Sunday, 7 December 2014

Twelve more girls arrived during the night..

Our Safe House struggles to cope with the demand from girls refusing Female Genital Mutilation in December's cutting season..

Rhobi Samwelly, our local rep in Mara province, is an FGM survivor herself, and the drive behind our successful Safe House campaign.  A week into the cutting season, with the building unfinished, they are struggling to cope with 80 girls seeking refuge, with 12 arriving last night alone..

Here is a message I received from Rhobi via What's App this morning..
The situation is challenging! The safe house can accommodate 40 girls but now we have more and we are still receiving girls in order to protect them. So we are also using the Vocational Training Centre classes to accommodate other girls. We have only 40 mattress. Still the safe house doesn't have a kitchen or dining hall. 
The situation of girls when arriving is not good, that some they don't have shoes, with torn clothes,  some are psychologically affected. So we need some basic needs like clothes, shoes, toothbrushes, soap,  sanitary towels etc. Another challenge is that the safe house doesn't have a car which could help managing collecting girls from different areas without breaking down while the girls are inside! This is very dangerous in the bush girls could be taken away to their parents for FGM.  The increased number of girls in the centre affects everything planned eg. food, bedsheets, blankets  etc. I would like to thank the local churches and mosques which are contributing food for girls in the centre. 

Some of girls are orphans  and are in secondary schools in their wards! Their relatives threaten them if they refuse to undergo FGM and threaten not to pay their school fees and other needs. We thank the government for provision of security from the villages where the girls are collected to the safe house. 

The girls received at the safe house are still in Secondary schools and primary schools. We have started to provide tuition for them at the safe house but we still do not have enough funds to pay the teachers.
Thank you very much for the supporting of the safe house as it is important for girls protection. We have received nine girls from Tarime district. 

We would be happy to receive more support in order to overcome the challenges. 

If you would like to support the Safe House you can do so here.  

And here is a message from one of the girls at the Safe House:
My name is Angelina Nginge, I am  15 years old and I come from Magatini village at Kenyamonta Ward in Serengeti district. This year my father wanted to conduct FGM on me. Due to the trainings that I got at school on the effects of FGM through the Anglican church Diocese of Mara, I decided to escape from home with the help of one of my teachers. I went to the safe house with the help of my teacher who provided a bedroom to sleep on the night I escaped home .Currently I am a form  one student at ACT-BUNDA Girls secondary school. I sincerely thank the ACT MARA for the safe house if it was not for them I do not know where would I have gone.

Monday, 17 November 2014

A tale of two teenagers, studying by candlelight

Grace is 15 and she wants to be a doctor.  She walks 3 hours each way to school from her village in rural Tanzania.  When she gets home she has to collect water and firewood for cooking before she can study by candlelight.  Sometimes her parents can afford kerosene for a brighter light but this hurts her eyes and makes her cough.  Her parents are subsistence farmers and cannot afford a £6 solar light.  There are 72 students in her class and they haven’t had a science teacher for 6 months.  There are a few text books in her school which she copies from when she can, but they often use English words she doesn’t understand and there is no one to help her.

When I met Grace in her school in September she had never used a computer or the internet.  I brought out a hard drive packed with downloaded Open Educational Resources like Wikipedia, Khan Academy and health materials, collated by World Possible so they can be used offline.  Grace was transfixed by the videos explaining the circulatory system.  She loved being able to stop and rewind the bits she didn't fully understand first time.  On Wikipedia for schools she was mesmerised by how clicking on links brought up so much detail and how she could look up words she didn't understand with a simple click. She said with access to such information it would be impossible to fail.

Lucy is also 15 and aspiring to be a doctor.  She too studies by candlelight, but that’s because the smell of the scent helps her concentrate. She has a computer in her room but generally prefers using her iPad.  Her science teacher posts useful links on the school intranet and she often collaborates on homework with her friends on Facebook.

I am going back to Tanzania in January to help more girls like Grace, taking with me taking with me donated tablets that I will pre-load with Open Educational Resources content - if you have any surplus devices lying around please let me know and I’ll ensure they are put to good use!

