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Citizens are talking, is anybody listening?

Through Twaweza’s work on #MbungeLive, a 30-minute television show aiming at monitoring the promises made by MPs to their citizens and what citizens have to say about the implementation of those promises, I have been lucky enough to travel to different constituencies in Tanzania and see how the MPs are interacting with their voters and vice versa. I was curious: how do citizens communicate with their MPs? Do they feel free to air their views and opinions? Are citizens willing to contribute to development projects? Are citizens and MPs accountable?

The readiness of citizens to contribute to development projects

In Handeni Vijijini constituency, our host was Mboni Mahita. We first met with Mama Masefu Hamza, secretary to the MP. She shares her office with the secretary of the MP for Handeni Mjini. 

We got comfortable in her office as she was introducing us to the people there. “This office gets visitors from different places and from both constituencies; all of them have different challenges that require their MP’s attention”, she told us.

My colleague asked her if their problems get solved. She brushed the question off by saying some problems do not need the MP's attention but for those that do, they can be solved depending on the allocated budget.

We agree to meet the next day in Kabuku one of the wards in Handeni Vijijini. We meet the secretary and embark on our mission to find out whether citizens are ready to contribute to development projects.

"To be honest,” says Hamza, “citizens are now more ready to contribute than ever before. Because now channels for communication are open to every citizen and they can provide feedback and ask for what they think their community’s needs. A lot of development projects have been established by citizens themselves and then later they request support from the MP and government.”

“For instance,” she continues, “in Kabuku citizens came together and started the construction of a classroom and a dispensary and later these projects were continued by the MP.”

Hadija Said, a resident of Kabuku says she has been contributing to a number of  projects in terms of money and time - by helping to fetch water for construction.

But we had a different experience in Mbogwe constituency led by Augustino Masele. Most citizens said they didn’t have time to contribute to these projects when they have families to work for and feed. 

In a conversation with my colleague, Philipo Maghembe said; “I am busy as it is, trying to figure out where my family's next meal is coming from, where can I possibly find time to get involved in these projects that don't help me or my family?”

Communication between citizens and their MP

At Twaweza, we believe that communication between citizens and MPs should be a two-way street: MPs can share what they are doing and learn about their constituents’ problems and ideas.

We were curious to find out how wananchi (citizens) and wabunge (MPs) communicate.

We found out that all the constituencies that we visited had common channels of communication between citizens and MPs. These channels included: phone calls/SMS, letters, and physical visits to the office and public meetings. 

With all these channels, we could expect regular communication to MPs from citizens. But sadly that was not the case. In Mbogwe, some constituents felt their MP was too aloof to talk to them.

Do citizens feel close to their MP?

Having open channels for communication is not a guarantee that citizens will feel close to their MP or feel free to communicate their concerns. 

We asked Magire Magembe if he communicates with his MP. “I don’t even know where his offices are because I don’t have any business with them, I don’t know his number. What can a person like me tell him?” Magembe told us as he was working on his bicycle. He continued, “to be honest I don’t even attend the public meetings, my life is busy as it is”.

In Kaliua constituency, citizens were free to visit their MP’s residence from 6am where she listens to their problems and tries to suggest solutions. 

It was 6:15 am, my colleague and I had just arrived at Honourable Magdalena Sakaya's home. We agreed to meet her again after spending the previous day with her and her team as they visited different wards to hold public meetings. So we had to wait for another 15 minutes as she was attending to her visitor, an old man who was complaining about his farm being sold without his permission. As a solution, she asked a councilor to come over and handed the case to him so he could take care of it and report back in two days.

This was quite impressive, we thought to ourselves. We haven’t experienced this kind of commitment from other MPs whom we had previously visited. We were curious to know if this was her regular routine or a rarer occurrence that just coincided with our visit. This was our first question after she was done attending another visitor, a young man who needed her help with his job placement. He wanted to move from Tabora town where he was a teacher at a primary school to Kaliua so he could attend to his sick mother.  

“My doors are open from 6:00 am and all citizens are welcome to talk to me about their challenges”, Sakaya told us. “You see, I am here to work for my citizens. If they are not satisfied with my work then there is no need for me to be here”.  

We found this inspiring. As a nation, it is important to have leaders who are accountable and committed to the people who employ them.

In almost all the constituencies, citizens’ biggest complaint was not seeing enough of their MPs after the campaigns. They want to hear more from their MPs and ask them questions. They want to ask their MP personally about that school or hospital she promised them in exchange for their votes. They want to ask about that water he promised those 4 years ago – but, in all cases, the MP is nowhere to be found.

As I was at Nyandekwa village in Kahama, I meet Juma Abdallah who was furious about the show that we just screened in his village. He was not satisfied with just the show, he wanted to see his MP there, and he wanted to talk to him.

I do not see the point of this cinema if my MP is not here,” he tells me. He continues, “We want him to be here, we want him to come and talk to us. The last time he was here was last year. How can he represent us if he doesn’t know what we want? How can he solve our challenges if he has no idea what our challenges are?”

What does it all mean?

One of the major roles of MPs is to represent citizens and their concerns to parliament. A Member of Parliament should be a bridge that connects citizens and central government.

There is a need for MPs to balance the time they spend in Dodoma and the time they set aside to connect with citizens that they represent and to pay attention to their needs and concerns while matching the efforts and contributions towards development projects done by the citizens.

For instance, in Kalagho village in Kahama, citizens are complaining about their investment into different projects which are not matched by the MP.

“We have worked so hard to build toilets for our school. At some point, our kids had good toilets but then we had some troubles and those toilets were destroyed. The MP is not here to support us, how can he expect us to be motivated to reconstruct these toilets when we do not see any support from him?” shouted one citizen during the screening.

This is the early stages of Twaweza's work to support a selection of MPs to interact more and better with their constituents. We can see already that the appetite is there on the part of citizens, moving forward we are working to ensure these voices are heard and are part of decision-making. Read about the #MbungeLive pilot and evaluation findings.

Read more: Mbunge Live

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