The Spirit of Volunteerism

A slightly shorter version of this article appeared in the Cuso International blog and in the Atlantic Council for International Cooperation (ACIC) newsletter.

In my third year of university I remember coming to a realisation: there is no point in doing work you are qualified for without getting paid.  I proclaimed that I would never do such a thing again.  It was later that year that I began to recognize apathy as something harmful.

Seven years later:  In January 2013 I returned from Tanzania, having spent 16 months as a Cuso International volunteer.  I wasn’t sold on the volunteer experience when I applied; I was unemployed, and the position in Tanzania was perfect for my skill set.  It turns out that I was fairly well suited to the position, as well.  In non-profit settings it pays to be outgoing and speak for your cause, so, I took up the cause of my placement organisation, Kamachumu Vision for Poverty Eradication (KAVIPE).  A tiny grassroots farmers’ group in the far North-West corner of the country, they had gotten a Cuso volunteer (me) by their sheer determination.  Together we sought out opportunities and finally the right one came along: the UK’s International Citizen Service, partnered with VSO Tanzania (Cuso’s Tanzanian placement partner), wanted to place 40 youth volunteers in my region.  I spoke up and my organisation suddenly had 20 volunteers.  Arriving in two weeks.

Ma Yuliana serves tea at a public planning meeting before the ICS volunteers arrived

Ma Yuliana serves tea at a public planning meeting before the ICS volunteers arrived


Wilson speaks to KAVIPE members and community volunteers about the ICS program

When the first cycle of youth volunteers, 10 from the UK and 10 from Tanzania, all under the age of 25, arrived, the community of Kamachumu was skeptical.  They thought the youth were there to discourage Islam, or promote Western “values” (like promiscuity).  The idea that young people would be working at very little benefit to themselves (namely, for the work experience) to help the community, was not understood.  But the message rang through loud and clear over the first cycle’s three-month stay, and then through the second cycle.  All of a sudden I wasn’t the only white person in town, and I had 20 dynamic, energetic, incredibly willing people to work on issues I’d seen over and over again in the previous 8 months.  Ideas flew around and I discovered that working with people in their first overseas development experience was not only enjoyable, it was inspiring.  The model worked brilliantly.  My long-term placement with the organisation gave me considerable insight and let the ICS volunteers hit the ground running; their youth galvanised the projects and the town – volunteers from the community starting springing out of the woodwork, of all ages and experience levels.


Gavin, Merab, Simon and Sofia talk to a farmer’s group about gender issues

The people of Kamachumu began to change their views on volunteering, to allow that it can be a positive thing – something not about making money, as it is often perceived in Tanzania.  An allowance or a stipend is just as good as a salary when you don’t have any income.  People wanted to work with the ICS volunteers when they saw them working full time for a tiny allowance.  When they saw the wazungu (white people) working in close partnership with the Tanzanian youth.  When they found they could speak to the volunteers in the local language, when they could come to them with their problems, when they could laugh and learn with them.  Among many other things, the ICS volunteers worked with children in schools on gender issues, started a women’s soccer league, brought people living with HIV together to discuss stigma and quality of life, started a weekly Farmer’s Forum and offered pigs on loan – a new livelihoods project for Kamachumu women and youth.  It was an international group in a local, rural setting, and a glowing example of development work that really works.  The program continues into its third cycle in Kamachumu this July – both the town and KAVIPE have evolved, due to volunteering.

The ICS volunteers socialize together, forced inside by a downpour while picking up garbage

The ICS volunteers socialize together, forced inside by a downpour while picking up garbage

Upon returning to Canada I have set up residence just outside St. John’s, NL – further away from my hometown of Dartmouth, NS, than it felt from East Africa.  The challenge of a new place, I have learned, is best conquered by volunteering, and volunteer I will.  Last week I spoke to a class at Memorial University about livelihoods and farming in Tanzania.  I have been in touch with the Food Security Network and I will be promoting Cuso at events in St John’s and Conception Bay South in March.  It’s a good thing I didn’t stick to my third-year pronouncement.  I would really be missing out. [That being said it would also be nice to be able to feed myself, which is why I’m applying for jobs].


The view from St. John’s Signal Hill in February – beautiful but cold. What a time to return from Africa!

Litter Pick

This morning the ICS Volunteers in Kamachumu – more on them soon – organised a litter pick in town.  Canadian translation: picking up garbage.  The 17 volunteers (citizens of the UK and of Tanzania), members of their host families, me, some KAVIPE staff, miscellaneous community members and an army of children set out kusafisha mazingira (to clean up the environment).


Those of us who speak Swahili were given the task of explaining to the people of Kamachumu what we were up to.  Everyone was asking questions once they saw the volunteers outfitted in their VSO headbands, gloves and garbage bags; an excellent opportunity to increase awareness on protecting the environment, community spirit and volunteerism.  One of the Tanzanian volunteers got a text from his friend in Dar es Salaam saying, hey, I hear you guys are picking litter in Kamachumu!  Word travels fast by African mobile….

One thing we discovered is that the Western idea of taka taka (trash) is not the same as the Tanzanian concept: to us, things foreign to the environment, that don’t break down, are litter, i.e., plastic, glass, metal and to a lesser degree, cloth and cardboard.  People helping out were initially bringing lots of leaves, banana stems, sticks; which to us are not such an issue when you see them on the side of the road.  We took the opportunity to explain why plastic is worse than banana leaves.

Then, the rain came.


We hid at the Paradise Hotel Tea Room.


We got a range of responses to the activity.  Most people were really thankful and thought the site of a bunch of mzungu picking up trash was hilarious.  Some people just stared blankly.  A few derisive snorts, and one guy who asked, unpleasantly, if we were going to recycle all the plastic (I wish!).  Wilson, one of the KAVIPE Board members, said that although people generally keep the areas around their homes/farms clear of litter, nobody is responsible for the public areas, and little care is taken about the litter issue.  

My take-home idea was to put the legion of willing children and young adults to work every Sunday after the weekly market, by far the dirtiest part of town.  Kamachumu’s Environment Warriors?!  I’m in for that task! 

We also plan to find some garbage cans/rubbish bins to place around the busy areas in town – made of local materials like woven banana leaves!

Next time, we’ll budget for more gloves.  More gloves = more potential participants!



You are reading the blog of the semi-official Kagera Volunteer Representative. For a while now I have been keeping my nose to the ground when it comes to opportunities for more involvement in the VSO Tanzania Country Office. When our previous Regional Rep finished his placement, I took the chance to make some inquiries. Turns out nobody else was interested, and we have not had any Regional activities since I’ve been here – but I hear stories of Zanzibar volunteers having social/networking meetings poolside, and Dodoma vols had a great weekend in Kibaya checking out the projects there, along with the Maasai culture. I want to make those things happen in Kagera! I want to meet the Karagwe vols; an elusive bunch so far.

It’s not that I’m bored with my placement, or not busy enough. Quite the opposite, in fact, it’s at the point where my timetable starts to fill up that I feel motivated to seek out new projects. There are cool things happening at the VSO office and I want in on them. If I’m going to volunteer for two years, I better come out with something on my CV, and it’s not going to land on my lap. Especially not if my networking is limited to Kamachumu Division….

My inquiries, to the Country Office and some of my fellow Kagera vols, on Monday (Feb 6), were quickly followed up by a suggestion I fill in for Kagera Rep at the Rep meeting on Thursday (Feb 9). By Tuesday evening I had a ticket and Wednesday at 11am I left work and jetted off (in the daladala) to catch my flight. Off to Dar, land of plenty. Well, the Econolodge offers little sign of plenty – and this time I had the wonderful good fortune of being on the sweltering fifth floor (good marathon training aid?).

I got to meet the new intake of 19 volunteers from the Philippines, Kenya, Uganda, Canada, UK, the Netherlands, including two lovely ladies joining us in Kagera. The Rep meeting was great, casual and informative. I learned that I will be the sounding board for all the complaints coming from our 16 or so Kagera vols, some combination of suggestion box, talent scout, social coordinator and meet-and-greet committee. I think it falls under a few VSO dimensions: “Adaptability and Flexibility”, “Commitment to Helping Others”… Man oh man will I ever do well the next time I get interviewed for my soft skills.

Now, I had no intention of turning my Dar trip into a vacation. At best I thought I would be able to buy shaving cream and a decent pillow. But Liesbeth, Rep for Dodoma Region, has the pulse of Tanzania’s cultural scene under her thumb. She informed me that Sauti za Busara, a music festival on Zanzibar, was happening… that very weekend. And that I could probably stay with Winnie, a vol from Uganda.

Never being one to resist peer pressure, off I went to Zanzibar. Best choice ever. I spent $140 over the entire weekend (I’d say that’s pretty damn good for Stone Town, one of the hottest tourist spots in the country). The music was decent, with a few outstanding exceptions: Nneka and Tumi and the Volume were phenomenal. The Sunday evening I danced non-stop and it was the most satisfying thing ever.

Actually, let me take that back. The most satisfying thing ever was what I think of as A Different City (listen to Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica), the feeling of being invisible in a crowd of people. There were so many tourists around, an mshamba* girl from upcountry who could ask to be left alone in Kiswahili was the least of the locals’ concerns. I sat in peace, reading, people-watching, sipping espresso (!!!!), listening to the variety of languages being spoken around me. I watched a boat burning as the sun set over the harbour (until it mysteriously moved away – pretty sure there was a tugboat involved as the entire ass end of the thing was on fire). I watched the local boys do death-defying flips off the jetty. I strolled among the open-air kitchen vendors, with delicious-but-questionable-looking seafood laid out beautifully on their tables. I went for a run with my iPod on and vaguely smiled or waved at people instead of going through the entire greeting sequence. It was like being home except with taarab music and daladalas and way more sweating. Heavenly.


*Mshamba (mm-sham-bah): literally, a person who farms. Used as a derogatory term, roughly equivalent to our “ghetto”.



Building Bridges: Hapa Mpaka Wapi?

From here to where?

