Ramadan in Zanzibar

Written by Harpreet Singh

I was in Zanzibar for a little over two months; most of it spent working with YCI. In the midst of my time there was the month of Ramadan. This was one of the most memorable parts of my stay. During Ramadan, people who practise the Muslim faith fast every day for the duration of the month. The fast lasts from dawn to dusk and excludes all food and drink, even water. Islam is so ubiquitous in Zanzibar that mostly everyone participates in the fast, so much so that all normal food venues were closed for the entire day. And eating in public would be considered very impolite and could even get you in trouble, being such a blatant violation of what local cultural norms are.

By Ramadan, I had been in Zanzibar for long enough that I felt comfortable asking if it would be okay if I fasted as well. Everyone I asked was very encouraging and assured me that it would be perfectly alright. I wouldn’t be in Zanzibar for long enough to celebrate the end of Ramadan at Eid. From all I had heard, Eid in Zanzibar was something people traveled from far and wide to celebrate. But despite this, I decided to fast. I would try fasting for one day first, and then continue for as long as I felt I could.

The first day of fasting was hard. All I could think about was the moment the sun would set and I could eat food. Yet, I felt this amazing sense of camaraderie in living this shared experience with my colleagues and local friends. And everyone was amazing in their encouragement. It was probably the greatest bonding experience I had in Zanzibar. At the end of the day, we went down to the water in Stone Town, to the night-time food market at Forodhani Gardens. There we waited for the sun to set on the water. It was one of the slowest and most breathtaking sunsets I have seen. As the last sliver of sun slipped under the horizon of the Indian Ocean, I could finally break my fast. One of my students from the YCI English classes spent his evenings working at a food stand at the market and when he saw me, he insisted on sharing the food his mother had packed for him. It is customary to break the fast with dates, and then a series of deliciously rich dishes to follow. That first taste of the date was so sweet and perfect after the whole day of abstaining from eating. I was surprised by how little I ended up eating, and yet I can remember the vivid flavours of each of the different types of food.


I ended up fasting for only two more days, both times breaking my fast with my home-stay family, which was also a wonderful experience. I won’t ever forget that Ramadan; that gorgeous Zanzibari sunset; or the friends, students, and colleagues who were so supportive during the time I spent in Zanzibar.



“Familiarity in the unfamiliar”

Written by Deborah Dimitruk

Africa, the land of contrasts; colourful kangas and drab cement block homes; beautiful views and yet, garbage on the streets, kind people with smiling eyes and living most challenging lives. Desert and ocean, dry & lush, Islam and Christianity, veils that we westerners think oppress yet for many, they represent freedom; women bridging gaps between traditional and modern and defining their own identities in their own Zanzibar way. Significant social & economic struggle yet people are eager, optimistic, resilient and unbelievably generous. A land of rich and poor, many living without what I consider to be basic necessities, yet they are not unhappy- I was greeted with jambo (hello) everywhere I went and was made to feel very karibu (welcome)!

Africa, the land that so many fear.  The land of Ebola & genocide, poverty & corruption.  I didn’t fear and I am sure I know why.  I saw familiarity in the unfamiliar.  I saw young people, men and women together, sharing, laughing and collaborating for the common goal. I saw families playing, groups of friends socializing and couples sitting together – and remarkably, “courting” in not much different a way than in my own culture.  I saw kindness, respect and generosity for this Mzungu (a stranger in a foreign land) and I saw people, wanting for themselves no different than I have wanted for my family and myself.

In an article I read recently, the author used such words as “splendor and squalor”, “treasure and trash” to describe Africa; while there is a certain truth in these words, I couldn’t help but feel that they only captured the Africa that we see and not the Africa that we feel.  They fail to capture the essence of Africa, which is the people, the cultures, the history and the stories.  So yes, there is work to do to strike squalor and trash from the vocabulary and it will happen in due time. I will choose to remember Tanzania, Africa for the smiles, the colours, the rugged beauty of the land and most of all, the extraordinary people I met on this journey.



Say “yes” more than you say “no”

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!

Hakuna Matata!

Written by Urvi Rana

“Be safe!” “Are you sure?” “Don’t go!”…these are the things I was told before I decided to come to Tanga, Tanzania with Youth Challenge International. The minute my family and friends heard ‘Africa’, they were extremely concerned about my safety! Now, I am not one to back away from new experiences, yet I was starting to get a bit worried myself. Fortunately, I was joined by another volunteer from Ottawa, Ontario on this volunteer trip and that put me at ease. After spending a mere 12 hours in Dar Es Salaam, we were on our way to Tanga. I was told that the culture in Tanga was a lot more different than Dar Es Salaam, and boy were they right!

