Maji Safi through the Lens of a Filmmaker

Paul Horton is the Photograph and Film Director at Neue Studios in Middletown, CT. Paul volunteered with Maji Safi during the summer of 2012. During his time in Shirati, Paul, and his team, produced films and photographs for Maji Safi.

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Paul filming the Singing and Dance Group in Shirati

One year ago, I traveled to Shirati to film and photograph the Maji Safi project.  It was my intention to provide them with stills for use on their web site, and edit a few films that would describe their project.

I arrived in Shirati after spending three days in the national parks of Tanzania.  Both the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater were wonderful locations for filming and photos.

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Ngorongoro Crater

We spent our time initially at the after school program and the singing and dancing program.  Luckily, I was there for the big performance of the singing and dancing group.  It took place at the Maji Safi office/community center, and had a huge audience.  The spirit was really celebratory, and a moment that I will not forget.  After the performance was an impromptu dance party that lasted for awhile.

We then concentrated on filming the Community Water Workers (CWWs).  We visited 3 or 4 homes and filmed as the CWWs reviewed the hygiene materials with the families.  A high point for me was returning to one of the houses to play music with the father of one of the families.

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We had set aside time to film the process of collecting water from Lake Victoria, a task performed by water carriers.  We hired a pikipiki, a Tanzanian motorcycle,  to carry me as we filmed Mayanga on his bicycle.  It was certainly a new experience to ride facing backwards on a motorcycle as I was filming.  No major injuries, though.   It is hard to believe that he makes that trip many times a day.

I have posted some photos from my time in Shirati as well.

My crew was the best (thanks, Pete and Abby!), and the experience was extraordinary.  With luck, I will return next summer to update all the footage, and to report on the new Maji Safi programs in Shirati.


Leading by Example: A Latrine Story

Judith Mbache, known as Mama Mkubwa (Big Mama) by the Maji Safi community, joined the Maji Safi in March 2012 in the first class of Community Water Workers (CWWs). Since then, Judith has been an integral part of the CWWs, by acting as a mentor to the younger ambassadors. She was instrumental in developing and implementing the After School Program and is now taking a lead role in the new Female Hygiene Program for Shirati girls.

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Judith and her granddaughter

My name is Judith Mbache. I was born on the June 19th, 1964 in Kabwana, Shirati. I have a form 2 secondary education from Kenya, and I attended nursing school for two years. I have 3 kids, a daughter and two sons. My children live far from Shirati, and I now live with my granddaughter named Judith who goes to Tai Secondary School, form 1.

Before joining the Maji Safi Group, I was a farmer and palliative care provider. Palliative care is a service provided to the severely ill in their homes. Examples of such diseases are cancer, sickle cell anemia, TB, HIV/AIDS, and diabetics.

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Judith working with Shirati children during Maji Safi’s After School Program

After joining the Maji Safi Group, I have gone through so many changes. Firstly, the school children refer to me as a teacher. Secondly, I am able to budget my money every month. Thirdly, I was enabled to build a permanent improved latrine. Earlier, I used to participate in open defecation. So now I am able to be among the people who conserve the environment and prevent fecal-oral infection and diseases like cholera, dysentery, chronic diarrhea, and worms.

Being able to own a toilet has brought me so much respect in my community. Guests come to my house, and I don’t feel shy, and I show them the bathroom straight away.

I would like to give thanks to the entire Maji Safi community for enabling me to change some of the things in my life. It has empowered me with education, and now I have a clearer understanding, and I know the importance of latrine use, and I now have my own toilet.

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Judith’s new latrine

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Judith’s house and latrine

Thank You.


