You have all heard me babble on numerous times on here about the life changing experience I had volunteering in Tanzania a little over a year ago, I’ve gone on about what I learned, how my values changed from living in a primarily self serving way to a way of wanting to help others more. In many ways I can be an “ignorant westerner” still, especially in terms of being picky about having specific food items like coconut oil and hemp seeds. However, I currently live in a place that’s barely furnished and haven’t felt much urge to go crazy with furnishing…I will just consider it zen, at least I’m not sleeping on a mattress on the floor anymore lol.
Anyway, I will cut myself off there. Instead of listening to what I have to say, I would like for you all to check out what my friend Gerallt has to say about his experiences volunteering in Tanzania. Gerallt is one of the coolest volunteers I met, and although I don’t know him too well in terms of time, something about him cracks me open and I’ve shared with him many details about my life that very few people know and it seems him and I have shared some similarities in life experiences. I am very keen on helping the school Gerallt supports and fund raises for in Arusha and anytime I see or hear about the work he’s been doing I am so impressed by what a selfless person he is. The photo of the impala brings him to mind because I have seen him accomplish huge things to fast and it’s impressive.
I encourage you all to check out the facebook page for Cheka School and support in any way you can. Even skipping out on a few coffees, a few drinks or a few smokes can help, and it may help you kick some of your vice’s in the ass too 🙂
What inspired you to volunteer in Tanzania?
I would think that I’m definitely not alone in having always had the thought of assisting in situations of poverty at the back of my mind. I can vividly recall seeing iconic images of suffering in the extreme famine of the mid 1980s in Ethiopia. There followed at the time a global effort to contribute towards easing the suffering, culminating in the Live Aid effort set up by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure (and a super display of rock showmanship by one Freddie Mercury!). Being around 11 years old at the time, it would probably have been one of the first few times in life that I’d have started to realise that all was not well in the world, and that not everyone’s life revolves around playing football from dawn to dusk during school holidays. The impact of that period of time would definitely have stayed in my subconscious, and it would be some 25 years later before I’d be able to act on that urge to “help” or “do something” whatever that may be. In around 2009, I found myself in seasonal employment, and being relatively commitment free (no wife, no children, no mortgage) I was left to my own devices for around three or four months over the winter. I spent one winter helping to set up a boxing club in my home town and volunteering part time for the National Trust, and that’s when I truly caught the volunteering bug. In March 2010, after watching a wildlife documentary on the Serengeti, it occurred to me that I could volunteer abroad at the end of the year. The first place that came to mind was “Africa” and after a spot of googling I found IVHQ who offer programmes in various countries on the continent at reasonably affordable prices (certainly affordable compared to other similar companies that I now know to be offering virtually the same experience for around five times the cost!). Choosing which country wasn’t particularly easy – but the fact that I’d always wanted to go to East Africa, had always wanted to go on safari after watching countless Big Cat Diaries and other African wildlife documentaries over the years and had a keen interest in hiking up mountains left me with a choice between Tanzania and Kenya. I decided on Tanzania after being convinced by some volunteers who’d had a great experience there. It definitely turned out to be the best decision I could possibly have made, and probably the best decision of my life to date.
In what way did your life change for the better from volunteering?
Some people talk about filling up their backpack and going to volunteer in an orphanage in a poor country and having this overwhelming sense that their life is immediately transformed in a matter of a few weeks, ie having an immediate and radically life changing experience. That indeed has been the case for many people following similar ventures worldwide. But I think for me that any “change” has been a more gradual process, and a series of smaller mindset changes have occurred, although I certainly recall that when I first left Tanzania that I’d had the most unique of experiences in my own personal life and that I had a deep, impactful feeling that I simply had to return the following winter.
The major way that my life has changed is that I have definitely found something that I am extremely passionate about. If I’m given a stage to talk about Cheka or Arusha and volunteering in Tanzania, then I could easily talk about it for hours on end. I wish the whole world could find the time to go to Cheka and meet the children, meet the families and the staff and it baffles me why people don’t hand over their life savings once I’ve described what we do at Cheka to them! In many ways, Cheka is a purpose in life for me and it is never far from my mind. The idea of there not being a Cheka for some reason fills me with a sense of great sadness and horror as does the idea of not returning there every winter for a few months.
Priorities have certainly changed in the time that I’ve been going to Tanzania every year. A lot of things are way down the list of importance these days. I still follow football, but it’s with a passing interest. I hardly ever watch television, and avoid celebrities and reality shows like I would the plague! Perhaps it’s a natural sign of maturing that I prefer a hike in the hills or a long walk through the countryside, but I definitely find that I do that a lot more since I went to Tanzania. I would of course like to think that it is observing the Tanzanian way of life has taught me to appreciate my surroundings and what I have rather than ageing!
I understand you now actively volunteer and fund raise for Cheka school. What are some key projects you have worked on for them and how have these projects progressed?
Currently, Cheka is set up as a small charity in the UK and registered as an NGO in Tanzania. That brings with it quite a lot of work, and it is shared between a structured Committee of five members each having their own specific roles.
