Empowering Voices in Shirati


Dr. Beth Osnes (left) and PhD canidate Chelsea Hackett (right) walking home from the Maji Safi Group office

When Dr. Beth Osnes and I began to think about taking our Vocal Empowerment program outside of Starfish: Her Infinite Impact (the organization in Guatemala where we co-developed it over the past three years), we realized that it would not be the best fit for just any organization. Consequently, we began to construct a list of “Key Requirements” that an organization must have in order for the program to flourish.

We came up with four traits:

1. The organization has a mission of long-term engagement in a community.

2. The organization is run with the guidance of local community members.

3. The organization shows an ongoing dedication to the concerns of girls and women.

4. The organization is operated with a sense of joy and play.


Community Health Workers supporting a local community clean-up group in Shirati

From reading many of Maji Safi Group’s blog posts and speaking with the leadership team, it became readily apparent that their organization meets the first two requirements immediately. While Maji Safi Group continues to be responsive to pressing health needs, such as two cholera outbreaks within the last year, it has a longer mission of improving health – something that is not done overnight. Maji Safi Group’s Community Health Worker (CHW) model ensures that the knowledge gained comes from within the community, and the majority of the employees will remain in the area to spread that knowledge throughout the region – unlike many aid organizations that primarily employ foreign workers.


Female Hygiene Program Page 2

Linda Arot (left) and Judith Mcbache (right) demonstrating how to use a sanitary pad at a Dining for Female Hygiene event put on by Maji Safi Group

The third requirement is more nuanced and not always easy to find in organizations. However, after speaking with Maji Safi Group’s Female Hygiene Coordinator, Linda Arot, we realized immediately that it was present. The Female Hygiene Program, headed by Linda and CHW Judith Mbache, is a living example of Maji Safi Group’s dedication to the girls and women of the Shirati community. Their knowledge of the unique challenges facing girls in their community and their larger goal of improving public health guide their weekly meetings. Linda and Judith are two women who are clearly concerned with the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the girls they work with, and their program is a wonderful match for the Vocal Empowerment program.



Linda (left), Freddy (back) and Lilian (front) at Rorya FM doing a skit for listeners

This was demonstrated when we were in Shirati with a radio show that Linda, Judith, Freddy and Lilian presented to the community, telling the story of a young girl struggling with menstrual hygiene. They were able to engage various call-in listeners in a conversation around menstrual health – all to ensure that girls are informed and able to reach their goals without menstruation as a barrier.

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It was the fourth element that Beth and I were not sure of until we arrived in Shirati. Joy and play are intangible things in many ways. It is hard to quantify the amount of happiness, laughter, and energy employees bring to their work. Organizations do not often give data reports on the playfulness of their staff. This last element was something we would need to chance by trusting that Bruce’s assurances that the CHWs were true.

13304983_945024452261464_3328239341471304577_oTo our relief, surprise, and glee, Maji Safi Group not only runs with a sense of joy and play, but in my opinion, they could not succeed without it. From our first meeting with the Community Health Workers where they sang the songs they have created about various public health issues, it was clear that this intangible element was abundant in their incredible group of vibrant, excited, and eager individuals. We spent the next five days, from 8:30-4:30, learning just how much fun it was to work with Maji Safi Group.

13308568_945024428928133_8004299849846156216_o (1)Each day, we trained the Community Health Workers in the various theatre games and exercises that make up the Vocal Empowerment program. From the outside, these games may appear childish or silly, but each of them is selected and intended to open new spaces inside of individuals and groups in a way that being “well-behaved adults” never could. Luckily, the Community Health Workers saw the intention behind the games and understood their importance immediately. They gave 100% of their energy to anything that we threw at them, from keeping three balls thrown in a pattern around a group to running a slow speed race. Throughout the course of the week, the games and exercises became more public and gained higher exposure. This mimicked the same model we use in the Vocal Empowerment program. I like to think of it as slowly practiced embarrassment. The more comfortable you are with being silly or doing something surprising (to yourself and others), the better able you are to do serious things that surprise, that alter, that change the normal patterns of behavior. Maji Safi Group’s work is about changing the status quo, about altering the standard actions of a community to collectively improve health. And while they may not seem connected, the more comfortable you are getting outside of your comfort zone through a game, the more prepared you are to introduce a new concept to those around you.


