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Sophia Cao - Medicine in Tanzania

A group of High School Special volunteers in Tanzania

Who would have thought that my parents would agree upon my voyage to Tanzania? I’m Sophia Cao, a high school senior from California, United States, and I journeyed to Tanzania for the two-week High School Special the summer before my senior year in 2017. The year before, I researched all over the internet for medical abroad opportunities for I strongly desired to experience a new culture, language, and adventure. I discovered through Projects Abroad the chance to travel to Tanzania, but I knew that my parents wouldn’t even consider the possibility.

I had never travelled alone, and if they allowed me, I would be traveling to Arizona, not Africa. They were already hesitating to let me go and after my allergic reaction to the Typhoid pills, well let’s just say that there was almost 0% chance of me going. After lots of conversations and phone calls to the Projects Abroad coordinator, my parents agreed. They actually agreed. Because of the High School Special’s arrangements/schedule, my parents felt that they could trust Projects Abroad for my safety. They were right.

Arriving in Tanzania

High School Special volunteers pose for a photo together

From a 41-hour flight that included a layover night in Istanbul, Turkey, to flight delays, I had no idea how I got through it alone. Arriving in Istanbul was quite distressing, but interesting. As a 16-year-old girl walking by myself, discovering what to do next was challenging. After I got off the plane, I had to get a visa for the night, pass checkpoints, find a hotel, look for a shuttle to the hotel, and get through registration.

The next day, I had to quickly travel to the airport for my flight to Kilimanjaro Airport. After an 11-hour flight, I arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport in the early morning. The airport was much smaller than I had expected, but it was intriguing to see the vast differences between America and Africa. After receiving my business visa and passing through the luggage checkpoint, I finally arrived outside. Two Projects Abroad staff members, Daniella and Eliza, were waiting for me the whole time! They welcomed me straight away and brought me to the host family, TheHaus.

My Medicine placement

On the first day of the Medicine placement, I got to connect with all the volunteers on the two-week High School Special. During the two weeks, we got to experience surgical workshops, Swahili/cultural lessons, and tropical disease lectures. In the mornings, we went to either clinics or the Projects Abroad office by bus for lessons. In one clinic, we were able to see children with types of malnutrition: kwashiorkor and marasmus. Being able to see these health issues allowed us to gain knowledge on what life is like for some in a developing country. It was a very depressing sight, though, causing many volunteers including myself to tear up.

Medicine volunteers with a local doctor on an outreach

On some days, we had the opportunity to travel to villages and orphanages for medical outreaches. For one medical outreach, we travelled to Engikaret, a rural area, where we helped around 70 patients. During our experience there, it was eye opening to see all the skin fungal infections and other health issues. As volunteers, we could be in the pharmaceutical area, the consultation room, or the registration zone. It was an educational experience to work first-hand with patients and help them in their time of need.

My favourite part of the medical placement was our visit to a Maasai school. We got to play with the children as well as teach them about hygiene. One little girl kept on making grabbing motions to get me to hold her. She was such an adorable girl! Afterwards, we taught them games and in one room, the volunteers taught the kids how to dab!

My host family

Volunteers at Mount Meru waterfall in Tanzania

As the first volunteer to arrive, I was able to meet my host family the morning of my arrival. They were the sweetest human beings and they made me feel comfortable in the new environment. The day after, most of the other volunteers arrived including the four-week High School Special volunteers. Every evening, the host family prepared food for us while the volunteers shared their background and stories with one another.

The food they usually prepared was fruits, vegetables, and sometimes ugali. In the mornings, they made amazing mandalas and pancakes. I got to become friends with each and every single volunteer living at TheHaus, and I still wish I could’ve had more time with them. Additionally, the beds in the rooms were very comfortable and the host family cleaned our rooms every day, which was very sweet of them! Make sure, though, to bring your own detergent for your laundry.

Weekend activities

On the weekends, we got to experience a safari and a Mount Meru waterfall hike. The safari was such a phenomenal adventure, for we got see elephants and giraffes up close. At the end of the safari day, though, our safari truck wouldn’t start unless we pushed it. Seven girls got out and started pushing. Everyone had a good laugh at the incident on our way back. Also during our trip back to the hostel, we had the opportunity to meet Peter, a boy hitchhiker. We had fun talking to him as he rode on his bicycle with his hand grasping the side of the truck.

Volunteers pushing their safari truck

Another activity we did was the hike to Mount Meru waterfall. It was quite a walk, but when we reached Mount Meru waterfall, we had the opportunity to change into our swimsuits and jump into the waterfall. Although the water was freezing cold, it was an enjoyable event as we splashed around with each other while taking lots of pictures.

Final thoughts

There are still no words to describe the amount of love I have for Tanzania, the coordinators, the host family, and of course, the other volunteers. As the first volunteer to arrive and leave, the other volunteers threw me a goodbye party on my last day. I can still remember all the hugs I received from every one of them and the humorous singing/dancing. With tears in my eyes, I said goodbye to my travel family and left for the airport. The people I met during the trip have become a part of who I am and I still keep in contact with many of the other volunteers. This trip has altered my perspective and changed my view of the world for the better. If you would like more information of the two-week High School Special programme in Tanzania, check out my travel blog at www.sophtravel.com!

Sophia Cao

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