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.

Pole pole - February

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I will probably regard February as my most frustrating month working in Mwanza. Hence, this is why this posting is called “Pole pole” (pronounced pol-lay in Swahili) which means when an action is to be taken slowly. Unfortunately, a lot of problems were incurred while trying to progress some issues with the project (tasks which are outlined in my ‘goals’ section of my January posting).

The first one that comes to mind is the community kitchen. I was in Canada, I learnt that there was still no luck finding a meter from Tanesco and that production continued in the apartment. Seeing this as the biggest step forward for the project, I naturally dedicated a lot of time to it. First, it was re-assessing the possible venues:

- Getting an electricity meter from Tanesco and installing it in the kitchen
- Purchase a solar power system
- Get a gas generator
- Share a line off an existing nearby store or home in Mabatini
The national elections were held over my break and a new president (and a much ‘tougher’) one was elected. I was told that since a new president had been elected in Tanzania, the new face at the helm may shake up the electrical company to doing a better job.

In December, a new president was elected in Tanzania. I was told that the hardliner politician would crack down on government related services, such as the ailing semi-privatized monopoly Tanesco. However, with the power company, not much changed from before. Several people attempted to help me out by seeing if a friend/family member that works at Tanesco could arrange something and get us a meter. After several contacts and promises, nothing really evolved. The most disappointing of these occurrences came when I visited the United Nations Development Project Centre (UNDP) in downtown Mwanza. One of the program directors had an extra meter in his possession and knew a manager at Tanesco. He actually called him while I was there – however, even though the electrical company has a supposed shortage of meters, they wouldn’t allow for our kitchen to use it, because it wasn’t company policy.

The pursuit of solar power seemed like a great alternative. Its low maintenance, no monthly bills to pay, its great for the environment and as long as the sun is there, electricity will come. I also went to UNDP to research this option because they had an entire department dedicated to facilitating solar-powered projects. The manager said that I needed to go to various solar dealers around Mwanza and get a quote for our electrical needs (which included one fridge and three halogen lights). The list had about five different businesses that dealt with solar power, however, only one had the capability of providing me with a quote. After getting all my information, the store-owner said that it would cost approximately $15,000-20,000 USD! We discussed that a fridge requires a huge amount of electricity compared to radios, televisions and other small appliances usually used in solar power units. When I went back to the UNDP office again to ask if this sounded right, they said that they shouldn’t have recommended solar electricity for me in the first place because of the large unit a fridge would require. Thanks for telling me that beforehand!

Overall, the situation wasn’t good. Even if the money could have been raised or subsidized by UNDP, it would be very difficult logistically. The solar unit would have needed approximately 15 1mx2m panels to be placed on the kitchen’s roof and/or on a separate structure. Having over 15 grand sitting on a roof would attract a lot of attention, and hence, prone to thievery. So after researching this for about a week, option two was essentially dead.

Then came options three and four, which are of course more of ‘back up’ alternatives rather than desired solutions. The gas generator was essentially out from the start because of all the attention it would require (i.e. filling up at a gas station, which was not within walking distance). Also, these things are terribly noisy and I think it could even cause ear damage if heard every day.

I discussed the shared line alternative with several people. However, it was strongly discouraged unanimously. They all pretty much stated that that whoever you share it with will exaggerate the bills and use more electricity requiring you to pay more, not to mention that its illegal. As tedious of a situation it may be, it still remains on of our only doable alternatives.

Nevertheless, problems with electricity were compacted more. As mentioned before, the rainy season Tanzania is currently in has been particularly dry. This has severely lowered the capabilities of nearby hydro-electric plants and causing nearby Lake Victoria to be at its lowest level in decades. Consequently, there were major blackouts occurring in Mwanza in February. The worst lasted about a week – where there was absolutely no power during daylight hours. So with solar out of the picture, the experience made me wonder if we’d ever get electricity in the kitchen.

I wish I could tell you that I ended up finding some solution to this all, however, nothing has amounted yet. Thankfully, towards the end of February I was given some more encouragement and advice from my work liaisons back in London. So, I’ll work on this a bit further and see where it goes – hopefully I’ll be telling a better story for my March journal(s).

On top of getting the electricity for the kitchen, I also wanted to investigate getting bags for yogurt sales. Up to now, we have been distributing it to people coming with their own containers or lending our own out to reliable customers. In Tanzania, it’s very common practice to package liquids (including yogurt) into small plastic bags. Imagine a 2L bag of milk that you can buy in Canada. It’s very similar to that except in smaller amounts (250-400ml) and have a label printed directly on the plastic. In the case of purified water, its sold in 400ml bags for 50 shillings (~5 cents CDN) – hence its called “maji hamsini” which translates as “water 50”. Some stores in Mwanza are dedicated entirely to selling these bags, with 100s of them spread out on wooden tables. It’s very common to see people walking on the street drinking this water directly out of the bag (no straw). I’ve attempted it myself, but it takes practice not to spill the water all over you. Anyways, I digress…

Basically to get these bags, I thought it would be best to go right to the source – going to maji hamsini shops. I think at this point I went backwards on the Swahili-evolution trail because I found it very difficult to get my intentions across to the owners. I was asking them all along the lines of where can I order specially printed bags. Most I don’t think really knew what I was asking, never mind was in the position to answer. Some advised me to go to another store and others gave me very vague directions to see their boss or only gave me a PO Box number so I could write a letter. After spending a few afternoons hopping from shop to shop, I realized that I’m probably not going to get any further with this method. Perhaps the store owners were threatened by my presence, thinking I wanted to take their business away (even though I was making yogurt, not purified water).

