A good news man in Africa

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

In Britain, journalism's reputation is at an all-time low. Elsewhere, it is easier to see its potential as a force for good. Simon Kelner reports from Tanzania on a project that has visibly improved the quality of local life


Cut through a wattle forest, the dirt track to Lupembe does not afford the visitor from Europe an easy ride. From the nearest main road, it's a three-hour, bone-jarring journey – "an African massage," my companion said – to the heart of Tanzania's tea-growing country, through countryside that is more reminiscent of northern Europe than of Africa. It was the tail-end of the rainy season, and the verdant, rolling hills spoke of Derbyshire or the Dordogne.

We were now 13 hours by road from the bustle, humidity and ubiquitous Premier League football shirts of the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam. But despite the remoteness and the poor living standards in the village we visited – limited access to running water and dwellings built from mud – there were very clear manifestations of a community connected to the wider world.

Everyone, it seemed, had a mobile phone and the only visible commercial activity here was based around mobile communication.

There was a shop where you could pay to have your battery recharged and at least two other establishments advertised themselves as part of the M-Pesa network, the mobile money transfer service which millions of Tanzanians prefer to traditional banking. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that the people of Lupembe and those like them – Tanzania has a population of 45 million and the vast majority live in rural communities – have anything other than a rudimentary grasp of what's going on beyond their immediate surroundings. In one of the least urbanised countries on Earth, the concept of regional media does not really exist: there are very few local newspapers and most local radio stations are music-based.

The inhabitants of Lupembe, however, are lucky. The newspaper Kwanza Jamii – the translation from Swahili means "Community First" – was established as part of a charitable organisation in 2010, and it has taken its vocation very seriously. Based in Njombe, the nearest big town, the newspaper has a mandate to serve the interests of its readers in a sizeable and remote catchment area – the paper circulates anywhere within 60 miles of its main office – and, for Lupembe, this has had very tangible benefits.

The individual tea growers of the area had long felt exploited by the major corporations and had been manoeuvred into a disadvantageous position through restrictive contracts and anti-competitive practices.

The newspaper took up their case with a series of campaigning articles and gradually things began to change.

In his office – a basic shack whose only decoration on the walls was a licence to serve drink – the village leader told me: "It was the first time we felt that people were on our side. We never thought we had any rights, but the stories in the paper gave us the courage to fight." As a result of Kwanza Jamii highlighting this issue and the new demands of the growers, the buyers agreed to a price rise of 20 TZS (1p, or 10 per cent) for a kilo of leaves. As a result, more money has come into the local economy and villagers are now taking it upon themselves to build more water pipes and a new dispensary.

"This has only happened because of the paper," said the village chief.

Njombe is a bustling town with a population of around 100,000 and one major road, either side of which all the area's commerce seems to take place.

There is still a colonial influence here, where the British established the first company farming wattle trees, used in the production of creosote. The jaded countenance of the nearby Kibena Country Club can't disguise the colonial glory days – most evident in the honours boards around the bar proclaiming, for instance, who was the squash champion in 1960. The town has become home to Ben Taylor, an urbane, softly-spoken Mancunian who first came to Tanzania in 1999 as a volunteer directly after leaving university. He was meant to stay for six months, but it turned into six years. After completing his Masters, he returned to the country to work for WaterAid and it was during this time that he properly fell in love – with the country, and specifically with a Tanzanian woman, now his wife – and that he also became dismayed with the way civic life was organised.

"I began to see a lot of NGO anti-poverty initiatives in a different light," he explained. "So much thought was put into coming up with new ideas and so much money was being directed into implementing them and yet a huge amount of this effort and expense was wasted because of petty corruption on a local level and a lack of accountability." This insight was epitomised by an NGO project in a nearby village which would provide iron sheets for roofing to women who had been widowed through HIV/Aids. The village leader was asked to draw up a list of deserving cases. "What could have been a very worthwhile project," says Taylor, "became an exercise in sexual corruption, the village leader only including on the list the names of women who would have sex with him."

A disenchanted Taylor resolved to find a way to fight this type of abuse of the system. "I realised that if those in authority felt they were being scrutinised," he said, "it would be much harder for them to abuse their position."

Taylor quickly arrived at the solution to the problem: a newspaper. He has no background in journalism, but is a firm believer in a newspaper's role in holding authority to account, in scrutinising the activities of local politicians and in engaging a community in the democratic process.

He left WaterAid in 2009 to set up a charitable organisation called Daraja (the Swahili word for "bridge"). A year later, he hatched Kwanza Jamii, with the help of the DfiD-funded Tanzania Media Fund. The paper, which publishes once a fortnight, quickly earned the favour of its readers (paid-for circulation is around 3,000, but readership is many times more given the propensity in Tanzania for people to "rent" newspapers by the hour) and the respect of those in authority. Within a year, Taylor had launched a second edition of the paper, based in the more prosperous market town of Iringa, some three hours towards Dar es Salaam.

By shining a light on poor practices at clinics, or the misuse of funds directed to schools, or the improper sale of community-owned, the Kwanza Jamii papers have fulfilled their ambition to spur the authorities into action, and to improve the living conditions of the community.

At the same time, local politicians have felt the heat of scrutiny. Even the District Commissioner of Iringa, an imposing former army officer and not the sort of man with whom you'd pick an argument, was grudgingly respectful of the paper's role.

While he felt that newspapers' main purpose should be educational rather than investigative, he admitted that the focus on social issues helped him to "know what people had in mind". Independent journalism is still in its infancy here – freedom of the press in Tanzania is a relatively recent concept, going back only to the mid-1990s, when the country emerged from the hegemony of a one-party state – and newspapers do not attract the brightest and the best. Someone said to me: "If you do badly at college, you become a teacher. And if you do really badly, you become a journalist."

I was in Tanzania as a representative of The Journalism Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation established by Evgeny Lebedev, chairman of The Independent, to demonstrate that free journalism is a fundamental plank of democracy and can have a direct and positive effect on people's lives.

Ben Taylor's project proves this beyond argument. We are now working with Taylor and Kwanza Jamii to raise funds in an effort to extend the reach of his papers, to bring community-first journalism to more people in the poorest areas of rural Tanzania, to educate, engage and empower them and, ultimately, to help change lives.

See www.thejournalismfoundation.com for more details on how you can help make a difference. Simon Kelner is chief executive of the Journalism Foundation

Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Marketing - London

£60000 - £85000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Interim Head of Marketing / Marketin...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Digital Project Manager

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: A Digital Project Manager is needed to join an exciti...

Paid Search Analyst / PPC Analyst

£24 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Paid Search Analyst / PPC...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments