My heart breaks for the loss of Stephen Marwa. For the past six years, Stephen has been my constant collaborator, but so much more. Over time, his vision for the women and girls of Tanzania, his dreams and work have somehow permeated my own.
Unable to attend his funeral in Musoma, I have been working through my own process. Rereading the hundreds of emails that started with his initial introduction in late September, 2016. I can still feel the eagerness and sense of urgency that emanated from his initial message. I had never connected with someone so utterly committed to growth and capacity building. He was completely open to any opportunity or insights that could help him create opportunities for women and girls in this community.
Over the years, that same sense of eagerness and committment continued unabated. Every time we visited Stephen during study abroad trips, we witnessed a transformation. Under his leadership, everything seemed to thrive and grow. And his energy to start new projects and initiatives seemed limitless. Given the pace of transformation, the best we could do was try to add value. So this was exactly how we framed our trips and engagement. I stressed to the students that the work was Stephen’s, and not ours. But through collaboration we would strive to make meaningful contributions. Through our study abroad trips, and later through virtual engagement, students were encouraged to watch and learn and understand, and offer contributions through projects and ideas.
The results have been extraordinary. HRCO projects have included reusable sanitary pads; a community bicycle lab; a tilapia pond; piggery; greenhouse; tailoring and shoe making; and a brick press that transforms local soil into construction blocks. All of these projects featured Stephen’s vision and leadership, and the talent of women, youth and vulnerable populations, working toward empowerment and self-sufficiency. In recent months, Stephen announced that he was starting a Center for Experiential Learning. He planned to invite teams from area villages to engage with his many social entrepreneurship projects, towards replicating in their own communities and contexts. Although ambitious, we had no doubts that Stephen would fulfill his vision. He was already well on his way.
Over the years, Stephen’s work has integrated with my own work. Through virtual projects and engagement, UB students connect with Stephen and his initiatives, exploring sustainability and working on proposals that also support their own goals. These efforts have catalyzed a growing portfolio of NGOs across Africa who are eager to build capacity and follow Stephen’s inspiration through collaboration and virtual projects.
Sadly, I cannot know if Stephen’s projects will continue on in Musoma in their current form. But I can promise that his legacy will live on through my own work and the work of so many others who have been inspired and forever changed. Despite the daunting challenges in communities and villages around the world, there are inherent assets and strengths that can be cultivated and nurtured. Stephen has shown us that empowerment is more than a concept or an ideal. It is within our capacity and reach, and by coming together, in-person or virtually, we can transform ideas into reality and a future that is worthy of our collective dreams.