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Women are power: Lorraine Keane in Africa



Lorraine meets women farmers in Kurio village. Photo: David Conachy

Lorraine meets women farmers in Kurio village. Photo: David Conachy

Women of the Mapambano Group in Babayu, Mundemu, tend to their sunflowers.

Women of the Mapambano Group in Babayu, Mundemu, tend to their sunflowers.

Lorraine takes a selfie with children from Kurio village

Lorraine takes a selfie with children from Kurio village

Lorraine with women from the Upendo Group at the local well in Mundemu village

Lorraine with women from the Upendo Group at the local well in Mundemu village


Lorraine meets women farmers in Kurio village. Photo: David Conachy

It takes me a while to settle back in after I come home from a trip to the developing world. We have so much and the people I have spent my week with have so little. It is wrong - everything I see around me seems materialistic. I find that I'm even short-tempered with my children, which I know is unfair and just makes me feel worse. Saying things such as: "Do you know how much we have, how lucky you are?"

Of course it's not their fault. I am being unreasonable, but it's just hard to forget - the stories of loss, the images of poverty. It's very difficult to put into words how poor they are.

This was my sixth trip with an Irish charity to the developing world, so you would think I would be pretty used to it, but you never get used to it. However, now, as I write this from home, tucked up safely in my cosy life, I know I have a job to do. It is my job to tell the stories of the dynamic women-led groups I met who have transformed their own lives and that of the wider community by taking advantage of economic opportunities given to them by World Vision Ireland.

As a child sponsor with World Vision Ireland for 18 years, I wanted to see for myself where money donated by supporters is spent.


Lorraine takes a selfie with children from Kurio village

Lorraine takes a selfie with children from Kurio village

Lorraine takes a selfie with children from Kurio village

Twenty hours on three flights and a nine-hour drive through the sub-Saharan desert from Tanzania's capital Dar es Salaam, and we finally arrived in Sanzawa in the Chemba district of Dodoma.

It's important to note that World Vision Ireland do not exclusively focus on women when developing the capacity of community groups. However, my focus in Tanzania is the women in the communities where World Vision works, their stories of entrepreneurship where women mean business.

The fact is that when women and girls earn money, they reinvest 90pc of it into their families. For men, the average is between 30pc and 40pc. Such is the importance of women to the rural economy and child well-being.

Giving women economic empowerment, financial independence and security not only has a positive impact on the well-being of children and households, but entire communities and beyond.

I met three womens' groups together in Kurio Village in the Sanzawa Area Development Programme, all of whom are engaged in year-round farming. I'll never forget the picture of suddenly arriving upon rows of lush green trees and plants, having driven a further four hours through the arid landscape, down dusty dirt tracks, past pastureless fields of burnt red clay. Here, on this out-of-place fertile patch of the Saharan desert, 20 or 30 women farmers in brightly coloured floor-length prints worked.

They are the Mapambano Group of 17 women (Mapambano means 'struggle' in Swahili) who have in just two years turned their 10 acres into a profitable business. These crops of onions, tomatoes, okra, guava, sweet peppers, Chinese cabbage, chilli, mangoes, and oranges are eaten at home to improve household nutrition and are also sold to the surrounding community and at markets in the district to boost the women's incomes.


Lorraine with women from the Upendo Group at the local well in Mundemu village

Lorraine with women from the Upendo Group at the local well in Mundemu village

Lorraine with women from the Upendo Group at the local well in Mundemu village

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School children are given seedlings and learn about agroforestry by tending to the trees in their practical agricultural lessons, while the vitamin-C-rich fruits boost the nutrition content of school meals.

These women farmers are no longer completely reliant on scarce and increasingly unpredictable rainfall and they are not limited to one or two growing seasons per year. With World Vision Ireland's support, training and tools, having constructed a borehole with a solar pump, thus enabling them to irrigate their land, these farmers produce a wide range of nutritious crops all year round. The farmers and their families no longer live day to day. Talking to these women, hearing their positive stories of hope for the future, was inspirational.

Our next visit took us to the Mundemu Area Development Programme in the Bahi District. World Vision Ireland's CEO Helen Keogh last visited this group of women five years ago. She had obviously been monitoring their achievements, but seeing Helen's excitement and her eyes fill up as we turned the corner was proof that the women have made a lot more progress than even she expected.

Calling themselves The Upendo Group (Upendo means 'love' in Swahili), their achievements are proof that money is getting to the people who need it. World Vision supported the women to establish a savings and loans group in 2012, along with training in horticulture, financial literacy and entrepreneurship.

However, the real story here is the shrewd business decisions of the women themselves. World Vision was merely a catalyst, providing the access to knowledge, skills and resources to enable these women to release their inner entrepreneur. The women slowly developed their businesses to the point where they could use them as collateral to take out larger loans from banks, which allowed them to further invest and diversify.

