Tanzania no longer seems like the distant and exotic place that I dreamed of visiting as a child and knew only from National Geographic photos or nature documentaries. After traveling there every year except one since 2007, it feels like my second home. Every time I visit, I learn more about the customs and beliefs of the people. I’m often surprised by how different we are in customs and beliefs, but our common goal of bettering the community brings us together. Years ago, I stopped romanticizing the lives of the villagers by assuming that they are happy despite their poverty. They have little to share and they are grateful for what they receive, but the burden of poverty weighs on them daily. Therefore, when Karimu can help lift that weight, it is a great thing. We can change surviving into thriving.
On my trip to Tanzania this August, I was accompanied by longtime Karimu volunteer Cathy Novak, of Santa Cruz, California. Cathy, a former schoolteacher, focused on children’s education, an area in which she has done invaluable work for many years. Meanwhile, I worked with our Tanzanian employees to obtain assurances from the local leaders that they would establish a single, central water committee, with a single bank account, in order to guarantee honesty, transparency, and sustainability for the water project that has recently brought clean water to all the villages of Ayalagaya Ward, populated by many thousands of people.
I have learned that it is unrealistic to think that because Karimu has brought so much to the community, every Tanzanian will work in harmony with us. The strength and unity of the community are remarkable, but imperfect. Sometimes disagreements surface, and these lead to factions. At the beginning of my trip, not everyone agreed about the need for a single water committee. But with time, patience, and dialogue, a consensus was achieved. The advantage of remaining in one community for fifteen years is that when problems arise, our enduring relationship, which has built powerful bonds of trust, make it possible to face challenges and find solutions. The people of Tanzania appreciate Karimu’s dedication to listening to the community and working in partnership with them.
Karimu always sought a partnership. However, during the last few years, our ability to maintain a staff of Tanzanian employees on the ground has taken partnership to a higher level. During my three-week trip, I was continually heartened by the growing independence of our Tanzanian employees. The community respects them as leaders and advisors. Every day when I stopped by the Karimu office, located in the middle of the Dareda Kati village, I was impressed by how many people stopped by to greet the employees, ask for advice, or report on projects.
Thanks to our Tanzanian employees, Karimu has become the heart of the community. The employees teach courses in entrepreneurship. They run savings groups, farm projects, and health campaigns. They oversee Karimu’s biggest-ever project, which involves spending $1.2 million to bring clean water to the fifteen thousand residents of the villages of Arri Ward. To have Tanzanians in charge of these community projects is ideal. No matter the number of times that I, or any of our other non-Tanzanian volunteers, may travel there, we will never understand the lives and needs of the Tanzanians as deeply as they understand themselves. This model will ensure the continuance of projects for years to come. I feel privileged to work with our employees, particularly Shau Erro Ae, recently promoted to the position of Regional Director.
During my visit I spoke at fifteen different community meetings. At each meeting I was greeted with joyous singing and dancing. I was also showered with gifts, including two goats, two chickens, and one sheep!
The gracious outpourings of generosity humbled me. The generosity reminded me, at every meeting, to emphasize the importance of working together, of honesty, of addressing problems as swiftly as possible when they arise, and of abiding by the project-maintenance agreements between Karimu and the community. Speaking in Swahili as often as I could, I would tell them, Ukaribati ni muhimu sana (“Maintenance is very important”), because without their commitment to maintenance, our projects will eventually crumble.
Standing in front of hundreds of people, and in front of a thousand or more at the farewell ceremony, I would close by acknowledging the donors, volunteers, community members, community leaders, and Karimu employees who have come together to turn so many dreams into reality for the people of Ayalagaya and Arri Wards.