Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

My year in Tanzania: witnessing individuals be a force for change

July 31, 2014

Tanzania was the first country I ever visited in Africa, and I’ve had the privilege to visit many different parts of the country over the course of the last decade.  My husband and I jumped at the chance to move there in 2012, living for a year in Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of the country. Dar is a flat, hot, coastal city with a rapidly growing population and a chaotic atmosphere.  Once you move more inland or up north to Arusha, Tanzania is mountainous and peaceful.  Of all the things I learned in my year there, two things stand out: first, one year is never enough to learn to appreciate a country as diverse and rich as Tanzania. 

Second, in the development industry, we talk a lot about “scale": how does an intervention reach a large number of people, is that program cost-effective at a large scale, and will the government scale it nationwide? My public health training taught me to analyze and consider populations as a whole, rather than focusing on the individual, in order to achieve the broadest impact.  But my year in Tanzania taught me that while scale is important, one should never underestimate the power of individual people as a force for change in their communities.  I was lucky to meet some individuals who showed me the impact that one person can have on their community and the country. My year in Tanzania taught me that while scale is important, one should never underestimate the power of individual people as a force for change in their communities.

I met a dairy farmer who 10 years ago owned one cow and struggled to send his children to school.  He grew his business over the course of the decade by selling surplus milk at markets in Arusha, and now he felt so confident in the market for dairy and in his own business savvy that he was entering the cheese business.  His kids have since graduated school and he now employs about a dozen people.

A woman I met had organized her fellow farmers in Dodoma, which is an incredibly dry region of the country.  That women’s group is introducing sweet potatoes into their community for the first time.  They were baking sweet potato bread and serving baobob tree and sweet potato juice (which is delicious).  Their children loved the taste of the sweet potatoes, which are more nutritious than their normal staple maize-based food called ugali

I was fortunate enough to work closely with the Government of Tanzania during a time period of tremendous economic growth.  There was one government official in particular who I will forever consider a mentor and friend.  It is easy in Tanzania to be overwhelmed with challenges and overcome with a lengthy list of things that need to be done.  This official consistently saw through those challenges and would not leave meetings until a practical solution was reached with consensus from everyone in the room.  Over the course of a few years, he raised the profile of nutrition across the country and delivered on several important policy commitments that should transform the nutrition landscape.  When I left Tanzania to move to Seattle, of all the people I met and friends I made, it was hardest to say goodbye to him. These individuals, from the dairy farmer to the sweet potato chefs to the government officials, they are all changing Tanzania for the better.

These individuals, from the dairy farmer to the sweet potato chefs to the government officials, they are all changing Tanzania for the better.  It is these individuals that I remind myself of when I’m far away in Seattle, and it is these individuals that I work for.

 
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