There are also sections contributed by various Zanzibar projects, organisations and businesses involved in recycling and education about waste (including Sustainable East Africa).
Congratulations to ACRA and Ulli for a phenomenal publication and essential resource for anyone doing environmental outreach in Zanzibar and thank you so much for giving me permission to make it available online here on Ecologue.
You may be wondering why am I raving so much about this book in particular? Well the thing is – an education resource is only any good if it is used. You can compile all the pertinent information in the world into the most comprehensive resource – but if nobody ever uses it, then you may as well not bother. And I love this book because I have seen first hand that people want to read it. The information is presented in an easy-to follow, simple, straightforward and relevant way, and is all about Zanzibar.
And when I gave a copy to members of the PLCI Environment Club (SEA partners) during a clean-up day recently in Vikokotoni – every time I looked, a different student was reading it.
I have started topics on composting and sustainable seafood. But if you have a sustainable project that you are proud of and would like to share – whether it’s a rainwater catchment system, recycling bin set up, solar power system – or anything – then please let us see. I will showcase the best ideas on the blog to give you exposure.
And if you have any questions about how other people are solving a particular problem that you are stuck on, then start a conversation about it and see who can help.
There’s an extra bonus for any hotels who are working towards RTTZ (Responsible Tourism Tanzania) certification: participating an online environmental forum is one of the criteria used for evaluating eligibility for sapling-level certification, so join the conversation and tick that box.
There are few sustainability challenges experienced in Zanzibar that have not been solved already by someone, somewhere, so I hope this forum will help us avoid reinventing the wheel and enable everyone concerned about sustainability to find the solutions they need (and that work) that bit more easily.
In the first part of his talk, Ernesto Sirolli tells us an anecdote about Lessons from an Agricultural Aid project in Zambia (this extract from topnonprofits’ synopsis)
[Ernesto Sirolli] Worked with an Italian NGO. Everyone had great intentions and truly wanted to help. Yet everything they touch failed.
For example, the came to part of Zambia near the Zambezi River and were amazed why the local people in such a fertile valley would have no agriculture. So they taught people to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini.
But the people weren’t interested.
So they paid them to come learn…and sometimes they showed up.
Instead of asking why they weren’t growing anything [the donors] said, “Thank God we are here. Just in nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation.”
Of course everything in Africa grew beautifully and they were telling the Zambians, “Look how easy agriculture is.”
Just when the tomatoes were nice and ripe, [two hundred] hippos came out of the river and ate everything.
And they said to the Zambians, “My God, the hippos!”
And the Zambians said, “Yes, that is why we have no agriculture here.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?!?”
“You never asked.“
This story truly struck a chord with me.
It is clear that before deciding agriculture was the answer, the Italian NGO ought first to have asked why it wasn’t already happening, rather than assuming it was because nobody had thought of it before. But from the way the story is presented, some people hearing this story might also think “but the local guys really ought to have given them a heads up about the hippos – poor communication goes both ways”.
This is understandable, but I want to explain why I don’t think it is reasonable to expect that.
I have found in my work that leaders and members of local organisations and groups too often do not feel empowered to challenge donors, even when what the donors are saying has major flaws. At first, like the Zambian donors, I found it baffling, enormously frustrating, even hurtful. But over time I have learned that frankly there are sometimes pretty good reasons for reticence.
Firstly, foreigners are presented, and present themselves, as experts. People with the answers. They come with an attitude that says ‘We are experts. We have many years of training and experience that we are here to share with you. You don’t know why you need this yet, but bear with us, trust us, and soon, you will see’.
More pragmatically, however, consultants that come in from large donors essentially have money in their pocket: inconceivably large sums of money in comparison with local wages. Projects are designed (and this is something for another post) to put money in local participants’ pockets (or give them T-shirts) for helping implement projects, and project success is measured by ticking boxes for having carried out activities and spent the money allocated in a timely fashion, rather than by actually making things better through less measurable metrics. Tell such a donor that their proposal is inadequately thought through, and the money (which is needed) might be taken away.
And, thanks to power arrangements and limitations of donor-funding, this is in fact true. There is seldom any flexibility built in to allow projects to be adaptive. Take this, or take nothing.
If you are an NGO that wants funding to carry out a project, you have to define (often months in advance) exactly what your outputs and outcomes and activities will be, how many workshops you will hold and on what dates, how many books you will print, and how much everything will cost (2-3 years from now). And don’t forget the T-shirts!
It is nigh-on impossible, I can assure you from experience, to secure funding for a project from conventional donors by honestly explaining, ‘We have lots of ideas that might work, but until we get out there, we don’t know what we’re going to do, so we’re going to ask the people we want to help how we can help, and what they need, tell them our ideas, and let them choose what we do together’. Incidentally, if you know of a donor who would accept such a proposal, please let me know!
So it is not really fair to surmise that the ‘beneficiary’ community in Zambia was at fault for not telling the aid agency about the hippos. After all, agriculture was not working for them, money and food were scarce, and they were being offered money to grow food (for the hippos as it happens, but they could at least use the money to buy food elsewhere). The donors had come in armed with seeds and tools. Tell them they are wasting their time, they will consider you uncooperative, and may go away and take their money with them.
