look right, look left
The young students in the morning-sun lit classroom jump off their rusty school chairs and storm to the window, an open window that with its horizontal bars feels a bit too much like a prison. On the other side of the wall two police officers in white uniforms enter the property of ‘Skuli Ya Kikadini’, one of the nurseries and lower schools in the south eastern fisherman's village of Jambiani. How chaotic and excited the six and seven year old children were who jumped off their chairs, how polite and well mannered they now stand next to the same rusty chairs, neat in their dusty uniforms, arms along their tiny bodies, showing their respect to the police officers.
It’s Thursday morning, and over the last year these exact two policemen have been visiting different schools every week all over Unguja - better known as Zanzibar, the main island of the Zanzibar archipelago on the coast of Tanzania - to teach children about road safety. To some it might sound like something natural, how to cross the street. Something you do with common sense and barely think about - look right, look left, look right again, stop at the crossroad and stop at the traffic light. For some this is what was taught by their parents and at school since they were young. But in Tanzania - as in many other African countries - children face a dangerous journey to school. The lack of proper sidewalks make pedestrians vulnerable, especially with main roads that run straight through villages, with shops, houses and schools barely a few steps away. There are no traffic lights, speed bumps or speed limits, many drivers don’t follow traffic rules and laws, and the traffic police is nowhere to be seen.
This same morning in Jambiani, I’m meeting Jen Pro - the former director of the SEC International School in Jambiani and founder of the KUKUA Road Safety Project. She didn’t have a choice other than to start the project, after witnessing several accidents nearby the school. Concerned, she speaks out: ‘’A two year old got hit by a motorbike while crossing the street with his four-year old sister. In that same month, a child suffered a head injury and another was killed in a different accident at the corner of the International School where I worked. We knew that these accidents could have been prevented and that these children have a right to a safe journey to school. In Zanzibar most kids walk to school and face a dangerous journey trekking on high speed roads and dodging oncoming traffic while crossing’’.
In 2017 the KUKUA Road Safety Project was established - a non-profit organisation that promotes sustainability, education, safety, and human rights in disadvantaged places. With its headquarters in Spain, KUKUA - meaning ‘to grow’ in Swahili - has a delegation in Zanzibar, with a team of local experts and volunteers who’s aim is to increase the safety of the children of the island. The annual report of the project mentions facts about road safety in Tanzania that make sure you’ll think twice about getting on the roads, and it gives you a good sense of why it was a necessity to start this project.
In Tanzania, road traffic injury is a leading cause of death for children between the ages of 5 and 14, and 93% of the pedestrians injured in traffic accidents are children. Without eligible death registration data, the 4,002 deaths due to road accidents Tanzania reports in 2015, is most likely closer to 16,000, according to the World Health Organisation.
The policemen and volunteers of KUKUA lecture the children in the classroom with the use of interactive methods, drawings and songs about how to cross the streets. They inform on the threats from scooters, cars and trucks, how to stop, listen, look, and think about oncoming traffic. After an hour it’s time to go to the street for a practical class. Full of enthusiasm the children stumble out of the classroom and race onto the sandy soccer field in front of the school. With the police officers in the front, the children queue up, two by two, hand in hand, on the way to the main road. ‘’The traffic police are our biggest partners’’, Jen points out while we are walking on the rocky village road, following the group. ‘’They have helped us to create our Safe Walks Education Program, which got approved by the Ministry of Education, and they are directly involved in teaching. Since we started the program in 2017, the police have come out every Thursday to teach the kids. It is quite unusual for officials to visit schools like this, and we are truly amazed that these two officers show that much commitment’’.
You can teach children how to cross the street, but this is not enough to achieve road safety. The villagers of Jambiani have seen too many accidents happen, and the community requested speed calming devices, such as speed bumps near the schools that are located at the foot of the main road in the village. But the government doesn’t take the villagers seriously. KUKUA has supported the community in mobilising their efforts, by writing letters and carrying out the formal procedures to demand the safety measures from the Ministry of Infrastructure. But many of these main roads are considered as highways - and speed bumps are not allowed on a high way.
Although support from the Ministry of Infrastructure is still a challenge, the project receives great support from the local community and the Ministry of Education and Department of Transportation. It’s important to hear the voice off the community, and they’ve been sharing their observations and thoughts from the start. Jen illustrates: ‘’We sat down with them to ask what problems they saw, what solutions they proposed and what they needed to reach their goals. The locals feel ownership of the project and we work together’’. For now the biggest challenge to proceed with the project is funding. KUKUA received a request from forty government schools for their educational program - which is an estimated 12,000 children. But to be able to realise this, money has to come in. Jen and her partners in Spain are planning an exhibition, with photographs showcasing Zanzibari life, in order to raise money. But this takes time, and a lot can happen in time.
One week later after I met Jen and the officers in Kikadini, we visit another school in Kitogani, about a thirty minutes drive. There are no police officers and no KUKUA volunteers this time, we are not coming to teach about road safety, but we are here to observe the daily action, to observe the road, just before school starts. Kitogani is a central point of the island where many roads come together, with directions towards the main town Stone Town, the north, east and south coast - meaning it’s a busy area with cars, trucks, busses, and scooters coming from all directions. The school is located only twenty meters away from this road, and the side walks are barely wide enough for two persons to walk next to each other. Cars are driving fast. Cars are overtaking. Trucks and busses are over packed with people and goods. Bicycles cycle on the middle of the road. Pedestrians cross from one side to the other. Children are being children. They move and play on the side of the road, on their way to school.
Two weeks later, another accident happens. After the celebration of Eid el Haji - an important Islamic holiday - three young adults get hit by a car that recklessly overpassed and crashed head on with oncoming traffic, at the same hazardous spot where Jen witnessed her first accident two years ago. The injured youths got dragged into a car and rushed to the hospital, an hour and a half drive away. One did not make it and died on August 22, 2018. Word is spreading fast, and after several phone calls, it turns out that this young man is the son of two teachers in Jambiani. Teachers who are supporters of KUKUA, and essential in founding the project. They are leaders in the community’s fight to end traffic-related deaths and injuries, but in the matter of a few seconds, they turned into victims themselves.