All posts by The Black Mzungu

Pfizer Employee Writes Book About Moving To Rural Tanzania

MAY 19, 2016
Alexandria Osborne feeds her chickens at her home in rural Tanzania

A year after her divorce, Alexandria Osborne decided to take a Pfizer fellowship program in Tanzania in 2009. Little did she know that she would meet her second husband, move to his rural hometown, and start her own organization dedicated to the health and education of rural Tanzanians. Osborne has written a book on her journey called The Black Mzungu. She’ll give talks at two local libraries next week.

She’ll be at Kalamazoo’s Eastwood Library Monday night at 6 p.m. and at thePortage Public Library Tuesday night at 7 p.m.

Alexandria Osborne on the beach in Tanzania

Being A Mzungu

Osborne grew up in New York and moved to Kalamazoo to work for Pfizer in the 80s. There she met her first husband, a Libyan-American, and converted to Islam. Though they divorced, Osborne still kept her faith.

Soon after she came to Tanzania, locals started calling her “mzungu” – a Swahili word that means “foreigner,” usually someone of European descent.

Osborne says at first, she was offended. She says as an African American, she thought moving to Tanzania would be a sort of homecoming:

“I felt that I wasn’t being accepted as the long lost cousin and I think a lot of people go through that. And we make an assumption that just because there’s common DNA that there’s a tie, but centuries and centuries have gone by where there is still a divide between the African American descendants of slaves and the African.”

Marrying A Rural Tanzanian

Osborne met her husband Saidi during her Pfizer fellowship. He was working for CARE – a humanitarian organization. Osborne says she and Saidi come from very different backgrounds. She has a PhD, while he only finished elementary school and got his first pair of shoes when he was 10 years old.

Osborne recalls the time Saidi took her to see where he grew up – more than 90 acres of land near the small village of Ruvu:

“There was no road there. So we walked three kilometers over rocks, passed a mangrove forest. We had to take a small dhow (boat) to cross this little water passage and nobody was there. It was this pristine beach. And he showed me the stones where he was born and he showed me the family cemetery so I knew they had been there. And they vacated it in 1968 when his father died at the age of what they say 114 and Saidi was only 10 years old. So nobody lived there, just fishermen sometimes had campfire there. And so I said, ‘This is fine, we can live here.’ Oh, Saidi was so ecstatic.”

Osborne says she had never farmed before and knew nothing about living in rural Tanzania, but she says she trusted Saidi.

Friends And Foes

In The Black Mzungu, Osborne spends a lot of time talking about the complex relationships she and Saidi have with their neighbors, relatives, and hired hands in Tanzania. A few workers steal cement from their home site and drink during the work day. A neighbor’s child steals water from their well. Their livestock tender lives up to his name of Sijoli, which roughly translates to “I don’t care.”

“It was really complicated for us because a lot of these people are family. Saidi is very good at setting the boundaries and teaching me how to set the boundaries. Sometimes he says, ‘You know, I know that this is farming time and I know that they don’t have food so let me call the store in the next village and have them deliver some rice and beans to my sister.’ And he’ll just do this out the clear blue sky and then we’ll send some money through the phone to that store owner. But in the meantime, one of those sisters’ husbands was involved in stealing our cement, right? So for me, sometimes I say, ‘Saidi, I don’t know how you can talk to these people.’ I mean someone who betrayed us, who stole from us. But we live among them and some of them are family.”

And Osborne says she often depends on those same neighbors, relatives, and workers for help. Just two weeks ago, Osborne says their neighbor helped them kill a python that ate all of their chickens.

Rich Country, Poor People

Osborne says 75 percent of people in Tanzania live in rural areas and it’s hard to bring basic services to all of those people in remote locations. All the same, she says Tanzania has rich resources.

“You have mining, you have tourism, we have gas now, you have a port, you have fishing. So we are hopeful that if you can get the right people in charge, you can change the life of the people. That’s the challenge,” she says.

Osborne says people are often undereducated in Tanzania – both in school and in public health issues.

Many people come down with malaria every year. Osborne says she just got it before leaving for the U.S. a few days ago.

“When I get the symptom, I know. Let me get tested, let me get on a dose right away. People in rural areas they delay to make the decision to go. Another point is they go to local, traditional healers rather than going to what we would say more Western type medicine.”

Osborne says the life expectancy for people in Tanzania is still in the 50s.

The LIFT Foundation

Osborne says very few kids in rural areas of the country ever finish elementary school – and even fewer pass the final exam that allows them to go on to secondary school. When Osborne told her friends in Kalamazoo about this, she says many of them offered to pay for school supplies and tuition fees.

Osborne says this generosity inspired her to start the Lindi Islamic Foundation of Tanzania. The LIFT Foundation focuses on health, food security, education, water sanitation, and building Islamic institutions in the rural town of Lindi.

Osborne says the LIFT Foundation has certainly helped the people there, but there’s still a lot of work to do. She remembers the first year LIFT bought books for the students:

“Eighteen children passed the primary school, unprecedented for my village. Of those 18, only four finished secondary. They all failed the test still and no girls. So the challenge is still very huge,” she says.

You can follow Alexandria Osborne in Tanzania through Facebook.


Broadening My Horizons: A Working Retirement

A PhD in Management alumna is bringing corporate America to Tanzania

By Victoria Wiseman
July 2015

Dr. Alexandria Osborne
Dr. Alexandria Osborne

Her first task is to let out the chickens—not exactly a chore she had while growing up in New York City. But here in rural Lindi, Tanzania, chickens are the most reliable food source for the occasional unexpected guest. Dr. Alexandria Osborne ’10 then makes herself a cup of coffee and tries to check work e-mails, a task that can take much of the day since her Internet connection is dependent on solar power.

