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Tanzania: Obama's Gone, Poverty Remains


Obama Shirts or Obama Fans?
I stood off to the side as my friend Sister Afra brushed off the dirt on the little boy’s sleeve. I listened as she lovingly scolded him in Swahili, the tone and his chagrin translating the universal words.

She explained to me that he disappeared, missing “class,” the daily informal gatherings of ragtag neighborhood kids intent on learning English during winter break. He has no family; he showed up on the doorsteps of this former government building now being converted into a primary school and dorm for young children in Sumbawanga, Tanzania.

I landed in this far western Tanzanian city because of my involvement with Friends of Imiliwaha NFP, a U.S.-based nonprofit supporting health care and educational needs in Tanzania. I met Afra as she studied for 8 years at Benedictine University in Lisle, IL. She’s back in her home country, with 2 graduate degrees in education and incalculable determination, to build and operate a school.

My friends Helen and Julie scraped and caulked windows while I filmed and photographed. Obviously mine was the “cushier” job, although the task of film and photo editing will last longer than it takes them to get the varnish stains out of their fingernails. The thousands of images I captured have changed my mind about poverty and what we can do about it.

Long after President Obama’s whirlwind tour to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, poverty and corruption will continue their strangleholds on this nation. I find myself with less answers and more questions about macro level dilemmas. Fortunately micro efforts like Afra’s, and the dedication of Friends of Imiliwaha and that of countless other worthy groups, have inspired me immensely, renewing my courage to face the world of domestic family and youth homelessness in my nonprofit HEAR US Inc.

It’s easy to dismiss whole countries for their backward and bumbling civilization. Certainly our experience with haphazard electricity and plumbing in Tanzania would color my review of this nation if not for the deeper picture we were privileged to see—encounters between teacher and student, orphan and health care provider, mourners and comforters.  Those images are now in my hands challenging me to share the bigger story.

As in the US, poverty has a chokehold on Tanzania and all developing countries. What enables it to grasp and stifle entire nations is the same—corruption, greed, political dysfunction, disregard for human value, and lack of educational opportunities. Counteracting these evils, in America or across the seas—intrepid integrity, selflessness, education and holding government’s feet to the fire, among other things.

Overwhelming, I know. But the level of difficulty does not daunt people like Afra who see the possibilities in both the discarded young people showing up on their doorsteps and the dilapidated buildings donated by the desperate local authority.

Impossible? I might think so if I hadn’t seen the backbreaking labor and faith-filled fortitude shaping both the foundation of new classrooms and the molding of a compassionate and capable institution to serve the educational needs of this community. Here’s a 5-min. video I made to illustrate these efforts.

How do mere mortals approach such a challenge? I take great inspiration in the words of Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, best-selling author and respected lover of humankind, who points out:

“So perhaps change is less about fixing a broken world and more about uncovering hidden wholeness in all events, all organizations and all people and remembering our personal power to make a difference... Everyone and everything has in it a seed of a greater wholeness, a dream of possibility. Perhaps what I once saw as ‘broken’ or ‘lacking’ might just as easily be seen as the growing edge of things.”

The little boy chided for missing class receives the same gift as the truant student in the alternative school pulled aside and compassionately called to task, as the struggling mother facing insurmountable challenges nudged to reach for higher aspirations. Someone cares. Someone’s going to walk the walk with you. Someone knows life is tough. Someone believes in you.

Is it as “simple” as the change-seeker striving to uncover seeds of possibility in the person beleaguered by unbearable injustice and oppression? Sure beats any plan devised by the nefarious capitalists.