up for sponsorship in January when she starts Form 1.

Packaging the finished product. The house in the background is where I live.

To sponsor a girl is $720 (and a girl can have up to three sponsors at this level) or $2,500 to pay the entire amount for one girl (the $300 excess over costs goes to development of the school).

If you would like to donate any amount or become a sponsor, please contact Nurturing Minds Executive Director, Nikki Shearman at (617) 969-1950 or

Meet Rehema:

Rehema with family in front of their home.

On Wednesday, I went on a home visit to Rehema’s. Here is her story as written by her:

Rehema’s Life Story
My name is Rehema Marko, I am fourteen years old in a family of four children. I am the first-born. I have no father; I’m living with my mother and my stepfather, who has an arm problem. He cannot have it amputated because he cannot afford the cost of going to the hospital.

In the kitchen.

We are not pastoralists, but my mother has a few hens that save her some money. My stepfather had a calf, but he sold it to support us in hospital costs at Morogoro Urban Hospital.

I completed Standard Seven in 2011 and selected to join Dakawa Secondary School, but I did not go because I had no money to pay the bus fare every day. So I had to stay home.

I heard about Sega from the Head of my village.  

Rehema’s siblings with other village children.

He came to advise my father to come and try to ask for assistance at Sega. I thank my stepfather and my mother for their concern and also all Sega teachers for welcoming me without any discrimination. God bless you all who know that there are vulnerable children who need assistance.


Creating Change? Or Not!

“She remembered the project, although she had not known the people involved in it. She recalled that there had been a white man and a woman from South Africa, and one or two other foreigners. A number of the people from the village had worked there, and people had thought that great things would come of it, but it had eventually fizzled out. She had not been surprised at that. Things fizzled out; you could not hope to change Africa. People lost interest, or they went back to their traditional way of doing things, or they simply gave up because it was all too much effort. And then Africa had a way of coming back and simply covering everything up again.”

I love this passage from Tears of the Giraffe, the second in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, set in Botswana. It sums up, in one paragraph, the outcome of so many altruistic and not so altruistic foreign-led aid efforts in Africa.

Another Volunteer’s Perspective

On Friday, I went hiking to the falls again, this time with the Form 2 (9th grade) girls. Margaret, a young woman who is an agriculture volunteer from Eastern Canada, came along.  She is working with a small, unfunded NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) on a plateau near Lake Victoria in Northwestern Tanzania and was visiting Morogoro for a few days.

Form 2 girls enjoying the falls.

We talked about her experience here in TZ and a previous internship she did in Senegal as well as my experience so far at Sega. She commented on how unusual it is for a volunteer to feel as well utilized as I do and commented that Sega is one of the only NGO’s she has come across in her year here that she could recommend to friends who are anxious to contribute money to a good cause in Africa. She pointed out how much difference it makes that it is run by an American and told me that she plans to do HER next blog on Sega!

Girls with Christmas flowers.

Doing Good or Trying To
Many volunteers who go to less developed countries are frustrated that they cannot make the kind of contribution they had envisioned. This is partly due to the radically different expectations and practices around work and productivity but also because most organizations in this environment don’t have the capacity to effectively utilize either people or money. Many volunteers have to create their own work once they get here, some even leaving their original assignments and going out in the community to create their own projects.

Pineapple by the side of the trail.

But to be fair, it’s not as though the Africans have asked for us to come here most of the time. In fact, one of the questions I have had more than once is “Why do people from other countries want to come here?” My now stock answer is “Because it’s very different from where they are from.” I can’t bring myself to say, “And they think they can improve or help you or your country,” even though this is generally the underlying assumption of most volunteers.

Other Struggles
Of course, there are other struggles for volunteers beyond the work, including finding appropriate accommodation, boredom due to limited social and entertainment options, physical discomfort due to heat, bugs, or illness, and disappointing food.

Friday’s lunch: ugali wtih beans and a banana.

I am certainly experiencing all of these difficulties to some extent but, lucky for me, the work has so far been very rewarding.

So Why Come?
Well, definitely not for the food! By the end of our discussion, Margaret and I had come to the conclusion that by far the best way to approach this experience is to focus on what we can get out of it versus what we are contributing (Polly, Sega’s founder, had suggested this soon after I arrived). That way, if at the end of our stay we think we have made any sort of contribution (and hopefully done no harm), we can see that as a bonus. I may be a volunteer who does get that bonus since Sega is a well run organization that is getting better all the time and really knows how to use resources effectively. However, coming to Africa with the belief that one is here to improve the place or the people frequently results in disappointment and disillusionment. As the Price family, misguided missionaries to the Congo, learned in Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful historical novel, The Poisonwood Bible, Africa often has other plans and other forces working on it that make the change you are trying to enact unlikely to occur or last.

Meet Subira!

I thought it might be nice to periodically introduce a student here at Sega. Since I am not actually teaching classes, I need to make an extra effort to get to know the girls and I figured interviewing for my blog is one more way to do so. I have been working with one of the “Business Clubs,” a group of about 20 students who have met twice weekly over a period of 3 months to start up, form, run, and then liquidate a micro-business. The clubs are an exercise designed by Fundacion Paraguaya, the organization that is working with Sega to develop the “learning by doing” business curriculum.

