Every little bit helps: Often it is hard to recognise this fact because needs around the world can seem so overwhelming that we feel helpless. Still, rather than get discouraged, we like to try to provide some small service when we travel and hope that the old adage is true.
Recently we gained a much better understanding of the truth of that saying when we travelled to Tanzania for our first taste of true voluntourism. Our previous efforts have been on a much smaller scale, delivering supplies or spending a day offering a helping hand. This time we were dedicating two weeks to teaching and repairing a classroom at the Lunguo Primary School in the little town of Rau at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Our group of 12 enthusiastic and dedicated travellers stayed with a phenomenal woman, Mama Simba, who has set up a basecamp for these sorts of projects that comfortably met all of our needs. As a part of our stay she made it a point to introduce us to the area, have us interact with local people, and learn about the customs and culture in this part of Tanzania.
As a former teacher, she has been involved in her community for decades and works with several outside agencies to direct help to where it is needed. She also knows guides throughout the region and set up a hike up the mountain and a safari in the nearby Ngorongoro crater for our free time.
As fantastic as this tourism portion of our voluntourism was, certainly our prime objective was to do as much as possible for the school, and Mama Simba made sure to facilitate that as well.
When our group arrived at the school the entire student body assembled to welcome us with a song, just the first of many special moments to come. When they finished, we introduced ourselves and then made our way to the office to meet the staff and learn more about our roles from a teaching standpoint.
There was a woeful lack of supplies and workbooks, most classes have one raggedy book for every five or six students, so we are amazed at the dedication of the teachers here who are doing so much with so little. Our hope was that we could be half as successful at keep the students engaged over the coming days.
Our first order of business was to provide each student with paper, pens, and pencils. While this seems so insignificant to us, it was incredibly visible on the children’s faces just how meaningful it was to them.
Every little bit helps.
We quickly discovered that visual aids worked well with our third grade class, so we used balls, drums, hats, or whatever we could find to teach the possessive, and even had students pretend to be various animals for Old MacDonald’s farm. Songs were very popular, with Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes being a particular favourite.
Hopefully we imparted some small nuggets of understanding English through our antics – and by supplying new workbooks – but we felt that our best hope for making a lasting impact was through repairing as much of the school as we could.
When we toured the school we came face to face with the overwhelming needs. Classrooms in various states of disrepair, no electricity, unsanitary pit toilets with dilapidated outhouses covering them, and an outdoor kitchen that is sheltered only by scraps of wood and tin.
The school has a vegetable garden near the kitchen and the children grow and harvest corn on a plot of land donated by a local good samaritan. These sources are combined for student lunches cooked over an open fire, and for many of the children that is the only meal they will get all day.
It was demoralising because we felt so helpless in the face of it all, but then we decided to prioritise. We asked ourselves what is the most pressing problem. We all agreed that it was the lack of running water. This is so fundamental for cooking, cleaning, allowing the children to wash up, and to relieve them from the burden carrying jugs and buckets of water to their classrooms each morning.
Our ideas regarding the water situation would have to wait because before we had arrived, a classroom had been chosen for us to refurbish, and we focused on that task first. While we worked, we discussed plans to solve the water situation.
The first item on the agenda was by far the easiest, and cleanest task of the job, take the “before” pictures. The original plan was to simply repaint the room, but it needed much more than that, so we began by tearing out the old ceiling. The panels were rotting and falling down, and removing them revealed why. The roof had several leaks, so we had to seal those before installing any new boards.
While some of us pulled down the old ceiling, others prepped the walls for painting, cleaning and sanding and, with our crew of a dozen all going at it, we excited by the progress we were making. But as we moved into the second phase of our reconstruction that confidence began to fade.
Installing the new ceiling was turning out to be much more difficult than we anticipated. We also decided that if we were going to remodel the room, we should do it all, so replacing the floor was added to our agenda. Unfortunately, our little group had neither the skill nor the time to accomplish both of these tasks.
We took up a collection for the additional supplies, and luckily had enough left over to hire a couple of local carpenters to help out. This inspired the idea of how we might handle the water issue. We asked the school principal to have a plumber come to survey the situation and give us an estimate of what it would cost to run water to the kitchen. The amount needed was not even close to being a burden for us, so we passed the hat again.
With our hired helping hands we finished repairing the classroom in time to take our “after” photos with big smiles on the day before departing. This last day was a bittersweet combination of emotions, sad to be leaving, but glad to have had the opportunity to meet and get to know these bright, fun-loving youngsters and hopefully make their lives a little better.
We are certain that we learned more from our students than they did from us. Though it felt like we could never do enough, everyone assured us that we had an impact on the kids at the Lunguo Primary School. We certainly hope so, but we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they certainly left a life-changing impression on us.
We are also happy to report that the school now has running water.
Every little bit helps.
Our volunteer experience was through an incredible outfit called Discover Corps.
Tell us, have you ever volunteer here or abroad? What was your experience?