I am also buying £6 solar lights - if you would like to buy one as a good gift this Christmas there is information here. and you can buy one here. 

I volunteer for Tanzania Development Trust, a small volunteer run charity - all donations are spent entirely on projects.  

If you have a tablet that you would like to see put to good use in Tanzania please email me: 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Tackling inequality in Zeze village with sustainable agriculture

Building rural livelihoods and eliminating poverty in Tanzania...

I met Benedicto Hosea by chance. A well wisher from England who he'd met online had been so impressed with his drive to improve life in his village she'd asked me to take out a camera to him.

When we met he talked with such passion and knowledge about the youth organisation he had set up in his village of Zeze I was convinced to take a one day detour along dusty, potholed roads to take a look.

Benedicto is the first in his family to go to secondary school, let alone university. When he finished his degree in in November he returned to Zeze and set up an organisation  to counter its poverty and malnutrition.  Mboni ya Vijana (it means "the eyes of youth" in Swahili) is small but committed and growing month by month.  Its members who pay monthly subscriptions of 5000 shillings (about £1.50) to buy bulk seeds and farming equipment . Even this modest amount is often a struggle for these subsistence farmers and they have to sometimes borrow from each other.  They are worried about the costs but excited about the possibilities.  

Even with this small capital they are transforming lives.  Changing practices have doubled maize yields,  growing the nutritional wonder plant Moringa will bring in 4 times their current income.  This means children will be able to go to school, needed medicine bought and villages won't go to bed hungry so often.  

They have big plans: bee hives, a cassava processor,  pumping water from a nearby stream in the dry season,  all meticulously researched and costed. Benedicto lives in a village without electricity but every night he walks through the rural darkness with his laptop to find a neighbour with charge from a solar panel or generator. He works from 2am, when the mobile signal is strongest. Discussing best irrigation techniques with farmers from El Salvador,  negotiating prices with moringa processors, and planning....

Next week they are holding their training camp in Zeze to keep spreading the word..

With 40% of Tanzanian children stunted by malnutrition,  it's a timely message.

MVG are new to social media so please like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.  You can hear Benedicto explain his ideas here.  If you would like to invest in them please email me at 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Supporting vulnerable girls in Tabora, and BINGO, Tanzanian style

Rebuilding confidence through games...

Philemon Boyo is one reason why working with Tanzania Development Trust is so rewarding.  He works tirelessly, for no money, to nurture and support vulnerable girls in his neighbourhood in Tabora.

Together with 60 other volunteers he has set up Fair Education and Information Centre, FADICE, They work here seven days a week teaching vulnerable girls skills in tailoring, rearing chickens and
horticulture so they can help support themselves and in many cases their dependent children.

Challenges are huge.  Many of the girls are traumatised by the abuse they have suffered so much of FADICE's work is to rebuild their confidence and self esteem.  Sometimes girls get so depressed by the poverty and challenge in their lives they lose hope, but Philemon does not give up on them.

We visited some of the girls in their homes, together with
some girls still in primary school that Philemon is concerned about.  One of them, Mary, is 13 year old HIV positive orphan, living with her grandmother.  We visited mainly as a signal to the surrounding community that FADICE is looking out for her and if anyone causes her harm they will be answerable to them.

Evelyn is a single parent looking after her 4 children alone after her abusive husband disappeared, plus her dead sister's child.  She had her first child at 13 and cannot read or write.  She scrapes an existence using small scale loans of £1.50 to make snacks to sell door to door.  This is via a Womens' Entrepeneur Group also supported by FADICE.

You may think such work would be demoralising, but Philemon was permanently positive, with an infectious laugh and ready humour.

On my last day FADICE organised a party for the girls and their care
givers.  I was guest of honour and was serenaded in and out of the room and had to lead the dancing!

The climax of the party was a game of BINGO, Tanzanian style.  Rather than lines and numbers, this turned out to be a raucous game involving running around and then suddenly hurling yourselves into groups of a specified number.  Not understanding Swahili I was at rather a disadvantage, but it didn't seem to matter.

