I’ve never gotten into the FX series “Mad Men”. But that hasn’t stopped me from being inspired by their sharp suits, dapper dos, and office antics. Even after just a few episodes I knew I wanted to find a job that let me live that life. So I decided to come to Tanzania and make vegetable gardens.
Okay, so maybe my life isn’t quite like Don Draper. In fact, it probably has very little in common. But we both enjoy drinking on the job. Hear me out before you jump to any conclusions. The drinking on the job I’m talking about is much different than the 8am double shot of whiskey Draper likes to start his day with. For one thing, we drink mbege – local banana beer. For another, we wait until the end of the day.
Mbege is a classic chagga drink that is popular throughout East Africa in regions where bananas grow abundantly. It is made by squeezing the juice out of bananas and allowing it to ferment for a couple of days. Millet is added somewhere in the process for some reason that I don’t know but I’m sure makes sense. The final product is a slightly alcoholic beverage with a bit of consistency as well as some nutritional value. Mbege has about 3% alcohol and has a bit of banana pulp as well as millet that give it consistency. It is traditionally drunk out of a calabash, but often now large plastic cups are used. Mbege is not a drink you drink alone. It is served in large containers because it is meant to be shared. Sharing a calabash or a large cup (bucket) of mbege with a few people is a way of affirming friendship.
Days working on the garden are often very physically demanding. We start between 8am and 10am depending on the weather and work until 5pm or 6pm with an hour break for lunch. Towards the end of the day, our energy and moral are sometimes beginning to drag. The perfect pick me up to power us through the last hour of work is a big cup of mbege that we pass around while we complete the day’s work. It is often the best part of the day.
First, it is a good feeling to have worked hard both physically and mentally and to be able to see the fruits of your labor.
Second, mbege is almost like a small snack to hold you over until dinner. Personally I’m always hungry, no matter what kind of work I’m doing. I spend the last hour of work day dreaming about what I’m going to eat as soon as I get home. A cup of mbege holds over that hunger and gives just a little extra energy.
Third, enjoying a glass of mbege at the end of the day with people you’ve worked with is a good chance to lighten the mood, laugh at the day’s difficulties, plan for tomorrow, and have some fun while getting those last few tasks done.
Admit it, the last hour of your work day is usually either miserable or unproductive. Don’t you think you could get a little more done with a snack and a beer? And doesn’t it sound like more fun to have a beer with your coworkers (provided you like them) at the end of the day than to go home and have one by yourself in front of the TV?
Mary, whoever is working with us on a given day, and I have all become quite fond of “mbege time” or “saambege”. When it gets towards the end of the day and we’re exhausted and hungry it’s a perfect treat to see us through the end of the day working hard.
It has been too long since I was last able to post an update about our progress in Mkyashi. I have been kept away from the internet by a wicked bout of food poisoning, hassles by immigration, network outages, power outages, a rainy season that sometimes shuts down transportation on and off the mountain, and a lot of really great progress here on the mountain. Still, I apologize to everyone who has donated their money, time, expertise, advice, and all other forms of support to TPM. I owe it to all of you to keep these updates more regular and I will do my best going forward.
Since we first met with Deo – leader of the gardening project in Kahe – to start training and begin implementing the project in Mkyashi it has taken over our efforts. In fact, I have decided to put the other projects we were working on – working with entrepreneurs and community banks – temporarily on hold to ensure the success of the gardening program. My team and I are very excited about the potential of the gardening project and I want to make sure it is given a solid foundation. If we can support this program sufficiently from the start it can continue for years under local leadership. That’s the kind of program we like at TPM. However, a solid foundation requires funding and time. Thus, I am dedicating the next few months to the gardening project to ensure it receives the time and funding required for it to be outrageously successful for years to come. After a few months I should have a better idea of how much of our budget is still available to work with entrepreneurs and community banks.
There is a lot of training and labor that goes into the gardening program at the start to set the foundation of infrastructure, knowledge, and organization. Before I get into our progress so far, let me give a recap of the program to make sure everyone fully understands exactly what it is.