The Community Health Workers’ expertise in “mastering embarrassment” was demonstrated when we journeyed to the main road in Shirati to do our daily vocal exercises. These are, by any measure, outside of normal street behavior. They involve various vocal and physical warm-ups that performers and those in vocal therapy use to better prepare their voices for speaking. In the Vocal Empowerment program, they serve the ongoing purpose of helping young women prepare their physical voices to advocate for themselves and their communities. When done in a public setting, as we did by the road, they also involve that element of exposure that ensures stepping out of your comfort zone. The group of Community Health Workers, while nervous, gave the exercises their all. They were able to handle the perplexed looks of community members and the gawking of small children. In the end, they even had fun!


By the end of the week when we were ready for a public sharing of short “dilemma scenes” they had created, it was clear that the CHWs were masters of public engagement, conquering embarrassment, and keeping the energy high. They performed four scenes as well as several public statements and songs we had rehearsed. No one showed any nerves or anxiety. They were eager, calm, and focused as they shared their work with the community. Beth and I were now 100% certain that we had found a perfect partner for the Vocal Empowerment program. In fact, the final moment of the show demonstrated that we had more to learn about joy from Maji Safi Group than we could ever have imagined.

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Community Health Worker Jared Ongati teaching students hand washing at a public school

After ending the rehearsed show, Jared Ongati gathered the entire audience into a circle. He asked everyone in attendance, from the children who had been lying in the grass to the older community members who had been resting in the shade, to join the Community Health Workers in one of the vocal exercises: the wave. In this exercise, one by one individuals go from touching their toes to bringing their arms into the air while traveling from the bottom to the top of their vocal range. Once the first person has hit the top, the next person can begin. Altogether, the result is a wave of sound and motion that moves around the circle. As Beth and I waited for our turn, we knew that Maji Safi Group thrives on infusing even the most somber of topics with joy, life, and energy. Their work will continue to touch the hearts of the community and make a widespread impact on the health and well-being of Shirati. I believe it is so because they are able to approach every challenge with wide smiles, laughter, and love.


Another Successful Maji Safi Read-a-thon

“Parents approach me to tell me the Maji Safi Read-a-thon is a deeply meaningful way to talk with their child about giving back. I can feel the excitement of our students as they read to make a difference in our world.”

-Sarah Oswick, Principal

wildcat_on_whiteSome people hate Mondays; I loved Monday, May 23. Some people would consider visiting
17 classrooms in one day a chore; for me, the hours between 8:15 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. flew right by. The applause from their classmates and the smiles, the pride, and the sense of accomplishment that exuded from this year’s Maji Safi Read-a-thon participants gave those hours wings.

For the fourth year in a row, elementary students at Whittier International School in Boulder, CO, participated in this win-win project where children improve their reading skills, gain a sense of social responsibility, help others through personal effort, and raise money for Maji Safi Group’s work in the remote and impoverished area of Shirati, Tanzania.

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Backed by the Wildcat Student Council, the 2016 Maji Safi Read-a-thon got under way in January. In cooperation with Maji Safi Group and led by former Whittier teacher John LeClair, council members worked hard to promote the project with posters, classroom visits, and school-wide announcements. Their dedication payed off. Children turned page after page, families found personal sponsors, and Maji Safi Group once again relied on our much appreciated group sponsors to honor every book read, so students without personal sponsors could contribute as well.

Three months later, the children had accomplished these amazing results:

Participants: 65
Books read: 850

Most books read by individual students: 68
Most pages read by individual students: 9,664
Number of personal sponsors: 77
Number of group sponsors: 18
Money donated by personal sponsors: $3,600
Money donated by group sponsors: $1,075
Money donated by matching sponsor: $3,600

Grand total: $8,275

In every classroom, John LeClair and I (Erna Maj) spoke about the Wildcat Student Council’s commitment to service projects and honored each Read-a-thon participant with a certificate and a coupon for a free ice cream cone from Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop or Lindsay’s Boulder Deli, our loyal community partners in Boulder. This year, the certificates held a special surprise – through coloring, they connected children across cultures and the Atlantic Ocean. A child in Shirati had colored the left side of a picture drawn by Maji Safi Group’s artist, Jackie Lucas, leaving the right side for his or her Whittier friend to color.

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It is this connection that over the past four years has become a treasured part of the school year at Whittier. Our ‘Young Global Citizens’ know that due to their efforts, children in Maji Safi Group’s After School Program can learn about personal hygiene and disease prevention through coloring, singing, dancing, doing puzzles, and playing games. The Whittier students know that even kids their age can save lives on the other side of the globe!

“We’ve really enjoyed participating in this program which has turned our reluctant reader into a motivated, independent reader.”

– Deb C. Whittier parent


Thank You for Making a Difference!

