Yogurt (Yoghurt?)

I have no idea how to actually spell yogurt.

Our program director, Bob, is in Mwanza until Thursday. He’s here to meet with our various partners and discuss with them about making the yogurt kitchen network more accountable and work better in light of recent changes in funding and whatnot. There was a lot of translating involved in the meetings today, so I’m still hazy on it all.

We set out this morning to visit two of the yogurt kitchens that Western Heads East and the yogurt mamas (yes yogurt mamas, not a typo just a lovely and fitting title for these amazing women) have started and worked with. Tukomone, the first kitchen, was one of the first and is probably eleven or twelve years old by now. The mamas were welcoming, wonderful, and very happy to see Bob; his last visit to Mwanza was eighteen months ago. There are a lot of politics surrounding the kitchens and leadership because of a series of events and a court case in the past few years, so how to come out of that with a strong leadership and training apparatus was an exhausted topic. I’ve always admired Bob and his philosophy with Western Heads East. The goal is sustainability for the kitchens and making sure that the mamas don’t depend on WHE, Western University, the interns, Bob, or the West as a whole. In practice, I still admire it but I have to admit that it’s frustrating. Talking to Bob while the mamas and our translator discussed in Swahili (Celestine has been involved with the kitchens in the past and is a wonderful translator), I found myself wanting to talk to him what we should do and why. I even tried to suggest some things, suggestions that Bob took graciously and then proceeded to ask the mamas what they wanted to do. Reflecting on this now, I realize that I just did exactly what I love Bob for not doing. It’s so easy to assume that I know best, and as an ‘educated’ third party looking objectively from the outside (yet still somewhat invested as an intern) I automatically start to diagnose and prescribe.

But this is so wrong. I know it’s wrong, yet I still wanted to tell the yogurt mamas what they should do.

I’ve already seen that our Tanzanian partners tend to look to us interns for direction or expertise, even when we really don’t have any expertise in that given area. We were chatting with some ex-pats about this yesterday, actually. Westerners are often looked to as the more knowledgeable, from our experience and from Helen and Kate’s experiences as well (Helen and Kate are the lovely ladies that we met yesterday). Western Heads East has striven to hand back confidence, ownership, and power to the local populations. The yogurt mamas at Tukomone told us that they have gained confidence, first and foremost, because of the kitchen. They now have a way to gain an income. This income can feed their families, send their children to school, contribute to their husbands’ incomes, and even get them out of unhealthy situations like domestic violence.

What I’m trying to get at is that this yogurt program isn’t just something I’m looking at objectively to see how sustainable, efficient, and accountable it is. It isn’t something that I can evaluate as a third party and start barking orders. It isn’t even something I can waltz into and start making suggestions about how a leadership body should operate in order to be effective and foster fairness. We’re talking about the livelihood of these yogurt mamas. These kitchens have brought these women and their families out of poverty in some cases, and has given them the confidence to become women in business. That is nothing short of amazing.

All of the women I met today are amazing. They are hardworking, diplomatically minded, experienced, well-versed in their unique context, and more than qualified to create a network that they can work with and benefit from. They have all experienced issues with accountability and greed in the yogurt kitchen network, and are beginning to take steps to repair what has been hurt and rebuild the network of probiotic yogurt kitchens. One of our projects as interns this summer is to start a yogurt kitchen at St. Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT); there’s potential that the university might become an organization and training nucleus for the yogurt kitchen network. But even that is not up to us, it’s up to the mamas and the SAUT administration to see what fits best.

I can do my work and then leave. These women will remain in this context and with the decisions that are made and the apparatuses that are put in place. Naturally, they should be the ones making the decisions and taking leadership.

I’ve always admired Bob for seeing that. Now I have a completely new appreciation for that.

Our time at Tukomone and at another kitchen (I’m not sure what this one was called) gave me an appreciation for the yogurt mamas that is beyond what I even expected. They are selling yogurt to the people of their communities, mainly as meal supplements, and have become important members of their communities, of the yogurt kitchen network, and in Mwanza. The municipal government in Mwanza gives each kitchen 1 million Tanzanian shillings per month for the work they do. They are being recognized by local government bodies and have come very far from where they started. They can handle this.

Maybe I just need to learn as much as I can and try to do what I’m told. If all else fails, I’m another pair of willing hands.

Holy rambling, Batman. Tomorrow we head to SAUT to talk with the Vice-Chancellor about the kitchen on campus, and whether or not they’d be interested in being a leadership entity for the network. And we’re heading to Education for Better Living to see the school and talk about the project there. EBLI works with young mothers, more on that later I’m sure!

Here’s to way cool women, way cool men, and a way tired me.

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