And remember, too, that the donors come from rich countries and drive big cars. They clearly know how to make money and be successful and have come to share expertise. Perhaps they have some special varieties of tomato and zucchini that hippos don’t eat? It seems unlikely to us but they’re clearly very confident, and they are willing to pay us good money to grow them, so let’s bear with them and see what trick they’ve got up their sleeve. Perhaps they have got it wrong, but they’ll learn eventually – and at least we can eat today.
What’s more – and although I’ve had my own ‘hippo’ moments in project implementation I’ll admit – I have a particularly large amount of sympathy for the community in this case.
If you have ever been to place where there is a river with hippos in, do you not agree, that you knew the hippos were there?
They are not exactly shy and retiring animals. We’re not talking about insects that live hidden in the soil until one particular month of the year, or a parasitic fungus whose spores are borne invisibly in the wind. A hippopotamus is a rather conspicuous 2-3 tonnes of solid muscle (with big teeth) that rather commands attention, or in this case, two hundredhippos… With the best will in the world, I am afraid I find it rather hard to imagine they hadn’t made themselves known.
So, in the circumstances, I can’t help the community should be given enormous credit for not responding to the donors’ questioning “Why didn’t you tell us?!?” with,
“Tell you? Tell you about the hippos? Tell you what about them? We thought you knew! See? Look! Hippos! Big animals, hundreds of them, they live in the river all day splashing and grunting, come out at night to eat vegetation. How did you miss them? How on earth were we to know you hadn’t noticed them? You said you were experts and knew what you were doing! We thought you must have some other clever trick up your sleeves! It didn’t occur to us you didn’t know they were there!”
So – if you want to help – please, for the love of hippos, Shut up and listen! Don’t assume you have all the answers. You probably don’t even know the questions to ask, so ask open questions. Ask people what they need and be prepared to listen and respond to what they tell you.
And to my local partners and others I am collaborating with – if I ever get carried away and forget – please, remember I do not know everything, and I sometimes need you to point out the “hippo in the room”. I will thank you for it.
Amid the hustle and bustle of (relatively) cosmopolitan Stone Town, Zanzibar’s only city, people of all nationalities mingle on every street – camera-toting tourists lost in the winding bazaars will inevitably encounter groups of young local children playing games in the street, looking adorable, and the children are accustomed to being photographed. If you raise your camera to ask permission to take a picture (courteous photographers always ask), the children will more than likely pose enthusiastically – and love to look at the image on the back of your camera afterwards. In fact, starting to take photographs will often result in more and more children emerging from nearby buildings to get in on the action.
Step away from the tourist areas, however, and taking photographs becomes a different matter altogether. Young children in rural communities may never have seen a white person before, and be terrified at the very sight of us. In particularly isolated regions of the country, there is even a cultural belief that to take a person’s photo is to take a piece of their soul. To photograph a person uninvited is therefore perceived as a gross personal violation and one of which travelling photographers should be extremely aware. If you raise your camera to indicate a request to take a photograph in such an area, the potential subjects will raise their hands to the camera (children may even run away screaming). In these cases the message is abundantly clear: no photographs. However sometimes the message can be more ambiguous: perhaps one person will nod permission and pose, but the person next to them will raise the palm of their hand in front of the lens to say ‘no’. I’ve accidentally taken photographs like this, and I delete them.
The other day, in Stone Town, I was sitting in a café working, when some children from the neighbourhood came and stared in through the window a couple of feet away from me. I know these kids by sight as I pass this way most days. Adorable as they are, they were getting a bit persistent in trying to engage me in conversation and I was trying to concentrate.
There are bars in the café window through which the children were peering, and I joked on facebook (I was distracted from my work by this point!) that their staring made me feel as though I were an exhibit in a zoo. I was tempted to roar at them. They then started playing peep-bo with me to get my attention, and the temptation became unresistable. Smiling, I treated them to my best fierce animal impression. They jumped, and then burst into peals of laughter.
My concentration thoroughly broken, I got out my camera to take (with their enthusiastic permission) a couple of photos of them. I showed them the pictures, and more children came to the window till there were about five little faces entreating ‘Picha picha!’ So I took more, showing the pictures as I went along.
Then, to my astonishment, one of the girls raised her hand in front of the lens, front and central in the picture. I lowered the camera and looked at her for clarification. In shamba (rural areas) this would be expected, and photographs unwelcome – but these kids were urban, they knew me, and were soliciting my attention, not the other way round; moments earlier she had had no problem. What had changed? What had I done?
The other children continued to call out to me: Picha! Picha! But she was still waving the palm of her hand in front of my face. I lifted the camera to photograph the others but leave her out… but she only called out louder. What should I do?
Now, I like to think I know a bit about the Zanzibar culture. I like to believe that I am culturally sensitive, relatively experienced at local nuances, and that I know how to read the signs. I usually feel as though my Swahili (rudimentary though it is) is enough to understand the general tone of the message people are trying to convey. But here, I was baffled. How had I upset her? What had I done wrong?
At long, long last, realisation dawned. I’d been overthinking completely. I finally picked up on what she was calling out: Heena! Heena!
I had completely misunderstood her: I couldn’t have got it more wrong.
‘Heena’ was what she was saying to me: and heena was what she was showing me! Her hands had been painted with henna, a traditional custom in Swahili culture for Eid, the celebration of the end of Ramadan a few days earlier.
And she was just a little girl, showing me her beautiful Heena and asking me to photograph her pretty hands…