by Melissa Reiter
I recently learned a Zulu proverb: “One does not cross a river without getting wet.” There are some experiences that stay with us even as we come out on the other side, reminding us where we’ve been and forming a lasting connection to a place or a person. This is what happened when my friend David Fitzpatrick went to Tanzania.
In 2004, David visited Tanzania with a program called Global Volunteers, where he taught at a secondary school near Iringa. Like many Canadians who do short-term volunteer projects abroad, David found his time in Tanzania to be interesting, but also frustrating in the sense that he didn’t feel like his work had a lasting positive impact. David kept in touch with one of his Tanzanian students, Hans Evans, and in 2006 David sent Hans to law school at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania in Mwanza. Hans Evans has turned out to be a strong advocate for the rights of women. Hans had always been interested in the situation of women in Tanzania in general, because he grew up in a family without daughters. This meant that while all his friends were off playing sports, Hans had to stay home and do the typical cooking and cleaning chores generally considered to be a daughter’s responsibility. Hans’ mother also happens to be an advocate for women’s rights, including the right to women’s health education.
During his studies at Saint Augustine, Hans began doing research for his thesis with the Mwanza Paralegal Aid Centre (MWAPACE), focusing on the legal inheritance rights of children born outside of marriage. As graduation neared, David tried to push his friend Hans to apply for jobs that paid a salary, but Hans preferred to spend his time at MWAPACE and live on a tiny stipend.
The work Hans is doing with MWAPACE is incredible. MWAPACE is located in a region with one of Tanzania’s highest rates of HIV, leaving a large number of families with one or no parents. Under local custom, relatives of a deceased husband will often seize the family’s home, land and livestock, leaving the surviving women and children destitute. In a region with approximately 2.9 million residents, the clinic struggles to meet a huge demand for legal services. The nearest clinic is a four to five hour bus ride away. Hans and his team are representing these women and helping them regain their property and their lives. Volunteer legal officers from MWAPACE travel from village to village by bicycle, mediating family conflicts, teaching legal rights through lectures, song and dance, and providing pro bono representation in courts to women and children when necessary.
When David’s sister, Sarah Fitzptrick, started law school at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, she began fundraising with her friends to do joint programming with Hans and MWAPACE. They started a student group called UVic Law Students for Human Rights Through Legal Education (HRLE). Because the connection between HRLE and MWAPACE is so direct, without an organization in the middle to take a percentage of the funds for their intermediary services, the group has been able to launch projects and programs at MWAPACE with small-scale fundraising like bake sales.
David returned to Mwanza about a year ago to visit Hans and see how things were going, as did a group of HRLE law students. The group who traveled to Tanzania did so on a volunteer basis and all expenses were paid out of pocket. During this visit, the group started planning a larger fundraising campaign to help MWAPACE continue to provide legal services to the community and expand its offerings. These programs and services include educating the community on their legal rights, providing legal representation in courts and working with the umbrella group Women’s Legal Aid Centres (WLAC), the overarching authority for women’s legal aid in Tanzania, on lobbying and policy reform.(more inside…)