The temperature was stifling, as most afternoons in Tanzania tend to be. I looked up for some relief and sure enough the ceiling fan was spinning away, barely shifting the air in the small office of St. Augustine University of Tanzania’s (SAUT) very own Legal and Human Rights Centre.
I flipped open my notebook and faced the humble man in charge of it all: meet Shukuru Paulo.
St. Augustine’s main campus is located in Mwanza, Tanzania’s second largest city and part of the Lake Zone region, which is known throughout the country as a hotbed for human rights abuses, often making headlines for witchcraft, albinism and FGM (female genital mutilation).
In meeting Paulo, I realized that Mwanza is not simply a place on the map that produces these atrocities; it is also a place where passionate local people are making a difference.
After graduating from SAUT, Paulo felt that there was a critical need for educational and legal resources in his community.
The Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) was established in 2006 as a response to the rise in human rights violations within the Lake Zone, particularly the increase in the killings of elderly women in association with witchcraft.
The 2012 Tanzania Human Rights Report indicates that in 2012 alone, 630 elderly persons have been killed in connection to witchcraft allegations.
He told me that the goal of the centre is to “stimulate public debate and provide civic education to promote human rights and good governance in Tanzania, particularly in the Lake Zone regions by providing human rights based education to members of society and to those in positions of influence and pedagogy to become local leaders and establish the pillars of good governance”.
And how does he do this?
Through initiatives like Radio SAUT, a student-run radio station on campus operated by mass communication students. Once a week, the radio station and the LHRC host a live program focusing on regional human rights issues.
Like a large majority of Sub-Saharan Africa, radio is king.
Radio transcends the barriers of cost, geographical boundaries and low literacy skills, allowing the facilitation of political debate and encouraging listeners to engage with the challenges of everyday life in the country.
SAUT’s radio program takes an informative and educational stance to address and discuss local human rights issues. After an on-air discussion the program invites the audience to participate by calling or texting in their questions, views and opinions. The program has featured fundamental topics that are rarely discussed in rural settings, such as the right to health care in Tanzania, the basic rights guaranteed by the Tanzanian constitution, and the role of the media in a democratic country.
The station’s success was strongly displayed during the 2010 general election, when they opened up the airwaves as a public forum for parties to discuss their platforms. The opposition accepted and the ruling party declined. Three months before the election, the radio’s airwaves were banned on ‘political grounds’, which is not uncommon practice with Tanzania’s lack of press freedom.
Yet their efforts still managed to produce an impact. Two days before the election Radio SAUT went back on air and for the first time in their local constituency, the opposition party was elected as a majority. This example is huge in a country that has only had one party in power since independence.
In my time as a media rights trainer in Tanzania, I have become increasingly aware of the complexities of the rural regions of the country. I asked Paulo what he thought the sources of human rights violations to be in the Lake Zone region.
He said that it basically came down to four factors: economic hardship, environmental background, and a lack of social knowledge and civic responsibility. Often times, those who are responsible for the killings are hired for money and cannot turn down the income. Those who grew up in tough environmental conditions are governed by survival instincts, above moral compassion. Lastly, as always, it comes down to knowledge and education. The social stigmas that inform animosity are a product of a tradition of misinformation and discrimination.
There are many faces of Tanzania, and of Africa. As human beings, we are naturally drawn to destruction: the faces of abuse, corruption and poverty. But there are many others that exist alongside these portrayals, ones that do not simplify an image of Africa but diversify it. Sometimes in the face of adversity, these are the faces worth looking for.