Judith Mbache

Where children learn…

Tanzania 2013_2 165 Erna Maj, or “Mama Bruce” as she is known in Shirati, started working with the Maji Safi Group (MSG) in March 2012. She received her Master’s Degree from the University of Colorado in Linguistics and TESOL and works as a language teacher and translator. Mama Bruce has worked and volunteered for aid organizations in the US, Tanzania, Guatemala, and Argentina and is currently acting as the US Fundraising Coordinator for the Maji Safi Group. Below, Mama Bruce shares her Maji Safi experience and what it is like to work with the children in Shirati involved in MSG’s After School Program.
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Imagine young children who do not have the opportunity to color, to read children’s books, to play Memory and Scrabble, to play with playdoh, to cut and glue, to have their faces painted, or to do math with manipulatives. In Shirati, there are a lot of children like that. They are happy kids who can kill a snake, herd goats and dance the kuduku, but their schools are characterized by huge classes, rote learning, a lack of supplies, and very little emphasis on cognitive development. In most homes, there is no money available for art supplies or books. In Shirati, developing the kind of imagination and creative thinking western schools and parents are so focused on honing all too often becomes a dream deferred. Instead of carrying creative ideas in her head, a girl ends up carrying buckets of water on her head.

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Or that used to be the case, I should say. Now, there is the Maji Safi Group’s office which is in the process of being turned into a true Community Resource Center. Here, kids come to play and learn about personal hygiene, water treatment and disease prevention through stories, singing and dancing, games and art. In the afternoons, eager hands, enthusiastic voices and fascinated minds fill those two rooms to the brink. Health instruction is being given, hands are being washed, books are being read, pages are being colored, and memory cards with vijidudu (bacteria) in twenty different colors are being turned. And not to be forgotten, there is Maji-Maji-Vijidudu (Water-Water-Bacteria) – the Shirati version of Duck-Duck-Goose

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I have had the pleasure of working with the children in Shirati twice. In March 2012, Maji Safi Group was in its infancy, so I worked at a school. While I was there, the idea of an afternoon school program, based on children’s literature and art, was born. We wanted to see if the children would come. They did – dozens, often walking several miles to participate. In March 2013, Maji Safi Group had become an established and highly respected organization with its own After School Program taught by the Maji Safi Community Water Workers (CWWs). I was asked to help add art projects to the children’s curriculum. Minyoo (worms) were created as reverse paper cuts, syllables of hygiene content words were matched, word search sheets were made and colored, paper scraps were used for math, board games were created and played, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar came to Shirati in Swahili.

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Mama Bruce, as they call me there, cannot wait to return to work with the Maji Safi CWWs and the children they teach. My suitcase will be filled with homemade teaching materials and children’s books and my head with ideas. If you have ideas or materials to share, please contact me at [email protected]. I cannot wait to see kids as fascinated as the one below again, fascinated by a children’s story.

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KUKU Cup Round 1: Sota

Bruce Pelz, an honors graduate of the University of Colorado, came to Tanzania to study and conduct research for his honors thesis on “The Future Environmental Views of Children across Cultures and Socioeconomic Class” in 2010 with the School for International Training. After graduation, Bruce became a Co-Founder of the Maji Safi Group and is currently living in Shirati full time as  Maji Safi’s  Vice President and Secretary. This is Bruce’s story of Maji Safi’s exciting new soccer program and how the love of this game can help teach communities about disease prevention.


It had come down to the final moments of a penalty shootout. With music playing in the background and Lake Victoria sparkling in the foreground, team “Msikiti” had the chance to snatch the under-15 final from team “Human” and take home the coveted chickens in the first ever Maji Safi KUKU Cup. The venue was a pitch at a shore side school under construction that had just reopened after a one-month break. The circle of 200 people I was standing in could only make me think of how we live in a world of cycles, more specifically habitual cycles.


Sota is a fishing village on the shores of Lake Victoria. It is known for high rates of open defecation, Bilharzia (a parasitic disease that is estimated to infect 75% of all primary school children from bathing in the Lake), and chronic diarrhea as a consequence of drinking untreated and unprotected water. These cycles are the result of poor sanitation and hygiene in a fishing culture where life is lived on a day-to-day basis. In spite of these living conditions, the human spirit and an intense love for soccer now appeared to have started to kick these cycles and bring attention to preventing the diseases that historically have paralyzed development in Sota. The KUKU Cup seemed to be working.


