December is actually the summer in Tanzania, so the weather can reach upwards of 100 degrees farenheit. The mornings, however, are nice and cool (lovin’ the jetlag!)

After a brisk morning walk and breakfast, it was time to go to our volunteer placements. We stumbled into the van, and were slowly dropped off at our respective assignments. After an hour of rounds, I was the last one to exit the van.

I entered through a metal door into a small u-shaped courtyard and was quickly introduced in Swahili to Mama Mrema, director of WEECE. I could tell immediately that Valeria Mrema is a rare breed of woman in Tanzania . She is never afraid to speak her mind, offer her opinion, or tell you exactly what she wants. She also has a heart the size of Tanzania. It takes a very special woman like Mama to help found an organization like WEECE, inside of a country where women have been second-hand citizens for decades.

WEECE’s basic mission is to support marginalized women in the Kilimanjaro region to achieve economic stability and gender equality through micro-loans, education, and counseling/advocacy.

So what does this mean?

Well… essentially, it means that women in tough situations (abused, divorced, widowed, outcast, geographically isolated, single mothers, financially challenged, etc.) are given opportunities to become educated, self-sufficient, empowered citizens. On their own, this wouldn’t be possible, but with WEECE’s programs, they have a chance at a decent life.

Here are just a few examples of WEECE in action….

* A woman’s husband passes away and she must find a way to support her three children on her own. She gets a micro-loan from WEECE of $50 to purchase plants and garden seeds so that she can start growing and selling produce at market. She receives advice & workshop training from her fellow WEECE members and is able to make enough profit from her business to pay for her living expenses as well as her children’s secondary school education. Once her initial micro-loan is re-paid, she qualifies for a larger loan to expand her business (perhaps buying some chickens so she’ll have eggs to sell at market too!)

* A young woman whose family was never able to afford secondary school has a desire to learn valuable skills that will enable her to get a job in the community. For a nominal fee, WEECE offers vocational classes that teach each student basic conversational English, sewing, and computer/typing skills. Once her studies are complete, she will have doors opened to her that never existed before as well as a new-found confidence in her own abilities.

* Believing she is in love, a young girl gets pregnant before marriage (giant taboo in Tanzania). The father decides to leave her and the girl is now “unmarriable” with no future source of income. Certain laws in Tanzania provide for the mother to receive some funds from the biological father; however, these are rarely enforced. Through counseling and advocacy, WEECE can work with governmental commissions to ensure these girls receive at least a portion of the money due them to care for their child and will educate them on child welfare.

In addition to addressing individual needs, WEECE also works with larger communities of women to enhance their standard of living.

For example, Mama Mrema worked with the government to provide free mosquito nets to a community of Masaii tribe women who were contracting malaria at an alarming rate.

The organization has also developed multiple projects in a village called Nganjoni to educate women on their rights, reduce domestic violence, decrease malnutrition, renovate the local schools and provide a new health clinic so that they can go to the doctor without having to walk 15 miles! I’ll share much more on Nganjoni later.

Speaking of health issues, WEECE also does its part to educate women on communities on the HIV virus. Currently, 8% of the Tanzanian population is HIV-positive. That’s roughly 1 out of every 12 people. Many individuals (especially in rural areas) do not realize this disease is passed through sexual contact. The Tanzanian culture is such that husbands generally aren’t monogamous, while a wife is expected to never question her husband. Because of this attitude, many women can potentially get infected with HIV without their knowledge. By educating women of safe methods of protection and helping them understand the disease, WEECE is working to prevent its spread.

After learning more about WEECE’s processes, I took a brief tour of the facility. They have a small building for volunteers that come to stay for an extended amount of time, a micro-loan finance & director’s office, a small classroom with manual sewing machines, and a little storefront along the street to sell goods that they’ve made (mostly sewn items).

After the tour, I took dictation from Mama Mrema, typing at her desktop computer as she responded to a variety of e-mail communications. Even with special surge protectors (about the size of a car battery!), we faced electricity issues and lost several e-mails mid-stream. (The infrastructure for good electricity is still lacking in the country… an American surge protector would do no good here.) We made some progress, but it seemed that time had flown by when the CCS van arrived to pick me up.

Given that I’m a bit of a crafty gal, we decided I would spend the rest of the week “teaching the teachers” since class was not in session. The wheels started churning as I began brainstorming ideas on what skills I could pass on. ..stamping, sewing, and maybe even baking would come into the mix.

The key to teaching a new skill was that it must help folks create sustainable income using only local, readily available products. This would require a trip into town later in the afternoon to see what kinds of crafty things someone could buy in Moshi, Tanzania.

After returning to home-base for lunch, we went on a group visit to the local free hospital. We met with the program director and toured the AIDS clinic, malaria unit, psych ward, and maternity ward. These facilities are government-paid, but sadly, they do not have nearly enough medicine and supplies to go around. Patients are often sent away to the other fee-based hospitals where they would be able to purchase the medication. For those that can’t afford it, though, they are out of luck until a new shipment of drugs arrives.

The part of the tour that stuck with me the most was the maternity ward. There were 2-3 women sitting in each bed waiting to have their babies. I’d say maybe 30 women were waiting in 12 or so beds. There was only one delivery room at the end of the hall and the women were all patiently waiting for their turn to go in. As soon as one woman was done, another would go in, pop her baby out, and so on. The only experience I’d had with maternity wards has been visiting friends in US hospitals where we generally have our own rooms complete with TVs, adjustable beds, and ready epidurals to alleviate the pain. No such thing in Africa. These women are tough!

After leaving the hospital, the CCS van dropped us off downtown and I began my search for some usable items to use at my volunteer placement. I walked into a stationery store and found a package of 100 sheets of cardstock and two bottles of blue “stamping ink” for about $5. Thinking back to my childhood days, I remembered creating my very first stamps with potatoes. Now that’s something that is readily available and cheap, right? We had some potatoes back at home-base, so I returned home with the knowledge I wouldn’t be empty-handed at placement the next day.

After dinner, as the light faded into a dark night sky, I began to notice we weren’t alone. Dozens of geckos were clinging to the outside walls and ceilings. They brought a scream or two from volunteers, but I love those lil’ guys. The way I see it – lizards are no problem, but other critters are another story. As I fell asleep, I tried to avoid thinking about what else might be hiding nearby. (spiders and snakes and beetles, oh my!)