Osborne is no average retiree. Five years ago, she left a 30-year career at pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Upjohn to retire in sub-Saharan Africa. But instead of retiring, she founded a nonprofit that brings food, water, sanitation, health, and education to the poorest members of her community.

Completing her PhD in Management at the end of her corporate career provided the extra encouragement she needed to create positive social change in her new Tanzanian community. “It’s difficult to do nothing while living among people who make less than $2 a day,” Osborne says. “I have this education. Am I going to retire on the beach, or am I going to do something with it?”

Her research about factors that lead to mistrust of public healthcare in Libya landed her a fellowship with CARE International in Tanzania. During that fellowship, Osborne met and married a Tanzanian, and she decided to leave Michigan to retire in Lindi. Her specialization in leadership and organizational change helped her identify the strengths of the leaders in the community, and where they needed help. Donations from American friends enabled Osborne to found the Lindi Islamic Foundation of Tanzania (LIFT).

“LIFT’s team is smart: They know about education and food security. What they need is good governance,” Osborne says. “You want a flat organization where people can make their own decisions. To build capacity is to develop thinkers, decision-makers, and problem-solvers.” v

Soon she had to adapt her American boardroom style of organizational leadership and management to the African way of doing business: Everything is done by hand, on paper, and often with a laissez-faire attitude about things like meeting times. “Something that takes 5 minutes in corporate America can take weeks here,” Osborne says. “I had to adapt my style to move the organization toward efficiency.”

With that in mind, she mentors her management board on acquiring computer skills and creating a filing system—and she sends lots of meeting reminders. In return, they teach her about the customs necessary to run successful programs.

A recent women’s health screening required letters to local bureaucrats and free lunches for the participants—steps that would have been unnecessary in the American business culture familiar to Osborne.

Osborne has documented the first five years of this journey in her memoir, The Black Mzungu. Looking forward, she wants to leave a legacy of service based on integrating her leadership and business skills with the talent and drive of the local community. “I need to make something that is sustainable,” she says. “I don’t want this to go away when I die.”


MEET THE AUTHOR : The story of a Black mzungu

When New York native Alexandria Osborne travelled to Tanzania in 2009, she planned to stay for six months. Instead, she met her husband Saidi and moved to his home in a rural village near Lindi.

Alexandria Osborne shares her memoir with a

Alexandria Osborne shares her memoir with a group at A novel Idea in Dar es Salaam. PHOTO I CLARE CLANCY

Clare Clancy

When New York native Alexandria Osborne travelled to Tanzania in 2009, she planned to stay for six months. Instead, she met her husband Saidi and moved to his home in a rural village near Lindi.

Fifty-eight-year-old Osborne, who self-published a memoir about her experiences in Tanzania, talked to Success about the process of writing her first book.

How did you come up with the title for your book ‘The Black Mzungu?’

When I moved to Tanzania, I was feeling very isolated and alone. Where do you fit? Especially being an older Muslim black woman.

I still was an outsider no matter how much I tried. I learned with time that part of it was the language, part of it was the lifestyle and I was still very different. It took a long time for me to understand that. That’s the feeling I had, of wanting to fit in but being an outsider.

What motivated you to write the book?

It is my memoir. It’s hard being far from my family who are in the United States … how will my grandchildren ever know their crazy grandmother?

So that was part of it also. The dedication is to them. I wanted to leave that legacy. It just evolved. I call this a bucket list item. My father, who is 93, always used to say ‘Alexandria when are you going to write your book?’ Now he can’t say that anymore.

You married your husband Saidi within months of moving to Tanzania. But you said the book isn’t a love story. What were your goals in writing the book?

The first goal was to create a legacy for my family, the second was to bridge some gaps.

I wanted people who grew up in the United States and don’t have an opportunity to travel to know what it’s like here. I also wanted to bridge the Muslim world and non-Muslim world … it’s not really about religion, but I wanted to teach people a little bit about Islamic culture.

When you moved to Tanzania, how did your relationship with Saidi evolve?

I was an international staff and he was local and usually the two didn’t mix. I didn’t know the social order. I began to understand that he could not approach me, because it was too risky. He could lose everything, his job. … It had to be me. I basically said ‘I really care about you.’ We got married Dec. 18 and I met him August 14. It kind of felt so right. We were both in our 50s … It was just the right time.

People have said they wanted to hear more about the relationship between me and Saidi.

What was your writing process?

Usually I did it early before breakfast. I had my coffee … I love Tanzanian coffee. I did most of my writing on our big veranda, overlooking the ocean, and it would be so quiet. I’d write from 7 to 10 a.m. It took about six months to put together. I had a lot of things already written. I realised I had a story to tell. I had thought about it, put it down, thought about it, put it down.

It doesn’t come off exactly like a diary format, but it includes everything I had over the years.

For example, I had a lot of stories about wildlife, or about snakes that happened over several years. And that became a chapter.

What were the challenges of writing the book?

The book isn’t chronological. When I wrote the book, I said they are accounts. I had to fill in the blanks to make it smooth … I had to have an editor.

You can imagine how painful it was moving it around and having people slash things that were close to your heart.

I’m sure anyone who is a writer has gone through that process. You have to not feel insulted.

What are the challenges of living rurally?

When we got there, there was no road. There was no access by car. Now there’s a road.

We had a python that strangled our goats. We haven’t had a python in a while, but sometimes you see the tracks. We live in the bush but I still feel safe.

Our water is either what we capture or truck in. We collect rainwater in the rainy season. And finding an Internet connection can be a struggle, most of my work is online.

The Black Mzungu is available at A Novel Idea bookstore in Dar es Salaam, and online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.