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A Letter from a Friend in Africa

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Marc Wegerif is an old school friend of mine from when I grew up in Bristol. After school he moved to South Africa and was very involved in activism there, and he now lives in Tanzania and works for Oxfam. He recently got back in touch and I sent him a copy of The Transition Handbook. Subsequently he sent me a long and thoughtful letter, with his reflections on the book, and on how it might relate to Africa. The whole question of what Transition might look like in a developing world context is something we have rarely explored at Transition Culture, and Marc has given me permission to reprint his letter here by way of initiating that discussion.

Dear Rob,

Thanks for the book. Great work, great book, well written.

I read a bit more than half of it somewhat ironically sitting on an intercontinental flight from Netherlands to Tanzania, a delay at Kilimanjaro airport due to a puncture on the plane gave me more time to fit in the book and the movie watching. About 95% of the passengers on the jet plane with space for 390 passengers were white, despite flying to Africa. Most were, by their look, tourists and got off at Kilimanjaro from where they will be able to climb that highest peak in Africa or go to the magnificent Serengeti National Park to see nature and animals, or do both and more.

A little more appropriate to the book was that I was coming from a meeting of Oxfam’s global economic justice campaign group discussing our campaigns including work for a “fair and safe deal” at Copenhagen and the focus for our campaigns for the coming year that will likely have a more food and agriculture focus with climate change still being tackled as one of the serious threats to securing food and a prosperous small farming sector.

I was among those supporting a focus on small scale low external input farming as a solution to the food crisis in the face of climate change and other threats. I also suggested this could link to a growing interest people in rich countries have in safe and healthy food; it is about promoting a vibrant and sustainable alternative – positive messaging about people’s ability to uplift and sustain themselves. In Africa colleagues and I are supporting organisations of small farmers and other producers such as pastoralists to work on production models that can work for them with positive messaging of what it is possible for people to do alongside challenging the real obstacles to people improving their own lives: things like land grabbing by rich countries and companies and government policies that promote large export orientated commercial farming at the expense of small producers.

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I arrived home in Dar es Salaam at around midnight, the neighborhood and house in darkness due to one of the rather common – often daily, certainly every week – power cuts. Not because Tanzania can’t get oil, we just don’t have the generating capacity. The problem made worse by poor rains and the drying up of dams that reduces output from hydro power. Tanzania with a carbon output of 0.1 ton per person per year (USA over 20) is already living a post oil and post carbon (some would like to see it as pre-oil and pre-carbon) existence that a transition town could be proud of. I buy much of the supplies we need at small shops in our street or a few minutes walk away. The bread and eggs and much else comes by bicycle (see pic of delivery to one of the local shops. The Coke – we are part of the global economy – is also normally brought on a bicycle or motorbike). I cycle to work which is great, except when the cars come along. We don’t have a car, but Teresa wants one, we will see. I have gone through quite a lifestyle change over the last year or so. With no car one is more likely to buy locally and socialize locally, etc…It helps that we can walk to a bar by the beach.

Poverty remains the downside. Many aspire for the materialistic life seen on TV and in the large houses and cars of ex-pats, or rich local elites. Some just want to be able to live the lives they know that are now being crowded out. Even within this city of around 4million people we still have artisanal fishers here who we can buy fresh fish directly from at the fish market when they come in their dhows from a night at sea, or we can call our supplier who will bring us a selection on his bicycle and clean the one we want for us. Now, however, big houses for the rich block-off some of the beach, other developers have filled the marsh land that used to absorb the water and be rice fields and they blocked some of the drains to the sea causing the flooding of what now appears an informal settlement, but was the original village. The whole area is also only about a metre above sea level so even with better drains the solution may not be that long term.

I live with Teresa, ten years of marriage this week, and my lovely girls. Maya, seventeen, a month into her last year of high school, thinking about university applications. Zora, seven, a month into her first year of primary school, going off in her uniform on the school bus in the morning. We have a medium scale house somewhere in scale between the village and the mansions.

I read the rest of your book after a busy five days out in some villages inland talking to people about changes in their livelihoods good and bad and discussing climate change. It is part of gathering information and stories on the human impact of climate change, but the discussions cover other livelihood issues of importance to people.

