(Sorry, but the internet connection is too slow for putting photos in the text! They’re available online here though, thanks!)
Our original route didn’t have us passing through Dar until the very end of our time in Africa. We decided to change that when we left Rwanda; we had heard bad things about the route along Lake Tanganyika and we were expecting a bit of a rainy season somewhere along the way. Also, as the horror stories about cycling in Ethiopia built up (a teacher friend of ours had an Ethiopian student who wrote an essay about throwing stones at cyclists), we decided we’ll probably skip that last northern leg of the trip.
The idea then was just to cross Tanzania to Dar and spend maybe a week or so there before heading over to Zanzibar.
Well, so much for that: with the exception of five days on Zanzibar, we’ve been in Dar for a month now. This week we’ll finally head out, taking the train south to Mbeya and then pedaling on to Malawi.
What got us to stay for so long? Well, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at least partially the house-sitting…
When we first arrived in Dar we were staying with Nico, a friend from Brussels. A friend of his then invited us to take care of her house while she was in Cameroon for ten days. Those of you who have traveled for long periods can probably imagine how nice it was for us to go from random guest houses and sketchy bush camping spots to suddenly having a double bed, a shower, a refrigerator, and even an oven – all this without having to repack our things every morning or negotiate a new price every night. Just what we needed to recharge the batteries a bit after four months on the road.
Even more than house-sitting though, we stayed because we finally found a way to make ourselves useful. Shocking, I know, but the ATD 4th World team in Dar welcomed us with open arms, putting us to work in their office and letting us tag along to street library and other projects – please don’t hold that against them.
Of course, we knew the movement from before, and that helped: if you don’t know ATD, it can be hard to really understand quite what they do. Even myself, who learned about ATD through Anna five years ago, and who has volunteered with them some through the years, I don’t think I quite “got” the idea of ATD before these past weeks spent pestering the team here in Dar.
What is there to “get”?
Well, ATD isn’t really an NGO in any traditional sense of the term. What it is, rather, is an international movement of people living in extreme poverty to organize and fight for their own rights. The Movement was itself started by people living in extreme poverty in France in the 1950’s working alongside a Catholic priest named Joseph Wreszinsky, who himself grew up in extreme poverty. The idea was to organize themselves to work towards ensuring their own rights and to eradicating extreme poverty around the world.
And though maybe that doesn’t sound so dramatic a difference, it’s actually pretty groundbreaking – especially here in Africa, where the dehumanizing nature of extreme poverty and failed charity which created the Movement fifty years ago are pretty much de rigueur for millions of people.
Now, we haven’t really hidden how skeptical we’ve become of the whole “development” enterprise: most of the organizations we meet seem to be corrupt, ineffective, and unnecessary. In any decent-sized town in Africa, the largest houses and nicest cars will belong to the development workers; few if any of the development workers we’ve met feel that their own organization has any real impact on the lives of the people they claim to serve; and often there are multiple organizations in the same area promoting the same goals: all in competition with one another, fighting for the grant money which they need to survive and keep those beautiful houses and beautiful cars in good working order…
What has been the biggest shock though is that this skepticism is completely accepted here – it’s almost taken for granted! There is no criticism we level that doesn’t come directly from people working in the field. Most of them stay then either because they can’t think of anything else to do (“But this has been my whole career” or “But this is better than working for some company”), or because let’s face it, they could never enjoy the same standard of living (mansion, garden, SUV, maid, chauffeur, cook, guard – all paid for by the office) back home.
Over the past five months of meeting and talking with development workers, we have found maybe one who really believes that NGO’s do good – and even that seemed limited to NGO’s that dig wells. There were a few people actually who spoke positively of these kinds of organizations. Before you get your wallet out though, be careful: there are dozens of organizations out there working to provide clean drinking water, unless you have seen the work they do and spoken with their fieldworkers yourself, I would think twice before getting involved – we have just heard too many horror stories (far too many to relate here unfortunately).
All of this is not ATD.
