Service project in Tanzania challenges students’ perceptions of the world, other people, cultures, and themselves

Service project in Tanzania challenges students’ perceptions of the world, other people, cultures, and themselves
Rebecca Roeber, Laura Sainio, and Katie Selin with children at the
Kitta Orphanage.

This summer, 11 Fort Lewis College students went to class, like lots of other students. But their classroom was the country of Tanzania.

Lying along the coast of the Indian Ocean just south of the equator, the United Republic of Tanzania is home to some of Africa's best-known landmarks and landscapes: the plains of the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and glacier-topped Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain at 15,100 feet.

The country is also bordered by three of the largest lakes on the continent: Lake Victoria, the second-largest freshwater lake in the world; Lake Tanganyika, the world's second deepest; and Lake Nyasa, in the southwest. And climatic regions vary widely, with plains along the coast, plateau country in the center of the country, and highlands in the north.

A diverse country, but not a rich one. Although 80 percent of its economy is based on agriculture, only 4 percent of the land is arable, making it one of the poorest countries in the world. A third of Tanzania's residents lives below poverty line.

This summer, 11 Fort Lewis students taking Anthropology professor David Kozak's "Tanzania: Service, Culture, Education, and Adventure" Innovative Month course traveled to the city of Moshi, in the northeast part of the country near Mount Kilimanjaro. While there students engaged in service projects in two orphanages and a community health clinic. The group also did some culture and wildlife safaris, including a visit to Ngorongoro National Park, and home stays in Masaai and Barabaig villages. Most of the students also traveled on their own in Africa for up to two weeks after the three-week service-learning portion of the course ended.

The Innovative Month program, coordinated by Continuing Education Department, gives faculty the freedom to create month-long travel-based Summer session courses. This past year, the college offered 10 Innovative Month courses, with about 150 students participating. In the past there have been as many as 17 courses, of which about 80 percent are based abroad.

"This program gets students far outside their comfort areas," Kozak says, explaining why he chose to set his Innovative Month course in Tanzania. "I wanted to create a service-oriented, perhaps even intellectually, socially, culturally, and emotionally challenging, program. I wanted to introduce students to cultures radically different from their own in order to learn life lessons unattainable in a typical classroom environment. In the process my goal was to do applied social science in the service of the community."

As a for-credit course, the trip also included a relevant academic element, Kozak adds. "The program's coursework was used to draw out the historical, gendered, racial and economic connections between adventure and a location such as Tanzania, where 'adventure' has many meanings."

Community collaboration

Preparation for the trip began well before their departure on June 17. Much of the coursework was completed during the winter 2009 semester, and during two weeks of the second summer session.

As part of this pre-trip preparation, students collaborated with Riverview Elementary School, in Durango. Second-grade students organized a drive to collect pens, pencils, paper, books, art supplies, soccer balls and pumps, and even money to purchase mosquito bed nets. The elementary students wrote little books about Durango, their school activities, their families and what they like to do so it could be shared with the orphans in Tanzania.

The group coordinated with Mercy Medical Center, as well, to gather medicines and supplies for delivery to a Tanzanian clinic. They also used a grant from Fort Lewis’ Community Based Learning and Research program to purchase mosquito bed nets.

Into Africa

For the first two weeks of their trip, students were placed in one of two orphanages and a community health clinic.

Tanzania has a high orphan rate largely due to the continent's HIV/AIDS epidemic. Kitta Orphanage, where five of the students lived and worked, is a small, well run, family-based orphanage. Three other students worked at the Upendo Orphanage, a Catholic-run home for more than 100 orphans. While there, the students played with and helped to clean, feed and bathe the orphans. They also taught math and English skills, and did art projects with the children.
Three other students worked at the Shirimatunda Clinic, where they did some clinical work, such as taking blood pressures, and assisted in the daily routines there. They also went on home visits with a nurse where they helped with patient care.

