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In many ways, Iago Lowe is a typical graduate student. On this late autumn afternoon, he sinks into a chair, clothes and hair slightly disheveled, his dark eyes suggesting he could use a little more sleep. Finals are approaching, and Lowe has a lot to do before heading home to Roanoke, Va., for the holiday break.
But weighing heavily on the mind -- and shoulders -- of this lanky 24-year-old is more than the typical load of papers and exams. Lowe, a 1997 graduate of Dartmouth College, also carries with him the hopes and ambitions of hundreds of people living in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, East Africa.
Since April, Lowe has been traveling to churches and civic groups, sharing the story of Reaching Lazarus, the nonprofit foundation he single-handedly founded after visiting Tanzania for the first time in the summer of 1999. Struck by the great need of the people he met there, Lowe conceived and acted on a series of development projects for the region.
"If I had to do a development project here in the United States, I wouldn't know where to start. But the needs over there are so basic and so essential, it's easy to see what they need," Lowe said.
Nearly two years after he started it, his first project-recording, producing and marketing a two-CD set featuring songs of faith from 20 choirs in northern Tanzania-is in its critical final stages. After spending the better part of a year producing the album, he now faces the task of marketing and selling it. Titled Sasa na Milele (Now and Forever), the set benefits the choirs who contributed to it and the students of the Agape Lutheran Secondary School near Himo, Tanzania, where Lowe's Reaching Lazarus foundation is building and establishing an Internet-based computer center.
"Most kids in the school qualify to continue on to higher education. On average, about 58 to 62 graduate each year. Only 10 or fewer actually can go on," he said. The primary barrier is a lack of information about schools and financial aid. However, Lowe believes bringing the Internet and its resources into the school could be the key that opens the door to college for many of the students.
The CD project exemplifies Lowe's belief that partnership, not charity, should be at the heart of development work. The projects taken on by Reaching Lazarus try to bring people with resources -- financial and otherwise -- into direct contact with those who will benefit from the projects. And, even more important, said Lowe, is that the results of the projects must be sustainable even if the organization is no longer there.
Lowe's work in Tanzania had unlikely beginnings. An experienced videographer, he received a grant to fund a documentary about Chinese street musicians. He set off for China in September 1998 loaded down with video and recording equipment, but abandoned the project when he discovered his interview subjects were being harassed by police.
"They're street people; their lives are already hard enough," he said. "I was very naïve about how China works. If you're going to do a project like this (documentary), you really need to do it through official channels."
Discouraged, Lowe was considering his next step when he received an e-mail from his pastor back in the UnitedStates. The parish was assisting with installation of a grain mill in Tanzania and needed to document the project's progress for donors. Would Lowe go there and videotape the project?
Within days, Lowe was on a plane to Tanzania, where he expected to stay for 10 days. Three months later, he left Africa having not only completed the video project, but having conceived the CD project. In that short time he also managed to secure financial backing for the project, record the music, create jobs for some of Tanzania's poorest people and set the foundation for Reaching Lazarus.
The CD idea came to Lowe spontaneously as he traveled around Tanzania with church officials. Everywhere the group went, choirs from local parishes turned out to greet them with songs. Lowe was touched by the heartfelt faith expressed in their singing and realized that other people might be interested in hearing them as well.
"Even though they didn't have money, they had something to offer that other people would value," Lowe explained. "Their music is a wonderful asset."
Lowe approached church leaders with the idea, volunteering his services to record and produce the compact disc if the church would provide financial support to get the ball rolling. Church officials agreed, and with their financial backing, Lowe began recording the choirs.
As the project took shape, Lowe found more opportunities for the Tanzanians to participate. The Maasai people, an indiginous tribe that has been pushed into the least habitable regions of the country, are among the poorest of Tanzania's people. Lowe saw an opportunity to generate jobs among the Maasai by employing several groups to make decorated crosses to accompany the CDs.
And so, quite by accident, Lowe found himself at the center of a microeconomy. Since the completion of an initial 1,000 crosses, he has received letters from some of the village women who would like to see the project continued. Lowe would like to see that happen as well, but he acknowledges that that possibility depends on how much interest there is in the CD.
In September, Lowe took another Dartmouth alumnus, Andrew Ferrone '98, to Tanzania to begin the actual building of the computer center at Agape. Ferrone, who majored in English and Computer Science, is interested in technology and education.
Although his involvement in development work evolved spontaneously, the experience has prompted Lowe to think more strategically about how best to serve the long-term interests of the Tanzanian people.
"We weren't the first ones to go there and want to do development work. But there was some duplication of efforts and we were all reinventing the wheel," Lowe said. He envisions Reaching Lazarus as an umbrella group to provide coordination and support to the many individual projects going on in the area. Both the board of advisors and the small staff of Reaching Lazarus are volunteers.
The organization takes its name from a parable in the Christian Scriptures about a crippled man named Lazarus, who each day was carried to the home of a rich man in hopes that the wealthy man would help Lazarus.
The invisible character in the story is the person who carried Lazarus to the wealthy man's house every day, thus bringing together two people who otherwise might never have met, Lowe said. The mission of Reaching Lazarus is to similarly function as a bridge between people with resources and those who have need for those resources, facilitating direct partnerships rather than acting as a "middle man" for development projects.
Besides the philosophical underpinnings, working directly with the communities has a practical aspect as well, said Lowe. Graft and bribery are still significant problems in the larger bureaucracies of Tanzania.
Lowe's "big picture" vision for Reaching Lazarus is, paradoxically, to stay small. He fears that if the organization gets too large, resources that could go into development work might instead be invested in sustaining the organization itself. He would like to see the organization branch out to some other areas of the world, like Central America.
However, he acknowledges that "my vision for this organization doesn't necessarily resonate with other people who are involved with it."
Lowe, who is pursuing graduate studies in physics at Dartmouth while also managing Reaching Lazarus over e-mail, would prefer to be back in Tanzania working hands-on with Reaching Lazarus projects. However, for now he understands that promoting the foundation and the CD here in the United States is more important.
"This is the kind of work I could very well end up doing, whether it's through Reaching Lazarus or another group," he said. "It would be great if it works out that I could do this full-time instead of having to do other things to support myself."
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