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!

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.



Chosen Differences

Written by Christine Moynihan

This was my first experience in Africa – and it has been extraordinary. I left Toronto in minus 20 degree temperatures and arrived to + 30 degrees. Really, a most welcome change!

Zanzibar is a vibrant, busy, beautiful and historic island and I could happily have been “just a tourist” here. However, YCI has given me the great opportunity to see places that an ordinary tourist would never see; an opportunity to live with a local family, to experience Zanzibar as a Zanzibarian – albeit in a small and limited way.

By far the most wonderful part of this journey has been the opportunity to meet and work with the local volunteers at YCI Tanzania and I want to tell you about one in particular – Sharifa Said Ally.


Sharifa has been our guide and translator as Rachel Ouellette and I delivered  four workshops on Environmental Sustainability to 4 different secondary  schools in and around Zanzibar town. In fact, by the second workshop,  Sharifa had become our co-teacher and by the last of the four workshops, she  was really the lead teacher. It was sheer delight to watch her so easily and  gracefully grow into a leadership role.

Sharifa is twenty years old, was born and raised in Zanzibar and is from a  family of four (two brothers and one sister).   Though, like most children in  Zanzibar, she studied English in school, she did not begin intensive English  study until about 6 months ago – and is already an excellent translator. She  would love to study further and perhaps be a teacher someday. Youth  unemployment in Zanzibar is extremely high – almost 70% – and Sharifa as  told me that she believes that her volunteer work with YCI will help her to get  a good job in the future. I will say that wherever she ends up, they will be  lucky to get her!

When I asked her what she wanted me to write about her, she asked me to  specifically mention the importance to her of her Muslim faith, and to  write also about the importance to her of her dress – which, according to the  beliefs of her faith, means that women dress modestly – with long dresses,  full-length sleeves, with head and hair covered at all times when out in public. She very much chooses to dress this way and finds it both appropriate and comfortable. (I did wonder if, in the heat of Zanzibar, this type of dress was oppressively hot – and she adamantly said no, it was quite comfortable.)

As you can see from the photo, she is a beautiful and modern young woman – and her comments to me about her dress are a vital reminder to us to be always aware of and respectful towards chosen differences.

Reflecting on my time in Zanzibar

Written by Jeffrey Padou

Jeffrey is a Youth Ambassador who worked with YCI in Zanzibar in Spring/Summer of 2014.

In Zanzibar, Tanzania, my colleague (Harpreet) and I worked on the Emerging Leaders program. We specifically focused on the second unit of that program which emphasized leadership. In conjunction with this program we also conducted teaching and training on the subjects of English, computers, civic education, CV writing and interview techniques.

I shall highlight that all of the programs we conducted had a tremendous impact upon the participants. English language skills were highly coveted by participants. Computer skills were valued because they allowed students to “get with the times” as well as having applications for personal and job-related purposes. Civic education was something many of the youth were passionate about, and they were looking for ways to learn these skills and share them with others. Although there was a lower number of participants who attended programs on interview techniques and CV writing, those who did attend, loved the topic.

By and far the program that was most impactful was Emerging Leaders. The program had the highest amount of participants and practical training. The participants loved the topic of leadership and the workshops were very impactful- both for the participants and the facilitators – at least for those who were willing to learn about foreign culture and listen to the needs and demands of local people. My recommendation is that this and other such programs are continued.

The experience that one takes away from volunteering with YCI is worthwhile and life-changing – something I will always have with me. The relationships I built with the participants, my colleagues, overseas staff, and the community made it impossible to walk away un-changed.

While in Zanzibar, I found that a major problem facing youth within their community was a lack of both job opportunities, as well as lack of mobility within organizations and industries. The former is the most challenging of all. There are youth in Zanzibar that have Bachelors degrees and college training who cannot even find a job. Many youth in Zanzibar are educated, yet have a hard time finding employment because of poverty, the lack of opportunity, and the disconnect between the government’s interests and the needs of citizens, particularly youth.