Philemon uses this game, and others, to build cooperation, thinking skills and self esteem, and also, just for fun.. He explains, happily, that the girls are unrecognisable from when they started at the centre 2 months ago.

You can find out about more about this and other Tanzania Development Trust projects here and my full itinerary is here.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Rhobi's Story - why she cares so passionately about #FGM

One woman's personal story about FGM...

Rhobi Samwelly is Tanzania Development Trust's local representative in Mara region and the inspiration and powerhouse behind the Safe House project.

Rhobi's passion for helping girls at risk of Female Genital Mutilation or  FGM is immediately obvious.However I did not at first realise just how personal this campaign is for her.

Rhobi grew up in a small village in Mara. Her father was from the Kurya tribe and her mother Masai.  When she was 11 she remembers a number of girls from the village going off to have FGM and one of them died.  Tradition dictates that if a girl dies during the procedure she cannot be buried, but instead her body is thrown in the bushes to be eaten by wild animals.  Rhobi understandably was very upset by this.

When she was 13 Rhobi was told by her parents it was her time for FGM.   She pleaded with her mother but was told "it is our tradition and you must undergo it"  She was also told that if she didn't comply she would never marry and the family would not be respected in the community.  

Rhobi seriously considered running away but had nowhere to go.  All of her relatives would have supported her parents. She had no option but to go ahead.  Her grandfather had paid for a special circumciser for her from the next village, but she did it slowly and badly and Rhobi lost so much blood she lost consciousness,  Her family and neighbours were all crying and thought she was dying.  They were still too scared of being arrested to take her to a hospital.  Miraculously she pulled through.  Although she was angry with her family she agreed to forgive them if they promised not to cut her sisters, which they did.  

Despite this trauma, Rhobi did very well at school and was awarded a place at a prestigious secondary school.  This didn't stop her grandfather saying "Why do you insist on going to school, you should marry and get your father cows".  Ironically this pressure ceased the following year when he was gored to death by a cow when returning from market.

Rhobi excelled at secondary school and qualified to be a teacher.  When she returned home her parents told her they had arranged her marriage and had already accepted the cows.  She cried for a week but finally felt she had no choice but to go through with the marriage.  She refused to have a ceremony though, as that would have sacrificed a cow and meant she could not have left the marriage in the future without paying it back.

Now, Rhobi and her husband have a daughter of their
own, and she still has battles with her mother in law about inflicting FGM on her.  She tells her that if your daughter has not been cut her father cannot sit with the traditional elders. 

The traditional elders carry great weight in the village.  They meet under a specific tree and no-one else is allowed to pass anywhere near, unless they are summoned.  They dispense justice and punishment and if you deny a charge they will make you drink a truth drug from a skull.  Women can only approach the tree on their knees.

The elders in Maguri village in Serengeti summoned Rhobi to attend.  She said she would not attend the tree but eventually persuaded them to meet her in the school.  They were hostile to her anti FGM advocacy but eventually she managed to persuade them and they are now supportive of her campaign.

December is the cutting season which is why it is so important the Safe House in Mugumu is completed by then,  

You can read more about the campaign here, and come and meet Rhobi when she is speaking at the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday October 15th 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

On the road with Rhobi's anti FGM work in Serengeti villages

Meeting the girls Rhobi is trying to protect...

 We were three hours late leaving because Rhobi was dealing with a woman who had walked twenty miles from her village carrying a sick child into Mugumu, the nearest place she could get medical attention.  Tragically this delay cost the child’s life.

Six of us crammed into the car with a generator, speakers, mixers and random luggage and set off along the pot holed roads to Monuna village.  

Even though we were so late the peer educators and a large group of villagers were waiting for us.

After signing the obligatory visitors’ book in the ward officer’s room and greeting the village chairman and other village leaders we were led to a row of chairs in the shade of the tree.  After we had all been introduced and made short speeches the peer gender educators started to sing and dance with their group of traditional instruments. 
Each song carried relevant messages such as value your daughters and don’t seek cows.  (Generally fathers receive cows as a bride price when their daughters marry).

