Sarakasi ya Vijana - young acrobats at Mosquito River

[August 14, 2015]
Sarakasi ya Vijana. That’s the name of the project that is funded by the Dutch foundation called Twiga. Sarakasi y Vijana means ‘young acrobats’. Or, a little more poetic: the acrobatics of youth. I’ve noticed often that Swahili words derive from English words, so good chance ‘sarakasi’ derives from ‘circus’, but I’m not entirely sure about that. It’s about children, that’s for sure. Children in Mto wa Mbu, a little town of about 30.000 inhabitants in the vicinity of the famous Ngorongoro crater in North Tanzania. Mto wa Mbu means ‘mosquito river’. It’s about children that didn’t have much feet to stand on, but can become acrobats. Thanks to Sarakasi ya Vijana.

Machteld Speets, a Dutch woman, started the project in 2004. The complex of buildings on the compound, about 2 miles from the mainroad at the end of a dusty dirt track, was built about 5 years ago. It’s a beautiful location, in the woods, with lots of velvet monkeys in the trees and marabou’s flying over the treetops. A couple of hundred meters further the woods end and you’re viewing at a spectacular and endless savanna with herds of cows with Masaai boys. Far away you can even see the flamingo’s at the shores of Lake Manyara. Mto was Mbu is rural, but it also is a major safari hub. It’s a busy town with it’s back against the Rift Vally escarpment, rising about 500 meters up.
De Twiga-website tells you all about the projects, about the goals, the mission, the staff and about the children. And also about the way the funding is being organised mainly from The Netherlands. And about how the whole project organisation is solely built on volunteers. You can also read lots of enthousiastic information about and from the people that are working with Sarakasi ya Vijana.
So that gives me space to limit my story just to my own experiences during my three day visit of Sarakasi ya Vijana at the end of July 2015.

On the moment of our arrival a little ceremony was going on, with all of the children that attend the Sarakasi ya Vijana nursery school. It was about the farewell of two volunteers and also the chairwoman of the Twiga foundation. They left the following morning. I was very lucky to be able to have a good talk with the chairwoman, Anne Marie van Lanen, about Twiga and Sarakasi just before she left. She is Twiga’s chairwoman already from the start of the project, but this was the first time she visited the project in Tanzania. Now she was able to have a job evaluation conversation with the project coördinator in Tanzania, Elvera, in the flesh. Elvera is doing the job already for almost a year, also being a volunteer of course, and she has just committed herself for another year to come. Anne Marie has just experienced how good the project is running and she’s very happy Elvera wants to stay for another year.
Elvera is assisted by Mieke, who also is present in Mto wa Mbu since about 3 months after having been here in 2013 for half a year. Later on I get to know that in most cases people come back a second time. Sharon, a Flemish Sarakasi-volunteer I meet, just spent the third consecutive summer in Mosquito River.
Can you imagine being chairwoman for so many years and than, finally, experiencing how it’s going on in the fields, see the results! Anne Marie is a very happy woman.

It’s a small and intimate community here at Sarakasi ya Vijana. At the end of the dirt track you stand at the gate and one of the Masaai-guards opens it for you. On the right you see the library building, where also the meetings are held. To the left, a little further behind the playing field with little soccer goals, there is the big building with a gabled roof. In this building you’ll find the kitchen, the nursery class rooms and some playing area. Under the porch there is a big dining table. In front of the big building there is an ‘outdoor’ schoolbuilding, half open.

Behind that building you find a building with an office and accommodation for volunteers. A little gate house with a thatched roof makes an entrance to a different part of the compound in which three “banda’s” are built. Those banda’s are small, round and also thatched cottages. They are used by volunteers and also by guests of Sarakasi ya Vijana. The project doesn’t advertise as a lodge, but welcomes guests heartly. Of course we also stayed in one of those romantic banda’s.
Yes, if you want to go to the big parks for a safari, this is a good place to use as a base!

We meet the Masaai-guards and the ‘mama’s’ that take care of the household and the food. That’s the way they introduce themselves: Mama Carolina, Mama Flora. These names are the names of their children; the own name is no longer used. The common in Tanzania. And we also meet the three teachers. And William, the community worker.
It’s easy to notice that Elvera and Mieke are in control and, thus, to understand why Anne Marie was so happy. That is very important. Just consider this organisation is solely run with volunteers. It’s always a big challenge to accept the organisation dynamics and have just enough continuity built in. So the Dutch foundation not only has to stand for enough funding to get it all done, it also has to take care of the proper operational effort of the staff members out in the fields.

Machteld Speets, the original founder of Sarakais ya Vijana, left the project in 2011, although she still is a member of the board of Twiga. After Machteld there have been several coordinators, also committed for at least a year. And now Elvera, who is staying until July 2016. Sarakasi ya Vijana is doing very good.

So much for the organisation. How about the children? On the Twiga-website you can find information about all of the children. Twiga is supporting about 75 children, of which the majority would not have been able to go to school if it weren’t made possible by Twiga. Twiga supports them throughout their complete educational career. So also vocational training or even university. The support comes in different forms: school fees, uniforms, tutoring, boarding fees, assistance for the elders, transfer costs, etc.

It will remain a small scale project. The Twiga foundation wants it that way. The power is in the personal approach, the intimate character. Sarakasi’s growth is just in the coming in of new young children, brought in via communication with village leaders, church and mosque. Children that otherwise would be in a very deprived situation and not able to go to school.
So the big expenses of the organisation do not all go to the project that you see when you’re visiting Sarakasi ya Vijana, because here you only see the young children going to nursery school (3 to 6 years), plus only the primary school children that come on Saturdays and during holidays for extra tutoring and also for fun. The eldest student right now is 25 years old. Last year the first student graduated as an accountant. There was a big celebration. He’s a good example for the students that come after him.