A huge thank you to everybody who participated in and supported the 2016 Maji Safi Read-a-thon: students, parents, sponsors, teachers, volunteers, etc. Thanks to your support, the children in the rural community of Shirati can continue to improve their public health situation and learn about disease prevention, so they can stay healthy and reach their full academic potential!

After School Program

After School Program awards

Community Health Worker Consolata Ladis giving out awards to the top WASH performers.

In the After School Program, Maji Safi Group’s Community Health Workers (CHWs) teach students how to prevent waterborne diseases, so they can stay healthy and succeed in school.

Since July 2012, 6000+ students from 10 schools have attended, and in 2015, the District Education Office approved Maji Safi Group to teach water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) education in all 125 primary schools in the Rorya District. Now, more kids than ever will receive the benefits of this education.


After School Program Page 2CHWs teach in a fun and nurturing environment. Art, games, puzzles, and other activities encourage students to develop their creative and cognitive skills. This way, the things the children need to learn become things they want to learn.

Over the academic year, students learn about

  • sanitation,
  • personal hygiene practices,
  • waterborne and water-related diseases,
  • water treatment,
  • the fecal-oral disease cycle,
  • bilharzia, and
  • the benefits of preventing diseases.

To enable proper WASH techniques, Maji Safi Group provides schools with demonstration ceramic drinking water filters and handwashing stations. At the end of the program, our staff artist paints a WASH-related mural to serve as a reminder of lessons learned and as an inspiration to future students.

My Maji Safi Story Part I


Mambo from Merikani! My name is Samantha Nelson, and I studied abroad in East Africa during the fall of 2015. Coincidentally, I spent most of my time in northern Tanzania with World Learning SIT, the same program Maji Safi Group co-founders Bruce Pelz and Max Perel-Slater studied with in 2009. Believe it or not, I have also returned to Bruce’s hometown of Boulder, CO, where I plan to graduate in the spring from his alma mater, University of Colorado. Oh, and did I mention we have the same major? Let us rewind a little bit, so I can tell you how and why I started working with Maji Safi Group (MSG) in the first place.

As a double major in the natural sciences, I thought studying abroad in Tanzania would provide me with the quintessential experience and subsequent skill set I needed to develop my very own natural science study. This opportunity would manifest itself through the Independent Study Project (ISP) that serves as the pinnacle field study section of SIT’s programs. The ISP gives students an entire month to conduct independent research in an international setting. During this time, I envisioned myself romping around the rainforest, posted up on the coast of the Indian Ocean researching coral reef ecology, species conservation, or something of the like. But here comes the plot twist – I didn’t want my ISP to be yet another nicely bound packet of paper that sits on the shelves of the SIT office in Arusha with no real application other than as a reference point for other SIT students. Upon further contemplation and a little self-reflection, I realized that I wanted to use my ISP as a chance to provide a service that would directly benefit Tanzanians based on their needs and wants.

So, almost surely, you now all understand the logical sequence of events that followed and culminated with me studying the menstrual health and personal hygiene practices of girls ages 12-25, right?

Oh, not quite yet? Labda (maybe) I am still missing some important details. I told my program director, Baba Jack, how I felt, and he asked what I would be interested in studying. I responded with ‘water-related issues’, and he said, “I have the perfect guy for you.”

Once in contact with Max Perel-Slater, MSG’s co-founder and Tanzania Executive Director, we went back and forth for a couple weeks, contemplating ISP topic ideas that would amalgamate the needs of the organization with my own interests and niche experience. While doing so, Max briefly mentioned MSG’s Female Hygiene Program (FHP), and the ‘budding feminist’ within me instantly perked up. Intrigued, I asked what work I could do to help this program, and he explained how the group had been meaning to collect some data that would help the organization update and expand the FHP. “Hey, I could totally do that!” I thought, and we decided to get the ball rolling.

To do so, Max put me in contact with MSG’s dynamic and upbeat Tanzania Director of Operations, Emily Bull – who, funny story, is yet another SIT Study abroad alumnae. With the help of Ms. Bull, I developed a survey for adolescent girls and young women in the District of Shirati, a rapidly growing area on the shores of Lake Victoria. The survey targeted girls in both primary and secondary schools, in the FHP, and around the village. The purpose was to learn more about these females’ knowledge of and practices concerning personal and menstrual hygiene and to explore related social implications, such as school attendance and access to family planning resources.


Pictured left to right: Emily Bull, Bena Migenda and Samantha.

