Giraffe in the homeland! 8 weeks as an overseas volunteer in Tanzania – Part 1/2

“Jambo, jambo bwana, habari gani, mzuri sana, wageni mwakaribishwa, Tanzania yetu Hakuna Matata….”

Who knew that Hakuna Matata actually meant “no worries!” Well in kiswahili, it sure does. In fact many a Lion King reference turned out to be surprisingly accurate including the monkey named Rafiki (meaning “friend”) and Simba (meaning “Lion”) etc. This cheerful song, welcoming visitors to Tanzania, was originally written for  Kenya but was soon adopted by the Tanzanian people with slight alteration. More importantly, these were the words that welcomed me to the country I would call home for 3 months in the summer of 2005.

For those of you unfamiliar with Africa’s eastern coast, Tanzania is nestled between Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, and is located just a short distance away from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a stunningly beautiful country, home to the Serengeti National Parkthe Ngorongoro Crater,  elephants, giraffes, lions, gazelle – and much much more, including the rare black rhino, if you’re lucky enough to witness one trot across towards the waterhole.

So. How did I end up living and working in Tanzania?

In the heat of the moment, during my third year of university, I decided to apply for an internship with Youth Challenge International as an HIV/AIDS awareness officer stationed in Mvumi, Tanzania. I had just switched my major to Development Studies and I was rearing for an opportunity to volunteer overseas. Nowadays, these opportunities are abundant, but back then people were just starting to flirt with the notion of skipping overseas to lend a hand. My parents, bless them, were very supportive of the idea – not that they had much say in the matter. I sort of just showed up one day and informed them that I had been accepted on an internship in Tanzania. Thankfully they didn’t laugh in my face and threaten to cut me off completely. Instead they helped me brainstorm ways to fund-raise (over $3500) and sent me on my way!

Getting accustomed to the customs

A hop over Frankfurt, we pulled into Dubai. Funny story: during the 4 hours we had in the U.A.E before boarding our second flight en route to Tanzania with Air Emirates, we decided to venture into the city  to explore the souks, suffering a grueling taxi ride in 40 degree weather (Celsius). During our discovery of the markets, one of the volunteers realized she had left her passport in the cab! Thankfully, a very friendly cab driver got on the radio, spoke with his brother’s friend’s nephew’s neighbour (or something of a similar train) and against unimaginable odds (the road was literally a sea of taxis), she got her passport back and the adventure continued.

After one final jump across the Indian Ocean (or down it, I should say) and we had touch down in Dar Es Salaam. The heat was welcoming as we made our way from the airport to the Red Cross Hostel where we were to undergo a few days of orientation and get over any incurring culture shock. That, I didn’t experience until I stepped foot back home three months later. During orientation, we learned some basic kiswahili (I had already been studying swahili for months beforehand out of sheer excitement) and cultural etiquette familiar to the Tanzanian people. One of the most important things we learned during orientation: shake with the right hand. Never – ever – ever – shake with the left. Trust me on this one.

During orientation, we also met Marko (Makoti), who would be a conduit for the group heading towards Mvumi where they would pair up with a local organization to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. Marko was living (and continues to live) with HIV/AIDS and soon became one of the most incredible and inspiring people I have ever met. Marko’s only flaw was that he was an avid Chelsea FC supporter. As a loyal Liverpool plan, I had a tough time letting that one slide, but eventually we agreed to disagre

marko and meFortunately for me, I had the pleasure of joining Marko alongside three other volunteers destined for Mvumi, and off we went, boarding the 8 hour bus inland to our new home.

Now, I have to pause here to explain a quick thing or two about the bus system in Tanzania. On the one hand, these buses were very colourfully decorated and often blaring playful beats as we trotted into Dodoma (2 hours from Mvumi) for supplies on the weekend.

On the other hand, they were rickety old buses that were jam packed with passengers standing, sitting, bending, contorting and reaching for anything they can hold on to while wobbling down a dirt paved road wide enough for one land rover… maybe… if that. The best part though was that if you didn’t line up early to get the tickets with assigned seating, you got to join the crowded aisle where I fondly recall my feet at one point leaving the ground completely as I got swept up in the swarm of people forming something akin to a traveling can of sardines. If you were lucky enough to buy an early ticket, chances are good that you would end up with a small child on your lap, lest they get lost completely in the mixture of arms and legs sticking out from either end. These unexpected incidents led to some very valuable (and free) swahili lessons courtesy of the unbeknownst 5 year old seated on my lap. It also provided me with quite the audience when I stuck my feet under my chair and felt feathers where there should have been floor. I then heard the clucking, jumped up in shock and then of course proceeded to laugh uncontrollably as I realized that there was a chicken stuffed somewhere under my seat. The bus to Dodoma was always an adventure. As were the trips themselves! While most weekends were made up of buying supplies for workshops and the like, we also took the opportunity to purchase items that couldn’t be found in Mvumi (milk that could be stored in warm places, cereal boxes, cadbury chocolate bars etc – we stopped buying these after a while, they never really tasted quite the same) and grab a dinner at a restaurant in town.