Volunteering has changed my outlook, in a way. I am from a foreign culture, but due to so many years living in the Western world I have somewhat not experienced this reality to its fullest extent. This experience has changed my life. It has taught me compassion, and a care for the whole global community and its citizens. I have also learned the power of innovation, leadership, and the resilient youth which all highlight that anything is possible!

My advice for anyone thinking of volunteering with YCI is plain and simple: go with a willingness to learn rather than expecting to teach or help – you will find the impact tremendous. Have a compassionate heart, be innovative and creative, be dedicated and have a tremendous work ethic, and lastly, be open-minded.

Since volunteering with YCI, I have been busy at school, but I also have a vision of impacting my community in Ottawa. Volunteering did change my life. I originally never planned on going to school for teaching or focusing on education; however after this experience I am considering going into the teaching field and specifically teaching abroad, perhaps EFL or ESL.

Making Friends in Stone Town

By: Vanessa Murphy

Vanessa Murphy - Old Fort

Vanessa in Stone Town, Zanzibar

There’s a difference between travelling somewhere and living somewhere. Walking around Stone Town, Zanzibar, it’s very easy to see these differences amongst foreigners. The more I settled in to my life in Stone Town, the more I began to love my time there.

During the summer of 2014, I worked for YCI at their office in Mwanakwerekwe, Zanzibar, teaching a class to young people interested in working for NGOs as part of the Emerging Leaders Program. Stone Town was only a 20 minute dalla dalla ride from where I lived, and my contact point for the rest of the world. Mwanakwerekwe is a bustling market area for locals on the island and a truly authentic Zanzibarian cultural experience. For those times I needed a little more quiet and a break from being the only ‘Mzungu’, I would head into Stone Town to sit by the beach, drink a coffee, or do some shopping.

On my first few visits to Stone Town, I was hassled just like the other foreigners walking into the city. I was asked to ‘just take a look’ in the shops; questioned about what activities I would like to do that day; offered Henna painting and cheap Indian-inspired Ali Baba pants; and challenged with a wide array of Swahili greetings. This meant I was new.

However, the more I ventured into Stone Town, the more Swahili I returned the challenges with, and the more I joked with those approaching me, the faster I began to fit in. Being a ‘White Rasta’ helped me stand out and be remembered of course, but generally relaxing and speaking to people is the fastest way to turn from a money-toting tourist to a Swahili Rafiki.

Vanessa Murphy - Faki at Forodhoni Market

Faki at the Forodhoni Market

Zanzibarians are always looking for a joke, always looking to chat, and love making new friends. This is what makes the island the paradise it is. By the time I left Zanzibar I had friends all over the island, but the ones I had met in Stone Town were an interesting group…

Emmanuel, a young guy in the Old Fort who works selling tourist wares. He first wanted me to buy jewelry but in the end, he took care of my kitten called Moose and made sure he was fed and safe.

Okey Dokey, a fun-loving Rasta with big thick dreads who knew everything going on and every tourist in the area. No matter where I went on the island, he was there.

Big Mama, who first ripped me off by over-charging me for Henna painting, soon became a friendly face around town yelling ‘Vanessa!’ in crowded markets and along the street.

Faki, a past student of YCI’s with the biggest smile in town. He ensured I was well fed at the Forodhoni Night Market where he ran a table selling mountains of sea food, breads, and samosas.

By the time I left Zanzibar, I couldn’t walk into Stone Town without seeing and talking to someone I knew every 10 meters. I was no longer asked to buy things, but instead was asked how my day was. I was no longer offered Henna, but instead offered tea. I was no longer challenged with Swahili, but conversed in it. I was a friend in Stone Town.

Vanessa Murphy - Sun Setting in Stone Town

Sun Setting in Stone Town, Zanzibar

Vanessa Murphy was a YCI Youth Ambassador working in Zanzibar, Tanzania.

To learn more about how you can get involved with YCI’s projects abroad, and to view current opportunities to become a Youth Ambassador, click here.