The groundwork for this project was laid during a weeklong period in October where I took Max’s advice to make the 12-hour trek to Shirati to check out the site and familiarize myself with MSG employees and members of the community. During this time, I finally met Max and Emily as well as MSG’s charismatic and devoted team of Community Health Workers (CHWs), whom I would be working closely with in the coming month. I also met Bena, my extremely overqualified and wonderfully charming translator, who became my study collaborator, travel buddy, and best friend in Shirati. Bena accompanied me on all of my outings, and we worked closely with FHP teachers Linda, Mama Judith, and Lillian. The five of us went to the FHP’s triweekly meetings at local primary schools and the MSG office in Shirati.

Picture5This ‘jump-right-in approach’, as opposed to slowly reintroducing myself to the world of pre-pubescent and adolescent girls, was one of the main motivators for the incorporation of many of my survey questions. During these meetings, I was able to hear first-hand what kind of questions the girls typically asked the FHP teachers and subsequently gauge what they wanted to know. These inquires included questions such as, “What if you don’t get your period?” and “Can you really not get pregnant a week after your period ends?” Other survey questions were developed by collaborating with the FHP teachers to see what kind of queries they felt would provide them with helpful data that could be used in the future – for example, “Do you feel comfortable at home and/or at school when you menstruate?”

The highlight of my first enthusing week in Shirati was helping out with MSG’s Global Handwashing Day festival on Oct. 15th – a day relished across the globe for its ability to spread awareness about proper, yet often overlooked, basic hygienic practices. To celebrate this joyous day, MSG made appearances at village schools across Shirati. I accompanied one of the many teams of CHWs in the field that day to Obwere Primary School. Once we arrived, two hand washing stations were assembled; subsequently, a captivated audience of some 400 pupils and teachers watched Shalua, a delightful CHW, model the eight steps of hand washing. Students then had the opportunity to try the steps out for themselves, and they were encouraged to teach them to their family members at home. Following this informative morning, an after-party took place at the MSG office, complete with singing, face painting, and a dancing session that led to the infamous vumbi (dust) disco.

Needless to say, the entire experience left me stoked to be returning to Shirati a couple of weeks later.

Right now, I need to get back to working on Buffs for Maji Safi, a campus group that two other CU students and I started last month. Please tune in next week to see how my return to Shirati went.

My Maji Safi Story Part II


Hey everyone, it is me, Sam, again! Sorry for ending my last post with such a cliffhanger! I am back now and ready to finish telling you how my experience with Maji Safi Group ended, and how my journey with Buffs for Maji Safi began!


For a quick refresher: I had just finished my Independent Study Project (ISP) prep week and celebrated Global Handwashing Day in Shirati where I laid the groundwork for my final project with SIT Tanzania. I then returned to Arusha where I developed my study design and finalized my survey.

After going back and forth with Max, Emily, and my SIT professors, we decided I would survey female students from seven schools (six primary, one secondary) as well as girls in the Female Hygiene Program (FHP) at their tri-weekly meetings and young women in the village who had presumably not been exposed to MSG’s FHP. I would also attend FHP events to gather what I called ‘metadata’. I would use these observations to help contextualize my study and better understand what it means to be a maturing girl or young woman in rural areas in northern Tanzania.

Female Hygiene dance performance

Upon my much anticipated return to Shirati, I could hardly wait to get the study going; however, formalities and logistics took precedence. I had to obtain permission from the headmasters of the schools I would be working in and visit the Shirati immigration office to get permission to work in Shirati.

Then, on a glorious, not-so-sunny Wednesday morning, the study commenced. Speaking in a colloquial manner, Bena floated through the survey questions with our first participant, a village girl who worked at a little duka (store) in the town center – with me waiting nervously in the corner. Admittedly, the first interview was not perfect, but with each new interview, things went a little more smoothly, and I started to understand more and more. That first day, we managed to complete eight interviews. It turned out that finding girls in the village who had the time to talk to us and fit our criteria (either over 18 or having had a baby) was hard. However, on days when we ventured out to one, two or all seven schools, we managed to talk to as many as 20 girls in two hours.

Female Hygiene being community leaders with skit

Female Hygiene Program participants perform a skit about menstrual hygiene management and preventing early pregnancy during an event for the Day of the African Child.

When probed to respond, some girls were clearly more comfortable than others. Some young, and often pre-menstrual, girls gave little more than a nod and uttered a couple of sentences under their breath, but many others, notably village women and MSG’s Female Hygiene Program participants, radiated confidence and were elated by the opportunity to share how much they knew.

