The Power of One Immigrant

How Alex Haimanis Brought Water to Tanzanians and Hospitality to Harry’s Plaza Café

S.B.’s Alex Haimanis founded Mission Tanzania to bring water to drought-stricken villagers.
Courtesy Photo

After enduring six years of severe drought in Santa Barbara, we are acutely aware of the importance of abundant, affordable clean water for our homes, schools, farms, and businesses. Imagine spending half your day, every day, walking to the nearest water source — unfiltered and unclean — filling your canisters, and lugging it back to your home. This is the reality for most villagers around Bukoba, a semi-arid region in northwest Tanzania.

For the last 8 years, Alex Haimanis, a Greek-American naturalized citizen, has been leading Mission Tanzania, drilling new water wells in 16 villages around Bukoba. Now 35,000 people have easier access to reliably clean well water. With two trucks, a drilling rig, and a hoist purchased entirely from donated funds, the local crew expects to drill 15 new wells in 2017 at a cost of only $5,000 per well. This is far cheaper than many well-drilling operations run by NGOs using leased equipment.

Mission Tanzania was formed in 2009 by volunteers of Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church to improve basic services for the villagers. The first project was a medical mission to Bukoba. In 2010, collaborating with St. Paul Greek Orthodox Church of Irvine, Haimanis and the committee organized and accompanied a team of volunteer doctors and nurses who treated 850 villagers during a two-week clinic. Haimanis returned in 2012 with a second medical team along with $40,000 in donated medications for the newly opened Ufufuo Health Center. This time, the team treated more than 500 patients and created a computerized patient database.

“During our second medical mission to Tanzania, I saw a child fill her empty plastic bottle from a muddy roadside puddle and, without hesitating, put it to her lips and drink it. That was the moment that shocked me into action,” said Haimanis.

There are more than 200 villages in Bukoba, most of which do not have access to clean water and safe sanitation. The villagers rely on rainfall to collect untreated water from drainage ditches, creeks, and roadside puddles, creating a health crisis and requiring women and children to spend hours each day fetching water rather than attending to family, work, or school.

Haimanis, at 81 years old, knows about growing up in a village. He was born in Stromi, Greece, in 1936. When he was a small child, the Germans bombed his village. The villagers fled to the caves in the mountains and subsisted on what little food they could carry and the local wild greens. Haimanis and his village endured the oppression of the German occupation and survived the civil war that followed. When he was 12, Haimanis was sent away to continue his education. He joined the Greek navy in 1956 and learned how to be a radioman and code breaker.

After the navy, he worked for Greece’s national intelligence service. It was during this time that a cousin invited Haimanis to visit him in America. With evidence of money in a bank account and a relative willing to provide shelter, a Greek could travel to the U.S. for an extended stay. Haimanis worked at whatever job was available — washing dishes, sweeping floors. A job in Reno led to a job in Santa Barbara, and eventually Haimanis found himself as the “go-to” guy for Harry Davis who had just opened Harry’s Plaza Café at Loreto Plaza. Davis was impressed by this hardworking Greek kid and entrusted him with more responsibilities. Haimanis quickly rose to bartender and then bar manager.

For an immigrant with no money but lots of ambition, Haimanis had a path that was seemingly set to advance his career. But he recognized that he achieved success in America because a few people gave him the chance. So he chose to channel his ambitions to help others in need. As an active member of Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, Haimanis gave time and money to the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) to support its work overseas building orphanages, schools, and clinics.

In 1989, Haimanis hit upon the idea of raising money for OCMC with a canister collection program at store checkout counters. In collaboration with the priest at Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, Haimanis launched the Agape Canister Program. At a time when most transactions were still paid with cash and coins, the canister fundraising took off. Pennies, nickels, and dimes from people of all ages and faiths went toward helping the needy around the globe. Over the last 27 years, the Agape Canister Program has collected more than $2 million in donations.

Haimanis retired in 2001 after 35 years managing the bar at Harry’s, but his work in service to others continues. Now in his ninth decade, Haimanis pursues his dream that all 200 villages in Bukoba would have access to fresh, clean water. “We don’t just drill wells and let the villagers figure out how to manage the water,” stated Haimanis. “We train representatives from each village on good sanitation and hygiene practices so they in turn can teach these practices in their communities.”

At his fourth annual Wine for Water charity event on May 20, Haimanis raised $20,000, enough for four more water wells with the help of Lafond, Santa Barbara, Demetria, and Andrew Murray wineries.


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