NYU economist William Easterly states on his Aid Watch blog (http://aidwatchers.com/) that its “work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.” In his book, The White Man’s Burden, published in 2006, Easterly gives countless examples of why aid to the developing world’s poor people requires constant scrutiny, including the following on page two hundred fifty-nine: “In countries where corruption is as endemic as AIDS, health officials often sell aid-financed drugs on the black market. Studies in Cameroon, Guinea, Tanzania, and Uganda estimated that 30 to 70 percent of government drugs disappeared before reaching the patients.”
Three summers ago, however, Marianne and I, then brand-new to Africa, knew nothing about this. We traveled to Africa because Marianne had wanted to go there ever since she saw Born Free when she was eight years old. We decided on Tanzania because we read that it was safe and that it offered the best wildlife viewing on the continent. And we met Joas Kahembe because Marianne did not want to stay in modern hotels with other tourists from rich countries. She wanted to stay in a village and, since Joas had been sending people from rich countries into Tanzanian villages for years, Marianne eventually ran across his name on the Internet and did business with him. That led to the five days we spent in Bacho in 2007, out of which came the villagers’ invitation to return in order to make Ufani Primary School fit for educating their children. That year, while we were still in Bacho, a district education official got wind of this plan by two muzungus—white people—to improve Ufani School. The official sat down with some of the teachers and directed preparation of a budget for us to take back to California. Renovations to make Ufani suitable for children instead of roaming cattle and other animals—at that time free to enter the classrooms, which had neither doors nor windows and, in one case, no roof—would cost less than thirty thousand dollars.
Accustomed as Marianne and I were to building costs in California, we saw no problem with the education official’s budget. Yet when we showed the numbers to Joas, shortly before leaving Bacho on our way to Mount Kilimanjaro Airport for our flight home, he became furious.
“You must ignore that official and his budget,” Joas said. “You will send all the money you raise for Ufani School to me and I will look after how it is spent.”
Though we had not previously seen Joas at a loss for words, now he seemed too angry to explain himself. But we were angry, too, believing that Joas planned to steal from us and from any donors we found. And because we could not in good conscience raise money whose theft we expected, we also feared that our Ufani School renovations were stillborn.
That was until, not long after our return to California, Joas e-mailed us his own budget, totaling about half of the budget put together by the district education official. Karimu was off and running, benefiting from the start, as it continues to benefit, from Joas’ scrupulous honesty. So Marianne and I often ask ourselves where Karimu would be today without Joas—the answer is nowhere—and how many other well-meaning development projects struggle or fail altogether to get off the ground for want of a Joas? We have no way to answer the latter question, of course. However, we have met enough frustrated project directors to know that Joases do not abound.
Maybe Joas’ honesty is rooted in justifiable pride in his achievements: why cheat, or in any way dissemble, if one can give solid proof of one’s true substance? By a decade or so ago, Joas had grown tired of the coffee business, from which he earned a good living by negotiating the sale and shipment of Tanzanian coffee beans to Europe. It occurred to him that people from Europe and other wealthy places might wish to buy other basic Tanzanian goods, like village life. Joas told his friends he would start a new business that would put Europeans and Australians and Americans in Tanzanian villages. But, as he relates the story, his friends laughed at him: “You are crazy, Kahembe! No white person will pay good money to sleep in a mud hut.” “You will be surprised,” Joas answered, “by the strange things white people will do.” Marianne and I have proved that white people will do strange things.
Joas’ honesty sometimes shades into a bluntness which, among people as exquisitely decorous as the Tanzanians, can be startling. One time last year, after our evening meal, he lectured the Karimu volunteers on the customs of the Barabaig tribe whose village we would see the following day. Our group of thirty volunteers included a dozen high school students whom both Marianne and I had taught. A Barabaig woman, according to Joas, is free to take a lover if her husband leaves for a few weeks with his cattle to find pasture for them. “So you see,” Joas continued, walking near where Marianne sat with her after-dinner tea, “if Kahembe thrusts his spear into the ground outside Marianne’s hut, when Don returns with his cattle he knows Kahembe is inside and that he must not disturb them.”
One would never confuse the people in the part of Tanzania that Karimu visits with the Himba, the herding people of Namibia whose women, famously, wear almost no clothing and instead coat their bodies with a reddish mixture of butter fat and ochre. Where we go, we caution our young women volunteers against baring their legs, stomachs, or shoulders. Whether Christian, Muslim, or animist, all the women in this part of Tanzania cover themselves modestly, while both men and women observe an extremely modest speech code. But Joas—or Kahembe, as he calls himself—has earned the right to be held to a different standard. During the ceremonies marking our farewell to Bacho last year, he followed the portion of his speech that praised Marianne and me and our other volunteers with some stern words for the villagers. Kahembe had learned that some among them, not satisfied with Karimu’s assistance to the entire village, now felt bold enough to approach individual volunteers to ask for special favors—college fees for their own children, for example. He told the villagers, rightly, that this made our volunteers uncomfortable and, if the entreaties caused the volunteers to speak less well of their experience in Tanzania upon going home, could even damage Karimu’s work. “You must remember,” Kahembe concluded, “that Don and Marianne did not have the pleasure of making your children, therefore it is not they, but you, who have the obligation to care for them.”
Joas does great things for Marianne and me and Karimu. I’m grateful not merely for his incorruptible integrity, but for his organizational brilliance in arranging and supervising the school construction that happens when we are in California, which means the overwhelming bulk of it. And because Marianne and I have so much work to do when we’re in Tanzania that we have no time to think about sex, I am also grateful that Joas does that for us.—Don Stoll