Lengo: a worthy goal

ARUSHA – Hope can be hard to come by for children in Sub-Saharan Africa, but one Tanzanian man has gone back to his profoundly impoverished village to help its kids find and seize opportunities for a better future.

Emanuel Saakai, 29, says he’s using sports to motivate and inspire the next generation.

He founded ‘Lengo’ Academy one year ago, taking the Swahili word for ‘goal’ to teach the children of Ngaramtoni village to approach their dreams with the same tenacity they use while charging forward on the soccer field.

Saakai teaching children in Ngaramtoni

Saakai teaching children in Ngaramtoni

Saakai thinks there’s a lack of appreciation for the power of team sports to work against poverty and bring people together.

“A lot of people take these opportunities for granted. For them it’s a normal thing. But when you come to an area where people struggle even to get a pair of shoes, then they will welcome that opportunity with both hands. It’s all about knowing what’s important about that particular thing. If you establish an institute somewhere people don’t need it, it’s like pouring water on dirty land. It’s mud – it’s wasted,” he says.

Saakai started Lengo as a passion project. He wanted to provide the boys in his village with opportunities he never had, just to play soccer – Saakai’s parents couldn’t even afford to buy him basic shoes, and they used rolled up clothes for a ball. With the help of his wife Tracey Sawyer and her fundraising contacts in Australia, Lengo has already grown beyond his initial vision,  invigorating and involving the entire village in less than a year. He says they’ve become much more active in school and even the very young have begun to take part in community activism.

“It’s getting bigger and bigger every day – it’s now beyond my imagination. But I always had the feeling that these boys, these young people, needed such an institute that would develop them. But I didn’t know it would catch on this quick, especially in this area with so many who have nothing,” says Saakai.

One of the kids he works with, Amisi, is fifteen years old and living on his own since his mother disappeared. He says he can afford to eat only once every one or two days, and has to walk over two hours to and from school each day.

“I feel ashamed to ask for anything, so I work as much as I can to cover basic needs,” he says. Amisi is closer to the rule than the exception for the community that Saakai works with.

Akili, sight-challenged boy in Ngaramtoni, sponsored and coached by Saakai.

Akili, sight-challenged boy in Ngaramtoni, sponsored and coached by Saakai.

Akili was born with an impairment in his right eye, and has great difficulty playing soccer, which he says is his favourite thing in the world. Saakai has worked to give him special coaching, and now Akili is an important part of the team. Saakai and Sawyer have used their fundraising sources through Lengo to bring Akili to Austria to get eye surgery – they just arrived there last week.

“This amazing opportunity… this is going to change his life in general. Without these things, without Lengo football academy, then nothing would happen for him,” says Saakai.

He believes the Lengo Academy project is about the future more than anything else. He says the children he works with will go forward from Lengo with hopeful, confident attitudes leading them to seize every opportunity in life.

“Most of the boys by then will be fathers, with their own families and their own kids. So in that way they’ll be working somewhere as sports people, as teachers, as lawyers and so on,” Saakai says.

“I think these boys will be in a situation that, without Lengo, they wouldn’t have been. And even their boys will be getting involved in football, and getting involved in good upbringings because their parents will be having that.”

Saakai and Sawyer recently produced a documentary on Lengo Academy, and are beginning to work collaboratively with other NGOs like Yes! Tanzania to increase positive impacts on community development. They hope Lengo can one day help kids to learn life skills and lift themselves out of poverty across Tanzania, and beyond.

First published for Speak Magazine.

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African youth fight poverty through education

“I believe that this young, brave and educated generation can make change in society and make the world a better place,” says Tanzanian Eric Lucas, 17.

ARUSHA – We know traditional methods of aid-based development don’t work. We know we can’t throw money at problems in developing and conflict-affected countries, or go in and lecture to communities how the future ought to look, and expect socioeconomic improvement.  We know we need to work toward building capacities.

The School of St. Jude, a small charity-run institution in the small Tanzanian suburb of Moshono, has been working for thirteen years to demonstrate this fact, and Lucas is one of the young men and women whose inspiring lives serve as evidence.

Eric Lucas, St. Jude's student and founder of AfricaMoja Youth Society.

Eric Lucas, St. Jude’s student and founder of AfricaMoja Youth Society.

Last year Lucas founded the Africamoja Youth Society, a youth-led organization that works to empower kids throughout East Africa and beyond to pursue education opportunities and become active in their communities to effect positive change. With nearly one hundred members including eighty-six in Arusha, their  motto is “with youth we can change the world”.

“I see some of the benefits we have already achieved. I’ve got a lot of youth and they have also realized themselves that they can make changes,” Lucas says.

“The youth have also come to a solution where they can think positively about their lives, toward their family, toward their country, and the activities they can do to help their society to solve health problems and education problems.”

Lucas is just one of many inspiring success stories to come out of St. Jude’s. Established in 2002, they painstakingly select the most deeply impoverished kids from the local community who demonstrate a strong will and aptitude to learn, and have strongly committed families who can support their children to make the best of the opportunities the school offers.

It all started with a young Australian idealist named Gemma Sisia, who set out for Uganda after she finished university to teach at a private school. She says it was a wonderful and transformative experience, but she was frustrated by its exclusivity.

“When you’re young and you’re under twenty-five you think you’re infallible and you know it all, and everything is going to be alright,” Sisia says.

“I thought, why wasn’t there a good quality private school that’s free of charge? Why do you always have to have a lot of money to send your kids there?”

She married a Tanzanian, whose father, the village elder, suggested she bring her skills as an educator to bear in their local community of Moshono. He offered her several acres of land to get started, and she began fundraising back home to start buying bricks.

She started the school with just one volunteer to help teach, and a big obstacle – how to choose which kids to give the gift of education, with extremely limited resources.

