September Update

I may as well just admit to myself that I struggle to do anything more than a monthly update. So, here is the monthly update:

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Another exciting month has passed for TPM. We have been overwhelmingly focused on growing the garden program. When we started the program back in April I told Mary and all of our other employees to be saving their earnings because I could only guarantee the project would continue through 2014. After that, I couldn’t make any promises about the future of the program. Over the past month that plan has changed, and we couldn’t be more excited.

You may remember from my last update (or maybe it was too long ago) that an organization called Better Lives visited our project. At the time they mentioned that they were very happy with the progress we had made. We were happy with that, because they are working on similar projects elsewhere in Tanzania as well as in the Philippines and Cambodia. The next week I met with Better Lives again and got even better news. A lot of good news actually.

First, Better Lives offered to support TPM by purchasing a small vehicle to help us transport materials and visit families efficiently. I hope to post a picture soon, but the vehicle is a motorcycle in the front and a truck bed in the back. They are great for the difficult mountain roads and very fuel efficient. A bag of compost weighs around 100kg. A full size garden requires between three and four bags of compost depending on soil quality. While we made a great caravan – me pushing a wheelbarrow, Mary and her sister carrying half bags on their heads, and Gilbert with a bag slung across his back – we are grateful not to have to repeat this trek too many more times – especially as the gardens we work with get farther away. And don’t forget we’re on a mountain.

We will also use this vehicle to make family visits. Currently it takes us about three hours to visit the four families we have planted gardens with. Three more family gardens should be completed around the end of the month, and then we’ll be doing a new garden every two weeks after that. The vehicle will make this task go a lot faster and will keep it manageable as the program expands.

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Finally, we are getting ready to open up a stand at the local market. From the stand we will sell the families’ vegetables as well as seedlings, pesticides, booster, and other garden products. All of this moving back and forth would be a huge task without a good vehicle.

So, that was the first piece of good news we received from Better Lives – a new vehicle. Pictures are coming soon. I plan to pick it up on Thursday.

The next piece of good news was even more exciting. Better Lives liked our project so much they offered to make it one of their supported projects. This means that, as long as Mary and the team keep up the good work, the garden program will continue indefinitely.

Excitement, relief, gratitude. It’s hard to put into words how amazing that was to learn.

Learning that Better Lives wants to support the gardening program (the garden program runs under the name “Lishe Bora” or “Better Food”) also means a bit of a change of concentration. Previously, we had been focused on coming up with ways to make the project financially sustainable by the end of 2014. While we still want it to become financially sustainable as soon as possible, we now have time to build a stronger foundation and experiment with various ways the program can add value to the community.

One way that Better Lives is interested in using the gardening program to add value is to incorporate a microcredit program into the gardening program. Much of this is still in the works, but I can try to offer a broad overview of the strategy. The idea would be that through the gardening program Better Lives would build relationships with the families – that will be a huge part of Mary’s job. She will see how people take care of their gardens and will be able to tell who is really responsible and willing to make sacrifices to improve their lives. After a family has proven their reliability through the garden, they will be eligible for small loans. The loans will start out small and grow larger as they are repaid.

An important aspect of the program is that the gardens should be generating small incomes for the families. That income can be used to repay the loans.

However, in order for the gardens to generate incomes, we will need to make sure the families are able to sell their vegetables. The process of finding a market for vegetables warrants its own separate post – one I hope to write soon. Already it has involved a trip to Arusha to meet with some experts, a trip to the local market where we will set up a small shop in the coming weeks, and visits with hotels and restaurants in Marangu to get an understanding of the value chain for small farmers and vegetables in Tanzania.

On top of all of this, we have been continuing on with the families we are working with. Soon, there will be a link on the Better Lives website with regular updates on each family. Below, you can see pictures of how all the families are progressing. So far we’re pleased with every one of them!Image

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Soon, we will be falling into our two week schedule where we put in a garden every two weeks. We hope to increase this pace to two gardens every three weeks after a few months.

Lots of updates to come and exciting news to share. It’s hard to believe I have just over two months until I go home. I hope to pick up the pace and get some updates up about the entrepreneurs we have worked with, our trials with our new water pump, our work finding markets for vegetables, and a number of other subjects.

Thanks as always for the support!

The Word is Out: An Invitation to Expand

A couple of months ago we got a visit from Babu Albini. Babu Albini lives in a village towards the base of the mountain called Pofo. He is a bit of a legend. He built his house with his own two hands. That’s nothing special here, except that Babu Albini’s house is made of stone and it’s two stories tall with a porch. He’s had two wives and fourteen children. When he was a bachelor he took an interest in airplanes and built his own which, it is rumored, flew 12 feet. Somewhere along the journey he met a German friend who gave him an ATV with a matching helmet. Somewhere later on in this journey, people in Pofo heard about the garden program going on in Mkyashi and asked Babu Albini to investigate. So one morning we had an unexpected visitor, gave him a brief overview of the program, and made a date to come Pofo and talk about how and if we could help implement the program there.
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We had a great visit and it was rewarding to hear the excitement of people in Pofo. We told them our resources were extremely limited but if they could provide all of the labor for free we would provide the inputs they couldn’t get locally – rice husks, EM1, and some pesticide inputs. The people of Pofo also offered up some central real estate in the center of town, right in front of the church and the school, to start the demonstration garden.
We left wondering how much follow through there would be. People were excited and this really is a cheap program if you don’t have to pay for labor, but you never know how much people will follow through on things.
Last week Babu Ablini called us and said everything is ready to make compost, now we just have to go down and show them how to make it, then they’re on their way!

