Saturday, June 5, 2010

My first week in Africa!

Arrival in Mwanza

It feels surreal to have finally arrived in Mwanza and contribute to something so profound. It seems like just yesterday I received the news that I had been awarded this opportunity to join Western Heads East – the University of Western Ontario’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. Today is Saturday June 5th and I am ecstatic to have finally accessed the Internet to recount some of my initial experiences after joining the team!

After three days of lengthy red eye flights and uncomfortable airport waiting times, the other interns and I finally arrived in Mwanza, Tanzania –more notably known as “The Rock City” on account of its several natural standing rock structures covering the town’s scenic coastline. We were fortunate to have been kindly greeted by one of the other interns Marta – who has been here for two weeks already. She was able to impressively barter with the taxi drivers in Swahili, a feat I can only hope to accomplish during my three-month stay. It has been a couple of days now and we have settled into our rooms at the ST. Augustine University of Tanzania – our residence until we are able to move into the intern apartment situated downtown Mwanza.


During our stay, the faculty members here have been truly helpful in answering any of our questions and showing us around, facilitating our transition into a new, unfamiliar environment. One of the more significant culture shocks I’ve encountered here is the conduct of everyone on the roads. The cars drive without any restrictions, on either side of the road at ridiculous speeds while dodging the hundreds of pedestrians, bicyclists, and animals. Our primary mode of transportation has been the “Dala Dalas” –large van-like vehicles that are always brimming with people—sometimes goats, chickens and bad smelling fish. They charge a flat rate and behave somewhat like buses, in the way that each one has a uniform route, except instead of numbers they have identifying names such as “Cheese Eater”.

Munchin’ in Africa

Before I came on this trip I had some preconceived notions of what the food was going to be like, but I was proven wrong. The food is quite good. One afternoon we had the opportunity to visit the market downtown – which stands as my most chaotic and unparalleled experience to date. We bought pineapples, papayas, avocados and bananas for lunch after bartering in Swahili with the local vendors. I haven’t hesitated to indulge into all kinds of food here, which might be sketchy, but I figure if I am guaranteed to get sick from one of the hundreds of dangerous things during my long stay of 3 months there is no point in trying to be cautious with things I can’t avoid.

Knowing Kiswahili

Knowing the native language of this country is more important than I thought it would be. Very few people are able to speak English, so learning the greetings and some basic phrases helps a lot. I am making an effort to learn the appropriate greetings so I can make an effort with the locals. They are very appreciative of foreigners’ attempts to speak Swahili and remain patient in waiting to hear what it is you are trying to say, mindful that it might not always be correct.

People’s attire in this country is something I am fascinated with. The older men and women dress in conservative and traditional apparel, regardless of the scorching temperatures. Men are most often clad in dress pants and shirts and the women are always covered in long, lively colored dresses. It is considered indecent exposure to wear anything that is above the knee or exposing your shoulders. A few of us bought some beautifully patterned fabrics at a store in town today to have tailored into dresses with the intention of assimilating their style into ours. It is somewhat uncomfortable how much a foreigner stands out here. People relentlessly stare, yelling “Mzungu” –this means foreign person in Swahili. The term does not hold any negative connotation; it is just so uncommon to see a foreigner here that the majority of locals yell it with eagerness to express their excitement about your presence. Most people rush to utter any word or phrase they know in English to try and have a conversation with you.

Another aspect I found interesting about Tanzania is how every single person has a cell phone. I guess because it is too expensive to invest in the infrastructure needed to support landlines, this is their alternative for communication.

On Wednesday, we visited the kitchen for the first time and went to make chapattis with the Mammas at the other location they have set up near the primary and secondary school in Mambatini – a rural area located on the outskirts of Mwanza.

I am curious to see which of the two operations is exhausting the majority of the funds given to the womens’ group. After spending a couple of weeks in the kitchen I hope to become better informed of these operative factors so I can learn more about the key benefits of micro-finance in enabling the scalability of women-led community-based enterprises.

After spending some time documenting the financial operations of the venture, I plan to locate and document micro-finance programs available in rural Tanzania that would be suitable for the Mwanza-based project. It will be interesting to look into what micro finance models are available and effective in rural Africa that focus on women led community based enterprises already.

Side Work- stuff I’m doing in Mwanza

On a side note from the project, I started volunteering at a baby orphanage on Thursday during my spare time. The project stems from a British organization that initiated funding for children under the age of five without parents in Tanzania and a few other locations in Africa. When we got there we met a few of the other volunteers that stay in a residence on the property and they introduced us to the children. These children have been brought to the center because their mothers do not have the funds to support them or have died during birth. The home consists of a playground and a nursery indoors, followed by one room crowded with cribs. The kids were amazing. I am already looking forward to going back next week.