The gardening program (we have been speaking with people locally to create a formal name for the program in Mkyashi) is all about helping families begin and maintain organic vegetable gardens. The program begins by setting up a gardening center. The garden center contains a show garden that can be used to educate and display the benefits of organic gardening. It also has a nursery, a compost making operation, and a garden shop. I will get into each of these components more in a bit. For now, the important thing is that after a couple of years of funding from TPM this whole operation has the potential to operate independently as a profit-generating social enterprise in Mkyashi. The garden center promotes organic gardening and spreads knowledge about its benefits and best practices. Mary is currently being trained to run the garden center.
The other important role of the garden center is to help selected families start their own gardens. Families are selected based on economic need, ability and willingness to maintain a garden, and ability and willingness to spread what they learn to other families. For select families TPM will provide funding and other resources to help families start their own organic vegetable gardens. The gardens are designed using the FAITH (Food Always In The Home) Garden method. The idea behind the gardens is that they provide a constant source of food and income for families. Most farmers in Mkyashi plant crops that they will harvest all at once. This means throughout the year their food and income is very volatile. FAITH Gardens provide daily food sufficient for a family of six throughout the year.
Selected families will receive full training on how to start and maintain their gardens and Mary will make regular mentoring visits to check on the progress and status of gardens. The beauty of the program is that while each family we assist gets a vital source of food and income, they also become customers at the garden shop, ensuring its sustainability. They also become excellent word of mouth marketers for other people interested in organic gardening.
So what have we done to date?
We started off with a number of visits to Kahe. Kahe is a village just outside of Moshi that has already started a FAITH Garden program. In Kahe we learned the basics of how to make great organic compost, how to plant a successful garden, how to select the best families to assist, and everything else we would need to begin the program in Mkyashi. Undoubtedly we will tweak the program – what works in one village doesn’t necessarily work in another – but the foundation will be the same. After a few visits to Kahe we went down for two days and actually planted a full garden with a family. It was a great experience and left us excited to start planting gardens in Mkyashi.
The first step in starting the program in Mkyashi was to begin our own compost making operation. Compost requires 6-8 weeks to go from individual inputs to quality decomposed compost. So before we could even start our show garden we needed to start our compost. Right now we are about three weeks away from our compost being ready. Then it’s full speed ahead with the show garden. Meanwhile, Friday has become Compost Day. Every Friday we turn over and water our existing compost piles and make between two and six new piles. Each garden requires at least six piles of compost 2-4 times per year. We want to make sure we always have enough compost on hand for the show garden and for the families who we will be helping to plant gardens. Any extra compost will be for Mary to sell in the garden shop.
Along with starting to make compost we have also started a nursery. Some plants are more successful when they have been started in the safety and controlled conditions of a nursery. The nursery is covered to shelter young plants from harsh sun and rains and the soil is burned to kill any bacteria that will challenge the young plants. After 2-3 weeks nursery plants are transferred to plastic bags for another 1-2 weeks before they are ready to be planted in gardens. Some of the plants in our nursery will be for our own show garden and any extras will again go to the garden shop.
Even though we are still three weeks away from planting our own garden, we have already begun cultivating, aerating, and otherwise preparing our garden plot. It’s early, but we want to make sure we have time to deal with any unforeseen issues so that we can stick to our timetable. So far there have been plenty. We had to build a bridge over a small stream to make transport of water and other inputs easier and we had about eight tree stumps that needed to be removed. That’s a big task when your only tools or shovels, machetes, and axes. We also had a lot of work to do to level the area so that rain would reach each plant equally. Things are looking good now and we are anxious for the next few weeks to pass quickly so we can begin planting.
Finally, we have also begun making some other important inputs into the process. Organic pesticides and boosters help ensure that organic crops look just as healthy and hearty as their chemically enhanced counter parts. Their production requires the collection of things like ginger, aloe vera, fish guts, molasses, vinegar, and other strange ingredients. Again, these can be used for the show garden and family gardens as well as sold in the garden shop.