For starters, ATD doesn’t operate with an insanely large budget – in fact, as Bruno, one of three international volunteers currently working with the ATD team in Dar, told us: the Dar es Salaam director of one governmental aid agency receives about as much per month to pay for housing as the entire ATD Tanzania monthly budget (they learned this because the director in question was having trouble finding a house in his price range…).
All ATD staff members are known as “volunteers” and they are members of the “International Volunteer Corps,” founded by Father Wrezinski. Volunteers sign on to work together with people living in extreme poverty (hence ATD: All Together in Dignity), and thus while not subjecting themselves to extreme poverty, do agree to share the difficult circumstances of the communities they work with.
There are currently 3 international volunteers with the ATD Dar team: Bruno from France, his wife Ana from Germany, and Salehe from Tanzania.
More than just reduced salaries though, the money also has a strong influence on how ATD operates in Tanzania: ATD doesn’t pay people to come listen to its message.
I know what you’re thinking: What kind of a charity pays people to listen to their message?
Most charities in East Africa, as near as we can tell!
This we first heard about in Kenya, when one smaller NGO told us that they couldn’t get people to come to their events because they couldn’t afford the 5$ per person fee that other NGO’s gave for attendance. The same is the case here in Tanzania it turns out, and whenever ATD tries to present itself to new people, the money aspect comes in and complicates matters. Last week, we took notes at a meeting of young members of the movement which ended with two young men explaining that their families had sent them out to ATD so they might “bring back something,” and that if they didn’t “bring back something” next time, it would be hard to keep coming…
Another difference with ATD is that because it’s a movement of people living in extreme poverty, it doesn’t provide services.
What does that mean really? Well, a typical NGO develops an idea in Europe or the US (Let’s teach Africans about farming!), then sets about getting together grants to fund it (Look at the starving Africans! [Insert photo from Ethiopia in the 1980’s] If only they knew how to farm!), and then shows up in the field to implement it all (You don’t know how to farm, but we do! Here’s five dollars!).
The result? Not surprisingly, the people who come to meetings are more interested in getting paid than in learning about organic farming. Nevertheless, the NGO can then go and show its donors that hundreds of people have attended its workshops and that thus they are far more efficient than those other farming NGO’s, and so are a much better investment: hunger will be eradicated within the year.
The problem is obvious though: not only were the people not listening, but poverty is about much more than just a lack of knowledge of certain farming techniques. Poverty, particularly extreme poverty (and this is another worthwhile note: the poorest people will never be reached by NGO’s like the one caricatured here, the poorest people are far too marginalized to be included in such events) is a daily, dehumanizing sense of insecurity which can’t just be erased with a class on farming and an airlift of five dollar bills.
ATD, by comparison, has been in Tanzania for ten years now. During that time, they have invested themselves mainly in getting to know the poorest communities and building up trusting relationships with them. This includes stone workers at a quarry north of Dar, the firewood and charcoal sellers at the Dar fish market, and families living in Tandale, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Having built up the relationships, the team then works with them to help them provide for themselves.
Over a year ago, for instance, a friend of ATD named Mbaraka, who is the head of the firewood and charcoal sellers union at the Dar fish market, mentioned that many of the members of the union don’t know how to read and write. The ATD volunteers then worked with Mbaraka and the union members to find funding and time and space to arrange their own literacy classes. The funding is tiny, just enough to pay a teacher and cover administrative costs, but the impact is huge: every six months, twelve more members of the firewood and charcoal sellers union learn to read.
We had the chance to meet the students and teacher when they came to the office for a bit of a mid-term celebration, and also by visiting their class at the market one Friday. They’re a raucous bunch, alternately heckling and encouraging each other as they stand in front of the class and try to decipher what were up until recently completely unintelligible symbols. Students who successfully pass the first class become supporters during the second class, making sure that the new batch of students do their homework and attend classes – something that can be difficult when not only have you not eaten breakfast or lunch, but you know you haven’t earned enough to eat dinner that night either.
Another ATD project is helping families to get birth certificates for their children. This again involves little money, just taking the time to go with mothers to local government representatives to figure out what the best way is to navigate the often labyrinthine paths of Tanzanian bureaucracy. The results is significant: people without birth certificates don’t legally exist, and will never have the same rights and opportunities people with birth certificates.
