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'They own the projects. We don't come and impose anything'

Ex-IDF officers band together with Tanzanian villagers to improve life on the ground

25-year old Rafi Ryker founds Afrikan, a volunteer organization that utilizes Israeli ingenuity and leadership skills to help locals build a vision and realize it themselves

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Members of the first Afrikan delegation sit with students in a renovated classroom in a school in Malindi, Tanzania, in May 2021.(Idan Arad/Courtesy of Afrikan)
    Members of the first Afrikan delegation sit with students in a renovated classroom in a school in Malindi, Tanzania, in May 2021.(Idan Arad/Courtesy of Afrikan)
  • Children at the school that Afrikan helped renovate in Malindi, Tanzania in May 2021. (Idan Arad/Courtesy of Afrikan)
    Children at the school that Afrikan helped renovate in Malindi, Tanzania in May 2021. (Idan Arad/Courtesy of Afrikan)
  • Children in Malindi, Tanzania wear school uniforms in the colors of the Tanzanian flag procured by Afrikan's second delegation (May 2022). Families who were unable to afford the uniforms were not sending their children to school. (Courtesy of Afrikan)
    Children in Malindi, Tanzania wear school uniforms in the colors of the Tanzanian flag procured by Afrikan's second delegation (May 2022). Families who were unable to afford the uniforms were not sending their children to school. (Courtesy of Afrikan)
  • Malindi, Tanzania villagers experience clean running water for first time after Afrikan helps them connect to a clean water source. (Idan Arad/Courtesy of Afrikan)
    Malindi, Tanzania villagers experience clean running water for first time after Afrikan helps them connect to a clean water source. (Idan Arad/Courtesy of Afrikan)
  • Malindi, Tanzania villagers experience clean running water for first time after Afrikan helps them connect to a clean water source. (Idan Arad/Courtesy of Afrikan)
    Malindi, Tanzania villagers experience clean running water for first time after Afrikan helps them connect to a clean water source. (Idan Arad/Courtesy of Afrikan)
  • Afrikan member Gal Genossar stands atop water harvesting tank built on roof of school in Malindi, Tanzania. (Courtesy of Afrikan)
    Afrikan member Gal Genossar stands atop water harvesting tank built on roof of school in Malindi, Tanzania. (Courtesy of Afrikan)
  • Students in renovated classroom in school in Malindi, Tanzania, May 2022. (Courtesy of Afrikan)
    Students in renovated classroom in school in Malindi, Tanzania, May 2022. (Courtesy of Afrikan)
  • Teachers and students show off the sanitary napkins they have sewn in Malindi, Tanzania, May 2022 (Courtesy of Afrikan)
    Teachers and students show off the sanitary napkins they have sewn in Malindi, Tanzania, May 2022 (Courtesy of Afrikan)
  • First Afrikan delegation to Malindi, Tanzania pose for a group photo with Malindi ward councilor Msumba Eliya (top row, far left). Back row: Rafi Ryker, Elyasaf Tsarum, Tal Englender, Achinoam Carmi. Bottom row from left: Bar Orian, Talia Amir, Carmel Cohen, Idan Arad. (Idan Arad/Courtesy of Afrikan)
    First Afrikan delegation to Malindi, Tanzania pose for a group photo with Malindi ward councilor Msumba Eliya (top row, far left). Back row: Rafi Ryker, Elyasaf Tsarum, Tal Englender, Achinoam Carmi. Bottom row from left: Bar Orian, Talia Amir, Carmel Cohen, Idan Arad. (Idan Arad/Courtesy of Afrikan)
  • Afrikan's second delegation to Malindi, Tanzania in May 2022. Back row from left: Shahar Vaturi, Shahar Linchevski, Rafi Ryker, Shahar Kerrett. Front row from left: Shahar Gadish, Gal Genossar, Yehonatan Barel. (Courtesy of Afrikan)
    Afrikan's second delegation to Malindi, Tanzania in May 2022. Back row from left: Shahar Vaturi, Shahar Linchevski, Rafi Ryker, Shahar Kerrett. Front row from left: Shahar Gadish, Gal Genossar, Yehonatan Barel. (Courtesy of Afrikan)

Like many young Israelis, Rafi Ryker took a trip abroad after his discharge from the Israel Defense Forces. He and a friend traveled to Africa for two months, beginning in November 2020.