Rhobi has trained 4 peer gender educators, 2 men and 2 women, to work in the community.  They had 5 days training in Mugumu town, 20 miles away, the first time they had been so far out of the village.

After the singing the community forum began on the topic  of "Is it true that early marriage has health effects on girls" 

As we were so late we had to drive on to Maburi village where a bigger crowd was waiting, despite the monthly market in the neighbouring village.  An awning with a table complete with floral displays had been set up for us and children began dancing as soon as our speakers began playing local music.  After the village chairman opened the meeting the local pastor and a choir began singing songs with gender equality messages, 

Rhobi then made posed the question and many people
came up to speak about it, including a few in rap. Occasionally a herd of goats strayed through the proceedings, to be shooed away.
The peer educators then put on a drama showing a father forcing his daughter to have FGM against the wishes of the mother who he beat up so she ran away.  The daughter died and the mother returned with the police who arrested the father and the circumciser
The event ended with us being presented with a live chicken and some eggs.  Rhobi tried to get me to take it, which caused much hilarity with the villagers.

Afterwards we spoke to many girls who were keen to tell their stories. 

You can see more about Rhobi's work here 

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Meeting Rhobi at the Safe House in Mugumu

Finally meeting this inspirational FGM campaigner...

I had heard so much about Rhobi, and been communicating with her for so long it was fantastic to finally meet her in person.

We went to the Anglican Church of Tanzania, ACT. office on the site of St Joseph's church in Mugumu where the safe house and vocational training centre is being built.  I was pleased to see builders on site putting in the door lintels.  I was told that the windows and doors were ready to go in tomorrow and that the safe house should be finished by the end of September.  This is fantastic news, particularly as Rhobi is expecting girls refusing
Female Genital Mutilation, FGM, to start coming in October and is confident they will be ready.

ACT has 7 different projects around Musoma, mostly in agricultural development and supporting physically disabled children, and the one against Gender Based Violence, GBV, in Serengeti region, of which the Safe House is part. 

Rhobi started working in 12 villages in Serengeti April 2012, in what was supposed to be a one year project.  This involved setting up a community meeting with the
village leaders explaining the effects of GBV, early marriage, HIV and FGM.  This was followed by a meeting with the whole community. However there were sometimes issues with women being kept from attending these meetings by their husbands, so instead Rhobi organises traditional dance competitions in the villages, which had a much better female attendance rate, and then finished the event with a community forum with a motion such as "FGM helps to discipline girls in our community" which led to heated debate.  Rhobi also trained community workers in each village to support women and girls, and created a radio announcement about the dangers of FGM which was aired on local radio every day in the cutting month of December 2012.  

This led to 16 girls deciding to stand up to their parents and refuse to go through with FGM, with its horrific, long term health effects. The girls, aged between 9 and 13 went to their local pastors, who took them in.  ACT then came with a police officer from the gender desk in Mugumu, the regional capital, and a lawyer and had meetings with the village leaders.  Eventually the parents agreed to sign an affidavit promising not to mutilate their daughters and they were able to go home.  Rhobi keeps in regular contact with these girls, and they are still fine, except one who failed her Standard 7 exam and so as this means she could not go on to secondary school, had to get married, at 14. Fifty per cent of the girls who marry below the age of 18 in these villages will be HIV positive within six months. 

Accommodating the girls before they become reconciled with their parents puts huge pressure on the pastors, who live in very humble homes in the villages, and for girls finishing their education there are currently no alternatives to early marriage.  Therefore we are building a Safe House and Vocational Training Centre in Mugumu, so girls who fail their Standard 7 exam can instead learn a trade such as tailoring or carpentry, to support themselves.

While we had dinner with Pastor Moses Homboi and his wife, Rhobi's phone kept ringing.  She explained about a woman in Magotini village, who was continually being beaten up by her husband.  In desperation she had contacted Rhobi who had helped her to report him to the local police.  Unfortunately the husband bribed them to let him go and the violence started again.  Rhobi contacted the Chief of Police in Mugumu to complain, who transferred the corrupt officer to another station.  The next time the husband abused her the local police again arrested him.  They were reluctant to keep him in though and suggested to the abused woman that she should either take him back or pay them to transfer him to Mugumu.  Again Rhobi complained to the Chief.  He said the man should be transferred , but there was a problem of transport.  So Rhobi dispatched the project driver to go to the village to pick up the husband, under police escort, to deliver him to the main police office in town.

Rhobi deals with issues like this on a daily basis.  Unless she supports women who finally have the courage to try and fight for their rights they will simply go back to accepting their fate, as before. 

Tomorrow we will visit two of the villages to see community forums in action. 

A quick detour to Ngorongoro Crater..

A two day holiday from visiting projects...

As my bus went right past Ngorongoro Crater I thought it would be foolish not to stop.  The bus was to drop me at Rhino junction, inside the National Park.  Even though it was only a short walk to the lodge I was told this was very dangerous and I must be met there.  So I arranged with the lodge that I would phone them when the bus went past the viewpoint and they would come and meet me at the junction.

As we climbed up to the crater rim it became very foggy.  The bus was incredibly crowded ad the windows so dusty it was very hard to see you, particularly from my seat three in from either side.  However I caught a glimpse of some parked safari vehicles and guessed we were at the viewpoint and had better phone, only to find I had no mobile reception.  I had visions of stumbling across a
lion in the mist, but luckily Steven, the lodge's driver was patiently waiting at the junction.

When the mist cleared I went for a walk along the crater rim with an armed ranger, Maxwell.  I assumed the gun was probably only for show so asked him if he ever used it.  "All the time," he asserted, usually to frighten off belligerent buffalo, but last year he had to kill a pride of six lions after they had eaten three Masai children.  After lions have tasted human flesh they have to be shot before they kill again, he explained.

We walked past Masai children of six years old herding huge herds of goats, including one carrying a baby goat they had helped deliver that day.  We then came across a group of three Masai boys with white paint on their faces.  They seemed almost as interested in me as I was in them.  Maxwell explained their markings signified they had been circumcised last week and they now had to spend eight months living independently away from the village.  When they returned they would be recognised as men.  They were between 8 and 13 years old.  None of them was now in school, two of them had never been as their parents had refused to let them go.  They said they were sad about this, but had had no choice.

They were then joined by four more boys with markings and one without.
He was unable to get circumcised because his father did not have a cow to slaughter.  When the boys are cut they bleed, and have to replace the blood they lose by drinking cattle blood.  Not being circumcised means he will be unable to marry.  I asked about the girls, and Maxwell said although they don't admit FGM goes on any more, they still do it secretly.

The next morning I set off with Steven before dawn down into the crater.  As we descended we left the cloud behind and the huge expanse of the crater appeared with an enormous white salt flat from an evaporated lake at its centre.

We saw lions asleep, right by the road.  They looked very settled, but Steven warned me not to put my head out of the window as they can pounce very suddenly.

We followed a hippo doggedly walking half a mile to a watering hole.
 It's unuusal to see them out of the water during the day.  At the water hole there were 40 more soaking themselves, and occasionally rolling over to expose their pink bellies.  A flock of storks landed in a line and
dived for fish in coordinated, balletic movements.

I had wanted to see elephants, but maybe not
as close as we did.  An enormous belligerent bull elephant didn't like us in his territory and forced us to reverse away quickly.

I wouldn't say the buffalo looked very friendly either.  They kill the most people of any wild animal, followed by hippo and elephants.

Suddenly the grazing zebra seemed spooked.  A pack of 15 hyenas were circling, looking for a sick, injured or young member to take down.  The zebra made desperate whinnying noises to warn each other of the danger.

The following morning the same bus picked me up from the junction and we drove 7 hours across the Serengeti along bone shaker roads, stopping at Masai villages to pick yet more people up to stand in the aisle with their goats.  I was amazed how many animals we saw racing through, including two lions at the side of the road and a hyena right in the middle, refusing to move.