On Tuesday, I mentioned to my group of girls that I would like to interview any of them who want to be featured. Subira was the first to volunteer so we went back to my porch and I asked her several questions. What follows is what I learned about her.

Subira Mohamedy

Subira Mohamedy is a 15-year-old “pre-form” student from Morogoro.  The pre-formal program is a 6-month preparatory period for students who have passed their primary school exam but are not quite ready for secondary school. They will take a readiness exam before they are admitted to Form 1 (equivalent to 8th grade in the US but the first year of secondary school in TZ) in January.

Subira passed her primary school exam in January of this year but was not able to enroll in secondary school due to her family’s lack of funds. She thought school was over for her. Her father, a subsistence farmer, died of an illness in 2004 when Subira was 7 and she told me that his death and her sister telling her she could not continue in school earlier this year are the two worst things that have happened in her life. Subira has three brothers, ages 31, 24, and 18 and three sisters, ages 28, 20, and 8. All her older siblings completed Form 4 (O levels) but most of them have no work. Her mother and one brother are farmers. One other brother sells products at the market, and the other three older siblings don’t work. Subira had heard about Sega school from other girls she knows who are students here so she decided to apply. She passed the exam to get in and moved into the dorm at Sega in July, having been out of school for 6 months.

Subira ironing

Subira is one of about a dozen Muslim students in this school of 150 girls. She loves to study and her favorite subject is science. She is looking forward to taking biology, chemistry, and physics in high school and her dream is to be a doctor someday. She also likes to play netball (sort of like basketball but no dribbling, only passing) and enjoys Bongo Flava music, though the girls have no way to play music in the dorms so only get to listen to it when there is a “music day” at Sega and the cd player and speakers are set up, about once or twice a month.

Subira said that she is hoping that if she studies hard, she will be able to get a good job. As a doctor, she would like to help everyone who is sick and if she is financially successful, she wants to help her family by building a house for her mother and providing many other good things for her and the rest of the family.

Subira also loves to draw and has already made decorative cards for me and written letters to both Kelsey and Fraser (I am about to send them off) so I know she is generous and kind-hearted and would make a wonderful physician.  I can’t be sure, of course, whether Subira will achieve her goals but I hear she is the hardest working girl in her class so I will be rooting hard for her.

Tanzanian infrastructure…a long way to go!

On my way to Tanzania a little over a month ago, I stopped for three days in Zurich. I was so impressed with the public transportation (smooth and silent trolleys and frequent trains) and the restaurants (tasty food served and paid for in new ways not yet found in the US), I concluded that if Europe is the “first world” and Africa is the “third world,” the US must be the “second world” – as much as we’d like to think otherwise.

Then, once I arrived in Tanzania, I was immediately struck by the incredibly poor state of the infrastructure. I have traveled a lot before but I haven’t ever lived and worked in a less developed country over a period of time so it hadn’t REALLY sunk in until now. For those of you who may think things have progressed further than they actually have, let me enumerate what it’s like to deal with poor infrastructure on a daily basis.

The one and only exception that I’ve been able to find is the cell phone network which is fairly good and is priced using prepaid vouchers such that cell phones are widespread, although most people send texts instead of calling in order to save money.

Ruts and Roads
Most roads are truly awful with few exceptions (one is the road from here to Iringa which was donated by the Danish government, apparently). Driving from Dar es Salaam to Morogoro, where I live, is 180 kilometers or 110 miles. Because of the roads and the slowness of the trucks, it is a 4-hour trip or longer, and not a pleasant one.

A typical Tanzanian road.

Almost every home, school, or business is along a bad dirt road so it’s necessary, on a daily basis, to navigate rutted, difficult dirt tracks. Bumping around, head banging on the window or the roof, is a normal occurrence and is fondly and euphemistically referred to as an “African massage.”  And to think I used to like massages.

The Tank Ran Dry

I just came back from a 5-day trip to a conference. On the way there, what was to be a 7-hour bus trip became a 16-hour fiasco as we searched unsuccessfully for diesel fuel.  Our charter bus ran out of fuel, stranding us by the side of the road in the middle of the night for over two hours, and meaning we had to look for accommodation at 1am since we couldn’t make it to our destination as planned.

The reason for the fuel shortage is complex and includes ships docking at Dar for the purpose of unloading goods and fuel for trucks headed to surrounding countries like Congo or Rwanda but not for TZ. In addition, the TZ government is trying to keep the price of fuel down so gas stations are refusing to sell for the price that the government is fixing. It’s the free market against government regulation and the result is gridlock. While not nice for travelers, I also know that the US “free market at all costs” approach has led to fuel companies raking in the profits at the expense of consumers so there’s never an easy answer.

There is a huge range of housing here. At the low end are huts with sticks and mud as the primary materials. This is much of what we saw on our bus trip West.

House viewed on bus trip from Morogoro to Njombe.

