Story and Art by Jessie Mackay
It was getting dark in a village with no electricity as my friend Tally Bandy baptized her 80th person, a man in his 40s. This was our last day in Tanzania and we had gone far out into the bush making numerous wrong turns on dirt tracks, fording dry streambeds with others from Msalato to this baptism of 240 people! Tally and two priests performed the sacrament, each taking 80 people. It took all day. The holy water was murky water drawn from some far-off well dug by hands of women and children. The pan used was the only pan they had, and when it came time for the offering, the water was chucked and the pan became the offering plate, but not before a chicken had come up to it and taken a drink. The smallest children had not seen a muzungu (white person) before and wailed when placed in the arms of the person welcoming them into the Church.
Why Africa? What do you do there? Good questions. We are on our own, unaffiliated, yet mightily supported by people mainly from Moore County who have joined us in our work in Tanzania. Tally Bandy is a retired deacon in the Episcopal Church, living with her husband, Claude, in Whispering Pines — and I am a painter, living in Pinehurst.
So, to the question “why Africa?” a quote from Frederick Buechner comes to mind: “. . . go to that place where the needs in the world will ignite the passions in your heart, tap your natural gifts, etc . . . go to that place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I had been on a number of wonderful, sanitized safaris to Africa and one more rugged safari where friends and I rode horses across Malawi’s Nika region into Zambia. On that journey I got to see more off-the-tourist-tract villages where people were truly struggling to stay alive. I knew then that I wanted to go back and “do something”! It took over ten years to find the right opportunity and during that time I met and became friends with Tally, who shared the same desire after having been to South Africa in 2007.
In 2008 we chanced upon a perfect opportunity for us both in Tanzania. It was through the Msalato Theological College in Dodoma, Tanzania. Tally would teach pastoral care and theology and I would teach art at a nearby primary school, while researching needs in that region. Over the years our work has expanded to include women’s empowerment and more extensive fundraising.
Coming to this place for our fifth summer, we step back into a very deep past way of living and being. We go to a region of subsistence farmers, who till a patch of land “Shambas” with iron-age tools, and pray the rains will come. It has an Old Testament look in terms of lifestyle — goats, sheep, mud huts, thatch or other organic material for roofs which wash out in the rainy season, few possessions. The villages lack electricity and there is no plumbing, as there is no water. Their wealth and currency of exchange is in their animals. Their “portfolios” walk out to graze on a parched landscape and the manager of this portfolio is a male child who shepherds them to grazing areas when he should really be in school.
We wonder if the milk in our tea has been boiled, we take anti-malarial pills daily, and sleep under mosquito nets. In the villages we visit, we go to bed when it gets dark at 7:00 and the cooking fire has gone out, taking the light with it. We have time to think! Time to listen, not only to the stories of our hosts, but to the sounds of animals and wind in this raw, desolate land of our origins. I appreciate this silence. At home it is hard to find. Stores and malls play music, you cannot go to the doctors, or get the oil changed without the ubiquitous television disrupting any attempts at an inner life. We come here from a place where we live in the center, not the extremes . . . it has altered us profoundly for the better.
At the college, our lifestyle is bare-boned, but we have conveniences such as furniture, electricity, plumbing. Here we have formed very rich relationships and learned so much about the life and culture in Tanzania and how it differs from our own. We have formed friendships and trust with the people we work with that have ensured the success of our projects so far.
The first project was finding a way to help the primary school where I was teaching art. Teachers there were working without pay, the classrooms were grim, and the transport the children used to get to school were dangerous public mini-buses built to hold 17 people, but always stuffed with 38 plus. Tally and I had ridden these death traps to town and thus understood the fear parents experienced with their children using them to get to school. Also, they were expensive for the school, so though it took three years, a former business contact of mine in Germany bought a proper school bus as well as helping the school pay down a debt and get back on an even keel.
Dearest to our hearts, however, have been the women’s empowerment projects. Having bonded with the women in Ikowa Village, we asked what we could do to help them. Their lives were toil-laden, rising before the sun to make a cooking fire, gathering water from a well three-and-a-half miles away, walking hours to gather firewood (this walk gets longer every year as the trees are cut for wood). So much of their energy is expended simply to survive another day. There is no cushion. For many, no money to buy a school uniform for their child so that he or she can attend the state school. They rely on their husbands for support, who in many cases cannot provide in a land with unreliable rainfall. Many of the men sit around in idle agitation and despair, numbing themselves with homemade brew, locked into inaction by a culture which dictates their role must not include helping with duties such as gathering water or firewood, tending to children and small domestic animals. The worst thing about being poor is not the lack of things, but shame. Unable to provide for their families wounds their souls past the breaking point, adding even more stress to the families.
The women met with each other and discussed what kind of project they would like to do that would provide much needed income and decided on raising pigs. We had told them we could provide $500 in a loan that would need to be repaid the following summer. It is important to note here that the success of any project depends on the ownership and initiative of those conducting it. We had nothing to do with the choosing of their project, nor in how they set it up. If it succeeded or failed it would be due to their efforts or lack thereof.
The women who were active in their church were the first group to organize. There were 45 and they formed nine groups with five women in each group. Each group bought three piglets at a cost of $18.50 per piglet. They would raise the pigs for one year and sell them, keeping the original sows for breeding purposes. When the sows were ready for breeding, they hired a couple of boars to do the honors.
We returned the next summer and with much ceremony, drumming and dancing, the women showed off their pigs, the pens they had crafted, and newly born piglets. They repaid their $500 loan in full. We had brought an additional $600 raised by people from St. Mary Magdalene Church in West End and gave that money — along with the $500 they had just repaid — back to the women and told them to lend it to new groups.
The project, which was started in 2010 with 45 women, has now grown to 314 women in eight villages. The money is the original $500 plus the added $600. No new funds have been allocated from Karimu. (A word here — after the first summer we realized we needed to get organized and with the help of a retired attorney, formed a 501(c)(3) which we named Karimu and began raising funds. Neither Tally nor I had ever done this kind of thing. In fact, we did not even know what a 501(c)(3) was! We have a proper treasurer who handles the books. Also, Tally and I pay our own expenses and use the donations we receive solely for the projects in Tanzania.)
The pig projects have transformed the lives of these women. They have bought metal sheets to roof their houses, are able to send their children to school now, buy better food for their families, and even eased some of the strain from their husbands. We have learned that they also have included women who were totally without funds to contribute to the caring of the piglets, and basically sub-loaned to them. Each new group becomes the moral guarantor for the next new group.
Other projects have been English classes for women, an entrepreneurship class for women who live in or near town, and scholarships for men and women attending the theological college. Pastors are often the only link for a village to the outside world. Pastors are the ones who teach them about AIDS, health issues, comfort and guide, settle disputes, and of course preach the Gospel.
These five years have been a wonderful journey for us. We bring the humanity of the people here who are supporting the work, and return with the humanity of those in Tanzania who have taught us so much about what it means. PS