“It is really quite magical” these are the words of Rahema, as she and her fellow Young Scientist, Lisa explain to H.E. Ambassador Fionnuala Gilsnean how it is possible to grow three different citrus fruits from one single tree. The girls from Suya school and whom I met last week, spent all day yesterday explaining the magic of science and its potential to address the question of malnutrition and poor life expectancy in Tanzania. Throughout the day 198 other students engaged judges in the outcomes of their research. They did so at least four times over the course of the day. As one of these judges, it was my great privilege to hear in detail the rationale for a batch of projects. While it would not be possible to do justice to all of them I will highlight a few that caught my attention in particular.
Kiembe Samski school in Zanzibar is among the very few in Tanzania that has a newly installed Science lab. Proper work spaces for students, sinks and storage areas, even instruments and glassware, the lab nonetheless has no gas supply. A pipe, yes but no gas. Two girls from the school, Rashida and Yussra decided that the way to address this was to make their own biogas using kitchen waste. They have successfully produced the gas and even had some of it in a bicycle tyre for the exhibition. They offered to light it to demonstrate. I’m no scientist but I did think there might be a slight health and safety issue with this, so I demurred! That a team of school girls have to produce gas themselves for science class would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. And though biogas may indeed be the way to go, I can’t help noting the irony that there is an estimated 15 trillion cubic feet gas field off the coast of East Africa.
Other tragic ironies also struck me as I discussed projects in the different categories. In the Social & Behavioural category I learned about the concerns of one school at the lingering beliefs in witchcraft that are used to justify the brutal murder of elderly women in the Shinyanga region. Grace and Michael from Ngokolo school explored views on the factors that lead to the killing of elderly women. In Shinyanga (and elsewhere too) when women develop red eyes they are often accused of being witches. According to Grace and Michael’s presentation, young men, usually between 18 and 30 years of age, kill them in them in the most brutal way. These Young Scientists wanted to know more about their community’s attitudes to this issue. A high proportion of the respondents attributed the killings to beliefs in witchcraft while around 20% thought it may have something to do with disputes over land. Hmmm…. Meanwhile in the category of Chemical, Physical & Mathematical Sciences two boys, Andrea and Tobias, have successfully designed and built an animal dung-briquette burning stove aimed at reducing smoke and soot emissions from household cooking fires. And the irony alert? It is a lifetime of cooking at charcoal and firewood open fires that gives women red eyes in the first place!
Another project I was blown away by (in Biological & Ecological Science category) was an investigation into the health risks of traditional brews. Mwanaid and Amina had lined up an impressive array of ‘hooch’ made from anything from cassava to banana skins and I don’t know what else! The girls noted the less than hygienic conditions in which the alcohol is produced, the imbalance in the chemical components and the devastating health implications for those who consume this rocket-fuel. I was deeply impressed with the girls’ proposal that the manufacturers should not be deprived of the income that comes from their brewing, but that they be discouraged from selling it for human consumption. Instead, given the high ethanol content in some if it, the girls propose that producers be given scope to sell it as bio-fuel. When I asked what prompted the research Amina’s response was “I live in a house with a man who drinks this. It has made him blind. Sometimes he rapes the girls.” … The matter of fact way she explains it is a reminder of the daily reality for girls and women in Tanzania. The beauty of their research is that they have managed to explain to ‘the man’ that the brews are bad for his health (not to mention everyone else’s in the household) and he has gradually been weaned off the stuff.
Girls and boys across Tanzania are making a profound difference to science education and to the quality of life in this extraordinary country. And that is indeed really quite magical!