We are still a month or two away from the opening of the garden shop, but we are really excited for its potential. The garden shop will be what eventually sustains the whole program and makes organic vegetable gardening possible in Mkyashi. It will sell organic compost, pesticides, and boosters and will also sell their inputs for people who want to make those products on their own. It will sell healthy organic seedlings from its nursery and will also sell basic gardening supplies like watering cans, shovels, and spades. Currently those products are not available locally. The garden shop will also be a place people can go to receive advice about their gardens.
So, it has been a very busy month of preparation and the next month promises to be just as crazy. On top of the gardening project a few other issues – both good and bad – have come up.
First the bad: immigration. The Office of Immigration is known throughout Tanzania as one of the most inefficient and corrupt offices in the country – which says a lot given the other offices. My three month tourist visa expires at the end of April, so we need to have everything sorted out before then. I first went into the immigration office here a week after I arrived in February. Since that time they have thrown every expense, delay, and other inconvenience they can conjure up at me trying to induce a bribe. With just a week left on my visa, we have one more meeting which they are saying will be the final necessary meeting before they will begin processing my Volunteer Permit that will allow me to stay in the country through November. A group of six people from Mkyashi are currently in the meeting as I write this message. Hopefully everything goes well.
Next the good: You can declare that you are temporarily slowing down the entrepreneurship program, but the entrepreneurs will keep on entrepreneuring. Mama Regan, whom we helped securing funding from her employer to start a small business selling mndazis, is expanding her business. Mndazis are like large doughnut holes and are a cheap and popular breakfast food in Tanzania. Currently Mama Regan cooks at home, puts her mndazis in a bucket, and sells them on the side of the road. She now has funds to build a small shack on the side of the road to cook mndazis in. That means she will be able to sell hot, fresh mndazis. The smell coming out of the shack will be her marketing.
We have also worked with Babu Lyimo to help him figure out if a new enterprise he wants to start could be profitable. He is considering getting rid of all of his large livestock – cows and goats – and replacing them with a rabbit farm. Cows and goats require a lot of input and their value has been decreasing. Rabbits are more rare and may generate more profit for him. They require much less inputs and are much loved for their tender meat. After a few weeks of discussions Babu Lyimo has decided he wishes to move forward with this new plan and we are now working with him to determine the best way to make it a success.
Finally, a third entrepreneur, Cynoc, is interested in experimenting with growing vanilla. Vanilla can be an excellent cash crop in the right conditions. We are working with Cynoc to run a small pilot program to see if vanilla is a viable crop for Mkyashi. If it is he is ready to expand his small operation and it could be something we incorporate into the vegetable gardens. Many of the growing techniques are the same.
Hopefully the next update won’t be for an entire month and thus will run much shorter. Thanks to everyone for the continued support.
I have to give some credit to my old roommate Mr. Jesse Hugo, Masters in Urban Planning, for being the first person to explain many of these ideas to me. If you want him to plan your urban area just send him an email.
There is something much more satisfying about the scale communities in Tanzania are built to. Because most people don’t own cars everything is built to a “human scale”. In other words, everything you might need on a given day is within walking distance – friends, food, medicine, beer, school, privacy, church, etc. People can – and do – quite easily live their whole lives without using motorized transportation.
Houses are close enough together that neighbors are in shouting distance, but have enough space that everyone can have a small farm and some animals. Streets are wide enough for single lane traffic but are primarily used for foot traffic. There is no “zoning” dictating land use. You are free to use land as you wish. Thus, if a market opportunity comes up people can pursue it from their front lawn or their living room. Many people will set up small vegetable stands on the side of the road or will turn an extra room of their house into a bar or a small shop. Other than meat, fruits, and vegetables most supplies are still shipped in from outside, but the community is much more self-contained than what we find in America.
Look outside your window right now. Any people out there? If you live in a typical American neighborhood there probably aren’t many people who aren’t inside cars or plugged into MP3 players. If you feel like talking to someone or being social what will you do? You probably have a relatively small group of friends you feel comfortable calling and asking to hang out and even then something probably needs to be scheduled – you don’t want to interfere with their lives. When was the last time someone just stopped by and rang your doorbell? Perhaps this is why so many Americans suffer from feelings of depression, loneliness, and isolation. Perhaps this also contributes to a general disregard for the notion of “community” once we leave colleges and other places built on a human scale.
