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News from Mtwara

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It’s over six years now since my wife Caroline and I first travelled to Tanzania. We quickly made friends with two highly respected men of great integrity and under their guidance we started the charitable activities which we now call, ‘Mtwaralinks’. I wrote about our first actions at the time. This extract describes some of the work we did to try and kickstart micro businesses.

Saturday, 23 February 2013 - The spirit of enterprise

Under the shade of the canopied mango tree, on the hard brown dirt, sits the bicycle fundi, Yusuph Lukanga. He repairs bicycles and shoes. He squats on a wooden stool, with his withered legs, almost certainly a result of polio earlier in his life, folded beneath him. He moves around town in a huge, iron hand-cranked tricycle, with a small wooden box strapped to the back in which he keeps a tidy array of tools. He is a charismatic man, unshaven with a round head, and deep, black skin that glows. His teeth are all the whiter though he rarely smiles. He views me quizzically, perhaps suspiciously, as I take my place on the wooden bench that serves as a pew on which we wait our turn. His apprentices and acolytes are younger men, chatting too loudly sometimes, ever conscious of his ministrations. Two of the group depart briefly to return with a large aluminium plate of stiff porridge and spinach which they lay by his side, while one brings a jug of water with which to wash Mr Lukanga’s hands.

Mr Lukanga and his bicycle repair businessIn broken English and Kiswahili, he asks if I have brought him the welding machine he wants, "Bado," I reply. (Not yet). He shrugs as if he had anticipated this and I try to distract him with talk of the wheel which I need him to mend. It is quite badly buckled and as he spins it nonchalantly in his calloused hands, he quotes a figure which is far too high. We barter. He doesn't smile, but we agree on a price about the equivalent of the cold beer I'll sip at the ocean later that day. Before he starts work on my wheel, he lets one of the young men wash his hands and slowly he rolls the porridge into small gobbets and having dipped it in the fiery sauce, pops it in his mouth, watching me all the while, as I exchange greetings with the numerous bystanders who love to be seen with the mzungu.

It would seem that there is a crying need for money and training for many prospective self-employed craftsmen, shopkeepers, and salespeople. Maibras, the respected Chairman of the local Ward committee, tells me that the banks are hopeless at meeting this demand. The process is slow, bureaucratic and at times corrupt. Many people have little faith in it and prefer instead to go to family and friends. Someone suggested to me the other day that for many Africans, their ambitions and capacity to plan for the future are blighted by the uncertainty of future government policies and by the demands from family for a share in their fortune. If it is likely that you will lose or at best have to share your wealth, then perhaps, it's less attractive to work so hard to acquire it. I'm not sure though. It seems that there is something in some people which drives them to make money; which drives them to work hard and look for every opening. Some have that drive - some don't.

Maibras and I went to see Mama Zuhura last week. She is a large woman wrapped in a kanga and a colourful scarf round her head. She lives in a collection of small rooms round a dirty yard where children are playing with some plastic lids. The cleanest room, empty of everything save a large fridge, has a small window cut into one wall. The win- dow is framed with a steel grill into which is cut an opening, the size of a large plate. From this room, with the help of this large gleaming fridge, Mama Zuhura serves mut- ton soup to the workers from the small industrial estate close by.

Last week I visited Emmanuel in his stationery shop. It's half a container with a cable providing power to two old computers. Emmanuel is a slight man with a neatly trimmed moustache. His wife works for the council in the neighbouring town, so they can afford the rent on the container and their house. They have one small child. He shows me the broken copier which he hopes to replace.

“With the new printer-copier I can buy from Dar, I can charge only two hundred shillings per page and compete with the others,” he boasts. Tanzania’s bureaucracy means that everyone needs a copy of every official document and there are dozens of documents covering every aspect of everyday life. In the short-term there will be a heavy demand for copying and office services.

I sat and watched my buckled wheel take shape. This man had never claimed an expense account in his life and no-one was about to offer him a pension. His thick powerful fingers had been working like this for years and if illness doesn’t take him he’ll do it for years to come.

“So you didn’t bring me a welding machine from England,” said Yusuph. “If I had one, I could build many more tri-cycles like this one.”

Maibras and I have a scheme that will lend him the money for the welding machine and see him repay the loan within the year.

“Is there a large demand for such machines?” I asked.
Mr Lukanga with his arc welder, courtesy of a micro loan financed by Mtwaralinks.
“Yes," he grinned. "There’s lots of work for welding machines if you look for it, especially these," handling his great iron beast of a tricycle. And with that he span my new wheel with his thumb, cast an expert eye down the rim to check it was true and without a second glance handed it to one of his young assistants.

"It's ready," he said over his shoulder. He didn't look at me, just returned to the small child's shoe and picked up his six-inch steel needle.

"Give the white man his bicycle."

The scene describes the work we started in Mtwara arranging microloans for prospective businesses, using money donated by supporters of Mtwaralinks. Such micro- financing has been shown to be highly effective at reducing waste, avoiding corruption and tackling poverty.

Adrian Strain

Published Wed 19th Apr 2017 00:24:45
Last Modified on Wed 19th Apr 2017 00:30:12

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