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Stopping to listen to those who help themselves

Sometimes the most valuable insights into communities and development can be found by taking time to stop work and just talk and listen to people. Makarand Sahasrabuddhe reflects on a few days of random conversations in northern Tanzania:

A couple of colleagues and I recently had the opportunity to roam around for a few days in Ngorongoro district in Tanzania. Oxfam implements a number of programmes in the region, all of them “rights-based” and broadly in the economic, social and gender justice spheres. The programmes focus on the Maasai, a predominantly pastoral community.

The idea of the trip was simple – we were trying to understand:

  • If our programmes are making any difference to the lives of the people
  • In what way our programmes complement each other, or whether in fact they are pulling in different directions
  • What are the aspirations of the community, and how they see their future

People we spoke to in Ngorongoro. Photo: Makarand Sahasrabuddhe/Oxfam
People we spoke to in Ngorongoro

We tried to keep it strictly informal. We wanted to explore. We met government officials, traditional leaders, women, youth (boys and girls), and village leaders. We didn’t restrict our meetings to those with whom Oxfam works, but looked at the community on the whole. The meetings were around a fireplace in dark huts with the smoke trying to kill us; under trees; in the market place;  while out walking with pastoralists as they tended to the cattle; in the car or in government/partner offices.

We didn’t use notepads, pens or recorders. We wanted interactions and discussions with people. Pulling out pads and pens would make the setting artificial and the conversation, already stymied by the need to translate, even more stilted. We met each evening to debrief on what we learnt and plan for the next day.

It was an heady experience. Possibly one of my best spent weeks in this part of the world. A few aspects that came forth clearly and unequivocally from discussions were:

  1. People no longer wish to remain without choice and voice. The community, marginalised in the overall socio-economic and political context of Tanzania, wants to take a more active part in the decisions that affect their lives. They want more say in governance and want the government and others (bureaucrats, private sector, NGOs etc) to be accountable to them.
  2. The spectre of climate change is no longer a theoretical construct for them. They can see the impacts of erratic rains, changing seasons and the havoc this is playing with their livelihoods.
  3. The hunger to see children educated has to be seen to be believed. Not just the boys, but the girls too.  Almost everyone we spoke with believes that education is the key to opening up different opportunities that the changing world has to offer. Sure they were looking at jobs – teachers, government officers etc – but they were also looking at their children and youth going and exploring the world.

In the middle of our wandering we ran into a group of traditional leaders in the small village of Piyaya.  They were on their way to a meeting when we greeted them. What started as a casual conversation took an interesting turn as we discussed the agenda for their meeting.

It seems that over the past few years, people in and around the bomas (homesteads) of Piyaya realised that by the time their children went to primary school they had already fallen behind the kids in the central village, which had better facilities. They studied what was happening and realised that it was central village’s access to pre-primary schooling that was making the difference.  Just sitting in the pre-primary for a few hours, playing and learning something, made some children better adapted to the rigours of primary school. The village elders decided to come together and do something about this. They discussed going to the government, but this option was rejected because it would take too long. The only way forward was to help themselves.

In the first meeting the village identified a plot of land, and then someone took responsibility to get the Village Executive Officer (VEO) to agree to earmark this plot for a pre-primary school. In the second meeting of the elders, contributors were identified – someone to do the flooring, someone to put in money for the roof, another person to get the timber, and others to work on the construction. Voila – a few weeks later the pre-primary school was done.

Then the elders, with help from the VEO, identified an educated teacher and appointed her to the school. Her salary comes from contributions from each family – it does not matter if the family has a pre-primary kid or not, everyone contributes.

When they stopped to talk to us they were on their way to a meeting to discuss books and learning material to buy, and how much to increase the teacher’s salary by.

The community has decided that they will run the school for a year and then try and handover a successful experiment to the government. Until that happens they will run it themselves because, as one woman told me, “our children are benefiting, so we must do it.”

This chance interaction made our day. It was wonderful to see people just going ahead and helping themselves.

It was also chastening to an extent – never again will any of us ever be even remotely patronising in our interactions with any community.

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Written by Makarand Sahasrabuddhe

Makarand is Oxfam's regional impact assessment advisor, monitoring and evaluating Oxfam projects across the region. He has previously worked in South Asia. He blogs in a personal capacity at Musing of a Wanderer - - and his opinions are all his own

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