Tuesday, January 13, 2009

BIG Ending.

While I was growing up, our family used to sing songs together (especially while in the car). Towards the end of each song, my dad would say "Okay, now everyone ... BIG ending, BIG ending!!" And, we would all finish the song, singing as loudly and fully as we could. It was a great chorus.

Eric and I are nearing the end of our year volunteering internationally. Our final stop was originally supposed to be India, but (long story short) we ran into some visa issues in December and had to change plans at the last minute. We have found ourselves in Bangkok, Thailand - and are making new plans to finish this year with our version of the "BIG ending".

Eric and I are offering our services as volunteer photographers to a number of different groups here in Thailand. We sent a volunteer proposal to a number of groups last weekend - some that have been recommended to us, and some we found online. We've been very pleasantly surprised by the response we've received, and already have arrangements made with three NGOs here in Thailand. Throughout the course of the next month, we'll be spending time with groups here in Bangkok, Northern Thailand and Eastern Thailand.

So, we'll be spending the next month traveling, learning and taking lots of photos. And, when all is said and done, we will have many more new stories and photos to share. Sounds like the perfect BIG ending to me.


It is with great joy that i share the news:
Eric and I have decided to make the (&) between us official by getting married!

No details yet ... just excitement.
And so much love.

Thank you for sharing in our joy.

Light & Time.

"To speak technically photography is the art of writing with light. But if I want to think about it more philosophically, I can say that photography is the art of writing with time." -Gerardo Suter

Light & Time.
Love & Life.

I've just uploaded more of it all at www.flickr.com/photos/mjoymatheson. There are photos there of our time in Haiti, Argentina & Tanzania ... with more coming soon.

Monday, January 12, 2009



Need a little inspiration?
Learn more about these folks.

Time and time again, I was humbled and inspired by my friends at BCDSA and SAIDIA Tanzania. It was an honor to be a part of both of their work for a short time. If you'd like to learn more about BCDSA, and/or how you can support their incredible efforts, visit their new blog (moonlighting as a basic website): www.bcdsatz.blogspot.com. Or, if you're considering the possibility of volunteering internationally yourself, consider checking out SAIDIA's website at www.saidiavolunteer.org. At the very least, you'll leave their websites a little more inspired by the potential for goodness in our world. And that, I'd say, is worth the trip.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Not Some Distant Other.

A few days ago, I was reading about the Millennium Development Goal progress Tanzania. The reports were filled with statistics – numbers, percentages and graphs about people living here in Tanzania. And I found myself struggling with disconnection between the information I was reading and my experiences here. Who were the people referred to in this report, and so many reports like it?

And then, it clicked.

The people in these reports are not some distant ‘other’. They are not the people that perhaps I had once imagined when thinking about poverty in Africa. They are not stereotypes, they are not statistics. They are people – each one with a unique story, a unique struggle. People doing the best they can to care for themselves and for their families. They are...

Saimon, our 29 year old Maasai night guard, who left his wife and baby boy in Ngorangora in order to find work in Mwanza to support them. In addition to working, Saimon goes to English class every weekday evening. Afterwards, he sits on our porch studying, singing, and guarding our little house.

The women who we buy avocados and bananas and tomatoes from at the little produce stands on the way home from work.

Jesse, a young man who just finished his 4th year of secondary school. If he passes his exam and can find money for school fees, he will continue to finish the final two years of secondary school next year. Jesse left his only parent, his mother, in a village “a long way” from Mwanza to come and live with his older brother to attend school here.

The women with babies strapped to their backs and buckets of produce or rice on their heads.

Denise, the beautiful woman who owns the little store where I print and photocopy materials for work. She’s had her store for two years, calls me friend, and gives me free photocopies every now and then to say thank you for my business there. Business is hard, but she has big hopes for her store.

The women living with HIV who are waiting for BCDSA to find more funds for microfinance loans. When BCDSA explains that they are still looking for more funds for the project, maybe next year – the women lament that next year may be too late. They may no longer be alive. And, they need to provide for their children before that happens.

Iman, the Dala-Dala (public transportation van) driver that Eric keeps running into. He works in one of the vans that comes to our neighborhood, and seems to be working all the time. He says that sometimes he takes some time off on Sundays.

