Where in the world were we?
A cancelled flight from Dar es Salaam, then a long car ride through the night, had dropped us off at a roadside gas station at 3 a.m. in what appeared to us the middle of nowhere. Waiting for us was a tall Masai man with a Jeep, and a bumpy ride followed, into a village and then, a walled compound. The Masai man was Putiyei, and the compound was The Olive Branch for Children, an NGO located just outside the small city of Mbeya in the hills of southern Tanzania.
Six months earlier, we had been invited by friends in Vernon to meet a dynamic young woman, Deb McCracken-Nangereke and her husband Putiyei Nangereke over tea. Our friends thought we might have some things in common due to our recent experiences volunteering in Guatemala, and we were sold on the spot to start planning our trip to Africa.
Deb started the Olive Branch project about 15 years ago, after university, when a trip to Africa turned into a lifetime commitment. We learned that the project started with providing guardianship to five homeless children, then grew by leaps and bounds, spreading through the local region.
Currently, the main compound houses up to 70 children, to whom Deb and Putiyei are ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad.’ The kids all attend schools and over the years the older ones have graduated to universities, still fully supported financially by the project. The project runs a carpentry shop, partners with groups such as MIT engineers, and has extensive programs out in the nearby villages, including medical outreach and primary education. The Olive Branch has also built numerous village schools, and recently a deep capped well.
This region of green highlands transforms with the seasons into flooded plains, then baking heat that lasts for months. A mix of tribal groups, Christians and Muslims co-exist peacefully, and the children in the centre are encouraged to keep their own customs and encouraged to attend the church or mosque of their choice if they so choose. The staff, with the exception of Deb and her assistant, are all locally born, including some of the ‘kids’ who have grown up to run programs. The centre is a lively and noisy place, older kids look after younger ones; cooking, dishes, laundry and clean-up all just seem to happen, and sports like dodgeball and baseball are a big part of the routine. In fact, a group of older boys makes up a strong regional soccer team.
Deb’s parents run some of the administrative work out of Toronto, so the Olive Branch is a registered Canadian Charity. Because most overhead is volunteer, donations go straight to the projects. Fundraising, of course, is a big part of the job, and, with friends in Vernon, our town is a stop along the way, both for a fundraiser and some much-needed R&R.
Deb’s working day starts at 5 a.m. preparing the kids for school and often ends after midnight. Putiyei regularly tours out in the remote villages, sleeping overnight while supervising construction projects and checking in on the local teachers and health care workers. ‘Mom and Dad’ live right with the children, in basic accommodation and with basic (but nutritious) food, dealing daily with the many emergencies that come up with such a big family.
We spent six weeks with the project, surrounded by lovely children (and much chaos) building shelves, painting walls, and interviewing families out in the villages with the goal of improving family cooking options in a declining forest base. Other volunteers have done medical surveys and supervised construction projects. We left many friends behind, both younger and older when the time came to leave.
We’re privileged to have Deb and Putiyei coming to Vernon and giving a presentation and fundraising at the Shubert Centre on April 17 at 7 p.m.
For more information about The Olive Branch, visit www.theolivebranchforchildren.org.