When we are ready

7As I prepare for my upcoming trip to Tanzania I am overcome with a palpable sense of readiness- the knowledge that this trip will usher in a new and more impactful stage of engagement. One that is worthy of our collective hope, inspiration and commitment.

The fact that it has taken nearly 10 years of travel and engagement to finally reach this point strikes me as somehow important and worthy of unpacking.

What do I mean by being ready? It’s as if the conditions for engagement have finally reached some magical threshold or tipping point, setting our partnership into motion. Like a fan whirring into action, I can feel the speed of collaboration accelerating, the ambient space expanding, and interest and possibilities literally swirling around us.

Why has it taken so long? While our collective readiness is a catalyst, it is itself predicated on smaller currents, each complex and fragile, inherently necessary yet insufficient on their own.

I am reminded of this fragility as I reflect on my own work at the University at Buffalo. Only now, after 15 years of stewarding strategic engagement, am I confident that we are poised to actualize our potential. With the embrace of high-impact experiential learning, the creation of the Experiential Learning Network (ELN) and our new Global Partner Studio (GPS), we can now support and leverage engagement toward greater impacts, sharing stories and building further capacity through our new journal, digital badge and curricular tools.

When I reflect on the readiness of our Tanzanian partners, the growth is undeniable. Community leaders who have embraced the gifts of communication and technology are emerging as liaisons and change agents, boldly seeking additional resources and support; higher education institutions are open to partnering and sharing course content, travel experiences and technology-supported resources.

But none of this would be possible without the students and faculty who are seeking more meaningful levels of connectivity- activating their learning, teaching and research in ways that will take us farther and deeper into communities, complexities and the promise of collaboration.

When I think of the perseverance that it’s taken to get to us to this point of readiness, it’s not surprising that we have been tempted to withdraw or retreat along the way. As human processors we are terrible at discerning progress until we pass through some undeniably tangible milestone or indicator of success. In fact it is often just before we reach that turning point that our frustration and fear pull us into the weeds and out of the game.

As I think about my upcoming trip it is clear that many pieces are now firmly in place. Our partners are busy leading and communicating, our institutions are ready to leverage the benefits of our engagement, and students and faculty are eager to get involved. Even my own family members are contributing and connecting as the boundaries and barriers continue to melt away.

Maybe this notion of readiness represents an exciting new frontier. Once we have interest and resources to share, the challenge is really one of activating potential, making sure that the structures, processes and people are in place to support, catalyze and harvest the fruits of our collaboration.

But if we are truly committed to the work, imagine all that is possible. Imagine what we will accomplish, together, when we are ready.

 

Girls’ Education in Tarime: Bishop Mwita Akiri

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As we near the 50% mark for our crowdfunding campaign, I’d like to introduce you to another amazing partner who continues to inspire and challenge our students.

This is Dr. Mwita Akiri, founding Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Tarime, one of the smallest and quickly growing in Tanzania. Prior to this post, Bishop Akiri served as the National General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Tanzania for almost 10 years. He holds a PhD from Edinburgh University in Scotland and is also a Research Professor of African Church History and Missiology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.

To say that Bishop Akiri is charismatic, would be a huge understatement. When he speaks with our students, he captivates them (us) with his passion, sense of humor, and an eagerness to challenge their thinking through provocative questions and fascinating conversations and insights.

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But even more captivating than his personality is his commitment to improving the lives of the young women and their families who live in the villages of Tarime. Through his visionary leadership, Bishop Akiri is bringing bold ideas and programs to this underdeveloped region where girls marry early and life is difficult and unrelenting. Through a burgeoning sewing project, he asks girls and their families to give him one year before entering into marriage, in order to learn valuable sewing skills and develop a means for self-sufficiency. When we visit Tarime, our students engage in conversations with the girls, even visiting their homes and learning about life in the villages, and the many complexities and surprises surrounding the practice of early marriage.

 

Although the Bishop is committed to expanding the sewing project to provide graduates with opportunities to earn their own sewing machines, he recognizes that education must go much farther in order to impact lasting change in Tarime. One of the highlights of our trip is visiting the Pre-Primary School sponsored by the Anglican Diocese, where local children come to learn under the direction of a very dedicated volunteer teacher. Although the school lacks many of the items- such as desks and books- that we consider essential to learning, students are eager to learn and represent the bright promise of the region.

But perhaps most inspiring of all is Bishop Akiri’s plans for a secondary school for girls in Tarime. Although education for girls is a priority across Tanzania, there are simply too few schools and resources, especially in rural areas like Tarime. But as the father of two girls of his own, who are both currently in college, Bishop Akiri knows the importance of educational opportunities and is committed to making his vision a reality.

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Our students always hate leaving Tarime and Bishop Akiri. And it’s not surprising that Danielle, Lyndsey and Mathew are eager to return. Not only will they contribute to Bishop Akiri’s vision through engaging with educational and training programs, but they will also work to establish projects for future UB students and faculty to work on.

We are excited to see where this partnership will lead for the women and girls of Tarime, and our own UB students. Please help us spread the word and support this exciting initiative https://crowdfunding.buffalo.edu/project/8959

 

 

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Social Enterprise and Community Development: Baraki Sister Farm

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As our crowdfunding campaign continues to build momentum, we wanted to be sure to highlight a community partner who is particularly dear to us.

You could say that our engagement with Tanzania, and more specifically the Mara Region, began with this amazing woman, Sister Janepha Mabonyesho. Although she now serves as Development Director of Baraki Sisters Farm, she was a student at D’Youville College in Buffalo, NY when I first met her back in 2007. The story of how I, Mara, first connected with this nun from the Mara Region of Tanzania is a remarkable one, and is detailed in Stories from the Tanzania Education Project, a personal narrative that I co-authored with Dan Nyaronga, Empire State College professor and my co-instructor, who happens to also be from this very same region (talk about coincidences…).

Fast forward our friendship 10+ years and imagine our joy in visiting Sister Janepha at her farm in Baraki, a comprehensive agricultural project that both fascinates and inspires our students to explore issues of social entrepreneurship and business.

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At the center of Baraki is a fully functioning dairy farm that produces milk under the Baraki Sisters brand, while also providing pasteurization and a market for local women, along with raising livestock and agricultural crops to serve the community.

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Baraki also provides education through its pre-primary and primary schools in addition to healthcare through its full-service clinic. These social services when coupled with the dairy business represent a progressively comprehensive approach to community development.

When students learn about Baraki’s long history, started in the 1970’s as an innovative community development initiative, they gain a new perspective on innovation that challenges their assumptions and cultural biases. But as Sister Janepha shares with our students, there are many challenges to the fiscal sustainability of the project and many opportunities for students and partners to add value through ideas and engagement.

Sister Janepha looks forward to hosting our students and involving them in the work of Baraki. She and her fellow Sisters graciously welcome other potential partners to experience the many facets of Baraki and explore exciting opportunities for collaboration.

 

Community Development in Motion: Reflections on Our Recent Trip to Mara Tanzania

cheetah3I am no photographer and my equipment was sub-standard to say the least. But as I crouched in my seat, watching the cheetah begin to move across the road, I kept clicking away, anticipating some sort of crescendo. The build-up was palpable- some exquisite moment was inevitable, and I knew if I stayed with the process I was destined to behold something truly amazing.

I have long held on to this expectation- the notion that once in motion, once a path forward is activated, something inherently great will come. And by visiting the Mara Region of Tanzania every year, bringing students and colleagues, contributing when and where I can, I have readied myself to behold a crescendo- a tipping point through which community impacts are realized and quality of life becomes somehow better, more expansive and real for those who need it most.

This year was different, or perhaps my sensitivity to the nuances and challenges was somehow heightened. Although our partners continued to do great work, to innovate and adapt to changing needs and challenges, to persevere and flex their commitments and leadership- I did not necessarily see or feel the build-up that I had come to expect.

Certainly, if I looked through the right lens, I could identify benefits. Students served through a sewing project, liters of fresh milk processed and distributed, children being taught who would otherwise be at home. These are all important advancements and shouldn’t be minimized. But how to leverage and amplify these toward broader impacts, how to transform these specific investments into mechanisms and levers of change?

It was these questions that I had the chance to discuss with our students as they reflect on their study abroad trip and prepare their final projects to be presented later this week. The topic for this course is Social Innovation, and after spending two weeks in rural Tanzania, getting close to community development and the courageous leaders who commit their lives to making a difference- the complexities were too heavy to ignore.