My Research with Western Heads East

I want to take the time to describe the organization I am interning with, their mission statement and my responsibilities to Western Heads East because I don’t think my family or friends understand what I am doing here in Africa.

Western Heads East is an innovative initiative that responds to a key global issue – combating HIV/ AIDS. The program engages students in applying research to real problems for direct humanitarian benefit. In 2002, the United Nations Special Envoy issued a challenge for Canadian Universities to take an active role in addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. UWO responded by creating a community development project in Mwanza, Tanzania, a highly underserviced area of Subsaharan Africa with one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world. The project involves students from a variety of faculties working to address the nutritional and economic needs of those directly affected by the pandemic.

The cornerstone of the Western Heads East initiative is a nutrition program based on probiotics. Probiotics are “good bacteria” that deliver health benefits to their host. They have been shown to

1. Alleviate a risk factor for HIV infection in women

2. Lower mortality and morbidity from diarrhea in patients with AIDS

Since 2004, Western has been sending interns like moi to work with women’s groups to teach probiotic yogurt production, support local project development, and seek subsidies to provide yogurt free of charge to people living with HIV/AIDS. The original project is situated out of Mwanza, Tanzania, where interns have been working with a women’s group who are now licensed as an NGO called Tukwamuane. They have become an important segment of the Mwanza community and aim to become the Regional Headquarters for East Africa to provide training to women in other communities within Tanzania and in neighboring countries.

Another main objective behind this grassroots project is the empowerment of women – in this case I am referring to the “yogurt mamas”. The yogurt mamas have grown to contribute to the health of their communities, draw an income for their families, stimulate significant economic development and to become a hub of social support within their communities. The yogurt mamas from the Tukwamuane Women’s Group consist of 10 females who work together at the community kitchen in Mabatini, just outside of the Mwanza city centre.

Plans for the Future

Right now we are assessing the possibilities of project expansion within the Mwanza area through an increase in production and distribution at the current site in Mabatini and through the development of a larger production facility. An increase in production and distribution will assist in maintaining the distribution of the probiotic yogurt to people living with HIV/AIDS and will generate enough profit to sustain the project on its own without external assistance.

Why Yogurt?

Yogurt was chosen as the means for delivering the probiotic bacterium for the WHE project because Africa has a long history of fermented foods. It is also quite easily digestible and nutritionally dense as it is a good source of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and calcium.

My Job

So on to my part… I am responsible for outlining a micro-finance model for the replication of the community-based enterprise in other rural communities in Tanzania. I will also be working with local institutions to assist in the design and the implementation of a micro-finance model to enable the development of additional kitchens for the production of probiotic yogurt.

In the biggg picturee, I will be documenting the requirements and benefits of micro-finance for scaling up the Mwanza-based kitchen as a social franchise. I’m going to be focusing on the processes and accounting practices for managing the credit by individual members of the kitchen and by the new kitchens.

One of the more challenging aspects I am anticipating, is the resistance of the women to want to change anything. They seem to really enjoy the way things are and are not keen on expending their time training other women. Thus far, I am understanding this to be somewhat of an entitlement issue…they are proud of the business they have created and don’t want other women’s’ groups to copy them.

Future Notes- things to consider

- What are the funding relationships in place, what would be a model that would be practical for micro financing * keeping in mind that we’re shooting for intervention

- How do you sell this business model to a micro financing organization so that you could ensure if another group wanted to start a kitchen, what would be the terms, the spelling of the terms they could fund that organization.

- How compelling is this business model to a funder, what are its breakeven points, what would be a sequence that would make this model fundable for a new kitchen elsewhere. Not direct intervention to the project; translate the objectives in the project to be understood by micro financers.

- Someone reads it and understands what the business is doing, written it in a market plan, market assessment, distribution, and business plan for the firm --sequence of the franchise, location of the franchise, etc.


  1. How is the water situation? We as Canadians get approximately 300 cubic meters, per capita, of water a year for use - whereas most countries in Africa get under 15. I'm very curious to know how they ration their water. Are they pumping from wells? How sustainable is it? Can the status quo support population growth?

    Do you shit in toilets? Where does this water go?

    Where do they get their electricity? Are there opportunities to build dams with NGO money? Potential to export?

    Thanks if you get to this,


  2. Kathleen.......I literally am so fascninated with everything you said. Please continue with the amazing detailed updates, I'm not kidding I had a smile on my face while reading this. The one burning question I have to ask...and I am sorry in the people out there call you Kathy!!!???

  3. Hi Kathleen,
    Wonderful to read your blog and to hear your account of arriving in Mwanza and getting started. Interesting that you found that Tukwamuane Women's Group was hesitant to teach other women's groups to make the probiotic yoghurt since this is part of their mission -- to be a teaching facility and to expend to other women's groups? Enjoy the experience,
    Bob, WHE