My first port of call in Tanzania was Buigiri. Buigiri is a village of around 5,000 people and is located bang in the centre of the country, about 350 miles west of Dar es Salaam which is the effective capital (although not in name). An Englishman established a school there immediately after WWII for blind children from across the country. There are currently 100 children at the school, the vast majority are blind or severely visually impaired. The village also contains an ‘Adult Rehabilitation Centre’ which in fact is a community for nine families where at least one adult is totally blind; two sighted families also live here and they help the blind farm the land. There are also other blind people and organisations in the village, but these are comparitavely small.
Throughout our time there we were looked after by two sighted guys from the rehab centre. Isiah works there as a helper and the other guy (this sounds crap, but we never knew his name and before long it was too late to ask) is the son of the local Methodist minister. Their time was greatly appreciated by us as we had guides and translators for when my meagre Swahili failed.
This year the rains have failed which means there is no food. The people are not just poor, they have no money at all and rely on the little food they can grow as well as whatever aid trickles through the system. I read a report that 4.5 million Tanzanians face starvation this year.
The families of the rehabilitation centre.
Will and I spent 6 days in Buigiri. I visited in 1999 and spent 3 months there. Amazingly my Swahili came back to me. My vocabulary is hardly huge but I can handle all the greetings which are quite a big deal out there and I can handle buying things and suchlike. In 1999, two of the tasks I carried out included the planting of 100 saplings and digging drainage ditches. The ditches are still there preventing the area from flooding when the rains come, and almost all the trees survived and some are 20 foot tall, providing fruits and shade to the rehab centre. I also randomly met the brother of a guy who was very kind to me when I was last there and in return myself and two friends paid for a year’s education for him. It was really good to hear how he is getting on.
We were able to help this time by providing 200kg of maize and 50kg of beans for the families. This is enough for about 700 meals. We also bought various asthma medication for an adult and a child as well as a few other bits and pieces.
Another day we looked round the blind school. In fact our house was within the school compound and we saw the kids all the time. There is such a difference between african children and western children. These kids have nothing but they are happy. All they want is the oppourtunity to get an education. Many of the kids are packed off to the school when they are seven years old and that is the last time they will ever be with their parents as they cannot afford transport costs. The sighted kids lead the blind around without even a grumble, it seems the friendships are intense and this may be due to the lack of materialism.
In 1999 the school had just two days supply of food, now their finances are healthier but all the children eat is maize porridge (you grind the maize and boil it in water) and a spoonful of beans for flavouring. We bought them a few kilos of sugar to sweeten the food a little. We also decided to buy all 100 kids a bottle of soda. Depending on the finances, they have a bottle at Christmas and one at Easter and it was clear from the looks on their faces that this was a real treat for them. Many kids were bouncing up and down, clapping their hands and shouting ‘soda, soda, soda’ as they walked into the canteen. One child had never had such a drink and he didn’t even know how to drink from a bottle. We had to teach him how to let air into the bottle when he took a swig.
We also looked around one of the two sighted schools where we handed out 200 pens and exercise books and a football for the children, we also gave the school 15kg of sugar for their food. We were mobbed taking photos and have been forced to promise to send many copies back out there. The kids are really fantastic. Me lurking amongst some kids from the sighted school.
We also visited the medical clinic which was very basic but better than nothing. I had bought over 250 needles with me and I handed them over. They seem to have a good supply of clean needles so it was a rather wasted gift, but c’est la vie.
One of the big problems is that secondary education (which I think is from 16 and up) is not free. By our standards it is dirt cheap but for a farm worker it might cost four months salary to send a child away for a year. Without this education then there is little chance of finding a job better than that of a labourer – and when you factor in that many of these kids have no vision then the prognosis is not good. I was able to pay for one girl to attend school and I also paid half the fees for another child. The first girl was packed off two days later. She was loaded onto a bus with a bag containing the few items she had and the journey takes around ten hours. When she gets there, there will be nobody to meet her. She has to find her way to the school and she has to do so without being robbed. This is pretty tough when all you have is a white stick to guide you.
One thing which I hope to never see again is a blind man driving a car. Hosea is the head teacher of the blind school and he wanted to reverse the car into some shade. He only travelled perhaps ten metres but it was scary stuff. Later when he wanted to move the car back I did it for him. Scarily he proved to be a better driver than me as I had issues with the biting point. In my defence I have not driven a car in a number of years.
One day we cycled several kilometres to a nearby village called Chawmino. There are monkeys there and we watched them in the trees before finding a little shop and having a coke. Buigiri has a couple of white visitors per year but Chawmino is far enough off the main road to be totally isolated. Kids stopped in their tracks as they walked past us. Our two Buigiri friends told us that many of the children will never have seen a white person before and in some cases they may not have even have heard of people who are not black. We almost got into a fight when Will took a photograph of some children – they thought we would sell it for lots of money and so profit from them. Luckily the situation was defused, but it could have turned ugly.
Amazingly lots of people remembered who I was. Even a shopkeeper in the nearby city recognised me. One guy we spent quite a lot of time chatting to was Alisha. He runs a small shop that sells sodas and beers and when the electricity is working then they are gloriously cold. He also had the cutest children.
One of my fondest memories from the six days when a choir from a nearby village came to sing for the blind children. Before they left they sang for Will and I. It was very powerful and they had excellent voices.
Perhaps my worst moment was when I went outside barefoot at night to fetch some water (the water and electricity are severely rationed by the government due to the effects of the drought on the Hydro Electro generators). Just inches from my foot was a black mamba. I jumped back just as it swished forward to where I had been standing.
We did so many more things out there and very rarely did we have even a few minutes to ourselves. It was physically tough but very rewarding and we crammed as much into the few days as we could.
Over the weekend I will write about the second leg of the trip, although I doubt it will be as long.
Queuing for water
Some blind kids and Hosea outside the church.
The blind school itself.
A buddy bike. Two people can ride it at once with one person steering, thus a sighted child can take a blind child out for a ride
Another pic of Alisha’s daughter.
Hosea by his car. Most cars are festooned with English football stickers.
A boy looking far better than I ever could in my hat and sunglasses.
Isiah and his family.
A class of mainly blind children.
Two boys who regularly played by our house.
John Kapingo from the rehab centre. The boy on the left is his eldest son Michael.
The wife of John Kapingo. They are both blind. The baby is their newborn son.
Some of the trees I planted in 1999. Others are much taller.
A local boy with his toy hoop.
An old man from the rehabilitation centre (this is one of Will’s photos).