It Takes a Village

In Tanzania, kids as young as 10 are leading the way in natural resource conservation.

IT’S 9 A.M., and Mama Regina sits on a small wooden stool in her kitchen making chai. In the chilly morning air, she is zipped up in a hoodie over a colorful kitenge skirt. Her hands are creased by time, but her eyes are full of youth. Three large stones sit on the ground before her, balancing a metal pot. A fire burns beneath. In goes water, milk, sugar and fragrant tea leaves. Mama stirs the boiling drink until it’s mixed, then pours it in a thermos to enjoy with her daughter as they watch the children, Bryson, 5, and Beatrice, 3, play beneath the clothesline in the yard.

Mama Regina lives in Rhotia, a small town in the Karatu district in northern Tanzania, north of Lake Manyara National Park. Like many others in Karatu, she cooks using the three-stone method, in which a metal pot sits balanced on three stones over an open fire. It gets the job done, but heating food this way takes considerable time, firewood, and sometimes charcoal. Plus, it comes with significant health and environmental drawbacks.

Approximately 45,000 families in Karatu alone use firewood to cook. The fires emit large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to long-term climate change. But black carbon from these fires can get lodged in people’s lungs, making them vulnerable to respiratory diseases. Meanwhile, collecting firewood leads to deforestation and is often done illegally in protected areas, especially when wood is scarce, adding to Tanzania’s already rampant human-wildlife conflict.

Indoor, woodfire stoves are just an example of an unsustainable practice that cannot be addressed through expensive, technical fixes alone. Biogas stoves are expensive, especially for families in poorer areas. Stanley Mruma, Karatu’s district environmental management officer, says that 90 percent of Tanzania depends on firewood for cooking, and he argues it’s impractical to forbid people from chopping trees to cook.

In this country, culture is still an important part of daily life. It needs to coexist with sustainability in order to make major lifestyle changes a reality.

“[The kitchen] is a college for Mama to teach her daughters how to cook and to teach the women roles,” said John Mwamhunga, a professor of wildlife management at the School for Field Studies in Rhotia.

Traditionally, women reign over the kitchen, so when it comes time for Mama to teach a valuable culinary lesson, there is little room to huddle around a stove attached to the wall. Old-school open fires, on the other hand, allow girls to gather around and observe.

Three-stone fires are the most common way to cook food or heat liquid in Rhotia. It’s the cheapest option, as well as the most harmful to the environment. It takes an average of nine pieces of firewood to heat the open fires that sit between the three stones.

Although biogas is far from popular in rural towns like Karatu, it is starting to catch on. Using cow dung as fuel, the stoves generate less toxic smoke than the traditional three-stone fires, do not use firewood and cook food faster. Because it must be installed against a wall, however, it is sometimes difficult for mothers to teach their daughters how to cook.

But educators in Karatu and across Tanzania see it as imperative to bridge the gap between culture and sustainability, to make daily tasks like cooking safer and more environmentally friendly. To do so, they’re turning to the next generation.

Tanzania, a country faced with a long history of colonialism, human-wildlife conflict, and natural resource mismanagement, now looks to its youth for a more sustainable future. Wildlife management colleges teach young people how to work in protected areas and national parks. Non-governmental organizations like Honeyguide teach children how and why human-wildlife conflict exists, and how to combat it without killing the wildlife, so that they can then teach their communities. And at a small elementary school in a town called Bashay, near Karatu, students are learning how to combat climate change with a simple nursery, a fuel-efficient cookstove, and a great respect for the environment.

Kidogo, kidogo. It means little by little, and it’s a popular phrase in Swahili. It applies to cooking ugali, a sticky corn-based porridge and staple of local diets; to heating up milk for chai over the fire; and to building more sustainable ways of living one family at a time.

On their way to class, students at Mazingira ya kijiji cha Bashay elementary school walk past young saplings. The name of the school means “the environment of Bashay village,” and in 2012, Mount Kilimanjaro Safari Club Managing Director Dennis Lebouteux helped establish the school to be a beacon for conservation ethics in education.

