By Jess Hamer
I have been working with COCO for about five years now, for four years as a volunteer during university holidays and for a year working part-time as COCO’s Communications and Development Officer. Throughout that time, I’ve heard and written about COCO’s projects a lot; I’ve always loved hearing stories about the success of the projects, but after visiting Tanzania, I can now absolutely say that the work COCO is doing is making such a massive difference overseas.
While there, I spent most of my time with Hoja Project staff (other than when I was climbing Kilimanjaro, which is a story for another day!) Hoja Project is COCO’s main partner in Tanzania, and the difference that the organisation is making in the region is incredible. At the start of my trip, I spent time in Moshi and Dar Es Salaam, and the contrast between these places and the remote area of Songea is obvious. In Songea there are no supermarkets or large stores, not many people in Songea speak English, and there are plenty of small restaurants around the town, but not many Western style restaurants and no fast food chains – which is quite refreshing, even if it was a little difficult to find food as a vegetarian! Everyone in Songea is so friendly and welcoming, even though communicating is hard, smiles and basic greetings tell enough of a story, and the staff at Hoja looked after me extremely well!
What struck me most is the real community spirit. I was so inspired by many of the people that I met, who worked so hard to improve not only their own situation, but also that of others around them. At all of the projects I visited, the commitment of everyone involved to help in whatever way they can to make sure that they are a success is evident, and their pride in how their hard work is making a difference is obvious. All of the projects were initially set up by the communities, and Hoja Project and COCO are simply supporting what they are already doing, using past experience and knowledge to support the organisations and make them as successful as possible. Everywhere I went I was welcomed with open arms, lots of singing and dancing, and feasts of food from their community farms.
My first project visit was to SHIKUWATA, a community based organisation (CBO) helping get disabled children into school. The founder of the project, 71-year-old Margaret, empathised with the disabled children who were hidden away and not allowed to go to school. She set up the organisation to help break the stigma surrounding disability, and provide financial support to families to allow the children to receive an education and socialise with their peers. We met some of the children who are now going to school as a result of this programme, they were so sweet and happy, and it was great to see and hear about the difference the organisation is making to their lives. COCO and Hoja Project have given the community sustainable agriculture training, so that on their farm they can grow crops effectively and efficiently. These crops can then be sold so that the organisation can be sustainable, and to help provide learning materials, uniforms and shoes for the kids so that they could go to school. I was truly touched by Margaret’s drive to help, and the compassion she felt for these children.
Another project that I visited was Kids are Kings Nursery. This nursery was set up by Malaika, another truly inspirational woman who decided to do something to help vulnerable children get a quality education. She saw that many children were unprepared for primary school, as families could not afford to send their children to nursery, and that when moving to Secondary School, students massively struggled to learn and sit exams in English. She set up the nursery, which teaches in English, and was determined that all children, regardless of how rich their parents are, should have a quality pre-school education. A new nursery school is currently being built, so money can be saved not having to pay expensive rent each month – thanks to the kindness and commitment of the community. The community donated the land, have helped to make bricks for building, and are now donating their time to help clear the land of the new site. Digging to find water for a well has been difficult, and the community are so keen for building work to go ahead that they have offered to carry water for making cement from the river to the site. They recognise how important education is, and are so grateful for the affordable and quality education the nursery is providing that they are more than willing to help where they can.
We then visited Hoja Food Forest – something else that I have written about a lot, but what I saw far exceeded the image that I had in head! I thought that it would be a garden, with a small fishpond, with a few fruit trees and a vegetable patch – however what it actually is 8 acres of well-cultivated and well-thought-out farmland. There are acres of maize, and acres of peas – which are rotated each year so that the peas can balance nitrogen in the soil for the maize. There are areas of wild grass, to let the soil recover and to grow grass which is then composted and used to fertilise the other crops. There are plenty of different fruit trees, including bananas, mangoes and avocados, and trees that will be felled for timber. A fishpond sits in the middle of the farm, providing an extra source of income. An empty pigpen sits beside it, as pigs have just recently been sold to provide income to invest in other things – and more pigs will be arriving soon! Oswin explained in detail the sustainable agriculture techniques they use here, and the ways in which they teach other communities these techniques to spread the benefits far and wide. The food forest is so big there is even a farm manager living on site to look after everything. There are also plans to start keeping bees, making honey an additional source on income for the organisation. The food forest has been so successful that COCO is hoping to develop a food forest at each 'School for Life' in southern Tanzania, to ensure that each school can offer a balanced diet to students and sustain itself in the longer term.
A further element of Hoja Project is the small loans scheme – now called Hoja SACCOS. Their office is just off the main road in a village, where two members of staff work. Community members or groups come to the cooperative to take out a loan to set up a small business, and they then repay their loan in installments with a small percentage of interest to cover the costs of the two members of staff employed there. The office has a teller room, where community members can deposit and withdraw money, and an office, where Matilda works, keeping track of accounts and taking applications. The programme has reached most of the villages in the area, helping around 7,000 community members to increase their income by setting up a small business. As a result, parents can then afford to send their children to secondary school, and can contribute more in terms of school fees. Oswin explained to me that before any income generation came about, many students had to be completely sponsored through school, but now all parents are able to contribute a little – even if just by donating maize or rice for children to eat instead of direct financial fees.
Another thing that has struck me about Hoja Project is the obvious esteem that people in the area have for it, and how grateful they are for the work being done. Wherever we go, people are greeting and talking to Oswin and Elisha. They are highly respected for the work that they are doing, by farmers and officials alike. Oswin is pretty much a celebrity in Songea!
Sustainable agriculture training has been vital in the success of the projects in the region, all the schools and communities that have received training have massively increased their income, moving from living in poverty to being able to send their children to school, eat healthier meals, and pay for healthcare. We visited several communities, whose lives have been vastly improved thanks to the training. In Litisha, a nursery school has been set up by the community thanks to increased income, where children are now receiving excellent quality education in English. Before arriving at the nursery, Oswin told me that the children were very shy, however we were surprised and delighted to see a classroom of confident young kids who greeted us in English and were happy to play with us. Oswin last visited in February, what a difference four months in a classroom can make!
One of the most inspiring communities I met was at Kigonsera. A community based organisation called WAMATA received sustainable agriculture training. The group of HIV positive women could not previously afford treatment, but are all now happier and healthier thanks to the increased income and constant supply of fresh food. Although they are now able to send their children to school, they are still relatively poor, and there is much more they could be doing to improve their own standard of living. However, the group made no hesitation in deciding to donate a portion of their income to pay for another community on the shore of Lake Nyasa to receive sustainable agriculture training, who also suffer from a high prevalence of HIV with no money to pay for treatment. We also visited this community, where the villagers could now afford HIV treatment, and have even used increased income to construct a building in the centre of the village as another income generation stream – where community members can have shops, and where films will be shown for a small fee. The community has so little, yet shares what little it does have with others, which is just amazing to see. The money that paid for training in this community is spreading and helping hundreds of others – who will in turn reinvest some of their money to helping others.
I visited many other communities too, with equally inspiring stories, and met countless wonderful people – far too many to mention all of here. My trip to Tanzania has hugely motivated me to do as much as I can to help these communities. I was struck by the selflessness of the people I met, how welcoming they were, and how caring for one another. I am now certain that every penny that is donated to COCO and invested in East Africa is making a huge difference to the lives of the people living there, all their support is hugely appreciated, and every effort is made to ensure that the projects are as successful as possible. Thank you to all of COCO's supporters who have helped make this change possible!
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