Maybe the best way to explain this is to imagine a Wednesday evening where you’ve gotten off work early and are home at 5pm. What to do? It’s too early for dinner and you’re not sure which of your friends will also be off work already. You could just go to a bar but the likelihood of happening to see someone you know is small and you don’t want to sit and drink alone. Maybe you can go for a walk. That’s nice but if you’re feeling social you probably won’t run into anyone. Television is always tempting.
In Mkyashi you could just walk down the street. You would see plenty of people doing this and that whom you could stop and talk to briefly. Eventually you would walk by some of the usual meeting spots and you would easily be able to see who was hanging out there and was also done with work for the day. You certainly wouldn’t feel isolated.
I could go on giving examples like this. How well do you know your neighbor’s children? What would the effect be on the community if we all knew and cared about our neighbor’s kids more?
I certainly don’t want to be one of those people who travels around the world and talks about how much better everywhere else is than USA. I love the USA and miss it every day. I’m excited to get back home! But there are definitely some pieces of life that just make more sense in other countries. Our preoccupation with large homes, large lawns, large shopping centers, and large cars separates us from our shared humanity and isolates us.
While I wax poetic about the virtues of human scale, many Tanzanians are working hard to achieve the higher status homes and isolation of the United States. New communities are being built based on and American model of development. Jesse explained to me the same thing is happening in Brazil. Many people around the world see America as a dream to achieve and they work towards an “American luxury lifestyle” regardless of whether those status symbols will actually improve their happiness. I like to imagine what a wealthy community in the United States would look like if it was built on a human scale. I think I’d like it. It might look similar to East Nashville or Park Avenue in Winter Park minus the snobbery.
The rainy season is finally here! We may not like rain so much in the United States, but in Tanzania they say “Mvua ni Chakula” – Rain is Food. Rain is also cool nights, no more dust, and no more walking to get water – now it falls off the roof in buckets.
Everyone is hard at work now planting their crops and preparing everything for cultivation. If it’s a good rainy season then in a few months everyone should have good crops to sell and consume. Hopefully it will be a good season for everyone and we will be celebrating the harvest in a few months, Mungu akipenda – if God wishes.
Tanzania is a fascinating place to travel. The landscape changes quickly from dramatic mountains to flat desert to fertile rolling farmlands to savannahs spotted with kopjis and finally to beautiful beaches. With over 150 tribes speaking 120 distinct languages, the people change even faster. Watching the world go by out the window of a bus is a treat, and you never know what will be greeting you at a new destination.
In truth, Dar es Salaam was not a new destination for me. I had been there before and I had hated it. My first time in Dar was with Alli. We had arrived en route to Zanzibar and had to stay overnight because we missed the ferry out to the island. Our experience started when we got off our bus at dusk and were converged upon by taxi drivers hoping to get one more good fare before the end of the day. The drivers were aggressive. The pushed and grabbed and shouted. We ended up “choosing” to go with the taxi driver who snatched our bags and ran to his car with them. We said we wanted to go to the ferry terminal and he proceeded to drive us to the wrong ferry terminal and sped away.
By the time we arrived at the right ferry terminal the last ferry’s had left (we watched it leave from the wrong terminal) so we had to purchase a ticket for the next morning. The ferry terminal itself was another nightmare. There were only three ferries running from Dar to Zanzibar, but there were dozens of “offices” along the terminal. “Agents” hustled and grabbed to bring you into their office and collect a commission. We were followed by five or six men representing different offices who would not leave us alone no matter how many times we told them we didn’t need help and wanted them to leave.
Eventually we settled on the most respectable looking ticket office – they even gave us milk, cereal, and juice – and then set off to find an ATM. Alli stayed in the ticket office with our bags and once again I led a trail of men to the ATM. The ATM is not a place you want a trail of people following you, so I took some unexpected turns and tried to use traffic to my advantage to lose my followers. Somehow it worked and I got the money and made it back safely to the ticket office. We purchased our tickets and were all set for the next day. The agent helped us get a cab to take us to our hotel and negotiated a reasonable fare for us. Unfortunately, once we arrived our cab driver insisted we had agreed on a higher fare and need to pay him more. He followed us all the way into the hotel until the hotel security guard had to escort him out.
