Marketing the Poor, Markets of the Poor

So far Karimu has not needed to raise big sums of money. We have worked in just two small Tanzanian villages, Bacho and Dareda, and mostly in Bacho, with a population of slightly over thirteen hundred. The poverty there leaves basic needs unmet, so we have begun simply: renovating and expanding a brick schoolhouse, planning lessons about the importance of handwashing, shopping for mosquito nets, and so on. For Karimu’s first trip to Tanzania, in 2008, we aimed to raise about seventeen thousand dollars, then in 2009—off the top of my head—roughly thirty thousand, and this year closer to fifty thousand. Yet friends congratulate us because we have always reached our modest goals with all-volunteer staff who hold down fulltime jobs and who therefore can give only a little bit of time to Karimu.

But the money has come easily, I think because of the particular type of project that Karimu started. We return every year to the same place and therefore work with friends rather than strangers and we take no money for ourselves. So we have an easy time selling what we do, especially since we often get unsolicited help from people who make the journey with us and, as Marianne and I did three years ago, quickly form strong attachments to the villagers. For example, Peggy Seltz, having heard good things about our project from the 2008 volunteers, chose to go last year with her fifteen-year-old daughter, Hanna, and to use the chance to try her hand at film-making. The evocative and continually evolving result of Peggy’s perfectionism is a short documentary film called Until We Meet Again: Building a School in Tanzania. The first part of the title comes from a hymn sung to our volunteers, on our last day in Bacho, by the Tanzanian women who had cooked for us. The power of that scene alone—with the beauty and emotion in the kitchen-workers’ voices bearing meaning for us which the lyrics, sung in Swahili, could not—would justify the hundreds of hours of work that Peggy, with quite a bit of help from Hanna, has devoted to her film. It has made money for Karimu, hence for Bacho and Dareda, at fundraisers and it has cost Marianne and me neither time nor effort. In twenty-odd minutes, Peggy’s film explains elegantly why we at Karimu do what we do.

Which not everybody gets. We rarely find ourselves on the defensive, but our lunchtime presentation a few months ago to a Lions Club meeting in the Santa Clara Valley was an exception. Our friend Julian Page of the Livingstone Tanzania Trust, then visiting from London, accompanied Marianne because I needed to work that day. I was lucky: one of the Lions objected that the people in Peggy’s film didn’t look poor and another said that it looked to him as if the children had all bought their clothes from The Gap. Marianne and Julian walked away from that meeting without a dime for Bacho and Dareda. (On the positive side, they gave high marks to the lasagna.)

I’ve heard from somebody that one of the big NGOs working in Africa—perhaps Save the Children—has decided that its appeals for donations will never show children with flies on their faces. That choice expresses an attempt to present honestly the complex reality of countries like Tanzania. Numbers such as a life expectancy barely over fifty and infant mortality of one in fourteen or fifteen ought to speak for themselves; one should not, in order to establish need, have to pretend that the people of sub-Saharan Africa know misery only and experience no joy. Peggy’s film shows poor people smiling and even laughing. In our post mortem of the Lions Club debacle, however, Marianne and Julian and I guessed that the Lions had wanted to see flies on children’s faces.

And not wearing clothes bought from The Gap. Yet of course these clothes not deserved by the poor would have come from The Gap only indirectly, by way of the multinational and multimillion-dollar trade in “dead white people’s clothes.” The Ghana-born writer Meri Nana-Ama Danquah explains that Africans assume “only death could separate a white person from such wonderful clothing” ( Ms. Danquah refers to “skinny, bootleg, stonewashed, stretch” jeans, or “T-shirts advertising products, Web sites, conferences and other events” or clothes makers like The Gap. She also repeats the familiar charge that this trade in used rich-world clothing—ironically “orchestrated by charitable multinational organizations” wishing “to provide various forms of relief”—offers “low prices [which] undercut local retailers and undermine the entire textile and garment business in Africa.” Whether or not this is true, I’ve priced some of those clothes, so I can assure skeptics at that Lions Club and elsewhere that they sell cheaply enough to be deserved by the poor.—Don Stoll


About Don Stoll

Don and his wife, Marianne Kent-Stoll, are co-founders of the Karimu International Help Foundation. They established Karimu in 2008 at the request of the people of Dareda Kati Village, in the Manyara Region of northeastern Tanzania. Karimu is devoted to working with the residents of Dareda Kati in order to satisfy their development needs, as defined by the villagers themselves.
This entry was posted in Africa, development, poverty, Tanzania, volunteering and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Marketing the Poor, Markets of the Poor

  1. Jennifer says:

    The dehumanization of the poor, let alone the poor in Africa is abominable. It must have been a tough day for Marianne and Julian. As a teacher, I thought you might like this lesson plan on images of Africa in the media. It’s a tough balance. We also don’t want to minimize the reality of people’s day-to-day struggles.

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