Looking out of the window of the moving bus, I can hardly contain my excitement: I have been dreaming about field work in the African continent since 2014, and now I am finally here, in Tanzania, heading towards some remote villages on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. I am now the Scouting Coordinator for Devergy, a Tanzanian solar company building village grids in rural areas of the country; therefore, I am responsible for selecting villages and coordinating trips to gather information surveying the village authorities, the households and the local businesses in order to evaluate their energy situation and wealth. Electricity is an additional expenditure that should not enter into competition with food and other basic needs; there must be the willingness and the ability to pay for it. The Devergy energy services can be purchased with daily, weekly or monthly bundles, according to the appliances in use in the house (e.g. the tariff for powering lights and mobile charging is cheaper than the one to power a TV and/or a stereo). The villagers feel like customers and not like passive actors as it happens when they get the electricity for free.
I expect the journey to be long and bumpy: the first bus is going to take my team and I to Sumbawanga, where we should be able to find local buses to reach the villages (you can never be sure of the reliability of such information). The first ride is going to last about seven hours from Mbeya, the city I live in; surprisingly long for the distance among the two cities visible on the map. In fact, we are going to drive south all the way to Tunduma, a border town between Tanzania and Zambia, and then up north: it is a little bit like driving from Venice to Paris passing through Rome. However, Google Maps clearly does not suggest any other road, and Zita, my travel companion, interpreter and colleague, reassures me that it is going to be a nice tarmac road. I sit back and relax on this “luxury” bus (definition for buses which do not allow animals on board, stop every 2 hours and offer a bottle of warm soda during the ride; all for around 5 euros, better than most of the Flixbuses I took in Europe!).
I have always loved road trips as they give me the time to get used to the change in landscape and climate (Mbeya is located at 1600 metres and the climate is definitely milder than the average Tanzania), plus most of the bus travellers are on average more willing to chat than those on planes. The conversation naturally flows, touching interesting topics such as education in Tanzania (the government now offers free primary education across the country) and the differences with bordering Kenya. Along the way, we stop to pick up people in a very adventurous way: whoever wants to get in needs to jump in the middle of the road to attract the driver’s attention; accidents are not unusual but we were lucky not to encounter any. Moreover, at each stop the bus is literally assaulted by children, women and men selling fresh sodas, nuts, chips and snacks across the windows; from my privileged window seat, I end up buying some roasted peanuts for the whole team and a bag of pink stuff for Zita: they are baobab seeds covered in coloured sugar; super sweet but with a peculiar taste. She tells me that a bride-to-be needs to eat a full bag before the first night with her husband, as it is an aphrodisiac capable of favouring the female orgasm.
After a quick bathroom pit stop in Tunduma, the trip continues towards Sumbawanga and the tarmac road, instead of ending abruptly, becomes even smoother, resembling European highways. It seems that these 7 hours are not going to be bumpy at all! It turns out that the construction was performed by a Chinese company and financed by the U.S. government. “You’re soon gonna see the houses in which the workers used to live on the side of the roads. You can recognise them because they are beautiful, equipped with all comforts and completely different from the surrounding villages. Now the government was planning to transform it in a hotel, but who is going to come for a vacation in the middle of the Tanzanian countryside?” Lesson learned: always think about the end-of-life of everything you build/buy.
As we go, I start looking if TANESCO (Tanzania Electric Supply Company Limited), the Tanzanian parastatal grid provider, has reached the villages along the road and I am not surprised to see the large poles passing by all these unelectrified households; professional bias, I know. In 2014, the Government of Tanzania has estimated that only 11% of the rural population, which accounts to over 70% of the total, has access to energy through the national grid. One village stands out: it has orange cabling and we can see some solar panels: it is Lwasho, one of the twenty Devergy solar village grids installed across Tanzania! I wish I could jump off and go listen to the stories of how the electricity has affected their life, if they are happy about our services, how they see their future… Unfortunately, only Zita can fill in the blanks but she promises me she will bring me along the next time she goes for her monthly visit to the Devergy villages; for now I am happy to stare out the window searching for the orange cables and dreaming about that day.