A cut above this are houses made of bricks and these vary in their quality, color, and how good the mortar or mud is at holding them together. Roofs can be thatch or corrugated metal. The better homes are made of concrete or a higher quality brick and can sport conveniences such as glass windows, appliances, and perimeter walls for security. There’s a big range but the fact is that even if someone has a nicer house, they are still subject to the rest of the infrastructure woes such as water, roads, and power.

Electricity Anyone?
Here at Sega where I live on the school grounds, electricity is usually not a problem because we are on a fairly substantial solar system. However, some days if there is little or no sun (like today), some portions of the school go dark for lack of energy. The main town of Morogoro, however, is on the national electrical grid so they are not as lucky since it can and does go down at any time.

40 years ago, there was plenty of electricity for the then 10 million or so Tanzanians. Most of the electricity came and still comes from two hydroelectric plants. However, in the past several decades, the population has exploded, now approaching 50 million, and the government has neglected to prioritize power, choosing to build bank buildings instead of dredging the silt that is reducing the output of the all-important hydroelectric plants. The result is frequent outages.

Water Water Nowhere
There ain’t much!  Many people in their homes and those staying in all but the best hotels, use a bucket of often brackish water to brush their teeth, bathe, and other necessities.

Water jugs lined up to get water from local well near dirt road that turns into Sega School.

Many folks walk to a watering hole or well with a plastic container, fill it up, and walk or cycle home with it. Of course, if we behaved this way in California, we wouldn’t have a “water shortage!”  On the other hand, it’s hard to get used to there being so many taps but nothing coming out of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to wash my hands or shower off only to find a dry tap.  And even if there is water, it’s almost never heated which is the least of my worries at this point.

The fire that heated the water for my first African shower. Heaven!

On Thursday evening, my one-month anniversary here in TZ, I stayed at an upscale farm guest-house near Iringa and had my first shower of any type since my arrival. A wood fire heated the water and boy did it feel fantastic. Both heating water and cooking is done largely through the burning of wood so deforestation and climate change continue unabated.

Also, I have no idea how people can keep talking about agriculture as the basis of the economy when there is so little water. I suppose it’s possible that smart scientists will come up with crops that can grow with only dirt and air but, if not, it seems like a fairly desperate situation.

Burn Baby Burn!
Since there is no garbage collection in Morogoro, or in most of the country as far as I can tell, trash is burned.  Folks just take their garbage outside and set it on fire.  Since some of it is plastic and who knows what else, I’m not thrilled about breathing in the fumes but I don’t have much choice.  Here at Sega, we do compost but that still leaves plenty of trash for burning.

What Exactly Is a “Dongle” and Why Do I Have One?
I saw an article a month or two ago about the Chinese laying fiber optic cabling in Tanzania to bring internet to the masses. While this is apparently happening, it hasn’t reached us. Sega is 10km from the center of Morogoro and there is no internet out here. We use “dongles” (an unfortunate name, don’t you think?) that plug into the USB port of a laptop and convert the cell signal into an internet connection. Some days, I reconnect to the internet 15 or 20 times as the connection always deteriorates and so I have to disconnect and reconnect. Sometimes it’s not available at all.

My Macbook with dongle attached.

It’s very frustrating and slows down productivity for anyone relying on the worldwide web (remember that term?). And it doesn’t help with technology adoption either, that and the fact the most people don’t have a computer, of course. It also means Skype hasn’t turned out to be much help to me as the connection is rarely good enough to make a decent call possible.  So much for staying in contact easily.

A Cash Economy
Tanzania has a large tourism business but nobody takes credit cards! It’s necessary to pay for everything in cash, either Tanzanian shillings if you are in a place like Morogoro, or US dollars if you are in a touristy area like Zanzibar. This is rather inconvenient and, given that property crimes are common, it also poses safety issues as one is forced to carry cash around. Honestly, I don’t see how this can still be the case in 2012 but it really is true.

So, who cares?
While it’s true that the incredibly inadequate infrastructure in almost every department makes getting anything done here very slow and very difficult, the Tanzanians take a relaxed and philosophical approach to it. Partly, it doesn’t bother them nearly as much as it does me since they are used to it so they tend to laugh about these difficulties rather than letting it get them down.

If I can learn to approach problems I encounter in my life in this way, that will be an incredible benefit of this experience. I can tell you it isn’t going to happen overnight but I will keep you posted on my progress

Some Compensation
In an effort to balance out this sorry tale of infrastructure hardship, I must share the amazing experience I had driving back through Mikumi wildlife park on Friday evening, returning from the conference. We were in a car this time (again running low on gas and none available) and we could see zebras, giraffe, elephant, impala, bufallo, and gazelle in the low light of dusk as we drove along.  Suddenly, we noticed something lying on the road just ahead of us.  We slowed down and saw that it was a female lion enjoying the warmth of the asphalt.

Lion calmly enjoying her side of the road.

We stopped right by her and took a few photos before continuing on. We were worried another vehicle coming the other way might hit and kill her. Apparently, the fine for doing so is US $25,000 (each animal has a different price) and the park is talking about putting in cameras at both entrances so they can catch the cars and trucks that do hit the wildlife.

She was amazing to see and, happily, we had enough gas to keep going instead of getting stuck hanging out with a mama lion.  Despite its shocking lack of infrastructure, Africa remains an incredible place!