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Ambassador for Exchange
Episode 69th December 2021 • Voices of Exchange • U.S. State Department ECA Alumni Affairs
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Social entrepreneur and ExchangeAlumni Ian Tarimo likes to call himself an Ambassador for Exchange. That’s how strongly Ian, winner of the 2021 Mandela Washington Fellowship Leadership Impact Award and co-founder of Tai Tanzania, believes in the power of exchange programs. Ian also believes in democracy and fighting corruption, but it was his visit to the U.S. for the Mandela Washington Fellowship program that gave him a deeper understanding of the global issues we all face and more.


Ian Tarimo

hip. I finished my program in:

So somehow, I had some idea of all those movements, and feel like I was there, but I was never there. So I think it was, for me, it was a very special moment to be in the places that I had read several, uh, times, and then being there physically, it was just a breathtaking. And I was very humbled and privileged to get that chance to be there.

Before Ian went to college, he wanted to do something positive for his community in Tanzania and he started volunteering for various organizations. He continued to volunteer during school. And, when he graduated from university, he realized that his dreams didn’t lie in what he had studied, but what he loved to do… which led him to applying for Civic Leadership training through the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) East Africa Regional Leadership Center. 

Um, so I'll say that, um, s- before even going to university, uh, I got a chance to volunteer. Uh, you know when you, we have like a little bit of, like, I think, like, six month or something, after you finish uni- or high school, and, before going to university, in Tanzania, right?

And then, most of the time, people use this time to relax, watch movies, and all sort of things. So, for me, I just had this special interest to do something for my community. So I just went to this organization, and say, "You know what, this is, just want to use my time to volunteer," And then they told me, they asked me if I can speak some English, and then I say, "Yes, I can, you know, throw some words," They told me, "You are going to join this group of volunteers, who will be translating, when they go to off education."

So I was just a translator from English to Swahili, uh, when we went to the local schools. Uh, but that experience, of like, three, four months, stayed with me. But I did not know. Because when I was choosing my, my, my when I went, I was choosing my course to go to university, I chose... taxation, and then information technology, uh, back down there, it was still there, the fulfillment of going to that school, and this kid, who didn't know things, and now they know, and the way they change, and the way you see them... being responsible, and paying more attention to things that they are not paying attention before...

Was still in my head. So, when I was at university when we are told about information technology, and all those, you know, tech, I was just busy looking for an organization that I can continue to volunteer, for the community work.

So, I spent, like, four years when I was still at the university, volunteering to different organization, different projects. The beauty of that, [it] lead me to meet other young people who were also very passionate about the same thing, and they also, unfortunately, they had a different, um... like they didn't, s- they said something different, but we were all connected with a passion to do something for the community.

So it was easy, when we were finished [at] university, we are like, "You know what? This what we love. It's not about what we studied, it's what we love, and this is what we think is connecting us, and to gives us that adrenaline to talk about this things for a day, night, and I think we should do something about it."

So that's how we decided to start the NGO. But, you know, when you start the NGO because of being passionate, is not enough, right? You need to continue learning about leadership, how do you mobilize your resources, how do you lead others, how do you make more people join you? And, for me, as a leader, um, my role was like, you know what? It might sound very good. Everyone is congratulating us for being brave inside the organization. But I don't think that's should be like a success. Just starting an NGO is not a success. So, already, my eyes on what program can I go, and learn?

e to get such programs, until:

And, when I came back, I had to bring all the lessons to my team. And, we changed, since that, we moved from just going to school, and tell, kid, like, "Don't, uh, don't get pregnant, because you'll, you'll, you want to finish school. Uh, you want big dreams."

We moved from as, telling them what to do, to no, to now, because we are not, we are not really making the impact we're expecting. Kids are like, "We are bored. My mom tells me the same thing, you also telling me the same thing. And even the teachers are telling me the same thing. Who are you?"

You know? And the, the, the hard part was, um, the teachers, the program we are given, is, when the students get into a program, because it was extra-curricular activities, if they are bored, they should just leave, right?

So you can study with a hundred students in your class, but, the moment you finish, maybe there are 40, or 50, or 60 when you are liking. There is 50 people, 40 people, they are gone, because they got bored.

So that one, made us to really think, "What do we do?" Uh, but, it was also, it was also not sustainable, because you keep moving from one school to another, and, all that.

