After growing up surrounded by all things African, I was desperate to get back to the continent where my parents had met and married (they were both English teachers in Kenya) and where my older sister and younger brother were born. But it didn’t seem enough though for me to just go on a safari holiday for a couple of weeks. I wanted to stay long enough to really get to know the people, find out about the culture and see if I could bring back any of the faint memories I had of my early childhood with my family. I realised that the only way I could really do this was to volunteer, and I knew that this would mean money, a lot of it, and time.
For a good few years I was distracted by my travels, living and working as an English teacher in several different countries, but in 2007, after 3 years in the hectic, crowded, consumerist Hong Kong, I was both emotionally and financially ready to take the plunge and return to Africa. I did a bit of research online and managed to find a non-profit organisation called MondoChallenge Foundation which provided voluntary placements and ongoing support for a lot less than the bigger, more well-known charities. To raise funds, I did the highest bungy jump in the world with three of my friends in Macau, China, and had a ‘Summer Fun Day’ at my parents’ place in the UK. By September 2007, I was ready to leave on what would turn out to be the biggest adventure of my life.
I had been placed in a mainly Masai village called Ngaramtoni in northern Tanzania (a few hours from the Kenyan border) and would be teaching English at a government primary school. My family for the next three months were the Kinisis: Mr David (the father), Mama Baraka (the mother) and their three sons: Baraka, Lowassa and Julius. They had also taken in Mama Baraka’s nephew, Venance, and their housekeeper, Amina, lived with them too. Lindsay, another volunteer from the States, had already been staying there for two weeks by the time I arrived.
It took a good month or so for me to get used to the incredibly dusty roads and the hour-long walk (uphill) that I had to do every morning to get to school. We would have a ‘bath’ (wash from a bucket with water heated up on the fire) once or twice a week and every weekend Lindsay and I would get a dala dala (minibus) into Arusha, the nearest town, which was about 20 minutes away, and stay in a cheap guesthouse to take a proper shower and check our email. Once we got used to this change of lifestyle, everything else just slotted into place.
Our family was amazing. Their kindness, humour and affection were a joy to behold and most days consisted of singing, dancing, laughter and hugs in no particular order. I felt at home from day one and halfway through my placement started to panic about how quickly the weeks were passing – I felt so at home there that I didn’t want to leave.
The teaching was a challenge since the school was in the foothills of Mount Meru and had no running water or electricity. At that point I had been teaching for six years so lesson planning wasn’t really an issue, but I did have to rethink the way I delivered my classes because of the lack of resources. I taught a lot of songs and made posters for the classroom walls and used things like flashcards to make up team games which got almost all of my 120 students (yes, that was the average class size) up on their feet and cheering for their classmates.
I wasn’t sure at the time that I was actually contributing anything useful or whether my three months of teaching there would make much of a difference, but now that I look back on the experience six years later I can see that it has changed many lives for the better and my own life, and entire perspective on life, has been transformed completely.
A couple of weeks before I left, I asked about the possibility of sponsoring Ndobiri, one of my students who had shown great talent and was obviously very bright. I was introduced to his father, Sambeke, by one of the Tanzanian teachers and we agreed that I would send a small amount of money each month to pay for Ndobiri’s school uniform, books and school fees. I was sure that if this kid was given a chance, he could do great things both for his family and for the community as a whole.
Soon after I returned to the UK, friends and family members started to ask about how the sponsorship worked and if they could maybe do something similar. The project snowballed and we now sponsor ten children in the village, most of whom have lost either one or both parents to malaria or HIV/AIDS, and MondoChallenge Foundation, with the help of Mr David, makes sure that the money is safely delivered each month and used for educational necessities such as school shoes, uniform and stationery.
So far, I have been back to Ngaramtoni every two years to visit our kids and stay with my wonderful family and I’ll be returning again this November. This time I will be visiting my friend Elihuruma’s new kindergarten, the EllyHarris Learning Centre, and doing some voluntary teaching there for a month. It’s another project that my friends, family and I support whole-heartedly and, after doing a sponsored skydive in Australia this year, we have now raised a substantial amount for an Education and Training Fund for the next stage of our kids’ future studies.
I can’t guarantee that if you choose to volunteer in a developing country you’ll be as ridiculously lucky as I was, but I would still strongly recommend it. It’s an experience you’ll never forget and it’s a great way of getting to spend time in a country that you might never have visited otherwise.
(For more information on this and on our current projects, please visit our website: www.ellyharristanzania.com)