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.