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Tanzania Rural Revival: An Interview With Lesley Koumi

December 3rd 2011

Tanzania Rural Revival website
I have a great deal of admiration for people who go out and do something practical about poverty and equality, especially when it involves travelling to parts of the world where clean water and safe roads aren't a given. Lesley Koumi is one of those people: when she's not labouring in local politics (she's a former district councillor) she works as one of the trustees of Tanzania Rural Revival, a local charity concerned with improving people's lives in specific areas of rural Tanzania. The organisation's scope is hyperlocal: it deals with a few small towns and villages in the mountainous Makete district, and in the Nkasi district near lake Tanganyika. I spoke to Lesley about the charity and her recent trip to the district from 30th September to the 20th October with her partner and fellow trustee John Hough.

How did you get involved in this?

Tanzania Rural Revival was founded in 2006, although its origins go a lot further back, to 1968. My partner John Hough started off as a V.S.O. volunteer in Tanzania. He was there altogether for four years. He left in 1972 because the country was beginning to get on its feet and he felt they didn't need foreigners like him telling them what to do. Of course he'd always wanted to go back, and we finally did in 2004. We went for a holiday. We went round all the fantastic sights in the north, and he couldn't get over how big Dar-Es-Salaam had become.

Things had changed in Dar-Es-Salaam, but John felt very strongly that in the rural areas nothing much had changed. You can drive hundreds of kilometres down the main road to Dar-Es-Salaam with electricity wires going down the road, and nothing ever diverted off. People were living in a sort of medieval fashion. So we decided to get together with two or three friends to see if we could do something about it."

What are conditions like?

They do have some food shortages, and I wouldn't describe people as well fed, but they are quite a well organised country and if there is a shortage in one area there are systems for the government to move food to where there isn't a shortage."

Is it well governed?

Yes, it has some problems, of course. But the government is very hot on rooting out corruption. And in fact the president sacked the prime minister two or three years ago because there was a scandal involving BAE. Obviously not all money goes to where it should be, sometimes it gets diverted. That happens in this country too. I think the government and governments that support them are very keen on putting in training about good governance and civil society, and they train right down to the parish council level. What we've always tried to do when we give money, our major priority is to work with people, and we don't go and tell them what to do. Which leads to some interesting conversations when I think 'there's a better way of doing it than this!', but you have to work with people and not against them. But when we do provide funds we do it through existing organisations on the whole, and we also tell everybody that the money's on it way. People in the village will know the money's come, people on the council will know, and then they'll ask questions if it doesn't go to where it's meant to be."

TRR supports local credit unions (SACCOS) which give out loans to women to help them set up small businesses. Can you tell me more about them?

"The basic problem is, although they're set up country-wide, they haven't got any money! So we have funded three separate ones. Interestingly, talking about corruption, the first one we funded we went to a committee meeting and laid down that it was to be lent to women only. The following year the meeting was full of very angry women who were saying 'These people aren't spending it properly, it's all going to the councillors' relatives. We don't want to be part of it, we're setting up a new organisation. Can you fund us?' And we had a big debate about it because we felt we should go through the existing organisations. But in the end, on advice from people who knew the women who were trying to set it up, we did go ahead and fund them. They're called Jehudi SACCOS, which means 'zeal'. And they have worked really, really well.

Meanwhile we have decided not to fund the original SACCOS in Bulongwa at the moment because we haven't had a proper report from them in two years, and we're not sure they're making any effort to get the money back. The idea is it comes back, so somebody else can borrow it. So that's an example of something that's not been very successful, alongside something that's been really, really successful."

What's the situation of women in Tanzania?

"The government is very keen on education for everybody, but particularly keen on getting women through secondary school. There's a place in primary school for every child, and the school leaving age is basically 14 at the end of primary school. But they can't go unless they have uniforms. Then they do a 14-plus exam, which is quite expensive for families to provide for. The government is encouraging schools to take as many girls as possible, and to build dormitories for girls because there are dangers that if the girl goes home the families might use her in traditional roles such as looking after the family, and not give her space to study. And I'm afraid girls are also at very high risk because of the sexual activities of boys and men, and a lot of them do fall out of secondary school because they end up pregnant or contract STDs. There is a big push to find ways of keeping girls in school.

Regarding equalities in other areas, in general elections people elect their MPs but there are also some set-aside seats specifically for women, in addition to those people elect, where women are appointed to different areas. In very remote areas women do traditional things like looking after the family, but that happens here as well. But it's also commonplace to see women in positions of high authority."

How are literacy rates?

"I can't give exact figures. It's improving, but still not great. I think anyone who gets through the education system is to be very much admired.

There's not a lot of provision for people who finish primary school at 14 and fail to go on to secondary school. If you go into secondary education you have to pay 20 000 shillings a year. Then they have to have a uniform, and they often have living costs. They build dormitories partly because children travel a long way to go to secondary schools, so they're paying for food costs. Then you have to pay for a ream of paper every year, mock exam fees, academic fees (which is practically everything else), and you have to buy your desk and chair. You have to pay caution money in case you break anything, but you don't get it back at the end of the year even if you haven't. There are an awful lot of add-ons. And then there are exams after two years and you might not be able to continue, there are exams after four years equivalent to GCSE, and then if you pass you can go on to what we think of as 6th form and do A-levels. But it needs all that funding. Quite often people get through form four and then go off and work for a bit or do something else, so you find in the 6th form especially, people in their 20s still struggling through the system.

We support an increasing number of secondary schools. We've done things like capital expenditure on solar power and things, and building a dormitory, and we support a trust fund run by two elderly ladies. They pay the school fees and interview meticulously, and we pay some of the contributions. It's at the headteacher's discretion and he'll ask us for certain amounts for a certain student, so we are supporting them in that way as well.

Young people who leave at 14 may be able to read and write but they won't be brilliant at it. There are shortages of books. The teachers aren't always well trained, they're sometimes 6th form leavers with no specific teacher training. In secondary schools there's a huge shortage of teachers because the government has decreed there be a school in every ward. They're built with government money, but they often don't have very many teachers, and often the teachers themselves aren't all that well educated, particularly as in secondary schools the rule is all lessons are in English.

There are lots of situations where children are sharing six to a book. We do give schools grants to buy books. We buy all that sort of thing locally, or give grants to buy locally. There's a good organisation called Read International which sends books to Tanzania.. But they haven't covered the whole of Tanzania yet and they've moved on to Kenya, so I'm a bit cross with them. People often want to send schoolbooks from this country, which is what Read International do, but they scrutinise them to make sure they fit with the Tanzanian syllabus. Discarded English history books are really not a lot of use. It's this matter of going ahead without asking people what they actually want. It's not as easy as it sounds, just sending off books. That's why we do it locally."

Part 2: Water, Cholera and WOBBLERs



 


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