A few yards away from the classrooms, schoolboys help dig holes in the red clay to plant more saplings. Some of the girls jump rope nearby as teen boys hack cinderblocks to make concrete for classroom repair. The work is hard, but the sun is hidden behind a blanket of grey clouds, and everyone is smiling as they work and play.

Bashay is a small-scale example of Tanzania’s efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. The school is working towards more sustainable resource use by planting native trees that help mitigate soil erosion without requiring immense amounts of water.

From his position in the local government, Mruma emphasizes that uses of trees go beyond providing firewood for cooking and bathing. The school is careful to plant species that provide shade, sprout flowers and have minimal reliance on water. In turn, they attract pollinating bees, combat drought, feed livestock used for milk and meat, and supply timber for building modern houses “to live in harmony with your family,” Mruma said. The native acacia, fast-growing river tamarind, and albizzia, with its bright-colored blooms, are just a few of the species hand-selected for this nursery.

It’s now common for the students to learn about subtle lifestyle changes that help preserve the local environment, from agricultural techniques to minimizing human-wildlife conflict. At an outdoor seating area, picnic benches are conveniently located next to the school’s tree nursery as a conscious reminder of how to better use natural resources like trees and plants. Murals adorn the walls, each with a different environmental takeaway: a diagram of the water cycle, paintings of people collecting rainwater for irrigation, a cross-section of trees’ roots in the soil.

What the students learn in the classroom then follows them home. Every family in the community receives ten seedlings from the school’s tree nursery each year, and is required to plant them. If they don’t, the family is fined a small fee of 5,000 Tsh, the equivalent of about $2.50 USD, for each unplanted tree. Families are given seeds of different fruit trees, such as papaya, avocado, and citrus fruits, in addition to medicinal trees like the drought-resistant moringa oleifera, sometimes called the drumstick tree. The financial incentives encourage families to take advantage of the trees by selling or using the timber and reaping the health benefits of fruits and medicinal properties, Mruma adds.

Even in a small town, the impacts are significant. Thousands of local and water-friendly species, like the native croton megalocarpus, have already been sowed into the hardpan. Fires naturally release high amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, so in turn, these plant varieties help replenish oxygen and extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Nearly every activity in the Bashay village takes place with natural resource conservation in mind, making sure no felled branch or drop of water goes to waste. Farms in this region are steep, with contours made to protect downstream areas from potential runoff and soil erosion. The school’s gutters collect stores of rainwater in case of drought and dry spells. Finding solutions here isn’t just encouraged: It’s the norm.

It’s also an example for the rest of the country.

Elementary school boys dig up fresh pits to plant young saplings.

Detailed, hand-painted murals at the school showing how to sustainably use water and soil.

A ladder sits atop a pile of nutrient-rich soil used to cultivate seedlings in the Bashay school’s tree nursery. In the distance, a porch surrounded by educational murals is where students learn about natural resource conservation.

ESTER MATINGISA, A 27-year-old ornithologist from Morogoro in eastern Tanzania, views youth conservation education as more than just an environmental necessity. As a student of science herself, she sees it as empowerment for the younger generation.

“[Children need this education] so they can feel proud that they can just do conservation from the beginning, so they can continue to conserve for the future generations,” she said.

Matingisa graduated from Sokoine University of Agriculture and now conducts research as an intern for the Tanzania Bird Atlas Project. Previously, she worked on a project with the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute at Ruaha National Park alongside other young researchers passionate about conservation.

“There is progress, and still there’s more work to be done,” Matingisa said. “I think they need to involve local people more than they are. They need to put more energy into local people, their education, everything.”

Organizations like Honeyguide have already started doing so through educational programs. Its volunteers teach village youth groups about human-wildlife conflict and how to mitigate it while protecting both wildlife and people. Honeyguide introduces simple solutions to complex problems, says Magdalena Paskali Motambi, secretary of the Burunge Wildlife Management Area, one of the nonprofit’s focus areas. Using high-beam flashlights or beating drums, for example, helps scare off predators eyeing livestock as cheap prey.

In 1992, Jane Goodall visited Forodhani Secondary School in Zanzibar to talk to students about the humane treatment of animals. Among them was a 16-year-old boy named Erasto Njavike who had never given animals much thought. But after that visit, young Njavike had a new perspective. Suddenly, he felt compassion for animals and decided to commit his career to education to ensure that communities in his home country partake in conservation issues, from wildlife to climate change.

“If there is a negative attitude among young people, then it’s very difficult to overcome these challenges,” Njavike said. “The biggest challenge, I would say, is the [need for) attitude and behavior change toward environmental issues.”

Today, Njavike works as a coordinator for the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots program, a global, youth-led educational project inspiring children to learn — and teach — conservation techniques in their own communities. The program has taken root in 55 districts across Tanzania.

“The teachers are the key to the school,” Njavike said. “Once you have motivated and inspired teachers who can take up action, who can volunteer, who can accept to work extra hours, that’s when you can have a good survival and growth of Roots & Shoots. It is about not just inspiring students, but also inspiring teachers.”

The goal, Njavike said, is for students to spread the word to their communities and families. He cites one success story in particular to show conservation education working in harmony with age-old tradition.

Retired district environmental officer Stanley Mruma explains how bricks made of sand and other natural sediments offer a more sustainable and durable construction material.

Ester Matingisa, 27, researches birds and interns for the Tanzania Bird Atlas Project. She thinks the future of conservation in Tanzania is promising, but says there’s still work to be done.

Marafiki wa Punda, which means Friends of Donkeys, is an animal welfare program in Arusha for these common pack animals that are often used for heavy labor.

“We have been witnessing donkeys being so mistreated because of the climate change issues,” Njavike said. “They have to walk long distances to get water, long distances to get some harvest, so they are working so many hours, and they are overloading them. You will find donkeys being injured and very sick. Sometimes even death happens.”

But the Marafiki wa Punda program has resulted in a noticeable improvement in the treatment of donkeys. Youth undergo an animal welfare training session so they can return to their respective villages and communicate what they learned in their tribe’s native tongue. That’s important, given there are more than 120 tribal and ethnic groups across the country, most with their own dialect. “We are now seeing a very good change in how people treat their donkeys,” Njavike said.

“These students don’t just go [to their parents] and say ‘treat your donkeys well,’” said Njavike. “They start with a long story discussing the conservation aspects and challenges, how the environment is being disturbed by human beings and then, in turn, how donkeys are being mistreated out of that. They are trying to communicate climate change through storytelling to their parents, and how then parents can best communicate the issues.”

BACK IN KARATU, families are trying to move away from the three-stone cooking method. Hundreds have already switched to biofuel, using cow dung to fire up cooktops. Excess dung can then be used as fertilizer in home gardens. The Jane Goodall Institute has also installed upwards of 15,000 rocket stoves in households across western Tanzania. A rocket stove is a small, highly-efficient stove whose design allows it to make use of any small fuel sources such as twigs, small branches, and dry grass. It uses half as much firewood as traditional wood stoves.

Mazingira ya kijiji cha Bashay school houses a fuel-efficient cookstove that stands at waist-height and requires only a third of the firewood needed for three-stone fires. Few people can afford such a cookstove at home, but as Njavike notes, its educational importance lies in the conservation ethic it inspires in students — and the respect for nature they acquire.

“If someone does not feel he is part of the environment, is part of the positive through every action they do, it’s a big problem,” said Njavike. “Understanding that concept, that’s the biggest challenge.”

Njavike relates this concept to Tanzania, but it’s true of most countries around the world. Only a new generation that feels responsible can lead a new era of solutions, he said.

Further north, 17-year-old Greta Thunberg has inspired thousands of other kids worldwide to strike for climate action. Both before and after Thunberg’s big splash, hundreds of children and teens have made their message clear: Generations prior need to take responsibility for a doomed future. Their voices radiate through the lawsuits, through the editorials, through the rallies — even if they’re not always successful. Tanzanian youth aren’t alone in their quest to combat climate change.

“They are the future decision-makers, they are the future policymakers, they are the future of the country,” Njavike said.

But, like all progress, it will take time. “At the end of the day, our environment will be in good condition,” Mruma said. “Kidogo, kidogo.”

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