I watched the sky darken for the impending sunset at Heathrow Airport, in England, and a night-flight later stepped out into glaring sunlight – a brand new day in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
I am here with Oxfam GB, meeting up with Oxfam Tanzania, to work together on a few projects. I have been involved with Oxfam since their Walking The Breadline report last year, which exposed the scale of food bank use in Britain. I was one of the case studies in the report, and indicated a wish to work with Oxfam on further projects. Later in the year they asked me if I would consider being an Ambassador for their UK poverty projects, and I accepted.
So why, as a UK ambassador, do I find myself in Tanzania? It is a good question, with no straightforward answer – but I will attempt to clumsily put down my thoughts.
I was invited by Jane Foster, the UK country director for Oxfam in Tanzania, to visit some projects centred around women, motherhood, farming and land, and to write about them for Oxfam. I have guest blogged for Oxfam on a number of projects and issues this year, including the G8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, last summer, as part of the Enough Food If campaign.
I have said since I first signed my book deal (and later Sainsburys) that I would be donating a percentage of my royalties to projects and good causes, both domestic and abroad, and so I said yes. The respective Oxfam teams then started to plan the trip, and identify the projects to visit in Tanzania. I shan’t spoil the surprise as I will be blogging as I go!
People have asked me a lot over the past few weeks, why Africa? Why not concentrate on projects at home? Why are you interested? Have you forgotten about the poor in Britain now? (and variations on this theme!)
Why Africa? Because the Africa we see in the mainstream news could be mistaken for a homogenous country, one defined by guns and famine, devastating history, civil war and disturbance. Ask any Westerner to describe ‘Africa’ and they will paint a similar picture. Desperation and despair sell newspapers, underpin emotive NGO campaigns and TV appeals. While the newspapers and charities do not fabricate these events – they are real and devastating disasters – the more positive stories are seldom heard. Yet…we do not define Europe by the flooding on the south coast of England, nor the whole of Asia by a civil unrest in one small part of it. So I am partly here to discover a part of Africa – Tanzania, to be precise – that has far more stories to tell than those perpetuated by the usual mainstream media. Poverty and inequality are unavoidable parts of those stories.
Secondly, I am not here for a race to the bottom with regards to poverty and living standards. Poverty in the UK and poverty in Africa are incomparable on so many levels – but at the core are common themes; the scapegoating and victim blaming, the attitude that if you are poor then it is somehow your own fault. The lack of representation at Government level, with no Parliamentarians willing to align themselves with ‘the poor’, who they do not really understand. An inability to meet basic needs such as food and water, the difficulties in providing for children when you have very little.
We may be almost 5,000 miles from one another, but our basic needs and rights are the same. The need for food, for water, for education for our children, an income, safe and secure housing. The right to live without fear of exploitation, financial or sexual or otherwise. The right to live without fear of abuse or violence. The right to live independently rather than at the hands of an abusive partner. To be able to give birth safely, to be treated by a doctor if you or your family fall sick.
I am here to meet women who have made a change in their lives and their communities, who have stood up and been counted, who have broken traditions and political barriers. I’m here to write about what I learn, and to share it with you. I am part journalist, part food blogger, part charity campaigner, and for the next week or so, I will be doing all of that here, in Tanzania.
Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe