Written by Sara Vitale
After 30 plus hours and three airports, I was finally stepping off the plane and putting my feet on Canadian soil. My boyfriend was standing at the gate, bouquet of flowers in hand peeking out from behind a crowd of people. For a minute I felt like I was in a romantic comedy, preferably Love Actually—that’s my favourite. A big lump formed in my throat as the distance between us became smaller until I was standing in front of him and he kissed me hello. To continue my romantic cliché, being away from him was hard. There were so many moments in Tanzania that I wished I could have shared with someone I loved. The hardest part of my whole experience however is trying to answer his first question, “How was it?”
How could I sum it up in a sentence or a short conversation? To be honest, I still haven’t managed to do that successfully since I’ve arrived home. 7 months later, I find myself referencing my experiences in every day conversations and at the same time it almost feels like a dream. To someone who has only seen the developing world through the ruse of a five star resort you appear to be some sort of serial do-gooder or perhaps a fool for investing so much money, time, and energy to essentially work for free. I’ve had so many heated discussions and so many misguided reactions to my choice to volunteer but alas it makes for an interesting exchange. My answer to why I made the decision to go is quite simply that I wanted to broaden my horizons and have a series of small moments with people that I otherwise would never have met. The experience brought me a truer understanding of the fact that life is so much more meaningful when it is spent supporting others, having educated conversations, and loving one another. It sounds so obvious but I think it’s easy to forget when you’re caught up in school or finding a career or worrying about having enough money to maybe one day move out of your dad’s basement.
Though I wished that my entire trip could have been seen through rose coloured glasses, there were some moments that weren’t perfect, there were moments that broke my heart, there were moments that made me feel like a huge stereotype, moments that deeply angered me, and then there were some teachable moments, lots of laughs, singing, dancing, delicious food and many run ins with cockroaches. I was so lucky to meet Danielle, a seasoned volunteer who guided my clueless self around the city of Arusha. It is thanks to her and the countless others including the staff at the Umoja Center, the wonderful children and mamas at House of Happinesss, and the amazing YCI staff and volunteers in Zanzibar, that I was able to leave Tanzania with beautiful memories. Truth be told I miss it so much and hope to return one day when I am able to stay longer!
During my stay I worked as a sexual health teacher at the Umoja Center and spent my evenings with the children at House of Happiness. The classrooms at the Umoja Center are damp, dark, former chicken coops. The students and staff try to brighten them up with signs and drawings but the center could definitely use some new facilities. The staff is actually working very hard to acquire funds in order to purchase their own land and build a new center. Many of the books in the library have developed mold in their pages because of the dampness. Strangely, despite their physical state, I felt right at home in the classrooms at the Umoja center. Each and every one of my students was glorious and bursting with desire to learn, question, talk about music, create art pieces, and fiddle with the computers in the lab. They were just like my students at home, idolizing Beyonce, falling in love and then two days later falling out of it, trying to fit in with their peers, wanting to be somebody, and be recognized for their unique qualities. One of my students in particular completely inspired me, her name is Beatrice and she is an example to women everywhere. My favourite moment of my entire experience was when she told me about being a “super girl”. The term refers to being an independent woman who gets her own university education regardless of what anyone tells her. It refers to valuing yourself over doing everything to please your boyfriend or your family and it was the most poignant thing that has ever been said to me. I’m happy to say she is now attending college, where I hope that she is still challenging the box that society places women in.
Teaching sexual health to a group of youth not much younger than I am (one of my students was but a year younger than me) was rather daunting at first. With the help of two remarkable teachers, I was able to put together meaningful lessons that allowed my students to debate hot topics, ask questions without fear of judgment, and have some fun along the way.
I didn’t know very much about Tanzania when I arrived but I left armed with all sorts of insights, understanding, and memories. I learnt that when faced with a cockroach, I turn into a ninja with repellent in order to eradicate them. I ate so much chips mayai and it might have once been out of a plastic bag because I love it that much. I still can’t quite duplicate the recipe at home so if anyone has any talent for this dish, please do not hesitate to email me! I danced until the wee hours at Via Via with new friends. I went to birthday parties, listened to church songs, and even attended a Tanzanian wedding! I went to Zanzibar by myself where I was pleased to make the acquaintance of a guy named Oki Dokie (yup, that’s real), saw dolphins, stuck my toes in the Indian Ocean, and learned of Sultans and Princesses. I realized that there is nothing more powerful than the goodness of people and that we can change the world we live in to be more a sustainable, accepting place where everyone can fulfill their potentials.
With that I leave you with my final piece of advice if you’re thinking of volunteering with YCI: make your own adventure. It’s ok to be nervous or maybe even a little scared but what matters is that you take the leap and say “yes” more than you say “no” because who knows where you’ll go if you do!
About the author:
After returning home from Tanzania, Sara started working at Seven Academy where she helps develop educational apps for children. Her company is a proud contributor and supporter of The Global Literacy Project, which brings tablet computers to children without access to education. She has just been accepted to Concordia University to pursue a Master’s in Educational Technology -Yipee!