By Jessica Watson-Thorp
In February of 2017 I spent a week in Moshi, Tanzania, which is a small town nestled at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. My purpose was to take creative retreat and find out more about the project my fellow Canadian artist and friend Heather Haynes implemented over the past few years. The PUMOJA TUNAWEZA GIRLS AND BOYS CLUB (in Swahili meaning “together we can achieve”) is a Club for underprivileged youth, specifically Street Kids between the ages of 17 and 21. This is a vulnerable time for these children going on young adults — a time when they can no longer attend school, yet do not have the resources or support to pursue higher education or employment.
The Club itself is run by Leaders – ex-Street Kids who understand the perils of life on the streets of Moshi and its surrounds. They often have to hide in rice sacks to avoid being found and beaten by police or others looking for soft targets at night. They face all of the same perils as street kids everywhere; drugs, alcohol and prostitution are rife.
Two amazing and inspirational women oversee and fund the Club: Heather Haynes, a Canadian based artist who spends a few months a year on site in Tanzania, and Shay Bell, an American who is there full-time and runs a guest house close by. Both of these women organize and arrange funding as well as train the Leaders to recruit kids from the streets of Moshi. If a child decides to visit and become a regular member, there are rules they must abide by: arriving on time before gates close promptly at 8am, cleaning the Club’s premises before any programmes for the day commence, and showing commitment to attend. Once deemed a regular member, each child gets paid to attend around the same amount as they would make on the street each day. Membership includes receiving a shower and a hot meal daily.
Through talks and demonstrations of skills, programs focus on practical creative training, producing items that can be sold to help support the Club, and ultimately, provide a source of income for Club members. The Club is a minimally-furnished basic cement house with an outside workshop: a patch of dirt under a few trees. Some products the children make are copper bracelets with Swahili phrases that are packaged and sold to tourists visiting Tanzania and also in Canada. Glass bottles are collected and ground down to be sold as funky retro drinking glasses; everything is recycled. Loads of traditional beadwork and artwork are made. Canvases for painting are created from old bedsheets stretched on basic wooden frames with a slick of house paint on top for primer. Those that are drawn to painting are taught techniques by Heather Haynes, who then takes the artworks back to her gallery in Kingston every year to be sold with all proceeds going back to the Club.
When I embarked on this trip, my aim was to experience, give and provide. As an artist, I hoped to share skills and techniques in paint and other mediums. While I did some of that, what I discovered was that everything in Africa takes time, with a very ‘slowly, slowly’ approach. I spent much of my week there just getting to know Leaders and members of the Club and learning how the organization is run from from Heather and Shay. By going over some very basic English, I got to know some of the children. In the end, it was they who ended up teaching me techniques, like their traditional beadwork, and overall, a lot about life in Tanzania and Africa.
Moshi and its surrounding areas is a gritty, edgy place, with dirt roads and very basic facilities. The scenery and ‘feel’ is warm and beautiful. I will definitely return, not only to ‘slowly, slowly’ be a part of the creative life of the PUMOJA TUNAWEZA BOYS AND GIRLS CLUB, but also to continue to be inspired by this truly wonderful place.