African Empowerment Project

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South Burlington native Beth Fitzgerald will present her photographs of Tanzania at The Gallery at Burlington College, from Monday, January 23 through February 14. The show benefits the African Empowerment Project, Fitzgerald’s nonprofit organization.

Proceeds will go toward drilling a well for the subsistence of 900 villagers at Mnang’ole, Tanzania, where heavily polluted water is now a three-and-a-half-hour walk away for women and children.

Fitzgerald escorted a group of eight students on a trip to Tanzania in 2009, where they worked in an orphanage in an artists’ community. For Fitzgerald, it was a life-altering experience. “When it hits you, it hits you, and you don’t have a choice,” she said. “What I saw, experienced and felt—the second night I was there, I knew it. I’ve done other traveling, [but] there was something that hit me as soon as I arrived, and now when I leave, I’m leaving home.”

Fitzgerald saw an extraordinary culture with a vital need. “As much as I loved my work with college students and was a kindergarten teacher prior to that and absolutely loved that, when I was there I knew there was a greater purpose for me, and we have the resources here in America to make a difference.”

Fitzgerald not only saw needs in health, education and economic development, but in the basics of every-day life and the most vital of all human needs—water. “Women and children walk three-and-a-half hours [to carry home] one 44-pound bucket of water contaminated by animal feces,” she said. “They’re drinking it and they’re getting sick. Waterborne diseases cause children to miss school and adults to lose time being productive on the farm.”

The well to be drilled in Mnang’ole will be 120 meters deep, “the length of a football field-and-a-third turned sideways,” she said. 

The African Empowerment Project has already made inroads. Composting is now underway to improve the soil, and last summer, solar lanterns were distributed to every household in the village. Prior to that, half of the incomes went toward kerosene. In addition, with dark coming on, day is done at 6 p.m. all year ‘round, so women and children have to leave their farms by 2:00 to get water and get back for dinner before it gets dark. Now children can do their homework after dark, women gain hours of productivity in the evening, and those who used kerosene lanterns no longer have to purchase fuel, nearly doubling the household income.

The money freed up from the use of the solar lanterns can be used for water fees, school fees, a bicycle or other income-producing investments.

 “My work,” Fitzgerald said, “is developing the nonprofit, the projects, raising the money and working with people in the village as we develop the projects, embracing the culture; all of the things that go into making it successful. You need to be on the ground there to really ‘get’ the people and the culture you’re dealing with. Anyone who works with a nonprofit in the third world understands that.”

Plans for the future include a hospital, which is now a four-hour, round-trip walk to a barely adequate clinic; education (a significant challenge as only a handful have ever been educated); improving crop production and diets, providing micro loans, and in bringing 500 bicycles to the village (presently, the only form of transportation being 35 people with bicycles and two with motor bikes).  

“While I’m going through photographs for The Gallery, or tell the story of the village, it reminds me of why I do what I do,” Fitzgerald said.“I look at those pictures and realize I’ve made the right decision—and they will get clean water—hopefully, sooner than later.

“For us, the biggest challenge right now is that we’re grassroots and it’s hard to prove ourselves. We need some big funding so that we can start the ball rolling.  

 “We’ll get there,” she said. “I won’t give up.”

Burlington College will host an opening reception Thursday, January 26, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.  At 6:30 p.m., Fitzgerald will show slides of on-going projects and talk about life in the village. This event will be open to the public. All proceeds from the sale of photographs will benefit the African Empowerment Project.

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African Empowerment Project to Benefit from Photographic Exhibition at Burlington College