I am currently the Secretary, acting Treasurer, Volunteer Officer and Family Business Project Manager of Cheka Foundation. Enough to be getting on with for sure!
The Committee Chair is Amy, our Teaching Advisors are Arika and Sarah and Al Kaasam who deals with sponsorship (Al was born in Tanzania but has lived in Calgary since he was 13 years old – I’m not at liberty to tell you how many years ago that was! Myself and Al were Cheka’s very first volunteers and he also returns every year to Arusha).
Cheka Foundation’s main project is Cheka School, a pre primary school for 50 children (I find that it ends up being more than that if I’m in charge of registration – I find it difficult to turn down parents who turn up and want an education for their child). It started in late 2010 with just a few children sitting on a living room floor with one desk, a blackboard and a bag of crayons – and a totally bewildered volunteer from Wales!
We split the classes into four groups based mainly on their age – 3 year olds, 4 year olds, 5 and 6 year olds. We employ two local teachers – Happy and Tabea – to teach them and in the main the children are taught by doing group activities which we find is extremely volunteer friendly (as opposed to a volunteer having to teach a class of 15 children as a whole, which is also an option). We also employ a Headmaster – Herman – part time to take care of the finances in Tanzania when we are unable to be there.
As well as teaching the 3-6 year olds we also hold classes for the former Cheka students who’ve gone on to Government School. We teach them English every day for an hour or so and we also pay Government School fees and buy uniforms for those children to make sure that they still attend at school. We actively try to find a sponsor for them so that they are able to go to a well established, reputable English/Swahili medium private school locally.
As a further teaching project, we also teach some of the parents of the children. Quite a significant amount of parents are illiterate and never had the opportunity to go to school, or their education finished early by reason of poverty. Some parents were initially unable to even write their names or even a single letter but after a few weeks show significant progress and start to speak very basic English with a degree of confidence.
Last year, after making several home visits and creating profiles of all the Cheka families, we decided to assist some of the worse off families by discussing the financing of a small business with them. I used a fair amount of fundraised money to start up a number of businesses – such as selling fruit and veg, selling milk, cooking and selling food, egg selling, clothes selling and so on. With the assistance of the fundraising of a local 6th Form College in North Wales, we’ve managed to buy a cow and a goat for two different families as well as renovating one or two homes. Prior to my last visit to Cheka, I was given a lot of organic seeds to share amongst Cheka’s families and some 15 families in total benefitted from growing and selling vegetables such as broccoli, various types of beans, lettuce, turnip and so on.
Those are the main projects associated with Cheka School and I’m always keen to keep them growing as it gives a lot of different things for volunteers to see and do when they come to Cheka School.
However, our main priority has to be paying the bills to keep the school open. It is the only pre-primary school in the immediate area and is totally free of charge for the children and their parents. In order to keep it going we have to pay for the children to have two meals a day, pay for two teachers, a Headmaster, a cook/cleaner and two security guards. Our biggest expenditure is the rent we pay for the two houses in the same compound – one for the school and one for the volunteers. We raise money by donations and by having volunteers come to the school and pay rent on the house. We charge a very small weekly rent, and we’re easily the most affordable Volunteer Organisation in the area! In an ideal world, we would build our own school and volunteer house to cut down on costs, make the school more self sufficient and to take the pressure off fundraising a bit, but it’s difficult to find that level of financial backing. It’s hard enough just to keep the school open every year!
What do you think volunteering and supporting small organizations in Tanzania directly has given you personally and the communities you have worked with that goes beyond what supporting large international organizations could?
Working with Cheka to support the communities directly in the impoverished Sakina and Kyrani areas of Arusha certainly has been beneficial to my life. As we don’t profit financially from working with Cheka, all benefits have been purely emotional and spiritual for us rather than material (although the families out there are extremely grateful and will cook you a meal or bring a gift to you to show their gratitude).
When I’m out and about in Arusha I like to look around different projects and visit other schools and orphanages. It varies things up for me, I get to know the area better and meet new people who share ideas that may work for Cheka. Sometimes I’ll find a pretty hopeless looking situation where a local family has nowhere to turn so I’ll assist by raising awareness through social media. For example on my last visit, an Arushan friend of mine introduced me to Samwel and his family – a 12 year old boy who’s leg had suffered pretty horrendous burns (the whole of his leg up to his knee was literally red raw) and who had been left virtually untreated in a local Government hospital for around three months. His parents had no way of funding his treatment in one of Arusha’s better private hospitals, and together with a few other volunteers I raised money through a social media appeal. Money soon came in and we ended up managing to pay for the treatment of another little boy as well – 3 year old Noeli who’d had severe boiling water burns to his shoulder and the whole of his left arm. People were so incredibly generous and through their donations probably saved the limbs and lives of those two children. I did feel a real sense of achievement in helping those two families out – especially when after around three months I was leaving and Samwel had just started to put some weight on his leg for the first time in over five months and Noeli was happily running around, virtually pain free and getting ready to leave hospital.
