Natascha Allen-Smith - General Teaching Projects in Tanzania
Touchdown in Tanzania: First Impressions
Since I was about sixteen, I knew I wanted to take a gap year between school and university to get more experience of working and of the world itself. I had grown up watching Big Cat Diary, a programme about wildlife in the Maasai Mara, and had always wanted to see the boundless landscapes and savannah animals for myself, so Tanzania was a natural choice for my destination. I chose to go with Projects Abroad because they offered a wide range of work placements which would allow me to see different aspects of East African life, and seemed like a large and reliable organisation.
I arrived in Dar es Salaam at 10pm, and the first thing I noticed was the heat. Dar is a low-lying coastal city, and as such, it has a relentless, sweltering humidity that doesn't fade even in the rain or at night. The traffic on the way from the airport was enough to thoroughly wake me up - the rules, it transpired, were pretty much 'go in whichever direction you want, honk furiously at everyone else, and whoever holds their nerve longest gets right of way'. However, my Projects Abroad coordinator was relaxed and friendly, and let me use his phone to call my parents to tell them I had arrived safely, which was a welcome reassurance.
'Karibu' ('welcome') is the first thing I heard on arriving in Tanzania, and it remained the word I heard most throughout the two-and-a-half months I spent in the country. It is extremely important to Tanzanians that you feel welcome whenever you enter their homes, shops or places of work.
Meeting my Host Family in Dar es Salaam
My host family already had three other volunteers living with them, which also helped dispel any fears I might have had about being the odd one out. My first full day was a Sunday, so I helped the others hand wash that week's clothes (new experience number one!) and then we all went to a nearby beach.
As a vegetarian, I had been expecting a very limited diet, but the food was good and there was always more than enough. I must have eaten my weight in beans, carrots, cabbage and white rice, but they were well-prepared and very tasty.
First Placement: Journalism in Dar es Salaam
Journalism in Tanzania was a new project when I joined it, and the magazine we were assigned to was clearly still working out what to do with us. During my first two weeks, the other journalism volunteer and I were often sent to the offices of a Swahili youth website, where we wrote short pieces about upcoming films, albums or fashion trends. Our colleagues were young and cheerful, and two of them took us to visit the headquarters of a popular national TV and radio station.
However, we had barely any actual journalism to do, so Projects Abroad arranged for us to switch to working for a different, more professionally-run magazine. We journeyed to the city centre one Saturday to meet one of the sub-editors, who was extremely welcoming and noted down our suggestions for the type of work we would like to be doing.
My second two weeks were much better, as we were assigned various articles to write, and also spent several hours proof-reading the latest issue of the magazine for mistakes or inconsistencies in English. The suburb we were staying in, Mikocheni B, was a long way from the magazine's offices, and we had a memorable day early on during which the annual rains brought traffic from the city centre to a total standstill, obliging us to walk most of the way back through the gathering dusk.
After this, we mostly worked from home (or, when our modems or our host family's power failed, over milkshakes at a nearby Internet cafe - not all bad!), which allowed us flexible hours, although we were very dependent on emails from the editor. The project was not what I expected, but I left with a small portfolio of published articles and a better knowledge of how magazines are put together, from the research stage to printing.
My free time in Dar es Salaam was spent reading, watching TV and films with my host family, and exploring local markets. Despite the heat and the mosquitos, I was sad to leave Tanzania's cultural capital, as I loved my host family and felt I was really beginning to make friends among the larger community of volunteers.
Second Placement: Teaching in Arusha
My time in Arusha provided a completely different experience to Dar es Salaam. The city is much smaller, which I liked, as it allowed me to get to know it in a way that had been impossible in Dar es Salaam. There's a wider range of projects being run here, which meant a larger community of staff and volunteers - there would be several new faces at every weekly social.
My second placement was teaching at a school for Maasai children in a rural area called Meserani, slightly to the west of the city. I loved the journey to work - after a cramped ride in a dala dala (Tanzania's endearingly chaotic minibuses), the other teachers and I would ride through the barren, dusty countryside in an open-topped jeep, stopping at Maasai villages along the way to scoop up the pupils who lived there. The school was small and basic, but is being built up further by Projects Abroad volunteers, and members of staff stop by around once a week to check the facilities.
The children, who were aged around 3-7, spoke almost no English, so explaining any new activities was difficult. They were used to learning mostly by call-and-response, which meant a lot of shouting - the other teaching volunteer and I both lost our voices during our time there! However, with the help of the headmistress, who came in occasionally to keep order and translate for us, we managed to introduce a new area of vocabulary every week, such as farm animals or family members.
The children were energetic and always extremely eager to show off their work, so keeping them in order wasn't easy. Despite this, I grew very fond of them, and enjoyed playing with them after their porridge break - they were all very affectionate and loved being lifted up.
At weekends, there was nearly always something planned amongst the volunteer community, from a trip to Moshi hot springs, to a visit to Meserani Snake Park. During and after my placements, I took the opportunity to travel on safari to three national parks (Lake Manyara, the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater), climb Mount Kilimanjaro, and visit Zanzibar.
What I miss most about Tanzania are the people I met. From my host families, to the children I taught and the other volunteers, many of whom became great friends. My trip allowed me to gain confidence, experience a hundred new things, and to truly immerse myself in a different culture rather than observing it from the balcony of a tourist hotel. I would definitely recommend it to anyone with even the slightest taste for adventure - you won't regret it.