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Building home and friendship in Africa

By Safina Center Kalpana Launchpad Fellow Kate Thompson

As we wrap up a month of work in Tanzania, I wanted to send out another update (and note how much I’m dreading leaving the 90-degree sunshine to return home to Long Island’s somber winter).

We’ve been able to address a lot of the concern’s our staff voiced in our meetings. We ordered new shelves for the office to aid in organization and record keeping. We’ve supplied all our agricultural staff with new rubber boots. We were able to repair and expand our cow shelter, so that our new baby cow has more room.

All of our area Kigongoni (and most of Tanzania) is waiting for the short rains. Because there has been no rains during this crucial planting period, there are rampant water shortages and food prices are skyrocketing. We’re in the process of purchasing an additional irrigated farm; this way we can grow and sell our own maize rather than wait at the mercy of market shortages and price fluctuations. We’ve experienced increasingly worrying water shortages on site, and this week I was able to fund the repair and reconnection of our tank & plumbing to the municipal water source. We’re waiting for the work to be completed, but we expect our drinking water to be fully running again (a huge relief for all of us).

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Last week we met with several different focal groups in Mto wa Mbu (widows and single parents, sex workers, street venders dependent on the tourist industry, Masaai elders etc). We listened to their main concerns and perspectives on the issues facing the community, and they gave us their assessment of our potential programs. We discussed all our plans with the village government, who are on board. It’s this community outreach that I’m truly most excited about; we are the first children’s home in the region to attempt to reach beyond being simply a children’s home. In conducting an ongoing conversation with the community, we can work towards an active partnership that truly addresses their needs and priorities.

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So most of our time recently has been taken up with meetings and waiting for meetings (that’s quite often the longest part). We spend several hours in the dust, under acacia trees and verandahs waiting for officials (who may never come) to arrive. But we still had ample time with the kids (which makes everything else worth it). We’ve purchased HDMI cables so we can share wildlife documentaries with them. David Attenborough has been a hit! The wonderful thing is that watching wildlife rarely requires translation. We’ve also launched a pen pal program with Ivy League Middle School in Long Island. I had no idea how excited our kids would be to receive letters, and they have been thoroughly educated on Starbucks, Snapchat, and all manner of American preteen traditions and taboos. They’re loved writing their own stories and decorating letters in response. They’ve especially loved the pictures many of the American students sent with their letters, and proudly show off their “new American friends.” I’m really excited for how this partnership will grow over time!
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I hosted a staff dinner last weekend (our first in a new tradition) to thank the people whose tireless effort makes all our work possible. For all our staff that wipe running noses and help with homework and wipe away tears from a tumble in the sand. For the guy who has to chase our cows around when they comically lope across the yard and through the hanging laundry. Without our incredible team here, there would both literally and metaphorically be “no Amani, no peace.”

I feel our biggest accomplishment has been writing a memorandum of understanding between the Amani Foundation and Amani Children’s Home–we’ve formed a formal and permanent partnership. The Tanzanian Team has invited and recognized my co-directorship (which is a terrifying amount of responsibility). I’ve been joking that as soon as Tanzania allows duel citizenship, we can be an all-Tanzanian operation. Perhaps the biggest accomplishment isn’t so much that we’ve orchestrated this legal document and process but that everyone truly felt comfortable with it.

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I’ve pestered them relentlessly, asking about their feelings, thoughts and needs. I just read this section to our site manager to ask if it was okay and he laughed as said “Yes Kate, it’s okay. It’s O.K.” I’m so concerned about being intrusive or Neo-colonial, which he finds hilarious given all our work together. Today we’re going to pick up a Tanzanian flag for the office.

The Tanzanians are confident and excited, which makes me feel confident and excited. I’m heading out today, which is upsetting for me beyond words. But I’m planning on coming back in July, to see our school to completion and watch more nat geo wildlife marathons under the chatter of songbirds and whirr of savannah insects. We’re hoping to launch a community wide children’s wildlife education program. And I’ll definitely bringing sunblock next time.

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Kalpana Launchpad Fellow Kate Thompson will use her fellowship to start programs that educate orphaned children in Tanzania about the living world that is their heritage, but that few Tanzanians can afford to think about or experience. She’ll also show and translate nature documentaries to the local community in hopes of sparking a dialogue about wildlife and conservation at the front lines of human-wildlife conflict. Kate is 24 years old and pursuing a PhD in anthropology.