Agriculture first, or Kilimo Kwanza, is a new initiative of the Tanzanian government to pour lots of effort and money into improving the agricultural sector of the country. I have been learning a lot about agriculture in Tanzania since I first arrived in late August. Since much of my time here has been spent on trying to plan, organize, and implement the agricultural project that I am working on in partnership with the church, I obviously needed to first get my bearings in regard to the challenges and opportunities facing farmers here.
So while I have learned a lot over the past five months, much of what I have learned has contradicted my presuppositions before coming here. First, unlike the United States, in which something like 2% of the population is responsible for the vast majority of the nation's food production, 80% of Tanzanians are subsistence farmers. This difference is due to a number of reasons, largely lack of access to the machinery and expensive fossil fuel and fossil fuel derived inputs (e.g. fertilizers) that make agriculture so productive in the U.S. (at least productive in the short term). Also, before arriving I had assumed that the East African peoples would be experts at doing agriculture tailored to their environment. It is widely believed that the human race began in East Africa before slowly spreading across the globe, so it seemed intuitive to me that the people here and their ancestors would have been practicing agriculture in this place for a very long time. However, the reality is that until fairly recently, the various tribes of people living in East Africa were primarily pastoralists; they raised cattle and other domestic animals and lived off of the meat and milk provided by these animals. This system worked well for thousands of years, but as the population began to explode in conjunction with the development of limited agriculture, the amount of grassland that was needed to support all of the grazing animals to feed the population was inadequate, so the agriculture that was present needed to expand drastically to feed the population. Also, because the Luo people (Shirati is almost entirely Luo people) living along the coast of Lake Victoria have always had abundant access to fish from the lake, they were not forced to practice agriculture as much as other peoples who did not have such an easily accessible food source.
So as far as I understand it, that is where things stand here today. People are being forced to rely increasingly on agriculture to meet the needs of the growing population, but since there is not a long history of agriculture here there seems to be a lot of room for improvement in terms of educating farmers about best-practice techniques. I certainly don't mean to imply that farmers here don't know what they are doing, compared to me they are experts, especially given the fact that many of them can't afford machines or chemicals. Rather, I mean simply to say that there is always room for improvement.
So obviously, since I know very little about agriculture, I am not the person to do agricultural education. Rather, my task here is to bring in people who do know a lot about sustainable, low input agriculture in Tanzania so that they can teach me and other farmers in the area. So this past week I, through MCC, organized an agricultural training course at the church offices here in Shirati for about 25-30 farmers in the area. We hired a trainer to come from Arusha for the week, and it ended up being a really great week of learning. This teacher was a native Tanzanian, and therefore a fluent Swahili speaker, and he taught all week about various methods of doing productive, organic, sustainable agriculture that require no expensive fertilizers and pesticides. Fortunately, he gave me a large packet of papers that contained the curriculum in English so that I was able to follow along as he taught in Swahili, otherwise I would have been hopelessly lost the whole week! I was very pleased with how things went, and I felt like for the first time I had helped to organize something that really, tangibly benefited some of the Tanzanians around me, which was very gratifying.
It was very interesting for me to participate in a formal class/seminar with all Tanzanians and to compare how things work here vs. the way things have worked at the various seminars that I have attended while in the U.S. Every day we would take a stretch break that would consist of someone leading a song or dance that we would all participate in, which of course I have never done at a seminar in the U.S. But it was certainly a lot of fun! We would always start a half-hour or hour late and we weren't very concerned about sticking to the schedule, but I have gotten used to that by now, and it didn't prevent us from learning a lot of material so it wasn't really a problem.
Also, in one week my Tanzanian work partner, Samara--who is helping me to start our instructional agriculture site--and I will head to Arusha for a week long class on vegetable farming at the World Vegetable Research Center. The thinking behind all of this training MCC is investing in is that if he and I are to start an instructional agriculture site for farmers in the area, we better know what we are doing! So while we both learned a lot this past week, we hope to learn still more during our week in Arusha. Travelling with Samara should be interesting seeing as it is pretty difficult for us to communicate well, but I am sure it will be an adventure. After the week of training, Samara will return to Shirati and I will stay in Arusha for another week for an MCC Tanzania team meeting. I am looking forward to seeing all of the other MCC Tanzania staff, many of whom I have not seen since November. It should be a good time of catching up and sharing stories.
I am amazed at how much I continue to learn here about life, the challenges of development work, poverty, faith and trust in God, and the culture of the people here (and conversely my own culture). My time here has certainly raised lots of questions in my mind about all sorts of things, and I will probably spend a lifetime trying to process some of these questions, but I am becoming increasingly convinced that experiences that force one to see the world in a new way and to ask new questions is more important than having the answers.