Finally, covered in dust, I arrived in Mugumu, site of the Safe House, to meet Rhobi at last.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Powering Potential - bringing computers to rural off grid schools

An amazing use of Raspberry Pi's...

Today I met an amazing young man called Albin who is the country director for Powering Potential a charity setting up solar powered computer labs in rural, off grid schools.

We visited Welwel secondary school, one of ten schools they have set up in and around Karatu, close to Ngorogoro crater in Tanzania.

Because the capacity of solar panels is not sufficient to power many standard desktop pcs they are running a system based on Raspberry Pi computers, with locally bought keyboards and monitors - meaning one station uses about 10 watts, compared to between 60 and 300W for a normal desktop machine.

The cost of internet access is prohibitive for most schools so they have installed offline Wikipedia and Khan Academy videos and other educational content called RACHEL from World Possible.  They even supply low wattage battery powered projectors with rechargeable speakers so a whole class at once can watch.

Recently Powering Potential have completed three more school installations, all of which include three weeks training delivered by their locally trained technicians.  These remote local communities have to demonstrate commitment to the project by building a suitable room, providing transport for the equipment and accommodation for the trainers during the training.  

A remarkable achievement - no wonder President Kikwete recently expressed an interest in a role out to the 80% of Tanzanian schools; who are not yet connected to the grid...

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Teacher Training with Village Education Project Kilimanjaro

Tacking the harder problems in Tanzanian schools...

Katy Allen is an ex London lawyer who has been working to improve the standard of English in government primary schools in this region of Tanzania for the last twenty years through the charity she started, Village Education Project Kilimanjaro, VEPK..

Katy started by refurbishing schools – mending leaking roofs and putting glass in the windows so the classrooms aren't filled with dust when it’s windy.  She soon realised that although Tanzania has done a good job of getting children into school, it has been much less successful in getting them to learn there.

Problems are huge.  Teachers are told where to teach and spend many hours travelling on very poor roads to get to work, using up a high proportion of the meagre salary to do so.  

Teacher training covers content not methodology so teachers generally spend lessons copying notes from (often inadequate) textbooks for the children to try to copy down into their flimsy exercise books, understanding nothing.  That is if they are lucky enough to have a pen. In this class a quarter of the class did not, and had to wait for their friends to finish and lend them one. 

Some of the classes are enormous, up to 109.  There are not enough classrooms so half the children come in the morning and half in the afternoon.  Even so there are two classes in the room above so while one class is being taught the other is supposed to sit waiting.  There are no pupil books or teaching aids.

VEPK runs seminars for Maths and English teachers, teaching them participatory teaching techniques using materials found locally such as bottle tops.  They also run one to one sessions with teachers explaining the topics they find hardest.  They show them how to analyse the results of the trial exams to work out which topics their children are struggling with - standard procedure in the UK, but a revalation to these teachers. They are also producing and trialing new text books

The enthusiasm in which Katy and Barb were greeted in each school we went to was evidence of the high regard they are held in by teachers and children alike. The lessons I saw were interactive, pacy and fun - a far cry from the standard lessons here.

You can read more about VEPK's work here.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

On the road with ACCT - Affordable Computers & Technology for Tanzania

Bringing technology to village schools in Tanzania...

I spent Friday bumping down steep rocky paths with Robert from ACTT in his car visiting some of the 90 rural schools he has installed computers in.  

We saw a lesson delivered  using their mobile solar lab to 13 year olds, most of whom had never seen computers before.  

I met Gabriel using Encarta science as he wants to be an engineer and Najma using Wikipedia offline to practice her English. She wants to be a politician to ensure Tanzanian men respect women. 

It's not without its challenges though. Throughout the day Robert juggled calls on 2 phones. Problems ranged from the broken down bus transporting laptops for a lab technicians training session in Dar to issues at customs due to a new tax on the second hand computers he gets shipped from Close The Gap a Belgian NGO.

Most of the employees at ACTT are former street kids from the shelter where Robert used to work. 

Ally was orphaned at 10 but Robert trained him to be a technician. Without ACTT he said he would probably be in prison or an addict on the streets. Instead he is training the next generation....