So, they, when I went to the YALI program, it made me to re- to think, I remember one of the most powerful session I gain, I gained in that time, was, um, so we are given different examples of people who are made change in this life, like, Mandela, for instance.

He did not do, his, his work, as a, for, for like two, three years that he made South Africa to be free. It was his life, right?

We are given another example of Wangarĩ Maathai, it was about climate, and, and trees. It was about her life. And we are given some examples, if you are told, "Do you think what you are doing is something you'll do for your life?" “Do you think, like, because if you wanna be a changemaker, you should be thinking of something that's, you will be, you are going to do for the rest of your life.” Wow. That was like, an eye opening.

So, when I came back, we had the discussion, and that's how we decide, and also, incl- you know, all that, including the team, the, the, the, team being changed, all the time, and student giving feedback they're being bored, we had to go back to draw, drawing table.

And I remember at YALI, we are told, "Don't feel shy to go back to the drawing board when things are not working the way you planned. Because it’s not about your original idea. Don't get married to your original idea, because it’s not about you, and it's not personal, at the end of the day, it’s about the needs of the organization.

Being an entrepreneur has its challenges. It’s like becoming a diamond, Ian says, and sometimes, you need to go back to the drawing board. You also need to tell a good story and be intentional...

Wow. You know? Those are hard stuff, sometime as [an] entrepreneur, you get in the, like, oh God, you might actually cry and feel personal but it's, it's not. It's not, that's, that's the fact. So what we decided to do was to go back to the drawing board and ask ourself, the lessons we are, we have learned in our life, like the most, you know, th-, those things have stayed with us and so much, they effect with, u-, us, without being beaten. If I say beaten, do you get that? Like, corporal punishment. The things that you're, because, yeah, because you are, yeah, we are being beaten. Like, what are the things that there with you, but you are not beaten?

And remember? They are stories. They are stories we were given when we were young, they are characters from m-, from the movies we watch, from the animation we watch, they have been affecting us, our personality, and no one forced us, but it's something you, you are told a good story, you loved a certain character or you didn't like a certain character and you say you will never do this thing that character did.

So you're like, bingo.

And, uh, of course we did, uh, we did better with technology and we, and all the technology, we were like, uh, but we also have technology, so like, hm, uh, I think there's something we can do here. So, we, as we are still discussing, someone say, "Ah, I, I have a friend who is, who is at home. Uh, he's just making animation for fun, he can actually make fire on the hand and that's what he's doing for his skills." We were like, " Bring him on. Can we try to use his skills to do something for the community?"

So, you know? That's how we shifted to now being able to say, you know what? Let's try this. And when we d-, we decide to that, we analyzed the issue that has been annoying, you know? To us. And the most annoying issue was boys and men used to attack us, “Why do we talk about women issues?” Their mothers, their wives never shouted about menstrual hygiene management. “Why are we talking about all these things? Are we running, uh, Western, Western culture beliefs?”

“Uh, the Bible says, la, la, la, la, la. The culture says these are women issues, have to be women issues. Why? Do you, have you ever menstruated?” Like, we used to get all these attacks. Do you know? (Laughs) Yeah, yeah, we used to get all these attacks and what we decided to do is just to, uh, our first animation is how do we go get the story of a girl with the connection to a man or father or brother? And how that, not them knowing, makes them feel, especially when they're on, on, on their menses. And that was our first, yeah, that was our first animation.

And it changed. Of course, we spent six months to produce three - three minutes. But it was worth it. It changed everything. We moved from going to a class of 100 students to ... The, uh, you know? You go to a school, you are given a class of 100 students but now with the animation because we use their own stories, we use their own jokes, they related with these stories so when we went back to school and played this animation, it moved from having 100 students, moved, and when you finish you have 40, it moved to the whole school wanted to watch the animation. So, we had to take it out of the class because there was no room to, to have the whole school. So, we were like, wow. Thank you Lord, it has been a rough journey but it made us, it's like diamond. You have to go through, like, that fire for you to find yourself, the power you have in yourself. And it, oh God, it was, it was rewarding but it was also sweet, to go through the journey.

