Day 299: Grrrr... No More Delaying Volunteering Gig
I was not excited. Photo: Isaac Stone Simoneli
I CAN delay no further. It's time to go volunteer.
Help the Orphans Foundation is the epitome of what I hate about volunteer work in developing countries, seemingly pioneered in Africa. The dream being sold is that a white person, because inevitably these programs cater to white people or at least westerners, can show up at an orphanage or school and make a significant difference within a couple weeks or months.
In the countryside of Kenya, you can hire a full-time teacher for 80 dollars a month. The demanded minimum donation of a 100 dollars to participate in Help the Orphans would cover the costs of that teacher and even leave so money leftover. Why not employee a Tanzanian, rather than have some westerner who probably doesn't know the first thing about teaching come in and spend time with the kids? Perhaps if the volunteer was told that they would be a teacher's assistant, paying the teachers wages while they were there, it would be a better system.
As it is, unqualified volunteer teachers at best provide entertainment for the kids. Though failing to promote any lasting benefit, volunteers often walkaway with a million pictures of children they can't even name and then tell people how they made an impact on these young, black kids' lives. You don't make an impact in a week, in a month. Children need consistency in curriculum and teachers.
Flyby teachers offer so little. And yet, we are so proud to have come and helped poor, beautiful African children.
It's the same idea with foreigners helping to build a school. You don't need to be taught how to build a school and then help Africans build one. They know how to do it. What they need is money to pay local labor to build the school – if the community indeed needs a school – and money to support teachers at the school.
It's a tourism business. It's pay to volunteer. As long as it is understood as tourism, mabye there's nothing wrong with it. I don't know. What I do know is that I joined WorkAway specifically to avoid this sort of business, yet the dice threw me right into one.
With the media skills I have, I was sure I could help a NGO develop promotional material. I could edit and create content for websites and social media platforms. I didn't want to have a zero impact as a white clown for a few weeks. And I certainly didn't want to pay to do so.
If I'm going to spend that I kind of money, I'd rather continue freely traveling with the dice. I'm not volunteering out of the kindness of my heart, I'm doing it because it's a necessity for stretching my funds and making Dice Travels last the entire 365 days. It's more of a barter situation for me.
Despite all of this, I am to come to a school in Karibu to teach English and games to children.
An email I received from Joseph read:
“Here we are working with Nursery and Primary Schools. Volunteers are needed to teach our Children English, Mathematics, Games,Business training and other lesson, it is 5days working per week and on weekends its free.
“Our education system in Tanzania is not goo at all so we hope through your presence we can make a big change.
“Come for as long as you like. You are welcome: Karibu.”
The bottom line of the email clarified that I needed to make a donation of 35 dollars a week to cover my food costs. If we're eating local, home-cooked meals, there's no way food would cost 35 dollars. However, the costs falls in line with WorkAway policy, so I conceded the point.
I pushed back the date of my arrival by a week. Then another four days. Then another day. However, this morning, it was clear I had no other choices, but to mount Rafiki and get it over with.
Somewhere along the six-and-a-half-hour drive to Kibaha Maili Moja, long after I've completed my interview with Ira Glass from This American Life for Dice Travels, signed a book deal and announced my North Pole to South Pole motorcycle adventure (the next on the list), I come to terms with the fact that I've got to put my best foot forward at the school.
The original plan was to stay with a project for several weeks. However, even with the meager costs for food and shelter, I decide to stay with the school for only one week – thus fulfilling the Die's Will. What can I accomplish in a week? Probably nothing, but I should do my best.
In my head, the idea of doing my best doesn't sound cliche, as under the circumstances it's an epiphany. I've been so focused on the futility of the week and desperately waiting for it to be over – even before it begins – that I was already failing.
I imagine myself being confronted with toddlers – basically forced to do advanced babysitting. Unfortunately, they'll be too young to show a lot of my magic tricks. However, I'll have start look at what options I have for more younger children.
I message Joseph to let him know that I'm running about 30 minutes late, but should be there soon.
I need to piss like a race horse, but there are apparently no bathrooms in the long collection of roadside shacks I park next to for lunch.
I suck some sticky ugali off my fingers and get back on Rafiki.
About forty minutes later, I pull into Kibaha Maili Moja to meet Joseph at the bus station. Two football pitches worth of rubble are piled up alongside highway A7 as a local road splits and bends around the area, a river moving around an island. There are a few trees standing on the edge of the ruble and a large touring bus parked in a gravel parking lot.
This must be the spot.
I pull in, parking next to a string of motorbike taxi drivers.
“Mzungu pikipiki,” one of the young guys with a bike elaborately decorated with pleather and tassels calls out to me.
As people start offloading from the bus, couple of them start joking about trying to get me clients as a motorbike taxi driver.
