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.

Connecting and Making Connections

Written by Jordan Walker

Jordan is a member of the Centre for Social Innovation custom group who recently returned from Zanzibar, Tanzania. She worked on programming and facilitating a series of entrepreneurship workshops in partnership with the Vocational Training Authority of Zanzibar. She brings an academic and professional background in international development to the project, and recently completed a five-month internship at the YCI Toronto office.

 Many people will disagree when I say we are disconnected in the 21st century. It would seem that we are even more connected now than ever before. In today’s world of lightning-fast internet and constantly being “plugged in,” being able to connect has never been easier. Though we talk about using technology to connect instantly to people all over the world, the reality is that, in my experience living and working in various countries, there is a huge difference between the way we connect (Facebook, texting, Whatsapp) and making genuine connections with people.

In addressing this issue, I always think about my first experience living abroad in Chile in 2007. Cell phones were widely used, but they were basic and used mostly for quick phones calls. Texting was rare and smartphones were nonexistent. Most people had never heard of Facebook. By the end of my year there, I could already see a change in the amount of young people using Facebook and communicating mostly via text messages, but these were still fairly new concepts. When I returned six years later, Facebook was as pervasive as it is in Canada, and peoples’ addictions to their smartphones, Whatsapp, and other electronic communications was as extreme, if not more so, than in North America. The shift from making real connections to plugging in and connecting online was astounding.

In Zanzibar, I see what I saw in Chile the first time I was there. Cell phones are a huge part of life, but people generally pick up the phone rather than text, and rarely continue on long conversations unless they are face to face with the person. I constantly see knots of people standing together and chatting; the norm is to ask very personal questions about everybody you meet, and the aim is to truly get to know people. While standing in a print shop, our local volunteer Omar began chatting with two complete strangers and learned that they were Wright brothers-esque inventors who had designed and built their own car, hot air balloon and recently a helicopter! After a short chat, they were happy to come to our entrepreneurship workshop later that week to share their story with our attendees.


I will not argue that technology is only negative; I think its implications in the international development field alone are invaluable. However I do believe that it is important that we recognize our own lack of genuine interpersonal connection in the Western world. I sincerely hope that Zanzibar retains its culture of open, friendly person-to-person connection as access to electronic means of connecting grows.

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.

Tour guide by day. Hero by night. 

Written by: Shilbee Kim

We walked in the dark for about 10 minutes, side stepping rocks and waiting for our eyes to adjust. It was a full moon.  After every few houses we’d hear greetings from neighbours walking by or sitting on the footsteps of their homes to our local volunteer, Omar, who was leading the way.

Omar then said, “We’re here!”

We stepped into a madrasa made of bricks and down a hallway filled with shoes, we entered a room with one lightbulb, a clock that wasn’t ticking, a blackboard, and a bookshelf with a few English books. The madrasa is an open brick-building with no doors but several “rooms” divided by walls. During the day, the madrasa is used for Quran teachings and in the evenings, it was taken over by eager students who were learning from a volunteer. The madrasa was built by a lady who owned the land and wanted to give back to the community. On the floor mat, a group of kids between the ages of 5 and 13 were sitting quietly but squirming anxiously. They were waiting for Mr. Omar’s English class.

Omar is a tour guide and a YCI local volunteer by day; an English teacher by night. He volunteers 4 times a week to teach English. It all started when one of the current students asked him for an English lesson. Soon afterwards, other kids flocked to Omar for more classes. Omar, too, was taught when he was a little kid. His hero at the time was Muhammad and his impeccable English skills today are largely thanks to Muhammad who gave his evenings to teaching.

In the Zanzibari education system, there are government and private schools. By the time a student reaches secondary school, most classes are taught in English. The problem is that during primary school, a classroom can be as big as 80 students per teacher. Some teachers, Omar explains, are obliged to teach math and science in broken English during secondary school. This compounds the problem of students’ abilities to excel in school, a prerequisite to get into a university.

He felt that one way to help this situation was follow the footsteps of Muhammad. One by the one the students stood in front of the class reciting their introductions Omar taught him. “My name is Maryam and my father’s name is Abdul and my mother’s name is Laylat.”

While Omar continued his lesson, I can overhear another class going on in Swahili behind one of the brick walls. The only words I can make out because they were in English were “colonialism” “Europe” and “Africa.” Omar later explained that there were many other local volunteers like him – especially those who graduated from university and are unemployed. There are 4 evening classes like this on his street alone for different subject matters (science, religion, history, etc). This particular class was for students who needed extra classes on history so that they can ace their national exam that determines university acceptance. The room was packed. Everyone sitting on the floor with one instructor in the middle holding a book in his hand. One lightbulb.

Omar expressed some challenges – mothers who disapproved and didn’t think that he was a serious teacher to feeling burnout to needing more English books, teaching supplies, desks, and the list goes on. But his determination for these students to be “more than him” keeps him going. Day in and day out.

“Volunteering is important… If you help people, they will help others… and they will help more people and then you will change the world. I hope that some of these kids will want to do the same.”