Serendipity – or How to Get Things Done in Africa

Well, I must say it was a very promising day.

Bright and early, I hopped the dalla dalla into town to meet with my Big Project partner, Thomas. The Big Project, as I call it, is the Oldonya Sambu Primary School project. We are working to put a roof on the existing structure, and little by little finish the classrooms (2) and teacher’s office (1). Further goals have been set on this project as well, but these are the initial steps.

The goal of today was to flush out the budget to see what we are really talking about in terms of materials. We had been shopping around various parts of town for the last couple of days in search of the best deals, but hadn’t really made much headway. Thomas had found a store on the far end of town late Tuesday afternoon that seemed to have good prices, so we were headed there to do some serious price shopping.

After I got off the dalla dalla – one stop too far, of course…it’s so hard to see when you’re packed with 20 people in a minivan! — Thomas and I started walking toward the hardware store. We made it all of 20 feet, if that, before Thomas stopped to talk to an older gentleman on the street who was carrying an ebony stick. When walking in Tanzania, you really can’t just make a beeline for wherever you are going, you have to stop and say hi to everyone, and if you know them, you should stop and exchange greetings for a few minutes before continuing on. So stopping to talk to someone is just a matter of course. Usually, I say my mangled “hello, how are you?” in Swahili and let whomever I am with do the talking. This time, though, the gentleman looked so familiar that I had to ask if I knew him. Sure enough, I did: he is the village chairman for the Oldonya Sambu village – the same village where the primary school is located! Just to give you an idea of how surprising this was: For my Illinois crew…it’s like seeing Duke Hebeler (Thomson Village President) sitting next to you at a Cubs game. For my NYC crew…it’s like randomly seeing someone from your hometown – however far away that is — in Times Square. I had met the village chairman in 2007 when I first gave a donation to the school…and he certainly remembered me!  He gave me big smile and a long, long handshake – “Karibu sana. Karibu sana.” (Welcome! Welcome!) He was in town for a district meeting for all of the village chairmen and the ebony stick signified his rank (he is like a town mayor in the US). Looking around, I realized there were many other distinguished looking men, all in suits or native dress, carrying similar ebony sticks. (I wonder if they all speak softly…hmmm.) We exchanged “Habari” (greetings) with the chairman, and Thomas explained to him that we were doing the “shopping” for the school project. Did I mention that we were sourcing supplies for HIS school? Yes, he seemed very pleased.

At the hardware store, Thomas and I discussed our project with the mama there who gave us a list of prices – and they were much better than the original budget! There are a few prices I am still not completely thrilled with, so we still have some shopping, negotiating and prioritizing left to do, but for the most part, I think we are in a good place.

One of the things I am trying ensure is that this is a community project — and that the community is involved in every step of this. Although we had met with the school headmaster and teachers, and the village elders (including the chairman) knew of my interest in helping, we had yet to discuss the project in detail with the village chairman. So after Thomas and I reviewed the price list, and realized the chairman was still talking to people on the street, we decided to take advantage of his presence and ask his opinion: “What did he think would be best to ask the community to contribute?”, “How should we proceed?”, “What ideas does he have?”. Of course, he had many.

First, I have now been officially invited to attend the next Village Board meeting…whenever that may be. I have also been invited to the village chairman’s house to meet his family and have dinner with them. He would like to call a meeting of all the members of the village to have them meet me and explain to everyone what we are trying to accomplish. He thinks several of the basic supplies: sand, gravel, bricks, and a few other items, can be sourced in the community. He will also reach out to the community to have them assist with labor. And he may know of someone with a truck who can haul it all for us. That side-of-the-street conversation alone saved about 3 weeks of arranging meetings, figuring out sourcing, and getting information. This is indeed why you stop to say hello to people on the street, and never hurry on your way here. I’m sure he said several other things that didn’t get translated for me, but one thing I know for sure: We ran into the right man!

Yep, a very promising day for sure. Now if I could just master the dalla dalla system…

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