Adapted from a presentation for my home congregation, Beth-El Mennonite Church, in July 2017.
Planning for an international trip is a journey on its own. And this eight-month volunteer adventure grew from a dream planted during my Tanzania Goshen College Study Service Term in 2011. The dream to return to Tanzania slowly gained traction and shape over the years as I became a nurse and decided to pursue public health education. It is still astounding to me that such a small seed of a dream could grow into a full-fledged adventure with tangible plans, intentional goals, funding pursuits, and a broad community excited to see me on my way.
Here is a brief explanation of my work while in Tanzania with various things I learned along the way. And for those extra curious, I maintained a blog throughout my nine months, full of stories and photos throughout my travels.
I think it is worth noting that I pursued volunteering opportunities independently of any large multinational organization like Mennonite Central Committee, Eastern Mennonite Missions, or the Peace Corp intentionally. My desire to travel with my close friends and fellow GC alum Laura Krabill Kheshgi and husband Tarik, as well as a desire to volunteer in a variety of contexts, and go to specific locations for specific amounts of time, were not offered by these large organizations. We enjoyed the freedom, flexibility, and the challenge of travel and service untethered to large corporate entities.
Instead, the handy world wide web connected me with local opportunities. I was located in Arusha for the first six months where I lived and worked at the small locally run NGO called Vision for Youth, a group that seeks to empower youth and young adults in entrepreneurial pursuits and health education. After those six months, I moved west and more rural to Mugumu where I spent six weeks at the Mugumu Safehouse and Vocational School for girls.
In each of these contexts, I found myself taking on many volunteer roles: teacher, educator, English editor, business assistant, IT help, and anything else that popped up. There are many stories embedded within the many job descriptions I took on, but instead, I am going to focus on some specific stories and takeaways.
Upon returning in June 2017, I came across a daily meditation by Richard Rohr titled Contemplation in Action:
Moses’ experience of the burning bush links action and contemplation as the very starting place of the Judeo-Christian tradition. His encounter is surely an inner one, but it immediately drives him outwardly, as deep inner experience tends to do. It is a transcendent experience, yet note that it is based in nature rather than a synagogue or temple. Often it is in the open spaces of the natural world that the inner world is most obviously recognized…
Immediately after Moses had his heart-stopping experience, YHWH said to him: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. Now, go! Tell Pharaoh to let my people go”. God gives Moses an experience of an unnamable Presence, and it has immediate practical—and in this case socio-political—implications and direction. Rather than invite Moses to worship or attend a church service, God says, “Go make a difference, Moses!” The fire burned for him, then in him, and finally through him.
I by no means have had a burning bush moment. But I have found that my faith and my faith communities instill a burning desire to seek out opportunity to make a difference in the lives of individuals. And through my work as a nurse and my global travels, I have found that desire extends beyond the individual to communities and systems.
There is great public health and social justice need in Tanzania. I was drawn back because my faith pulls me toward “immediate practical direction” in the form of health education; specifically sexual and reproductive health education that empowers youth and women.
While in Arusha, I joined the Vision for Youth Director, Violet, in planning and running two days of a youth camp in December. I enjoyed the opportunity to create a set of powerpoints that covered relevant reproductive health and relationships topics. Then we got to know a group of about 30 teens as we dove into teaching and answering questions on these issues. Now this is my cup of tea. I love opening up conversation on these topics and giving youth the opportunity to ask questions without judgment or consequence.
I had a similar experience teaching a class during my nursing clinicals in Goshen, Indiana. It was fascinating for me to see the parallels in the experiences. Both groups were held in rapt attention as honest answers were given in response to their curiosity and concern. This information is relevant to their lives and by respecting their need I was able to empower them to make well-informed decisions.
Though the teaching in Arusha carried huge challenges–language barriers, weak foundational scientific knowledge, and complex cultural expectations–the same need for honest and factual dialogue on sexual and reproductive health is present in both groups. It is clear to me this work is relevant whether I’m abroad or at home.
Conversing with those youth sparked both my passion for reproductive health and for comprehensive sexuality education.
