Headlines featuring million dollar donors and large trade agreements promise Africa the way out of poverty. But development specialists say it’s the hundreds of grassroots activists and small community groups that are likely to bring change to the ordinary citizen. From Dar Es Salaam, Asumpta Ngonyani takes a look at one activist who’s working to improve health care and living standards – by encouraging Africans to collaborate on the local level, and across borders.
A well-known Tanzanian proverb says charity is a matter of the heart and not the pocketbook. Whoever created the saying may have had Neema Mgana in mind.
Dubbed by of a love, she says, for generating ideas, and not money. She says that "The need for better living conditions is what drives me, at a personal level. When I see someone or a group of people, [and] I realize [something] needs to be done, and it is not happening, and [I then ask myself] how can it be done? Instead of relying on others, [either] it’s me who starts [a project] or I join up with other people. I don’t necessary look at the monetary value of this things, but rather what is the social impact."
Over the past eight years, Mgana has helped found several organizations. In 1999, she got her first taste of community activism when she and a friend began a project to provide assistance for HIV-positive children in rural Tanzania. A former US ambassador, Charles Stith, called the effort “a true example of community spirit.”
Next, she helped to create the Africa Regional Youth Initiative (or ARYI) . (www.africaninitiative.org/af) It provides a way for over 300 African community groups and NGOs to collaborate. ARYI provides a data base and list-serve where groups can find partners, or share information regarding the successes or problems of their own projects. ARYI also encourages national meetings where project leaders can meet face-to-face. And, it helps groups find financial support from foundations and private organizations.
Mgana is also spearheading an ambitious medical and education project in Ipuli, Tanzania – 12 hours away from the former capital, Dar Es Salaam. The “Rural Center of Excellence” includes a mother/child medical center, health training facility and a secondary school for girls. The center will serve the 100,000 people who live in Ipuli – over 10 percent of whom are under five years of age. Similar centers are planned in other countries in Africa, including South Africa, Rwanda, Ghana and Uganda.
Mgana wants her projects to help as many people as possible. She’s seen for herself what opportunities can bring.
Her parents were born in rural Tanzania, but nurtured by teachers who saw their potential. As a result, her father made it to university in Kenya – where a student of Albert Einstein trained him in physics. He later became a diplomat for United Nations, where her mother, originally a school teacher, also worked. Her parents said they were her “advisors” that would provide her with core values, including respect for women, but that she and her three brothers would have to make their own decisions.
"That made me think," she said, " what is the difference between child A and child B ? One grows up in a rural area, while another who grows up in the city in a privileged area [both with] the same potential. And to me that connection is very close, like one generation away: if my parents didn’t have these opportunities I could have been in the rural area growing up, and my life would have been very different and so that to me is very personal.".
Mgana encourages action on the community level – and among women in particular. One of her efforts -- done in collaboration with videodocumentary photographer Amanda Koster– is called the African Women of Empowerment project (www.womenempowering.org). It aims to empower women, who she calls nurturers, agents of peace and “social rebels” – or women who go beyond the constraints of tradition to help solve a problem.
"That was started by a friend and I sometime last year," she said. " It tries to highlight the work of African women, what have they been doing in terms of contributing to development at national levels. We highlight 20 women from different parts of Africa [including Reverend Tutu’s daughter in South Africa, Rose Banda of Zambia, and Noerine Kaleeba of Uganda]. They then become mentors to younger men and women in Africa who are part of this project. Next year, we will identify another set of remarkable 20 women who will replicate this work in the 17 countries that are actively taking part in this project. Our goal is to develop another generation of leaders in Africa."
She says women’s rights, development and even health are all inter-connected. It’s one reason, perhaps, why Mgana’s efforts are so diverse, including her membership on the boards of several different organizations.
She says that "We can’t talk about women without talking about economy equality and poverty, and we can’t talk about poverty without taking about its link to diseases such as HIV/AIDS. The fact is that women are more vulnerable to HIV and they are the primary caregivers for people living with HIV/AIDS."
Mgana says she is optimistic about African development because of the leadership roles increasingly taken by women, and because of the emphasis now being put on development by the African Union and regional groupings like SADC, ECOWAS and COMESA.
Two yeas ago, Mgana was the youngest of 1000 woman around the world jointly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. They lost that bid, but she continues undeterred. She’s already earned a degree in International Health and a certificate in Humanitarian Assistance. Now, she’s finishing a Phd in International Relations with a focus on global health.
Where does she see herself in 20 years ? Perhaps, she says, she’ll add an international dimension to her development work. Or, she adds wistfully, be President of Tanzania or the head of the United Nations. Each would serve as a platform for her goals – which include inspiring Africans to believe in themselves. Her supporters say she’s the embodiment of that dream.