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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Tanzanian media seek reprieve in war on press freedom

Podcast interviewing several prominent members of the Tanzanian media, including Zephania Ubwani, Jonathon Njaidi and Rotlinde Achimpota. It addresses the current state of press freedom in the East African nation, focusing on recent events like the state shutdown of the print outlet Mwananchi, and recent tabled amendments to further discourage reporters from covering matters of political or religious substance.

First broadcast for Speak Magazine.

Coca-Cola shuts the stable door on land-grabbing

The horses have been gone for years, the stable owner and his family are long dead, and the stable itself is barely standing… but Coca-Cola has finally taken the first steps toward a gossamer thread of responsibility for its decades of land-grabbing throughout the developing world. More details can be found via The Guardian here, and a full list of commitments can be found via Oxfam here.

Perhaps Coca-Cola’s executive staff was feeling humbled after being surpassed by Apple as the world’s biggest company a month ago. It might be the increasingly problematic association with globally communal iconography like the Olympic rings. Or maybe they feel guilty for the dangerous and grotesque derangement of nutritional logic that is their “A Calorie is a Calorie” campaign. (See here, here, here, or do a google search for more evidence and information).

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Whatever the impetus, surely Coke’s new strategy of oversight, even if only ostensible, is a great and wondrous thing. Countless millions will be protected from past vulnerabilities. But lets hold onto our commendations for the nonce. that isn’t the sand in the human rights craw. What should bother the conscientious and intellectually honest about Coke’s about-face, is the rigorous pretense of conviction and philanthropy of its new investigative face — which serves to mask what should be a clear and blatant history of malfeasance by the soft drink giant.

A history of displacement from traditional lands, sweeping tens of millions over the decades, at an extremely conservative approximation, into derelict refugee camps and desperate poverty. A history of environmental destruction. A history of strong-arming the disadvantaged from accessing our most valuable and guaranteed resource: water, and through its denial, a history of mass-murder.

Coke is treating its blood-stained past as a bygone indiscretion, yet its land-grabbing is still as unimpeded as ever.This is an issue of justice. Coke doesn’t deserve to sweep its history, so much blacker than the diabetes-inducing contents of its bottles, under the rug just because they say they’ll stop doing bad things. And we shouldn’t let them.

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.