Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Tanzania Business Times Correspondence-07

Last week in the UK we received a visit from Pope Benedict XVI. It was a busy four days – he travelled to four cities, conducted mass to tens of thousands of Catholics and beatified a nineteenth century theologian. He dominated the newspapers during his stay and the news channels on television covered his every move, even including what he ate for breakfast.

The trip got me thinking about great African religious icons – who they have been and what they have preached.

But I quickly realised that, apart from the renowned Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I really know pathetically little about any African religious leader. It’s not something we’re taught in schools here and I’ve never, until now, been in a position where knowing about them was important.

I’ve just spent time on the internet, frantically trying to find some kind of information about this. Now, as it’s getting late, I’ve settled for writing a little about Tutu and a little more about a figure described as ‘an eminent hero of traditional Sufi Islam’, a man born on the coast of Somalia who went on to propagate the spread of Islam throughout East Africa.

Shaykh Uways bin Muhammad, known as Shehu Awesu in Kiswahili, was born in 1847 into humble origins. As a young boy dedicated to his studies, he was taken to Baghdad by his teacher, who noticed an unusual piety in the child. This journey represented the incubation of his greatness: he studied under the best masters, made pilgrimages to Medina and Mecca and allegedly received an ijazah – a Muslim certificate to show one has been authorised by an authority to impart certain Islamic knowledge.

After his 1883 return to his homeland, it didn’t take long for his reputation as being an Islamic expert to spread. He became leader of the Qadiriyya (one of the oldest Sufi orders in Sunni Islam) in southern Somalia and began missionary work in East Africa.

Invited by the Sultan of Oman, the then ruler of Zanzibar, Shehu Awesu made many visits to Zanzibar and initiated many disciples into the order there. These were the disciples who spread the Qadiriyya, now the largest brotherhood in Tanzania, as far inland as the Congo. It sounds as though this man was a catalyst for Islam in Tanzania.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is more world renowned. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate spearheaded the fight against apartheid in South Africa and since then has continued working for peace and justice with characteristic energy and charisma.

He was the first black South African to do many things: in 1975 he became the first black Dean of St Mary’s cathedral in Johannesburg, in 1978 he was made the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches and in 1986 became the first black Archbishop of Cape Town. In the 1994 all-race election, Tutu coined the term ‘Rainbow Nation’ and introduced Nelson Mandela as president – a moment he describes as: “One of the greatest in my life.”

In 2003, the African Leadership Institute (AfLI) was established with ‘The Arch’, as Tutu is affectionately known, as patron. President Kikwete is currently working alongside AfLI to develop a new project – the Young African Leaders Awards and Conference. The AfLI website says the goal of the project is to ‘highlight the amazing achievements of Africa’s young leaders which go unnoticed in a continent mired by negative publicity’, thus creating role models.

So, these last few paragraphs have been a history lesson for me and maybe for you too. Why am I writing them? Well, Tanzania impresses me for its peaceful cohabitation of varied religions. It’s a commendably progressive attitude in a world where religion frequently causes segregation and even war. Only a few days ago, a pastor in the USA was threatening to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of September 11, due to his dangerous belief that Islam is a “false religion” and is “of the devil”. He wanted retribution for the September 11 attacks and made the mistake of thinking that Islam was to blame for them.

Tanzania is, thankfully, largely free of such nonsense. Religions are a faith, an expression of life – not a divider. It is warming to see.

It seems apt to end with some of Tutu’s words: “In God’s family, there are no outsiders, no enemies. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Buddhist, Hutu and Tutsi, Pakistani and Indian – all belong. When we start to live as brothers and sisters and to recognise out interdependence, we become fully human.”

I would like to hear any comments or suggestions, particularly regarding African religious leaders. If you would like to share, please email at mikeedmondstone@hotmail.com.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Tanzania Business Times Correspondence-06

During my trip to the South African World Cup over the summer, one of the things that stood out amid the bright flags and hum of vuvuzelas was a sign, recurring over and over on busses, placards, t-shirts and advertising boards. It read simply: 1Goal, Education for All. There was a web link underneath, inviting people to find out more, then hopefully to show their support: join1goal.org. It represented a clear message and a worthy cause.

The website itself acts as a rallying call, a cry from those who have signed, aimed at political leaders across the globe. Using the internet’s power of cutting across time zones and bringing the world together, the campaign has encouraged a metaphorical linking of hands from varied walks of society: A-list celebrities, politicians, the regular public and so on.

The campaign, according to its website, is hoping that: “Together we can call on world leaders to make education a reality for 782million children by 2015.” Shakira, the pop diva whose ‘Waka Waka’ song made this World Cup even more memorable, gave her word to the cause: “Education is the one deal that we have to invest in”.

Some statistics give the opinion weight: 1. A child who goes to school will earn an extra 10% for every year of schooling they complete. 2. Children who complete primary education are less than half as likely to be infected with HIV compared to those who haven’t attended school.

The second of UN’s Millennium Development Goals highlights the importance of universal completion of primary school education. Their website proudly says that in 2002, Tanzania made primary school education free of charge and that: “Almost overnight, an estimated 1.6million children enrolled in school and by 2003, 3.1 million additional children were attending primary education.” Since that landmark year when primary schools no longer turned the poorest away, school attendance has ballooned from 59% to today’s figure of 95.4%. Tanzania’s success has been held up as a model to which other developing nations must aspire.

But, as with so many success stories, there’s a flipside. The school system in Tanzania, it has been reported, cannot take the strain of the increasingly huge number of pupils. For reasons similar to those explaining why the road infrastructure in downtown Dar es Salaam causes ‘foleni sana’, the schools are getting swamped. There is simply not enough school to go round.

It is not uncommon in Tanzania to have classrooms with more than 80 pupils squeezed in, many of whom suffer a shortage of books and other essential facilities. The number of teachers is also in relatively short supply. I remember having a conversation with an American Peace Corps volunteer who was explaining how, in the region where he was working, many new schools had been built and, although the young children in the area were given new opportunities of attending the schools, the education they would receive there would be highly questionable.

He told me that only one or two teachers would be in charge of hundreds of pupils. Due to the huge difficulties involved in getting the children to sit still and pay attention, the teachers would opt for another method: taking them to the school’s fields where they would till the soil and farm the crops – the same activities they would be doing had they not gone to school at all.

Another fact puts the UN’s positive statistics into a different light – that, although the school fees are technically free, there are many overheads not taken into account that parents must pay for. These can include uniforms, transport to school and even, it has been reported, the use of the toilets.

Add these points to the barriers emphasized by the Tanzania Education Network, including children not being able to pay attention due to empty stomachs; forced marriages and early pregnancies; and a limited access for children with special needs and it seems that the success story the UN uses on their Millennium Development Goals website doesn’t say the whole story. Perhaps these points shall be raised at their summit, to be held in New York next week.

Although Tanzania is on the right track, it needs to play catch up with itself. It has succeeded in getting the youngest generation to go to school but it must now catch up with providing the necessary facilities for a decent education.

It was a courageous and ambitious move to make primary school education both free and compulsory. The masses of children, burning with desire to be educated, now have chances that wouldn’t have existed to them a decade ago. These are the children who will grow up to lead this nation further in its rapid evolution. They must be prepared for it.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Tanzania Business Times correspondence-05

I don’t like the word ‘charity’. It implies too large a gap between giver and receiver to imply any kind of human touch. It also connotes, to me, a certain sort of smugness in some donors that soils the sound of the word for others. Furthermore, it’s far too frequently borne from guilt, rather than genuine care. At Christmas time in the UK – ‘time for giving’ - we’re bombarded by charity adverts, all competing for our attention, that show pitiful pictures of miserable poverty, accentuated by a token soundtrack of invariably over-sentimental cry-time music. We’re emotionally blackmailed into giving to all sorts of sources that we don’t take time to fully understand.

Of course, this is a good thing. Charity is a good thing. It helps people. But that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy the emotional coercion. There is even a saying over here: “As cold as charity,” to convey something being very, extremely, cold. No, I don’t like the word ‘charity’. I prefer the word ‘help.’ ‘Helping’ sounds, well, helpful. It sounds bright, optimistic and useful, probably something done with a smile on the face. Like helping a friend to paint their house. Or helping an infirmed person with the shopping and cleaning. Or even helping a village from the ravages of drought by helping provide education and resources to think ahead and combat the problem.

Yes I know- this is petty quibbling over semantics: the ‘help’ from the common person would generally be financial help that is taken and used by an organisation that specialises in helping, i.e. a charity.

So what am I getting at?

George W Bush, during the Air Force One flight he took to Africa back in February 2008, said in passing to Sir Bob Geldof (former rockstar and long-time Africa campaigner and philanthropist), that westerners should: “Stop coming to Africa feeling guilty. Come with love and feeling confident about the future.”

After all, there’s plenty to be confident about. Firstly there is a huge potential workforce in the continent that is hoping for direction, and work. It seems fair to say that many Africans would throw themselves into a task with vigour. They want to work, many of them, to improve their livelihoods and help them and their family reach the next level.

Secondly, Africa has gigantic expanses of arable land. In a funny sort of irony, it’s more than feasible that Africa- the continent that for so long has been associated with starvation-
shall one day be the single major contributor to feeding the world.