Tanga is a coastal city located just north of Dar. As soon as we stepped off the RATCO Express, I could tell I was in a whole different city. The next few days confirmed the opposite of my fears. Everywhere I went, I was greeted by people of all ages! ‘Mambo’ ‘Shikamoo’ ‘Habari’ etc – these now became the words I heard daily! I was pleasantly surprised at how safe I felt in this city. In just one week, I felt comfortable enough to take the daladalas by myself and make my own way around town. I could not believe how safe I felt in Tanga, especially since I have been to India numerous times and never felt comfortable enough to take the public transit on my own! I always believed Toronto was one of the friendliest cities, but not anymore. Whether it’s the early morning hours or late evenings, people are always happy and wanting to talk to you.

Tanga will forever hold a special place in my heart and I cannot wait to go back there one day to greet the strangers on the streets and the families I lived with! I was amazed at how welcoming and friendly this city was and started wondering why people back home were concerned. There was nothing to be afraid of, nothing to worry about. I wondered where people got the idea that going to Africa means putting yourself at risk. That’s when I got thinking about the role of media in exercising caution. The media focuses on the large numbers of HIV infected and at-risk patients, it focuses on the poor economy and on its neighbouring countries. I could not be more surprised at how different Tanzania was from what is usually portrayed in the media. It’s not just all about HIV or sandy beaches and tourists wanting to climb Kilimanjaro. Tanzania is much more than just that, it’s a place where the citizens want you to fall in love with their country, it’s a place where everything just happens to work out and it’s the place I fell for!

It truly was Hakuna Matata!

Breaking down socio-political roles in Mwanza

Written by Carolyn Burns

A study of hairesses; daughters of fortune

Alongside clothes, make-up, glasses, piercings and tattoos, Western women are able to express themselves through their hairstyles. I never would have thought that in Tanzania a woman’s ability to grow and style her hair would be the primary signifier of her socioeconomic status. As such, it has been incredibly interesting to witness the transformation of young girls, who universally rock the same short buzzcut, to independent women who use their hair to cultivate their personal brand. It is not uncommon to hear a woman described as the one with the braids, the dye, or the half mohawk/half razor-cut do. Even Muslim women who cover their heads outside the home seem to take a silent pleasure in the ability to stylize their hair into longer lengths and interesting shapes.

It is unfortunate that only the privileged are blessed with the disposable income to express themselves in this regard. Many street children have asked to touch my hair as if feeling long, straight hair were equivalent to finding a lucky, four-leaf clover. Even though I am a big promoter of inner beauty (countless examples of chemo patients to army cadets have proved hair is just hair), I find it saddening that not every woman is blessed with the opportunity to express herself in a unique manner. I look at the plight of many women as a matter of chance and not a matter of choice.

Who let the men out?

During my time in Tanzania, I was fortunate enough to have attended several nighttime social events. At my first locals-only event, I noticed that it was all men in attendance. ‘Who let the men out’ aka where are all the women? The last event I was at boasted a ratio of 9:1. While normally I would feel blessed to have had the odds of finding a mate being in my favour, I was disturbed to hear that many of the men were fathers who were wasting their family money on liquor. It made me sad to hear that women were at home trying to take care of the children with whatever money the family had left.

On a related note my friends and I took our domestic helper with us to the event. This was the first bit of independence she had been afforded in a long time. She couldn’t stop smiling. I can only imagine what women who are double burdened; fulfilling both external positions and unpaid domestic labour would think of a night free of obligations.

Moving forward, I have encouraged many local NGOs to host a ‘girls’ night out’ event in the hopes of bringing forward greater gender equality in the home. I strongly believe if many men were asked to a day in a woman’s shoes, they would better understand their perspectives on life. Likewise, providing our domestic helper with her first football gave her another way of entertaining herself and friends. She now understands why playing ‘keep up’ is so addictive and how being physically fit can help her project confidence into other aspects of her life. She ‘gets it’, do they?

Let the children shine

After spending several weeks in Tanzania, I have become accustomed to seeing children self-direct and take action to fulfill their goals. At my local NGO, children organize themselves into small groups and work together to produce news broadcasts. The stories they tell are often hard-hitting and draw criticism from their communities. However, the children continue to report on the realities of Mwanza life. I am still impressed when I see these children come together to fulfill an adult’s job.

I was somehow even more amazed when I saw children organize themselves during church. The children came alone, dressed in their Sunday best and sat quietly throughout the service. They sang without any choir books and recited prayers without any prompting from their peers. They actively participated in the sermon, which lasted over half an hour. They donated whatever money they received from chores performed throughout the week. They took care of their siblings. They ran outside to play afterwards. Unquestionably, these kids have it together. Adults should just get out of the way.

