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It’s important to enjoy the little things in life

  05 October 2019

In Tanzania, orphans, HIV/AIDS and abysmal poverty is a part of everyday life. Merete Stubhaug went to work as a volunteer in one of Tanzania's poorest regions. (1716 Words) - By Hege Bjørnsdatter Braaten


Photo courtesy of =Oslo / Hege Bjørnsdatter Braaten

In Tanzania, orphans, HIV/AIDS and abysmal poverty is a part of everyday life. Merete Stubhaug (31) sold her flat and all her furniture in Norway and went to work as a volunteer in one of Tanzania's poorest regions.

"Oh, it's so sad," exclaims Merete Stubhaug. She is on a home visit to 13-year-old Mwanahamisi Juma and her family in Mbagala, Dar es Salaam.

Behind a threadbare mosquito net lays a two-year-old boy, soaked with urine. But he does not cry. He only stares at his bigger sister Mwanahamisi with his large, begging eyes. He doesn't say anything, because he still cannot talk. Nor can he walk, despite being two years old. He is HIV positive and lives in Mbagala, by far one of the poorest parts of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Here no one but his sister cares and looks out for him, as both their parents are dead.

Mwanahamisi does show responsibility. She picks up the little boy from the mattress, changes his diaper and puts him back down on the floor, while she takes care of the housework. And she actually believes herself to be among the fortunate ones. Because Mwanahamisi has gotten something to look forward to, something that brightens up her everyday life. Thanks to the aid organisation Humanity Assistance Centre (HAC), where the Norwegian Merete Stubhaug works as head of information, she now goes to school. Last summer, Merete sold her flat in Kristiansand, a small town in the south of Norway, intending to move to Oslo. But that didn't happen. Through friends in Tanzania, she was offered a job in HAC, and then her journey took her to Dar es Salaam instead. Here she will work as an unpaid volunteer for a whole year.

"There are several reasons for why I chose to volunteer. Some are idealistic and some selfish," she admits. "Idealistic because I really do have a desire to use my knowledge and experience to do something positive for people who are in a difficult life situation. I have had so many good experiences in Tanzania, and I want to give something in return. Ever since I started my education, I've wanted to do something like this. And now I finally got the chance. I don't get paid, but it's still doable," she says.

But selfish? How can such a job be selfish?

"I probably couldn't have done this job anywhere, and that's the selfish part," she says. "I love Tanzania and I have made many friends here, especially in Zanzibar. It is exciting and fun to be here. Life here is obviously very different from life in Norway, but that suits me. The job can be quite tough sometimes, but it's a great motivating factor to know that I'll soon be going on a weekend trip to Zanzibar to hang out with friends on a beach that makes you think you're in paradise! I think it should be allowed to be a bit selfish too," she says.

The job is indeed tough sometimes. She sees people with similar destinies as Mwanahamisi and her family every day. In Mbagala, HAC works specifically with HIV/AIDS, orphans, women, health and microfinance. About half a million people live here; most of them in deep poverty. HAC has limited resources, but after Merete joined them, she has started a Norwegian fund-raising project in order to, among other things, collect money to send orphans to school. Mwanahamisi, who at the age of only 13 years has the responsibility for two younger siblings, is one of those who will now have the chance to get an education because of the project.

"Mwanahamisi's file is marked as a 'special case'. About two months ago, she came to our office and told us her story. She is 13 years old and has lost both her parents. She takes care of two younger siblings. Her youngest brother is two years old and HIV positive. He needs medication and special attention. They also live with a sick grandmother. Mwanahamisi went to a local health centre in order to get medication and a health check for her sick brother, and it was here that she learned of the HAC. They asked her to go here, because perhaps we could help her," says Merete.

At the time, the family lived in a small mud house where water leaked through every time it rained. It was not possible to stand upright inside, and the whole family lived in one single, small room. Now the family has been helped by an American lady in the neighbourhood to build a better house. However, it's still hard for Mwanahamisi to get money to put food on the table, as she now also has to go to school.

