Stranded

I’ve been in the UK now for over 5 weeks, after my short trip back home was extended indefinitely due to the global pandemic. Aside from the daily challenge of lockdown in the UK – which is for me mentally exhausting – my heart still yearns to be back in Moshi, Tanzania.

As most organisations and companies move to online and virtual meetings to conduct their business, I am pretty much restricted to WhatsApp messaging. My last attempt at a WhatsApp audio call during heavy rain was abysmal. The fixed line Wi-Fi connection at Kijana Kwanza runs at 3mb/second (that’s mega-bits not mega-bytes for clarification) and any virtual meeting just descends into static confusion on all sides. 4G data is available on mobile devices, but it is too expensive as a regular feature of communication.

So “meetings” run as text conversations, with all of its obvious limitations. I have attempted to make some video calls with the children and young people – I miss them so much as they are now my second family – but I’ve had to content myself with shady images and wrought smiles. We shout into the speakers of our phones but no one quite understands what the other is trying to say. Nevertheless, these few opportunities have kept me going, and at the end of each confused call, I turn away, smiling and bellowing with pride.

This separation is hardest now that the people of Moshi Town face so many challenges. There is a palpable fear amongst the population of the risks posed by Covid-19 and since few resources are available, including accurate health information, people are truly wary of what to expect. And then there are the floods, which devastated local villages that hit at the end of last month leaving over 100 households without shelter, food and basic essentials.

Whilst I have been liaising with donors and sponsors to raise the funds to respond to these crises, and many have been extraordinarily generous, I feel that I should be on the ground, supporting my counterpart, Sadath Sudi, the TZ Director of Kijana Kwanza, and the rest of the staff and volunteer team in Tanzania.

Every day I watch the UK government’s daily Covid-19 briefing with anguish as hundreds more deaths are confirmed. It is most surreal and deeply depressing. And the thought that this could be replicated soon in Tanzania fills me with dread. How many people will die without even considering access to a hospital? Hospitals are not a place you go to when you’re sick in Tanzania. It’s a place you go to when you’re sick and you have the money to pay for it.

That major distinction shocked me on my first visit to a medical clinic in Tanzania. As you enter the clinic and request a consultation, you are first directed to the cashier to make payment. After you have seen the doctor, you are sent back to the cashier to pay for any required tests. After the results become available, you return to the cashier to see a doctor so that the results can be analysed. Assuming no further tests are required and some treatment is available, you are sent on your final visit to the cashier to pay for any prescribed medicine, which you may then collect from the pharmacy. All in all, you will make at least 4 separate payments in one visit. And if at any stage you can’t afford to pay any more, you leave through the front door without completing the full cycle of investigation, diagnosis and treatment. The experience is completely surreal for someone who has grown up in the UK, with a health service free at the point of delivery.

Few people doubt that many are dying of Covid-19 in Tanzania having never seen a doctor or hospital to have the condition ascertained. Tens, hundreds and thousands could be dying, and no one would ever know.

With the floods, any concern about Covid-19 has become peripheral. The immediate crisis of homelessness, hunger and loss of income supersedes.

Widespread flooding is not common in Moshi Town and its surrounding areas, though there is almost always localised flooding during the rainy season, which I have witnessed first hand. However, the waters quickly wash away and normality returns within hours. On this occasion, the rains were particularly bad, causing the river bank to overflow. In the poorest districts where many houses are poorly constructed, some homes quite literally washed away. Thus far, our staff have registered 581 flood victims, over 116 damaged homes and 20 entirely destroyed.

In the last week, Kijana Kwanza’s staff have been leading the aid effort with the support of our children and young people. Food aid was distributed almost immediately, and we are now helping families replace essential equipment such as mattresses, bedding and school uniform and books. We are also issuing small grants to families to rebuild or temporarily move to other accommodation. Over the next couple of months, we plan to purchase land and build new houses for the most affected facilities who can no longer rebuild in the same location, close to the river bank.

I have been so impressed by the staff for their commitment and dedication to what has been a complex and demanding role. They have taken on all these additional tasks without hesitation and for our Muslim employees, despite the inevitable tiredness that comes with fasting during Ramadan.

Neither of these crises – Covid-19 or the Moshi floods, were anticipated or part of our strategic plan. But as I explained to the staff, if we have the means and support of our donors, we have no choice but to respond. There is nothing noble about what we do. When we make claim to support humanity, we are duty-bound to make every additional effort to support, wherever we can.

Now, as the work becomes more complex, I am hoping to return to Tanzania as soon as possible to do my share. For now, I must just wait.

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