Of fish, chicken, and men

In Kasulu, a rural small town in Western Tanzania that is home to many aid workers, if you want chicken, you have to go find the chicken man, probably a day or two ahead of when you want a chicken, and ask him to slaughter one. If you’re lucky, he’ll tell you where you can go to get it cleaned or the local woman you pay to clean and sometimes bake you amazing bread and teach you to cook the local mushrooms might help clean it for you.

Most of the time, you can’t find him. And when you can, he might not have any chicken that is suitable. If you’re lucky, and you find him, and he has a chicken that he can sell you, it’s going to be tough and a little scrawny.

But it will be a delicious treat.


In Clarkston, GA, my friend and former refugee staff has made a home. He and his four children, his wife, his mother-in-law, two sisters-in-law, brother-in-law, and some of their children all live in a ramshackle apartment complex with other resettled refugees and asylees from all over the world.

When I visit them, there is always food. In the morning, there is tea and chapati, and in the afternoon, there is fufu (ugali), or sometimes rice, and these tiny, charred fish from Lake Tanganyika cooked in tons of palm oil.

Always with the fufu. Always with the fish.


One of the first weekends I was in Kasulu last year, I visited several village savings and loan associations on the Congolese side of Nyarugusu refugees camp. I asked them, what would you do with TSh 1 million (about USD500)?

Buy sewing machines, they told me. But more than that, bring fish from Lake Tanganyika. We want fish.

Congolese seem to really love their fish.


Today, in Vox, Chris Blattman writes an open letter to Bill Gates asking him to re-think his chickens plan. It’s a good letter, one that gets you all riled up with a “but!” and then offers the very same “but…”

We don’t know, ultimately, if cash is better than chickens at lifting people out of poverty. It appears to be cheaper to give them cash, but as economists, we’re still noodling (and arguing) over how best to do development.

We also don’t know if there is another, better opportunity to open avenues for business development, income generation, increased demand, trade or export (which is kind of what we’re trying to do at Al Mokha). But I’ll tell you, as much as I would have liked to have more chicken in Kasulu, I think the people who live there all the time should have a little bit more of a say.

They told me they want fish, or rather, that they’d like capital to be able to build a business around selling fish. Maybe that answer is not representative, of Africans or Tanzanians or even Congolese refugees in Nyarugusu, but it’s probably worth asking the people you’re purporting to help.


Author: ekfletch

I am an independent researcher on issues of gender, labor, violence, education, and children.

2 thoughts on “Of fish, chicken, and men”

  1. That’s why you’re there.

    The constant challenge of philanthropy. Giving people what you think they need is not always what they actually need, and often not what they want. The best of intentions can appear paternalistic. When the chickens, say, are sold en masse to buy fishing nets, a donor may get cynical.

    Always start by listening.

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