By Meritt Buyer
“He may belong to you, but I am the fun one,” says my sister. I am all right with this arrangement. After all, these playful designations, come directly from our brother, Jeffrey. My sister and I both have our places in his life, and we both know that the relationship the three of us share is rather incredible. Growing up with a sibling with an intellectual disability changes you in ways that can be hard to explain. And not to say that my sister and I were impacted the same way, but I think she would allow me to say this; that it has made us sensitive to difference in ways we might not be otherwise.
While working and teaching in South Africa for four years, the absence of people with disabilities from the schools, the university, the cafes, and the shops, was alarming. It was not my focus at the time. (I was running human rights workshops for high school students, advocating for Somali refugee families, getting my Masters degree in public policy and teaching religious studies and history.) But that absence struck me.
But when I moved back the US, taking a job that allowed me to work with children with disabilities and their families felt like a very organic choice. It was a great experience and I learned so much from each person I worked with, but as someone pointed out just today, Africa had gotten under my skin.
So even though Tanzania is again very far away from my wonderful family, I am thrilled to be a Mosaic Fellow and have the chance to combine my two worlds; working with people with disabilities and international development.
Many people that I have met thus far in Moshi point out that Tanzania and South Africa are very different places. And while that is true in some ways, they also have many similarities. Both places lack social services and child protection services. Public transport is exactly the same. The schools look the same, crowded, crumbling, and lacking in books and desks, much less computers. People are hungry. Poverty looks the same most everywhere, especially if you are a child with a disability.
For me, one of the major differences is that this time I am joining a passionate team of people that has already made such a difference in their community. Although we have a long journey ahead, each of the 208 children currently being served by BCC has a dramatically different life today because of this organization. Each child has a team of teachers, caregivers, program staff, and volunteers cheering them on. They have a community of peers to play and laugh with and relate to. Working in a resource poor setting such as Moshi is not without challenges. Structural injustice exists at every turn and this organization and its community has no end of struggles.
The staff here has been wonderful about showing me around the town, taking me to visit all of the centers, meet the staff and the kids. But with so much need and so many goals, there is not a lot time to sit back and get oriented. There is a farm to get up and running under the thoughtful direction of Deo Chami and his Young Adult Program team. We need to get access to water and build an irrigation system. (My amazing husband, an environmental engineer, will be helping with that project. More on that later.) We have Promot health screenings to run next month, lead by our wonderful new Promot Health Coordinator Godson Mmary.
We have a long way to go, but my hope for BCC, the Moshi community, and the children in our program, is that eventually, everyone will realize that having a disability is just a different way of being in this world. And that the sooner our society realizes that we need to adapt to everyone’s difference, whether race, gender, religion, or ability, the better off we will all be.