But sometimes that clear “Go and do this” is not so recognizable. My time in Arusha did not always feel so useful. As a westerner, I am often plagued by an impulsive need to be productive which stands in contrast to the often laid-back yet chaotic see-how-things-turn-out attitude of Tanzanian culture. I learned quickly that I can’t always make things happen. Sometimes just staying open to being a part of the relationships and processes was all I could do.
Though at times it was frustrating, I am immensely grateful for that time. I had the chance to read lots of books and to build relationships with local co-workers and volunteers whom I lived with. This time was so different from my overly structured and scheduled life in the U.S. It provided the chance to contemplate, to study, to ponder my interests and beliefs. As Richard Rohr mentioned, contemplation and action are intimately linked, and I am thankful for the chance those months to stoke an inner fire that will carry me forward in action regardless of where I am.
I was surprised to find Arusha feeling a bit like home over the months, but come April I was very excited for the next transition that took me to Mugumu.
I was thrilled to join the community at the Mugumu Safe House and Vocational School for Girls. I have followed them on Facebook since their start in 2014 and have been so impressed with the vital and inspirational work they do to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage in northwestern Tanzania. By reaching out to them on Facebook, I was able to coordinate spending six weeks volunteering with the 12 staff and 81 girls who lived there.
I had learned by then to temper my high expectations for productivity. I was by no means going to walk in and start life-changing projects and solve all their problems in the six weeks I’d be there. So instead I opened myself up to whatever opportunity they presented; I ended up as their computer skills and English teacher. I had the occasional opportunity to provide relevant health education to the girls, but ultimately I served where I was most needed, outside of my specialized medical training and educational background.
My comfort zone was stretched as I struggled to teach English in my terribly limited Swahili, but I appreciated the patience and willingness of the girls to help me help them learn camp songs and practice asking and answering questions. I also found purpose and joy in facilitating daily typing practice and the use of Google Translate during computer class. Seeing the girls’ skills on the computer improve and their excitement in being able to translate their questions back and forth between Swahili and English on the internet was worth my whole trip. I was by no means changing the world, but I hope I was able to convey some practical skills while building relationships and learning how the controlled chaos gets things done in grassroots social justice work.
Most poignantly for me was seeing how wide and open the arms of the Safehouse spread. Their focus is in eradicating FGM, but they cannot afford to put on blinders to the many struggles of women in their region. They work to provide food and shelter to hundreds of girls fleeing the cruel cutting practice, yet the house also functions as family to the orphaned girl Salama, who would have died as an abandoned infant had the Safehouse not taken her in, nurtured her back to health, and committed to raising the now vivacious three-year-old.
The Safehouse could have also easily turned away a young mother and her 18-month-old, Ghatti, who were fleeing an abusive marriage. And not only does the SafeHouse do the bare minimum of providing food and a roof for these girls, but they tackle every aspect of their needs, micro and macro. Teaching the girls skills that provide economic and social value beyond their bride price, while also educating the communities so reconciliation between girls and their families can result in safe reunion without future danger of cutting.
There are so many barriers to addressing the needs of these girls and creating sustained change in their broader community. I can’t help but wonder how the Safehouse can take on these challenges without flinching and do so much with the so little they have. And here we are in the U.S. with our immense privilege that affords us so much, yet we often find ourselves being critical of the needs of others, picking apart which needs we want to address, and for whom we open our arms and our doors.
Something I will continue to ponder as I focus on my next big adventure–graduate school.
Fall of 2017, I moved to the east coast to start a Masters in Public Health at Boston University. My new Boston home is feeling like a good fit and I am thrilled to continue my education while growing as a nurse, public health advocate and educator, and member of the Mennonite community.
It feels impossible to sum up eight months of travel and work, but I’m thankful for opportunities to try. And in that same piece by Richard Rohr I’ll quote that:
“in my attempt to communicate it, I usually found that I’d only scratched the surface of my own understanding. In sharing what you have experienced and learned, you really own the Gospel message beyond what you ever imagined.”
I believe that we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on our experience, and even more than that, we learn from sharing our experience. I am grateful for this opportunity to share and to continue to learn from these experiences and the communities that support me.