Pesticide Update

Bugs. Can’t live them, can’t live without them. Some of them are crucial components to your garden eco-system, others are nothing but pests. We were told by farmers and gardeners in Mkyashi from the start the bugs would probably be our biggest problem. When we asked some of the more successful gardeners here how they handled bugs, they all told us they had to use chemical pesticides bought in town. Aside from the health side effects of chemical sprays, they are also financially unobtainable for the small scale farmers we’re working with. So we knew we would have to find some better solutions.
Twice per week we apply an organic pesticide made entirely from locally available inputs. It costs about 10,000 Tshillings ($6.25) to make 250 liters of pesticide. The ingredients include:
Green papaya
Aloe vera
Ginger
Peppers
Tea leaves
Other grasses and leaves
Vinegar
Molasses
Gin
EM1 (a special microorganism that we always have on hand for use in compost making, booster, and other products)
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We apply that to all of our plants twice per week along with a booster made from fish guts (free at the market because it’s a waste product), EM1, and molasses. It’s a weak pesticide but it has done a good job on everything except the Chinese cabbage and the kale. It’s cheap, organic, and edible; easy for families to make and has no health effects.
However, we have had to use some more aggressive measures to fight the red ants that have been attacking. The first strategy we tried was applying a more potent mix of the aforementioned pesticide. Next, we took hot ashes and put them around the base of the affected plants. This worked to temporarily disperse the ants, but they soon came back.
Next, we tried applying a pesticide made from tobacco leaves dissolved in water. This is thought of as a ‘’last resort’’ pesticide because it kills good bugs like spiders and worms as well as bad ones like caterpillars and ants. We applied it only to affected plants. We also tried adding kerosene to the hot ashes to further deter the ants. In the end we have managed to slow the spread of ants and disrupt their damage for days at a time, but we have not found a solid solution to the problem. We are continuing to monitor the spread of the ants and their effect on the health of the vegetables they target.
As I have mentioned before, we are happy to have these problems coming up in our demonstration garden. It gives us the opportunity to learn how to deal with different pests so when they come up in family gardens we know how to handle it quickly. It also gives us the opportunity to play with some interesting dilemmas.
For example, at what cost do we stick to our goal of being organic? If we can make a pesticide at low cost using easily available local materials, should we discount it because it’s not organic? I’m pretty sure that kerosene doesn’t count as organic, but mixing a bit of it with ash is our most successful effort yet against the ants. Is it worth letting potential food die if we can’t find an organic solution? If we find an organic solution but it is expensive, can we expect families to use their money to pursue that solution? And if we decide to supply it for them, is it worth sacrificing their self-sufficiency for our goal? We have decided that finding cheap, local, organic pesticides and boosters is our goal, but in the meantime we need to learn about as many solutions as possible so that we can share the knowledge with the community and let people make their own decisions. There are good solutions out there and in time we will find them.

Long Overdue Update

It’s been a fast-paced couple of months here on the mountain. We’ve made some incredible progress that I’m excited to report. Over the past two months since the last blog post I’ve written about 3 posts that became outdated before I was able to get to town and post them. Hopefully this one makes it.

The most exciting bit of news over the past couple months is that our demonstration garden is in full swing. We have even begun harvest some of the ‘’fruits’’ – vegetables – of our labor. Each day we get about enough vegetables for one family so we have been bringing the vegetables to some of the families interested in planting gardens to keep their excitement up and also help carry them through the period between starting work on a garden and actually getting vegetables from it. Check out the progress of our garden:

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Once our demonstration garden was planted, the next step was to start educating the community about what we are trying to do. The Sunday that we finished planting the garden, Bosco called the community together to learn about the project and then Mary gave a brief speech outlining the program, the benefits of organic gardening, and how we hoped people would get involved. The immediate response was great and we got about 15 families signed up for gardens. In the weeks that followed we have gotten over 20 requests from families for assistance to start their gardens.

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It was great to see such a positive and enthusiastic community response to the project. However, we have very limited resources to carry out our goals and we want to make sure each garden we help plant succeeds and has maximum impact for the family and community. Before we could start working with families to plant their gardens we wanted to make visits to each of their homes to identify the most qualified families. In identifying which families to work with first we had three criteria we were looking for. First, we want to work with families who have the ability to make and maintain successful gardens. There are a couple elements of ability. The first has to do with the demographics of the family. For example, a household that is just a grandmother and her young grandchildren may have a difficult time maintaining a full-size garden given the amount of labor involved. The second element of ability has to do with the actual land owned by families. The land must be large enough to support a garden, it must be in close proximity to a reliable water supply, and it must receive adequate sunlight throughout the day. The second criteria we were looking for in families was the potential benefit a garden would have for them. We want to work with families whose situation could be significantly improved by a steady supply of food or additional income. One family we visited told us not to worry about how far away from water they lived because they have a truck to carry it. That doesn’t quite qualify in a place like Mkyashi. The third criteria we were looking for in families was willingness – willingness to work hard on their own gardens and willingness to assist other families in the future.

