Speaking with a Veteran

You start out with zero. Then God adds a one in front of it. And then the rest of your life you keep adding zeros; 10, 100, 1000. This is what I learned from Bernard Makachia today.

I learned a lot.

Nuri and I left around 9:00 this morning and made our way to EBLI. We weren’t really sure what the agenda was, but this week is a week for work. We went and found Bernard in his office. We showed him the graduation video that Iris had made, and spent some time trying to upload the video to EBLI’s Facebook page (to no avail, apparently we don’t own the rights to Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent”). We then sat down with some chai and discussed Nuri’s project. She’s going to evaluate the three programs that EBLI has (the secondary school for young mothers, the computer and business skills program, and the school-based program run at the local school), and see where the gaps are. We’re hoping to interview the young mothers, observe how everything is run, and assess what needs are not being met.

Or something like that.

Bernard himself doesn’t care how we do things. As long as he gets a short report at the end of our time here detailing how the programs can be improved and how feedback that we amassed can be used and included in EBLI’s coming proposal in the fall. We chatted about these things, and the theme kept shifting to gaps that Bernard has seen. Problems that he’s run into.

Like young mothers that have graduated and have been forced to turn to soliciting sex in order to provide for themselves and their children (Bernard stressed that this was the norm). Like how to teach graduates to create their own businesses and generate incomes in their own homes. Like funding. Like contraceptives being produced elsewhere in the world and exported into East Africa, causing the prices to be more than people can afford.

Bernard is the director of Education for Better Living (EBLI) [http://ebliorg.weebly.com/] and also runs Foundation Karibu Tanzania (FKT) [https://www.facebook.com/foundationkaributz/], an organization that rehabilitates tortured and abused children and reintegrates them into their homes. FKT also has a counselling branch that provides counselling for the parents of these abused children. Bernard is wise, contemplative, nurturing, and experienced in non-profit work. He is interested in helping others above all else. He has inspirational quotes and anecdotes all over his office, all about helping others and thriving in your own context.

Bernard is also tired, disillusioned, and angry.

He is tired of seeing young mothers with no options. He is tired of investing in young women and then seeing them become victims of rape and reduced to poverty. He is tired of nurturing tortured children back to health, only to bring them back to poverty at home. He asked us what one person is to do, help children, or work to alleviate poverty? We didn’t have an answer.

He is disillusioned, he shared with us. He feels like a single drop in an ocean. His efforts aren’t helping, and no one is interested in creating lasting, real change. He told Nuri and I that the best thing we could do for him was find a crazy guy that is interested in helping him make real, tangible change. Bernard would like to partner with someone as crazy as himself. He realizes he’s screaming in a silent forest; does anyone but the trees hear?

Bernard shared with us that he is angry at the donor community. He is tired of sitting with outstretched hands. He is upset every time an organization has been brought back to square one because its funding has been relinquished (he gave us a few examples of organizations that Western Heads East has worked with in the past). Nobody in the donor community wants to invest, he said. They give money and then stop. They make Africa worse off than before. It’s not sustainable, the way things are now. It’s not working.

He explained that in Rwanda, the government gave each household a cow. The government subsidized sheet metal roofs to replace thatched roofs. The people were invested in. They were given resources to invest and thrive on. Rwanda is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa (if I’m not mistaken) and is the most developed in East Africa. The Rwandan Genocide was just over two decades ago; the country went from a divided, hostile space to a thriving, cohesive nation. Because the government decided to invest in the people. And invest in the long-term.

Aid doesn’t do that. I know that. I’m a student of International Relations. I study this. I love studying this stuff, as upset as it makes me feel sometimes. Foreign aid has been an industry ever since the 1980s. Money has flooded into African countries since even before that.

Africa as a continent is also rich in resources. Mwanza itself has numerous goldmines. But no one in Mwanza sees that gold. The world of foreign aid and international development also tends to perpetuate poverty even as it looks to alleviate it. We have created dependent states and peoples that must export all of their wealth in order to receive unsustainable, insufficient funds, loans, services, and material aid. This hasn’t changed because the organizations, countries, and individuals that are providing the aid are benefiting.

Nuri and I know this. Bernard knows this.

I almost cried as I listened to Bernard speak, though. It’s one thing to read about this. It’s one thing to discuss perpetual poverty and sustainable development in class. It’s another thing to sit across from someone and have him tell you that he’s tired of Africans not having a chance.

This is a man that has seen hundreds of young mothers graduate and become owners of their own bodies and futures again. This is someone who is so troubled with young women who can’t read and write that he has devoted his life to teaching them how. This is the man that created an organization that has rehabilitated 300 children that have been horribly abused, and has had only five children who have returned to the centre because they were abused again.

Bernard is an astounding person. The few times I’ve met with him and spoken with him, I have soaked up his wise words and his father-like demeanor (w.c.). He has come so far, from a 10-year-old out on his own in Kenya, to a director of two organizations that help dozens of Tanzanians every single day. He has accomplished so much. The young mothers at the EBLI graduation had so much love for him, the man who has devoted his life to giving them a second chance. I have so much admiration for Bernard.

Nuri and I didn’t know what to tell him. We couldn’t share that the reason resources are being chronically exported out of Africa is because of power politics and stronger nations dictating the world order. We couldn’t tell him that our chances are so much higher of succeeding simply because we’re born in a different country (he knows this, and told us as much). We couldn’t bring ourselves to offer much to the conversation.

Bernard wants investment. Not hand-outs. Not one-time donations. He is a seasoned grassroots development worker. He is an advocate for women’s and children’s rights, and realizes the need for these populations to have options (women that have incomes can send their children to school; this keeps being reiterated to me and it’s really making an impression). Bernard wants someone to help set up a loan system for young mothers to create businesses. He would like someone to give funds for a greenhouse so that income can be generated and invested for organizations.

He wants real change. And realizes that in this world, only crazy people truly want to make that happen.

Because he’s tried and thinks he’s failing.

I write this and tears well in my eyes. This morning has shifted my views, and has made some of my convictions more urgent and real.

But I’m also only one drop in an ocean.

But, on the other hand, God has added His ‘one’ to my life. I can add zeros, that’s all. But zeros with a one in front can amount to quite a bit, at the end of the day. I just still have to figure out what to do with those zeros.

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