The Bishop of Tarime had told us to focus our efforts on something tangible, not to get overwhelmed by the scale of need. He shared his vision for a school for girls in Tarime- a representation of all that is possible, a place where girls can realize their potential and expand their opportunities beyond the realities of poverty that currently constrain their lives.

But even if the Bishop is wildly successful, if every school and orphanage and textbook project being implemented and envisioned throughout the Mara Region and other parts of Tanzania and the developing world were to be realized at the highest level of actualization- would it be enough? Would they collectively change the vast disparities between the haves and have nots, the gaps in opportunity and resources necessary to live a productive and meaningful life?

I suggested to the students that the power of social innovation lies not necessarily in the specific localized solutions to contextualized problems, but instead to the development of new models that are scalable, robust and powerful. Models that can leverage specific contributions, talents and investments and amplify their impacts- like a prism transforming light.

As someone who has studied and experimented with social innovation, I know it can happen in multiple directions. With a clear and compelling vision, we can build out specific components into comprehensive systems and programs that are effective by design. But we can also do it in reverse. We can take existing projects and initiatives and weave them together under a common frame, a frame that is maximally relevant and compelling. By doing so we can harness their specific impacts while transforming their collective energy into something more powerful and transformative, and sustainable.

When I reflect on the individual partner sites we visited while in Mara- John Bosco School, the dairy farm in Baraki, the sewing project, preschool and agricultural projects in Mogabiri, Nyamete Women’s Group and Hope Revival in Musoma along with Buhare Community Development Institute- and their amazing leaders who bring them to life- I am convinced that they can be connected in some meaningful way, a way that optimizes their motion and reach.

When I look at this picture of the cheetah, I am inspired by what nature affords. The beauty, elegance, and power that can be achieved when systems are perfectly aligned and in motion. As I travel the world and meet leaders who are poised to soar- and students who yearn to make a difference, I am inspired by the possibilities. And as I continue to search for powerful frames that will allow us to leverage collaboration and engagement, I can’t help thinking that Social Innovation might be just what we need.

A-Rod Sucks and Other Random Observations

The Girls of KitengaSister Rita* Based on our 2009 trip to Tanzania as part of the Buffalo-Tanzania Education Project (BTEP)

 

One at a Time

They ushered us inside.  The contrast was startling.  Outside was black and jarring but inside was warm and familiar.  The hall was bright and cozy with tables covered with cloths and set for dinner.  We were led to wash our hands and find our places.

in the middle of each table were an assortment of beverages, among them bottles of wine and beer.  Why was I so surprised by this, and why did it bring me such warmth and assurance?

There were singing, happy joyous voices.  There was delicious home cooked food- chicken and cabbage and potatoes.  There were messages of welcome and thanks.  And there was more wine and beer.  Although I had never been a fan of beer my first bottle tasted like heaven. It was a Tusker and the big elephant on the label made me feel like I was really in Africa, here with the Sisters sharing a meal and hospitality.

Sr. Rita, the Mother Superior, was at my table and her huge smile reassured me that we were right to have come.  She put her hand over mine and squeezed it hard asking, “How about another drink Mara?”   I said no thank you, that one’s my limit.  Sr. Rita looked at me with a big smile and answered, “Yes Mara, only one….. one at a time.”

 

Maybe Tomorrow

Driving into Butiamo was like entering another world.  The air around the shade trees looked cooler and softer.  The landscaping was carefully placed and tended.  The homes were strangely familiar- rounded, dome like structures of cobbled stones, seemingly ancient yet lovingly preserved. The town felt quiet and reflective as we walked toward the museum, eager to learn more about Nyerere and the history of Tanzania.

After parking the Land Rover we started for the museum, walking up a short flight of stairs toward the smiling face of Nyerere- the father of the nation.  We were ushered into a waiting room and sat quietly for a seemingly long period of time.  A small square TV set sat on a cart with an interview of Nyerere on a loop in Swahili with no subtitles. There was a hushed reverent silence.  Then a gentleman came in to collect the ticket price which seemed to be unclear, with negotiations ensuing like a deal being struck.  A heavy guest book was sent around and we were all asked to sign-in before entering.

We were taken on a tour of the small structure filled with artifacts. Usually museums don’t do much for me- I’m too impatient to take my time and possess too little knowledge to take it all in.  Although I shot off quickly, I could feel this man and more powerfully the reverence for him- all his gifts, so meaningful- carved stools, and exotic hides- made me think of the people who gave them to him, with their hopes attached. Right there, not behind glass- it all seemed so recent and new.  The stools- symbols of relationships and accomplishments- newness of the history and the vision of its father.