Um, so for me, um, I believe that, uh, leadership, it's not about the title. Right? But leadership is about influence and filling the vacuum. And what do I mean the vacuum? So, if we are sitting two of us, and there's a trash, whoever goes to pick that trash and put in the right place, for me that's a leader. So, normally when I'm in my organization, I normally look at the gaps. So, as an organization we want, we want to reach millions of people. Do we have the right equipment? Do we have the right skills? Do we have the right network?

to this program YALI, uh, in:

And, um, I also want to rejuvenate myself because I saw the way the content has been accepted in the community, to me is more demand, uh, a lot of people now are coming up, they want to use the content and we have to now, like, the, the team and all that, you know? You can see like, uh, uh, it's more demanding. You know, sometimes when you have a success, something goes well, it means you are even more demanded to do better, and quality and your standard goes up. 

So, me being aware that the Mandela Washington Fellowship brings people from different part of the cou-, of, of the, of the continent, from South Africa to Nigeria, I was just excited to meet those people and to meet those global experts, uh, to be there and be, at a personal level, because also as I said I read a lot of books that I, the most books, most of the books I read are from U.S., so I have sort of all those imagination, I just want to be there and see how things work and stuff. And get that connection, right?

So I'm glad I chose that option, because I met some great, great, great facilitators. One of them is like, Doctor Walker. Uh, she doesn't even want to be called Doctor, you know? She just wants to be known as, uh, Brandy, right? But here, when someone is a doctor or professor, if you don't mention that name, professor or doctor, they feel embarrassed, it's about titles and all that.

So, when I met someone whom was like what I believe in, it's not about the title, it's not about the professor and doctors, and they're there really, they mean, they want to help us. Oh God, they, they actually made me even more humble. They made me to, actually, one of the things they told me, we need to be intentional. You don't do things because you want credit, you don't do things because you just want, maybe, popularity, or you just don't do things because you want to tick a box. I went to this cool event because I just want to tick, but you've got to be intentional. Do you, what, what kind of experience do you want to make? What kind of, of words do you want to use? Do you know what, uh, like, being intentional in everything we do, I would say is one of the things I learned from Dr. Brandy as an example.

I learned a lot from my colleagues, my [Washington Mandela] Fellows, I met so many people, but there are few things that they stand out, and they go with you every time before you make decision, you have to... There's one thing I actually failed from Dr. Brandy. She told me that, "When you're a leader, you're in a meeting, you are talking to your team members and everyone is contributing, whether you agree or you don't agree, don't do this."

Uh, I'm like, "Why?" 

She said, "If someone does not say something that you are..." Like, if you don't do this and someone is talking, they might feel like they need maybe to ch- They w- they, they may end up being waiting to be validated by you so that can, they can give the... But if you're just there, listen to and they feel they're equal... Because it, it becomes natural when people talk about things you agree, you do like this, and things you don't agree, you're like... So that might kill diverse ideas. So it’s so hard, but I w- I admit is something I'm still learning so that my team can be more comfortable to bring those diverse ideas, because sometimes those diverse ideas that we don't think about might the most effective ideas for the problems that we're having ev- uh, day-to-day, right? 

But a- the idea is the possibility of even talking to each other and say, "You know what? You are good in this, we can work together and we can, uh, amplify our impact."
When it comes to democracy, Ian believes corruption is the “cruel enemy of the people.” Through the ExchangeAlumni network, he is finding ways to fight corruption and build democratic values. That includes being the Ambassador of Exchange…

Ye- uh, yes, yes. It was the same year, but, uh... You know, so the challenge with the Mandela Washington Fellowship, not, not challenge per se, but I think the beauty of it, as much as we are from Tanzania, these are people we, I've never met before. And since we meet just for like three days, and then we go to U.S., and then we don't go again to the same university, so even when I meet them, it's the same thing a- as if I'm talking to a Kenyan. I need to still introduce myself, (laughs) I still need to learn about their work, listen inte- intentively, and get to see areas for collaboration. So I love the way it is, because it does not make you like you are Tanzania, go there and be Tanzanian. I think that will be missing the point. So, the way it's programmed is such a way that is not limiting you to only network here, you can network with anyone, but the, you also have a chance to network with people who are in Tanzania.


I was like, "It's true. I also hate corruption." So we're still in discussion, but, uh, because she's working from the government, it may take time, but I can't wait to produce this content so it can be used by the government agents across the country to fight the most cru- how do you say? Cruel enemy of the people, which is corruption? 

