A taste of Tanzania


Sharon Avidar, member of Brit Olam‘s  Teaching Solar Cooking Delegation to Tanzania shares his expereinces:

“When people ask me why I wanted to join the student delegation to Tanzania, I never understand the question. I mean, it’s a group of students, going away to one of the most beautiful countries in the world, to participate in humanitarian activities, But since they ask, I tell them that I was drawn to our delegation because to me, it was an opportunity to go off the beaten track in Africa the way only someone who’s already acquainted with a country and cares about it can take you.

Our point off the beaten track – Minjingu. A village of about 6,000 people, in the Babati district of northern Tanzania, where Itai, the initiator of our delegation, had first met Paula a couple of years ago. Paula is the founder of “Mwangaza Tanzania”, our mediator in the village, and the woman we’d heard so much about while preparing for our trip. I’ll skip straight to our time in Minjingu, even though we spent the first couple of days in Arusha and in the Ngorongoro crater. The time we spent there, as an amazing group of people, getting to know each other better was priceless, but that’s for another time… To be honest, when we first arrived in Minjingu, I wasn’t exactly excited or inspired by it.

This village reminded me nothing of the scenery I’d gotten used to seeing in this vast and stunning country. I had been to poverty stricken places before – yet to a tourist they mostly seem quaint, exotic. I needed time to digest the idea that I would spend the next four days in this simple, uninviting, place. We were introduced to Marie – Paula’s assistant from the US, who had come to live here with her for a few months. In those first hours there, I did not understand what could have possibly drawn her to spend a few months here, of all places.

The ensuing few days, packed with activities that mainly consisted of painting the nursery school while the rest of the guys built basketball and volleyball courts (!), were too intense to dwell on such thoughts. Besides painting the nursery school (which proved to be a therapeutic and gratifying endeavor), my personal project in the village was to teach a few of the women how to build and use solar cookers. I felt very strongly about this project, because I knew that it could improve their living conditions immensely, by cutting down their dependence on fire and fuel. It was for me the perfect cause – being both environmentally benign, and promoting the welfare of women. Liron, our delegation coordinator, who had been to the village last year, told me how the women burn fires inside their small homes to cook, injuring their eyes, possibly causing serious lung problems.

My fantasy was to teach all the women of the village how to do it. My enthusiasm would soon diminish, though – first, for practical reasons, I would start out by working only with a small group of women; adding insult to injury, my three attempts to test the cooker at home, in Israel, were only a partial success. Although I still strongly believed in the need for them, my solar cookers were a much more fragile and vulnerable project than they had been when I first set out to build them with the local women. Yet when it came time to introduce the concept of solar cooking to a few of the village women, I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised. Fridda, Paula’s dear assistant, gathered up a delightful and intelligent group of women. Their enthusiasm and interest in this new task exceeded even mine.

After initially explaining about the importance and use of the solar cookers, we began building them together. While teaching me songs in Swahili, we built about five cookers together. They had become so keenly interested in the idea that they stayed behind after I had to leave, and built more. The next day, I visited Mama Elias, the nursery school cook, at her home. She told me she had already used her cooker to boil water for tea, which meant that it could reach somewhere near 100°. I was both relieved and overjoyed that at least one woman (that was enough for me – one woman, who knew how to install and use the cookers, and had access to the materials I left behind in the village for building more, who could then inspire others to use this simple tool) had successfully used it. But I also knew that to spread such a peculiar looking device (albeit simple, yet maybe too simple to believe that it actually works…), I would have to be present for more than just a few days. No matter how excited the women were about it, it would take more information, more dedication, more time, more explaining, to actually make it pan out and become widely known.

Luckily, the village had “grown on me” by then. I couldn’t see how anyone would want to go and volunteer anywhere else. We had all become attached to the children there, who accompanied us everywhere we went in the village. I had even gotten used to the bugs, and the showering with buckets. In hindsight, this was just the opening act. This delegation was for me the beginning of an adventure that would not end upon our landing back home. The second question people always ask me is whether I believe what we did was “effective”. Our project cannot be measured in a quantitative way. What we did in Tanzania was important on a humanitarian and personal level. I don’t know what the “face value” of what we did was, or even how long it’ll hold for. I often wonder what the best contribution would be to a rural community like the one we visited. But I will be going back to Tanzania, and I will, somehow, continue the solar cooking project that I started in Minjingu. That much I do know.”