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.

The Day of our Birth and why it Matters: Reflections from Ghana

ghana

Before we left we were instructed to look up the day of the week on which we were born. Our host explained that in Ghana babies are given many names that together represent their unique place in the world. The day of birth is the first name to be given, with others to follow once the baby survives to the eighth day, including, at a minimum, the name of a family member or ancestor to be emulated, a religiously affiliated name and a surname that is usually associated with the father. Listening to a Ghanaian share their full name is like listening to the beginning of a story, my favorite kind of story. A story about people, places and history all woven together into a rich and textured tapestry. A story without a true beginning and one that you hope will never end.

This impression of rich connectedness is what continues to linger with me as I sit and reflect upon my trip. In Ghana, details of birth, life and death matter. People and places matter and serve to elevate the expectations that surround individuals and their future legacies. This is why marriage is taken so seriously, with families investigating the character of potential mates and their respective lineage. With so much at stake, a union must be acceptable and worthy of one’s inherent promise.

And then the slave castle, the final destination of our trip. To bring people who mattered so much- men, women and children; chiefs and honored wives; mothers, daughters, aunties and uncles, each with important legacies and expectations surrounding their lives. And then to strip it all away. To defile, shackle and humiliate. To squeeze them through the place of no return.

People do matter. But their connectedness matters even more. People are part of families and communities. They are from specific places. They are part of stories and legacies that weave together in complex patterns over time. When we elevate people and their stories, we give them honor, we adopt a long-term vision, we think beyond ourselves. But when we break the connectedness and devalue people, the implications reverberate further than we can know.

Even before I left Ghana, I found myself trying to explain the lessons of the castle. Through texts and pictures I told my children that I had stood in the dungeon, that I had looked through the bars and touched the walls of the point of no return. I tried to convey the power of these experiences when juxtaposed against the nobility of lives and stories.

When I think of sending UB students to Ghana, I hope they will experience the extremes in this order, first beholding the elevation of humanity before confronting its annihilation. Somehow the sequence seems important. As my dear and wise friend Oluwafemi once explained, in order to achieve our potential we must continually dip ourselves in gold. This is the gift that Ghana has given me, one that I hope to continue to share.

So Excited to Share our new Book

book

We invite you to explore the  beauty and hospitality of Tanzania and and the magic that happens when we touch the world through international travel and experiential learning.  Sales will support scholarships for girls in the Mara Region.

http://www.amazon.com/Finding-Impact-through-International-Travel/dp/1681110911/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1447435497&sr=1-6&keywords=finding+your+impact

Starting with a chance encounter between a mother of four named Mara and two African nuns from the Mara Region of Tanzania, the Buffalo Tanzania Education Project (BTEP) quickly emerged, providing engagement for students, faculty, and members of the University at Buffalo community in support of a developing school campus in rural Tanzania. Through a uniquely readable mix of voices and perspectives, students of all ages will be drawn into the stories of BTEP, finding inspiration to touch the world through travel and engagement. Book sales will support scholarships for girls in the Mara Region to attend Kitenga and other schools associated with the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa (IHSA). “Finding Your Impact is a strong testament to the profound impact of applied learning in students’ lives and the broad and beautiful range of opportunities that can connect them with communities both at home and around the world. ” ~Nancy L. Zimpher, Chancellor, State University of New York

5 Years of Buffalo in Tanzania- Who would have thought?

Class visited the primary school where instructor Dan Nyaronga attended as a child
Class visited the primary school where instructor Dan Nyaronga attended as a child

Just two weeks ago we welcomed home a class of UB undergraduates who had traveled to the Mara Region of Tanzania as part of a new Winter Session study-abroad course.
While the students returned with new perspectives on community development and memories to last a lifetime, the course represented an exciting milestone for our BTEP (Buffalo Tanzania Education Project) community, a welcome achievement as we celebrate our fifth anniversary.

If you haven’t heard of the Buffalo Tanzania Education Project, you are unfortunately not alone. With no budget, no formal infrastructure, no official presence or identity, we have evolved almost entirely under the radar. And yet, at least in my view, BTEP represents a wonderfully exciting engagement initiative worthy of attention and exploration.

The premise for BTEP is simple yet powerful. By coming together around a shared vision with clearly articulated goals and areas of focus, we can leverage our individual engagement efforts toward greater impact and sustainability.

BTEP’s efforts have focused primarily on the children and women of Tanzania, and specifically on an evolving school project in the village of Kitenga. To be clear, we didn’t actually select this community nor were we actively seeking partners for collaboration. Instead, our partners- the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa (IHSA)- found us.

Our investments have been small but significant. In 2009 we traveled to Mara and thanks to Kevin Crosby were able to create a video (see kitenga.wikia.com) to help attract contributors and frame our approach. Realizing the importance of getting close to our partnering community, we have facilitated group visits with over 40 members traveling to Tanzania- all at their own expense- to learn, study, serve and contribute.

We have welcomed researchers, students, community members and organizations, insisting only that individual projects are championed by BTEP members, thus avoiding the need for administration, budgetary involvement, or official oversight. And while in the beginning we were able to provide more extensive facilitation and support, our coordination is now limited to convening occasional BTEP meetings and fundraisers.

Our impact to date? From a fundraising standpoint it’s been modest but significant. We have focused our efforts on supporting projects that were well within reach, bridging funding gaps to realize construction of classrooms for the Early Childhood program; the first block of classrooms for the Secondary School and the Dormitory (which is still under construction); a playground for the Early Childhood School; and a bore well and latrines.

To be clear, there is still a long way to go toward opening the School, with construction costs continuing to escalate. The scale of fundraising is well beyond the capacity of BTEP, although many members have become heavily involved in related efforts with several creating a non-profit, Girls Education Collaborative (GEC), which continues to make significant steps toward the ultimate goal.

But from an engagement standpoint our impact has been nothing short of amazing. Here are just a few highlights:
• Three doctoral dissertations all focusing on Tanzania
• Field placements and a travel course experience for Social Work students
• A study-abroad course for undergraduates examining community development within the context of the Mara Region
• Design and construction of a playground made possible by a team of architects, students, faculty, and community members associated with BTEP
• Donation and shipment of solar panels by Solar Liberty Foundation through BTEP
• Construction of a deep bore well and plans to construct latrines and a second well through the leadership of Buffalo Sunrise Rotary Club and other participating Rotary clubs
• Development of the Girls Education Collaborative (GEC) by several BTEP members
• Various research, writing projects and presentations made by BTEP members
• Other contributions of medical equipment, donations, and service

As BTEP continues to evolve, members have begun to journey beyond Kitenga and Mara to build relationships and partnerships in new regions of the country. And while many Western New Yorkers have discovered Tanzania through their own avenues, they seem to eventually find BTEP in interesting and circuitous ways, helping to grow and shape our initiative beyond what we could have ever imagined.

On Friday, March 7th we will come together for our 3rd BTEP fundraiser to support a number of education and development related projects in Kitenga, Lindi, and Arusha. The event will be held from 6:00 – 8:00 in Allen Hall on the UB South Campus. Tickets are $20 and $10 for students. Please contact me for additional information or to reserve tickets.

I hope you will consider joining us and spreading the word about our exciting engagement initiative.