Traveling in Tanzania without a guide, Ryker and his friend stumbled upon the area of Malindi, where they started talking to the local residents. They heard from them about the challenges facing the community. The most pressing problems were the dilapidated schools, and high student dropout and truancy rates.

With a splash of Israeli chutzpah, Ryker, 25, believed he and other young, recently discharged IDF officers and commanders could help.

Ryker left Malindi intending to stay in touch. When he returned home, he founded the nonprofit organization Afrikan (a play on Africa and the Hebrew word kan, meaning “here”).

Ryker told The Times of Israel he started Afrikan with an express purpose. He wasn’t looking to merely raise money for Malindi, nor was he interested in “parachuting” back into the community and fixing things. He wanted to partner with the residents to get things done. The residents would use local materials, labor, and know-how.

Essentially, the visiting Afrikan volunteers would add value by introducing organizational and management skills less familiar to the developing world. The goal would be sustainable solutions that Malindi residents could continue to implement on their own.

“The community needs to own the projects. We don’t come in and impose anything. We ask them what they want to solve and understand the problem,” Ryker said.

Children at the school that Afrikan helped renovate in Malindi, Tanzania in May 2021. (Idan Arad/Courtesy of Afrikan)

Malindi, in northeast Tanzania near the border with Kenya, is a ward comprising four villages in the Lushoto district. The region’s population is 75 percent Muslim and 25% Christian, and 75% of Malindi’s 36,000 residents are under 35. Rain-fed subsistence farming is the main economic activity, with productivity low and vulnerable to climate change. The nearest city is Moshi, about a five-hour drive away.

Ryker emphasized that Afrikan works in cooperation with local Tanzanian authorities. Ninety percent of Afrikan’s current budget goes toward locally sourced materials, supplies, transportation, and workers’ salaries required for the various projects in Malindi.

“I met Rafi by chance. I was in the middle of a meeting with local leaders at one of the schools. I saw Rafi and his friend passing by and speaking to some of the teachers. I wondered who they were,” said Msumba Eliya, Malindi ward councilor.

“We engaged in a conversation about education, and they told me about schools in Israel. It was interesting. I asked them to meet the next day to see how our schools are run in the villages, to see our hospital, and visit my home,” he said.

A school in Malindi, Tanzania, before renovation began with the help of Afrikan. (Courtesy of Afrikan)

Ryker saw that the schools had no roofs, windows, electricity and water. He also learned that the students went all day without food — they ate no breakfast and were not fed lunch at school. Many families were unable to afford the school uniform and did not send their children to school, keeping them at home to work.

“I thought that if this is the state of things, it is easy to change. When I got home I spoke to friends and family about how it would be possible to achieve good results with limited resources and effort,” Ryker said.

He felt he had a good partner in Eliya, a 34-year-old Seventh-day Adventist with a university education, who seemed to understand the opportunity presented by partnering with young Israelis.

Eliya told The Times of Israel that he felt similarly about Ryker.

“They didn’t promise me anything initially and I didn’t expect anything, but we stayed in touch. When you need something you can be very doubtful or you can go for it. I am optimistic in most cases. When Rafi said he would help, I felt I could trust him because we were already friends,” Eliya said.

First Afrikan delegation to Malindi, Tanzania pose for a group photo with Malindi ward councilor Msumba Eliya (top row, far left). Back row: Rafi Ryker, Elyasaf Tsarum, Tal Englender, Achinoam Carmi. Bottom row from left: Bar Orian, Talia Amir, Carmel Cohen, Idan Arad. (Idan Arad/Courtesy of Afrikan)

Ryker headed back to Malindi in May 2021 for a month with a pilot delegation of seven friends and acquaintances — all former IDF officers. They volunteered their time and paid their way. Funds raised in advance went toward the cost of renovating a seven-room primary school in one of the villages.

This and subsequent Afrikan delegations to Malindi have been deliberately small. Ryker, a lieutenant in the tank corps, said he is looking to recruit tight-knit groups of top-notch individuals whose experiences as IDF commanders taught them excellent management skills, how to think outside the box, and how to troubleshoot. As a general rule, selected volunteers are between 24 and 26 and must have travel or work experience since being discharged.

With delegations of only seven or eight members, each person must be willing and able to take leadership for one aspect of the work in Malindi.

Tal Englender, 25, was a member of the pilot delegation. Now an industrial design student at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, she served as an IDF combat engineer instructor and an operations officer in the Givati brigade.

