Arrival and the first couple of days:
After twenty-six hours of travel, my plane landed at the tiny, beautifully landscaped Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania. There were mountains on one side of me, contrasted by the grassy fields on the other. With mixed feelings of excitement and a bit of anxiety, I checked in, found my bags, and was greeted with a large sign that read “MARIAH- Make A Difference Now” held by Kunda, the driver. He greeted me warmly and then the two people next to him that looked around my age introduced themselves as Courtney and Shawheen, interns that would be living in the guest house with me. I had found this non-profit organization through a mutual friend when I was searching for ways to volunteer in Africa. Since before I was thirteen, it has always been the number one place I’ve wanted to visit and volunteer. The main focus of Make A Difference (MAD) is to help end poverty through education by establishing an operating model for orphaned and vulnerable children to become fully contributing members and leaders of Tanzania. There are currently twenty-two orphans supported by the MAD orphanage and the idea is to provide them with the tools to strive, not just survive. Most of these children have lost their parents to AIDS and sicknesses exacerbated by poverty, and have been taken in by Theresa Grant, the founder and active coordinator of the organization.
The hour car ride to the guest house was my first real taste of Africa. As we pulled out onto the main road, I stopped mid-conversation to watch a boy, no older than seven, herding around twenty cattle a few feet from the busy road. In front of him, a woman was carrying an enormous cluster of sticks, over seven feet long, horizontally on her head. I had seen pictures of this but to see it in real time, to realize those pictures are an everyday, nonchalant occurrence, was captivating. I’d soon learn that I’d see both of these practices everywhere I went, along with taxis (called dala dalas) stuffing in people like clown cars and men on motorcycles flying down the road with multiple passengers, little babies, and even a handful of chickens. No one seemed to be in a hurry to get anywhere. We would drive for a while without seeing any buildings and pass a woman carrying a large basket, just walking to who-knows-where. We’d pass store front lots with groups of people lounging on the dirt ground or leaning back in a plastic lawn chair, living in “African time”, a state of mind that dwarfs Jewish standard time and takes a bit of getting used to. The houses and stores were mostly made of cinder block covered in a layer of mud with tin sheets as roofs. Windows were a rare sight, substituted by draping cloths or closed shutters. Some of the houses, huts really, were constructed solely of sticks plastered together with mud. It was pretty unbelievable that someone could live there. But although there is dust and dirt, the city is far from colorless. There is more vegetation here than I had associated with the general term of “Africa”. Corn stalks and sunflowers (the two main crops in Tanzania) line the sides of the roads and extend for miles until they are stopped abruptly by the emergence of the rolling mountains. Woman wear head wraps, shoulder wraps, and wraps as skits, many times all containing different brightly colored patterns. Store fronts are colorful, clotheslines like jumbled rainbows, and red Coca-Cola signs are on every corner.
I am currently living at the MAD guest house in Moshi. A comfortable one story building, set up it the style of a hostel and surrounded by a gate. The house is located in a “neighborhood” type community called Rau so the sounds of children playing, dogs barking, and assorted vehicles making their way down a bumpy, pothole-filled road is the comforting soundtrack that wakes me up in the morning and plays throughout the day. Showers are instructed to be taken every other day and unlike the locals, hot water is our luxury. There is also safe drinking water at the house and everyone receives three meals a day cooked by the wonderful Pina. She is a local but takes all the precautions necessary to caudal our stomachs, making food we enjoy from home and introducing us to a bit of Tanzanian cuisine. On day one, Shawheen, Marisa (an intern), and I received a cooking lesson in preparing a traditional meal called Ugali and were given our first Swahili lesson by Erazmus, Theresa’s Tanzanian assistant. Then we drove to the orphanage in Himo to meet the twelve kids currently living there. The other ten are at boarding school which is extremely common here and boarding can start as early as age three. We where greeted with double hugs, songs, and introductions. Afterwards everyone headed to the backyard, a dirt area, to play some soccer and basketball. Since I’ve been here, its been great connecting with the kids through universal interests. Some love soccer (futbol) and have moves that kids in America only perfect after years of training while some favor basketball, shooting by taking the ball behind their head and chucking it up with two hands and surprising precision. Once the kids found out I was going to teach hip-hop classes later in the week, they insisted I give a preview of my moves. Before long, I had a group of African orphans doing isolations and body roles. I was extremely impressed by the talent a couple of them had, showing me moves I’d never seen before and ones that look me years to perfect. They hadn’t had the privilege of picking up moves from youtube and music artists, they where completely self taught. We made a pact to exchange moves later on.