Since 2012, they have been involved in a large range of businesses - retail, catering, hairdressing and sunflower trading, to name a few. As their agricultural work has become more and more profitable, they have decided to focus their energies on their horticulture, while also maintaining enterprises in pig-farming and beekeeping. Tanzanian honey is known as one of the best quality honeys in Africa, so beekeeping is a useful resource for consumption and sale.

Weekly meeting

These women farmers have been able to support their families through school and develop their homes while also ensuring their families have access to all the food, clothes and medical treatment they need.

It is important to note that World Vision do not give money - they provide support in both agricultural practices and entrepreneurship. Just as importantly, World Vision have trained these communities in how to manage their money by helping them to establish savings and loans groups. We were invited to attend one of these VLSA meetings (Village Loan and Savings Association) in the remote village of Babayu in the Bahi District of Dodoma.

To witness this weekly meeting, which took place under a tree in a sheltered part of the village, was a humbling experience. With such dignity and pride, each member of the group, which comprises 15 women and one man, saved between 70 cent and €2 per week, allowing them the means to borrow for events such as funerals and weddings, as well as pay in to a social fund which supports five of the most vulnerable children in the community with their basic needs.

I will never forget the shy, awkward faces of two young girls in their school uniforms, not much older than my own two children at home, who were asked to step forward and introduce themselves to us. They, along with their younger siblings - all orphans - were being supported by the community to go to school while the younger children were cared for at home.

Through hard work, dedication and commitment, these VSLAs have not only educated a community on saving, investing and expanding their businesses - they have been instrumental in bringing entire communities together to support and look after each other.

The group plans to work towards establishing an office building to run its operations from and extend its support to more child-headed families - vulnerable orphans - in the community.

I have to tell you about one such modern brick building that I came across almost by accident, which stood out like a bright new pin among the dusty brown stone dwellings of the local people. It was so new that the plastic still hadn't been removed from the glass windows. Glass in windows is also rare in rural Tanzania.

This structure was the pride and joy of the entire village of Mundemu. When I asked what it was being used for, I was told it was a youth centre, an after-school-care centre, a village hall, and almost anything else the villagers have reason to gather for. And it was built, believe it or not, by the staff of Bank of Ireland. It made me so proud to hear that the Irish staff had been supporting World Vision Ireland through their Sponsor A Child programme for many years. It's nice to know that your money is making a difference. I've seen it with my own eyes.

In the villages of Msisi and Babayu, the women welcomed us with singing, dancing and banging of drums. They sang 'Akina baba ka mbazi, Akimama tuna weza' which translates as 'men stay back, for we can ourselves. Women are power'. Here they gave us gifts of a bow and arrows, hand-carved wooden bowls and two rather startled-looking chickens. Although I'm not sure who was more startled - Helen Keogh or the chickens, as she was handed the two farmyard fowl in a ritual of gratitude and respect. Knowing the challenge that the Masai weapon was likely to present in customs on the way home, we thought it better not to push it with poultry, and made sure to find a worthy family for our feathered friends on our way back to base.

Thankfully, I can honestly say that it was the most positive of all my trips to the developing world so far. Definitely more smiles than tears this time. That is because World Vision Ireland has been working in the areas we visited (otherwise known as ADPs - Area Development Programmes) for between one and five years already, so the communities are on the road to, or in the middle of, a successful development programme.

The number of mothers dying at childbirth has been reduced by 25pc because of AIM Health, the World Vision Access Infant and Maternal Health programme supported by Irish Aid. This has a very positive impact on the entire community. They are not living day to day anymore, their children are going to school and entire communities can look forward to the future.

Don't get me wrong, they are still so poor. My God, it's difficult to describe in words how little they have and how hard they have to work for it, but they are happy and so grateful, which is humbling to say the least. Everywhere we went the communities welcomed us with open arms.

I'm not sure it's something you ever get used to. Seeing people live in such extreme poverty is not easy, no matter how much you think you're prepared or no matter how many times you've seen pictures in magazines or newspapers or on TV. It's real when you are face to face with it. I think if every person in the developed world visited the developing world just once, poverty in its extreme would not exist. We are all numbed by the daily bombardment of images and that affects our giving.

In some ways, knowing what to expect makes it worse. It starts about two weeks before I am due to leave - anxiety, disrupted nights sleep and the fear and inevitability of homesickness while I'm away.

So why do I put myself through it each and every year? Because I don't feel I've a right to say no, to be honest. I know that by me visiting the areas where World Vision works, coming home and talking about it, it raises awareness and funds for the NGO and both are vital for their work to continue. I also know that once I am there, I focus on the job and don't have the time or the energy to worry about how I'm feeling or think about how much I miss home.

To become a child sponsor or to make a donation to World Vision Ireland, see worldvision.ie

Photography by David Conachy

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