Mothers from Malindi came every morning to help with the renovation of the school, May 2022. (Courtesy of Afrikan)

“I wanted to travel to Africa, so I joined a WhatsApp group for Israelis going there. I saw a message from Rafi about the May 2021 delegation. It sounded interesting, so I applied. I liked the fact that it was an opportunity to volunteer during travel,'” Englender said.

“I had been in Tanzania before to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, but this would be a way for me to meet Tanzanians and share our cultures without filters,” she said.

Despite the warm welcome the Afrikan volunteers received, things have been occasionally bumpy. Malindi residents are used to moving at a slower pace and don’t always comprehend the urgency of completing projects. The Israelis have modeled efficiency and a can-do attitude.

“It would take the locals three years to build a school — something that was accomplished with our help in just three weeks,” Ryker said.

Unclean water source that Malindi residents were drinking from before Afrikan members helped the villagers build a clean water harvesting system. (Courtesy of Afrikan)

Citing another example, Ryker spoke of how Malindi’s residents all know that drinking dirty water is dangerous and causes diseases — but they do it anyway.

Afrikan’s initial focus was on rebuilding Malindi’s schools and providing food and uniforms for the students. However, it soon became apparent that clean water had to be part of the equation.

Afrikan volunteers identified a clean water source for one of the villages. They oversaw the laying of five kilometers of pipe through which potable water now flows into several locations — including the school.

“It only cost 6,000 shekels ($1,730) to do, and now 6,000 people have clean water,” Ryker said.

In May 2022, the village that Afrikan worked with was on higher ground. A better solution was to build a water tank on the school’s roof and use basic rain harvesting technology.

Afrikan member Gal Genossar stands atop water harvesting tank built on roof of school in Malindi, Tanzania. (Courtesy of Afrikan)

Englender had such a positive experience in Malindi in 2021 that she stepped up to be Afrikan’s vice president. She is heading up the next delegation in August 2022.

Sahar Kahana, 25, will be a team member and is already planning for his role as co-manager of school reconstruction in a third village.

Kahana was a commander in the IDF artillery corps’ elite drone unit. After his discharge, he worked for a year in the tech industry and now is a free-diving instructor in Eilat. For his volunteer work in Malindi, he will also draw upon his experience working with his uncle, who is a building contractor.

He anticipates challenges posed by working with the other members of the delegation. With everyone coming with such strong leadership skills from the IDF, there are bound to be some friendly disagreements.

“We are going to work as a team and work out our conflicts. Everyone is going to have to let go of their ego,” Kahana said.

Malindi, Tanzania villagers experience clean running water for first time after Afrikan helps them connect to a clean water source. (Idan Arad/Courtesy of Afrikan)

In between delegation visits, Afrikan volunteers keep in regular contact by phone and video with Eliya and others in Malindi. One of the volunteers was able to do an in-person follow-up. In Africa for six more months, Shahar Kerrett recently stopped back in to see her new friends in Malindi.

Kerrett, 24, served as an IDF officer dealing with sexual harassment. As part of the May 2022 Afrikan delegation, she was in charge of community relations and women’s empowerment. She learned that female students did not have sanitary products and that they subsequently stayed home from school during their periods. In response, she launched a project with a local seamstress to teach students and teachers how to sew reusable, washable sanitary pads.

“They are a layer of plastic or nylon between two layers of fabric. We taught about 100 girls in 6th and 7th grades to do this, and then when I came back to visit I saw that the project had expanded to the local high school,” Kerrett said.

According to Malindi councilor Eliya, Afrikan’s positive impact on Malindi is clearly evident. He admitted that the local people would never have gotten around to the infrastructure improvements without the initiative taken by the young Israelis. The community and local leaders have learned crucial skills like time and resource management, and how to plan and organize.

Afrikan member Shahar Kerrett works with female students to sew sanitary napkins in renovated school in Malindi, Tanzania, May 2022. (Courtesy of Afrikan)

“We have already seen a huge improvement in education. The teachers and students are motivated by the nice atmosphere [in the renovated classrooms], and the numbers of dropouts and truants are down,” Eliya said.

“Parents in the community have changed their attitude about the importance of education. Their values have changed because they see the value foreign people put on education,” he said.

There have been many lessons learned by the Israelis, as well. It has taken time to understand Tanzanian culture and how things work in Africa. To be effective in Malindi, the volunteers needed to always keep the partnership with the residents in mind.

“We are not there to turn their world upside down. We just want to make it a bit better,” Kerrett said.

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