Third Time’s the Charm: Tanzania 2014

My name is Danielle and I am back in Africa for my third time but this is my second time in Tanzania with Youth Challenge International. I arrived in July and will be here until March 2015! Once again I am working at the most amazing youth centre, the Umoja Centre, in Arusha. I have many roles at the centre including teacher, dance club instructor, sponsorship coordinator and fundraising innovator!

I have another wonderful group of young adults who are at our centre because they want to further their education and improve their futures but they do not h ave the means to do it on their own. As the sponsorship coordinator and careers teacher it is my responsibility over the next few months to advise our students on their options upon graduation from the centre and to ensure that each student has a sponsor that will be able to support their chosen path.

Danielle and Emoja students

Danielle and Emoja Students

Currently, we have 10 out of 40 students sponsored and able to further their education in January. Unfortunately, without the support of sponsors, our students will not be able to continue their education after graduating even though they have the skills and potential to succeed. I have partnered with a few schools back in Canada who have chosen Umoja to be their development project. Each school will sponsor a student and conduct fundraisers to raise the fees. This will hopefully encourage individual families to also support Umoja and potentially sponsor a student themselves. My current general fundraising campaign are 50/50 draws in the workplace in support of Umoja. Tickets are sold for $2 and at the end of the work week one ticket is drawn from the bunch. Half of the proceeds go to the winning ticket and the other half go to support the Umoja Centre. We hope people will participate because a) they have the potential to win money and b) they are supporting a good cause.

In Careers, students have been identifying their interests, strengths, skills and attributes in order to select a suitable career path. To assist with their search, I have been organizing Careers Days twice a month in which a professional comes to the Umoja Centre to talk to the students about his/her career. In September Adam Bemma, a Canadian journalist from Farm Radio International, came to speak to the students about his work in international journalism. The following week, I took a group of interested students on a field trip to visit Farm Radio and see what Adam does.

Danielle New and Adam Bemma

Danielle and Adam Bemma

Through my connection with Farm Radio I was also able to connect with their mental health program through the Guidance, Counseling and Youth Development Centre for Africa. This organization is trying to raise awareness in secondary schools about youth issues affecting boys and girls in Africa such as mental health problems, HIV & AIDS, adolescent sexual reproductive health, alcohol and drug abuse. Their program will begin at the Umoja Centre in January and provides our centre with a full mental health curriculum, weekly workshops, training for our social worker, peer education training for our students and mental health support services for our staff and students. This program will greatly benefit our students as many of them are from backgrounds of extreme poverty, stress and disadvantage. This program will provide them with the necessary support to succeed and the tools for resiliency.

In October, the Umoja social worker and I will be attending a ‘Woman’s Career Day’ hosted by AfricAid in which successful Tanzanian women share their stories of how they made it in a male dominant work force and the challenges they experienced. We are hoping to meet with some of these women and ask them to come speak to our young girls at the Umoja Centre. The workforce is not a friendly place for many of our young female students and they often deal with issues such as discrimination, transactional sex and overall gender inequality. I hope that hearing some of these women’s stories will inspire them to push through and know that they have people on their side.

Danielle, Pascalina (office manager) and Chuki (social worker)

Danielle, Pascalina (office manager) and Chuki (social worker)

As a final note, I would also like to share a section from my personal blog. One of my early careers classes really impacted me and reminded me why I’m here helping these amazing students.

September 15, 2014: This week in my careers course we were talking about the challenges we all face in achieving our goals. As part of the lesson, I thought it would be a good idea to have the students share their stories with the class and tell us how they arrived at the Umoja Centre. In that class, I heard some of the most inspirational stories and I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with these students and hopefully improve their lives. In this post, I thought I would share some of their stories in the hopes that you would want to help improve their lives as well.
The first student, he’s 19. He grew up in an abusive home where his dad beat his mom, siblings, and himself. His mom left and took her children with her. They lived on the streets barely making it by. None of the children went to school because his mother was afraid that the father would find them. This student stopped going to school after grade 3. He lived on the streets for 7 years helping his mom with odd jobs to make a little money. Over the years, he made friends with kids who were in school and would borrow their books so he could try to learn. He heard about Umoja through a family friend. He is now studying in his second year at Umoja because when he arrived last year his education was extremely low. But he is quite motivated and is continuously improving his skills. Next year he plans to continue school to either be a tour guide or an IT technician.