By the end of the three weeks, 202 girls from 23 different schools and 21 different villages had completed the survey! Little did I know that the easier part was now behind me. The 25-question survey was awesome in that it provided us with tons of data, but the data now needed to be entered and analyzed. This task was easier for the “ndiyo” (yes) or “hapana” (no) questions. For the open-ended questions, assessing the responses proved to be much more difficult than anticipated. Perhaps the best example was the question, “Je, unajua maana ya ‘hedhi’?” (Do you know what ‘menstruation’ is?) If they answered yes, the girls were asked to explain what it was as well as why they thought women menstruate. Needless to say, these questions yielded a wide array of answers, which also warranted additional consideration to determine their most accurate translation.


Consequently, I am still working on expanding and refining my analysis of the data; however, I will provide you with some general demographics as well as some key findings and their interpretations from my preliminary analysis. The average participant age was 14.5 years, and the average education level they had achieved or were currently enrolled in was C6. In the US, this is roughly equivalent to 6th grade. The average age at which participants began menstruating was 14.3 years, and 78.8% of them reported they did not know about menstruation until their first period. For those that did know about menstruation, the most common place they learned about it was at school. However, interviews with public school health teachers provided little to no explanation as to why a considerable number of participants lacked knowledge about menstruation as one teacher reported that female students begin learning about the topic when they enter C4.

Furthermore, although it may not be initially concerning, nor surprising, that girls reported ‘school’ as their primary source of information about menstruation, it should garner some alarm. Females face many unique challenges when it comes to attending, excelling in, and completing school. Obstacles include safety concerns while traveling to and from school and while at school; social stigmas that favor educating males; and the need for private and sanitary restrooms, so girls can maintain their menstrual hygiene while getting an education. Sadly, these obstacles have manifested themselves as barriers for girls living in Shirati where more than two thirds of female students fail their primary school exams and are therefore unable to continue pursuing an education. Additionally, this somber finding conceals the countless number of girls who drop out of school before they are even eligible to take the exam.


More private and sanitary toilets need to be built to enable girls to stay in secondary school after starting menstruation and reach their full potential.

The reality is that adolescent girls and young women’s needs are not being met. Too easily, girls are allowed, and even encouraged, to slip through the cracks in an antiquated (public) school system and a patriarchal society. However, during my time in Shirati, I was able to see how Maji Safi Group combats these tribulations. The organization acts as a much-needed safety net for the community’s females. MSG is able to provide them with educational opportunities and subsequently help restore their lost or negated potential.


Female Hygiene Program facilitator Judith Mbache (front) speaking at a female hygiene event with fellow facilitator Linda Arot (back).

While there, I observed a sense of purpose and a strong desire to teach and learn, exuded by MSG employees and program participants alike. One of my favorite examples occurred during my final interview with Mama Judith – truly a one of a kind FHP facilitator. When I asked if there was anything else she wanted me to know, she simply responded, “No!” and instead asked me (the student) for new information or articles that she could use to teach her FHP girls. Another fantastic instance was on a Saturday afternoon when the FHP girls came together to host a “Dining for Female Hygiene” event. The purpose of this affair was to allow the girls the opportunity to speak as topical experts and teach the guests of honor, i.e. their own mothers, about puberty, menstrual hygiene, and even teen pregnancy.



Female Hygiene Program participants and their female guardians at the “Dining for Female Hygiene” event that I attended.

During my brief stay in Shirati, it became clear that not only has MSG developed a way to improve the lives of its female community members, it has also created an environment in which teachers are not afraid to be students, and students gain the confidence to become teachers and community leaders.

Although I feel the time for me to say goodbye to my new friends and Maji Safi family came all too quickly, I am so grateful for the experiences they facilitated and the opportunity I was given to become a member of their community. All I can say is asante sana (thank you very much) to all of my friends and family back in Tanzania. I could not have done it without you, so thank you for making it possible!

Since returning home, I have been fortunate enough to keep in contact and work with my Maji Safi Group family, as they have helped me and two other CU students, Alex Posen and Ryan Messinger, start a campus group called “Buffs for Maji Safi”. The three of us are working with Bruce Pelz to organize events on campus and work with the Boulder community to increase awareness and support for Maji Safi Group’s work in Shirati. We are also excited to help host Dr. Chirangi, MSG’s Senior Mentor and Medical Superintendent at the Shirati KMT District Hospital, at this week’s Conference on World Affairs (April 4-8) at the University of Colorado.


Dr. Bwire Chirangi at the Shirati KMT Hospital.

If you live in the Boulder area and find yourself free on Wednesday evening and want to learn more about MSG, please email info@majisafigroup.org for info about opportunities to meet Dr. Chirangi.  We hope to see you around, and for now, tutaonana baadaye (see you later)!