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Bringing hope to the `forgotten` people of the ‘forgotten land’

7th February 2013
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St. John's Hospital in Njombe Region, one of the hospitals that will benefit from Operation Upendos support is in need of modern medical equipment. Photo courtesy of Operation Upendo.

I stood in my friend Bob Rollin's office staring at a picture of him in Antarctica surrounded by Penguins and I said, "I'd like to visit Antarctica someday." Bob said, "Antarctica was fun but I'd really like to see Africa." That was in 1997.  It wasn’t long before I was planning my trip of a lifetime—a safari to Tanzania, East Africa. Six months later I was on my way.  At 40, I had no idea just how much this trip would change my life. It was December and Christmas was approaching. The company where I worked would shut down for two weeks during the Christmas and New Year’s period. So I asked for, and was granted, a two week vacation that would allow me to travel to East Africa for three weeks. It was an expensive vacation that I was sure I would only make once. I decided I would splurge and so I booked the "Royal" tour which included adventures in Game Reserves such as the Serengeti, Masai Mara, and Ngorogoro Crater in both Kenya and Tanzania. The flight to Africa was long, about 20 hours of flying time plus an 8 hour layover.

Christmas in East Africa

The welcome reception was absolutely wonderful. We were served exotic foods and the natives put on a Christmas Program that included dancing and Christmas carols sung in Swahili. I met people from all over the world but it was the people of Tanzania who stole my heart. My safari included a hot air balloon ride that took us over the Serengeti. Then the balloon landed and we were driven a short distance to an area in the Serengeti where a champagne brunch was served under an Acacia tree. The evening meals were 5-course meals and after dinner we would gather around a bon-fire and enjoy listening to stories while wild animal noises could be heard in the background.

One day as I was being transported from one game reserve to another we arrived at a village where I observed the hardships and extreme poverty of the residents. I noticed a little girl, bare footed and wearing a tattered yellow dress, standing along the side of the road. We made eye contact so I smiled at her and waved. She smiled back at me and waved and at that moment she stole my heart. As my vehicle started off again, we continued to glance at each other until we faded from each other's view. I observed many other children in the village and I asked the driver why the children weren't in school and he responded that the village had no school and parents couldn't afford to send their children to boarding school in the neighboring village. I then asked him what the children do all day and he responded that they work in order to help the parents support the family.

I noticed little boys as young as four herding cattle and asked the driver where the children were taking the cattle. He responded that they were taking the cattle to the desert to graze. I asked him if it was dangerous because of the wild animals and he responded that the wild animals were not a danger to the children during the daytime. Then I asked about food and water because I observed that the children were not carrying any. He responded, with a chuckle, that the children would dig up roots if they got hungry. He said, "They know what they can eat". His response absolutely blew my mind. I was shocked beyond belief! And I started feeling guilty about how much I had spent on my "Royal" tour and how I could have put my money to better use. It was then that I decided that I had to do something to help the poor.

My return home

Soon I was on my way back to my home in America and it wasn’t a week after I arrived that I felt a yearning to return to Tanzania, but not as a tourist. No, I wanted to return as a humanitarian volunteer. Only I didn't know how I was going to do it or when. I dreamt many times that I had returned to Africa as a volunteer to help the poor. Over the months my thoughts often turned to the poor in Tanzania. But then as months turned into years my thoughts of helping the poor faded from my memory. But 12 years later, in 2009, I found myself between jobs and I prayed to God about what I should do next. Right away I started recalling my trip to Tanzania, the little girl who stole my heart, and of course, my desire to help the poor. That was when I knew that it was time to realize my dream of helping the poor in Tanzania. I was going to be a humanitarian volunteer after all!

Realising my dream

At the end of May in 2011, I embarked alone on a quest to one of the poorest regions, the Njombe Region, of Tanzania, often referred to by the natives as the "forgotten land". I stayed for three months travelling from village to village, with camera in hand, observing, assessing, and recording the critical needs of the residents. I again observed the hardships and extreme poverty of the people and I knew that I had to do something to help. If I turned my back and did nothing I would never have peace and joy in my heart. Upon my return I enlisted the help of an attorney to establish a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation for the benefit of the poor in Tanzania. My nonprofit is called Operation Upendo, Inc. Operation means "Action" and Upendo means "Love" in Swahili. Together Operation Upendo means “Love in Action”. Upendo is pronounced ooo-pen-doe. The mission of Operation Upendo is to improve the quality of life for the men, women, and children living in the poorest and remote areas by helping them to build the much needed infrastructure like electricity and water systems and improving the health facilities to better serve the needs of the residents. Electricity is critical because it affects everything, especially the delivery of healthcare and water.

I have now made a total of four trips to Tanzania, three of which were to conduct research and additional fact-finding. I have enlisted other people to travel with me on my fact-finding trips. Operation Upendo was established for the benefit of the poor not for our benefit. We are strictly humanitarian volunteers so we are not paid for what we do. We have accomplished so much since our incorporation and now we are ready to bring hope to the "forgotten" people of the "forgotten land" in Tanzania. We invite everyone with a compassion for the poor to join us in our quest. Please visit our website at www.operationupdendo.org for more information on Operation Upendo.

SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN