Village life: The long and bumpy road out of rural isolation
By Barney Jopson
Published: November 7 2007 02:46
It is 7.45am and the sun is beginning to warm Bulongwa's icy mountain air. A Toyota Landcruiser appears at the crest of the hill, rattles down the slope, and stops at a pair of painted road signs that mark the village's social apex.
It is the only public transport that serves Bulongwa, a speck in Tanzania's southern highlands, and its lifeline to the outside world. But with 12 passengers sitting knee-to-knee on benches in the back, it looks full.
Nine villagers, however, are not deterred, because they need it to get to the next settlement 21km away, a metropolis by Bulongwa standards, where it is possible to buy fresh meat, tomatoes and water buckets. Five women squeeze themselves between the legs of those who are seated, and four men step on to the rear bumper outside, clinging on where they can with frosty fingers.
Then the discomfort really begins. The clay track to Makete, the district capital, is cracked, ribbed, rutted and strewn with rocks. The Landcruiser judders up and down for an hour and lurches left to right, giving passengers the equivalent of a rodeo ride. But they are the lucky ones. Most of Bulongwa's 1,437 inhabitants are peasant smallholders confined to the village and their clay brick homes by poverty. They cannot afford the TSh2,000 ($2) fare to Makete, let alone TSh10,000 for a four-hour ride on to Njombe, a real town where there is bread, cheese and a bus station.
"The transport is too hard, especially in the rainy season," says Edwin Swallo, Bulongwa's acting ward executive officer. Wet weather between November and April, he explains, pushes up the Landcruiser fare and often makes the road impassable: "Communication is very important. Here we are dormant."
Bulongwa is very poor even by Tanzanian standards. Like thousands of other villages, it matters little to anyone other than its inhabitants, but collectively these settlements make the country what it is.
Many have no electricity, no stand pipes for water, hole-in-the-ground toilets, and inadequate healthcare. But it is their isolation, the result of bad roads and worse public transport, which makes life so tough for their inhabitants - especially the women and children who are the workers of the rural economy.
To visitors who pass through dozens of flat, dust-blown villages on the way to Bulongwa, its plunging green slopes, filled with trees and shrubs, are enchanting. But for peasants the undulating terrain makes large-scale farming impossible. Most have little surplus left to sell once they have eaten what they need.
Sitting in a flower-lined garden outside her clay brick home, Grace Nyivambe, a peasant aged 50-something, says she subsists on the maize and wheat grown on her plot and, in a good year, produces about eight litres of peas for sale from her garden. They earn her about TSh8,000.
It is not a competitive price, but most people in Bulongwa grow peas of their own and she is a captive seller to the village's roadside vegetable trader. She would probably get a better price in Makete, but the cost of public transport would wipe out the gains. The three-hour walk would be too tiring and, while a richer diet would make her stronger, the price of food ferried in from outside Bulongwa puts it beyond her reach.
Like most villagers, however, Ms Nyivambe is not inclined to complain. "I'm not content, but there's nothing I can do," she says. Asked how the government could help, she replies: "The government can't do anything. If they could they would."
Nord Sanga, Bulongwa representative of the ruling CCM party, says: "Quality of life here is good because most people don't need more than they can get. But, for people who want more, it is bad."
Inaccessibility has contributed to the impact of an affliction that has hit Makete harder than almost anywhere else in Tanzania: HIV/Aids. Official statistics say that between 14 and 17 per cent of the adult population in the district are infected, but Jackson Mbogela of the Piuma HIV care centre in Bulongwa says his organisation's tests suggest a rate more like 21 per cent.
The disease reduces the work capacity of infected peasants and, at the village's primary school, 114 of the 248 pupils are orphans, many of them living in households led by their siblings.
Mr Swallo says HIV/Aids was brought by men who were driven by a lack of opportunity in Bulongwa to seek work on distant tea or timber plantations, leaving their wives in the village for two or three years.
"They came back with something called HIV and they planted it in the district," he says. The disease's spread was accelerated by a local tradition through which the brother of a dead man will take on his widow as a wife. "So if I die, I will have infected my wife, and then when I die, my brother will be infected too," says Mr Mbogela.
Awareness of HIV/Aids is low because few district officials, non-governmental organisations or newspapers reach the village. Before 2000, it was even difficult to get radio reception.
One NGO that has got to Bulongwa is Students Partnership Worldwide, which each year sends one Tanzanian and one western student to live in the village and teach school children about reproduction, contraception and HIV/Aids.
Vicky Riley, one volunteer, has been barred from teaching about condoms because her head teacher says it would encourage children to have sex, even though the incidence of teenage pregnancy shows they are doing so already. "Girls lack confidence and it's important to teach them how to say no to sex," she says.
Mr Sanga, the CCM representative, acknowledges Bulongwa's transport trap. But he says the district office does not have enough money to both maintain the road and grade new sections. "There are lots of people in the same position," he says. "But not enough people use this road to make it worth their while."