The women running little cafes out of their homes, cooking delicious rice and beans and bananas and serving those passing by.

Sophie, the 20 year old who is about to begin secondary school. She tried once before, but her English was not at a level where she could keep up in her classes. She has been studying hard, and is ready now. Sophie helps her mother in the house every day, and enjoys playing sports (football, frisbee, volleyball, yoga) in the evening when she can.

The women working, everywhere working, to carry water and care for children and cultivate small farms and wash clothes by hand and sell their fish/peanuts/produce and sew and go to the market. Everywhere, always working.

[[ I am so honored to have met these beautiful people, and so many more. And am grateful to carry their stories with me from this place. The statistics will never be the same. ]]

Dancing Rock.

A Moment to Remember.

I was walking down a path near my office last week when a 3 year old boy that I’d never met came running towards me and proceeded to give me a full-crash-into-the-legs hug. When his friends saw that I hugged back, they followed suit. I need to walk down that path more often.


[ Some of BCDSA’s clients with HIV/AIDS held a meeting recently to share their situation with BCDSA and with me. Elly, the man in the back row of the photo, read the following outloud... ]

First of all, we take this opportunity to thank Busega Organization for reorganizing us and noting that we need assistance, we also thank them for welcoming us to work together. Initially, they used to assist us with soap, sugar and beans once a month. This service has not stopped due to lack of funds. If possible, may this service resume.

We also thank the government of the United Republic of Tanzania for serving us with drugs (ARVs), but it doesn’t provide drugs for diseases which accompany HIV/AIDS. So, we request that they aid Busega to provide us with such drugs.

We are very grateful that Busega helps us in the fight against discrimination.

Due to poor economic conditions worldwide, our standard of living has dropped drastically. As a result, we are requesting for loans which should be channeled through Busega. Right now, we receive very small amounts which cannot help us to stabilize economically, since we need to pay school fees for our children which forces us to engage in manual work. So, may your organization assist us or request other organizations to assist us.

We request to receive food (nutrient boosters) at least twice a week, for this will improve our health conditions faster.

We need regular seminars to equip us with new ideas on healthy living with HIV/AIDS. This need s a lot of funds which we don’t have. Please remember us on this.

We also need to educate the community surrounding us in order to avoid segregation and to know how to deal with AIDS orphans. They also need to know what to do whenever they test HIV positive.

Out of our 65 members, there’s a group of about 20 people who are Partner Clubs. These clubs are very essential in educating the general public on how to be patient whenever they realize that one has tested positive. This has usually brought a lot of problems in various families. Many families have broken up, leading to a lot of suffering by children who are always innocent. This group needs to meet at least once a month. We request that they be given fare to enable them to attend the meetings. They also need seminars on how to counsel the community about HIV/AIDS and AIDS orphans.

Lastly, we pray that God Almighty grants you health so as to keep the good work in Africa. Please pass our warm greetings to our fellows in your country USA.
Busega Oyeee....
Busega Juuu....

Monday, November 24, 2008

Micro-Finance, Inspirational-Change.

One of BCDSA’s current projects is microfinance for women. They provide small loans at low interest for women to start businesses (selling fruits/vegetables, selling fried food on the street, sewing). The majority of their clients are widows or women living with HIV/AIDS. The project is new, but has already proven to be very successful. Their first loan cycle just finished, with 17 of 17 women completely paying back their loans. This allows BCDSA to turn around and offer those funds as loans to a new group of women. I had the honor of participating in both ceremonies – the first loan-completion ceremony and the resulting loan-granting ceremony, and was inspired by the real, tangible difference this program is making in the lives of these women and their families.


Simon is our night guard – our Maasai night guard, who comes to work each evening with his machete and his spear. He has a warm bright smile and sparkly eyes. He’s short – small – and dresses with a blend of traditional Maasai and western clothes. One of the first times we saw him, he was wearing the traditional Maasai purple/red plaid blanket. Yesterday, he had on a flowered button-up shirt with green and red marching-band pants. While we have quiet evenings, while we sleep, Simon hums and studies – Swahili children’s books and English lessons. When we wake up, he is gone.