Um, oh God, if there's, if there's, if there's the best way to learn about yourself, I believe, I'm a believer, the best way to learn about yourself in terms of your strength, your weakness, and the inner potential you have is through exchange. Like being in America, where you don't have your friends, where you're not used to the bus routes, you're not used to how people act, and being there, it will make you vulnerable, but it will also make you understand your strength.

And if there's one thing that I think should be promoted, it's not promoted enough maybe because of COVID, is exchange programs. Because if someone has gone to exchange program prepared, because some people, they go out, they're not prepared and they get, uh, upset, or they don't, they're not able to, they're not, they aren't ready to, to enjoy the, th- the diverse, the difference. Because there's beauty in, in, in seeing other things that are different from what you're used to, because of two things. The first thing is you change the perception of how you see those people. But also when you come back home, you actually understand what to, uh, appreciate more and what are things that maybe you have been appreciating, but they don't mean anything. You know?

So, I think that's why I'm saying the best way to understand yourself, to understand the world, to understand other culture is through exchange, because there are things that, uh, you might be holding them too much, and they're causing problem to you, but you, you can't know that if you have not, you know, learned about others. And also w- the, with the work we do, there are things that, um, they might, they might be making where we are because we are not exposed enough. And I always say that, uh, the mind that is not exposed cannot function the same as the mind that is exposed. Because when you expose, you have, it's like you have more functionality in your brain, so it can't be the same. Um, in my office, when I came back from U.S., I had a lot of stories, of course, to tell them, but it also changed, it also changed the way I look at U.S.. I, I appreciate. Because before, it was so general. Like I could just appreciate U.S. is number one country in the world, they're good, they're sorted, and all that.

But when I came to U.S., I realized you went through challenges, you went through difficulties. And that's why, that's why as, as a nation, you decided to build systems that will not allow anyone to come and play around with people's lives. You have to have those systems. And does not mean you're gods in a sense that you create a system that no one can enter in those systems, but at least the system will allow you to reject those people who are going to go against the system. So you're not for one man power who knows it all, but you decided to have a constitution, you decided to have democratic way of making decisions, because you went through hardship before. 

Yeah. A- and I think just one more thing is again, we, I, I... Okay, we said democracy, we'll talk about in Dec- in December. Uh, I, I want to just again, when you, because you spoke about exchange, I don't think that the way I'm now connected to U.S., even if I hear like something is happening, let's say I'm in a position, I'm not going to be crazy enough to make any decision against U.S. people without caring, because it you’re-- it, it's beyond just the... For me now, it's beyond just a country.

It's about the people, it's about the connection I have, and I, I wish them well. And when I see U.S. people are, are having issues, I'm like, "Why? Why, why is this happening?" I mean, I'm concerned. Is different from a country that I've never been there, I don't even know their president. Is like, it's, it's different. I'm not saying I'll do something bad to them, but I'm just saying the level of concern is different comparing to if I have a friend from that country coming to my country and we have that exchange of ideas, having a conversation, or I go to their country, is different. It's totally different. And I can see even for myself, for the country I've gone compared to the country I've not gone, or compared to the can't I have friends to country I don't know anyone, the level of concern, if I hear there is a bomb. If I hear there is a shooting. The level of concern is different. I feel like- I feel like it's like part of my- my... Pa- Part of me, you know, that's- that's the power of exchange. And this- this positive feedback, or positive result of exchange, are things that we may not see because maybe someone who is now perceiving well your country could be someone who could do harm to your country, but because there was exchange somewhere, nothing happened, so we never say it's because he went to exchange so he did not do X Y, Z, right? But we are preventing major issues through these programs, but we never get credit, because it will never happen because, you know, it's solved in advance if you know what, I mean. So yeah, exchange is just one of the powerful, uh, ways to solve terrorism, to promote peace, cultural understanding, because if there is no peace, if there is no culture understanding, so I can name on and on. And in my organization, it's just because of COVID-19, but, uh, uh, if everything goes well, I'll continue to accept, I always have a space for people from different countries to come to my organization. I'm like... I'm... I- I... If there is one thing I want, I wanna be an Ambassador for Exchange, and I'll continue- I will continue to accept people from different countries to come to the organization because when they come here, they get to know better Tanzania, Tanzania gets to know about their country, and it's not going to be- it's not going to be the same moving forward for the... Those two countries. It's very powerful- it's very powerful.