The second student is 23. He grew up in a Masai village and did not attend school. His parents wanted him to stay home and help with the farming. He always wanted to go to school but couldn’t because of his parents and the 4 hour walk to school. At age 11, he was finally old enough to make the journey to school on his own and asked to enroll. The school denied him because they didn’t want an 11 year old starting primary school (grade 1). He persisted for days until the commissioner of that area was contacted and ultimately let him attend school. He studied hard and was at the top of his class. At 17 he was ready to start secondary school – which is grade 8. He worked hard to save his money and convinced his parents to sell a cow to send him to school. His parents agreed but on one condition – if he failed once, that was it. The first 3 years he did well and passed, but in the 4th year he studied hard but failed. That was it for his schooling. He stayed at home for one year, working on the farm while his family tried to set him up with a wife. But he knew that this was not the life for him, he wanted more education. One day, he received a call from a friend who told him about the Umoja Centre. His friend had just finished his year at Umoja and told him that they were having interviews the next day for the class of 2014. He was hours away from Arusha and had no money to get to the city. So he went to the nearest shop in his village and sold his phone to get enough money to make it to Arusha. He made it to the interview and was accepted into Umoja. He is now doing well and plans to pass form 4 (which is in secondary school) and become a doctor.

The third student is 14. He came to Umoja last year to interview to be a student. He failed the interview and did not get in. After that, he sat outside the gate of the school from 8-4 every day waiting and asking to be able to come to school. The teachers kept saying no and told him to go home. However, once the director heard about this stubborn boy sitting outside she knew she had to talk to him. He had so much motivation and determination that she had to let him in. After a while of being at Umoja, the teachers realized that he was a broken kid who was getting severely beaten by his step father. Everyone could see he was a great kid with a lot of potential, but his home life would not allow for him to succeed. The director referred him to live at a local children’s home called House of Happiness where he now lives. He has flourished and become the happy kid everyone knew he could be. He is in his second year at Umoja, since he lied about his age the previous year to get in. He is thriving at school and will go to secondary school in January. His plan is to be a journalist.

These are just three of the stories of the many students that Umoja helps. It is heartbreaking to hear their stories, but they all realize that education is important and they want to succeed. If helping these youth is something you are interested in, please consider visiting the Umoja Centre website or emailing me at

Danielle is a Youth Innovator currently working with YCI at the Umoja Centre in Tanzania. To learn more about YCI’s Innovator positions and how to apply, click here!

Work Placement in Paradise

My six-week work placement in paradise (aka Nungwi Zanzibar) had me working from the local office of Labayka! Labayka specializes in environment, social activities, and entrepreneurship. In my first week here, I jumped in with both feet and toured the town and ran interviews to help me understand life here. This was crucial for me to understand environmental issues so that I could re-vamp a presentation on the environment created by a past YCI volunteer. I modified it to make it into a two day workshop for local trainers of trainers. Seeing the town dumping sites and fish markets were definitely highlights as they are so central to the environmental issues in the area.


I have been really busy in my second and third weeks, running 8 days of workshops for a total of 80 people coming from a variety of Northern Zanzibar villages! This has been an enriching experience for both the participants and me. I put my facilitation skills to use and learned how to work with a translator. It was also interesting working with people from various levels of education and how their learning needs varied greatly. I am hoping to run a follow-up workshop at the request of the participants in my remaining weeks as well as to draft a project proposal for future donors.


 Megan Firth, Youth Innovator, Tanzania 2014 

To read more about YCI’s Innovator programs in Tanzania, click hereTo read more blogs from our volunteers in Tanzania, click here.