Kevin Wong - Human Rights in Tanzania
Gap year planning
Taking a gap year was never on my list of priorities when I left school at 18. I figured I would go straight from A-levels to university and then law school before getting a job. In 2007, at 17, this sounded like a great idea. Fast-forward to March 2011 and things changed. I didn't get that job offer I wanted, the recession was here to stay and my personality and life goals changed too. So I decided to take a gap year in between finishing university and starting at law school.
I immediately knew that I wanted to volunteer abroad. I've always loved traveling and seeing new places but I have always done it with friends and family. I wanted to do something on my own this time and volunteering in another country for three months appealed to me more than backpacking. I wanted to be able to really live in another culture, stay with a host family and build up a solid group of friends rather than stay in hostels and constantly be on the move.
I looked at many different organisations and projects before I made my decision to go with Projects Abroad. Projects Abroad just seemed to fulfil all my criteria that I was looking for. I wanted a reputable company with a solid support system and who would be able to place me in East Africa. I had always known that I wanted to volunteer in this part of the world because my parents grew up in Kenya and can speak some Swahili. However, I chose Tanzania over Kenya because there were both teaching and human rights projects on offer.
Arrival to Tanzania
After 3 months of preparation, the day came when I finally stepped off the plane into the Tanzanian midday heat. The feeling as you exit the plane into a foreign country for the first time, knowing that this was what you had been working so hard for, was incredible. The first few days flashed by in a blur and it was in this first week that I knew that I had made a great choice choosing Projects Abroad.
I was greeted at the airport and taken to my host family where they had already prepared some fresh juice and some lunch (fries to my surprise!), before being given an introductory tour of the town. As I had arrived on a Friday, I wasn't given my induction to the school until Monday. I wasn't left alone over the weekend though as I was invited to join some of the staff to watch soccer on the Saturday, which I thought was a nice touch to make me feel welcome as a Projects Abroad volunteer.
My teaching placement
For the first month, I taught at Gohechi Pre and Primary School, nestled in a small village ten minutes west of Arusha in the shadow of Mt. Meru. On a clear morning, the view of Tanzania's second highest peak as you walked up towards the school was breathtaking. The school itself consisted of classes ranging from baby class to class 3, the oldest children being 9 or 10 years old. I attached myself to class 3, primarily because I had wanted to teach children of that age but also because they only had the single teacher while most others had assistants.
Right from the go, the children were amazing. They were always happy to see you and would always want to hold your hand or sit with you at break times. It was an extremely daunting experience, standing up at the front of the class getting ready to take your first lesson. At first, the children just sat there quietly, waiting to see what sort of teacher I would be as there had been previous volunteers. Soon enough though, each individual personality began to shine through, from the bright, but shy, little girl with ambitions to be a pilot to the loud-mouthed classroom joker.
I was given a lot of freedom to teach whatever subjects I wanted and not just the fundamental subjects like math or English either, but history, civics, and PDS (personality, development and sport). I even introduced spelling tests to help improve their spelling of common words from their textbooks. Working with the children everyday was a dream, although it was not without its own challenges. A typical day of 7:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. would usually leave me tired, heading home to relax with some music and a good book. I was really grateful that I was able to work alongside another volunteer as well. It made made the transition from Western to African teaching and learning styles much easier.
The hardest part of the teaching project was having to leave. Having become so close to the children in the past month, telling them that I would not be back to teach after Easter was heartbreaking but luckily for me I was only moving to another project and not leaving Tanzania completely.
Experience at the Human Rights Project
After the teaching project, I moved onto the human rights project. The human rights project is a brand new project in Tanzania so there was not going to be the same sort of structured approach that the teaching project had. In order to succeed in this project, I needed to take the initiative and be pro-active with the rest of the human rights volunteers. We worked with an NGO called Healthy Integrated Multi-sectoral Services (HIMS) and they have a wide range of projects we could be involved in. For the first three weeks, we participated in many of their different projects, taking time to visit the different site in which they worked. However, after this we decided to focus on HIMS's project targeting the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Maasai communities.
