Big Bet: Big Boost

Any one who has lived in a developing country can attest to the fact that it’s really fucking overwhelming. (Sorry for the language, Mom)

A place like Zanzibar is no exception. Zanzibar might even be more daunting than others with its unique and, at times, confusing mix of culture, religion, dependency on tourism, and unparalleled poverty. I’ve had some experiences here that have confused, angered, and even discouraged me, but in full they’ve opened my eyes to so many things. I don’t have a day here that I’m not touched by at least one thing.

Lately, it’s mostly been in negative ways. To most on the outside, Zanzibar looks like a paradise with perfect white-sand beaches and 365 days of sun. That’s what they want you to think. (They being.. I’m not sure who yet, TDB.)

There are so many problems. This isn’t inherently an ‘Africa’ trait, problems exist in every society and our western world isn’t the exception to this rule. It’s just that most problems I’ve encountered while living in Tanzania.. are just so.. heavy. They’re so foundational that the ‘problems’ I’ve faced in my life seem so inconsequential. Most of them stem from poverty, but not all. We’ve been meeting with our resident director and internship coordinator each week for a class called ‘Aspects of Language and Culture.’ We pick topics to research, interview people about, and discuss. Various topics have included public health, road safety, traditional customs and the spread of HIV/AIDS, child rearing, etc. Throughout the weeks we’ve been doing this, I’ve been forced to look through a critical lens and try to determine how everything fits together. Why is there a negative attitude towards foreigners when the economy is so dependent on their money? How do we train more competent doctors when the education system is failing? How do you reduce infant mortality (currently 57 deaths for every 1,000 births!!) when there’s little to no public health or sex education and there’s no acceptable channel to talk about sex, unless it’s teaching a woman how to please a man the day before her wedding.

I’ve spent a lot of my time contemplating these and other things, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel like giving up. I can’t fathom how even the most minute change could take place when there’s so many different layers of history, culture, and religion affecting development here. I read an article a few weeks ago, which criticized NGO dependency, stating that NGOs can never replace a strong public sector and NGOs should only act as an aid to jump in where that sector fails. I agree, but how can you depend on a government in which it’s members of parliament paid so luxuriously while 17 percent of the population on Zanzibar is unemployed and that’s only counting those between 15 and 34 years of age.

I don’t mean to say this is a problem only indignant to Zanzibar. I’m sure similar things occur most places and probably on even larger scales. I don’t doubt things like this happen in the States.

How do you pull people together to try to spark community development, when they expect to be paid a ‘sitting fee’ just to attend the meeting? I was told about a certain organization that was working on changing some policy concerning the rights of children. They needed to have a meeting with the members of parliament who would be responsible for making this change happen. The sitting fee in this particular scenario was 300,000 Tsh, roughly 170 USD, PER PERSON, on top of their already large salaries. Said meeting was only scheduled to be two hours. These sitting fees extend to civilians as well.

Where do you start when you lack a strong government and a sporadic and unreliable public sector?

It doesn’t end there. According to a friend of a friend who works for an widely known international NGO, 20% of children in Zanzibar are sexually abused. I was told a story about a child who was raped by his classmate because he didn’t complete the chore he was asked to do. Investigation by authorities of the madarasa (Islamic school) uncovered that the boy said that he was only doing what he was taught to do. That someone had done the same thing to him. I spent a few days with a youth group in a village called Jendele. Out of 50 or so (I had only met about 15) all had failed out of secondary school. All but two of them have HIV/AIDS.

When interviewing a few villagers of Matemwe, I got a glimpse of a pretty negative attitude concerning developmental work. The group of people I talked to were from a sub-village, next to the sub-village where one of the Agents for Zanrec lives. Both sub-villages were included in the community waste collection provided by Zanrec, but because the Agent lived in the other sub-village, these people believed that Zanrec employed all of the people in that sub-village to collect trash and clean their environment. He told me that Zanrec should pay all of the people who don’t have work to clean their own village. I asked him who held the responsibility of cleaning their village and he replied that it was mostly Zanrec’s responsibility. In our class we discussed whether or not this attitude was due to an over saturation of NGOs. We learned that when the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar took power 51 years ago, many people were given fully furnished apartments for free. So, it caused people to have the viewpoint that they are entitled to such things without having to work for them.

Many foreigners claim that Zanzibar would be ‘nothing’ without the tourism and hotels that dominate Stone Town and the coastal areas. The reality? Tourism growth on the island is climbing at higher rates than unemployment or other indicators of growth. Sure, the hotels bring foreigners who spend their money, but the profit favors already rich hotel owners. A certain American company allegedly spent 8 million to build a massive 5 star hotel in the heart of Stone Town. (I won’t name names, but, cough cough, it starts with an H) Rates begin at 250 USD per night. Despite clearly having the capital to afford it, this company won’t pay Zanrec 90 cents per day to responsibly manage their waste..

I digress. With all of these examples and many more, I’ve grown more and more overwhelmed at the thought of my ability to make any fraction of an impact. I’ve talked to many expats here and it’s unanimous that Zanzibar kind of drains the life out of you. It’s hard to navigate through all of the peculiarities, there is no shortage of negative interactions, and it can feel like you’re walking in circles.


I came across something that has excited and vitalized me in a way that might be the equivalent to a completed Hail Mary. There aren’t many names bigger in development than Bill and Melinda Gates. They released their newest annual letter including their Big Bet and it has inspired me again to keep fighting. The Big Bet:

“The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else’s.

When I was ready to throw in the towel thinking I should have chosen a less mentally and spiritually demanding career, I was reminded why those of us in this industry started our work. Things might get worse before they get a little better. But, seeing people who are breaking stereotypes of the 1% and demanding all of us to start paying attention, I found the pick me up I desperately needed. What spoke to me most in their letter:

“But we think the next 15 years will see major breakthroughs for most people in poor countries. They will be living longer and in better health. They will have unprecedented opportunities to get education, eat nutritious food, and benefit from mobile banking. These breakthroughs will be driven by innovation in technology – ranging from new vaccines and hardier crops to much cheaper smartphones and tablets – and by innovations that help deliver those things to poor people.

The rich world will keep getting exciting new advances too, but the improvements in the lives of the poor will be far more fundamental – the basics of a healthy, productive life. It’s great that more people in rich countries with be able to watch movies on super hi-resolution screens. It’s even better that more parents in poor countries will know their children aren’t going to die.”

That last sentence should provide us all some perspective. It’s easy to be consumed by our ‘problems’ and struggles in our everyday lives like how we might afford that new car or make rent this month, but I think we could all do a little more to remember to check ourselves and remember our privilege. I’m ready to keep closing that gap, are you?


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