Someone else comes up to see if I want to buy nuts.
Joseph calls me. He was here a few minutes ago and didn't see me, so he'd jumped on a pikipiki to see if I got lost and was somewhere else. He'll be right over.
“Okay, sounds great,” I say.
With a smile the size of a slice of American apple pie, a thick-set, young man gets off the back of a motorcycle taxi.
“Isaac? Bro, so nice to meet you,” Joseph says, his hand outstretched.
All my anxiety about the job melts away; there is something completely disarming about Joseph's sincerity as we shake hands. There's a kind intelligence in his eyes nestled into a face that hasn't lost its baby fat.
We've got to go back to his shop to quickly close up and meet with another volunteer who just returned to town after summiting Mount Kilimajaro.
On the far side of the rubble pile is a long strip of low commercial buildings selling football jerseys, food, cosmetics, all sorts of stuff really. We make our way down the side street, past a hairdresser with a sign out front that shows the vast array of weaves they are capable of braiding into customer's hair to the closet-sized storefront of J It Solution Center.
It's hot when we slip past the sliding glass doors. His assistant is out somewhere. His assistant some distant family member is always out, even when he's supposed to be watching the store.
“This is how I make money to build the orphanage in Igamba, my father's village. I fix phones and computers,” Joseph tells me as he starts to close up tbe shop. “However, since the economy collapsed, business has not been good.”
“How did you learn to repair all these?” I ask.
“I taught myself,” he says with a shy, but proud smile.
Across the street a French woman in her twenties with popping bright pink lipstick steps out of a SUV. She stands next to an older Tanzanian with gray curls in his short hair.
The man, Ephraim, greats me with a robust, hand-slapping handshake. He's pleased to have me here and says so.
“They call me a black mzungo because I like to drink my wine and read my books,” he says, his eyes smiling behind narrow glasses.
Ephraim is a retired doctor who spends most of his time in France, but appears to also be helping support Joseph's efforts here in Tanzania.
“I'll give you a ride back to your place. Isaac can follow on the motorcycle,” he says.
Both of the men are very impressed by the fact that I drove Rafiki all the way down from Kenya. It turns out Joseph use to have a 250cc dirt bike, but had to sell it after his youngest daughter, Ruth, was born.
It's dark by the time we're headed back to Joseph's home in Mwendapole, There are flashing lights behind me as we drive north on the highway.
Just ignore them, I tell myself. Pretend you don't see them.
The lights are there for a couple minutes, then the police vehicle passes me.
We turn at a small gas station, then connect to a wide, unlit sandy road. One turn later, we're bumping between shabby cement houses and then pulling to a stop in front of Joseph's home.
It's a medium-sized, unfinished cement house. Out front is a small area where trash is burned, a narrow walking path runs next to the house, connecting the road we're on to neighbors' houses.
Once Joseph gets Fanny and Ephraim situated inside, he helps me unpack Rafiki and carry my gear inside. Fanny's face breaks into a huge smile as she reaches down to pick up Ruth. The toddler is all gorgeous smiles colorful beads bouncing on her head. Her small mother steps out into the courtyard where another shelter on the tiny compound houses an outdoor kitchen.
The house is strangely design. There is a common courtyard, the size of a living room that snakes around to two squat toilets. Though I had at first imagined the whole place was Joseph's it turns out that he shares it with two other families, each with rooms that open into the communal courtyard to have access to the cooking area and bathrooms.
Still in my dirty riding gear, and probably stinking up a storm, I yank off my boots, peel away my socks. After Joseph and I manage to roll Rafiki through the metal doorway into the cement courtyard, join everyone inside for tea.
Joseph's home is a two-room affair. The living room is cluttered with a coffee table, couch, chairs and a guest bed – my bed – on the far side. A small fan wags its head in the corner. In another corner, there are a pile of lidded pails, presumably filled with water.
“So are you Christian?” Ephraim asks me.
“No,” I say.
“Do you have a religion?”
He laughs and smiles.
“This is what is amazing. Here in Africa, we need religion. People here would be wild and go around killing each other if we had no religion. There would be chaos if religion didn't establish rules and threaten people with hell,” he says, his deep voice filling with passion. “It is so necessary here in Africa. It's necessary to make people good.”
Too tired to get into an intellectual argument about this one, I simply nod and listen as he further pontificates.
Joseph, a good Christian, is smiling, also listening.
“Well, we should be getting on the road. No, thank you, but we can't stay for dinner,” Ephraim says, despite Joseph's protest.
It's agreed that we'll see him and Fanny in the morning, as Fanny wants to visit all the children she was teaching last week before going to Zanzibar. It will also be a good time for me to be introduced to the school, though I won't be expected to teach anything yet.
Once they are gone, Joseph pours me a bucket of water for the shower and I get to scrubbing.