Tanzanian ambassador thanks family for aid
By CORIN HIRSCH, Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009 8:37 PM
WINDSOR — The Tanzanian Ambassador, Ombeni Y. Sefue, and his wife, Anita Sefue, traveled to Vermont for the first time this weekend to honor the work of two people who have worked for almost 30 years to improve public health in their country.
The newly-minted Windsor Freedom Award was presented to Dr. Irving and Elvira Williams at Juniper Hill Inn Saturday night by co-owner Robert Dean, and Gov. Jim Douglas was also on hand to celebrate the Williams and their organization AHEAD — Adventures in Health, Education, and Agricultural Development — which works to improve public health in Tanzania and Gambia.
“We’re very pleased to be recognized by the people of the state of Vermont, and to realize there are so many that care in this area — it’s a real blessing,” said Mrs. Williams.
But there was a part two: the convergence of dignitaries, physicians, educators and scientists on the inn’s bucolic patio was also in honor of a Windsor company, Seldon Technologies, that has worked for years on a water filtration system for use in developing countries. Three of their systems, called the “Waterbox,” will be donated to AHEAD to begin using in Tanzania later this year.
Juniper Hill co-owner Robert Dean presented the award to the Williams’ while a host of state and town representatives simultaneously acknowledged Seldon’s work. Dean said he conceived of the Windsor Freedom Award because “Vermont has had so many firsts,” not the least of which was abolishing slavery in its 1777 constitution, signed in Windsor.
“Vermonters have an ethic of helping people, and this award is consistent with the values, traditions and history of the people of our state,” said Douglas.
The Williams’ live in Rockville, Md., but spend half of their time in Tanzania. They first visited the country in 1974 after Irving’s serendipitous visit to the Tanzanian embassy in Washington, D.C.
“I suspect had I gone to another embassy, we might not be here today. Tanzanians have a sense of country and nationality that is unique.”
In 1981, the Williams founded AHEAD to try and improve public health in the country.
“One of the things we saw there were that so many children were dying from preventable diseases, like whooping cough, measles and diarrhea,” said Dr. Williams. His wife is an educator, and they combined their experience to address multiple aspects of health and disease in the country. “Good health requires good nutrition. Good nutrition requires good agriculture. And education is a powerful change agent.”
Over the past quarter century, the volunteers of AHEAD have made significant inroads in public health. Among the Williams’ many accomplishments, through AHEAD they have been able to raise immunization coverage among children — from 28 percent to 98 percent in one Tanzanian district — as well as expand family planning, reduce malnutrition, construct six health care centers, and provide school scholarships to more than 500 young people.
Ambassador Sefue said that lack of access to clean water remains one of the most pressing public health issues in Tanzania, and he was impressed by his tour of Seldon on Saturday morning. “One of the leading causes of death among children under 5 is intestinal problems. This technology is extremely important to us.”
Seldon Technologies sprung from the research of a Dartmouth physics post-doctoral student, Chris Cooper. “It was kind of a middle of the night idea,” he said of water filtration based on nanotechnology. “My aim was to start a nanotech company that would fundamentally address some human need — and one of the most fundamental human needs is clean water.”
Cooper conceived of using carbon nanotubes to remove bacteria, viruses and other contaminants from ground water. The carbon nanotube is particularly strong, he said, and can handle a high flow of water. The technology was so compelling that Alan Cummings, a business executive, joined Cooper in cofounding Seldon in 2003.
In 2004, the town of Windsor offered the new company $100,000 from their revolving loan fund to build their first lab in the town, and Seldon has been there ever since. A series of military and government contracts ensued, including a contract with NASA to filter lunar dust from the air. All the while, they have been improving and refining their filtration systems.
Douglas said he first learned of Seldon Technologies five years ago as the town of Windsor was luring the company to their town with development grants. He found their work “an intriguing technology. They made products that will improve the lives of people both in this country and beyond.”
The newest of Seldon’s water filtration products is a compact, lightweight filtration pack — and Cooper would like to keep working towards even smaller, even more portable water filtration solutions. His hope is that “one day every village in the developing world will have clean water.”
Robert Dean moved to Windsor three years ago to run the inn with his partner, Ari Nikki, and subsequently found out about Seldon. He was also friends with Dr. Donna Williams, the Williams’ daughter, and eventually connected the dots — Seldon’s technology would be a perfect fit for AHEAD’s work. AHEAD had engaged in several water-based efforts, including building a 50,000-gallon water catchment system for a rural health center and pasteurizing water to fight diarrheal disease.
In introducing her parents, their daughter recounted that first trip that the family took to Tanzania in 1974. “I had no idea of the impact that Tanzania would eventually have on my life. It’s amazing how much they do with so little. They have touched the lives of millions of people, and one of the most important things they taught me was that we are a global community and we have a responsibility to each other,” Donna said.
In accepting the award, Irving joked that the second Seldon headquarters would soon be in Dar-es-Salaam, though the company did not know it yet. He also urged those attending to work toward reducing maternal and newborn mortality rates in the developing world, which remain exponentially higher than rates in countries such as the U.S. and Japan.
Resting humbly on a stone wall throughout the reception was a roughly three-by-four foot “Waterbox,” one of the three 54-pound systems that Seldon will donate to AHEAD. Nearby were before-and-after pictures of its filtering prowess: a cup of yellowish-brown water (before), and another of nearly-clear water (after).
The Waterbox should be in Tanzania within a few months.