First Person: Alumna Reports from Tanzania
Scenes from my work documenting a program that helps once-reclusive Maasai women.
by Jenny Rizzo ’01
The drive seemed endless in an aging four-wheeler with no windowpanes or seatbelts. The red East African earth formed a gritty coating on my skin and teeth. After three hours our driver slowed to a stop under a tree with sagging limbs, and my two Tanzanian guides turned to me and said, “We walk from here.” I stepped out into a valley, and all I could see around us was brush with the Kilimanjaro mountain range in the distance. I followed Victoria, my translator, as she used a wood stick to bushwhack a path for us.
I was starting to fret about having left my compass back at the hostel in Moshi when suddenly someone took my hand and slipped my backpack off my shoulder. I spun around to find a woman decorated with beaded jewelry and wearing a bright blue tribal dress. Other woman and half-naked children began to surround me, and with a high-pitched trill, they launched into a tribal welcoming song.
It was almost surreal. I tried to remind myself that I was indeed visiting the Maasai tribe in Africa and not dreaming I had been dropped into a National Geographic photo. The Maasai are believed to descend from a lost tribe of Israel. They are nomadic and polygamist, and their culture has barely changed in more than 600 years. But I was visiting them to document an important turning point in their history: they were reaching out and asking the Western world for help.
I had been in Africa for two weeks, covering development workers with Worth Women, a nonprofit empowerment program funded by USAID dollars. I was going to turn my research and interviews into a four-part documentary series that would air on Deutsche Welle Radio, Germany’s public radio service, where I was working as a guest journalist.
My time in Tanzania had taken me into a dozen impoverished rural villages where women of all ages were joining Worth groups to learn how to save and then pool their money to start small businesses like selling fish or baskets. A grandmother named Mwanariadha Msangi explained it to me simply: “This is about women. We want progress. And we know that when we have our own business, when we are doing well in the business, it changes the whole family.”
Unlike the other African women, the Maasai women had to ask their husbands (known as Maasai warriors) for permission to join, and the program had to work within the confines of their tribal traditions. But Worth Women is an adaptable program, and empowering women through literacy and business lessons works just as well in tribal outposts as it does in Muslim villages.
My time in Tanzania was marked by many trips down unpaved roads. But at each destination I met amazing women who were living without electricity or running water, yet living with hope. My western perception of Africans with their hands out was replaced with a respect and admiration for the people, who were working hard to transform their lives.
Economic empowerment, I now believe, is essential to building a self-sustaining Africa, and programs that target women are a brilliant way to invest in one of Africa’s greatest resources.