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What 15 Days In Tanzania Taught Me About People's Power

10/30/2015 05:34 EDT | Updated 10/30/2016 05:12 EDT
Pavel Bains

Two weeks ago I embarked on a journey to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with the group Summits of Hope. This non-profit takes people to various mountains around the world to raise funds for the B.C. Children's Hospital. So, not only do you pay for your own costs associated with the trip, you have also to raise a minimum of $5,000.

Over 15 days I witnessed a movement called "People's Power" that manifested itself in three ways: governance, orphanages and the Kilimanjaro climb. This was something I never anticipated when I decided to embark on this journey eight months ago.

We Want to See Government Changes

We arrived in Tanzania right in the last run up to the October 25 presidential election. Tanzania has been under the rule of the Party of the Revolution (CCM) , since it gained independence over 50 years ago. This party has been criticized for not growing Tanzania beyond one of the poorest countries in the world.

Average monthly income is $50 and two thirds of its 50 million people live in poverty; despite the country undergoing excellent economic growth of seven per cent annually over 10 years. It's no surprise that people think there is mismanagement of funds and corruption.

An opposition party, Chadema (Party for Democracy and Progress) led by former CCM member, Edward Lowassa, has gained enormous momentum under the slogan "people's power." I don't know enough about the merits of each candidate, but it is a rush to be in the middle of a country where everyone is energized for change.

Since we as Canadians just had our own election, it was an amazing juxtaposition to see a passionate and resilient youth who believe every vote counts. Voter involvement and turnout is at a record high. Driving through the streets, people throw out the peace sign that the opposition have made their symbol while chanting "people's power." Banners hang throughout, voters wear flags and young men drive on the back of trucks playing music to excite the masses.

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The results came on October 30 and the opposition lost. However, while speaking to citizens during my stay, they say that even if the governing party still wins, they know that their voices have been heard and the lion has been injured. It's only a matter of time before major changes occur.

How Orphanages Help Break the Poverty Cycle

The day after arriving, our group visited two different orphanages/schools. From Vancouver we brought toys, clothes, books, pencils and pens. The looks of the kids upon receiving just a notebook is amazing; they appreciate every little item. The kids introduced themselves to us individually with handshakes, looking right into our eyes. Kids like eight-year-old Nickson played with us, showed us their rooms and even made drawings. Despite their living conditions, there was no sense of despair or sadness; just genuine happiness.

The orphanages were run by amazing people who were joyous, smiling and inspired by the work they were doing. Their main goal is to make sure each of these kids learns English. That is because when they enter high school, if they don't know English, the government will place them in another school for those deemed uneducated or malnourished -- and making them veritable outcasts.

With English, these kids will go to a better high school and have a world of opportunities opened. This doesn't mean they need to go to university; just speaking proper English allows them to get much better jobs, specifically those in tourism and hospitality. Speaking English can be the easy break from a life of poverty.

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Kilimanjaro Climb Brings Everyone Together for One Goal

Days four, five and six of our seven-day climb tested me mentally and physically more than I had ever faced. On day four we hiked just over six hours to 15,000 feet on a long traverse through an environment that made us feel as if we were in a Mad Max: Fury Road.

Day five was five times harder than the previous day as we completed a nine-hour climb straight up over 3,200 feet, reaching over 18,000 feet. It was painful and exhausting. On day six, we started our climb at 4:15 a.m. after attempting to sleep at 18,300 feet in a place known as Crater Camp. The altitude hits everyone hard; take your worst hangover and multiply it by 50.

To get myself through it, various things crossed my mind: my wife, kids, the Children's Hospital. None of that helped. What did was when one of our guides, Filimon, saw I was tiring and came to me and said something.

Let me digress by saying I was in awe of our porters and guides every time I saw them. I've spoken with them about their families, danced with them, cracked jokes and shared music. They have limited clothing and gear and power right through it. They don't eat nearly as well as we do and yet always have smiles on their faces. Each day they throw our bags on their backs or heads and march past us in advance to set up the next camp before we even arrive. It's a brutal job, but they do it for their families.

So, what did Filimon say? "We are going to get through this together, my brother. It is hard, but I pray for you. If your pack gets tired, tell me and I will carry it."

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We were all a team in this together with one objective: to make it to the top and bottom safely. I was exhausted, sleep deprived (3.5 hours per night) and the higher we went, the harder it was to breathe.

Our group marched upwards reaching the summit at 19,341 feet, despite three people throwing up along the way. I didn't need him to carry my backpack -- I was able to make it to camp -- but I did need his words.

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It was a huge achievement. We all hugged, took pictures and marveled at what we had gone through and were looking at. It is true that the journey is better than the destination.

Over those 15 days, I saw how grassroots changes can make huge impacts. Small things can inspire a child to make their world better. Citizens can see their voices count even when facing a ruling party that has dominated their country for 54 years. Finally, a small number of people from different backgrounds can join as one for a short period of time to love and care for one another as if they were a family.

As a father of three kids, it makes me smile that these changes are happening. "People's power!"

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