And thirdly, Africa looks to become a principal centre for opportunity. It is growing faster than the rest of the world. The Mckinsey Global Institute records that real GDP for Africa rose 4.9% per year from 2000 to 2008 – more than twice its pace during the 1980s and 1990s.

Simply because of its status as a developing nation, there are so many windows of opportunity left to open.

I recognised it immediately on arriving in Tanzania. Sir Bob Geldof, who is infinitely more influential than me, has realised it for many years and he is now using his contacts, knowledge, energy and passion to do something positive about it.

Earlier this week, it was reported that Geldof is preparing a private equity fund to invest in Africa. Figures vary from £650million ($997million) to £1billion ($1.53billion), but whatever the amount, the man is aiming to secure large amounts of money to pump into African markets.

‘8 Mile,’ as the endeavour is to be known, (named after the distance between Africa and Europe, as taken across the Straight of Gibraltar) already has finalised pledges of £32.5million ($49.8million) from the African Development Bank and the same figure from the International Finance Corporation.

The money will be invested in chunks of between £10million ($15.3million) and £50million ($76.7million), in agriculture, telecommunications and finance.

Geldof said: “Africa is the last great investment opportunity left… Where is your money safest? Africa – that’s the truth. The fundamentals are staring you in the face. Infrastructure, mobile phones, consumer goods, it’s all growth.”

A stirring statistic that Bush Jr cited on the same Africa trip in 2008 was that Africa accounts for only 1.2% of World Trade. A 1% increase in World Trade from the continent is equivalent to FIVE TIMES the amount of aid it currently receives.

Geldof said earlier this year: “Poverty can be alleviated through aid, but will only be eliminated through trade, investment and growth.”

Surely Africa doesn’t want to be a charity case. Surely nobody wants people to feel guilt over them. And I believe it won’t be long before the fruits of investment burst across the last Wild Continent, spreading their sweetness throughout that Elysian land.

Tanzania Business Times Correspondence-04

It looks as though there might finally be some good news for animals threatened with extinction. Through work that could easily have been fished out of a science fiction novel, clever people working in a laboratory based in the Northern suburbs of USA’s San Diego have good reason to believe that the day when animals are genetically reproduced from frozen skin cells is not far off.

San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation has been collecting DNA samples from rare animals since 1972, in the hope that, one day, the tiny frozen flakes could help towards protecting species on the brink of extinction. Back then nobody knew what use the cells could have – the conservationists just had the belief that, one day, science would progress to a level that would allow people to use them for something productive.

And now, after a major break-though in stem-cell technology, it looks as though that day is on the horizon.

The laboratory appearing to be spearheading the revolutionary technology is called The Scripps Research Institute. They describe themselves as a non-profit research organisation that has stood at the forefront of basic biomedical science since its conception, three decades ago.

Now, I’m certainly no scientist - let’s be clear on that - but allow me to explain the science behind this striking development as I understand it: The intelligent bunch of experts at Scripps have taken samples of the frozen skin cells and somehow turned them into a culture of cells known as ‘induced pluripotent stem’ (IPS) cells.

According to WordNet, a lexical database of English, developed by Princeton University, a stem-cell is: ‘An undifferentiated cell whose daughter cells may differentiate into other cells.’ In other words, it is a cell that has no particular function on its own but can become any other cell.

So, these IPS cells theoretically have the ability to become egg and sperm cells. These, as we all know, can be fused to form an embryo and Hey Presto! Bam! Life!

Keep the embryo in conditions suitable for growth and a baby rhinoceros, or a cheetah cub, or a silver-maned drill monkey, as the case may be, could be on its way to help beef up diminishing populations.

The current revolution that is getting the scientific community so excited has been the creation of IPS cells for this silver-maned drill monkey. It is the most endangered of all Africa’s monkeys and earlier this year, stem cells from this primate morphed into brain cells, giving the whole theory a big basis for belief.

The implications of all this are far reaching and have understandably made conservationists delighted. With the ever-onward march of science, moving determined through uncharted territory, it may well only be a matter of time, possibly not many years, before species on the edge of extinction (of which more than 350 mammals alone are indigenous to Africa) are given new life. Threatened animals, such as the common hippopotamus, the rhino and our closest genetic relative - the chimpanzee – face the possibility of having their gene-pools enhanced by scientific meddling.

There are some animals, such as the northern white rhino, originally a free roamer in sub-Saharan countries like Tanzania, which currently number less than ten in the world. Due to poaching, this rhino is now extinct in the wild. There are only eight kept in captivity – the sad remains of a species that could once stand alone in the open savannah and graze without fear.

The stem-cell technology that is being pioneered in Scripps’ research facility is laying the foundations for hope, that one day our ancestors may be able to view these unarguably magnificent creatures in their own natural environment. We can only hope. Good luck to the scientists! And good work!