Reflections on Building Resilience Through Child-Led Organisation in Tanzania.

By Kurt Madoerin

Kurt Madoerin and his colleagues first developed and applied the concept of “a child-led organization” in Humuliza region in Tanzania with an organization called Vijana Simama Imara – Youth Standing Upright and later in  Kwa Wazee with TatuTano. The TatuTano currently has about 1500 members, organized in 220 small groups and integrates children who have either lost their parents and live with their grandparents or live with HIV+ parents.

The setting is Kagera region in Northwest of Tanzania, 1500 km away from Dar Es Salaam the capital city and from the coast. Kagera – was also known as the “cradle” of AIDS in Tanzania. In 1983 the first case was identified along the shores of the Lake Victoria. 15 years later the various districts in the region showed prevalence of between 14 and 30%. Parents died, leaving behind thousands of children - a bitter experience shared later by many African countries. Physical survival was for many of them a daily challenge. The psychological survival was not (yet) on the agenda, although a few people, like Elizabeth Jaereg then at Save the Children tried to support orphaned children in neighboring Uganda to cope with the losses.

In 1997 Terre des hommes Switzerland, a Swiss NGO piloted a programme in Kagera for affected children and their teachers. Two training manuals were developed).  One with 16 modules supported teachers to work better with the new orphan generation. The other was directed at the children themselves, using the excellent picture story “The Gentle Willow” written by Joyce C. Mills. This is a story for children about dying in which the squirrel, losing its closest friend the Gentle Willow, plungesinto feelings of despair, anger, fear, hope, and expectation much like the children whose parents died or were dying. Interacting with this story not only helped them to reflect their own history and find some relief but also helped them find ways of carrying on with life.

As a Saturday only course with about 25 children -it lasted three months while in the same period hundreds of children lost parents, siblings, relatives – proving to be an unequal race. But the experience raised important  questions about the quantity and quality of the programme. The focus of the intervention - as most interventions at this time waslargely on the children as “victims” of the AIDS-crisis. We had to learn and appreciate that these children were also actors and survivors and that a programme had to open spaces for this proactive side of orphan hood and to support what is called the “protagonism of children”.

Meeting these two imperatives of quantity and quality :  to reach more children and to recognize and strengthen their role as “actors” and “builders of resilience” led us to the idea to form an organization for orphaned children which would be fully led by them.

In defining operationalization of “building resilience” we found the work of Julia Bala “Strengthening the Protective Umbrella” in: Children, War and Persecution – Rebuilding Hope, Maputo 1996 very useful. Bala identifies four levels at which resilience can be built in children:

1.      Reducing stressors (reducing the impact of present stressors, unloading accumulated problems, assisting them to make peace with the past, and minimizing anticipated stress that could interfere with daily life)

2.      Strengthening and supporting the use of existing protective factors (within the child and within the wider social environment e.g. the organization of orphaned children)

3.      Broadening the coping alternatives (facilitation of the use of existing coping strategies, and assisting them to develop new coping skills)

4.      Strengthening and opening future perspectives (supporting the search for future living possibilities and visions of the future).

In March 2000 17 young people between the ages of 13 and 19 years convinced of the benefits of pulling their strength together decided to form the VSI (Vijana Simama Imara – Youth Standing Upright) as  a child focused and child-led organization. Of course this came after much robust and often controversial debate for example would an organization for orphans lead to additional stigmatization of the children? The fears proved unfounded and only four years later the organization had developed rapidly to include nearly 3 000 children and youth.

An impact and formative evaluation in 2005 including a total of 276 children using control groups and quantitative and qualitative methods confirmed that the model of a child-led organization is in itself a viable tool for building resilience and providing psycho-social support. All seven selected indicators (social support network, emotional stress, future orientation, self-confidence, income generation, coping skills and survival knowledge – HIV/AIDS) showed significant difference in favor of the members of the VSI.

The book “Broken Connection” by Robert Jay Lifton offers some useful insights into the healing impact of the VSI as child-led organization. Lifton stipulates that both death and life have equivalent emotions in everyone’s life. Equivalents of “death” are feelings of separation, feelings of disintegration and feelings of immobilization. 

Quotes from VSI-members before they joined the organisation perfectly illustrate the pattern suggested by Lifton:

I feared to go anywhere because of unhappiness” (separation),  “In school pupils laughed at me and said “why is this pupil very silent?” I didn’t mind, I just kept silent” (disintegration)

 “I was unhappy because I did not know the way I could manage my future life (immobilization).

Lifton’s equivalent feelings for “life”: feelings of connection and continuation, feelings of integration und feelings of purposiveness and movement.  

The following quotes from VSI-members after being part of the organisation for at least one year indicates the changes in their lives:

 “I found that we were about thirty members. I then realised that we are all under similar conditions because some lost one parent and others lost both. Myself I already lost both parents and was living with my uncle. We explained our problems and finally discovered that we had common problems.”(connection and continuity).

 “I no longer fear people. I feel comfortable because I am now brought together with my fellow orphans” (integration)

“I started meeting my fellow members that made me active and we discussed about different issues” (purposiveness/movement).  

So in conclusion what can a child-led organization contribute to the well-being of its members?

Vulnerable children –especially girls –often have little or no voice to defend their rights and interests and therefore tend to suffer stigma and discrimination. A child-led organisation builds up “social capital” through and for its members. Pierre Bourdieu, one of the founders of the concept, stresses the value of a “durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition." (Bourdieu, “Forms of Capital’ 1983). The membership in a group is regarded as an actual or potential resource.  The connectedness of the members increases mutual trust and ability to work together and also protects individuals from harmful impacts of a non-conducive environment. The self-defense network which includes 1000 girls is a good example of “social capital” serving the safety and security of the girls in TatuTano- which will be dealt with in a future blog.


Kurt Madoerin is a sociologist and the co-founder of REPSSI. He lives and works in Nshamba a rural village in Northwest Tanzania.

Materials and training sessions that were developed during the process of building the child-led organizations are available from