This summer, Minal Ahson, a junior double majoring in Microbiology and Religious Studies, volunteered with Cross Cultural Solutions [CCS], an international grassroots volunteer placement organization. Ahson conducted her volunteer work in Tengeru, a small village outside of Arusha, Tanzania. She was awarded the Patrick Stewart 2003 Human Rights Scholarship from Amnesty International for her project to research the HIV/AIDS and healthcare situations in the village. This is the first installment of a four-part series in which Ahson will describe her experiences and volunteer work in Tanzania.
Journal Entry #1
As my parents saw me off, my mother was really worried. I told her that, in order to help and learn about others, we must step outside of our own comfort zones. I can’t help but feel extremely fortunate to have this experience. First of all, I have amazing parents to support me in going to a country where I know no one and do not speak the language. Second of all, I was humbled to receive the Amnesty International scholarship. I didn’t think it was a big deal when I won, but when I read the bios of the other winners, I was amazed. It is encouraging to see that other young people are also motivated to help others and change the world around them.
On the way there, I spoke with the lady sitting next to me on the plane. She was going to Spain for vacation. She didn’t seem to understand that I was going to Tanzania to volunteer. I guess that’s an odd concept? I don’t know. . .
At the airport, I met some of the other volunteers – most of them were students from around the country, a few from Canada and the UK. We were greeted at the airport by members of CCS. They drove us to the CCS house in a van, and during the ride, I couldn’t help but notice how cool the air was and how dark the town was. I could hardly see anything out of the windows because there were no street lights.
We reached the house, which was very different in layout from most homes in America. We were greeted at the gate by a guard and were led inside, where a traditional Tanzanian meal awaited us even though it was almost midnight! Hospitality is extremely important in the Tanzanian culture. Later, as we were escorted to our rooms, I noticed that it was already very quiet. I was told that most village people rise and sleep with the sun, due to the limited amount of electricity. I could hear radios in the distance.
The next morning, we woke up early to hike the foothills of Mount Meru with a local guide. Since we were staying in a village, to get to the main town we took a van called a Dalla-Dalla. It wasn’t bad that morning, but normally people would be sitting on laps of others and hanging out windows! The hike was amazing. We were able to see the whole city and waded in a river to a waterfall. We met many of the townspeople, who were extremely excited to shake our hands and teach us Swahili greetings. On the way back, our tour guide decided to chart his own path with a machete. We were literally climbing through vines and trees. Definitely crazy!
We went through orientation the following day, which allowed us to learn about cultural differences and how to conduct ourselves. Little things, such as eye contact and the concept of time, were interesting to learn. I was given my placement: Nkoaranga Secondary School and Orphanage. I am glad that I will be working with kids!
We were informed of the Travel Alerts issued by the U.S. government about American tourists visiting East Africa. I found out that the flights from the U.S. to the region were being cancelled. I guess we made it just in time! Mama Simba, the country director of CCS, instructed us to give her copies of our passports, just in case. It was a little intimidating to be amidst the anti-Americanism that I had only heard and read about, but I never experienced anything like that during my trip. On the contrary, people were surprised to learn that I am American [due to my appearance] and in the predominantly Muslim country, people were happy to hear me say the Islamic greeting of “Peace.”
It’s interesting to observe the HIV/AIDS situation. I asked Mama Simba what the situation was like in Tengeru, and all she said was, “Very bad!” I noticed that HIV is something that is not openly spoken of in the conservative culture. I hope the next few weeks will allow me to get a better picture of the situation.
Minal Ahson can be contacted at email@example.com.