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There’s a monkey in the garden!

There’s a monkey in the garden! published on

I try to keep an eye out on the wildlife in the garden, and I’ve had in mind a few blog posts on the subject, but this morning’s surprise was way to cool to wait – we had a monkey in the garden!monkey in the garden 2

There are two native species of monkey in Zanzibar – the endemic Kirk’s colobus monkey (aka red colobus) and the blue or Sykes’ monkey. As best I can judge, this morning’s visitor was the latter.

Although troupes of monkeys are a common sight (and even a bit of a nuisance!) in some rural areas, I live in a suburb of Stone Town and trust me, this is not a regular occurrence. monkey in the garden 1Given the monkey was alone, regrettably it is more likely an escaped or released captive monkey than part of a wild troupe – but it’s a native species, and roaming free (for now) where it belongs (stealing mangoes and Zanzibar apples, and having words with the crows). And it made my morning.

Apologies for the bigfoot-sighting-quality photos, it was quite a way away and moving fast, and I didn’t have time to get the big camera out.

Happy Monkey!

monkey in the garden


New section on Ecologue – all about Sustainable East Africa

New section on Ecologue – all about Sustainable East Africa published on No Comments on New section on Ecologue – all about Sustainable East Africa

If you’ve been wondering what work Sustainable East Africa, the NGO I founded here in Zanzibar, is doing, you can now read all about our programme, partners and activities on Ecologue!

So to learn how waste plastic water bottles helped provide water for a rural community, how young school leavers are earning sustainable income for the first time, or how a community transformed its streets to become clean and healthy – have a look around!

Start here!

SEA around the web

The hippo in the room

The hippo in the room published on No Comments on The hippo in the room
Hippo in Zambia © Farhat Jah

I told you in the last post that there were some bits of must-watch video Want to help someone? Shut up and Listen that really made me think, and here is the first.

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 hundred hippos… 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.

Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and Listen!

Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and Listen! published on 1 Comment on Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and Listen!

This is one of the wisest messages I have ever seen.

TED talks are in general exceptional but the following talk by TED fellow Ernesto Sirolli is an absolute must-see.

Readers on limited bandwidth can download the talk as an audio file here, and it is also available at that link with subtitles in many languages (though unfortunately not yet Kiswahili).

For those on very slow internet, has a comprehensive written synopsis of the video.

I strongly recommend everyone interested in development and its successes and failures dedicate the time to watch, read, listen, or otherwise imbibe this phenomenal talk.

Although I had been sent the link before, slow internet meant I didn’t end up watching it till a couple of weeks ago. But I’m so glad I finally did!

The whole message is very powerful but there were some bits in particular that really struck a chord and made me think.  So – go and watch it now! And I’ll be back soon with my thoughts!

Henna-handed: A lesson in listening, learning and shelving our assumptions

Henna-handed: A lesson in listening, learning and shelving our assumptions published on 2 Comments on Henna-handed: A lesson in listening, learning and shelving our assumptions

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…

So I did.





All photographs ©Nell Hamilton

Cleaning the beach with T-shirts (and other unfortunate ideas)

Cleaning the beach with T-shirts (and other unfortunate ideas) published on 5 Comments on Cleaning the beach with T-shirts (and other unfortunate ideas)

Shortly after I arrived in Zanzibar three years ago, I coordinated a training workshop for members of a fantastic local NGO, JAMABECO. They were seriously motivated and had implemented a successful environmental awareness and clean-up programme in their village of Jambiani on the east coast of Unguja, Zanzibar. Our objective in the workshop was to plan beach clean-ups in ten new communities around southern Unguja. I was very excited and felt it was going well.

I asked the participants to tell me what equipment they would need to hold the clean-ups, expecting answers like ‘gloves’, ‘bags’, ‘rakes’.

The very first answer knocked me sideways:

‘We need T-shirts.’


How? What? Had they misunderstood the question? The number one thing you need to clean a beach is a T-shirt? Why on earth?

But the nodding heads around the room told me they were absolutely serious.

The problem, I came shortly to realise, was this.

Although they had carried out numerous beach clean-ups and other activities in the past – they had always had sponsorship from overseas donors to carry out the events. And donors need evidence to show how money was spent, and evidence of things done. They need visibility. Also pictures of happy African kids. Also the budget has to be spent by the end of the quarter. So let’s have a big flashy event! Lots of photos with the aid agency logo visible! What could be better than lots of people and cute happy kids in T-shirts splashed with your logo? And a clean beach! Fantastic! Everybody have a cookie!

But what happens next? Here we had a workshop full of people brimming with concern about environmental degradation, dedicated to taking action, giving up all their free time to the cause… but feeling completely unable to implement any activities to do something about it until someone would come along to pay for it.  They want nothing more than to organise clean-ups monthly, or even weekly, but they can’t afford T-shirts, so it can’t be done.

The thing is – a T-shirt is a shortcut. Poverty in Zanzibar means that people in rural villages typically subsist on less than a dollar a day. Keeping your family adequately clothed is a huge challenge, and one new t-shirt represents a few days’ income (if you even have a job). Giving out T-shirts amounts to a substantial incentive to participate. And this means no further encouragement of less tangible benefits is required, everyone will be there with bells on. Huge turnout! Job well done!