The staff has three meals a day, always together, at the big table in the veranda. The solidarity feeling is important. And there is another advantage: the Tanzanian people tend to eat the same everyday. That’s not what the mzungu’s (the white people) like very much. You try the ugali (maize porridge) a couple of times and than almost every westerner has had just enough of it.

In Mtwo wa Mbu lots of tuktuk’s are on the road. They’re called ‘bajaji’ in Tanzania. It’s an easy ride to town. But at least for once it’s also nice to walk. It takes an hour but there’s always something going on around you. In Africa you’re always in company.
Sarakasi ya Vijana is on the edge of the savanna. When you walk on the savanna, with its overwhelming vastness, there is also company. The Masaai shepherds can tell you everything, whether they speak English or just Swahili of their own Masaai language. The Sarakasi guards go walking with the four dogs two times a day. It’s a nice trip to walk with them to the other end of the savanna, where huge baobabs are to be found.
Sarakasi also has its own bicycles. They take you to the shops and little restaurants in town in just 15 minutes. A little further in town we found a big tree in the top of which about 10 marabou nests were to be seen. The huge marabou’s were flying off and on with big branches, a spectacular sight.

During our stay of three days very energetic volunteers were working on different projects. Cees, just retired, was busy with improving the water supply from the water tower with a 1000 liter tank. Besides that he helped Cynthia with finding out how to get rid of the bats that found holes in the roof to enter the library. Cynthia’s husband and his sons were busy digging slots for the new waterworks. And Maarten, from Belgium, was working on an new outside stove for the cooking ladies. Cees’ wife was evaluating some teaching methods of the nursery school teachers. Sharon and Jill, two young women, did some creative projects with the nursery school children.

This is the kind of organisation where there is always different kinds of work that need to be done. But you will have to find the right fit. What is it that you want to do and what is being needed on a specific moment? If you want to volunteer you’ll have to have a talk (or mail) with the coördinator. In good consultation the right contribution is easily found. All effort is pointed at working together with the locals. Twiga is taking care of a lot of extra employment already for the people in this town.

Machteld Speets explaines herself on the website: “The motive for continuing this project, is to educate more people, so they can get a good job and become responsible people (also for the environment). That is the beauty of Mto wa Mbu, the combination between nature and people. I think you should be doing this job because you like it, a kind of smart egoism. It is good that you can also help other people by doing this job. This is not only for me, but also for the volunteers who come here. I like the boedhistic way of living, you are responsible for your own hapiness. I think that is how you improve the world.”
That is exactly how I have experienced Sarakasi ya Vijana during my three day visit. It’s a major advantage Mto wa Mbu is just at one of the major connecting roads of Tanzania, very easy to travel to, because I cannot imagine that I’m not gonna come back one of the next years.

Justification of ethics (correct volunteering) and costs
NB: this information just comes from the Twiga-website, but it’s very easy to trust on the reliability.

• It is a small-scale and well-organised program. Incomes consist of gifts from sponsors and donors and are more and more generated from the contributions of volunteers and other visitors who stay in our volunteer house. These incomes are directly used in behalf of the children. Nothing sticks to the fingers.
• The children live at home as far as they have a home. This means that some of the children live with their grandmother, uncle or in a host family. Their caretakers are closely involved to the program by means of activities at the centre and attending the monthly meetings. We expect a small contribution of the caretakers, financial or in kind. Nothing is given for free. Caretakers can get a small loan to build up a subsistence level.
• The foundation has good connections with the Tanzanian government at local, district and regional level. The children program has a board of advisors in which different people are represented, who advice on the daily business of the children program.
• Western volunteers and local people get in touch in a positive way and learn from each other’s culture.
• The children program is located close to Lake Manyara National Park, which makes it special for visitors and volunteers. With the National Park just around the corner we teach the children about the importance of flora and fauna conservation.
• Next to the basic needs and school the children get education in acrobatics, traditional dance, singing, theatre and lifeskills.

Volunteering with Sarakasi ya Vijana
As a volunteer at Sarakasi ya Vijana you are working closely with our Tanzanian teachers, other staff, children and living in a small neighborhood. Some of the subject areas are: assisting the nursery teachers in their daily tasks, assisting in the extra tuition program on Saturdays and during the school holidays (primary and secondary all subjects including computer science), assisting the youth worker, the project coordinator and organizing extra curricular activities.
Over the years volunteers have ameliorated our program enormously by adding their skills and experience to our educational and extra-curricular program (for the nursery kids, primary school and secondary kids). It is wonderful to see that both staff, kids and volunteers have grown tremendously from this intercultural exchange.
Mainly we are seeking volunteers who are enthusiastic, social, serious and respectful. We feel it is more important to relate well from one human being towards the other than being good at a particular skill. All staff and children speak some English, it is advisable however, for you to learn some Swahili before you enter the country. It makes your stay a whole lot nicer if you can communicate directly with the people.
You are living on our Sarakasi compound next to the Lake Manyara wildlife park. It is a beautiful surrounding an excellent place for hiking, cycling and going on safari. You live in a simple but comfortable house (rondavel) next to the educational program. Our compound is about 5 kms from the town. For your stay we ask a small contribution for the food & stay. Short stay: €150 per week; long stay: €500 per month.

NJW, August 14, 2015

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