Certainly people are experiencing real challenges with weather and the environment. They also live with remarkably low oil dependence. In the villages we went to this week no electricity, the farmers we talked to don’t have cars or tractors, they produce a wide variety of crops and keep some livestock. Mostly no bought fertilizer, rather cow dung and other manure. There were some bio-gas toilets, but not working at the moment, I have not yet found out why. In one village they extract their own sunflower oil from the sunflowers they grow. All villages have local grinding of grains and other food processing, most sales are local. These things are taken for granted, not necessarily a source of pride.

Some surplus is sold to markets further a field, mostly through middle men, to feed cities like Dar es Salaam where I live. For the farmers these sales meet important cash needs like paying school fees. Food insecurity when crops fail, lack of access to water, lack of access to good markets with good prices for produce, no capital to invest and improve production, high costs and distance to medical care and similar problems with education are the challenges. The people we live with little oil, but also live a very resource and opportunity poor existence.

I find it interesting that you and I from our school days together have been, I think, engaging with a number of the same issues, albeit from very different perspectives and contexts. I definitely lean to the more political and campaign side, not surprising in the circumstances I have been in. Most of the exercises and facilitation tools in your book we use. I don’t, however, like the titles of “open source” and “world café” much. They don’t make a lot of sense in rural villages. I like the “water source” where people gather with one purpose and chat and talk about the village issues they want with who they want to on the way and while waiting (what in reality is often hours) for water.

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A big problem in my work life is that we as “development workers” are outsiders coming to “help” others. Even if we are from the country we come from a different lifestyle we (my colleagues, most of whom are Tanzanian here, and I) are part of the moneyed, oil guzzling, carbon spewing world that many we encourage to value their own systems aspire to. We don’t live what we preach and even if we do to some extent, such as with my bicycle and lack of car, the people I met in the village will assume differently. In any case I still do the international travel and more importantly send my children to elite schools and have access to good doctors. The example we set with our lives risks being increasingly out of step with the “resilient” outcomes you argue and I believe we need. Given these limitations at least defending the rights of people and pushing for some of the obviously needed political and policy changes seems important and in the meantime I get a good lifestyle and meet the needs of my family.

This is a long weekend for Eid here. Tanzania is about 50% Muslim. I have been spending a bit of time with family, I have been away a lot recently. Took curtains to the local tailor to adjust, we just moved house. Prepared measurements for the local carpenter, who we found was closed for the holiday, to make some shelves and drawers. All these services within walking distance. I spent quite a bit of time sanding a large wooden bed: got a different mind, physical and creative activity compared to the traveling, meeting, reading, computering I normally do – and of course I get a bed to.

I would add to your peak oil and CC the major challenges of food and water that are increasingly shaping the options for our collective future. The food crisis is real, the price increase last year shocking (staple food prices doubled in some places in the space of six months) and they have not come down in rural parts of countries like Tanzania. Feeding our population is a major challenge, for the rich “north” breaking away from the junk you are fed and told is food seems essential. Water will probably be as much a challenge as oil. These of course are also much more real for the communities I work with. We went to two villages last week that had fought a few years ago over access to water and the fertile land by a river, 35 people were killed. In the last days a similar conflict in Kenya killed around 30 people. Without serious changes these types of clashes are likely to get more frequent as the stresses on natural resources increase.

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It is really hard to say, and we don’t, that such communities should not aspire to more energy. In the world context they deserve to use more energy and produce more carbon. What billions would appreciate is a future with secure food and water. Can they/we create it within the context of CC, limited Oil, Water shortages, and other factors?? You say yes!! Good, I often say put your energy into what you want to see: it will grow. Starve what you don’t want of your attention and energy: it will wither away. Our energy makes things grow. I don’t always live this and when pastoral communities get violently evicted from their land, as happened over the last month here, or farm dwellers in South Africa (where I am from) get evicted, as over a million have since liberation (a continuation of similar levels of evictions in the Apartheid era) it is also necessary to put some effort into challenging the negative forces that destroys people’s lives and environments.

I like and agree with most of what is in your book (pity you did not mention any actual or planned reductions in oil consumption or emissions from the initiatives – I am looking for proof in the pudding as well), I have tried to promote many of the same things in different places and ways. You have put it together really well. I struggle with how this can work in the context I know and live and work in. I will continue that struggle and try to add more positive solutions.

So thanks again for the book, gives me things to think about.

Much love and respect. Greet the family.

Marc…

I also attach some pictures of a market, this one in Morogoro Tanzania, similar ones exist in most towns. Much of the produce is brought by farmers themselves on bicycles, a few trucks for the heavy stuff like the rice and maize.

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