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Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Graduating with a Different Plan: Volunteering in Tanzania

Written by Meredith Chait
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With a month left until college graduation, I had no idea what I was going to do after May. Like many of my peers, I could not see myself having a 9-to-5 job at this stage of my life. 

I wanted to travel before I got the dreaded desk job I had heard so much about. East Africa had been calling me since I started taking Swahili my freshman year at the University of Kansas. 

When I did not test out of a single Spanish class (after four years in high school), I decided to take Swahili, fulfilling my desire to take a less commonly taught language in college. I ended up loving my Swahili classes and studying it for five years, even minoring in it. 

I decided to go to Tanzania: it is one of the safer countries where Swahili is spoken. However, many of my online searches turned up organizations that wanted to me pay them – as much as $2,000 a week – to volunteer. While I was OK with not getting paid, I was not OK with having to pay to volunteer. 

Then I found a small charity based in the United Kingdom that has a program at a school for students who are deaf in Dar es Salaam, the biggest city in Tanzania with 4.5 million people. The charity told me a good hostel to stay at and did not charge me to volunteer. 

It was a win-win for me. Not only did I get to practice my Swahili and travel, but when in the next 30 years of working would I have time to take 9 weeks off to travel to Africa? 

I will always remember my time at the school in Tanzania. One boy at the school, who is deaf and has a lazy eye, would always come up to me in his old brown tweed pants and oversized blue t-shirt, which he wore every day when not in his school uniform, and give me the thumbs up sign. We pushed our thumbs together and then let them slip to the side. We did this multiple times a day; every time, he smiled widely. 


He seemed to enjoy the little things in life. A few times, I saw him studying a piece of something that looked like it was a computer part. He smiled as he showed me how it worked. 

About 250 students attend the elementary school, half of whom live at the school. Those that board at the school either live too far away to go home, come from poor families that cannot support them, or were abandoned by their families. 

I stayed at a convent that was about a 20-minute walk from the school. I had breakfast at the convent, which usually was bread and tea or coffee. Sometimes we had plantains. 

I walked to school through a neighborhood and over a river of trash. At the school, I would have tea at 10 a.m. and build them a website. After a few weeks, after I finished the website, I spent the mornings in the kindergarten class. 

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In the afternoons, I would usually study Swahili Sign Language with my tutor at the school. The students also taught me Swahili Sign Language by writing the Swahili word in the dirt and then signing it. 

The best part of the day was spending time with the students, especially after I knew enough Swahili Sign Language to communicate with them and not have to write notes back and forth in Swahili, which slowed the conversation down. 

The students’ school day ended at 2 p.m. After their classes, the students had lunch, ugali and beans, everyday. Ugali is like a hard Cream-of-Wheat. 

I would have dinner at the convent with the other guests and sometimes the nuns. Dinner consisted of rice or ugali, meat or fish, three vegetables, and a piece of fruit for dessert. (Good thing I had a stash of chocolate in my room!) 


Some nights I spent time with the other volunteers I met at the school, going to get coffee at a café or playing cards, and thinking about how I was actually living in Africa. 

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I also got to travel within Tanzania. I got to go to Zanzibar, where Swahili was first spoken, and on a safari. Both are things I have wanted to do for years. 

If my experience at the University of Kansas taught me anything, it is to not let anything or anyone hold me back from what I want to do, even if that means traveling to Africa, including flying on a 5-seater plane to Zanzibar and going on a safari, alone. 

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My time in Tanzania was fulfilling. And, the experience tested me: I learned who I was and what I could handle. It was a good experience to transition from academia into the working world. 

Many of my friends also left the country for a chance at an adventure. One went to Mexico and another one went to Madagascar. We all found our own adventures, and did not have to get that 9-to-5 job – yet. 

In Tanzania, I learned what type of career I want and what type I don’t want. I want a hands-on job abroad helping people, for example helping people with HIV/AIDS or refugees. 

I did not get the urge to travel out of my system. I now want more adventures and more opportunities to travel, and never have a desk job. Now, I am looking for a job abroad and hoping to go back to Dar es Salaam to see the friends I made there. 


© Meredith Chait


Last modified on Wednesday, 01 July 2015