Africa….what is it about this continent? After I lived and volunteered for two months in South Africa in 2015, I knew it would not be my last visit to this special part of the world. In early 2016, I toured Morocco for a month, and in early 2018 I travelled for two weeks in Egypt. Of course, these two North African countries are not what we envision when we think of Africa, but they are examples of how diverse the continent is.
During a chance conversation last year while I attended a workshop in Paris, I learned about Global Volunteers and the work they are doing in Tanzania. Bingo! Of course! That would be my next destination, and it didn’t hurt that Tanzania is next door to Kenya, a country I have come to love from afar through books.
The bonus to all of this is that Global Volunteers’ efforts in Tanzania are having a real impact in the villages they serve and I wanted in on that. GV assigned me to work in the little village of Mkalanga, which is a short drive from our living quarters in the village of Ipalamwa. If I had to list just two surprising things about this place they would be….it’s colder than you think, and asphalt is not to be taken for granted. This is the second time this year that I have misjudged the chilliness in a foreign country. The difference in Israel was…I went to a store and bought an extra sweater. In Mkalanga, there are no clothing stores. The roads are mostly dirt and rocks, which means long, bone jarring rides. On those rare occasions when we happened onto a paved road, we cheered with excitement.
The things that didn’t surprise me were the kindness of people in the villages, the dedication of the volunteers and local caregivers, and the beauty of the country when viewed through the lens of openness and understanding. The human spirit is an amazing thing. The people in Mkalanga live simply in basic shelter, don’t always have enough to eat, have no running water or disposable income, work with babies strapped to their backs, and walk miles for medical care. And yet, their smiling faces and generosity were evident every day. A mother with three young children offered us a stalk of sugar cane after we labored over installing her hand-washing station. A mother of four who had lost her husband last year had nothing to offer, so she went with us to other homes and helped us dig the holes for the stations…with her one year old snuggled on her back, and a big smile on her face. Everywhere we went, the littlest children, too young for school, followed us. I greet them in Swahili which causes them to erupt in surprised gales of laughter. They are dressed in raggedy clothes, not warm enough for the chilly weather, but they are still joyful, intrigued by us, the strange visitors to their village.
The school age children would run to greet us outside their schools, often serenading us with happy songs in Swahili. They cajoled us into singing American songs, and danced the hokey pokey with us. The village children have no toys, don’t really know what toys are, so these interactions with the strange visitors are a welcome and exciting distraction.
GV employs Tanzanian citizens as part of the Reaching Children’s Potential program. The caregivers, young single women, have bachelors or masters degrees and live in the village. They have left their cities and towns in order to dedicate themselves to the families they serve in these remote villages. Almost everyday I worked with Elkana, who has a Masters in Social Linguistics and hails from the town of Iringa. She was part interpreter, social worker, laborer, and facilitator and I came to admire her for her kindness, work ethic, and intellect. My fellow volunteers would offer the same praise for the other six caregivers with whom they worked. You don’t make progress like GV has in Ipalamwa and Mkalanga without hardworking, dedicated people.
So, what was a day in the life of a volunteer in Mkalanga like? During our first few days in Ipalamwa, we were awakened every morning by the roosters…at 4:30 a.m! Eventually the rooster crows faded to background noise and we slept through them. After coffee and breakfast, the volunteers and our local leader, Winnie, had a brief morning meeting, reviewed our assignments for the day, and headed off to villages and schools. About six of our group of 17 volunteers taught in the local primary and secondary schools. Others conducted workshops for the women participating in the RCP program. And the rest of us spent our days visiting women and children in their homes, getting updates on the children, and installing hand-washing stations. We returned to our living quarters at the end of the day, gathered in a sunny outdoor spot with a cold beer or glass of wine, and shared the stories of our day.
Our evening meeting was followed by dinner at 7 PM. Our dining room serves many purposes: meals, meetings, and classroom for the workshops. None of our buildings are heated, so there would often be a roaring fire in the dining room fireplace at dinner. There is no television of course, nor internet, so we entertained ourselves with getting to know each other, playing games, and an occasional discussion with a local expert on Tanzanian culture. Volunteer housing included comfortable beds, attached bathrooms, running water, and electricity.
On weekends, we went on safari at Ruaha National Park, participated in local church services, visited the city of Iringa, and star gazed at night.
We can look at pictures on the internet or the news, or in books and see an image of a faraway place. But visiting, meeting, helping, learning, living in that faraway place turns the image into an understanding of real people and their very different, but very real lives. Those rocky dirt roads I bristled at on day one looked very different to me later on. What I now saw, as the sun lowered in the African sky, was this hauntingly vivid burnished red road amidst the beautiful banana trees and sunflowers, with the occasional rooster crossing, and a stream of human life walking by – lives that have no need for paved roads.