May 8, 2009

Doing a Madonna


I’m currently on a beach in Zanzibar. This place has everything — crazy beautiful ruins, coconuts falling into our hands, pristine coral reefs… There’s even a puppy! Poor me, stuck in a tropical idyll.

It’s something of a culture shock after recent experiences. We spent ten days volunteering at an orphanage in Kibaha, a small town north of Dar es Salaam. The kids of La No Che Camp live in a half finished house whose roof doesn’t meet in the middle and where there is no electricity. Until a month ago, the nearest running water was over 1 km away; now there’s a standpipe to augment the rainwater butts and life is a little easier. Not that easy, however – one of the first thing I learned was just how time consuming poverty is. From the long trudge up dirt tracks to buy groceries to the lengthy cooking process, done over hot stones, everything entails an effort.

Hardships notwithstanding, the children are amazing – no moaning, no arguments, no tantrums, even at times when the average English adult would be weeping on the floor like a baby. A week last Sunday, we took a bunch of them back to boarding school after the Easter half term. This may seem a little fancy in this context but Tanzania doesn’t work like Western countries. First and most annoyingly, children can’t simply switch between government schools if they move to a different region; they have to start in the first grade again, no matter how old or advanced they might be. Mad, but there’s no gainsaying the regulations. The orphans have come from around the country (easier to discourage them from going back to the streets if they are far away from home) at different ages, so they have to go to private school, sponsored by international donors.The cost is between 900 and 1200 dollars a year, a hell of a lot when you consider that a good wage here is 5 dollars a day. A lot of kids slip through the net.

Back to the story. Six little boys and girls, all dressed up in their Sunday best, walked 3 km in the pouring rain, wildly excited about going back to class the next day. (That’s another thing. They love learning and books and anything to do with knowledge. They’ll read the same story over and over if that’s all they have. I could seriously do a Madonna with all of them!) We arrived at school at 5 pm, only to be turned away. Seriously. The Headmaster had set a new “registration policy” with a strict 8 – 4 schedule and neglected to let any of the parents know.

Johnson, the orphanage director and a truly good man, argued for half an hour but to no avail; bureaucracy here is even more intransigent than in a Japanese Post Office. We would have to come back the next day. I was stamping my feet in fury by now – everyone was soaked, they were exhausted (Emmy and Victor are only six) and they’d had their dreams trampled to boot – but there wasn’t the faintest simmering of a hissy fit to be seen anywhere else.

The plot thickens. When we took them back on Monday morning, the teachers tried to send them away again! This time, Johnson was told that none of their fees had been paid, despite written guarantees from the donors, who pay direct into the school bank account. While we played football in the playground and Asma looked longingly towards her classroom, Johnson made his case. He produced the receipts that had been given to him by the last accountant but was told that there were no records of any payments having been received, either in the computer system or in the bank statements. (Did somebody say “embezzlement”?) It was only when he reminded the Headmaster of his close friendship with the District Commissioner that they grudgingly agreed to let the children stay. However, there would be a few
additional charges…

It would be nice to dismiss this as an isolated incident; nice, but complacent. Last year, the orphans were registered at a different school where the situation was even worse. The fees for an entire year were paid up front but the Headmaster refused to allow the children into the school. Letters were sent by Johnson, the donor (who was mightily pissed off), the District Commissioner and even someone from the Ministry of Education, but the Headmaster sat on the cash and refused to budge. The kids stayed home. There is no system for reprisals. Perhaps fittingly, both of these schools are religious institutions.

The temptation when hearing this kind of tale is to wash your hands of the whole affair. Why give your money to a minor despot? But as I’ve said, these kids are motivated, hard working and seriously bright. They are in school (if no thanks to the authorities) and Johnson is determined to keep them there. He is a man of so much energy that I believe him. His reasoning is that education is the only chance they have. Only if they continue to be taken off the streets will Tanzania and countries like it escape the vicious aid-corruption cycle in which they have been mired for fifty years. Who could argue with that?

My clever boyfriend is going to build a website for the orphanage when we get home and I’ll put up a link when it’s done. If anyone wants more info before that, please email Me. Sponsoring a child through school is one of the best things you can do, even if it’s only a small contribution. Just make damn sure you keep the receipts!