Last week, we held our three-day seminar using a tool developed by VSO, Basic Concept for Capacity Development. It outlines an organisational self-assessment and lays out a path to developing capacity using participatory methods. VSO provides funds to organisations who wish to use the tool to strengthen their planning and self-evaluation skills.

For me, that means “get people together and give them time and space to come up with ideas”. It’s exactly what I’ve been needing in my placement. Over and over I’ve heard people’s impressions of what their problems are with no background, no tools and no language skills to get to the bottom of things. One thing is for sure: I am not going to implement a single initiative without hearing it first from the farmers. Gambia showed me the uselessness of enforcing Western project ideas; the country is a mess of failed projects. Working with dairy cows and goats is a good place for me: I want to ruminate fully on everything before I draw conclusions.

I’d been provided with the perfect grassroots-information-gathering tool. We invited group leaders from 21 of the 64 member groups of KAVIPE, along with the five board members to “build bridges” made of ideas for goals, activities and resources.

Having never planned or facilitated my own workshop before, particularly in a new language, I can honestly say I was terrified. I think I had stress dreams for at least three weeks prior. I planned it out minute by minute and ran the entire thing by my fellow Kamachumu volunteers and my KAVIPE coworkers to see if it was within their expectations and norms. Every time they reacted positively, I was surprised and relieved, so that by the day before, all the nerves had melted away and I was ready to be an attentive, enthusiastic facilitator with the help of one of my VSO colleagues and my brand-new local National Volunteer.

It went like a dream. I had a blast all three days. Of course, there were some slow moments, but they were few and we reacted quickly to re-engage the participants. To encourage feedback, we posted flipchart pages with three headings: sipendi, napenda, and napendeleza (I don’t like, I like, and I suggest). I started with examples, such as “I don’t like it when participants sleep in the seminar”. When our time-keeper fell asleep, the men on either side grabbed her, shaking her awake so that she leapt to her feet, staring at her phone, thinking our time was up. Another slow moment was resolved when I, in desperation, simply got everyone to stand up, join us at the front of the room to discuss the issues facing the Community Based Organisations (CBO’s) and KAVIPE. It worked so well that one of our group leaders, a teacher by trade, actually had to plug his ears to block out the din. Everyone was contributing (at once, but I’ll take what I can get!). It goes against the traditional teaching methods in Tanzania, the rote style of be-told-and-repeat-after-me*.

One of the participants, Johnnie Bosco, who just oozes charisma, stood up and told us that his goal as a group leader is to increase the standard of living for his community. He said it with such sincerity it brought tears to my eyes. These are such well-intentioned, hard-working people. I truly believe they will fight their way into a better life, and not selfishly. They will bring everyone up with them.

At the end of the seminar we reviewed the experience and the comments that we got astounded me. Participants wanted us to have similar workshops at a community level, they wanted to construct strategic plans for their groups based on the goals and activities we’d mapped out, they wanted to plan exchange visits to other CBO’s, and they wanted to make sure they fully utilized all the resources we’d identified. It was a successful venture that I expect will pave the way to a productive partnership between KAVIPE and VSO Tanzania.

*Passing through the Primary School yard one morning, I heard the teacher say “Why are you singing?”. The answer, recited as a class: “I am singing because I am happy.” “Again.” “I am singing because I am happy.” “Again, WHY are you singing?” “I am singing because I am happy.”

The effect was somewhat creepy.

Merry Christmas! And The Gift Of Dependancy

The tale of my Christmas visit to Peter and Debra; yes folks this is pure gold: Peter and Debra Become Guest Dependant

My Christmas vacation in Kibaya, a town between the cities of Dodoma and Arusha, has been spent relaxing;

with cats, on the verandah;


visiting a Masai village, where we

compared Western toilet paper to Masai toilet paper – the fuzziest, softest tree leaves around,

commiserated with the head of the family,

tried on traditional Masai jewelery (check out Peter and Debra’s blog, above, for a picture of me trying it on),

admired the lovely children,

and of course, back at the ranch, exchanged gifts and had Christmas breakfast!

The Masai are fascinating people, whom I will perhaps blog about at a later date in more detail. To start, having spent an entire day at their compound, they did not once ask for money. In fact, they downright turned it down when I tried to buy jewelery from them (I thought they were trying to sell it to me, but apparently not!). Further, they feed their families (read: children) well with diets high in protein, and take excellent care of their livestock. However, I have just been informed that not only can Masai men have as many wives as their please, but they can also share wives, as in when a wife marries into a family, all the brothers of the husband can also come visiting to her hut at night. Debra recommended a few books about the Masai* that I will try and find someday.

This has been a great Christmas, a great break from worrying about my Kiswahili apart from market visits, a chance to get a bit of a tan, thanks to the enclosed verandah, and some quality time with fellow Canadians. Oh, and if you ever get a chance, check out this British TV comedy show called Gavin and Stacey. We’ve been on a marathon of it and have started referring to the characters like they’re our friends. Creepy, but satisfying.

* The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior by Tepilit Ole Saitoti (really worth it, according to Debra) and My Maasai Life: From Suburbia to Savannah by Robin Wiszowaty (somewhat worth it)