It feels uncomfortable – strange – to have a guard. But, both Eric and I really like Simon. And we want him to like us, despite our language barrier. We want to be able to talk with him, to learn about his life, to hear what he thinks of things. But for now, we’ll enjoy our brief interactions, his many handshakes, his quick laughter. For now, we’ll enjoy having a Masaii night guard with a spear named Simon.

Mr. Mhamba
Mr. Ezekiel Mhamba works at BCDSA as their project coordinator. He is in his seventies and has already retired a few times – but keeps coming back to work. He is currently working for BCDSA as a volunteer (as are all the staff) until there is money to pay him a salary. He has been married to his wife Deborah for 51 years, and they are very proud of their nine children and many grandchildren. Mr. Mhamba is warm and kind and earnest and absolutely beautiful.

He’s had a full and interesting life. He was a middle school teacher for many years. He was part of the first independent government of Tanzania in the 60’s, and traveled to Romania with his work back then. He went back to school mid-career to study the Bible, and received a scholarship to study at a Bible college in the UK. He worked for churches in Tanzania, organizing social programs on their behalf. He retired. He worked for an NGO that was connected to his church. He retired. He came to work for BCDSA.

Mr. Mhamba speaks English fluently and is often my translator at BCDSA activities. I love having him in the seat next to me, summarizing the goings-on. I love hearing my words communicated is his warm, melodic Swahili. I love having the opportunity to know and work together with Mr. Mhamba.

Mama Nyananze
In Kiswahili, you use generic mother, father, brother, sister words to greet anyone of that general age range. So, anyone in a mother (or grandmother) age range should respectfully be addressed as “Mama”. It’s VERY handy when you just can’t quite remember someone’s name.

There is a produce market that is a 15-minute walk from our house. Around the market, there’s a string of various shops/stores – everything from a barber to a fix-it guy to a little corner shop. In the mix, is a little cafe that has quickly become our favorite place to have lunch. It’s a small room with two long tables and a bench along the wall that is run by a warm, chatty Mama wearing a bright dress and christmas apron. For 80 cents, you can get the biggest plate of rice & beans that I’ve ever seen – deliciously prepared by the cafe Mama. And for just 40 more cents you can have a Pepsi to drink. A perfect lunch and a beautiful cafe Mama.

Mkula Children's Center.

One of the organizations that I'm working with, BCDSA, has a number of different projects that function at varying levels - depending on the current state of their funds. All of their projects either work towards preventing children from becoming vulnerable (by assisting their mothers to remain independent and secure) or caring for children that have already found themselves in a vulnerable situation.

Their cornerstone project is Mkula Children’s Center, an orphanage 2 hours outside of Mwanza for 25 children – 13 boys and 12 girls between the ages of 4 and 16. Some of them have lost both their parents. Others have family in the nearby community, but their home situations are not safe places for them to live. One of the little boys, Erikana, has run away from home 3 times – each time walking the 120 KM to Mwanza, where he has lived on the street. Since being in Mwanza this 3rd time, a group of street boys attempted to rape him twice. In response, he sought help from Streetwise, an NGO for street children here in Mwanza. They suggested that he try living at the Mkula Children’s Center, at least for a while. The Center is near his family, so Streetwise hopes to gradually mediate and build a relationship between Erikana and someone in his extended family – in hopes that he won’t need to permanently stay at the Children’s Center.

The situation at the Children’s Center is difficult. When BCDSA started it, they had sufficient funds to begin the home from their five Tanzanian founding members. Unfortunately, only two of the original founding members are still able to donate to BCDSA, and they are constantly struggling to find funds to support the Center. At this point, the home is extremely deteriorated, they only have one staff member (who works most of the time as a volunteer) and they continually struggle to find money for food for the children.

