Volunteers everywhere you turn

I am sure Tanzania, specifically Moshi, is not unique, but walking throughout downtown Moshi or having dinner at an expat restaurant one thinks, “Surely all these young people can’t be climbing Kilimanjaro or getting ready for a safari.” After a while you start seeing some of the same people over and over around town. Not being one who is particularly bashful, I started introducing myself and asking what their names are, where they are from, and what brings them to Tanzania?

In my unauthorized, unfunded, and highly unscientific street level survey I estimate that 9 out of 10 are young women, predominantly from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany, Australia and the US. Seventy percent are in Tanzania for less than three months and their volunteer work is tied to their university studies. Thirty percent are on a “gap year,” and ten percent are trying to “find themselves.”

They travel around town in small groups and sometimes with maybe a bit too much skin showing for the local culture. You find them in the afternoons lined up at the ATMs, at Vodacom buying credit for their knock-off local cell phones, and carrying all their things in the standard shoulder bags sold on the street made of bright African prints. They also house themselves in small clusters in local hostels, ride in the local dala-dalas (very over-crowded taxi vans) and spend a great deal of time at the Kilimanjaro Union Coffee Shop on their laptops. A few even find time to buy a pass at a local high-end safari club to go swimming during the hottest part of the day.

You may think I am making light of them … just the opposite. These incredible young people, remember mostly young women, line up to volunteer at the vast Women Volunteers in Tanzanianumber of orphanages, AIDS programs, local hospitals, and in some cases our program, Building a Caring Community. We occasionally have more volunteers than children at a center. In a time when our society far too often focuses its energy on consumerism, I find these young women and men truly inspiring.

True, they have resources to do this trip/experience, but two young women we met from Norway are starting a project for street children with their own money. Neither have family wealth, but it’s impressive that they’ve chosen to invest the money they’ve raised back home on this good work.

It’s hard to tell how these young people are perceived or accepted by the Tanzanians. I know some locals see them as cash cows to be milked, some see them as a necessary diversion in their quest to find international sponsors, but often new friendships are formed and relationships are maintained over the years. It’s not unusual to find volunteers who see their work at home only as a means to earn enough money to return to Moshi whenever they can.

Most importantly, their largest contribution to Tanzania and Africa may not be what they accomplish while they are here, but what they say to their friends, families and future colleagues about their experiences and the conditions in Tanzania. Hopefully, they can be a part of the most cost effective public awareness campaign ever created, and part of a truly select fraternity.

In April, we welcomed two great young people to Moshi, John and Melissa. As our first “International Fellows” from the Mosaic Collaborative for Disability Policy and Practice, they will work with Barb for a month prior to our return to the USA.  They will stay for one year to assist our BCC project partners and we’ll rejoin them next January until they leave at the end of March.

Post script: Not everyone is under 30. Barb and I have worked with some outstanding more mature volunteers, particularly an American physical therapist from Oregon and a retired lawyer from Boston who helped us think through improvements to our micro-credit program. One caution, some young people get involved with international volunteer programs whose major objective is profit. We’ve talked with several volunteers who found that once they arrived in Moshi,  there was no hostel, no viable volunteer position or on-ground support as promised. So if you know someone who wants to come to Tanzania, please encourage them to do so since no one will regret the experience; however, DO encourage them to do their research first.



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