"Because she had to take care of her siblings, Mwanahamisi did not go to school," says Merete. "She used to work small jobs in the neighbourhood, like fetching water for neighbours, to get some money for food. Having as much responsibility as an adult is a lot for a little girl to deal with. So when she came to our office, we immediately knew that we had to give her extra attention and do everything we could to help her."

Now Mwanahamisi is attending school again, and even if she's a shy girl, she starts smiling when she tells us about school and how her life has changed. Yet her future still seems rather difficult. At the time being, her sick grandmother can look after her little brother when she herself is at school. But her grandma is sick, and if she dies, Mwanahamisi will have to stay at home to take care of her sick brother.

"It does not happen every day that a girl that young comes to our office and tells us about such a harsh reality," says Merete. "After having heard her story, I felt it in my stomach. We all just sat quietly for a while after she had left. I do have to try to distance myself a bit from my job, but it's impossible not to let it get to you when meeting someone in her situation. At the same time, encountering such fates really gives you motivation to do your best and work harder. I really hope we can help her to a better future. Or just to help her have a future at all."

Merete has travelled a lot, and had been to Tanzania several times before. Nevertheless, the meeting with Mbagala was tough in the beginning.

"I was sort of thrown into the many difficult conditions here. When I first came here, I stayed with a local family in Mbagala. It's pretty tough to see how people live here, but after a while you just have to start distancing yourself from it a bit. You can't walk around feeling sorry for people all the time and be sad that not everyone is as well off as we in Norway are. If you do, I don't think you can do this kind of work."

Even though Merete does get to hear plenty of tough stories at work, she believes it is important to focus on everything that's positive.

"Hearing people's life stories often makes me really sad. But then I see that the people here in Mbagala, who in our eyes have terrible lives, are enjoying the little things in life and are having fun together. This is indeed a really social place. It's not all sadness and sorrow. But in my case, it helped to move to an area closer to the city centre. That made the difference between work and private life bigger. And after that I also did not have to live with having rats and ants in my room anymore," she says with a smile.

Every day, people come to their office asking for help.

"It's pretty tough meeting all these people; being directly approached by them. And then I sit there with my wallet, knowing that 100 kroner (approximately 12 euros) can mean a lot to these people. I can see very tangible results of the work we do. A couple of weeks ago, an HIV positive widow came to our office. She did not have money for food for herself and her three children. We bought her equipment so that she could start a small food business, where she sells cakes and samosas. It cost about 100-200 kroner (approximately 12-25 euros). Two weeks later, she seemed extremely pleased. Her business was doing well and she had even made enough money to buy herself a mobile phone. That's all it takes, and by focusing on individuals, one can both boost their courage and hope," says Merete.

"Of course it feels a little hopeless working in an area like Mbagala when I see how many people are leading difficult lives, and have so few opportunities. Of course it affects you. But it's important to focus on the right things. I know we cannot help everyone, but as long as we can help a few people every week, that's good enough for me. I focus on the individuals, and not on the society as a whole. That makes it less difficult to work here, because then I just get really happy for each new person that I can be of help for," says Merete with a smile.



Country in East Africa with approximately 41 million inhabitants.

Tanzania is among the poorest 10 percent of countries in the world.

In addition to several different nature religions, the majority of the population is Muslim or Christian. There are 126 different ethnic groups in the country.

Among tourists, the country is primarily known for safari, Africa's highest mountain, the Kilimanjaro (5892 m.), and the island Zanzibar.

Humanity Assistance Centre (HAC)

Non-governmental organisation in the borough Mbagala in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

Was established in August 2007, and deals with issues like HIV/AIDS, orphans, widows, health, education and microfinance.

HAC is run by volunteers, and the number of staff members started with five. That number has now increased to 18. One of the employees is Norwegian. Her name is Merete Stubhaug, and she is head of information and media.

The organisation has started a Norwegian fund-raising project. Read more at

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