Drought could reverse years of Tanzanian progress

  • April 24, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - Fr. Winfried Ngoyani would rather not be in Toronto. He should be home in the diocese of Mahenge in rural central Tanzania where he runs the Catholic school system.

In the two secondary schools for girls his diocese has established, Regina Mundi and St. Agnes, Ngoyani believes he can build a future for the region, prevent HIV and AIDS and preserve African and Christian values.

But 25 per cent of the 500,000 people in his region are starving. Drought that has plagued his area the last five years is worse this year than anyone remembers. Subsistence farmers need rain because the rivers in the region remain untapped for irrigation. Facing a disastrous harvest in June and the prospect of watching their families starve, some farmers are committing suicide.

Mahenge Bishop Agapiti Ndorobo, with the help of Canadian Jesuits who have been missionaries in Tanzania since the 1960s, sent Ngoyani to Toronto to try to find funds to save all the progress the diocese has made in recent years in education, rural development and family life.

“The bishop thought to rescue the situation if we could have some funds to buy rice, beans and maize,” said Ngoyani. “We can stock them and help the students and other people who are in great need.”

Mahenge’s drought and the threat of famine in the region are not blazing across international headlines, but the issues surrounding the crisis are among the most talked about.

Lack of food is forcing young people out of school and out of the region. Working age people are leaving for the big city, Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam. In the slums surrounding the city young people with little education and no employable skills are adding to an explosion of HIV and AIDS.

“They don’t have any chance for employment. So they are just there,” explains Ngoyani, who is also responsible for his diocese’s HIV-prevention plans.

Condoms are available in his region, but people who have to choose between buying condoms and buying food usually opt for food. While Ngoyani has no doubt that a condom, properly used, prevents HIV transmission it’s just not a solution for starving people where there is great inequality between men and women, he said.

Ngoyani’s solution is education for girls. He wants to close the gap between men and women in a society that still thinks education is wasted on girls who are destined for the kitchen.

“If we can feed them, they don’t have to go to the streets looking for help,” said Ngoyani.

Of course St. Agnes and Regina Mundi need more than rice and beans. The schools are in dire need of basic school supplies — everything from uniforms to pencils to workbooks.

Africa’s AIDS emergency isn’t the only headline connection to the drought in Mahenge. There’s also the climate crisis fueled by over-exploitation of natural resources.

Years of unregulated harvesting of timber in the region’s forests has led to virtual desertification of what should be lush rain forest.

“We can’t confirm officially that it is because of cutting down of trees that we have drought, but you see the weather has changed all over,” Ngoyani said.

The government in Dar es Salaam has banned logging in areas such as Mahenge in the last 18 months, but it may be too little too late for area farmers.

For Ngoyani, the worst thing that could happen would be if Christians decide that another disaster in Africa is just one too many — that the combination of environmental degradation, an AIDS pandemic and famine makes the situation hopeless.

“We can rescue them. It’s quite possible,” he told The Catholic Register. “The church in Tanzania is very powerful.”

Rural Tanzanians trust church institutions, particularly the schools. If Ngoyani can keep the schools open and functioning things will get better.

Ngoyani will remain in Canada through May, trying to interest Canadians in helping the people of Mahenge. He can be reached at fr.wingonyani@yahoo.com.

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