The Dirt on Volunteering

IMG_1226By Meritt Buyer

This past Saturday marked two lesser know holidays. While not widely celebrated, World Soil Day and International Volunteer Day represent key aspects of BCC. Volunteers contribute immeasurable quantities of  time and energy to our organization. We are so grateful for the physical and occupational therapists, the special education teachers, and the speech therapists that choose to share their time and talents with the children of BCC. They bring so much to our program. Nor  would we function without the people who give monetarily, who send us therapeutic supplies, organize fundraisers, and provide us with ongoing support and encouragement.

Because of our new farm, BCC is also making note of World Soil Day and other relevant environmental issues. Environmentalism is not widespread topic here in Moshi. Although this region is heavily reliant on farming, and therefore soil, there is not a lot of technical knowledge about environmental stewardship.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my husband, Teke Taylor, is here with me in Moshi. International volunteer extraordinaire and environmental engineer, he just happens to illustrate these two holidays remarkably well. Teke is helping to design and install an irrigation system for the new farm, as well as support several other projects for BCC.  He  was kind enough to answer a few questions about his experiences.

1. You have a lot of experience volunteering both in the US and internationally. Why do you think volunteering is important? What do you feel are some of the differences between volunteering locally and volunteering overseas?

Volunteering is important because although many social problems could benefit greatly from more money, most also suffer from a lack of man/woman-power. But historically, I’ve had more time than money to contribute to helping. Plus, when you contribute time you get to see the people you are helping and witness your impact directly. As for the difference between volunteering locally and overseas, I think the main difference is that the populations I’ve volunteered with overseas have been consistently less well off than their American counterparts. Additionally, I think there’s an added benefit of them seeing that the rest of the world cares. In America, that is not so important because most Americans feel that any/all of America’s problems can be solved by America. Whereas I think many people in developing countries look to the first world to help solve their problems – for better or for worse.

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2. How did you become interested in working on environmental issues?

After getting my chemical engineering degree, I started a career in computer programming. During that time, I also developed a love for outdoor activities and a stronger appreciation for natural beauty. After a few years, I decided to combine my chemical engineering education with my affinity for the environment.

3. What was the most interesting/important soil clean up project you have worked on?

One of the most interesting projects was an investigation of fuel tanks on various South African farms. Historically, a major fuel company had given the farmers tanks in exchange for buying their fuel from them. The company didn’t maintain records of the tanks they gave and provided no maintenance services. Thus, they had little idea where all these tanks were and what they were currently used for. The project allowed me to tour the South African countryside, meet many farmers, and see how many tanks currently had uses different from their initial purpose – something typical of the African ingenuity.

One of most important projects was the design and implementation of a permeable reactive barrier (PRB) to treat a volatile organic compound groundwater plume in Northern California. The plume was migrating beneath a residential area and through volatilization causing vapor concentrations in some homes to be above health screening levels. The PRB was able to reduce concentrations to below screening levels and resulted in indoor air concentrations falling below critical levels in all homes in the community.

4. How do environmental principles in Tanzania differ from those in the US?

I don’t know much about environmental principles in Tanzania. However, based on general observations, it seems to be similar to the out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality that dominated the US until the mid to late 1980s.

5. Can you talk a bit about the importance of environmental education and lack thereof in developing countries?

The main importance, as I see it, is so that they will not make the same mistakes as many of the more developed countries. Pollution prevention is much less expensive than cleanup. And sometimes it’s not feasible to return a resource, such as a groundwater aquifer, to its original condition. Additionally, poorer populations rely disproportionately on natural resources, such as surface water (streams, lakes, etc) and groundwater.  When those resources are threatened, it also threatens their livelihood and survival. Without pressure to restore those resources, those populations are exposed to all types of adverse health effects.

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6. What have you enjoyed most about working with BCC thus far? What about living in Moshi?

Meeting the kids that the farm will ultimately benefit, working with the BCC staff, and the planning/design that the project requires. In the States, you’d just go to Home Depot to buy some equipment, hook it up to a tap and off you go. Here, there are so many more levels to it.