ATD volunteers and allies go with the women, but in the end the women do the work themselves, encouraging one another forward as a community. This is the same with the literacy class: ATD doesn’t build schools and it doesn’t stick its logo on huge signs on all the doors. ATD just helps the poorest people help themselves.
And this leads maybe to the biggest difference we noticed, encompassing the entire approach to relating to the Tanzanian people. When we were talking with Ana, the German volunteer, she said the words she took to heart when setting off to Tanzania were the words Father Wrezinski had given to the first volunteers sent off to the developing world: “Aime les gens” (Love the people).
Anyone who has spent five minutes with a disgruntled African development worker can see how different this approach is. Most NGO’s come here with a European (I include American in the term) mentality, hoping to work in a European style with European goals and principles guiding the way. But Africa isn’t Europe, and such an approach leads inevitably to frustration and alienation.
Rather than looking for reasons to love the people, most development workers wind up resenting them and secretly hating them.
The problem is, not only does this not help the people of countries like Tanzania, but it actually hurts. Whether it’s promoting corruption or undermining traditional social support structures or just reinforcing the degrading social stigma attached to poverty, it has a real harmful effect and traveling through the region it has been hard to not become too cynical.
Fortunately though, ATD is not alone. While we were in Dar, we met another group of Africans working for themselves: UWABA, the Dar es Salaam cyclists union, which works to promote the interests of cyclists and cycling safety in the city. We met them thanks to the ATD team, who thought we might be interested in what they do.
We visited UWABA twice, and talked with Elaine, an Irish woman living in Dar who is one of the co-founders of the group. She told us that at the beginning, UWABA had many of the same frustrations as ATD, explaining again and again that no, they weren’t going to pay people to come to meetings, but that anyone interested in working together to represent themselves was welcome. Today, UWABA has over 250 members in Dar, and a group of unpaid volunteers who come every Saturday to their two-hour meetings.
UWABA has presented cycling safety issues to government ministers, and organizes a cycling event each fall that can get thousands of attendees. They are also members of the newly launched African Bicycle Network, an association of African cyclist groups. And all the while those unpaid volunteers are now launching a bike messenger cooperative.
So, two organizations in Dar – the inevitable question is: Why aren’t their more?
Well partially I think because of the time – there is a joint ATD-UNICEF report which came to the conclusion that a commitment of at least 10 years is necessary to reach the poorest people. What NGO is willing to spend that much time working in one place, living like Africans, and all the while simply building up relationships, working without any measurable achievements that they can send back home to justify themselves to the fundraisers?
And how many Europeans (again, I include Americans) are really willing to live like Africans? In Dar, there is a neighborhood called “The Peninsula” where almost all the embassy and development staff live. It is geographically isolated (on a peninsula, duh), and is completely different from the rest of the city, with huge mansions surrounded by stone walls, often topped by barbed wire and electric fences. There are no corner shops or restaurants, no women selling chapati along the street; instead there are private security guards in pickup trucks driving around on patrol.
The volunteers from ATD don’t live in that neighborhood; the volunteers from UWABA don’t either. By not living there, they keep their budgets smaller, but more importantly, they keep a sense of perspective on the rest of the country, they keep in contact with the people they are ostensibly trying to help. They don’t set themselves apart as something different, as a rich elite come to teach the poor masses how to behave themselves.
Two people helped us realize just how important this is. One was our wise friend Natalie, who observed, when we were out one night in the peninsula, that “If I were Tanzanian and I saw all these white people here not mixing, I think I would want them to leave my country.”
The other was the teacher of the fish market literacy classes. After waxing poetic on the strengths of Salehe, the Tanzanian volunteer, he spoke of Bruno and Ana, the two white volunteers, comparing them to other whites in Dar saying: “The other Wazungu are not easy to go to, they have good education, a good life. To go close to them, you fear sometimes, you think maybe you can get a slap. Bruno and Ana are very friendly, we can just go to their house and knock and they will always let us come in, they are good friends with good hearts.”
This is why we love ATD.