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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

New sections on Ecologue! Check them out and let me know what you think!

New sections on Ecologue! Check them out and let me know what you think! published on No Comments on New sections on Ecologue! Check them out and let me know what you think!

I’ve been making some more changes around here, adding new sections, and am delighted to announce the new features!

Translate Ecologue

  • English not your first language? No problem – you can now translate this site! Look up and to the left and you’ll see a row of flags. Click on the one that relates to the language you prefer and the site will be translated. You can even correct any errors in the translation.
  • Please let me know how this works for you! I can change the languages available and add new ones. So let me know which you use (to make sure I keep it there), or if your language isn’t there yet, let me know in the comments and I will add it for you!


  • While we’re speaking about languages, under the Resources tab above you can now find a page of Swahili Sayings relating to the environment that you might enjoy.  Let us know in the comments if you know any more (or if you have any corrections to the translations).
  • Also under the Resources tab are some Links. I plan to expand this page with more sections and more links as time goes by, to be as useful to you as possible. So if you have any links you think should be there, or new sections to request, let me know in the comments!
  • The third page under the Resources section is Downloads – which will become a repository for all sorts of interesting materials related to the subjects I blog about – and so far includes a link to the text book I wrote with colleagues at Chumbe back in 2011. Contact me if you want the Kiswahili version!

Ecologue Shop!

  • The third exciting new feature is a shop! Help keep me blogging (and working to support Sustainable East Africa‘s projects) by visiting the new shop pages.
  • There are different ‘departments’ based on where you are shopping from. Ecologue Shop UK is here ~ and Ecologue shop DE here.Others are coming soon – see the Ecologue Shop home page for links (that you can use to shop from for now)!
  • Again – this is supposed to be useful for you, so let me know what you think and what products you’d like to see. If you already have any of the products I’ve listed, I’d love to start including some product reviews from you! So have a look around, start shopping, or follow the links to Amazon websites if you can’t find what you want here (yet).

So enjoy looking around the new features and let me know what you think!


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

Using the Power of T-shirts for good

Using the Power of T-shirts for good published on No Comments on Using the Power of T-shirts for good

If the last post showed us anything, it’s that T-shirts are more powerful in Zanzibar than you might have imagined. But this power can be used for good as well as ill, and as little as $25 can have a huge impact if spent with a little imagination.

Let me explain.

Last October, students volunteering with Sustainable East Africa (the NGO I run) helped establish an Environment Club at a local charity school, PLCI – the Prospective Learning and Charitable Institution. The student-led club was very enthusiastic, and excited to start new projects.

Christmas was approaching, and I was finding it hard in Muslim Zanzibar to get into the Christmas spirit. Specifically, I was struggling to create the Christmas spirit in my flat, as there was an almost complete absence of anything remotely Christmassy available in the shops.

I had researched techniques of upcycling soda cans, and was inspired by this instructable to get creative. I figured I was probably not the only foreigner in Zanzibar looking for a bit of Christmas spirit, so I showed the idea to a group of artistic volunteers and we came up with some designs for making Christmas decorations from soda cans. Would the PLCI environment club be interested to see if they could raise a few shillings from ‘taka taka’ (trash)? They would indeed!

So now all they needed was a few pairs of heavy duty scissors, some empty soda cans, and their imagination. A $25 donation from the Rotary Club of Zanzibar, Stone Town supplied the scissors, and with guidance from World Unite! volunteers Sabrina, Anne-Sophie and Lucas, the students got started!

And my goodness it was a success! They worked rapidly and enthusiastically, and soon turned out designs. At first they just copied the models the volunteers had made, but once they got the hang of it, they started creating new designs based on traditional henna art patterns. We took them to sell at the Cultural Arts Centre, Zanzibar, another Sustainable East Africa partner (opposite the Hamamni Baths, if you’re in Stone Town) and they sold like hot cakes.

Christmas at the cultural arts centre

We were by now only a couple of weeks from Christmas – this year we will start earlier – but in that short time, the students managed to raise over 100,000 Tanzanian shillings (around $60) – more than doubling the investment.

Their pride was amazing. These students are almost all living in extreme poverty. The minimum wage was, at the time, 70,000 shillings a month, and that’s if you have a job: unemployment is around 50%. Family size is typically at least five children. Money is scarce, and livelihood options for young people bleak. For them suddenly to have money in their pocket that they had earned for themselves was beyond imagination.

So what did they decide to spend it on?  CDs? Sweets? Sodas?

No. Not PLCI. They decided to spend it on buying school T-shirts – their school uniform – for themselves and other students.

These T-shirts were a symbol of achievement, of pride, of hope, and of identity as members of a club that had shown them for the first time that earning themselves a living could be within their reach.

For $25 investment in scissors, this is priceless.

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