Volunteering and Life in the Village

For those who aren’t following me on Instagram, I moved to the volunteer house last weekend and started volunteering. Jifundishe, a small Tanzanian nonprofit that was launched in 2005, focuses on community development by providing educational opportunities. In English, Jifundishe means to “teach yourself.” The organization is located in the Ngongongare village and serves the surrounding four villages, which have a population of approximately 8,000.

The annual operating budget is less than $100K USD yearly. The primary programs include: a free library with over 4,000 books, although many of them have seen better days, and about 10 laptops; a women’s mirco-lending group; a woman’s paper jewelry bead group; an adult literacy program; and scholarships funds for secondary and university students. They also offer all types of community workshops on things like first aid, journalism, running a small business, as well as book and debate clubs.

For their independent study program, the organization acquires the mandated texts needed for tests the students must take and provides instructors. However, a lot of the learning still falls to the student. The closest comparison that I can think of in the U.S. is GED programs. For various reasons — such as the student is an orphan, and adult never went to school, or their family just can’t afford school fees (uniforms, textbooks, pens/paper) — studying independently may be the student’s only option to continue with their studies and potentially pursue secondary, vocational, or higher ed.

Library books can only be checked out overnight, and even if you are just borrowing the book for a few hours to study on the premises the loan must be checked into the system and the person’s library card is collected. There are probably over 100 people that come to the library every day. I helped cover some lunch shifts in the library so I now have the convoluted paper and database process down. If I hadn’t dreamt up all kinds of other projects for myself, I probably would tackle coming up with a better system for them. But it appears to work for them and provides consistent work for two librarians, which might be the bigger goal than improving efficiency.

As for my work, the first few days started out a bit slow. There was a group of American and Canadian college students here from Operation Groundswell. They took on a few painting and maintenance projects, but overall I have a fairly negative view of such volunteer groups. The amount of time and effort that goes into supporting groups like this — that are really just coming for their own personal learning/vacation — is significant for a small NGO. I’m not sure the return on investment is always there. When I was lining up volunteer opportunities, I was extremely cognizant of this. I made sure the NGOs knew I was happy to contribute substantively, but that I didn’t want to create extra work for them by having a westerner around. I eventually just tuned a lot of the college students out, especially after one of the girls started a conversation by saying “my mom told me they used to create skinny jeans by folding the jean bottoms over and rolling them up…”. I correctly informed her it was called “pegged jeans” and then walked off. But by the end of the week, we’d (local staff and myself) come up with a nice portfolio of projects for me to work on and items where I could support the staff. Some old habits never die. Heaven forbid I just do what I was asked or what was in a job description. 🙂

Some of my initial impressions and stories from village life:

  • It’s crazy to think about and begin to understand essentially running an NGO strictly on a cash basis, and even more so when it is largely small bills and coins. The amount of money that needs to be distributed, counted, and tracked (paper tracking) is beyond time consuming and wrought with potential issues. I now understand why there are night guards that patrol the grounds. It took me about 30 minutes to count out a little over 3,000,000 tsh (almost $1,400 USD).
  • Continuing the time theme, it took a grounds man almost three full days to cut the grass and weeds. I’m guessing the space was probably about an acre or less, but when you are using a machete to do the job that’s what it takes. I watched him for long stretches out the windows. He wasn’t slacking. For almost three full days of work he received 35,000 tsh ($16 USD).
  • Another example, it took two people 3-4 hours to prepare lunch for the group of students (a total of 15 people). When you only have two small regular burners and a third that is on top of a small propane tank, you have to cook in batches.
  • I continue to be stumped by the cellular service here. During the day hours I don’t have any service in the volunteer house, but if I walk about 15ft I have service. Also, between the hours of 9pm-7am, I usually have service.  There is no rhyme or reason. I don’t know why I keep trying to understand.
  • If you have a problem here, the culture is such that the other person with you will look at it as their problem as well and help you solve the problem. This came in handy the other day when I was running laps around the soccer field, which also serves as a pasture for cows, goats, and all the other farm animals that run loose. Somehow they always seem to make it back to the right houses. It was described to me as “we live with our animals here.” Anyway, two little boys took it upon themselves to keep the cows off the field while I ran laps.  This was after I came around the corner at the same time as a bunch of cows were coming down the road. They got a bit spooked and started running with me (we’re going to go with “with me” and not “at me”).
  • The churches here would put the churches in the South to shame. The closest church is probably about ¼ mile away, but I can hear them crystal clear as the music and prayers come pouring out of the speakers. On Friday night, they started around 7pm and were still going when I went to bed around midnight. They were back at it first thing on Saturday, and as I’m typing this out on Sunday evening (almost 9pm) they’re still going strong.
  • I’ve learned whenever I make arrangements to meet someone I have to confirm whether we are talking western/international time or Tanzanian time. The hours here basically follow the hours of sunlight. So 7am is 1, 8am is 2, and so on until you get to 6pm which is 12. You are always adding or subtracting 6 hours to covert from one time to the other.
  • There are times when I am completely impressed by folks’ ability to repurpose and continue to use items, such as plastic or metal containers, and then there are other times when I’m completely perplexed, sad, or scared for them. Many are still burning plastic as a way to dispose of it. When we needed kerosene to clean the paint brushes the group of students were using, a guy came back with it in plastic water bottles. The kerosene was poured into a cut up plastic container and the paint brushes just soaked it in overnight in the storage closet. The library bathrooms are on the other side of the storage unit with no real break between them as the walls don’t usually go up to the roofs. I think it is still sitting out in the open in plastic in the closet. But I guess that is better than the paint thinner and kerosene that was just poured out on the grass near the water tank? I’m thinking I’m going to be encouraging the library to offer some environmental/safety workshops.
  • I now have switching between the power grid and solar down. Power goes out probably at least every other day. Sometimes it is just a brief interruption and others it’s been out for a good 24 hours. When the power goes out you have to turn the switch that powers the small refrigerator off. It draws too much power to run on the solar so the fridge just goes without power. I now understand their insistence on wanting to make me fresh food ever day rather than encouraging me to eat leftovers from previous days. And there are always leftovers which makes me feel extremely guilty, so I just end up eating way more than I should be. Not good!  I just learned the words in Kiswahili yesterday for please don’t make as much food, so hopefully I’ll be able to convince Freda (cook/house cleaner) not to make as much. My attempts at telling/convincing others that I don’t need that much haven’t really panned out

Okay I think that is all for now. The only other news that I’m extremely excited about is that I book my travel to visit the gorillas in Uganda the weekend of August 18. You are only allowed to spend one hour with the gorillas, but I’ve heard it is totally worth it.

Some photos from this week.

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