“When I first got here I, like most people, got off the plane and just wanted to help poor peoples. Then you go, croiky, everyone looks poor…  we have a duty to our sponsors and donors that we use the precious donations that they send to us in the best way possible, and in the most efficient and fair way possible,” says Sisia.

“They have to be poor, but they have to actually want an education”.

Over the months and years she developed a rigorous process to evaluate not just potential students, but also their families. They do random checks of family homes throughout the school year to ensure that not only the kids learning at St. Jude’s are maintaining academic commitment, but that their families are as well.

Eric Lucas attributes every one of his achievements and the entirety of his future potential to the life skills he learned at St. Jude’s, where he enrolled at age seven.

“If I hadn’t gone to St. Jude’s I think my life would be mess. I would not be here, I would not be speaking to you today. St. Jude’s has helped me a lot with my personal issues, my community issues, my family issues. St. Jude’s has prepared me to stand, and I think in the future it will prepare many Tanzanians who will bring changes.”

He’ll graduate to tertiary education in two years, and is excited to go to university to study accounting. No matter what he does in the future, he plans to continue developing Africa Moja and improving the lives of his fellow Tanzanian youth.

Since the School of St. Jude began they’ve educated 1,676 students, sixty-one of which will be part of St. Jude’s first graduating class next year, a major milestone for Gemma.

The youngest kids at St. Jude’s show as much excitement and hope for the future as those about to graduate – they understand what a great opportunity they’ve been given, and the responsibilities that come with it in a country where everyone supports their family as much as they support themselves.

“Thank you very much. Our life, for sure is very difficult. But now when we grow up we will become someone, and we will help our families,” says Magreth Joshua, an eleven year-old student.

“I would not have been able to get an education without St. Jude’s,” says Joshua Blasio, an eight-year old boy at St. Jude’s.

They both say they want to become engineers after they complete their education at St. Jude’s, and beam optimism.

The motto at the School of St. Jude is “Fighting Poverty Through Education”. If young rising stars of community activism like Eric Lucas are any indication, it’s a winning battle.

St. Jude's Campus

First published for Speak Magazine.

Rallies for the resurrected line pockets of the pious

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Pastor Josephat Gwagima is an internationally renowned Christian preacher who holds rallies and markets his message throughout Africa, Europe and North America. He told this reporter with exuberance he is the wealthiest preacher in all of Tanzania, perhaps all of Africa, and demonstrates this fact by his ownership of a private helicopter, several houses and a fleet of hummers and other high-end SUVs.

Last month he began his first ever series of open air rallies in his home country of Tanzania. He’s doing nine of them, lasting about two weeks each. His first began in Arusha, considered the de facto capital of East Africa by many.

On the first night he paraded four people whom he claims died, and were then resurrected by his divine powers. Tens of thousands showed up to behold his gifts and messages, bearing gifts of their own — hard currency to prove their faith and devotion.

First published for Speak Magazine.

The human cost of poaching

“We will die. My family and I will die. We cannot live without elephants,” said Godfrey Mashaka, a local safari driver.

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ARUSHA – The safari capital has blown up with controversy since tourism and natural resource minister Khamis Kagasheki warned poachers they could be shot on sight, without trial. Media houses from the East to the West took understandably negative views toward such Draconian measures, and human rights advocates within Tanzania spoke out against the sentiment, citing guarantees of basic human rights, and instances when legitimate hunters have been gunned down by mistake.

Arusha is the safari capital of the world, but is also historically a capital for the progress of social justice and human rights in Africa as the site of the eponymous Accords, Treaty and Declaration – so it should not be surprising that it is now host to such an intense struggle between the right to life for endangered animals, and that of poachers.Environmental and wildlife advocates have maintained that poaching must be stopped at all costs, before elephants and rhinos are lost forever – and some find the law powerless to stop poachers mowing them down for their valuable ivory. Kagasheki made this point to the Arusha times, saying “court cases against poachers take very long and sometimes the culprits get acquitted.” Efforts like the global ‘Walk for Elephants’ and ‘March for Elephants’ have endeavoured to raise awareness, but the problem persists. Others have gone in quite different directions, such as seeking options for removing ivory from elephants without killing them.

There is a striking omission in the discourse.

Safari tourism accounts for the majority of Arusha’s economy, which is poor even among Tanzanian cities, and for hundreds of guides, drivers, porters, cooks and organizers it is the only source of their income. The economic benefits of safari tourism play the biggest role in putting food on plates for tens of thousands more.

It is held as a self-evident truth in the West that all men are entitled to a fair trial, and most in Arusha agree – but it’s another matter for those directly threatened by encroaching poachers and dwindling wildlife populations.

“I agree with what the minister of natural resources said. Poachers, they should shoot,” said Mashaka.

He echoed sentiments shared by many, who see poaching as an affront to more than just wildlife diversity in Tanzania – for those in the business, the illegal ivory hunters of Ngorongoro, the Serengeti and other parks and robbing them of their livelihood.

“Our country depends on tourism sectors. So if they’re going to kill all the elephants, it means we can’t get any tourists in our country,” Mashaka said.

Enough share Mashaka’s position that their own rights to life must also be counted, and considered in the debate. Enough that international spectators should refrain from holding court over those with regrettably violent attitudes, at least in lieu of any alternative.

“It’s a hopeless situation,” said Peter Degera, director for another safari company. “All life is sacred. But poachers can’t be prosecuted.”

In his experience, the Tanzania Elephant Management plan’s estimate of vanishing elephants by 2015 is optimistic.

“As they vanish, those who depend on them will see misery, and more misery.”

There is no excuse or justification for taking anyone’s life. But understanding why it happens may be the first step toward solution.

First published for Speak Magazine.