To end this issue for the month, I was given direction by a Kivulini employee (Jimmy) to go to a workers canteen downtown, where they sold yogurt. To my chagrin, the canteen was none other in the same compound of the unlucky UNDP office. However, my luck changed and I was able to get a bag of yogurt complete with contact information of the distributor – the Ndetto family. The rest of this story has progressed a bit further in March, so you’ll have to read that posting when its available.

On a more peculiar note, one weekend in February Maimuna arranged for me to visit an old yogurt factory in Mwanza. I went along with Maimuna, her son, Baluhya, Masele, and the owner of the factory, Shamani. Apparently, place had closed down because they were making too much for the city’s demand and their employees/distributors were stealing money. After arriving at the place, I could see why the former was a problem. The entire property must have been several hundred acres. The plot (which was lakeside) included about 6 medium-sized houses, a stable for the cows and goats and the factory itself, which now looked very dilapidated. Nevertheless, I was expecting the visit to be much different than it actually was. I was expecting for the remaining equipment to be present inside the old warehouse. This wasn’t the case though – all the items were sold and shipped to Kenya.

The rest of the stay there wasn’t very constructive – we sat around for a former employee who never came and on the whole I didn’t come back from there with any more information than I already had.

In terms of other guests, I was introduced to a herbalist that Maimuna and Kivulini were dealing with. There were interested in trying to set up economic empowerment projects for women. One of her specialties was soy and soy related products – like yogurt. We probably could have considered the soy milk for our production, but I was told that it probably wouldn’t work with the probiotics culture supplement.

One of the biggest problems of the month stemmed from NIMR and the re-introduction of probiotics in our yogurt. Before I left Mwanza back in November, I asked our Microbiologist, Simon, what things we needed to bring back. However, when I got back to Mwanza, I wasn’t told exactly everything that they needed. He stated that we needed to get some MRS Agar and Broth for the culturing of the bacteria. I tried investigating this situation at the medical supply store in Mwanza, but they wanted nearly $300 USD (up-front) to get the items shipped from Nairobi.

So, instead I asked my partners back at Western to send the MRS via mail; in addition to sending some extra probiotic GR-1 bacteria caplets. However, up until the end of the month, the packages still haven’t arrived. Hence, were still making plain yogurt.

On a lighter note, the middle of February brought Valentines Day. Hali and I were lucky enough to be invited to do a radio spot with our friend Martin, on Kiss FM. I had been here once before to talk about the yogurt project, however this time around the atmosphere was much more casual. We touched on various topics including romantic ideas, cheating, and how to approach those you like. It was a great experience once again – Hali actually went and covered the show for the rest of the week since Martin’s usual DJ partner was on vacation.

Not far after, I also visited the Buswelu School again to see progress on some money I had transferred to them from Tecumseh. I saw that they were really putting the money to good use. The school was able to buy lots of needed supplies for the students, including about 30 desks, which were being made on site. The headmaster was (as always) inviting and thankful for the continued help for the school.

One last story comes to mind regarding one of our meetings with the yogurt mamas. My Swahili teacher, Dr. Salalah, has been conducting a work-assessment study on Kivulini’s activities and programs. Therefore, she has been talking regularly with primary participants from various areas, including our yogurt mamas.

During the meeting Dr. Salalah was asking a few questions directly in regards to their involvement with the project and how it was being received within the community. All of those in attendance participated in answering this question in addition to others. Consequently, I got a bit lost in my translation, so on the ride back after the meeting, I asked my teacher what exactly had been said.

She told me that some of the mamas experienced domestic violence within their homes because of their involvement. Apparently, the younger husbands of the yogurt mamas didn’t trust their wives’ activities, thinking they may be cheating. Consequently, some were abused verbally and sometimes physically because of their involvement. I was quite surprised when Dr. Salalah had told me this because the yogurt mamas were very animate during their conversation, even laughing and joking at this misfortune.

In spite of this, there was some good news to this story. Some of the older yogurt mamas got their own husbands involved in describing the benefits of being involved in the program and that even though they weren’t bringing home money for the family (yet), they were providing free food to the family and sick community members. In this position, a younger person must follow an elder’s opinion to avoid getting in trouble by the community. I was told that since then, it had been happening less.

The entire story was a bit much for me to handle at first. I was genuinely worried that this program could be harming the mamas. However, Dr. Salalah assured me that the program was doing well, both for the yogurt mamas, the community and women’s rights as a whole. She gave me good marks for my work with the project and encouraged me to continue working hard…if only my comments from Swahili could be like that!

And so, that was my February. It still may seem like a lot, but overall I wasn’t impressed with the progress of my work. I don’t know if it’s because I expect more out of myself after being here for so long. Regardless, I realized that March would be my last month in Mwanza, for good; no more extensions or extra time. When February was coming to a close, I really felt the crunch of what I needed to do. Though, I must say I really am looking forward to the next month and the challenges that follow it. Pole pole! Slowly but surely!

Salalah & Mamas
Dr. Salalah and the mamas after our meeting

YM meeting
A meeting with the yogurt mamas, Baluhya, Omari and I

Mabatini Mtg
Group picture of myself, the yogurt mamas, the mabatini street leaders and some Kivulini staff after a project planning meeting

Radio Jon
At the radio station, presenting my views on love... (must have been a boring show)...

A picture of some of the people I hang out with (l-r): Paulina, Hanna, Hali, Danny and Major.

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