The Streets of Zanzibar

Written by Rachel Ouellette

Rachel is a two-time YCI volunteer who recently completed a two week work project in Zanzibar, Tanzania with the Centre for Social Innovation team. She also worked at the YCI Toronto office as the Volunteer Program Assistant from September to January 2015.

As a 6-year license holder who was born and raised in Montreal, it’s become common knowledge to me that Quebec drivers can be pretty aggressive. We have a certain driving culture which, within this organized system, we drive a little over the speed posted on the speed limit signs, alert other drivers when they are not obeying the established rules of the road, and experience the occasional road rage. And the more time goes on, the more I notice people blatantly disregard proper driving etiquette such as using indicators, turning their headlights on at night, stopping at stop signs and the ever frustrating, driving slower in the passing lanes.

DSCF3222When I arrived in Zanzibar, I quickly noticed how few road signs there were and the lack of street lights. However, despite the absence of what are better known to North Americans as driving regulators, I came to see that drivers had an unspoken order amongst themselves and respected each other. The culture of the streets was astonishingly different; the roads were busy and populated by cars, motocycles, dala dalas, bikes and large masses of people who all seemed to have a mutual understanding of the rules of the road and who respectfully coexisted.

Between the roundabouts and speed bumps, drivers manipulated their vehicles in and around each other to reach their destinations. They carefully maneuvered around the various obstacles such as the crowds of students going to and from school, the merchants and markets that crept onto the roads and the motorcycles and bicycles that constantly wove between vehicles. And all the while doing it right hand drive! On roads of all widths, drivers went at their own speeds and passed others by simply honking and weaving around them. It actually amazed me how much honking I heard. Unlike honking at home where it would normally signify telling someone off, in Zanzibar, honking was to alert someone: “I’m passing you!” or “Watch out!” or “Move over!” in a non-aggressive way. They also had an unspoken etiquette about passing in that they instinctively moved over when someone else was going faster than them. In this way, Tanzanian drivers respect one another and are able to communicate without official lanes, signs or rules.


This is one of the many things that make Tanzanian culture different than Canadian culture, and these differences are what contribute to an enriching learning experience that can only come alive when travelling abroad.



Resilient Smiles

Written by Carlie Young

Whoever said I was going to Africa to help was wrong. In the last couple weeks I have discovered that I am probably one of the most helpless people here. I am educated, but I do not have their skills; everyone I have met here is incredibly capable.

My first weekend in Tanzania, my fellow volunteers and I had a chance to go to Pangani. It is a small town a couple hours outside of Tanga. It is located on the ocean and has some amazing sights. Our morning was spent at one of the schools doing another HIV awareness session, though we found the children were far more knowledgeable than we had anticipated.

However, it was the afternoon’s activities that truly impressed me. We rode our rental bikes 4km out of the city to meet with a local farmer. While I was barely able to make the short trip, our guide Simba does the trip with no problem every day. I felt like I was dehydrated and suffering from heatstroke while the locals just kept on going.

When we arrived at our destination we met with Gurishael, a local farmer and former member of 4H (the organization I’m working with here). We were welcomed into his home, where we discussed his business and some of the challenges he faces as a farmer. He is able to produce plenty of food for his family, but he explained the problem was getting his products to markets and selling them at a fair price. He spoke English well and was able to express many of the complicated issues surrounding small business trade. I found I was getting many ideas from him about how to run my business sessions at the schools. With all the research I had done on the internet, I still felt ignorant when speaking with him.

After our discussion, Gurishael took us on a tour of the 13 acres that he cultivates. He grows many things, including mangos, oranges, limes, grains, and he keeps chickens. And, he does this all himself. While he receives help from his family, he must maintain his entire property and move all of the product himself. With only dirt roads going to Pangani town, I can only imagine how difficult it would be.

As we were being shown his plots of land, we stopped to visit an old friend of Simba’s. While he was not able to speak English, Simba was able to translate. His land was much smaller than Gurishael’s. He had a small garden and kept cows. He built his own well, and must pull buckets of water up 20 meters in order to water his plants and provide it to his animals. He’s 70 years old and continues to do this work with only the help of his two grandsons, who spend most of their days in primary school.

These men work so hard to provide for themselves and their families, but have an almost impossible time making a profit at market. Yet they still offered us their food and hospitality. The work they do is incredible, especially in this heat. However, the most impressive thing I saw was their resilient smiles. They were so grateful to have visitors and share what they had. They told us of all their work, but they also showed such pride when telling us about their families and friends.