I recently travelled to Mwanza, Tanzania with Youth Challenge International, to volunteer with a local NGO, Kivulini Women’s Rights Organization as a Monitoring and Evaluation Innovator. While I was there, I lived in a rural village with a host family who had 13 children.
Before I left for Tanzania, I was told that my host Mama (mother) had 6 children living at home. Imagine my surprise as I pulled up in the middle of the night to my host family’s home to discover my host Mama leaving for a party and a small sized classroom of children waiting for me. That first night the oldest sibling was the only one to speak to me: “Karibu (welcome), feel free,” she mentioned many times. During my first few days whenever I was approaching the children ran away laughing, and hid behind the doorways or potted plants. I quickly came to understand that the majority of the children living on the family compound had lost their parents due to illness. My Tanzanian Mama and Baba (father) had taken the children in to become a part of their family.
Everything was different in Mwanza. I walked to work on dirt – and often flooded – roads, past farmers and free roaming cows and goats. I took cold showers and slept under a bug net. There were daily power outages and we only had access to an unsanitary water supply. The ants bit, and my host sisters and brothers ate their meals with their hands while sitting on the kitchen floor. It was easy in those first few days to feel isolated and a bit misunderstood.
After a few days, the children became less shy around me. As I did not speak Kiswahili and many of the children did not speak English, we had to find ways to begin to communicate with one another. One night during a power failure, I was wearing my headlamp and began to make shadow puppets on the kitchen wall. As the children and I played, I continued to ask them for the Kiswahili names of the projected animals. After this, the children took every opportunity to point to objects, tell me the word in Kiswahili and to ask for the English word. We began to learn from, and about, each other.
The village I was living in consisted only of other family homes and I initially believed that the nearest store was in town, a 40-minute dala dala (a minibus share taxi) ride away. However, as time went on, the community structure began to reveal itself to me. I soon learned that the little straw hut where two women cooked over an open fire was a restaurant serving the best chapati and ginger tea around; the house a small ways down the dirt path also doubled as the local general shop where you could purchase soda, maji baridi (cold water), phone credit and even toothbrushes; and the farmer I passed on my way to work was the man who sold my host Mama the vegetables that I ate every night for dinner. Everything I needed existed around me – I just hadn’t learned how to look properly. In Canada, stores, streets and even bus stops are clearly marked, but where I lived in Mwanza, you are only privy to this type of knowledge when you are a member of the community.
My host sisters and brothers work incredibly hard everyday to complete their household chores. They start their day at 6 a.m. with a prayer and have the house cleaned before breakfast. They are the ones responsible for the majority of the cooking, cleaning and often, taking care of each other.
I wanted to be included in all aspects of a Tanzanian family life. I helped to prepare meals, went to the market and played games with my host sisters. I helped my host sisters and brothers with their homework and went to church with my host family. I even learned how to braid my host sisters’ hair! I found myself becoming a member of the household.
By the end of my six-week stay, I had realized that regardless of differences in language, culture or religious beliefs, when you take the time to understand, live with and care for someone, they become a part of your family. I’ve heard it said that once you have travelled to far away lands you will never again feel at home; your heart is split between the family you were born into and the one you create for yourself. It was hard to leave my new family behind, but I know I will always be welcome back home.
-Stephanie Hanson, Youth Innovator, Tanzania, 2013
YCI is currently recruiting for an 8-week project in Tanzania this May 6 to July 1st to work with our partners on leadership, health and education initiatives.