My African-American Dream
Today was a full travel day, punctuated with a few hours’ layover in a “day room” at the first hotel we stayed at. Then on to our planes and home. While soaring over the Serengeti in a single engine plane on our way to Arusha, I had time to reflect on our trip. One aspect that particularly surprised me were the “Cultural Tourism” opportunities — our visit to a farming community for a traditional lunch, our excursion to a Maasai village and our magical afternoon at an elementary school. Let me explain again about the concept of Cultural Tourism as it seems to be practiced in Tanzania. The goal is to bring tourist dollars more closely to people who might otherwise by bypassed by the industry. When it works well — as it seemed to in the farming village, the Maasai village and the school — it creates economic opportunities (especially for women in rural areas who may have few ways to earn outside the home). In the farming village, we had several guides and half a dozen women who prepared a traditional lunch for us. We were told that each direct participant received a part of our fees and the rest went to a village fund to benefit the entire village. At the Maasai village, we were broken into groups of three, each assigned a Maasai guide who led us through his house, explained about village life, and fielded questions. Other Maasai performed dances and songs for us. Women had a ready, direct market for their handicrafts.
However, the surprise was who benefited most. The accepted paradigm is that tourists from wealthy Western countries come and spread money around to help the Third World. But the overwhelming impression was that Tanzania has much to teach us on many subjects. I’m not just talking about the warmth of the people, their strong sense of community and extended family, or their joy that is apart from material things. I’m talking about real concrete skills.
Many of those skills I know of from Andy’s work with a wonderful organization through the University of Santa Clara School of Business. The group pairs Silicon Valley executives as mentors for Third World entrepreneurs who are attempting to bring to market products and services that advance the social good. Many of these products involve the use of the cell phone. While the vast majority of Americans use their phones to make simple calls or perhaps text and play Words with Friends, in Africa and India — where infrastructure of cable, brick, mortar and highways is little or non-existent — the phone increasingly becomes the infrastructure. In the Third World, phones are used as the banking system; the Media delivery system; as a way to empower farmers by giving them market information for a bargaining edge; as a political organizing tool. In other words, the Third World is leapfrogging beyond the 20th and even 19th century aging infrastructure we’re still stuck with to go directly to a more integrated digital model.
But the skills I’m talking about are even more basic. For all our toys and gadgets know-how, the vast majority of us — certainly in America — have become divorced from our food supply. We don’t understand it, we don’t control it, we can’t always access it and we often don’t know what to do with it when we are presented with it. A friend of mine from college is very active in addressing these issues in inner city Chicago — especially neighborhoods that are underserved with nutritional affordable food — by encouraging community gardens, green belts and farmers markets. However, the learning curve is steep. We’ve forgotten how to grow our food, and we have lost a sense of how to balance and prepare our food choices.
Tanzanians have these food growing and preparation skills and so much more. They have sophisticated ways of working, at the village level, on food politics to balance communal and individual plots and harvests to distribute food and work equitably while still allowing for individual initiatives and preferences.
What if we could reverse the paradigm and bring fledgling American urban farmers and those involved with food equity issues to Africa to be mentored by Tanzanians? How do you structure a community garden to best serve a variety of skill and ability levels? How do you divide the work and divide the harvest? What is the individual’s ownership and responsibility in the community plot? Not to mention the growing and cooking techniques and maximizing the output of the land. At our farm visit, we saw — on land not much larger than two urban vacant lots supplemented by a couple dozen small city back yards — an integrated planting system that yielded year ’round harvests that fed the village and also supplied “utility” plantings of crops that provided cooking oil, household products such as soap, thatch for building material and most of the needs of that village. Obviously, some things would not translate. But many things would. I’m thinking also of the very innovative cooking techniques that assembled a number of largely plant based-meals that provided full protein, but also a varied taste experience.
The germ of this idea came from a moment when I had the opportunity to talk to two women who were harvesting okra. Speaking through my village interpreter, I explained my difficulties growing the vegetable and uncertainty in how best to prepare it. The women were amazed that traditional skills they have mastered were so valuable and difficult for a Westerner and they loved giving me more advice than I could jot down in my notebook. Tanzanians are a justifiably proud people, but they seemed just a bit prouder that they could help an American with Tanzanian skills. On both hemispheres, I think we forget that the folks with the “stuff” are not always the folks with the “goods”. The exchange was a bit of an eye opener for both parties.
I’m serious about finding ways to get this started. [Thinking. Thinking.]
In the meantime, Bill Gates Foundation, give me a call!