Imagine our surprise when we were introduced to his own son, Nyerere’s actual progeny.  He sat with us and made idle conversation about the growth of the area, the struggles and the potential- as if we were equals, or even cherished guests.  So comfortable- he showed us around, pointing out the details and sharing the stories, and even took us into the house itself.  He mostly spoke about his father’s humility, how he hated the big pretentious house and would often escape to be among the people. He spoke about the sense of responsibility that he had felt for his country.  He spoke about the struggles of the people and the land….

We walked around the grounds and admired the natural beauty that grew everywhere.  Huge boulders so grand and majestic were allowed to be exactly where they were with structures built around them.  Big whicker holding containers sat ready for grain.  And a cement pergola awaited intimate games and conversations.

What a gift, this intimate glimpse into the birth of the country.  A man, a humble leader who yearned to be with his people.  Could it get any better?  The experience culminated with a visit into Nyerere’s personal library.  The door was beautiful and grand but was no comparison to what lay within.  We saw an extensive and impressive collection of books- rows and rows of books in a country where books were still scarce.  We all dispersed and browsed through rows, glancing at titles and appreciating the diversity of genres and languages.  But then many of us started touching the books, his books.  We flipped through pages and looked at the words written in the margins.  His notes, his writing, his thoughts about the novels and authors of his time.

It was truly remarkable and we all pondered its specialness as we walked through the house and paused to appreciate the vista before heading back to Musoma.   This was the same view that Nyerere once reflected upon and I was moved by the strength of his presence.   When I sensed Sister Rita next to me, I asked her if there were other leaders like Nyerere out there; leaders who were so humble and committed to their people. Without turning to look at me, Sr. Rita answered into the landscape,
“Not today Mara…. but maybe tomorrow.”

 

A-Rod Sucks

I was prepared for the circular mud huts; the boys with sticks driving cattle; the film of red dust that settled over everything. These were the familiar images that promised the African experience I did not receive.

As we drove away from Kitenga to our base in Musoma, we held onto the walls for stability, our Land Rover pitching over ruts and rocks.  Our visit had been jarring with too many contrasts and not enough distance in between.  We had seen gleaming billboards with white Americans gulping sports drinks against sun leeched earth.  And my annoying ringtone, which had come preset on my Chinese manufactured smart phone, had emanated from the pocket of a village elder as he delivered solemn words under the meeting tree.  Again and again I had tried to take it all in, but was unable to process the juxtaposition of images and sounds, unable to find and maintain perspective without comfort or context.

Then out of nowhere he had appeared, a teenage boy standing firmly in the middle of the road, staring at our approaching vehicle, staring at me.  His royal blue T-shirt emblazoned with large white letters read “A-Rod Sucks.” As we passed he turned to watch us, forcing me to continue my gaze, burning his message onto my throbbing retinas.   A-Rod sucks, I said to myself, trying to remember who A-Rod was, my mind telescoping away from the dusty village back to my own small world in Buffalo New York, to the fleeting context of pop culture and social commentary.  I tried to imagine the intended wearer of the T-shirt as I struggled to understand the comment, seemingly irrelevant and out of place.

Yet what statement would be appropriate in this complex landscape?  How to capture the contrasts, the mosaic of new and old that meanders through the dusty roads?  My mind went blank as “A Rod Sucks” pulsated through my consciousness.   I yearned for context as we continued our long journey home.

The Beautiful Children

So much of that first trip was a blur- white noise without contrast, resisting perception and understanding.  And yet through every place we visited the faces and laughter of children captured our hearts.

There were the mute children who sang to us in sign language and gave us each nicknames based on our unique facial characteristics (not all flattering).  There were the disabled children who lined up to receive our gifts of suckers and stick pens, crowding around us to hug and touch, so happy that we were visiting.

At Kowak School for Girls they performed a dance and sang for us,  we even got to interview a few of the girls. They were shy and timid but so sure of themselves and their futures.  They spoke of their love for the school, the importance of education for all girls, especially those in the villages.  They spoke of their plans to be a surgeon, an attorney, and champions of girl’s rights and futures.  They whispered of secret practices and of dangers for girls and women, of inequities and threats.

They were already on their way to making change.