Tanzania has generally remained untouched by the rivalries and political upheavals that other neighbouring countries have experienced. It is one of Africa’s top destinations for tourists, with attractions like Mount Kilimanjaro, Serengeti National Park, Norongoro Crater, and the beautiful beaches of Zanzibar.
This week, in Part Two of Shantel’s volunteering adventures, she shares her life changing experiences volunteering in the East African nation.
In 2018 I saw a month-long volunteer trip to Tanzania studying chimpanzees. I had no idea what would
become of me once I got there, but I knew I had to go. Two weeks later I was there.
It took approximately twenty-two hours to get from Brisbane to Tanzania, travelling through Dubai and
Dar Es Salam to get to Mwanza in the north of the country. My arrival was very disarming. I almost missed my flight to Mwanza because I couldn’t understand the loudspeaker and didn’t realise they were calling my flight. I was the last passenger to board.
I was collected from the airport by my coordinator, and he took me to a restaurant where he bought me
the biggest meal that I’ve ever seen, for just two dollars Australian.
On my first day in Tanzania I was collected from my hotel and taken to the FOHUSO volunteer office in a van, or as they call them there, dala dala. I was told what my jobs would be, which included managing the organisation’s social media, until we travelled to the jungle to do the actual trip I had signed up for. The first leg of the journey involved a twenty-hour trip, in a bus with no air conditioning or bathrooms. The second leg was another eight hours squished into a dala dala with over thirty people. After that experience I certainly feel gratitude for our modes of transport in Australia and the western world. Although in saying that, I came to love travelling around town in the various modes of Tanzanian transport. Besides the dala dala minibuses, there were auto rickshaws called Bajaj, and bicycle and motorbike taxis called BodaBoda. I remember washing my hair after those trips and watching the water drain brown from the dust and dirt. Blurck!
We arrived in the little fishing village of Rukoma, near the Rwanda border, and I was shocked to discover I couldn’t shower or use the bathroom in private. These amenities were located next to in what would be the equivalent of a lounge room. This expectation of privacy was a foreign concept to the Tanzanians, and they thought I was joking. Maybe it was my extreme tiredness from the journey, but my mental capacity just died there and then. I broke down and cried in front of everyone; this was a situation where I would normally ignore how I felt, out of fear of failure or disappointing someone else. This time, I went inwards and knew that if it didn’t feel right to me, I shouldn’t proceed.
For hours I wrestled with the choice to stay or leave Rukoma. I asked for advice and tried to listen to those
who said I would regret it if I left. I met the elders of the village they apologized for my wanting to leave. I felt so guilty; it’s probably singlehandedly the most embarrassing moment of my life. But in the end, I just
could not do it, so I used my voice and said so. That was such a huge step forward for me. While it hurt and I struggled with disappointment, it also felt so good to know I said what I was really feeling. I was completely honest and vulnerable. According to my coordinator, my actions may just have been the catalyst for change needed in the volunteer program. I know it has changed the way they are going to run their program. Knowing the lack of privacy made me uncomfortable gave them awareness that it may make others who come feel the same, and they don’t want that to happen. Your comfortability in their country is what they truly care about.
Maybe it was naive of me to think I would have some semblance of privacy like I had in the other villages.
But this was a true African village where food wasn’t even available some days. It was such a true village that when I asked if we could get a car out they had none. We were lucky to even get a bus out the next day.
We travelled back to Kigoma and visited Jane Goodall’s original space where she started her research. We then headed back to Mwanza where I took part in rubbish collection, planting trees and other seedlings, and more office work.
The biggest culture shock for me was seeing so many people with two phones, which they used all the time. Anyone who knows me knows how much I dislike people being on their phones at mealtimes or while having a conversation. I think that was my biggest adjustment to life in Tanzania. It didn’t help that some of my work was done on my phone because I didn’t bring my laptop. But I did still know how to put my phone down and enjoy the scenery.
Not knowing Swahili was frustrating. I felt so rude and looked like a stunned mullet when someone said something to me. It was probably the worst part about randomly booking a last minute trip, but the people were so friendly and willing to help me learn the language.
My personality was different for the Tanzanians. They kept referring to me as cool, because I didn’t speak much. I think they meant quiet. I kept trying to tell them it’s my personality, that I’m just a quiet person and I enjoy being on my own, but they didn’t seem to understand the concept.
I got to carry water on my head and help prepare local food with the women of the house in their village, dressed in true Tanzanian women’s clothing. That was a day I will never forget and which gave me so much more admiration for the women there. Their strength is undeniable.
The food was a mixture of rice, meat (if you eat it) and beans. Sometimes vegetables weren’t even available. Being a vegetarian in Mwanza was another foreign concept; in the eyes of the locals, only poor people are vegetarian because it means you can’t afford meat. I couldn’t imagine being vegan visiting a place like that, but if you eat meat, the local dishes really are delicious.
I had so much time to go inwards on that trip, time to think about anything and everything. My emotions
came and went. I had moments of wanting to give up and go home, which was completely new for me. It had nothing to do with the people and how they treated me, as they were amazing. I suspect it was just the ongoing cultural shock. It was such a massive learning experience.
