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Last Updated: 03/12/2013
Why should we know where Saja is?
Saumava Mitra

Why does a small village in Southern Tanzania seem like a hotbed of international intrigue a la Cold War era? Hang on, looks like all the international powers are there only to help.

In this "parable" of international development, Saumava Mitra critically reflects on the strategies of charity givers, technologists, and commercialists, and questions the real impact they have had on the people of Saja.

Where is Saja village?

I am sure that most readers will not know. Nor did I before arriving at Saja.

In case you are wondering, the village is in Saja ward of Njombe district of Iringa region of Southern Tanzania in East Africa.

You would be questioning my sanity by now if I say I saw a lot of international presence in Saja. What is there in Saja you ask? Is it a diamond mine or a prospective petroleum field? No, not really.

Where is Saja photo source google maps

But believe me the Italians, the Germans and the Dutch have all been there. And I do not mean as tourists.

They were there to help. Either as NGOs trying to build projects or as charity efforts to give or commercial entities trying to develop.

After past (and continuing) efforts of all above, Saja should have been well on its way to solve its problems in education, health, agriculture and (most importantly for the dry area where Saja is) water.

But people of Saja still have complaints.

Is it that the people of Saja themselves are at fault? Are they backward and do not embrace progress?

A parable not a parallel

The answer to the above is no.

As I saw during a three day stay at the village, the people of Saja have welcomed with open arms every new effort to bring change – to their schools, to their farms and to their water taps – but all to no avail.

Within the microcosm of Saja, we see all the different kinds of efforts being made by the members of the Big, Good World of NGOs and Aid organizations.

I am not saying that this example I am going to give you can be used as a parallel for all external aid given across the world. But let this be a parable about aid-giving and NGO interventions.

To borrow then from one of the better known parables, the question in this one is:

When the Priest passed by as did the Levite, and the good Samaritan(s) came, why did they fail to help too?

A visit to Saja taught me a lot about the following in the context of the development sector:

  1. To help or not to help
  2. How not to help
  3. And maybe, only maybe, to some extent, how to help.

The Village and its ‘problems’

When you have finally reached the village of around 400 households called Saja – 25 kilometres off the main tarmac road to Njombe, you will see an average village with average farms of sunflowers and maize, beans and groundnuts. The average man brings his average cows home at dusk, the average woman carries water back to her home and the average student trudges home after school. But all is not well in Saja. Let us see which areas Saja – the average village – needs help or has received help.


Kid studying Photo courtesy Ashura Kayupayupa and Twaweza

“Here we do not have a lot of belief [among the people] about the importance of education for children because many parents are stopping their children from coming to school…. There are other challenges like the distances of schools with a lot of students walking many kilometers to school …”, says Anania Kyenga, Principal of Saja Secondary School as reported in the local newspaper for Njombe district, Kwanza Jamii.

On my visit, I also saw that the school was understaffed with 418 students being taught by only 7 teachers (of whom two were on study leave). It was underfunded as it had not been receiving funds for students promised by the Tanzanian government and the community itself could not contribute financially till harvest season came. Clearly, the situation needed to be improved.


Most of the agriculture in Saja is subsistence level, feeding families just enough from its fields to keep going from one water-scarce year to the next. Maize and beans are the main food crops with little surplus to be sold to the market.

Sunflower is the main cash crop but the famers are dependent on middlemen to come and transport their crop and as a result do not make a lot of profit from it. With no banks anywhere nearby, cows and chickens are the savings accounts of the families. They are sold off to get cash in case of emergencies.


RIP Water Photo courtesy Saumava Mitra and Twaweza

Saja is dry. The ground water level is too low for natural wells and the small river flowing by is seasonal. “Saja is, I believe, the most difficult part of Njombe district in terms of access to water. With manual drilling techniques, we tried several times without major success in that area. Besides that a few wells with rope pumps were made close to a seasonal river. These are almost an hour’s walk away from the village. At the same river, the authorities have constructed a dam but unfortunately of very poor quality as it holds water only for a month or so,” says Rik Haanen, in an email communication. He is a management consultant working for Southern Highlands Participatory Organisation (SHIPO) – an organisation which is working to develop the water sector in the area.

Zachariah Thobias is a water engineer with Cooperazione Rurale in Africa e America Latina (ACRA). He has been working on the problem in Saja for some time now and has compiled a report on the water situation in the area.

The report shows that all 8 villages in the Saja ward have access only to shallow wells in addition to some old natural ones and most of them do not benefit even from a nearby national water project (Wanging’ombe National Water Scheme).

