Tanzania has changed my life!

Moshi, Tanzania.
It’s a world much different than mine.
People move at a different pace.
They stop and listen.
If you announce that a family member is ill, they want to know how long, what did they eat and how you plan to treat them.
In my world,the response is “sorry, hope they feel better soon.”
In their world, the pace of walking is much more sensible.
In Moshi, when you stroll, there’s a better chance of running into a friend or spotting a child that’s gotten out of earshot from it’s family.

I’ve volunteered with CCS in Tanzania twice.

My first visit was a just-got-laid-off and I’m-ready-to-try-something-different excursion. I couldn’t have landed in a better place. The assignment was a partnership made in heaven.

Mkombozi Women’s Group had been meeting for more than five years when I received the placement. The micro-loan cooperative consisted of mamas living within a one mile radius of the CCS home. At 24 members strong, I was slightly intimidated by such a well-organized group. They started on their own — without assistance of a commercial bank. It was pretty simple. Loans start at small amounts. Each mama sets aside a little cash each week and brings it to weekly meetings, in order to invest back into the group.

When a loan is assumed, interest is very low. There’s no advantage placing a mama at risk to default, and the community knows it. Two friends must “co-sign” (it’s what we would call it), but really it’s a safety net that means liability is split three ways, instead of just one.

My job was to bring both English and business education to Mkombozi. In all honesty, they were the teachers, and I was the student.

Our eight weeks together was better than my wildest dreams. We truly taught each other. I loved the patience the mamas showed me. It wasn't about reaching a certain goal. It was about sharing our lives each day. In case we learned new vocabulary or a better way of growing crops — all the better. Accomplishments were celebrated with families and included dancing, singing and occasionally, banana beer.

My most recent visit was shorter. This time, I had only three weeks with Mkombozi. And though I knew some Western culture accompanied me, I came with a goal.

I’m a four-time cancer survivor and as a result of numerous surgeries, I was an often recipient of medical drains. The drains are unsightly, and must be worn from two to six weeks post surgery. They dangle from the patient’s anatomy — tethered by a tube. It’s not only uncomfortable, but no one wants to view the vile fluid that sits in the drain.
I discovered that aprons, worn by waiters at restaurants, are a pretty-good solution. Ugly drains can be tucked into apron pockets, and no one’s the wiser.

What if the aprons were constructed of exotic and colorful fabrics? Even better, what if the aprons were sewn by women in Africa, who were members of a micro-loan cooperative?

I floated the idea with the CCS staff and fellow alumni volunteers. They said yes, and by the time I arrived three weeks later, the mamas were ready to begin the business.

We had so much fun! The fabric had bold, beautiful patterns printed on Tanzania-made kitanges — which are lengths of cotton material about one yard by one-and-one-half yards. Sewing was conducted on a treadle machine - allowing each mama to take a turn at being seamstress.

In just two weeks, Mkombozi produced 40 spectacular aprons.

A single Facebook post resulted in all 40 aprons being sold in about 12 hours. Actually more than 40 aprons sold. A wait-list for the item had to be started, and individuals began ordering three or four at a time. The first round netted 400,000 TZ shillings, or about $220 US, for Mkombozi.

In the town of Moshi, an art gallery owner ordered 100 aprons and paid cash in advance.

Mkombozi is now a business, as well as a micro loan finance group.

The mamas increased their financial resources, allowing them to pay school fees, buy more farming materials and improve their living conditions. And, they feel so proud of their skills. The project opened the door to other endeavors and increased their understanding of business models.

The question is - will I return? Of course. A volunteer experience this rich is a lifetime opportunity. Mkombozi, and Moshi, has changed my life. And I think I’ve changed the life of Mkombozi.

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