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

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.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Next Stop: Mwanza, Tanzania.

Three continents, six days and seven flights later, Eric and I made our way from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Mwanza, Tanzania. And, though we were thoroughly exhausted by the time our final plane touched down at the Mwanza airport, we were thrilled to be here.

We are anxious to learn what Africa has in store for us over the next two months. And, I am looking forward to sharing it with you. More soon...

Long Layover in Lima.

As part of our travel between Argentina and Tanzania, Eric and I had the pleasure of spending two days in Lima, Peru. We celebrated Eric’s birthday, ate delicious seafood, sat together on a wall overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and took our first double-decker-city-bus-tour-ever. All in all, Lima was quick – but absolutely delightful.

Bus 86.

On our last day in Buenos Aires, Eric and I said goodbye with a bus ride to the airport. There are many ways to get there, the bus being the longest route - which, strangely enough, was exactly what we were looking for. We wanted a long road, twisting and turning through the city, allowing us to properly say goodbye.

We wound through the city streets of Buenos Aires and watched the neighborhoods change. From the grand city center with business bustling to city neighborhoods of apartment patios overlooking busy streets. To the high-rise buildings, hundreds of people piled into small spaces – each family on top of the next. To small single-family homes, brick and connected. To large houses with fences and yards. And then, in an instant, to the countryside – with horses and cows and fields and water.

The city structure is so familiar, with its pattern reflected in cities all around the world. We have learned to organize, to classify ourselves – to understand ourselves (and the people around us) – according to where we live. With invisible walls between the concentric circles that clearly divide, clearly define the people of a city from one another.

But, invisible or not, the walls are not necessary.
We do not need the division.
Because wherever we are, if we are willing to defy the circles – to cross the street – we will discover other people, just like us. People trying to live their lives, the best way they know how. People who love their families, work to provide for them, desire joy in their lives. People who call the same city home.

Thank you, Buenos Aires, for welcoming us as visitors in your city. We have been honored to live and work and walk among you. And thank you, Bus 86, for the beautiful goodbye ride. I will remember the circles – and from now on, no matter where I am, I will cross the street. (Reprise).

The definite highlight of these months in Buenos Aires has been the opportunity I’ve had to volunteer at There are so many things that I’ve loved about the experience – the people that I’ve worked with, the projects I’ve worked on, the many things that I’ve learned. But, perhaps the thing that has made the greatest impression on me during my time as an volunteer has been the goodness that I witnessed in countless people that I’ve never met. – and its counterparts and – connect hundreds of thousands of individuals that truly want to do something good in the world with organizations that need their help. It’s an idea that truly works ... and it’s amazing. I found great inspiration and hope in the opportunity to witness these connections, and I believe in the good that is becoming in our world as a result.

Towards the end of my volunteer experience at, they started a blog for their volunteers. If you’d like to learn a bit more about my experience, I’d invite you to visit Scroll down, you’ll find me there!

Children of Fear.

I’ve always found it fascinating to meet people my age from different places in our world. There is something special about knowing that we’ve been living parallel lives of sorts, just in different places. A few years back, while working at Open Arms, I made a friend from South Africa who was a part of the ‘healing of memories’, a project striving to find true reconciliation for the pain of apartheid in South Africa. He was exactly my age, and had grown up outside of Durban, South Africa. While I was enjoying elementary school, piano lessons and Odessy of the Mind, my friend was experiencing the battle against apartheid - by the age of 10, he had endured things so horrific they are difficult to even imagine.

In Buenos Aires, I discovered more “parallel” lives – my Spanish teachers, Martin and Pedro, are both close to my age. In an Argentine History Charla (lecture), they described our generation in Argentina as the children of the disappeared ... the children of fear. In the mid-seventies, as they (and I) were being born, their parents were witness to one of the darkest times in Argentine History. Their earliest years were surrounded by Argentina’s silent fear. In 1976, a military junta overthrew Argentina’s president. In an effort to gain complete control, they began a secret movement to capture, detain, and often kill anyone they suspected of government resistance. As part of their torture tactics, they often demanded that prisoners give them another name of someone involved in “leftist resistance”. When they received a new name, they would kidnap the person – often from the safety of their own home. One by one, people silently disappeared from Argentine neighborhoods – with fear of repercussions keeping most witnesses silent. Despite years of inquiries and protests from the families (especially the mothers) of the disappeared, the government continually denied their involvement until they were final overthrown in 1983. By that time, more than 30,000 Argentines are estimated to have disappeared.

Just last year, the government built a memorial to honor these Argentines – people kidnapped, brutally tortured and killed by their own government. The wall is a work in progress, as they are still, today, learning about this awful time in their own history. As new people’s names are confirmed, they are added to the wall.

As a visitor in Argentina, my understanding of the era of ‘the disappeared’ is very limited. I have hesitated to even write about it, knowing that my knowledge is lacking – and that an overview of the history doesn’t do it justice. But, after visiting the memorial, I knew that these are the kinds of things in our world’s history that we must write about, talk about, build memorials for, learn from – these are the things in our world’s history that we must remember.