A different view of the world

The UGA-Gertrude Mongella Partnerships sends students to Tanzania to help improve conditions there and to learn about a culture and lifestyle other than their own

A different view of the world

Lioba Moshi, director of UGA's African Studies Institute and a Tanzania native, helps with translation in the Girls Talk program.

The girls gather in groups of three on the cement floor of the Bukongo Day School on Tanzania’s Ukerewe Island and stare at the blank paper and crayons before them.

Express yourself through pictures or words, UGA student Koqunia Forte tells the mostly 12- to 15-year-olds through an interpreter, who translates her English into their native Swahili.

No one moves. After a few seconds, Forte, a master’s degree student in theater, kneels on the floor next to one of the girls. She picks up a crayon and starts writing on a sheet of paper: Happy. Glad. Play. She turns the page over and starts drawing a picture of herself, using pink for her loosely braided hair and green for her eyes and glasses.

The girls laugh and pick up crayons to begin the assignment.

"They do not understand how to draw," UGA Professor Lioba Moshi says. "They do not have confidence; they do not think they can do anything."

Indeed, when the girls are asked to share their self-descriptions with the group, none volunteer. Finally, Anastazia Marwa, 12, dressed in the white shirt and blue pleated skirt required of students at the Bukongo School walks to the front of the room and in a tiny voice begins to read what she’s written.

"When I grow up, I’d like to be a teacher," she says in Swahili, which is translated into English for the UGA students. "I like reading. I like sports."

One by one the girls come to the front of the room, which is called the library though it has no books, and share their likes. They fish, they grow flowers, they eat mangoes and go to church. They want to be teachers or cashiers or actresses. They want to come to the U.S.

This is just the beginning. Over the next four weeks, the UGA students will come to the Bukongo School to meet with the girls, who are part of a program called Girls Talk, aimed at building self-esteem and empowering emerging women in the patriarchal society.

Girls Talk is one of three projects that the UGA students and faculty engaged in with Ukerewe residents during their month-long service learning trip to Tanzania. The trip was part of a three-year-old partnership between UGA and Gertrude Mongella, a Ukerewe native and member of the African parliament who was awarded the Delta Prize for Global Understandingin 2005. The goal is to work with the people of Ukerewe to develop strategies and programs for sustainable growth.

For the students, it is an opportunity to live in and learn about a culture that is vastly different from their own.

"That enriches the academic experience they have at UGA," says Art Dunning, vice president for public service and outreach, whose office sponsored the UGA-Mongella initiative. "Tanzania provides a completely different view of the world, a different approach to life and living."

It takes nearly half an hour to make the 20-kilometer ride from the town of Nansio, near the water, to Bure Garden in Mukuna Village. The rocky dirt road is uneven and narrow and is shared by pedestrians, many of them carrying large loads of laundry to the nearby creek or vegetables from the fields. Cows and goats graze near the edge of the road.

The garden, which began in 2001, is an integrated farming program that focuses on producing and distributing seedlings for reforestation, nuts and oils, and plants for erosion. The members also raise goats for milk, and chickens for eggs. During the dry season they struggle to keep crops properly irrigated; in winter, they have a hard time keeping the animals warm.

Papayas, bananas and pineapples are among the crops growing in meticulously maintained plots. Coffee grows in the shade of the papaya trees. Coconut trees are planted in one area. Their fruits will be ready for harvest in 12 years.

Pine seedlings imported from Zimbabwe are carefully nurtured. The small plants sell for 3,000 Tanzanian shillings (about $3). A mature tree can bring in 10 million tsh (about $10,000).

"We can learn from you," Sharon Nickols, UGA professor of housing and consumer economics, tells the Bure Garden members. "We know that you have a good start that will help our work be effective."

Compared to home, a month-long stay on Ukerewe Island is rugged. The island is difficult to reach, accessed only by personal boat or ferry from Mwanza and therefore has little tourist traffic and few American amenities. The small hotel where the students live is neat and clean, but lacks air conditioning and often hot water. The en suite baths are small, just big enough for a sink, shower head and toilet—often without a seat.

Food is prepared over an open flame. Rice and Ugali, a starchy dish made from corn flour, are mealtime staples, and are accompanied by beef, chicken and vegetables, stewed in cumin and curry, and sweet plaintains simmered in oil.

A young girl the students met on the ferry from Mwanza lives around the corner and comes by regularly to say hello and practice her English. Children point and whisper "mzungus," which is Swahili for white people. The adults greet the students with "jambo," a traditional greeting. , or simply, "Obama."

An open market near the hotel provides shopping opportunities. The students go there to buy kangas, brightly colored and patterned pieces of cotton cloth that the African women wear around their waists, shoulders and heads.

There is little to do at night but sit in the small courtyard where meals are served and talk about the day’s events, or plan for the next day.

Khadija Hill, an consumer economics major, recaps their first visit to the Girls Talk program at Bukongo School, where the children performed for the students.

"Most of their songs were about AIDS. Most were about abstinence," Hill says. "It was pretty overwhelming."

It’s 8 a.m. on a warm June morning when Laurie Reyman, a master’s degree student in social work, and Robyn Smith, an international studies major, arrive at the home of Modestar Mnale.

With hoes in hand, they make the 45-minute trek to Mnale’s farm. For the next two hours, they weed the maize fields and dig the ripe sweet potatoes.

"It’s intense work," Reyman says. "I had a blister after an hour."

With three people digging they quickly filled two 30-35 pound bags and are ready to begin the trek home. Mnale and her grandson each lift a bag atop their heads.

Reyman wants to carry a bag. Mnale says no.

"They think we’re really weak, that we can’t do it, we’ll hurt ourselves" says Reyman, who grew up in Zimbabwe as the daughter of missionaries from the U.S. "I had to ask her a couple of times."

Reyman needs help to lift the bulky bag over her head and uses her hands to hold it steady. After walking for about 15 minutes, she tries to pass the bag to Smith’s head, but needs help from Mnale to make the transfer.

"It definitely gave me a new perspective," Reyman says. "It was a very profound experience. Just imagine, that’s what they do until they physically can’t do it any more."

Mnale is one of six women in a community cooperative designed to empower local women through economic development. To raise money, they make and sell cassava, a flour made from maize, at local markets. Half of the profits go back into product production and the other half is distributed among the members.

At one point, the group borrowed a chalk-making machine and bought powder to make chalk sticks. A bag of powder that cost $30,000 Tanzanian shillings (about $30) would produce 100 boxes of chalk, which would generate 65,000 Tanzanian shillings (about $65) in revenue. That revenue stream ended when they had to return the machine. Since then they have been saving money to buy their own machine, which would cost between $7,000 and $8,500. So far they have saved $2,500.

While they were there, the students wrote a grant proposal to help the women get money to buy the machine.

For Reyman, the experience confirmed her desire to one day work with agencies in East Africa that empower women. When she told the women, through an interpreter, that she wanted to return to Africa to work, they applauded.

"I had a lot riding on this personally," she says. "It was encouraging for me to know I can be useful there and that people want me there to work with them."