Twenty years ago, when he was 15 years old, Evans Rubara was orphaned and left to care for two younger brothers in a rural region of Tanzania.
Unable to afford the government-operated secondary school, he studied at home, on his own, while working as a houseboy and a farm laborer to support his brothers. He later joined up with some Baptist missionaries, spending seven years with them in neighboring Kenya.
During that time, Rubara studied journalism, again on his own. He returned to Tanzania, an impoverished country in East Africa, in 2002 and went to work as an investigative reporter. Since then, he’s been beaten and arrested for his efforts to expose the environmental, social and economic exploitation carried out by Western mining companies operating in his native country.
“I was going to become a preacher,” Rubara said in a telephone interview from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital, “but I found my power was more with the pen than in the pulpit.”
Rubara, who will speak at St. Michael’s College on December 10, sees himself as a voice of the marginalized, a journalist who, as he put it, “stands for the truth and the rights of the people.”
In Tanzania, that can be a lonely and treacherous career path.
“There is no security here for journalists,” Rubara said. “The big media houses give us no protection because most media owners are the same people who get money from the government, so they will never dare to take these people to task.”
Rubara’s talk will cap off a 10-day series of events at St. Mike’s on human rights issues and the global AIDS epidemic. Trish Siplon, a political science professor at the college, hopes that Rubara will be able to inspire a campaign in Vermont to help Tanzanians gain a greater share of their country’s mineral wealth.
“Burlington prides itself on having a social conscience,” Siplon said, noting that the mining industry in Africa “is one of the worst embodiments of international corporate capitalism you can think of.”
Rubara has helped expose what Siplon describes as “vicious human-rights abuses and corporate irresponsibility” on the part of mining companies. He has written of forced evictions of Tanzanians from areas coveted by mining interests and real-estate developers, as well as the cyanide poisoning of Lake Victoria by gold mining companies. Rubara and other reporters have likewise laid bare how mining companies avoid paying taxes and customs duties — they fly gold out of the country from private airstrips.
At St. Mike’s, Rubara will also discuss allegations that Canada’s Barrick Gold Corp., the world’s largest gold producer, had a role in a 1996 atrocity in which more than 50 Tanzanian miners were allegedly buried alive after a Barrick subsidiary moved to shut down a mine.
The company has rejected those charges, claiming that the mass burial never happened. In a posting on its website, Barrick says investigations by Tanzanian authorities and the World Bank found no evidence of the alleged killings, which were first reported by Amnesty International.
What’s not in dispute, Rubara said, is that most Tanzanians living near the mines do not profit from the industry, but in fact suffer greatly as a result of their proximity.
The companies do little to improve living conditions for local residents, he said; some women are reduced to selling sex to miners — often acquiring the AIDS virus — to feed themselves and their children. “Near the mines, we have children without education, people dying of AIDS, women being taken advantage of,” he said.
Increasingly fearful for his own safety, Rubara now works with Norwegian Church Aid, a development agency active in Tanzania, while continuing to practice journalism on a freelance basis. He has also founded a group in Tanzania that, for now, is being called Journalists for Human Rights. In addition to acting as an advocate for press freedom and reporters’ safety, the group is training young journalists in the investigative techniques that continue to provoke threats on Rubara’s life.
In Vermont, Rubara will call for the formation of a U.S. network in support of human rights and equitable economic development in Tanzania.
The Obama administration will have an opportunity to help bring about change in Tanzania, which has emerged as one of Washington’s most favored nations in Africa. The United States is supplying the country with a five-year development package worth nearly $700 million.
Among the criteria that must be met by aid recipients is respect for human rights and progress toward economic justice. The goal in Tanzania is to increase household incomes through investments in transportation, energy and water.
Right now, according to the United Nations, about one-third of Tanzania’s 38 million people subsist on less than one dollar a day.