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July 19, 2013

Tanzania in a truck

World Vision Experience: Kisongo Trek raises awareness for relief efforts

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
World Vision’s traveling multimedia tour made a stop at MRA headquarters in Madison Heights July 9-10. MRA created the expandable semi-truck, which houses a virtual “walking tour” of a village in Tanzania that is making progress, thanks to the efforts of World Vision.

METRO DETROIT — Using first-world technology to shine a light on third-world issues, World Vision Experience: Kisongo Trek recently brought its expandable semi-truck exhibit to Madison Heights, just one stop on a tour that has been everywhere from Tennessee to Texas.

The truck is about 1,000 square feet when fully expanded. The exhibit features 26 TV monitors, 10 computers and various interactive props that allow for hands-on learning about life in the village of Kisongo, Tanzania. It’s a multimedia tour meant to raise awareness for self-sustainability efforts in impoverished areas of the world.

The tour is a collaborative effort between World Vision, an international relief organization battling poverty here and abroad, and MRA, a company headquartered in Madison Heights that specializes in “experiential tours” for educational, business and marketing purposes, all inside special custom-made trailers.

This particular exhibit is operated by husband-and-wife duo Sherri and Michael Washington, employees of MRA. They said they hope the exhibit will inspire people to make a difference by a sponsoring a child or donating to the cause. They set up the exhibit at MRA headquarters on East Whitcomb from July 9-10.

“We want to bring Africa to America and let people know what is going on,” Sherri said. “By taking this virtual tour … we show them the work in Kisongo that is typical of World Vision. This is actually a joyful story, since there is progress being made.”

The tour
Cindy Irland, logistics manager at MRA, praised the tour’s immersion.

“It submerges you in the experience,” Irland said. “You see the landscape, the community; you speak to the tribal leader and see how their community functions.”

Before entering the truck, guests use a touchscreen terminal to register for a ‘passport’ card. The card is then scanned at the entrance to the truck, and the tour begins.

The first room is built to resemble a bus interior, complete with seating, rustic walls and a tour guide over the intercom. Six flat-screen displays are embedded in the walls: two upfront for the “windshield” and two on each wall as “windows.” They show a 360-degree video of a town in Tanzania, as though you’re really there.

The virtual tour proceeds across the African wilderness, past elephants, giraffes and zebras. A throng of colorfully garbed people appear on the horizon. Here, the virtual bus stops and the tourists are ushered through a door to the next room in the truck.

The village elder gives a warm welcome from a vertical TV display. Then the star of the show appears onscreen: 13-year-old Babayetu, a World Vision-sponsored resident. The tourists follow him to the back of the truck as he moves from one flat-screen panel to another, as though he’s walking alongside you down the corridor lined with exhibits.

At one point, the tourists pick up a 2.5-gallon, 20-pound jug of water to feel what the women of Tanzania carry on their heads for miles at a time. Access to water is only part of the problem — removing the jug triggers a pressure plate that starts a video explaining that the water is often contaminated. A microscopic view reveals the river water, shared by the villagers and animals alike, is festering with parasites.

Addressing water quality is one of the many ways World Vision helps those in need. In 2011 alone, World Vision provided more than a half-million people in 10 African countries with access to clean water, through a combination of water sanitation and hygiene efforts. This included the construction of about 800 wells. Teaching villagers to boil water to kill off bacteria is also crucial to reducing child mortality rates.

Opposite the water exhibit is a display showing Babayetu’s home, a humble mud hut outfitted with mosquito nets. Before World Vision, the villagers were exposed at night to mosquitos carrying malaria, and many suffered slow, feverish deaths. The mosquito nets have now reduced the death rate to nearly zero.

One exhibit was set up like a schoolhouse: Tourists sit in desks and watch a teacher address the class. Before, only men received an education in Kisongo, but now women are educated, as well. As World Vision explained to the villagers, knowledge is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty.

Yet another exhibit focuses on improving the industry and self-sustainability of these far-flung locales, whether it’s empowering a beekeeper with the tools and knowledge to dramatically increase his output of honey and better support his family, or how a small business loan to a shopkeeper and seamstress allowed both to bolster the economy with work that provides jobs and convenience to the community.

The overall effect of the exhibit is one of inspiration, transporting viewers to the place and people that World Vision is helping.

“It’s beautiful,” remarked Chris Stepien, a Dearborn resident who was taking the tour July 9. “It’s making a personal connection.”

How you can help
Of course, these efforts wouldn’t exist without the generosity of others. Donations pay for the water access, hygiene and sanitation work; the provision of mosquito nets; the great strides in education, agriculture and industry; and more that all add up to create a village that will continue thriving long after World Vision has left to help others.

Direct donations can be made at the nonprofit’s website, www.worldvision.org, where visitors can see a map showing all of World Vision’s current endeavors. Donors can pick particular projects or opt to have World Vision send the money where it’s most needed, which at the moment would include Syrian refugee camps.

But donors can also choose to sponsor a child, paying $35 a month, which can be auto-debited out of one’s bank account or credit card until the donor chooses to cancel. Charity Navigator certifies the process, and sponsors can even look through the profiles of the different children and handpick the one they wish to support.  

The donor is encouraged, but not required, to maintain a written correspondence with the child, even sending small gifts that can fit in an envelope. The money does not go directly to the child but supports the development of the child’s community, improving quality of life for all. This avoids creating a situation where there are privileged children.

“There’s no contract, no commitment,” Sherri said. “Sponsoring is the core of what World Vision does.”

To learn how you can help, including how to sponsor a child, visit www.worldvision.org.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.