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Into Africa

Sometimes it seems no one has ever done the right thing by Africa, but Kim Hill tracks down a couple of Kiwis who have.

'There is never any good news about Africa. The international aid agencies want the bad news stories so they can justify their existence." This seems a churlish claim from Ahmed, who runs a safari company in Arusha, Tanzania, as for decades now, we've believed that generous and well-intentioned donations have saved at least some Africans from starvation and ruin.

But Ahmed illustrates his version of middle-class capture with an anecdote about a road that was regularly eroded during the rainy season and laboriously repaired by hand each time. Then an aid agency decided it could do a better and more permanent job with some expensive heavy machinery. The machines were quick but clumsy, and blocked the natural drainage channels, which the labourers knew to leave clear at the sides of the road. When the next rains came, the road was washed away entirely.

That's a kind of inarguable parable. And here's an illustrative situation: New Zealanders don't tip, and in Tanzania, tipping is de rigueur. But how much, and when, and how often, and by whom, and to whom? Our small group of well-meaning New Zealanders got itself into such a minefield of breached etiquette and bruised sensibilities that one lost her composure entirely and began thrusting large amounts of money on quite unsuspecting Tanzanians at inappropriate moments, and then felt irrationally aggrieved when that largesse counted for nothing when righteously expectant tippees came around.

Sometimes it seems no one has ever done the right thing by Africa. Slavery, colonisation, resource pillage, trade barriers ... there's a lot the rest of the world can feel guilty about. The latest Wrong Thing is aid. Every airport bookshop I visited in Africa has an entire section on the subject of How Aid Has Ruined Africa. Robert Guest's The Shackled Continent is fairly typical: "For half a century now, the continent has been deluged with aid, but this has failed to make Africans any less poor. The problem is that donors have opened their wallets with scant regard as to whether the money will be sensibly spent. They have bankrolled tyrants ... or idealists with hopeless economic policies such as Julius Nyerere in Tanzania. Both types of aid have been wasted."

Me, I always liked Nyerere, Tanzania's first president, for translating Shakespeare into Kiswahili, not to mention managing to weld 120 different ethnic groups into an untypically peaceful African nation. But even back in the 1970s, Shiva Naipaul wrote that because Nyerere "is just about the only African head of state one can contemplate without immediate sensations of outrage or embarrassment ... the philanthropists and aid-givers pour in, bringing in their baggage a burning 'commitment', a burning idealism, all seeking to do something worthwhile with their lives - if only for a year or two".

Damn pesky aid workers. These days they probably tell people they're arms dealers to avoid opprobrium.

So here is some good news about Africa. Specifically, some good news about a small town near Arusha called Tengeru, where Zadocki Kitomary, his wife, Ndetanisula, and their six children have improved their quality of life by improving the quality of their soil. VSA volunteer and Lincoln University graduate Tom Broughton has got to know them well. He's well into a two-year stint, seconded to an organisation called Global Service Corps. In Tanzania, GSC focuses on HIV/Aids awareness, and educating farmers about sustainable agriculture. Broughton's friend and fellow New Zealander Mike Allard is working on the HIV programme.

Broughton's boss, GCS country director Erwin Kinsey, knows the pitfalls of aid. He has been in Tanzania for 35 years, and in the early days was involved in setting up an ambitious dairy project in the southern highlands. "It was badly planned," he says ruefully. "The cows didn't last long, people forgot to milk them. It was far too big a project. I learnt my lesson. The basis of our work here is teaching individual farmers so they can teach others."

What GSC has taught the Kitomarys is biointensive agriculture, a form of organic agriculture involving double-dug beds, composting, intensive planting and crop diversification. "The soil here isn't good," Broughton explains. "And urea-based fertiliser's way too expensive. So the organic system we've got going here is really efficient."

In the mounded vegetable beds grows a bewildering range of produce to be sold at the market. And where once a couple of cows grazed, yielding very little milk from the scrubby grass, is a fish farm, which stores water during the dry season.

Out the back are chickens and goats, including a big billy with threatening horns called Osama bin Laden because, explains Zadocki, "he's angry and hard to catch". Manure from the goats is fed to the fish, and water from the fish ponds goes onto the vegetable garden. Piles of compost are cooking well, and beneath some banana palms grow 14 vanilla vines, an experimental crop that will be lucrative if it thrives.

Broughton brings other farmers to see what's being done here, and word's spreading. For the Kitomarys, it means a better diet for the family, affordable medicine, being able to send their children to school.

Broughton is clearly having a great time in Tanzania. He loves the people, he plays for the local rugby team and his Kiswahili is coming along. "I know enough to make people think I know more than I do, and they talk so fast. I thought I had malaria once - turned out I didn't - but when I was trying to get some medical attention, I caused great hilarity when I apparently asked if I could iron the doctor."

And he likes making a difference, whether it be giving the locals a ride along the road in his small VSA truck ("My record's 27 people on the back") or doing his indirect bit to save the wildlife of Tanzania: "We've been vaccinating chickens against Newcastle disease, which kills maybe 40% of a flock within a year. If people have enough chickens and eggs, then they won't kill the wildebeest and zebra.

"A lot of this is plain common sense. My sister came over for a visit with some friends; one of them was a builder. So they set to work putting up a water tank at an orphanage. It's just figuring out what people need."