Sunday, 7 December 2008

I recently met a Tanzanian mother Teresa: Pauline Samata, the "bamboo saint"

The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) estimates that approximately 1.5 billion people depend in some way or another on bamboo and rattan. Bamboo not only is deemed to be the fastest growing plant on the planet but it is also a viable replacement for wood, essential structural material in earthquake architecture, it is a renewable source for agroforesty production. This makes bamboo unique in terms of its potential contribution to sustainable development. What is less well known is the fact that bamboo has protected young Tanzanian girls and women from HIV/AIDS by saving them falling prey in the prostitution trap. This is thanks to a Tanzanian mother Teresa, Pauline Samata.

Pauline Samata, a 44 year old single mother of 4 children, is the group leader of the Mbeya women bamboo association in Tanzania. Samata is an inspiring leader. She has a genuine humility and an unquenchable thirst to learn and to share her knowledge with her African brothers and sisters. As any great leader she is committed, courageous and has taken and continues to take her share of risks by investing in the most disadvantaged. Her mission in life is to raise awareness about the wonders and marvels of bamboo.

Bamboo is a special plant, it offers excellent opportunities for environmental sustainability and at the same time it is helping populations in developing countries to reduce poverty, this is why it is called 'the wood of the poor'.

In 2001, thanks to a grant from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), INBAR embarked on the Livelihood and Economic Development Programme. The Programme aims to create sustainable rural livelihoods and enterprises by using bamboo and rattan resources. It focuses on developing innovative processing technologies and production techniques and enabling rural communities to produce a range of high quality bamboo and rattan products. It also provides rural communities with capacity building in bamboo and rattan harvesting, cultivation and management techniques thus making sure that local resources are sustainable.

One of the capacity building activities of this grant financed programme was a south-south exchange between Asia and Africa.

"I did not know the marvels of this plant, until the day that IFAD and INBAR sent me to China and Philippines to attend a training ", says Samata. "This is why I want everyone to understand the potential of bamboo, and that they can do a lot with this plant".

Thanks to this south-south exchange Samata discovered the wonders of bamboo. In the Philippines she learnt how to use bamboo to make a house, while in China she learnt to use bamboo to make furniture and other objects such as dustbins for offices, desks for schools, scarves and more. She also learnt that the days of going to collect fire wood may soon be over if she were to use bamboo charcoal. This also meant that she would help to save trees.

"Our country Tanzania is poor, our young women and mother have little or no education, they have little or no opportunity to make money, says Samata. "Young women and mothers need money to feed their children, but because their choice of employment is limited they end up falling in the prostitution trap".

Tanzania has a number of natural resources among which bamboo plantations which grow naturally on the major mountains and highland ranges. The bamboo forests in Tanzania cover an estimated area of 127,000 ha. These forests are mainly found in two ecological zones that are the high rainfall forests of the Eastern Arc Mountains and Lowland areas. Over the last two decades bamboo has been increasing in importance as a non-timber forest product.

Once Samata mastered the art of working the bamboo – the wood of the poor – she quickly put her newly acquired skills to use by helping her less advantaged sisters. She created the women community-based organization called Mbeya Bamboo Women Group.

This Tanzanian mother Teresa made it her mission to exploit the potentials of the "wood of the poor" not only to make a living for herself and change her life for the better, but most importantly to keep away her younger sisters from falling prey to prostitution and saving them from the pandemic of HIV/AIDS.

Samata trainings are free of charge. However, she sets one condition: that the ladies come and say with her in the community for at least 6 months. As an incentive not to drop out of training, Samata pays the ladies TZS 1500 a day (US$1.3).

"So far I've trained 60 women on how to work with bamboo", says Samata with a smile. "I need to make more money to be able to train more women"

Samata also trains children headed-households and young girls who have not benefitted from any type of education. "I do not like young girls to be house girls, I want to teach them a trade so that they can have a better life", says Samata

"I teach them how to make a living by using bamboo and also how to count, how to write their names."

Thanks to Samata's training, women, young girls and children head-households are now generating enough income to buy food, medicine and for mothers to send their children to school. Most importantly, Samata through her training has saved many of her sisters from HIV/AIDS and prostitutions.

"The women are very intelligent, they use the income generated from their bamboo sales to buy food, medicine, malaria prophylactic and to do HIV/AIDS tests".

Samata's bamboo business is blooming. She has set up a workshop 10 kilometres away from the village. A couple of years ago she used to go to the forest herself to cut the bamboo and it took her two days to carry the sticks back. Today, on the other hand, she can afford paying the local village TZS 200 per stick to cut and transport the bamboo sticks to the workshop.

To make the variety of products, Samata and her women colleagues on a monthly basis use 30-34 bamboo sticks. They cut the poles into six pieces and use these to make baskets, chairs, tables, dustbins. The association has created a catalogue featuring their numerous products, and use youngsters to distribute the catalogue to offices and hotels.

To meet the growing demand, Samata and the other Mbeya women always make sure their inventory is well stocked. They sell their products at the workshop, to hotels, offices and have a fixed revenue of TZS 3000,000 by selling their products to Shoprite in Dar es Salam.

"The women make TZS 50,000 per month", says Samata triumphantly. "They use their income to pay for their children's education, for food, medicine and each month the women save at least TZS 5000".

"I am encouraging the ladies who live in rented houses to build their own home with bamboo".

The vision of this Tanzanian mother Teresa is to train as many people as possible. "I need to build more awareness among Tanzanians so that more people understand the many benefits of bamboo and learn how to use bamboo for different purposes", explains Samata. "This way they can help themselves to overcome poverty".

This charismatic leader has a well-thought plan. She owns a piece of land and is building a big integrated workshop and shop in Mbeya. She has explored potential new markets for her products and has identified Zambia, Malawi, Kenya and Uganda as potentially viable markets.

Her long-term plan is to buy more land to plant bamboo. "You know bamboo is a fast growing plant. It takes 2 years for the plant to grow and when you cut it, you only have to wait one year before it grows again", says Samata with a smile.

Pauline Samata the Tanzanian mother Teresa and bamboo saint is contributing to reducing poverty in her beloved country. Thanks to her efforts and those of others, today almost every household in Tanzania uses a bamboo product and many young girls and women earn a respectable living by creating objects made of bamboo. Samata's new slogan is "Yes we can" And indeed she and the Mbeya women's association have made a difference and can continue to make a difference.

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