It Was A Life-Changing Experience
Mosaic International has been in partnership with Building a Caring Community (BCC) in Tanzania since 2007 to love and support children and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). All of Mosaic International’s work and its Carman International Fellowship program are supported by donors and grants. Daniel Scherer-Emunds served as a Carman International Fellow from August 2022 to December 2023. He looks back upon his time there.
It was a life-changing experience working bega kwa bega (shoulder by shoulder) with the Building a Caring Community (BCC) team in Moshi, Tanzania for the past 16 months. I am so grateful to have been even a small part of their incredible impact and comprehensive supports for more than 215 local children and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.
It was going to be my first time in East Africa, so before going, I collected as many perspectives about Tanzania as I could from American and Tanzanian friends who had close connections to the land and culture. One question I asked was what were the first three words that came to their minds regarding Tanzania. The responses included hospitality, faith, peaceful, friendly, family, opportunity, overwhelming and low-resource environment.
While the words my friends shared with me ended up ringing true, the first three words that now come to my mind are: Pamoja (Swahili for togetherness), Aliveness and Music.
The communal nature of everyday life and culture in Tanzania is strikingly different than the individualistic mindsets that often exist in the US.
There’s an everyday Swahili phrase tuko pamoja, meaning “we are in this together.” It’s a comforting expression of solidarity. There’s much togetherness in the work of BCC. BCC leaves no child behind regardless of socioeconomic status or disability severity. The tireless and compassionate team of BCC staff give their all to serve as many children as possible and disrupt the vicious cycle of disability and poverty that so many families there experience.
In a society where there is still widespread and isolating misperceptions about disability being a curse from God, a product of witchcraft or the fault of the mother, BCC’s service is transformative and vital. BCC speaks often about building community; it’s in the name itself. One aspect of BCC programs includes psychosocial supports for family members of young people with disabilities. Many caregivers told me how BCC’s community has so positively impacted them. As a mother at BCC’s Pasua Center thoughtfully shared, “Thanks to BCC for seeing the need of the community and providing a safe environment for our kids and ourselves. We did not have confidence to bring out our children with disabilities. We were thinking we were different from other community members. Now we know other people have others to carry that burden with us. We are thankful to BCC and to God for BCC existing.”
I was energized by a strong sense of aliveness throughout my experience in Moshi and with BCC. There was never a dull day or dull moment, and my work with BCC was often unpredictable as well. On any given day, I had to be prepared for helping support children in the centers, accompanying outreach workers on home visits, leading trainings for staff and/or caregivers, contributing ideas to BCC’s strategic plans for program expansion, writing proposals and policies, reporting grants, capturing photos/videos, doing website/social media work, developing partnerships with other community organizations/schools, supporting international volunteers and visitors, participating in church-affiliated events and activities, helping to respond to emergencies and more.
BCC can be a life-giving and life-saving service for many. One mother from the Longuo neighborhood told me bluntly, “Without BCC, I would be dead and buried. I thought I was the only one who had a child with a disability. I got encouraged through the parent seminars and finding others like me. I was perceiving him as a burden to me, and other people in the community perceived the same. I came to recognize these children are a big blessing to the family.”
However, not all families share the same story. There are multiple sides to life, and with the aliveness came some intimate experiences with death. During my 16-month tenure there, the number of funerals I was invited to for loved ones of friends was staggering. In 2023 alone, despite the team’s best efforts, BCC mournfully saw four children pass due to various causes, including respiratory failure, hypoglycemia and malnutrition. All these children were living in extreme poverty in rural areas and receiving home services, through which it’s a challenge to consistently monitor and follow up on health status. On a home visitation with parents in the Msaranga neighborhood who had just lost their 5-year old child, my BCC co-worker asked me to say a prayer for the family. I’d never been at such a loss for words in my life.
One of my favorite ways to explore and learn about a new place is through music created there. I did my best to dive deep into the worlds of Tanzanian hip-hop, Bongo Flava (Afropop), Zilipendwa (jazz oldies from the days of Tanzanian independence), Amapiano (South African music with wide percussive basslines and synths), Congolese rumba, and more.
Helping to develop a new program partnership with Simbas Footprints—a community center located near many BCC clients—was one of my proudest accomplishments during my time with the BCC. Simbas Footprints aims to unlock youth potential through creative programming and community-driven solutions. They have an outstanding youth music program with a fully-equipped practice room and music studio. Our collaboration resulted in BCC young adults attending their center once a week for music, dance and art classes. It was amazing to see how excited and energized the BCC youth would get when we attended. Our students would eagerly ask me, “When are we going to Simbas again?!” We also worked with Simbas on several community events including World Down Syndrome Day and the BCC Disability Festival. They also invited some BCC youth to join them on a safari to Arusha National Park. The partnership gave BCC youth a pivotal chance to learn new skills, explore their interests and engage with their communities in new and inclusive ways.
I could go on for an eternity about my impressions of Tanzania and Moshi and BCC. Moshi is a truly special place, and BCC is a truly special organization doing truly special work. My time there carried a complex mix of heartbreak and triumph, and I’m grateful for all of it. I’m thankful for deepened levels of compassion and patience, values of community, feelings of aliveness and inspiration and new music-based explorations and endeavors. I’m thankful for un-learnings of a Western sense of urgency and individualism. I hope I added even a little bit of value to the program, the team’s efforts and the lives of the people BCC serves.
As BCC continues to move forward and looks to expand into new districts for programming in 2024, I wish them nothing but success and abundance. I know how committed they are to serving this population, and I’ve seen how under-served this population is. In the words of Sister Woinde, BCC’s occupational therapist and one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met, “My dream is that we can bring the program to other areas we have not yet reached. BCC is unique. Nobody is providing the services that we are, and people are in need. I pray every day to God children with disabilities and their families can get the same type of service in their own communities. People are suffering, and they need service. So, if it’s possible, I want us to move to other areas and reach children and work with them as early as possible.”
I encourage everyone to learn more about BCC and support their partnership with Mosaic International in any way you can—be it making a much-needed donation—any small amount really goes a long way in supporting the BCC and Mosaic International mission—or by at least following BCC on social media (Facebook or Instagram).
Lastly, I also encourage you to consider visiting Moshi and BCC some day to see the land and the on-the-ground, mission-driven work being done by BCC and Mosaic International yourself. And, when you return, please let me know your three takeaway words.