How “A Bridge, A Pipe and Lunch” led us to discovering Lalafofofo: Our family’s story.
Learning about Lalafofofo begins with a story about our family. We were seeking an experiential and service learning experience for our three boys. Tanzania, Africa is where we chose to move for six months in January 2015.
Silicon Valley, California is home for us. Living in a less developed country seemed like a solid character-building experience, and the kids could do a semester of school in our destination country while we’re at it, to further expand their horizons.
No TV included. We’d discover that the service learning would be key to unlocking the Moshi community for us. It would also be the link that kept us connected to home. “A Bridge, A Pipe and Lunch” was the initial result. For the kids, their service projects proved as valuable as the Swahili classes they attended at school in Moshi, Tanzania.
We chose Tanzania, and specifically the city of Moshi which is near Mount Kilimanjaro, because of its fantastic out- door opportunities, rich culture, and international school. It was our first experience in sub- Saharan Africa.
Life in Moshi, as you’d expect, is very different than life in the Silicon Valley.
When we arrived, we had no idea what kind of service learning projects to perform. Our vision was entirely “do-it-yourself” from the ground up. There is a well-established nonprofit/NGO industry in East and South Africa that survives on volunteer-tourism. Tourists pay to come and perform services for a specified duration, completing specific tasks for any given organization. Planting trees, planning irrigation systems, counting wildlife, working at orphanages, and teaching English. These are just some of the examples of the wonderful work these organizations perform. For us, this wasn’t possible because our kids would be attending school.
The Mount Kilimanjaro area also has a long history of missionary work. However, we were on our own, unattached to any organization or church. While we dealt with water shortages, electricity outages, and everyday life in Moshi. We soon focused on a goal—finding projects that were tangible and meaningful to our kids. Poverty is a widespread problem in Kilimanjaro, but it seemed over-reaching to expect our 13-, 11- and 10-year old sons to solve it in six months. So we started small.
Discovering Lalafofofo: a bridge
The Bridge to Kimashuku was originally a collaborative building project between international and local organizations managed by Moshi residents Anne and Steve (“Grandpa”) Street, and Kimashuku’s village elder. The bridge was built in 2001 for the villagers of Kimashuku to cross the Weruweru River. During the annual rainy season, runoff from Mount Kilimanjaro swells the river to dangerous levels, essentially cutting off the villagers’ passageway to town where they can get supplies. No one expected the bridge to be collapsing so soon after its construction, but it had deteriorated to the point that crossing it had become treacherous. Folks had already been looking for funds to fix it when our family arrived. Serendipity. Our 10-year-old son Tate loves bridges and immediately asked “Grandpa” Street, questions about the bridge’s design. Tate went to work and raised more than $6,000 in two months to repair the bridge.
Discovering Lalafofofo: a pipe
When Grandpa Street drove us to Mlima Shabaha, a village west of Moshi, we thought we were in Arizona. Desert. Cactus even. There were Maasai villagers wearing traditional tribal clothing, living in thatched huts and herding their goats. The land was so barren, we wondered what the goats were eating.
Grandpa Street knew the principal of the Mlima Shabaha School as well as many of the locals, because the Streets had been building houses, donating food and arranging healthcare for villagers for many years.
When we arrived at the school and met with the principal, our 11-year-old, Reid, noticed a lack of drinking faucets and a huge stack of plastic water containers. The school had no running water.
Students had to carry water buckets and jugs in with them every morning, some of them walking miles with their heavy cargo.The school needed water not only for drinking, but for cleaning and for toilet functions.
Reid thought it was an injustice to expect kids to “water a school,” so he set to work and raised $3,000 for a water pipe installation project in four weeks.
Discovering Lalafofofo: lunch
At Mlima Shabaha School, our 13-year-old son Sam spoke with a classroom of students approximately his own age. Later, Sam asked Grandpa Street about the students’ day-to-day routine, only to learn that the students had a breakfast of tea at home before walking to school.
That breakfast of tea needed to last them all day too. The Mlima Shabaha students had no lunch to tide them over mid-day.
It was particularly tough for Sam to wrap his head around such extreme poverty when he’d had pancakes that morning. With syrup. Grandpa Street advised Sam that a straightforward project would be to raise enough money to buy enough corn, beans, oil, sugar and salt for Mlima Shabaha School to provide student lunches for a year—about $1,500. Sam was in.
In seven days, he raised $1,500 for the school lunch program, and decided that he wanted to keep doing this for the next five years. To us it seemed a surprisingly low amount to feed 150 students each day.
During our three kids’ individual crowd-fundraising campaigns to raise money for their projects, friends and families from their schools back home in California rallied to help. In addition to donating cash to the kids’ online website, they also hosted bake sales, involved the schools’ leadership groups, posted our story in their newsletters, and sent information to schools and local newspapers.
Overwhelmingly humbled by their positive responses and inquiries about how they could help, we realized then what great potential existed for other families and children to participate in this experience. Without even traveling to Kilimanjaro for six months, kids at home could still gain an understanding of Tanzanian culture and people by participating in projects that were affordable, small-scale and tangible, and could be managed from home.
Hence, from our service projects, the “Bridge, Pipe and Lunch” campaign was launched. We then started a nonprofit in Tanzania and California called Lalafofofo to keep kids back home in California connected to small-scale “micro-projects” in Kilimanjaro. We hired a local in Moshi for 15-20 hours per week to keep looking for projects ranging from $500 to $2,500 that could address some needs in the area.
“Lalafofofo” is a playful Swahili expression that means “sleeping peacefully.” When verbalized, it often results in a smile from most locals. We appreciated its double meaning, and that it could be remembered easily by English-speaking kids back home.
Our ambitions seemed endless. Planting trees to reforest Mount Kilimanjaro, hence providing locals with a source of firewood. Purchasing mattresses for an orphanage that houses disabled children and albinos. Building houses for Maasai widows, who have lost their husbands only to be shunned from their community for being HIV positive. Fixing battered, crumbling roofs of government schools that can’t even afford to pay their teachers.
These are just some of the currently needed projects. Money goes a long way in Tanzania, so these projects are affordable for most U.S. families to participate. In addition, they allow American kids who want to get involved realize that they can help others in a specific, tangible way by raising relatively modest sums of money. The added perk is that they can learn more about Tanzania in the process.
Through Lalafofofo, our family is maintaining our connection to the Kilimanjaro community long-term, ideally for years to come since returning to the U.S. This is our way to say thank you to the people of Moshi.