The reality is that in rural communities, people often tolerate litter and dirt because they have never been taught that there are costs. In addition (though it is slowly changing) there is essentially no waste collection service and nowhere to take it. Exactly what are people supposed to do with their rubbish except leave it on the beach?

A friend of mine who has a hotel in the same village told me a similar story. Adjacent to his beach hotel is a small patch of indigenous woodland. The community had been using it as a waste dump and causing both he and his guests some distress. To reach out to his neighbours he offered them a little money to clean the waste and take it away, and they did so with alacrity. The next day, however, he woke aghast to find the place full of rubbish again and the villagers knocking at the door, asking for money to clean it again.

It comes down to finding the right incentives. When people are poor, creating jobs seems an obvious solution. But when you examine it from an economic perspective, if you pay people (or give them T-shirts) to clean the beach, you are telling them that the resource they have which is worth something, that is valuable, is a dirty beach. Hold your big clean-up, give out T-shirts, or pay neighbours – whatever. There is no incentive whatsoever to actually keep it clean. Far better, surely, to ensure it gets dirty again quickly so people will come sooner with more T-shirts and more jobs.

And when you go away, the people like JAMABECO who do care, very much, about the state of the environment, are left feeling they can do nothing about it.

So how can we do better?

Back in my workshop, we spent the next days focussing on alternative motivation techniques. We had breakout sessions – Imagine you’re speaking to a mother, a teacher, a hotel owner – why should they care? What are the benefits of a clean beach? Forget about marine biodiversity or the baby birds starving on oceanic islands thousands of miles away. Those things matter of course, hugely, but to whom?

Keep it locally relevant. Talk to people about what actually matters to them, day-to-day.  Talk to mothers about the health of their children – if there are dirty nappies (diapers) on the beach where you are also collecting shellfish to feed your family, they’ll get sick. If fishing is your livelihood, and there is plastic in the ocean, fish will eat it, it blocks their guts and they will die. If you work in a hotel with a dirty beach, tourists will be disgusted and will leave, so support your community initiative to clean the beach, lend them wheelbarrows, buy gloves, let them wash their hands in your hotel afterwards. Breathing fumes from burning plastic increases risk of diseases like cancer and lung disease. Top tip: if you really want to pull the emotional heartstrings, stress links to impotence and infertility.

And do you know what? It worked.

The volunteer peer-to-peer educator team went out and spent the next few weeks introducing ideas of environment and sustainability into new communities, and, armed only with information about the locally-relevant dangers posed by pollution, motivated enormous participation in the clean-up events. Literally thousands of people turned out to participate, and collected several tonnes of waste, and were offered no incentive other than knowledge of why it would be worth it.

And it wasn’t a one-off: the new communities formed environment clubs, committees and NGOs themselves. Clean-ups became monthly and in one community even a weekly event.

And do you know what else happened?  A few months later JAMABECO invited me to attend a beach clean-up event in a community in the north of the island, outside the remit of our partnership and not in the budget. They were so fulfilled by the success of the new approach, so proud of themselves and empowered by their new-found skills, that they funded and organised it themselves.

Yes, this approach is more complicated, and yes, it takes longer and you’ve got all that cash that has to be spent by the end of the reporting period… But bribery-by-T-shirt as a sole-incentive fosters dependence, inhibits creativity, demotivates and disempowers. It misses the point.

As it happens, I have to admit that our project was donor-funded, so – though we kept it top secret till after our successful clean-up events – they got a T-shirt too.

White British man tells white Irish man to ‘shut up and listen’ to the Africans

White British man tells white Irish man to ‘shut up and listen’ to the Africans published on No Comments on White British man tells white Irish man to ‘shut up and listen’ to the Africans

In the light of the G8 meeting and some seriously concerning international ‘aid’ policy in Africa, there have been few vocal voices of criticism, and as so often, it has been good to see (well actually pretty sickening to read, but it needs to be said) George Monbiot’s eloquent and well-argued polemic throwing light on some of the duplicitous trade negotiations recently made between G8 countries and African countries.

However, while I agree with the point he is making in his latest article criticising Bono ‘and others like him’ for dominating the conversation about Africa in international discourse, it does seem a little hypocritical.

I have heard the same complaint again and again: that Bono and others like him have seized the political space which might otherwise have been occupied by the Africans about whom they are talking. Because Bono is seen by world leaders as the representative of the poor, the poor are not invited to speak. This works very well for everyone – except them.

Says a white British man.

Monbiot continues:

There is a well-known if dubious story that claims that at a concert in Glasgow Bono began a slow hand-clap. He is supposed to have announced: “Every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa dies.” Whereupon someon in the audience shouted: “Well fucking stop doing it then.” It’s good advice, and I wish he’d take it.

George – I applaud your thesis, and thank you for bringing attention to these issues, so please keep it up – but – could you perhaps use your privileged platform to give a louder voice to some of the African activists who you have been listening to, and direct your readers’ attention to some of this African commentary to which you are privy?

I for one would like to hear what they have to say.

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