"It's one thing to study such concepts in the abstract in a classroom, and quite another to see it on the ground," says Kozak. "Especially unfamiliar foreign ground. By doing this kind of service work, they are exposed to things that challenge their perceptions of the world, of other people and cultures, and encouraged them to examine their own lives in terms of what they are experiencing and learning."

The real learning

"Service-learning is less about being a do-gooder, and more about gaining a balanced sense of self and their place in the world," says Kozak. "Yes, it’s about helping but it’s also about being helped. Students learn a tremendous amount in an experience like this."

Rebecca Roeber describes her time in Kitta Orphanage as full of personal rewards. "The smiles and laughter that the children exuded each day, despite not having much, was truly uplifting," says the Elementary Education major from Carbondale, Colo. "Witnessing blissful children is a contagious thing. Not speaking the same language with the children wasn't even an issue. The smiles and meaning of hugs can be a universal language, as cliched as it sounds.

"It's undeniable that this trip has changed my life forever," Roeber continues. "I also felt like Tanzania defeated the generalizations that Africa is a scary and dangerous place. I have never met so many kind and caring people as the people in Tanzania. Anything they had they would give to one or another or us, and most did not have much at all."

Colter Boita, a Cellular and Molecular Biology major from Grand Junction, Colo., appreciated the chance to apply and learn practical skills in real-world situations that will prepare him for the professional world.

"I have a strong desire to work in developing countries throughout the world as a career," explains Boita, who cites his time at the Shirimatunda Clinic as the most rewarding. "We were able to learn about day-to-day diagnosing, varieties of infectious diseases, and vaccinations programs. I am a huge fan of initiatives that empower people and communities, and so it was great to see that Shirimatunda clinic had adopted some of these."

For senior Adventure Education major David Farkas, from Arvada, Colo., the most powerful lessons were outside the service-work situations.

"My best experience was the enhanced social connectedness I gained on the trip," reminisces Farkas. "It reaffirmed for me that good people helping each other and enjoying each other’s company is one of the things that I find most enjoyable and meaningful in life. I enjoyed this with my trip-mates, students from other countries, people we volunteered for, and my new Tanzanian friends."

Talking about his new Tanzanian friends, Farkas tells a story about his home stay in a Masaai village. The story starts with his trying to get comfortable enough to sleep in a small corner of the his home-stay family's hut.

"While being very graciously given a sleeping area to lay in, I discovered that the hide-covered, stick-walled cubby was about five and a half feet wide on all sides, and that I was still six foot three," says Farkas. "Nonetheless, I tried to get comfortable. Then I observed people, especially children, gathering in the hut to see what this new creature was who had come to pay them a visit. Around 10:30 p.m. or so, a young Masaai man came in and asked in simple English if I would come out and sit with the gathering crowd."

Farkas says that the man’s name was Saitot, and, much to his delight and surprise, they ended up talking long into the night. "We could communicate enough to ask and answer simple questions, and generally had a great time."

Looking back and looking ahead

Even though their summer trip to Tanzania is over, it hasn't ended. Kozak is now the faculty sponsor for FLC East Africa Service Project, a new student organization, already some 30 members strong, founded by Boita and other students who were on the trip.

"Our goal is to continue working with Shirimatunda Clinic and Kitta Orphanage," says Boita. "We plan to raise $30,000 to help support the clinic through buying a dalla dalla, which is a van/taxi, and setting up a micro-finance system. For the clinic we want to get adult and pediatric medicine, wheel chairs for three specific families, beds for the head mama and her staff at Kitta Orphanage, and many other small projects."

Kozak says that this type of effort shows that the good the students experienced while working and traveling in Tanzania went both ways.

"The students were incredible ambassadors for our school, and even our country," he says. "They got right in the thick of things to make a difference in the lives of people they came into contact with. Their kindnesses, generosity and giving sensibilities were not lost on anyone. I continue to receive very positive emails from those whom we worked with."

The rewards of that good will, he says, include invitations from the clinic director and one of the orphanages for a return trip next year. Those, he says, are invitations he plans to accept -- Kozak is already organizing another Innovative Month course set in Tanzania for next summer.