The Creative Activist

Martin Saning’o Kariongi Ole Sanago

Weeks have gone by, my national exams were nigh, since Mr. Martin Saning’o had passed away from COVID-19. I had a dream. In the dream, Mr. Martin said to me, in Swahili, with rough translation to english as, “Dare to dream big, never give up and always have a spirit big enough to achieve your dreams. Never give up my son and remember I love you!”. I woke up emotional that day but I also had a thought. He has done great works that most don’t know of. I wouldn’t want his works to go unnoticed – I would want people to know of the works that he did and the benefits he has brought to the Maasai community in Terrat, Simanjiro. This is his story.

Martin was born in the early 1960’s in the Simanjiro district of northern Tanzania. This is in the Maasai heartland – the high arid plains south of Arusha. In common with many Maasai of his generation, Martin and his family cannot be sure exactly when he was born. But Martin believed it to be born in 1960 or 1961.


Martin was one among the minute number of Maasai children to have received education at the time. He used his education well. He wanted to give back to society that brought him up, so in the early 1990’s he founded IOPA – Institute for Orkonerei Pastoralists Advancement. Although IOPA’s first priority was to deal with land rights, it also eyed health problems and water supply problems that the Maasai in Terrat faced.

Martin became an activist, and made critical moves to ensure that the Maasai aren’t displaced from their traditional lands – The government had been displacing the Maasai at the time from areas they claimed to be ‘National Park areas’. His moves were seen to be ‘too critical’ to some in high places, and as a result the government initially refused to register IOPA.

As impossible as it may seem, Martin sued the government for displacing the Maasai from their traditional lands. At the time, more than 6000 Maasai had already been displaced by the government form National Parks. IOPA, led by Mr. Martin, filed a number of cases against the government which later on resulted in a landmark ruling by the High Court in IOPA’s favour.

Martin recognized that education was the key to enlighten the Maasai on a number of things: land rights, their own health, their livestock, the ongoing changes in the outside world, and a number of other things. He figured that a community radio would effectively serve this purpose. He took measures to establish a community radio, the first ever in Tanzania. He worked his fingers to the bone – a lot of sleepless nights – and finally the ORS FM first broadcasted news in 2002. The radio was in fact the first ever community radio in Tanzania – or in a larger perspective East Africa. It broadcast news in Kimaasai (the Maasai native language) and also played Maasai music.

After the idea of the community radio, Martin also realised that there was a need for electricity – not only for the radio station but also for the receivers of the information they portrayed. He worked on a number of projects, in association with different international organisations, to bring electricity to the Maasai people.

Martin also worked to help women facing different challenges, most especially those in the maasai areas – they were more prone to treacherous practices – such beatings from husbands, mutilation and harassment. IOPA created a safe haven where beaten women would go to and tell their stories. It also tried to prevent female genital mutilation, FGM, child marriage, and women oppression. IOPA dedicated some of its resources to educate women and raise the status of women in the Maasai society. IOPA also sought to help women economically. IOPA established dairies in Simanjiro with a long-sighted view of enabling women to sell milk and get money, they used to acquire their needs and the needs of their families. In the maasai culture, the only resource that belongs to women is milk.

Martin had broad and liberal outlook in his work, which touched each and almost every age group and social class by the time. For children, IOPA helped establish more than 50 pre-primary and primary schools across the region.

Martin’s work didn’t go unnoticed – he was elected an Ashoka fellow in 2003 and got the attention of a Dutch philanthropist, Dini de Rijcke, and began to work with her through her foundation, Strichting Het Groene Woudt (SHGW). Through working with Ashoka and SHGW, IOPA achieved many of its objectives. The Dutch foundation provided IOPA with 5 dairy plants and generators to power them across the region, and each dairy could process up to 2000 litres of milk into yoghurt, cheese, ghee and butter per day. These products were sold throughout the country. In cooperation with these organizations, IOPA was also able to work on a number of water supply projects, that bore fruits as the people in the dry Maasai lands got water with much more ease than before.

The women’s refuge centre was expanded to also be guest houses that could accommodate visitors to the area. IOPA also added additional generators to build one of the first mini-grids in the country to supply more than 1000 people in Terrat village with electricity, since the government had considered it too expensive to connect Terrat to the national electricity grid.

                        The IOPA centre in Terrat with guest house, community hall and dairy

Martin was bestowed various awards for his great work such as Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2014 by the Schwab Foundation and World Economic Forum Africa, the Ford Global Community Leadership Award, and Dubai Global Innovator Award.

Martin suggested that IOPA had to try and create viable micro businesses, so that even after funders ended their collaborations, IOPA would still be able to run its activities and thrive. As of today, IOPA’s remaining running projects include ORS FM radio, a few dairy plants, the conference centre, the water business, the guest house, and education and health support project in Terrat.

In 2019, IOPA was changed to Orkonerei Maasai Social Initiatives (OMASI) – an NGO – because of government laws and regulations, and by the end of 2020 Mr. Martin had achieved most of his goals and dreams.