My most memorable weekend in Dodoma can be epitomized in one word: “Quesadilla”. Tragic mistake on my part. After spending weeks in the village, we decided to eat at one of the hotels in town and I, stupidly, ordered Chicken Quesadillas. I now look back at the two days following that I spent bent over a toilet… or on top of it… and I think, why on earth, in a country where eating chicken is rare enough, would I ever think to order a Quesadilla? I had never had so much as a stomach ache after eating the food prepared in Mvumi, and after enduring a tormenting drive back to the village (I could barely stand up, let alone sit on a bus for 3 hours) I vowed never again to act like a stupid tourist.  When traveling to any foreign land, always choose the local cuisine. Lesson learnt.

Mvumi: Karibu Sana!

Back to Mvumi, a small village where we (Marko, myself and the other volunteers) were to carry on on phase 2 of a project financed by CIDA, designed to spread HIV/AIDS awareness to inhabitants in the region. Sadly, in Mvumi 1 out of 7 people were HIV positive, yet false remedies and stigmas continued to dismantle the campaign for awareness inside and beyond the borders of the village.

We were also to  complete the building of a Community Youth Center and ran income generating workshops, teaching men and women how to make clothes from relatively inexpensive material which they could then sell themselves. The Youth Center was going to be a place for young people to gather where they could read, play games and keep their minds off the dangerous temptations that face kids in any country who have too much time on their hands.

income generatingYouth Centre

Despite the problem with HIV/AIDS and the obvious poverty that existed within the village, it seemed as if people were always passing through. With a number of guesthouses, kiosks (selling drinks, biscuits, batteries, and other odds and ends), a market (fruits and veggies), a number of churches (most of Tanzania is Christian except for Zanzibar which is heavily Muslim, and Dar Es Salaam where you will also find a small Hindu and Buddhist population), Mvumi was a great place to rest up before continuing the journey onwards to Dodoma or Dar es Salaam.

Known for it’s reputable eye clinic and midwifery training facility, the village also attracted a number of patients and young women from around the country who came to gain valuables skills and qualifications before returning to act as midwives or nurses in their home town or neighbouring country.

market mvumiIn terms of health and education, Mvumi had a one working hospital and a number of primary and elementary schools spotted throughout the village. Primary education was free but students had to purchase uniforms and books or they would not be allowed to attend. During my stay in Mvumi, I met friends with a young boy who would come and hang out just to pass the time. We would play soccer in the yard or draw inside while we worked in the background. Near the end of my stay, I asked him why he wasn’t studying and I discovered that he had outgrown his uniform and could not afford a new one. So, for a ridiculously small amount of money, I bought this beautiful boy a new uniform and books for the upcoming school year. For that, he had access to “free” education for the next year at least. Making a difference was that easy, so why is it so hard on a larger scale?


While primary education was free, secondary education was another matter. The village (to my knowledge) had only one high school which was run by an English expat with a strict “English Only” policy on-site. The headmaster was, at the time, in dealings with Chinese Engineers to provide a world class well in order to supply fresh water to those lucky enough to enroll. It was very strange for me to see so much greenery decorating the high school, (which lay beyond a gated entrance) while the rest of the village was suffering under a dry layer of dust. As I stepped passed his mini-greenhouse, I seriously questioned the agency that was funding this project. What a can of worms that was.

Peer Education: the Unsustainable Cycle of Sustainable Development

Our project in Mvumi consisted primarily of evaluating a peer education system set up by the previous group of volunteers. Peer education promotes the idea that if you educate one group of individuals, they can then go on to educate others who can educate others and so on. Good in theory but problematic when done wrong. Unfortunately, as we were advised by a number of representatives from villages around Mvumi during our visits, this approach is highly unsustainable without a replenishment of resources. As it turns out, the first group of volunteers had provided representatives from each village with material promoting HIV/AIDS awareness alongside condoms, soccer balls, skipping ropes and other props that could be used to engage an audience open to hearing the truths about HIV/AIDS but had failed to secure a contact who could replenish resources upon request. As a result, most groups had ceased all activity and were no longer holding regular meetings or engaging the public in any type of awareness campaign.

