Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Character of the Week: Mama Ruth

When I began organising my research trip to Tanzania several months ago, I discovered that a Norwegian friend from the University of Cape Town had family living in a place I was covering for the guide – Tanga, a quiet seaside town near the country’s northern border with Kenya. My friend immediately put me in touch with her mother who ran a meeting centre just out of town, and, after contacting her, Dan and I were invited to stop by and stay the night. I didn't know what to expect from the introduction – but I certainly didn't expect Mama Ruth!

Arriving by car from Dar es Salaam around midday, we were greeted at the gate by an elderly Maasai man who in perfect English inquired about the purpose of our visit. "I'm here to see Ruth," I responded. He looked at me blankly and shrugged unknowingly at the name. "You know Ruth...the owner?" I tried again. By this time another man from the gate post joined him by the car and together they chatted in Swahili and scratched their heads over my seemingly odd request. Our driver then interjected and asked after Ruth, this time in Swahili. But, again, the two men drew a blank.

Turning to Dan I asked, "How do I say her last name?" Having not known my friend at all his reply was a short, "How would I know?" Looking back at the two men I fumbled hopelessly over the pronunciation of the Ruth's Norwegian name, "I think it's Ruth or Nes..ja?" Suddenly the Massai's eyes widened and he beamed, "Oh, you mean Mama Ruth!" Of course, Mama Ruth, why hadn't I thought of that I smiled.

It certainly wasn’t difficult to miss Mama Ruth; dressed in a colourful tie-dyed kaftan with a crop of white-blonde hair framing a deeply tanned face, she was bright and bubbly with a loud, infectious laugh. First coming to Tanzania in 1984 Ruth had spent the better part of the last 20 years working on various HIV/AIDS programs throughout the region. Keen to promote a more positive image of Africa and to encourage sustainable development through tourism, in January 2008, along with two other investors, she opened the Meetingpoint Tanga - a community meeting point, an international conference centre and accommodation facility all rolled into one.

While there are numerous tourism projects throughout Africa that claim to be environmentally friendly and community conscious, for many it is simply rhetoric and as the pockets of the wealthy investors are lined, local communities are often left wanting. Meetingpoint Tanga, however, is different. Apart from self-satisfaction, investors in the centre earn no financial dividends. Instead, all money raised is reinvested in various community projects from hosting local music festivals to HIV/AIDS education. Tourists, too, are invited to "make a difference" by sharing their knowledge, skills and experiences during their stay at the centre. In one particular instance, a visitor from Norway helped fund and set-up a recording studio, which now produces and sells CDs for a local hip-hop group.

Dan and I were subsequently invited to join Mama Ruth and three other Norwegian visitors to watch a local football match in a nearby village. In this latest venture, Mama Ruth was hoping to secure international sponsorship of the team and lure skilled players over to help train the local team. In true Mama Ruth fashion, we barrelled onto the field in the middle of the village (after taking several wrong turns) unannounced in a large white Land Cruiser, much to the amusement of the crowd of onlookers who had gathered for the match.

After some initial confusion as to whether we were indeed in the right village and at the right football match, with her Norwegian flag held proudly in hand Mama Ruth was ceremoniously introduced to her team, TICC, who were dressed in the unmistakable red and white uniforms of Manchester United. With the official proceedings over, her team took to the field to take on another team from a nearby village, who were rather fittingly kitted out in Real Madrid royal blue, in a local friendly.

I'm not a huge fan of football, or soccer as we call it at home, so I found all the back and forth play with no point scoring a little bit tedious. That was, until a herd of cattle suddenly decided to storm the field. While both teams carried on seemingly oblivious to antics of the stray cows, the interruption obviously affected our team’s concentration as not long after Real Madrid landed the first goal of the match (perhaps the cows were all a ploy?). Despite the fact that it was the opposition that scored the goal, the children from the village swarmed the field cheering and clapping in jubilation – some even entertaining us with a few clever back flips. Sadly, in spite of Man United’s best efforts to regain control of the ball, in the dying minutes of the game Real Madrid managed to sneak the ball past our goalie to win the match 2:0.

While I’m no expert on football, it does appear that the Man United team would benefit from some proper training – perhaps David Beckham would like to help his old English team’s namesake out? So if you know anyone who’d be interested in sponsoring the team, or if you’d like to find out more about the centre and its projects, give Mama Ruth a shout.

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