After volunteering for three weeks, I headed off on safari camping through the Serengeti National Park. This
experience was my favourite of the trip, one I will never forget. Entering the park from the Mwanza end is apparently better than entering from the Arusha end, as most tourists do. At the Mwanza entrance there are animals from the
get-go, whereas from Arusha it can sometimes be hours before you see any. I had the terrifying experience of a lion roar past my tent. I looked out my window to see three people running towards it with guns. I thought I was about to be eaten!
I then spent a few days in Zanzibar, an archipelago off the Tanzanian coast. It is a breath-taking spot to escape from the world: clear, turquoise-blue water, shallow sandbars, and many small, nearly deserted islands virtually unvisited by tourists. You can explore Stone Town, Zanzibar City’s old quarter and a World Heritage Site, or just go beach to beach between the tiny fishing villages.
Whilst relaxing on the beach, I reflected on my trip so far. At this point in the trip I was still struggling with feelings of failure. I had never quit something before. Spending a few days in Zanzibar really helped me reset my nervous system and send me home with a much better mindset.
When it comes to Africa, if you don’t book five star experiences, be prepared for the different standards
of living. There will be flies buzzing around your food, and you may have to squat over the toilets. The standards of cleanliness in your hotel room will differ from what you expect at home. Sometimes you may have to have bucket
showers with only cold water, but on the hot African days, which is refreshing!
Even when the accommodation is not five stars, mosquito nets are provided for those of us who have those
nasty mosquito-borne diseases on the mind. If you want to spend extreme amounts of money and stay somewhere like the resort in Blended (yes please one day) then the experience may differ. For me, I think why bother coming if you just want to experience the comforts of home?
You also need to be prepared for ‘Africa Time’. When people tell you a time to be ready, be prepared for the
fact they may not be there for at least another hour. I felt better prepared for the time fluency as I had experienced it in Fiji. I just went with the flow. People who know me know I’m a go with the flow type of person. I can have
a plan and feel good about having a plan but I’m not so rigid that if the plan has to change, I lose the plot. Tanzanians are experts at going with the flow!
If Africa is on your travel bucket list, you need to weigh up the pros and cons. Even though I would love for everyone to experience it, I don’t think it is for everyone. If you want to push your boundaries and learn more about yourself than you ever thought possible, then I highly recommend it.
Africa brought me the closest to breaking point than I’ve ever felt. I broke down my boundaries and walls,
and for that I am grateful. I became an expert at pushing through what I knew weren’t real feelings, to get to the root of what was real. Now, I know how to choose my feelings each day. I know my life is my choice. Africa helped me to
Africa erased my fear of rejection, after having so many smiles unreturned. I can understand why some
may be hesitant to smile back, and let’s face it, even at home sometimes smiles go unreturned. But when the smiles are returned, they radiate from ear to ear.
It removed my fear of touch – I used to clam up at the idea of random people touching me, but the Tanzanian
people are so friendly and will hold your hand or place their arm around you. Some will ask permission first, but others don’t. I’ve also felt okay with stopping someone if I felt they were too touchy for me personally, and boy did
that feel powerful for me.
I stopped assuming everyone is after something. Assumptions are the killer of experience, but I also know
to trust my gut now more than ever. If something isn’t right, I will feel it.
My fear of judgement is now gone. In Africa I spent time walking around being stared at. People commented on me
being ‘white’ which was always a bit of a giggle because I’m not white back home. But it really taught me how to not care what people are thinking or saying. You think you don’t care, until you realize that you have cared, because all of a sudden you feel this immense sense of being judged.
My fear of being seen was dissolved in a community where I was one of the only Mzungu (white person). It was impossible to be invisible. Being able to go about my life, no matter what, in the community despite the stares, was one of my biggest points of growth. I’d always been able to go out and have fun without things like alcohol, but this was next level uncomfortable. It was funny having people ask to have photos with me!
I’ve learnt I can do things I thought I would never be able to do. Like travel fifteen hours on a bus! All of
this was made possible by the amazing people I volunteered with. I was the first volunteer to come over from Australia with their organizations. The staff became my family and I miss their smiles and their attitudes, even if they
would stay in bed on rainy days and come late!
I truly felt accepted with being able to meet the local government and have them thank us for the difference we were making in the community with the waste collection and recycling program. It made my heart feel full. The teams went above and beyond what any other company had done for me, and I was truly thankful for their support and willingness to listen and change things if needed.
In Africa I learned to take responsibility for myself and my feelings. I thought I felt that way before but
I didn’t. I had to get real with myself. I have Africa, Tanzania, Mwanza, the staff of FOHUSO to thank for that.
Solo travel is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Solo travel in Africa was next level for
me. I came home feeling like a new person. I had so much growth and learnt so much about myself. I came home wanting to be in my authentic truth. I wanted to live my life without my past holding me back any longer, and I took steps to make sure that was on the cards for me.
Stay tuned for the last instalment of Shantel’s adventures, where she will share about her travels in Nepal, next week.