On March 1st, 2021, Martin passed away. I can say that he hasn’t truly died because his works still live on – he lives through his works. He has left a legacy and very big shoes to fill. This story of Martin is supposed to be a motivation to anyone with big dreams, anyone who is fighting against all odds to achieve their dreams. I hope I have done his story justice.

If you will it, it is no dream; and if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay

                                                                                    – Thomas Herzl –

Martin Saning’o Kariongi Ole Sanago


By Daniela Bajan – Art in Tanzania internship

As is well known, gender is a constructed concept. In sociology, there is a distinction between sex and gender. Sex are the biological characteristics that societies use to assign people into the category of either male or female. On the other hand, we have gender, which is an understanding of how society shapes our perception of those biological categories. More specifically, it is a concept that describes how societies determine and manage sex categories; the cultural meanings attached to men and women’s roles; and how individuals understand their identities including, but not limited to, being a man, woman, transgender, intersex, gender queer and other gender positions. Gender involves social norms, attitudes and activities that society deems more appropriate for one sex over another. Gender is also determined by what an individual feels and does.

Weaker characteristics are usually attributed to women, they are perceived as individuals who work in the private sphere, that is at home. 

Below you will read a short list of some great Tanzanian women. With their commitment they have motivated, changed and encouraged the citizens of Tanzania. Their hard working is well connected with one of the seventeen goals of the United Nations: gender equality. Achieving gender equality and empower all women is necessary for a sustainable and peaceful world. 

REBECA Z. GYUMI “I call everyone to lend their voice, to win this fight”

She is the Founder and Executive Director at Msichana Initiative. This is a Tanzanian NGO which aims to empower girls through education. She is a lawyer and she won a case on child marriages, in July 2016 the country’s High Court ruled that the Marriage Act, which allowed girls as young as 14 to be married, was unconstitutional. The decision raised the minimum age of marriage to 18 for both girls and boys. 

She’s a brave woman and she has visited different parts of Tanzania in order to discuss current issues such as sexual and reproductive health. Rebeca is recognized international for her engagement in youth and girls’ rights. 

GERTRUDE MONGELLA “It is not enough just to open the door to the rooms of power. We have to get inside and rearrange the furniture!”

She is the Special Advisor to the ECA Executive Secretary and to the UNESCO Director General; Founder, Advocacy for Women in Africa (AWA); Former president of the Pan-African Parliament. 

In 1993 she became a diplomat to the UN and led the fourth World Conference on Women (1993-1995).

She is a feminist and she supported Palestinian women to gain power in political processes. Recently she became Tanzania’s Goodwill Ambassador to the World Health Organization and a member of the AU’s African Women’s Committee for Peace and Development. 

FARAJA NYALANDU “we have all heard what we are capable of. Now, we just need to own the accolades”

In 2013 she established Shule Direct, an organisation providing comprehensive web and mobile educational platforms offering learning content to over 1 million in and out of school youth. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Education, Gender and Work. Faraja has been awarded a 2017 System Innovator award by Segal Family Foundation for systemic change in digital learning in Secondary School education in Tanzania and Woman in Tech award by the Tanzania Women of Achievement Awards 2018  

HELEN KIJO-BISIMBA “remember today’s children are the leaders of tomorrow”

is a Human Rights activist in Tanzania, and she was the Executive Director of the country’s Legal and Human Rights Centre, which is a civic body that ensures every Tanzanian individual’s human rights are protected and respected rom all sorts of abuses. She fought for the rights of local marginalized people, men and women both young and old. 

She was the first Tanzanian woman to receive the Tanzania Woman of Courage Award which was issued by the American Embassy in Tanzania in 2008. In fact, in 2001 she put up a statement against the government. 


She is a politician and she has been Minister of Health, Community Development, Gender, Seniors and Children in the Cabinet of Tanzania. She has a bachelor’s degree in Laws, and she received also her Master of Laws degree from the University of Pretoria. She has worked in different NGO agencies in legal, research and governance roles. 


She is known for her online campaign “Change Tanzania”. Change Tanzania started as a hashtag on Twitter to influence Tanzanian people to participate in bringing positive change in different aspect of life. She is an activist and she has a degree in Humanities, she has participated in the making of films such as Am Tired (2005) and Born on Fire (2008). Through the use of media, she promotes education to young women, and against discrimination toward women. 


She launched the Doris Mollel Foundation with the main goal of reducing death rates for premature babies. Her Foundation concentrates on raising awareness for premature babies, furnishing hospitals with equipment to ensure their survival while in hospital. 


She is a politician and she became Tanzania’s first female Vice-President. She served as the Member of Parliament for Makunduchi constituency from 2010 tu 2015 and has been Minister of State in the Vice-President’s Office for Union Affairs since 2010- 


She is a pure philanthropist for social change. The Flaviana Matata Foundation empowers young, orphaned girls in Tanzania through education, training and microfinance projects to improve their lives. 


She founded Selfina where she was a pioneer of micro-credit in Tanzania through micro-leasing with particular attention to widows and young girls. This foundation empowers women to become more independent and support their livelihoods.