According to Ray alias Baba Emma – the owner of a tea-and-chips stand in Saja– this is a punishment for Saja village which voted overwhelmingly for the opposition party candidate in the last election.

Be it caused by nature or political bias, Saja is still dry.

The Outsiders and their ‘solutions’

Even with my untrained eyes, I was able to distinguish three different kinds of solution-providers to the problems of Saja and its people. If you allow me to stretch to breaking point a common metaphor used to describe aid giving, then the three different kinds are:

  1. The ones who give fish to the hungry
  2. The ones who teach the hungry to fish
  3. And those who teach the hungry to fish and then even buy the fish from them.

The Charitists: ‘giving fish to people’

A certain church in Saja with links to Germany have been bringing much that is conventionally thought of as relatively good for a community to have. Second hand books, sewing machines, used clothes and even used bicycles were handed out to the people of the village through the auspices of the German priests. The problem with such giving of course is that you assume a demand where there may be none. Secondly, it might be too little to really help a community as a whole.

Let us take one example of what this effort has meant for education in Saja. The local secondary school had its library shelves filled with second hand books in English – mostly novels, short stories and thrillers donated by the church. In a school, where students are hard-pressed to get their hands on their school curriculum books, it might be heart-warming to see such intellectual plenty amid material poverty.

But the warmth lasts only so long as till you hear the headmaster of the school mention to you, “five of the students who joined my school this year from the primary school do not even know how to read and write. I am trying to find out how I can expel them from my school because they are dragging the others back. Indiscipline (from them) is the only way I can do that without enraging the parents but my problem is that they are very well-disciplined”. For a resource-stretched school master, there’s no thought of giving special attention to the weaker students. He simply cannot afford it.

The gift of extra-curricular leisure reading for the students who go to such schools is thus brought into perspective, made even more poignant when we think that there is no electricity in Saja (only a few solar panels exist and the church office is one of the fortunate ones where villagers can have their cellphones charged for 300 Tanzanian shillings a go) and consequently no reading light after dark.

The Technologists: ‘teaching people how to fish’

“Water is the main problem in Saja,” says Patiani Nginga, my host at Saja.

Before I came to spend three nights at his house, he had also hosted a couple of Italian visitors, he says. They were there to do feasibility studies to drill boreholes to increase the water supply in the village. But the project did not live up to expectations. This is all he knew about the visit. I probed a bit further.

“ACRA used heavy machines and drilled more than 100 meters deep and planned to have a diesel pump on it. But yields of water are so low that they decided to ask us to install a rope pump on it, so we did,” says Rik from SHIPO.

In spite of these efforts, the ACRA report shows that though it is not the worst off in the ward, Saja villagers have serious problem with access to water come the dry months. “For about two to three months every year, Saja has access to even less water than other times,” says Zachariah.

You get a sense from Rik’s words that the efforts to improve the water situation are not going well.

“Even in Europe, people from villages where it is difficult to get water during the course of a year normally move to other areas. If we suppose the world has X billion dollars to spend on providing water to rural communities, then we can provide water to around 1,000 dry areas like Saja while with the same money we could provide 90,000 rural areas where water is also a problem but creating access to it is easier,” he says.

Nevertheless, SHIPO has tried to get funds for water harvesting systems in Saja. “But I personally have started to doubt if we – NGOs – should interfere in the natural movement of people. In the end you might see that all our efforts are wasted because water will never be enough and people anyway prefer other areas to live in,” says Rik.

Frank of Saja has a drink Photo courtesy Saumava Mitra and Twaweza

The Commercialists: ‘teaching how to fish and then buying the fish too’

Among the sunflowers waving in the wind in Saja, there are some tall ungainly looking plants whose green fruits roll untended in the dust without the farmers seeming to care.

They are jatropha plants – the bio-fuel yielding crop which the Tanzanian government and several corporate and semi-corporate entities have put their faith in to change the face of agriculture in Tanzania.

A few years ago, jatropha seeds were introduced to the Saja farmers and were planted by them to sell mainly to the Tanzanian counterpart of an Eindhoven-based Dutch company called Diligent Tanzania Ltd.

Most of the farmers even refer to the crop as ‘diligent’.

Masapila (only one name given) was one of the farmers who planted a lot of this crop. If some of the villagers are to be believed he was also behind encouraging others to plant it and then buying the harvest from them as a middleman for the company.

“I was taught the usefulness of the jatropha oil by German missionaries (of the church mentioned before). I went to a workshop in Morogoro and learnt how to make soaps from them. When Diligent came to Njombe, I planted a lot of jatropha. For three years, they bought a lot of the harvest from us but in the last two years, they have disappeared. Nobody buys the jatropha crop from us anymore,” says Masapila standing next to the rows of jatropha plant in front of his house.

The jatropha plant has gone wild in Saja. Both literally and with the rumours which float about why the company stopped buying the harvest from them.

Some like Patiani think that the government officers of the area chased away the company from their village preventing them from getting even the small profit that they were making from it.

“The problem actually was the transport. We are based in Arusha (in the north of Tanzania). It does not make sense to transport a renewable bio-fuel like jatropha all the way here while using a fossil fuel that is by using diesel trucks. We hoped that the railway connectivity would improve but it never did. Also as a socially responsible company, we could not effectively control the problem of middle men. We would tell our agents to pay a certain price to farmers but without us being able to control it, there was no way of making sure they did. So we decided to discontinue buying jatropha from Njombe,” says Jan Gevaert of Diligent Tanzania from Arusha.

In the latter case case at least, it seems a more moral question than anything else. Is poverty with no exploitation better or some profit with a little exploitation acceptable?

Epilogue and Epiphany

None of these many ways of giving fish seem to have brought much change to the world of Saja. I do not promise concrete lessons for all from this parable. Here are some that I took away. You are free to draw your own.

To help or not to help

What is the moral to be derived from this? External aid does not work? Are NGOs only interfering in people’s lives? Are they able to change anything at all?

But from the examples above, in their small ways each of the interventions had been well-meant and had the potential to change people’s lives. Yet they did not succeed to the extent expected of them because of either ill-planning, misinformation, misdirection and obstacles – both natural and human.

How not to help

We notice that in all of the three examples, one aspect of any community’s life is missing – politics. In Saja village, support for the opposition party has grown because of growing discontent with the present situation. People hope that the opposition politicians can make a difference for them when all those others who came to help have failed. They are trying to politically align themselves under the opposition flag to make their collective grievances heard.

There are some others who have been thinking about what sort of intervention (or if they should be interventions at all) works best in the longer term. For them, politics does not only mean supporting the opposition when you are fed up with the ruling government, it could also mean asking the right questions of the authorities.

Just as Daraja, another local NGO does. Their work is at the other end of the spectrum from the technological, charitable or commercial interventions in the examples we saw.

Daraja encourages people of Njombe to hold their government accountable to its policies. By monitoring what is being done and how it is done, it provides villagers with information about what actually is going on about their rightful services.

And unlike the other efforts in Saja village, Ben Taylor, the director of Daraja, says for him the “political context” of the country is of paramount importance to bring change into the communities.

Daraja has started a local newspaper in Njombe district as it believes information is imperative for people to make a change. Its other project is to better the monitoring system of existing water points in the area.

Ben points out that the international donor-funded “Water Sector Development Programme” in Tanzania is one of the biggest in sub-Saharan Africa with a total of 1.2 billion US dollars to be spent over 6 years. “With this kind of money set aside already, there should not be any need to funnel more money into localized projects. We can try to see that this massive fund actually translates into water and reaches the people as promised in policies instead of trickling into unseen pockets,” he says.

In his recent blog, Ben argues that an over-reliance on “do it yourself (if others are not doing it for you)” attitude means that authorities in charge of service delivery are given a free out of jail card. If one starts to rely too much on non-governmental action and projects then who will hold the authorities to account for not using allocated money adequately?

How to help

As I said earlier, this is only a parable. It is not supposed to make the Samaritans also turn away like the Priest and the Levite. It is not supposed to be a cynical thumb down to all those unsung people working away to change lives of people in their own small ways in small communities.

But in the way we are used to thinking about ‘developing’ the developing countries, being ‘apolitical’ becomes important for the aid or donor funded organizations to work without political interference at the local level. They have to ignore that aspect of life that we as political animals in a democratic country have the right to exercise – our right to influence the political will of the country.

Without even being all Greek about it, it is a question of making the existing system work better rather than making unrewarding attempts at introducing parallel systems through technology or create dependency with charity.

This is only an observation of one village in Tanzania – randomly selected in my case when I turned up there to spend three days and nights.

But it is not only about Saja, imagine the number of villages in developing countries which receive aid, multiply that by the number of development organizations working in those communities, and you might take away the kind of epiphany that I took away from Saja.

I am glad I know where Saja is.

Sun Flowers Photo courtesy Elvis Mushi and Twaweza

Saumava Mitra is an independent writer, journalist, and researcher currently based in Costa Rica.