Redmond nonprofit seeks to create self-reliance in Tanzania

A young boy walked into the clinic with so much plaque on his teeth that he couldn’t close his mouth or smile. His own mother hadn’t heard him talk in nearly two years. After hearing on the radio that an American dental team was going to be in the local clinic, the boy and his mother walked to see them.

A young boy walked into the clinic with so much plaque on his teeth that he couldn’t close his mouth or smile. His own mother hadn’t heard him talk in nearly two years. After hearing on the radio that an American dental team was going to be in the local clinic, the boy and his mother walked to see them.

But the team’s dental machine kept overloading and breaking down, so all power tools were rendered useless while volunteers used everything from refrigerator parts to tin foil to repair it.

“I thought we were doomed,” recalled volunteer Vearlene Snow, a retired dental hygienist in Redmond. “I grabbed my hand tools while they tried to repair the machine, and scraped away at everything that had built up on his teeth. When we were done, he smiled and said ‘thank you’ in Swahili. The entire clinic burst into tears.”

Health care is one of the four areas of focus that the Mwangaza Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Redmond, seeks to address in the impoverished village of Songea, located 20 hours from the capital of Tanzania. Food, shelter and education for children are the other kinds of support the organization seeks to provide.

Snow met Flora Komba, the founder of the Mwangaza Foundation, through a mutual friend at St. Jude’s Parish.

Komba grew up in Tanzania, experiencing the rise of HIV/AIDS, extreme poverty and high orphan rates. She wanted to help, because when children of deceased parents were given to different families, often children stopped going to school and were forced to stay and home and work.

She began the Songea Women and Children Care Organization (SWACCO), and after moving to the United States, started the Mwangaza Foundation. SWACCO executes all programs in Tanzania on behalf of the Mwangaza Foundation. “Mwangaza” is a Swahili word meaning “vision for self-reliance,” according to the organization’s mission statement.

Komba’s sister started a second branch of the foundation in Japan in early 2007.

“Flora was so passionate about what she was doing that it was contagious,” Snow said. “It took five minutes and I decided I was in. I came home, told my husband Jeff I was going to Africa and it was decided.”

Komba’s ailing health left her unable to run the Mwangaza Foundation, and she asked close friend Jeff Snow, Vearlene Snow’s husband and the chief financial officer of a Redmond-based company, to take over her role as president and to fulfill the organization’s mission of helping the children of Tanzania. Komba passed away from cancer in December 2013.

The people of Songea live in extreme poverty, with running water considered a luxury and working wages around $4 per day.

“I have an incredible sense of doing something good, and it changed my perspective on how lucky and fortunate we are,”  Vearlene Snow said. “The simple things, like having a toothbrush or being able to take a shower without having to haul water for two miles — it makes you feel so grateful for what you have, but makes you want to do more.”

Primary education in Tanzania is free, but families must pay for uniforms, books, testing fees and school supplies. This cost is often unaffordable, and children are forced to leave school and work to help support their families. English is supposed to be the primary language taught in secondary school, but a shortage of teachers has led to teaching in Swahili, which makes upward mobility more difficult.

The organization is hoping to provide scholarships for students, so they can continue on past secondary school into technical colleges and beyond.

“There are so many kids who would love to get out of Songea, move to the capital city or the UK or the US where the large universities are and become doctors, social workers and teachers,” Jeff Snow said.

The foundation hosts annual auctions to fundraise for infrastructure and building materials. Last year, Mwangaza raised $38,000 and this year, they raised $54,000 at St. Jude’s Parish. Corporate sponsors of this year’s auction included Wells Fargo Insurance and Clark Nuber, one of the largest accounting firms in the Seattle area.

A new brickmaking machine was unveiled, donated anonymously last year, which will be sent to Songea in early 2015, accompanied by an American volunteer to oversee the installation and work. The goal is to provide bricks for building the rest of the orphanage’s infrastructure, and to also sell bricks, creating a business for the local community.

The machine uses a compression mechanism to press clay into bricks, instead of requiring the intense heat and extensive resources used for traditional kiln-fired brickmaking. It can create 30,000 bricks per month, which could double the minimum wage of those employed by the business, Jeff Snow estimates.

An orphanage with a fully functional deep water well currently houses 20 children, plans have already been drafted by the Sundberg Architectural Initiative for more buildings and an increased capacity. Someday as many as 200 children could live in the orphanage and go to school, instead of being farmed out to relatives and families who need them to work. Each building costs nearly $80,000, and the organization hopes to eventually have eight on the property.

Another recent acquisition made by the Mwangaza Foundation is 100 acres of fertile land, to be used for crop production for the children living in the orphanage, and for the potential resale of cash crops, like corn and coffee. Funds from the October auction were used to purchase a tractor.

“What we’re doing here is unique because we’re not just showing up with a lot of bunch of money to build a building and feed kids so they don’t starve. It’s our goal to change the trajectory of their life, and we do that by teaching them how to give back and be self-sufficient,” Vearlene Snow said.

Other than the auction, the Mwangaza Foundation raises money to support orphans in Songea with the help of volunteers, and by monthly sponsorships of children by donors. Woodinville Alliance church raised enough money to send 15-18 kids to Songea to volunteer there several years ago.

“What we’re really lacking at the orphanage right now is toys, like soccer balls and playground sets,” Jeff Snow said.

The Mwangaza Foundation is seeking more monthly sponsors, and is recognized by both Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as eligible for matching donations, so employees can make donations that will be matched by the company.

“We need sponsors for these kids — people with commitment, resources and talent and that are excited,” Vearlene Snow said. “Otherwise, we’re just sitting here with dreams and wishes without any way to help them.”

Ashley Walls is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.