What is a KUKU Cup, you might ask. In Tanzania, it is very common for soccer tournaments to be organized with animals as trophies. There are KONDO Cups (Sheep), MBUZI Cups (Goats), and KUKU Cups (Chickens), but you could probably use just about any animal as the trophy. The Maji Safi Community Water Workers (CWWs) took it upon themselves to take this tradition and combine it with our mission of preventing disease through holistic community empowerment. All the CWWs asked for were teaching materials and 2 balls. Subsequently, they organized a 3-week tournament where there would be an afternoon game three times a week. In order for a team to be eligible to play in the afternoon, the participating players were required to attend the 1 hour lesson about disease prevention before the game.


This idea worked great with each lesson being attended by 30-40 youths who learned mostly about fecal-oral disease transmission and the Bilharzia cycle. As the weeks passed by, it was fun to see leaders emerge that dared go up to the board and educate their peers about these disease cycles that affect their daily lives so adversely. The participants also learned about taking Bilharzia medication (about $1.50) once a year to prevent this sometimes fatal disease from invading their organs. In a village on a peninsula with no running water, swimming in the Lake and getting Bilharzia are almost unavoidable. This new exposure to knowledge about an annual treatment and preventing disease is vital to all residents, and it can change rare family habits. Throughout the KUKU Cup, participants seemed to be committed and engaged in both the education and the soccer, with winning those chickens on their mind.


As “Msikiti’s” final penalty shot crossed the goal line, securing them the coveted chickens, the first ever Maji Safi KUKU Cup came to a close with a dramatic finish that was only fitting. With the music still blaring in the background and the water still sparkling in the foreground, smiles and laughter broke all the disease cycles that had been filling my mind. With the hand washing line still full of kids waiting for popcorn and the newly won KUKUs in the air, the power of soccer and sports was shining with the sun setting over Lake Victoria.


The Power of Dance

Faye Phillips, a recent graduate from Wesleyan University, volunteered with the Maji Safi Group (MSG) last summer (2012). Faye quickly became part of the MSG community when she  used her love for dance to start the now successful Singing and Dance Group. Students in the MSG Singing and Dancing Group learn about their own health, and explore these issues through dances that they create, skits they perform, and songs they write in their own words. Faye’s joy for dance and passion for the Shirati community has led her to continue working with MSG over the past year in the states. And currently, she getting ready to return to Shirati to start a new Women and Girl’s Hygiene Program for MSG. This is Faye’s story of how the art of singing and dance can be a powerful community changing tool.


I have always loved dance for its aesthetic qualities and for the joy of creative movement, but the Maji Safi Singing and Dance Group showed me the amazing communicative power of dance.

With my rudimentary Kiswahili language skills, communicating with the people of Shirati relied almost exclusively on body language.  Even though I felt like my Kiswahili vocabulary expanded each day with Singing and Dance class, dance was how I connected with the children and the Community Water Workers. I was able to be playful and express my interest and personality through my movement.  The non-verbal connections were the foundations of the relationships I began in Shirati and they were jump started and developed through dance.


The communicative power of dance was gratifying for me on a personal, relationship-building level but I also witnessed what a powerful tool for education it can be.  Dance served as an effective and culturally relevant vehicle for knowledge transmission and acquisition, which in turn helps to improve the health of an entire community.  Pretty powerful stuff!

Each afternoon in the Maji Safi Group office yard, children learned about proper hygiene and disease prevention techniques and then applied their knowledge by engaging with it physically through games, skits, and dances.  “Maji safi, maji safi, vijidudu” was by far the most popular game — a version of “duck, duck, goose,” that is hygiene-themed and translates to “clean water, clean water, germs.” This embodied learning technique was of course a fun way to learn but it also allowed the children to feel some sort of ownership over the information.  When it came time for the first community performance, the children wriggled with pride and excitement as they danced and sang for the gathered audience.  The sense of community in that courtyard was also something to marvel at: all who participated and all who came to watch showed wonderful energy and enthusiasm.  Dancers and spectators both were proud of this dance group with a cause.


After returning to the United States for my final year at Wesleyan University, I couldn’t help but share with the dance community there the impressive work being done by the dancers of Shirati.   My dance company, Terpsichore Dance Ensemble, decided to use our dancing to accomplish some good as well.  We spread the word around campus about the Maji Safi Dancing and Singing Group, their hard work and their performances, and we collected the funds from our performances each semester and sent them to Shirati to further the cause of the MSG Dancing and Singing Group.  We were thrilled to help support the Community Water Workers and children in their effort to educate and empower their community through our shared passion of dance!


As the dance program continues to flourish, this summer I am headed back to Shirati to help establish another program alongside it that will empower Shirati youngsters in a different way through a Girls Hygiene Program. The group will provide a safe space for girls at the critical age of pre-pubescence and adolescence to learn about their bodies, proper hygiene and care, and healthy relationships through educational activities. The significant gap in girls’ knowledge about menstruation and body change during puberty can leave girls with feelings of shame and panic at the sight of their first bleeding, but with the program’s discussions, conversations and lessons lead by CWWs who will act as female mentors, we hope to empower the girls with knowledge and understanding.


There is lots of great work going on in Shirati at the moment with the Maji Safi Group, and the youth programs are no exception.  I can’t wait to experience it all in full swing again!

A Day in the Life of a Water- Porter

Otis Poisson, a student in Wesleyan and Columbia University’s joint Engineering Program, became a part of the Maji Safi Group (MSG) community when he volunteered in June and July of 2012. While in Shirati he helped develop and implement the MSG Bio-Sand Filter program. The filter was adapted from an MIT graduate student’s dissertation model so that it could be constructed from all locally available materials. Otis enjoyed getting to know the community and experiencing the local life. This is his account of a day (or a morning) in the life of a Tanzanian biking water-porter.


Getting on the bike, the buckets are empty but my heel clips them on the up-pedal as I begin to move. The steel bike is heavier than any bike I’ve ever ridden. It is clumsy and feels simultaneously sturdy and as though it could fall apart at any moment. Bombing downhill the bike clangs and the empty buckets rattle. The ride to the lake is easy, sitting upright and catching the lake’s breeze. I try to imagine what the return ride will be like with the buckets full of 100L of water.

I soon know that I can’t have imagined it. We turn off the road onto a meandering path through a busy lakeside village; it takes us to the lake. The village people laugh at my presence, on my borrowed bike with my five yellow jugs. The opening to the lake is beautiful, wide, and it hurts to think of how contaminated its water is.


We prop our bikes on kickstands by the sand and Mayango kicks off his rubber sandals. He unstraps the 10 buckets, 20L each, and quickly fills them two at a time while I shuttle jugs back and forth across the sand. Other biking men are there retrieving water and more arrive. I recognize their faces from running on the road – there must only be a select few who do this daily. With our 200L, Mayango straps the jugs back on – 100L now ready to pull down the bike’s rear. One jug is on either side of the wheel, two rest side by side on a rear bike-rack, and one jug lies sideways atop the last two, it’s upper edge about parallel with my shoulder blades while I’m seated.


We walk the bikes back through the lake village, gradually uphill, and I feel the water sloshing back and forth, my right shoulder supporting the side of the topmost jug and my right hand gripping the back of the rack just above the wheel. I steer and break when necessary with my left hand while my feet are off to my left rather than beneath me, fighting the weight of the water by pushing both sideways and forwards. I fear that I will tip the bike and spill all the water even though the jugs are capped.

The weight feels precarious. We make it through the village onto the main road and to a slight downhill. I’m not sure how to mount the bicycle and achieve an upright, riding position and then begin riding without letting the bike tip. I get on, keeping the bike as level as possible, and inch the bike forward, half sitting on the bike’s crossbar, waiting for the wheels to roll enough so that I may sit and think about pedaling. I feel the jugs already trying to find the ground. I think that this is almost like learning to ride a bike, or when you see someone learning to ride a bike, and that it should be easier once I’m moving – at least until I need to slow down and get off. I get up on the seat, my feet on the rickety pedals, and begin moving in a clumsy manner even after watching the watermen do so gracefully and with ease.


There is now neither an incline nor a decline but the ground is certainly not even. I notice it more now than ever. Any sideways lean or jostling starts the water moving side to side – 100L swaying in unison, pulling and pushing my rear wheel side to side. I can hear it and feel it and I must fight the back and forth weight to right my course, hitting and trying to avoid more holes in the process. I remember crashing when I was four years old. This takes so much focus so I focus and move straight, trying to restrict my motions so that there is no side-to-side sway in my body.