I would say that direct, hands on involvement with a small organization on the ground can be something incredibly fulfilling. It takes you through the emotional mill, that’s for sure. It’s sometimes as infuriating and as frustrating as it is heart warmingly fantastic and joyously out of this word. It’s always great when you find a project that you can physically get involved with rather than just being the man who hands over the cash. I’ve helped to push a great big wooden wheelbarrow full of sand up a Sakina hill in the searing midday heat once. A never to be repeated experience for me!
For over two years I’ve sponsored the private education of a former Cheka pupil called Glory. I always look forward to seeing her and her family when I return to Tanzania. I’ve been able to see for myself how much she has progressed academically since going to her new school – and I was particularly ecstatic the last time I went to Arusha as her English had improved so much since the last time I saw her, which makes communicating a lot less troublesome (my Swahili is not as good as it should be – but it is something I’m working on!). It was also great to hear that her father had turned two packets of seeds and ten chickens into a successful veg and egg selling business. His success was such that he had bought a lot of material for building a new house for himself and his family so that he can knock down the mud hut they now live in. It will be a project that I will be getting behind when I return at the end of the year.
As we’re a non-profit making organisation money donated to us goes straight through to running Cheka School and supporting the local families. We transfer money every three months, which also helps us keep bank charges to a bare minimum ensuring that more money goes to where it should – straight to keeping Cheka school open and supporting the local families. As volunteers for Cheka, we don’t take a salary or reclaim any expenses such as flights or visas or the cost of living out there. We don’t have our own company vehicles and flash 4x4s to get us around and I prefer getting around on one of the local motor bike taxis or dala dalas (the local mini bus!) that are always an adventure. By donating to a smaller organisation like Cheka, you’ll definitely get more personal updates and a greater sense of knowing exactly where your money is going and exactly what it is being used for. We have a newsletter, a facebook page and a website to keep everyone updated.
Here’s a few links for you to look at –
www.facebook.com/chekaschool – please like it!
What keeps bringing you back to Cheka?
A multitude of reasons keep me returning every year to Cheka. It’s almost a given now that I’ll be returning there for a few months every year at some point between December and March.
After my first venture, there was no doubt in my mind that I had to return there the following winter (or as soon as possible!). I had been completely taken by the way of life, the welcoming and friendly attitude of the people and the relative laidback-ness of it all. I was eager to go back to Cheka and help work on taking it to the next level and, of course, couldn’t wait to see the children again.
After I left for the second time, my plan had always been to skip returning to Cheka for a year and go to volunteer in South America. But the nearer it got to the winter months, the more and more the idea of returning to Cheka got inside my head.
And so it went. I never saw South America. I returned last December for three months and I now not only feel that I want to return there, but I want to make it a more long term move if at all possible. Our ultimate goal at Cheka would be to buy land, build a school and a volunteer house so that we can cut costs right down and ultimately benefit more children and their families in the area. It is something I’d love to develop and get involved with and I guess that the fact that this hasn’t happened yet is one reason that keeps me coming back.
Another reason I’m drawn to the area is the fact that every time I go I am guaranteed to meet new people and make friends and work with volunteers from all over the world. I have many local friends that I have known since the first time I went there, and I also get to meet up again with some volunteers that I met at the end of 2010. It’s always good to meet up with old friends and make new ones wherever you are in the world.
I always miss the hustle and bustle and the chaotic craziness (in a good way!) of Arusha. There is never a dull moment in that town. Getting from A to B around Arusha is hardly ever mundane and you never know what’s around the corner.
One of the major reasons why I, and any other volunteer with any other project, like to return is to meet up with children again. Ultimately it’s why we all do it. You see them at school and you love the fact that they are all so full of big smiles, energy, cheekiness and willingness to learn. I remember the first time I went on a family visit, and to see a Cheka pupil living in such conditions of poverty was pretty moving to say the least. You then see that same child the next day at Cheka and you’re totally in awe of the fact that they’re bouncing around so full of life and smiling and that makes you all the more determined in some ways. I don’t get so involved in the teaching side of things these days, but I’m always around during lunch when all the children are at the school and playtime is in full swing!
I also love returning to the area so I can update people who donate to the school or those who sponsor some of the children. I am also given fundraised money to spend on setting up businesses for families every year I go, and that gives me plenty to think about when I return. It’s interesting and challenging to go around Arusha to find the best deals for all kinds of stuff – clothes, chickens, cows, goats, cement or sand – and it’s also quite energy zapping when you’re caught in the Tanzanian sun in the afternoon (which also may be a bit of a determining factor in my returning to Arusha every year – it beats the Welsh winter!).
If you’d like to donate to Cheka School or any associated projects – such as starting a family business or sponsoring one of our children – please get in touch.
We also have highly affordable year round, volunteering opportunities at Cheka School.
If you’re interested you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks Michelle for letting me ramble on your blog and thanks to everyone who’s read it!