DAY 4 -Safari
Theresa makes a point to take the kids on educational field trips. This time, the five oldest kids living at the orphanage where chosen to go on an excursion to West Kilimanjaro for a walking safari and I was lucky enough to join in. We drove for hours into the middle of nowhere, passing Massai villages (one of the local tribes) and following signs painted almost illegibly on rocks. But, when we pulled in through a gate, there was a beautiful Western-interpreted safari lodge. There where large wooden porches covered by thick straw roofs and plump animal print couches underneath. Our guide came out dressed in a tan uniform, holding a gun, and started to speak in Swahili. He didn’t know English. Luckily, all of the kids speak English very well and one of the boys, Mweda, volunteered to translate. The beginning of our walk was uneventful and I was doubtful we would see any animals, but soon our trek lead us close to a watering hole and the wildlife emerged. We saw warthogs, smaller than what “The Lion King” had prepared me for, running around with their rope-like tails pointing straight up. There where wildabeasts and zebras peacefully sharing the water and baboons in families of three or four running across the plains. The contrast of the blue mountains in the distance and the yellowish-green expansion of tall grass was unlike anything I’ve seen before. The sky was clear and there was a cool breeze as we walked to a different part of the park, spotting giraffes in the distance. Being exposed made the experience seem more intimate than if we had been in a vehicle and seeing congregations of giraffe close up and in the wild was incredible.
Day 5- Baby Orphanage
MAD sends volunteers once or twice a week to help out at an orphanage for children under the age of one. I had idealized it as a place with sixty happy little African babies running around and playing with toys. Thankfully, before I left, Marisa warned me that it was a lot to handle. When we arrived, we were asked to help feed the babies dinner. We walked into a room and there were about twenty kids, some with unwiped snot, others with shirts hanging off their shoulders, and others with, from what I could smell, unchanged diapers. But I wasn’t wrong about just how adorable they would be with their big brown eyes and outstretched hands, asking to be held. But to be frank, dinner was not my favorite experience at the orphanage. At one point, I was helping a little boy spoon porridge into his mouth but he refused to chew and swallow. A minute later I leaned in to check on his progress, he pursed his lips, and sprayed the mush all over my face. I was ready to leave.
Afterwards, we followed a nurse-in-training into a room where we helped put mosquito nets on cribs. These babies where all cleaned up from dinner and a couple where sitting on small plastic potties, doing what they do best. The rest where all giggles, wanting to be swung and tickled. When we started singing songs and teaching moves, their eyes where glued to us. I had to reach back far into my memory bank for the words to a couple of them. The hokey-pokey, twinkle twinkle, and ring-around-the-rosie where all big hits. I left feeling exhausted and lighthearted, realizing I was looking forward to returning but would, by any means necessary, avoid dining time.
DAY 6- A hip-hop challenge: 100 African school kids vs. Me
Before I left Charlotte, I knew I was expected to teach hip-hop to the kids at the orphanage and the students at a local elementary/middle school. I was told in an email there would be one hundred students participating and I was hopeful that it was a typo. However, after meeting with the headmaster and hearing her insistent instructions that I teach them all at once, I braced myself for the first day. I had found speakers that seemed loud when tested in a small room but once I plugged them in in the large open dining room where I’d be teaching, I realized the volume was going to be an issue. Thankfully, the students didn’t seem to mind. They weren’t used to having a dance class, let alone listening to music on speakers, so I was relieved to see smiles and excited nudges as we began each dance. When I was done instructing, a boy about thirteen years old came up to me and asked if I could “play some music he could shake to”. He proceeded with an impressive performance, in front of everyone, of very American style hip-hop and then passed it on to his friend, Peter, who was one of the boys from the orphanage. Peter responded with some amazing moves and all the students seemed to love watching this “street performance”. After a bit, I hopped into the circle, was “passed” the dance, and did a couple of moves. When the improved show finished, the kids cheered and many came up to me in waves, asking when the next hip-hop class was. I informed them I was scheduled to teach every Saturday and Sunday. The next day, even though it’s not hip-hop, I taught them the dance to “Cotton Eyed Joe” and they absolutely loved it. Who would have thought.