As for living in Tanzania, I like that everything is an adventure. Finding basic items, negotiating prices, communicating simple ideas. It’s kind of like being born again, or some kind of survival game where you are dropped into a place and have to survive on your wits. I’ve also enjoyed meeting Tanzanians and other foreigners and learning their interesting stories.

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One thing I particularly like about Moshi as opposed to other places I’ve visited or lived is there seems to be a disproportionate number of people who come here to volunteer. For one, it means they are here longer so there’s more time to develop a lasting friendship. Secondly, I find people who would travel to a place to volunteer more interesting than many I’ve met that are just travelling/partying their way through a place with no real desire to learn about or experience the culture.

7. In what ways do you think/hope the farm will benefit BCC?

Mainly, I hope the kids enjoy building and working the farm. I also hope we can provide the majority of the food for the centers and a small income for BCC. The BCC staff and other local people are much more knowledgeable on how to grow the commonly found crops here. I’m hoping to add value by introducing less frequently found crops that command higher selling prices and may open up markets for BCC. One good example is basil, which is not currently found in markets, but most of the guesthouses/restaurants/hotels offer pizza on their menu. If BCC can grow basil it may allow them to tap into a currently under served market, rather than having to compete with everyone else selling commonly found crops.

We look forward to updating you on our progress on the farm!

 

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4 thoughts on “The Dirt on Volunteering

  1. Teke, Mosaic International and BCC thank you to all of you for all you do for the children and families in the program! We are so grateful for your time, talents, and efforts. We’re lucky to have not only Meritt as a phenomenal fellow this year, but your expertise and volunteer time as well!

  2. Merritt and Teke – thank you for sharing your experiences as volunteers. Do you plan to stay in South Africa long term? Do you collaborate with locals in your work? How do you feel about the question of sustainability? I’m curious as have just returned from a stint volunteering in Central Province in Zambia under a shorter, three month programme.

    With regards to the specifics of your work, I really hope the basil growing works out – it can be so satisfying seeing the results of a fresh initiative!

    • Hi Lorna, Thanks so much for your message. Teke and I lived/worked/volunteered for 4 years in South Africa several years ago. I am now an International Fellow with Building a Caring Community here in Moshi, TZ and Teke is volunteering with the program as well.
      Building a Caring Community is fully staffed by locals. All of our office, program, and field staff are Tanzanians. The program par terms with Mosiac International which s based in the states and hires a an international fellow every year to support BCC and the partnership. Mosaic’s goal is to support BCC to become fully sustainable. I really admire the Mosaic/BCC model. It empowers local people to meet the needs they see in their own community.
      Just glanced at your blog from Zambia and I am really enjoying it. What are some of your reflections on your experience?
      Will let you know how the basil goes!

  3. Well, you must love South Africa, it sounds like you are very dedicated to your work. It’s inspiring to hear of people dedicating their lives so truly to the betterment of a community. It really lifts my spirits! What really allows my feeling of optimism is hearing how many local staff you have. Are any of them being trained in the role you are currently holding? Do you have a time estimate for how long it will take for the project to become fully sustainable?

    From my experience the question of sustainability is an odd one. It seems it is a buzz word that every charity aims for. After my time in Zambia I wonder if that is more to do with generating funds from an unknowing public than a genuine expression of intentions. Restless Development, the charity I went away with, present themselves as one of the charities more dedicated to and more likely to achieve true sustainability. However, on seeing their work on the ground, I can honestly say I think that with the exception of a couple of exceptional individuals, we can only place our hopes in the snowball effect in terms of seeing long-term gains from our work. Honestly the programme I was a part of showed next to no likelihood of continuing after myself and the other volunteers. It was saddening for me, and is making me reflect with greater depth on the industry of international development as a whole and it structural function.

    I’ll be writing further reflections on my time on my blog in the next couple of weeks. Please do follow me if you’d like to read them – I’d love your input!

    …do you have plenty of tomatoes out there, and garlic? Tomatoes, garlic and basil on bread – scrummy!

    Peace. L.

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