So, in an effort to reboot the project, we held a full-day workshop with all groups to brainstorm activities to promote awareness that did not require material objects. It’s important to note here that in Tanzania, the most useful ways to reach people is through performance (song, dance, or drama), especially since many people living in Tanzania are unable to read or write and cannot take time out of their day, or will be stigmatized, if they attend specific seminars/workshops on HIV/AIDS.

workshop peer education (2)

All in all, it was a great day, but I was heavily disappointed to hear that such an initial effort had resulted in such little impact. Did those volunteers know that their project had fallen through? Was I going to make a difference to anyone, at all? 

My frustration came to a tilt when, one day, we attended an awareness session being hosted by a neighbouring village in the hopes of seeing the positive impact that we, and other volunteers were having in the region. During the first half of the performance, we witnessed some really moving skits, illustrating the impacts of HIV/AIDS on oneself and family members and promoting safe sex and a responsible lifestyle. However, we then listened to a group of elderly women sing about how God punishes sinners by infecting them with AIDS! This was not the message we had been promoting and were devastated to see such falsehoods being conveyed. The only result this would have was driving people straight back into their homes without being tested or receiving proper treatment once identified. Two steps forward and ten steps back.

Looking back on that actual work we did in the village, I see many positives but a whole whack of negatives. Development projects, if planned badly, can be much more damaging within a community. At this point in our careers,  we knew nothing about baseline assessments, evaluations or approaches to sustainable development. While YCI prepared us for the cultural experiences we were to encounter, we were never prepared for the inns and outs of running a program that  could have a real impact on real people’s lives. Nowadays the concept of “voluntourism” is being debated among academics, development advocates and western NGOs, as is the argument over who truly benefits from the work of volunteers being sent overseas.

A commitment to living: beautiful people in a struggle to survive

Despite the frustrations we felt with the sustainability of the project, their were incredibly positive efforts being forwarded consistently by many people we worked with throughout our time in Mvumi. Young men and women especially, many of who were part of the drama group Africa Alive that carried on continual campaigns for AIDS awareness, dedicated hours working towards the betterment of the community and release from strongholds of HIV. Everyone had at least one relative or friend who had been affected by AIDS, something that myself, and none of the other volunteers could really relate to, no matter how hard we tried.


The people we encountered in Mvumi on a daily basis were an inspiration to all of us. Teenagers our age were responsible for the income of an entire family and often had to venture into Dodoma to find work in order to provide for siblings and relatives. The concept of family in Mvumi went far beyond blood relations and everyone looked out for one another and went the extra mile to lend a hand whenever possible. We were greatly humbled by the generosity of the Tanzanian people as well as the kindness and sincerity shown by everyone we met, including and often more so by those who had no means by which to afford it.

People from the village often invited us to share in a meal of beans, rice, ugali, and meat and we took pleasure in discussing the state of affairs within and outside the village. We learned a lot about Tanzania and the efforts to unite a country that is home to multiple tribes through the creation of a common language, kiswahili. Every tribe also has their own language. In Mvumi, the language was Kigogo, but no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t get our mouth to pronounce the words correctly. I finally learned how to say “hello” in Kigogo when I discovered that that was the only way I could get a reply from one of the older women in town.

On one occasion, we paid a visit to our friend’s mother living in a mud hut on the opposite side of the village who had so little but quickly offered us some peanuts from her garden. She later approached with hand-made gifts for each of our mother’s back home, a dried papaya shell with a rope tied into one end to hang on the door of our houses.

On another occasion, when we visited one of the village leaders whose children came forth and sang the national anthem of Tanzania, bringing tears to my eyes. We had so many encounters of this nature, it’s hard to relive them all in one go.

papaya shellOn another very special occasion, we were treated to a BBQ by a prominent Doctor in town. The BBQ which was held in the middle of the village, consisted of a goat carcass which was laid on the doctor’s truck next to a small pile of salt. Pieces of meat were sliced off and distributed and you could season your piece accordingly. What you don’t see every day in Canada is barbecued organs being served to you in a brown paper bag. Try saying no to barbecued intestine when children are staring are you in the hopes that you will drop a bone, let alone a stray piece of meat. I don’t think so. Hold your breath and down the hatchet!

singing children

It was really hard for me to understand why such incredible people had to survive with so little and why we, 3 months later, would fly back home to a world of seemingly endless opportunities. This realization really hit me months later at Christmas dinner when I broke down in tears seeing the feast of Turkey, garnish, vegetables and dessert spread across the living room table.

4 thoughts on “Giraffe in the homeland! 8 weeks as an overseas volunteer in Tanzania – Part 1/2

Leave a Reply