We finally reach Sumbawanga where we are going to spend the night, as the next bus won’t leave before the next morning. I do not even have the time to rest my legs as I need to jump on a “bajaji” (local rickshaw, the cheapest means of transportation across town) and reach the TANESCO office for my appointment with the regional planning engineer. Normally in these meetings, we discuss the status of the national grid and its plans for expansion in order not to step on each other’s toes and collaborate in reaching the 100% electrification goal the Rural Electrification Authority has set for 2022. The outcome of the meeting is that the villages we are going to scout from tomorrow on are not planned to be electrified in the next three to four years as they are too far from the existing electricity lines. In fact, the priority of the national grid for the period 2016-2019 is the densification of the connection of new customers which live in already electrified settlements or within 10 kilometres from the medium-voltage grid. My energy level permits me just to have dinner, take a shower and set the breakfast time with my team before crashing on the bed.
The next morning we all reach the small bus stand at 8:30AM in order to book the tickets for the 9AM bus (the only one); the two boys are going to take one that goes north-west while the three girls and I are heading west. The boys’ bus arrives one hour late and departs at 11:30AM, while there is no news about ours. I start to get nervous: I have designed the whole schedule of the trip, and if the bus does not arrive before 1PM we will probably reach the village after sunset, which I would love to avoid. Everybody at the bus stand is staring at the “mzungu” (literally white face) walking around visibly tired of waiting (those who know me can tell you I am not patient, at all). Two other things I learnt are that the quality of the road can be deduced from how dirty the bus is, and that the buses can be divided into two categories: the luxury (remember the first one?) and the chicken buses (definition for buses which stop in every small village to pick up clients, allow animals inside such as goats and chicken, travel always completely packed with people both sitting and standing and with luggage both under the seats and on top). Therefore, in the worst case scenario, the bus is going to show up completely covered in dust/mud and it will let out people and chickens for 30 minutes before being empty. I could not have described our bus better when it shows up at 1:30PM. We finally manage to leave at 2:30PM with “only” a five-hour delay. Lesson learned: always choose the front-central seats, as the ones in the back are going to make for a much bumpier ride thanks to the luggage stored under the seats and on top of the bus.
The seven-hour journey to the village was definitely one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life: sitting in the tiniest space ever (way smaller than the leg space on any Ryanair flight or Flixbus you have ever taken) while the bus is driving in the middle of a forest in total darkness. We started chatting with our travel companions to get a place in the best guesthouse and the phone number of the Mtendaji, the village executive officer. It turns out that he is sitting in the same bus - what an informal setting for introducing Devergy and asking for the permission to scout his village! After analysing the pros and cons of each guesthouse in town (exactly three), one villager is appointed to take us to the chosen one that is near his house. It is the only one in town that has rooms with an internal bathroom, a water well and solar panels which offer light for 3 hours each evening. They also give us all the info we might need: to charge our phone there is only one charging station running on a diesel generator (during the day it is used to power a milling machine), to move around we get the contact of two good bodabodas (motorcycle drivers) and to eat, the location of the only two restaurants in town. They are very excited to have a mzungu in town; it is the first time in six years! Lesson learned: Tanzanians love discussing and anyone is entitled to participate; the topic or your knowledge about it is not important - they will eviscerate any possible angle about it and then (maybe) reach a conclusion.
The next four days go by quickly, following a routine that we establish the first day: wake up with the sun at 6.30AM; have breakfast with tea and chapati (the typical Indian bread, widely adopted in Tanzania thanks to the commercial activities established between the two countries); take a bodaboda to the starting point for interview sampling; have lunch with rice, beans and fresh fish; spray mosquito repellent while watching the sunset at the beach; have dinner with meat and ugali (the traditional Tanzanian side made with water and corn or cassava flour); leave the battery banks to charge overnight; take a cold shower using buckets (of course there is no running water); check the room for mosquitos; sleep tight. Life in the village is uncomplicated, predictable and safe. During the interviews, the word I heard more often was surely “Karibu”, the Kishawili word for welcome: the host was offering us the most comfortable chair they had after putting it under the shade of a tree. We got some funny reactions from the kids: the little ones were crying whenever I was approaching the house, remembering their parents’ words “If you don’t behave, the mzungu will come and get you!”, while the older ones were staring at me and following me everywhere. With my broken Kiswahili, I was trying to interact with them, and, even if they were making fun of me, I know they appreciated my effort. I will never forget that little boy who, on my last day in the village, ran towards me embracing my legs and said “Bye madam”.
