This post was written by Mai (@Ms_M_Writes), a Londoner who volunteered in Tanzania.
There are two experiences when visiting Africa, if you aren’t working there: being a tourist and being a volunteer. Both are worthwhile, eye-opening and leave you wanting more. The time I spent in Tanzania was as a volunteer. The main difference between doing that and being a tourist, I think, is that you have a permanent base even if you travel from that base.
What can I say about Tanzania? A place where I spent five weeks of my life, in a bid to capture something of the gap year that I didn’t get round to having. I was 27 and travelling on my own. I didn’t want to stay on the beaten track but knew nothing about travelling in Africa and had no skills which would help me meet people or go to new places by myself. I had a maximum of six weeks and a limited budget.
I found a charity who provided projects which surmounted all these problems and signed up. I went to Amani, a rainforest home on the side of a mountain, primarily to help build a classroom for the local school and to have a break from studying law. I came home with new friends, confidence and a lust for life that I hadn’t felt since I was 18. Rather unsettlingly, the culture shock coming home was more profound and more upsetting than that on the way out. In Tanzania, everything is “Nzuri” (“good”), the pace of life is sensible, there is ample time for friends and family and our entertainment was ourselves, the night sky and watching monkeys in the trees by our house. Coming back to a busy London train and life was jarring.
Tanzania is beautiful. What I hadn’t imagined was how lush it is. Palm trees along the side of the road, grass, and in the distance, mountains covered in green.
And when we got to “our” mountain, we found that the way to work every day from our house was a walk down a winding path, through a canopy of trees old enough to be my grandfather or great-grandfather and so tall that you couldn’t see either the roots or top branches. Some days the sun shone out of an unbelievably blue sky and you could see the trees carrying on for miles across the mountainside. On others, cotton-wool clouds, often only just out of reach above your head, meandered through the green.
The people also are beautiful, inside and out. Everyone wears brightly coloured clothes and there is an abundance of patterned lengths of cloth called “Kangas” which can be used for everything; skirt, sling, bag, headscarf, sheet…
As for hospitality, it is second to none. It was poignant and sobering to be offered meat by our hosts on the first day, when we knew that for the majority of the local population it is a luxury. The main diet is beans, vegetables and rice and for the rest of our stay, that was what we ate too and it was very good and very filling. The standard of living here was very contrary: although everyone had a mobile phone, a lot of houses did not have electricity or a a flush toilet.
However, we were there to work during the week on the building site. Women and men worked together, gloves and boots were the order of the day and we learnt how to dig trenches with pick-axes and shovels, how to lay foundations and how to mix cement by hand. That includes carrying the water from a well at the bottom of a steep and slippery slope, heaving bags of concrete, and then turning them both over with shovels until mixed into a smooth and creamy liquid.
The pupils of the school we were working at put on singing and dancing shows for us on our arrival and our departure and we were always made to feel welcome. We learnt Swahili and taught English to the children and some adults. I took conversation classes
with some of the teachers, which was a lot of fun!
We kept chickens, ate chapattis and saw sunset at the top of the mountain where the view was of toucans and other impressive birds swooping above the treetops through an enormous gorge.
At weekends, we socialised in the village or went away on mini trips. We went to Tanga (a nearby coastal town) and Zanzibar (that’s another story!). On these trips, it was lovely to be able to practise our Swahili and as most of what we did was with local people and businesses, we felt like we had contributed something in keeping with the spirit of the whole trip.
As a traveller who likes to see a country from the inside, I would recommend volunteering as the way forward. Any organisation undertaking a project will have local links and already be off the beaten track before you start.
Having said that, if you want to go to Tanzania as a tourist, then just go! There are plenty of good guidebooks which will recommend places to stay and things to see. Apart from the flights, unless you want the five-star experience, this doesn’t have to be an expensive holiday. Try to go for as long as possible or highlight one place you want to see and stay there.