Needless to say, since then I never had much of a yearning to return to Dar. Then, I got invited to Dar for TPM. Of course I wanted to accept the meeting, and I figured I might as well give the city another try. I’m glad I did.
Dar es Salaam is a unique coastal city that takes Tanzanian, Indian, and Western culture and grinds them together until it all feels natural. Office towers of shiny glass rise above traffic jams and hustling people with motorbikes weaving in and out of everywhere. You can find shops with window displays selling iPhones, Nikes, and flat-screen TVs and sitting in front of them will be women selling homemade chapattis and tea out of buckets. Flashy hotels for diplomats and businesspeople are side by side with churches, mosques, temples, and used good dealers. One of my favorite parts of the city is the ubiquity of used book dealers. I bought a pair of books by John Steinbeck – “Of Mice and Men” and “The Short Reign of Pippin IV” – for a couple dollars.
After spending a few enjoyable hours in Dar I started telling people about my previous experiences. Nobody was surprised to hear about them. It turns out that the bus stand and the ferry terminal are known for being some of the most hellish places in the city. Even locals told me they would go out of their way to avoid these places.
The relationship between Tanzanian, Indian, and Western cultures is fascinating. On the surface it can seem like a beautiful coexistence and mix of cultures; an up and coming postmodern city. However, closer inspection necessitates a more critical account. First, a very unofficial and unverified history.
Tanzania is possibly the “birthplace of man.” We’ll never know for sure but, in any case, humans have been living here for millennia. So for thousands of years various tribes spread out across Tanzania including what is now Dar and lived as subsistent farmers, fishermen, cattle herders, and nomads. There is very little evidence of the great civilizations of the Nile ever reaching as far south as Tanzania, so the first “outsiders” would have started reaching the coast of Tanzania starting around 1000 AD. Explorers came to Tanzania from Persia, India, and the kingdoms of modern day China to trade – exploit – in spices, ivory, minerals, and people. A massive Arab trading empire was set up that stretched up the coast of much of East Africa.
This went on until around the 17th or 18th century when European colonists arrived with very much the same intentions. The area that is now mainland Tanzania become “Tanganyika” under German colonization and then “British East Africa” under British rule until Tanzania’s independence in the second half of the 20th century. During British rule colonists undertook a variety of major infrastructure projects to make exploitation easier. The British found the Africans difficult to work with so they brought in Indians – they had a lot of experience controlling Indians at this point – to act as middle men between themselves and the laborers. So there would have been a few British colonists living very comfortably and giving orders to Indians who were “above” Africans on account of their slightly lighter skin color who would then pass on and enforce orders to the Africans.
When the British left and Tanzanian gained independence, much of the wealth and power stayed in the hands of Indians. Years of brutal labor and British class distinctions had built up significant distrust and tension between Indian Africans and Black Africans. That tension remains today and is made worse because Indians continue to live more prosperously than most local people.
This colonial era distribution of power remains today behind a thin veil. Most of the big businesses putting up skyscrapers and fancy hotels in Dar and extracting millions of dollars in gold, tanzanite, and diamonds are owned by Western firms. The middle class in Dar is mostly Indians. They own most of the formal restaurants and shops and import most of the new and used goods which they sell to Black Africans to distribute at lower margins and volumes. Take the example of used books.
Those books were originally printed by major publishing houses in Europe and USA. Eventually they found their way into Tanzania where Indians buy them in bulk and then sell them to Black Tanzanians to peddle on street corners.
