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Last year’s Epigram editor Sarah Newey shares her experiences of volunteering in Tanzania…


When I graduated last summer, I wasn’t quite ready to launch into the world of work; I felt the need to explore the world before settling into a career and taking on bigger responsibilities. So instead, I went off to Africa for three months. Tanzania, to be precise.

my Mum fondly remembers me announcing aged 8 that I was going to build a school in Africa one day.

Volunteering abroad has always been a dream for me; my Mum fondly remembers me announcing aged 8 that I was going to build a school in Africa one day. I didn’t quite achieve that, although part of my project was building two toilet blocks. But volunteering was as incredible – if not more – than I ever could have imagined.

Building two toilet blocks.

I went to Tanzania on a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) project with Raleigh International, funded through the government’s International Citizenship Service (ICS) scheme. The aim was to improve sanitation and hygiene in rural communities, where a lack of education surrounding basic issues – like hand washing – causes unnecessary illness and deaths regularly.

It’s estimated that just 1 in 5 people wash their hands before preparing food in Tanzania, and even fewer use soap – even though it can reduce the spread of diseases such as diarrhoea by 47%.

My project was based in a small village called Iyembela, in the Njombe region of Southern Tanzania. I worked and lived there with a team of 16 volunteers, 8 from Tanzania and 8 from the UK. While we were there, we focused both on improving infrastructure and providing knowledge about WASH issues. In terms of infrastructure, we constructed two new toilet blocks for the local dispensary, which had previously relied on two sub standard keyhole latrines.

I honestly couldn’t believe that the local doctors surgery relied on such awful toilets – the doors didn’t even shut

When we first arrived, I honestly couldn’t believe that the local doctors surgery relied on such awful toilets – the doors didn’t even shut, there was nowhere to wash your hands, and the toilet quite literally was just a hole in the ground.

For me, construction was one of the biggest challenges; it was so physical and unlike anything I’d done before – not something a History degree can really prepare you for! But laying bricks, making cement and digging foundations turned out to be great fun, and seeing the end result was hugely satisfying.

Especially when the community were so grateful – we had the most incredible opening party, Tanzanians really know how to dance! (I tried in vain to learn move my bum the way they all move their bums, but quickly realised my skills are limited to dad dancing!)

Teaching at the primary and secondary schools was another big part of the project, and probably my favourite. I loved being around the children, and the lessons were great fun – as well as passing on essential, and basic, information about health and hygiene, we played lots of games to keep the kids attention. This normally involved embarrassing ourselves but it was a great way to get to know the kids and keep them coming back.

One very special moment for me was when a group of young girls saw me in the village, and ran over and showed me the 6 steps of washing hands which we’d taught them the week before. As well as teaching and construction, we held lots of Action Days and mobile awareness campaigns to spread our messages to the wider community.

Smiles all round.

We also held sessions where we discussed volunteering, how to make a CV, and the Global Development Goals. This was intended to open the minds of young people there to new opportunities. Too many, especially women, don’t realise there’s an alternative to village life.

My family were fantastic, and saying goodbye was incredibly hard – lots of tears.

Spending three months in Iyembela was an eye opening experience, especially because we lived with local families for the duration of the our time there. My family were fantastic, and saying goodbye was incredibly hard – lots of tears.

A welcoming community.

Tanzanian culture is incredibly welcoming and people are so generous, even though they don’t have much. We all felt so welcomed by the community; and Britain could learn a lot from their attitudes of valuing what they have, rather than focus on what they don’t have.

I will definitely be returning to Tanzania soon, both to visit friends and explore more of the beautiful country, and I can’t recommend volunteering enough.

The ICS scheme is also a really good way to do it; it’s 90% funded by the government, so all you’re asked to do is fundraise between £800 and £1500 – which is easier than it sounds. Everything thereafter, including flights and vaccinations, is paid for. So it’s ideal for poor students!

Birthday Surprises

There were so many highlights of the trip for me, from my surprise 22nd birthday party, to cooking on a charcoal fire for my team, to singing Christmas songs in the 26 degree heat. I won’t list them all, but I will say that if you don’t quite feel ready for the “real” world yet, think about volunteering abroad.

If you want  to know more about volunteering abroad, we’d love you to get in touch!

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