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An American in Tanzania

Joy Weber AC’04, a theatre/anthropology major from Wilmington, Delaware, recently returned to Tanzania to spend six weeks working with students from the University of Dar es Salaam in the rural Magu region. Weber spent last fall at the university as an intern. She recently wrote about her experience.

July 16, 2003

At the moment, I am working in a rural area called Magu region, on Lake Victoria. I arrived a week ago to do a theatre for development project with five other students from the University of Dar es Salaam. My trip here was a long one....I chose to take the "fast" overland route through Nairobi, a route with paved roads the entire way (as opposed to the alternative route that travelled through central Tanzania on unpaved roads), a trip that took 24 hours by bus. I happened to be travelling together with a friend's sister and her three children, who shared two seats among the four of them. One of the girls ended up sitting with me most of the way though, either in the seat next to me or on my lap when the bus was full. We played cards and read books a little and tried to sleep. She was a little better at getting sleep than I was, though!

The week here in Magu has been quite intense. First of all, everyone speaks Swahili all the time. It's been quite a learning experience in the language, but also very frustrating at times. I've spent many hours at the end of the day with my headphones on, grateful for the music I brought with me. The other students I work with speak English, but are much more comfortable in Swahili and use it first, then, if needed, make sure I've understood. I can tell my comprehension has improved immensely in just this one week! The other students are all much older than I am, having been teachers before entering the University. It's quite a shift for me to be one the youngest students in a group. At Smith, I'm used to being older than most of my peers. This has also been the first time I've been the only foreign student in the area. I'd really grown accustomed to having that support system aound me, to have people going through some of the same challenges as myself, so this week has been intense and a bit lonely in that regard as well. I've been sharing a bed with one of the other students. She is a bit of a restless sleeper, so that has encouraged me to get up for the sunrise almost every day to write in my journal and have some time to myself.

It's also the first time I've been in extremely rural areas, and that has been quite a shock. The difference between life here and in Dar could be compared to the difference between Dar and the US. We've been working very closely with a government aid organization (TASAF) funded by the World Bank. They've been working on projects like building classrooms, dispensaries, and roads. The work is much needed, but there's always much more to be done. I went on a tour of some of the projects with a group of people from Kenya who are planning to start their own version of TASAF. It was a whirlwind day, spent barelling down dirt roads, with people on bicycles diving out of our way as the caravan of five Land Cruisers left trails of dust in our wake. We visited schools where class sizes exceeded 100 students, where clean water is non-existant, where new classrooms are being built but the head teacher makes a plea to TASAF for desks so the students don't have to sit on the floor. In most areas, there are only primary schools; the secondary schools are far apart and drop-out rates for even primary schools are high.

The group I'm working with is here to train people here in Theatre for Development (TFD), a process that aims to give voice to people's needs and allow them to participate in the development process. It also aims to encourage people to take the initiative in solving problems relating to underdevelopment. TFD uses local art forms, like dances, music, and drama, to examine issues facing communities and to encourage dialogue around these issues.

Because TASAF has been working so closely with our group, it feels at times that they are expecting us to help create propaganda pieces for TASAF's work. I've had mixed feelings about the work TASAF is doing. I've tried to keep an open-mind, be objhective, regardless of my previous views of the World Bank and its projects. The work TASAF is doing is much needed, of course, but I've heard that the projects are often given to communities that support the ruling political party. Most of the people in the agency and hired to work on the projects are Tanzanian, not outside consultants. TASAF hires people to do the construction work, the poorest people from the communities where the projects are implemented, who earn a salary of $1 per day. This in an area where the average per capita income is $55 a year. It's hard to say whether this is a fair wage, or how much financial benefit it actually provides to the communities. Of course, it's easy to find things to critique in the process. I have to wonder if it's part of how I deal with seeing such poverty. But part of the TFD process is trying to get the answers to these questions directly from the source. Perhaps I'll have a clearer picture of the agency after we begin the research part of our work. The first week was spent familiarizing ourselves with the area, meeting local leaders and travelling to villages where we will be working. The real work starts next week.

I don't know exactly how long I will be here in Magu. The plan is for me to stay another week and then work on another project in another part of Tanzania, but I have the option of staying here if I choose. We'll see how the next week goes. There's no e-mail access in Magu, so it'll be another week before I get to check e-mail again.

The moon is full again; my time here is just about half-way done. It's been quite a journey so far...I look forward to seeing what the next month has in store for me.

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