Most of the Black Tanzanians I talk to will say very negative things about the Indians. They are greedy, they are cruel bosses, they care only about money. Most of the Indians I talk to will say very negative things about Black Tanzanians. They are lazy, they can’t be trusted, they are dangerous. It’s a delicate situation. Black Tanzanians often explained to me that Indians don’t like to mix with them and will send their kids to separate schools out of fear. One Indian shop owner I talked to explained to me that many Indian Tanzanians struggle with their identity. Tanzania is not “home” to them because they are not accepted, have no representation in government, and feel a cultural divide. India is not home to them because they were not born there, don’t have citizenship, and often don’t speak the language. Hovering above all of this are Western businessmen, diplomats, and tourists – often blissfully naïve of the entire system. I’m sure everyone has words to say about them (me)!
As Dar continues to grow it will have a number of problems – from traffic jams to race relations – that it will have to deal with. But I believe the future is bright for the city. It has beautiful beaches, industrious people, and a central location on the coast of East Africa. I am happy I got to return and explore this city one more time!
It’s been a while since our last blog update. Blame it on the rolling power and network outages as well as a very busy schedule as of late. In any case, a lot has happened so I’ll try to give a brief run-down of recent progress.
First, on Thursday I returned from a trip to Dar es Salaam. It was a whirlwind trip. I left Mkyashi early Tuesday morning and arrived in Dar some thirteen hours later. The Dutch Embassy had invited a member of TPM to come and share about our work. The meeting was at 9:30am on Wednesday so I went to the meeting first thing in the morning, spent a few hours afterwards taking advantage of internet access in Dar, and then spent the afternoon and evening exploring what turned out to be one of the most unique cities I’ve ever been to. More on the city in another post, for now I’ll focus on the meeting.
It turns out that the Netherlands is pulling its funding from Tanzania. Budget cuts and other austerity measures have forced it to narrow its focus in Africa significantly. It will maintain a small team at the embassy focused on economic policy and foreign affairs but will no longer provide foreign aid. But all was not lost.
As it turns out one of the embassy’s Policy Officers, Theresia, is actually from Mkyashi. Mkyashi is a tiny village. Even a few miles away people won’t know what you’re talking about if you say Mkyashi. As such, she was very surprised to see a project focused on economic development in Mkyashi come across her desk. We talked for a couple of hours and she shared with me that she knows a number of people who have family roots in Mkyashi but have moved away to pursue opportunity. Theresia believes there is an enormous opportunity to engage the knowledge and expertise of these people who have gone on to become doctors, business people, and development experts.
This was an exciting connection and one that could truly get to the ideal of “Tuko Pamoja” – “We Are Together.” Theresia and I plan on keeping in touch and starting a serious dialogue about how we might be able to get people who have left Mkyashi to come back and assist with projects related to their areas of expertise.
Second, the FAITH Garden program is set to go for this tomorrow (Wednesday). We have secured a plot of land in the village for a training garden and a small shop from which to sell garden supplies. Today I went down to Kahe alone to meet with Deo, who runs the garden program in Kahe. It was exciting to see the program and to begin thinking how we can adapt Mkyashi. Mary and Lyimo are excited to come down tomorrow and begin learning. Our first step will be making high quality compost. Should be fun, right?!
Third, our entrepreneur program continues to make progress. On Thursday Emmanual finally purchased his pigs! We had spent a long time building a business plan and learning about best practices for raising pigs and he was so excited to finally be getting started. This marks the second entrepreneur in just over a month we have helped to start a business. We will continue to monitor the success of Mama Regan’s chapatti business and Emmanual’s pig project as well as working with a number of other entrepreneurs to work towards their goals. Emmanual is hoping to expand to chickens next.
We have also been exploring other ways to help expand the local economy. VICOBAs (Village Community Banks) may end up being a key partner in this mission. For those who have kept up with this blog, you will be familiar with VICOBAs. We have been trying to find the best way to partner with these locally initiated projects for a while now.
We’re still discussing options but one idea that has come up is for TPM to help VICOBAs implement profit generating projects as a group. These projects would be looked after by members of the VICOBAs (each VICOBA has about 30 members) and profits from the projects would be deposited into the bank to help increase capital and enable group members to take out larger loans. By the end of the month we hope to have determined exactly how TPM can help these projects get started.
It’s hard to believe it’s only been a month and a half since we got started on the ground! Much has happened and even more has been planned. The next month or so should be very exciting as plans start to be implemented and projects take shape.