After conducting our home visits it was clear to us that a couple of changes had to be made in the ‘’ability’’ criteria. First, we did not want to tell some of the families who could benefit the most from a garden that they couldn’t have a garden because we didn’t believe they were capable of taking care of it. Besides, who are we to tell anyone what they can or can’t do? They are the ones taking on the most risk if they are unable to look after their garden. Instead of counting families out because of ability or land size we will simply work with what’s available. If a family owns a small piece of land, they can start a small garden. They will still benefit from it and if it is successful they can expand it by replacing another crop like coffee or bananas. If we are unsure of a family’s ability we can start off by giving them a few beds and then expand if they feel they can handle more.

So far we have selected the first two families we are going to work with and we have begun working on preparing everything for their gardens. The first step in making a garden is to prepare the compost. Once compost ingredients are put together it takes between six and eight weeks for it go from its various inputs to good. Luckily we started that process long ago and the compost will be ready. The next step is to choose which vegetables to plant. Some seeds can be planted directly into the garden with no prep work. Others must be planted in a nursery first and then after two weeks they can be transferred to bags for a week before they can be put into the garden. We are about a week into that process, so that puts us about three weeks away from starting to plant for families.

While the nursery plants are growing the families’ land must be prepared. This can be a heavy job in Mkyashi as we often have to remove trees and roots. Once the big stuff has been removed, we cultivate the land to bring lower and more nutritious levels of soil to the top. We also get rid of any grasses and weeds that have been growing at this point. The final step before actually forming the beds and planting the garden – which we won’t do until seedlings are ready – is to measure out where each bed will grow. This can actually be the most difficult part of the task. Trying to form square angles and beds of correct size with nothing but strings and sticks is tricky. Doing it through a bit of a language and education barrier (try explaining the Pythagorean theorem in another language to someone who has never studied geometry) is even harder. Still, somehow it gets done.

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If all goes well our first two families will have their gardens in by the first couple weeks of July. We are still deciding whether to plant a full-size garden with a third family or work with three or four families to create smaller gardens. There are so many deserving families that we would love to work with, it is a tough decision and there is no way to make a completely objective decision about it.

We are psyched about the progress we have made with the garden program so far and the promising future we believe the program has in Mkyashi and surrounding villages, but we have had a few difficulties to work through as well. The biggest challenge facing us is the biggest challenge facing many small farmers in Mkyashi: bugs. We have a serious red ant problem. Each season here on the mountain comes with its own notorious pest. Right now we are in the cold season and the bug du jour is red ants. They scuttle underground to avoid the cold and feed on roots while they’re down there. So far they have only caused problems for our Chinese cabbage and our kale, but we are keeping a close eye on things. The Chinese cabbage has proved resilient, the kale seems stunted. This is actually a good problem to have in our demonstration garden because it gives us the opportunity to try out different strategies and pesticide recipes which we can then pass on to families. I will write more about this issue later as it brings up some interesting questions about the goals of the program and the popular debate about organic versus local.

It has been a busy couple of months and there are more posts to come about some of the other projects we’ve been working on. I have been lucky to have visitors from home this month and I even managed to sneak off to Kigamboni for a couple days to take a beach vacation. Between my being away and taking some days off with visitors it has been a great opportunity for Mary to practice being in charge and for her and me to work on our long distance communication for when I am back stateside. So far I’m pleased with how smoothly things have gone.

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There are more updates to come and it looks like things are really about to get exciting. I promise to update more often now, so check back soon!

Bringing Back a Classic American Tradition: Drinking on the Job

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.

Taking a quick break while cultivating to enjoy mbege time.

Taking a quick break while cultivating to enjoy mbege time.

We've got a lot in common.

We’ve got a lot in common.

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.

April Update

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.

Finishing up planting a garden for Kimiti and his family in Kahe.

Finishing up planting a garden for Kimiti and his family in Kahe.

Got a bit dirty getting the car unstuck in Kahe.

Got a bit dirty getting the car unstuck in Kahe.

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.

Compost compost compost!

Compost compost compost!

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.

Our nursery - covered to protect young seeds from the elements.

Our nursery – covered to protect young seeds from the elements.

Baby plants.

Baby plants.

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.

Babu Lyimo directing the bridge making operation.

Babu Lyimo directing the bridge making operation.

It's claimed that this bridge can hold up to half a ton. Any want to try it out?

It’s claimed that this bridge can hold up to half a ton. Any want to try it out?

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.

Communities on a Human Scale

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.