As this was the beginning of a brand new venture for HIMS, there was a lot of research involved so that we could create a blueprint for future Human Rights volunteers to be able to follow. We needed to identify the causes of the issues, what was already being done to combat them, and who we would need to reach out to in order for the project to be a success. During the month and a half that I was on this part of the project, we visited a group of women who had resisted pressure to be circumcised and were now educating young women about the dangers of FGM. We were also extremely privileged to be able to visit a Maasai village in a fairly remote area about and hour and a half outside Arusha, where we were able to hold a meeting with the leaders of the village to discuss their attitudes towards FGM.
On top of this, we were also able to visit a high school so we could talk to teenage Maasai girls about their views on the issues, finding out whether they would challenge their peers and community when it became their turn to be circumcised. Sometimes the stories were harrowing and each of the people involved had their own story to tell. It was an eye-opening experience and one that I will never forget.
Staying with my host family
A key part of any stay abroad is staying with a host family. It was one of the key reasons that made me choose Projects Abroad. I really wanted to be able to eat local food and stay with a local family with different customs from my own back in the UK. The family I stayed with for my three months in Tanzania were simply amazing. My host father, Moses, was a safari guide and my host mother, Benedeta, stayed at home with the maid, Imani, while Glory, the little ten-year old girl, went to school in the day and caused mayhem in the night.
It was an absolute privilege to be welcomed into their home and I was made to feel part of the family immediately. I am a food lover and I was looking forward to trying out the local food that my family would cook, especially the Tanzanian national dish ugali that I had heard so much of. Some of the food may not be to everyone's taste and I enjoyed many of the local dishes while not particularly liking others but my host family were extremely understanding and made an attempt to make more of what I liked as well as teaching me how to make ugali and chapatis. I even got to make them a full English breakfast too.
Social events and trips
Volunteering abroad is not all work though as everyone needs time to relax after a hard day at school or in a hospital and every week Projects Abroad organized a social event usually a meal on Thursday nights, followed by a trip to Via Via, a local bar popular with the mzungu. Each month there was also a Saturday trip either to Maji moto, the hot springs, or the waterfalls outside Moshi.
We went to restaurants and food courts serving local Swahili dishes and an Ethiopian restaurant, as well as the more familiar pizza, Chinese, Indian and Mexican. However, meeting up with the other volunteers is not confined to the Projects Abroad socials. Many of the volunteers regularly met for lunch or dinner at other times especially on Saturdays before heading to Empire Sports Bar for another night of dancing. Projects Abroad also organized regular workshops so you can discuss your placement and share ideas with other volunteers as well as 'dirty days' once a month where all the volunteers come together and help clean or paint one of our placements.
Traveling in Tanzania
I would recommend anyone going to Tanzania to set some time aside during or after their volunteering period to take in the tremendous sights Tanzania has to offer. Of the numerous attractions I was only able to go on a four day safari, taking in the wonders of Lake Manyara, the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater. On our four day safari we managed to see all the big five animals. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, as I was before I went on safari, they are the rhino, leopard, lion, elephant and buffalo.
We were lucky enough to be able to see three leopards close up, which our safari guide informed us he had never seen in his six years of driving. Living in the UK and traveling across the world by plane means you never quite realize how big the world can seem, but driving though seemingly endless grassland or looking over a herd of wildebeest that stretches to the horizon really reminds you of nature's grand beauty. I also managed to take the time to visit the spice island of Zanzibar.
I've been back in the UK for just over two months now and it has taken me some time to adjust back to the life I once led. I have only just managed to fully get back into the swing of things and I'm spending much of my spare time spreading the word about volunteering overseas to anyone who will listen to me. I feel like I have been able to contribute something to the Tanzanian people during my three months, especially to the children at the school, but Tanzania has given me so much more than I could ever have dreamed of, or even deserve.
I have come away with a truly unique and exhilarating experience, with so many friends from all over the world who I will hopefully stay in touch with for many years to come, and with a great tan too! Although that's mostly gone now. Maybe it's time for another project abroad?