A collection of journal entries of two students from the University of Western Ontario, Dallas Curow (June-August 2005) and Jonathan Birinyi (June 2005-April 2006). Feel free to read and explore their journey working on the Western Heads East probiotic yogurt nutriontal project in Mwanza, Tanzania, Africa.

FAQ #1 – What are you doing in Tanzania? You’re working with yogurt?

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I received this question from a number of people, even though they said they read my blog. I suppose it can be a bit difficult to understand the entire history of this project from my postings alone. Hopefully the following description will provide a clear account of Western Heads East.

In the 2004 UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis delivered a speech at The University of Western Ontario. In attendance were various members of the UWO Housing and Ancillary Department. Many members were very moved and compelled to do something to help those afflicted by the terrible disease. One of them, Bob Gough, decided to form Western Heads East (WHE) with his collegues, formally calling the project as “a community response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa”. Soon, a WHE steering committee was formed and possible venues for project development were considered.

One of the ideas came from Dr. Gregor Reid, a Professor of Microbiology working at the Lawson Health Research Institute in London. Dr. Reid is also the director of the National R&D Centre for Probiotics. He and Bob collaborated on their idea that they could implement a probiotic nutritional program to somewhere in Africa. With help from Brescia food and nutrition professor, Dr. Shari Hekmat it was decided that the probiotics could be implemented through the production of yogurt.

Just a brief description of what this is: probiotics are in fact live microorganisms. When they are consumed (usually in fermented items, like yogurt), they provide specific (positive) effects to the body. Their benefits focus on the colonization in G.I. tract, including the intestine, colon and in women, the vagina. Their presence can help boost the immunity from various ailments, and improve the digestion of food. One of the foremost benefits is the prevention of diarrhea, which kills approximately 800,000 children in Africa each year.

Even though probiotics have been around for a few decades, it’s only now that people are beginning to understand the importance of consuming them. One day they may be emphasized as much as vitamins. This is because a large amount of our body’s activity is dependent on bacterial cells. A human actually contains ten-times more bacterial cells than their own body cells! Probiotics are a way of “supplementing” these cells to ensure that we stay as healthy as possible.

Through Melanie Katsivo, (who specializes in international research development projects at Western) helped find the chosen site of Mwanza, Tanzania. In addition, it was arranged to conduct the program with Kivulini (a women’s rights organization) and NIMR (a Tanzanian national research institute). The WHE committee then began to research the project further and fundraise for students to take part in service-learning opportunities, trying to implement the project’s goals.

In the fall of 2004, Bob made a trip to Mwanza and helped scout the potential of working in Mwanza. He helped arrange for the intern living accommodations in the city and established a working relationship with Kivulini and NIMR. In January 2005, the first two interns, Brian Healy and Cynthia Medeiros arrived in Mwanza where they stayed until Dallas and I arrived in last June. Some of Brian and Cynthia's work was also done in collaboration with KEMRI, a Kenyan medial research institute in Nairobi.

So far, the project has concentrated on a few things:

- Teaching 12 women in Mabatini (a village just outside downtown Mwanza) how to make probiotic yogurt.

- Giving an opportunity to the women (“Yogurt Mamas”) to produce probiotics and consume it within their families. Up to now, this has been done in our apartment.

- Developing the production further by creating community awareness about the product and seeing the potential to create a sustainable business (in Mabatini) for the yogurt mamas by selling yogurt.
o Hence, building the community kitchen and conducting feasibility assessments.

- Lay the ground-works with NIMR to seek research on the effects of probiotics and publicize findings.
o So far, NIMR has been making the probiotic cultures for us in their lab – special equipment is needed (like anaerobic incubators) to do so.

And that brings us to where we are now. The Yogurt Mamas can make the yogurt almost entirely independently, the community has responded positively to the idea of yogurt especially those supplemented with probiotics. We’re also in the process of setting up the community kitchen and making more practical developments to the business and research aspects of the project.

That’s it in a nutshell. If you want to read a bit over my daily activities here, I have already posted it at the start of the Sept. 11-30th journal posting.

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