Clean water, connected classrooms

Chico Rotarians improve lives in northern Tanzania through ongoing service projects

Chico Rotarian Walt Schafer plays with the kids at a northern Tanzanian school.

Chico Rotarian Walt Schafer plays with the kids at a northern Tanzanian school.

Photo courtesy of Walt Schafer

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Learn more about Chico Rotary Club's involvement in Rotary for Northern Tanzania online at

In communities nestled in the shadows of Africa’s highest peak, snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, residents face a life-threatening problem: lack of water. In some cases, villagers in this area of northern Tanzania must walk miles to get water. In other cases, the water available is contaminated by potentially deadly diseases such as cholera and chronic diarrhea.

However, progress is being made. In Spillway Village, on the shores of nearby Lake Nyumba Ya Mungu, villagers now have access to water free of disease and contamination, thanks to a new filtration system housed in a series of large tanks situated on a small hillside at the edge of the village. Although work on the project was performed by local volunteers and contractors, the source of much of the funding for this project, and other service projects in the area, can be seen painted in block letters on the side of the tanks: “Donated by Rotary Club of Chico (USA).”

“Everybody talks about how they don’t have to go down now and gather water from the reservoirs where there are crocodiles—I talked to a woman who lost a brother to a crocodile a few years ago,” said Walt Schafer, the Chico Rotarian who got the effort in Tanzania started.

The Chico Rotary Club, like other local chapters of the worldwide humanitarian organization, has long been involved in international service projects in addition to local community initiatives. In the past, these projects have generally lasted a single year. But for the better part of the last decade, the Chico Rotary Club, in collaboration with other clubs in both California and Tanzania, has been focusing much of its international efforts on the Mount Kilimanjaro region.

Known collectively as Rotary for Northern Tanzania, the clubs’ work there focused initially on access to water. But the scope of the projects has expanded to include a number of other components, including providing computer access to schools in the area. To date, the Chico club, along with 20 other Northern California Rotary clubs—including those in Paradise and Durham—Rotary District 5160 and Rotary International, have raised more than $531,000 for the partnership’s work in the area.

Rotary for Northern Tanzania began in 2005, when Schafer, a former Chico Rotary president and retired Chico State professor, met with other members to discuss the possibility of engaging in a more long-term international effort, involving different clubs.

“We agreed to focus on sub-Saharan Africa, where we knew there was a need,” explained Schafer, current chair of Chico Rotary’s International Project Committee. “We agreed to try to bring other Rotary clubs with us.”

Over the next several years, the group worked toward funding the project through Rotary grants, as well as honing in on a specific region to target. “I had talked to other nonprofits here in the United States and I had learned that there is a serious water problem in the Mount Kilimanjaro region,” Schafer said. “It sounds surprising because of all the snow on the mountain—you’d think there wouldn’t be, but there is.”

Schafer reached out to the Rotary club in Moshi, Tanzania, a city of more than 180,000 people on the southern slopes of Kilimanjaro. In 2008, Schafer and his wife, Teresa, traveled to Moshi to begin laying the groundwork for the first phase of what would become the Rotary for Northern Tanzania project with the members of the Moshi club. Immediately, members of the two clubs recognized in one another a kindred sense of purpose.

“From the beginning we were received as partners rather than outsiders,” said Schafer. “We’ve never had any sense that we were imposing.”

The first phase of the cross-continental partnership involved the construction of five rainwater harvesting systems at schools in the area surrounding Moshi, which also worked to capture water from springs on Mount Kilimanjaro, along with the community water system at Lake Nyumba Ya Mungu. The system, in which water is pumped through a half-mile of pipe to three elevated tanks and then to faucets, charges residents a small fee for the clean water. The money is used to offset maintenance costs of the system. The positive effects of the water system on the community are clear, said Schafer.

“They have clean water, and in fact, the population of that community is increasing right now,” he said. “Other people are moving there because they have good water.”

Over the course of the next several years, Chico Rotary Club joined with an increasing number of Northern California and Tanzanian clubs in securing additional money for similar rainwater harvesting, water storage and water distribution systems in surrounding areas as well as continuing work on already existing projects to ensure long-term sustainability. Schafer recently returned from his seventh trip to the region. Two other members of the Chico Rotary Club and representatives from other California clubs involved in the project have made the trip to Tanzania as well.

Beginning in 2011, Rotary for Northern Tanzania began expanding into other avenues of community development in the region. Among these projects: mentoring programs pairing up staff from higher performing schools with those of lower performing schools, agricultural mentorship programs, health programs for children, microfinance programs for women, and more recently, the construction of computer labs in area schools and libraries.

“We’ve funded computer labs in five secondary schools that had no computers at all,” said Schafer. On his most recent trip to the area, he visited a school with more than 1,300 students that had recently received 40 Internet-connected computers as part of the project. “That has been a great improvement in the educational opportunities for students in those secondary schools. This is opening the world to these kids.”

Regardless of whether Chico Rotary Club decides to pursue additional work in the area, Schafer plans to personally continue to volunteer, staying in touch with his Tanzanian counterparts on a near-daily basis. Overall, he feels that Rotary for Northern Tanzania is representative of what Rotary has to offer to communities worldwide.

“One of the reasons I value Rotary so much is that it’s a collection of people from varying professions, religions and political backgrounds coming together to focus on common goals of humanitarian service. I think we are a great model of civil society in a divided world,” Schafer said. “It really is a truly effective network of humanitarian service that I’m proud to be a part of.”