The Tanzanian Government has recently donated a 15-acre plot of land to the Children’s Center to use for farming. The children farm a small portion of the land on the weekends when they don’t have school, and are currently watching their first crop of maize grow. I recently completed a grant application with BCDSA for oxen and a plough for the Children’s Center to use for farming. This wouldn’t solve the problem in its entirety, but would (hopefully) allow the center to produce a few staple items for the children to eat throughout the year. Together with BCDSA and SAIDA, I am also working on organizing an in-kind food donation campaign to encourage local businesses to donate a portion of their goods to the Center. But, both of these efforts are focused on long-term food sustainability. And, though that is good in many ways – it is still difficult to reconcile knowing that the children don’t have food for today.

A few weeks ago, Eric and I visited Mkula Children’s Center with some of BCDSA’s staff. The children were welcoming and kind and beautiful. They were curious about and amused by Eric. They shyly greeted me – and, when they didn’t think I was looking, they gently touched my hair. There was a distinct sense of comradery about them, a distinct feeling that they were in all of this together. The BCDSA staff brought some food with them – a bag of rice, a bag of beans, some bread – and though the children were delighted, their excitement to receive such a basic gift was deeply sad for Eric and I to see.

The situation at Mkula Children’s Center is difficult.
...difficult to understand, difficult to reconcile, difficult to see, difficult to share. But that, I suppose, is exactly why SAIDIA is here – to bring international support and volunteers to these small organizations that are working in difficult situations to care for others, to care for the most vulnerable among us.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Holy Cats!

...and zebras and wilderbeast and giraffes and elephants and hippos. All in all, we saw 24 different animals in 24 hours, not to mention some of the most amazing land & sky I have ever seen. Joey and Jenny (SAIDIA Tanzania) took Eric and I on an overnight camping safari in the Serengiti. It was an experience that I never dreamed I’d have in my lifetime. I spent all 24 hours (well, almost), with my face to the window, my jaw dropped at the beauty all around me. It was absolutely incredible.

PS. Do you have your “Safari eyes” on? Did you spot the lion through our windshield? WOW.


As we start life here in this new place, I’ve been very aware of our creation of yet another new cycle, a new routine, for our days. Its interesting to see what parts of our daily patterns remain the same in each place we visit – and what is new again and again. One thing that remains the same, is that I want to share the cycle with all of you.

Our life in Mwanza, Tanzania looks a little something like this...

Eric and I wake up around 7:30 in Milestone House, a communal house for SAIDIA Tanzania volunteers in a neighborhood called Bwiru. We have a little breakfast at the house (our latest favorite has been African porridge) and then head to our respective jobs. Every morning, we both work for a small, grass-roots level NGOs. I’m working for BCDSA (Busega Childrens and Development Services Assistance), a group that has programs for women and vulnerable children. Eric is working for DEFESCO (Developing Free Education Services Centers for Orphans), an education project for secondary school aged youth. Both organizations are working with the absolute minimum in terms of resources. The staff at both organizations are currently working as volunteers, with the hopes of one day being paid. They daily struggle with the basics – electricity for the offices, functioning computers, paper/pens – and yet they’re both committed to helping others as much as they are able, with the little they have. It’s an inspiration. And, both Eric and I hope to be of tangible help while we’re here.

In the afternoons, Eric and I are volunteering together for SAIDIA Tanzaniza, the organization helped us come to Tanzania. SAIDIA works with 5 small, grassroots organizations in Mwanza supporting them and placing international volunteers with them. Throughout the process, SAIDIA works as an intermediary between the organizations and the volunteers, ensuring that the work volunteers do is sustainable, truly helpful and a good experience for everyone involved. SAIDIA is a fantastic program – its so practical and is truly making a difference for their partner organizations. Eric and I are helping SAIDIA to develop their organization systems, create new materials and recruit more volunteers. Speaking of recruitment, if you – or anyone you know – is interested in volunteering in Tanzania, I’d definitely recommend checking out www.SAIDIAvolunteer.org.

During our evenings and weekends, Eric and I spend time with the other SAIDIA folks, explore Mwanza and participate in some of the fun activities that other NGO-ish folks have organized (ultimate frisbee, soccer, yoga...). And, yes – Eric is the one playing frisbee and soccer and I am the one doing yoga - just to erase any hilarious images of me attempting ultimate frisbee from your minds!

Life is good here – rich, colorful, hot, beautiful – and there’s so much work to do, so much to discover, so much to learn. So much life to live in this new place.