I was expecting to be the one asking questions, but it turns out they are more curious to know about my native country: its traditions, if people are happy, what kind of food we eat, how different it is from Tanzania. They have a strange reaction when I start talking about Italy and Europe; they thought I was American, or at least Indian. They never met any European before. I receive many wedding proposals, even from married man: they see me as the winning lottery ticket for a better life. The best one was from a guy who sees me at the seashore, falls on his knees and says, “I always saw you in those Youtube videos, but in reality you are much more beautiful”. Lesson learned: white skin fascinates Tanzanian men; no matter how ugly/dirty/tired you are, you are always going to be wonderful. Is that why whitening products are widely used by wealthy Tanzanian women?
Regarding the energy situation of the villages, I was surprised about the amount of tiny solar home systems (SHS) and solar lamps I could see around the village, mostly on the ground. “We are afraid that they will cause the (grass) roofs to catch fire”, they told me, “But we like solar. It is reliable”. However, none of them purchased the SHS with a loan or similar micro financing schemes, as they prefer paying in one instalment and having the ownership of the system: “Nobody has ever gifted us anything; we built the school and the health centre with our own money.” This reasoning, though, is stopping them from purchasing panels large enough to power more than a few lights and charge one phone; the women dream about having sewing machines and irons, while the men are all about radios and TVs (otherwise they have to pay 1,000 TSH (0,50 euro) to go to the cinema and they cannot afford it all the time). The poorest villagers collect and burn firewood for cooking purposes, while the wealthier ones can afford to use charcoal; regardless of the fuel, they all use open-fire stoves, causing problems to the eyes and lungs of the family due to the large amount of smoke they generate. I couldn’t last more than a couple of minutes without feeling like fainting, especially when the stove was used inside the house (which basically means a room filled with mattresses and pots, maybe a couple of chairs).
Not speaking Kiswahili has forced me to observe more and try to catch information from the world beyond my head. I observed how people grow rice inside the lake, saving time and energy needed to irrigate it; which lights and boats the fishermen use (the kerosene lanterns with their warm light end up being the best choice, surpassing the blueish solar LED light); how much it costs to mill one kilogram of cassava or to husk one kilogram of rice. I started to notice even the smallest things, like the total absence of fruit in the market; I mean no pineapples, no mangos, no passion fruits, no avocados, no bananas; very unusual for Tanzania. My European logical mindset started searching for explanations: maybe it was not harvest time yet (yes, but I did not see any tree in the crops), or they prefer to focus on the other crops and just purchase fruit at the general market (but where to store the purchased fruit?!), or maybe nobody really likes it, and so on. I could not resist and during lunch, I asked the Village Authority about it; the answer was, “Madam, nobody grows those fruits here because of the monkeys. They come and steal all the ripe ones before we are able to harvest them. But it is not true that we do not grow fruits; we have plenty of coconuts which are tougher and therefore less attractive for them”. Of course, monkeys! Lesson learned: do not try to explain things based on your logic, you will never guess right. You totally miss the contextual knowledge.
The most impressive story was Shida’s one: as her name suggests (literally it means “trouble”, a very common name for daughters in rural Tanzania as they are less useful than sons), she had a tough life, especially since her husband did not came back from his nightly fishing trip. In the last year and half, she was able to provide for her three children thanks to two solar panels, by recharging mobile phones and running a fan under which people can rest after a long day in the field. I wonder what will happen to her small business when we will electrify the village; but she is not worried at all, “Hamna shida, madam (no worries). I will be happy to see people having lights and radios at home, and I am sure they will come using my services anyways: my samosas and chapati are the best in town. You cannot beat that”. Lesson learned: real entrepreneurs always have very clear what their competitive advantage is!
I am copying this travel log from my notebook while sitting in my bedroom in Mbeya, but in front of my eyes I can only see the sun falling on Lake Tanganyika with the laughter of the kids in the background. The last thing the Mtendaji told me was, “Don’t ever get tired to visit us. We are a stubborn, proud and uneducated men and women, but we will listen carefully to every word you say. Please, don’t forget us.” I am pretty sure I won’t do so anytime soon.
In collaboration with the CommUnity Post
Silvia Francioso in a nutshell:
Silvia has a real love of people. She started with volunteering to foster education and social inclusion of the immigrant kids from her neighbourhood when she was 16 – and this spirit of giving back to the world community continues to this day with her work in designing and distributing appropriate technologies with the appropriate financing schemes in developing economies. She acquired the necessary skills to achieve her dreams studying the InnoEnergy RENE Master’s programme at Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon and École Polytechnique de Paris and volunteering with Engineers without Borders.
Some pictures (credits: Silvia Francioso)
Shida and her solar panels
Sunset on Lake Tanganyika
The beauty of the remoteness