Focus focus focus and the biker in front of me answers his cell-phone while remaining effortlessly in the central, flatter part of the road. We get to a series of bridges – a bumpy uphill, a short bridge, and then a bumpy downhill before the next. The rider in front of me signals for me to slow down as we approach. I do so anticipating the dismount and wondering how exactly to now get off and keep the whole rig from tipping. I slow to a stop, take my feet off the pedals and reach for the ground while still remaining upright, then try to slowly loop my right leg up and over the crossbar to meet my other leg on the left side of the bike.


As I do so the bike starts to tip from the back. It is a slow tip but the falling weight of the water is too much to correct. The bike lands on the ground and three of the five jugs bounce off and down the bank of the road. I don’t lose water but all five accompanying riders stop and wait as I retrieve the three and Mayango helps me restring them. My bike is again upright and strapped. We are back on foot and have caused a bit of a traffic jam of bicycles, motorcycles, and one car at one end of the two sequential bridges. We push up and over each and soon come to the big hill, at the top of which I know is our destination.

We begin the climb – one that I’ve run many times by now and have decided is probably a third of a mile at a steep grade after a third at a low grade. My lower left back is full of tension and my right shoulder, pushing and holding the leaning jugs, is sore and tired. My head is bowed and the sun beats my neck, telling me to stop. I’m dripping with sweat and I glance around quickly to see that the watermen are hardly glistening. I think then that anticipation of the suffering is indeed worse than the suffering itself and I try to just do the job, climb the hill and push the rolling, sloshing water, and not worry about how much hill remains above me. We do make it to the top and turn off onto our road. We walk the short remainder of the trip and soon make it to the house.


We unload, 2000 shillings for each load ($1.30) and I say to Mayango, “one more” and we go. We stop at Mayango’s house, a small compound where there seem to live multiple watermen. He asks if I want water but I for some reason say no. I wait and he gets a quick drink. Standing there in the compound, another young and wiry man comes out and gives me an AHA! and asks how it is, the water biking. I say that it is difficult, tiring, and he laughs ruefully. He tells me simply, sternly and proudly: “It’s our life.”

Maji Safi Wins Fellowship

On June 5th, the Maji Safi Group participated in World Learning’s first Social Innovation Summit. The Maji Safi Group was part of a cohort of 9 finalists for the Advancing Leadership Fellowship.
Throughout the day this group presented project pitches to a panel of judges and an audience of over 100. Watch the video below to view Max Perel-Slater give his pitch about using the fellowship to create a new Community Resource Center  for the Maji Safi Group in Shirati, Tanzania.
The day was also a great opportunity for networking, and MSG made many valuable connections with non-profit professionals, fellow social innovators, and funders.
At the end of the night MSG was awarded one of the 5 fellowship positions, which includes a $10,000 seed grant to start the Community Resource Center and leadership and social innovation training.

Insights into Sustainable Community Development

MSG Maji Safi Group (MSG) was started as a means to spread hygiene and sanitation education in a sustainable way. The founders of MSG came together with different backgrounds, experiences, and educational interests with a common vision to start something truly organic that would be owned by the Shirati community.


Currently we are excited to report that MSG actively promotes disease prevention by focusing on sustainable education where locals are trained to teach others about the importance of hygiene and sanitation. MSG education is spread throughout the community through home visits, workshops, and extra-curricular activities that give community members of all ages the opportunity to express themselves in a hands-on learning environment. This education is taught and facilitated by Community Water Workers (CWWs) who are local Shirati women trained and employed to spread hygiene education. The ownership of the project is thereby transferred to the community, which intentionally differs from the disastrous top-down approach too commonly employed by service organizations.


We are starting this blog to give you a rare look into the makings of a truly community based organization. It takes a whole community to start a project like MSG and the MSG community is vast and eager to share their experiences and stories with you. Stories will come from our Community Water Workers, volunteers, directors, families that are being positively affected by MSG, children participating in MSG programs, donors, and board members. It is our hope that through these insights you too will become a special member of the MSG family. We are looking forward to continuing this exciting journey with you.

Judith + Grandaughter