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Volunteer Travel in Tanzania: Planning, Funding, and Inspiration

Children in Tanzania asking Francine a question.

Children in Tanzania asking Francine a quiz question. Get ready for a phenomenal tale of how a U.S. ESL teacher’s failed ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro led her to connect with a remarkable educational project in Tanzania.

Francine, take it away!

My name is Francine Parling and I am an English as a Second Language teacher. Since 2001, I have taught elementary ESL in Minnesota’s second largest school district. My students are immigrants and refugees from Laos, Burma, Nepal, Somalia, Mexico, El Salvador, and Ethiopia.

Travel has always been part of my life. I was born in sunny Santa Barbara, California, but when I was six, my unemployed father crammed all he could into a black 1974 Chevy pick-up truck with a camper shell, and drove my mother and me up the Al-Can Highway to the Kenai Peninsula area of South-central Alaska… in December.

Francine's first sight of the African continent!

Francine’s first sight of the African continent!

Since high school, I have had the opportunity to travel and live abroad, including (West) Germany, Finland, Sweden, and Hungary. Despite my extensive travels throughout Europe and my professional job, I speak only English, but am an ace at charades and interpreting facial expressions and voice tone. You can get a lot of information from a nod of head or an “Hmmmm,” particularly with a Hungarian as a Second Language instructor named Éva.

In July 2010, my husband and I traveled to Tanzania, East Africa to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. This was our first visit ever to the African continent. At 19,341 feet, ‘Kili,’ as it is informally referred to, is both Africa’s highest and the world’s tallest freestanding mountain.

Like many of the 22,000 people a year that climb the mountain, my central focus of the trip was to have, after 6 days on the Machame Route, my photo taken triumphantly atop Kili’s Uhuru Peak.

Tanzania's beautiful Mt. Kilimanjaro... so hard to climb.

Tanzania’s beautiful Mt. Kilimanjaro… so hard to climb.

However, my dream to summit was not to be. On the third day, after 10 hours of hiking from 13,000 to 16,500 feet up through the mountain’s alpine desert, I found myself behind a gigantic boulder, heaving and sobbing. My head throbbed and stomach was tight and twisted from altitude sickness.

Because of multiple drug allergies, I was doing the hike without anti-altitude sickness drugs; my state’s highest elevation is 2,301 feet which didn’t help my altitudinal issues much either. I looked back at Kili’s ice-capped peak and bawled, “WHAT IN THE (insert expletive here) WAS I THINKING?!”

Although I completed the rest of the hike (sans summit), I felt angry, disappointed, and most of all, embarrassed that I didn’t summit. Before leaving for Tanzania, I had said, “There’s a 50 percent chance I’ll make it and a 50 percent chance I won’t.”

In my heart, though, I just hadn’t really prepared myself for the won’t. Upon returning from the mountain, I couldn’t bear to face the mass of emails with, “How Did U Do?” and, “How’d it go” in the subject line waiting for my reply. I felt completely broken.

Kili porters are the backbone of the mountain.

Kili porters are the backbone of the mountain.

A few weeks before we left for Tanzania, I asked our tour company (Adventures Within Reach) if they could arrange a visit to a Tanzanian school. I thought it would be “neat” to see a few Tanzanian classrooms. In all truth, the school visit was very much an after-thought and something I considered a nice addition to our pre-climb itinerary.

AWR put me in touch with Theresa Grant, the founder of Make a Difference NOW, a non-governmental organization whose mission is to “to empower orphaned children and youth to become self sufficient and self confident citizens through education and economic development.”

Tanzania, like many countries on the African continent, has been tremendously impacted by HIV-AIDS; the disease has orphaned over 1 million Tanzanian children. In Tanzania, Ms. Grant’s organization provides a home and tuition for 22 abandoned and orphaned children, ages 8-17.

Most importantly, Ms. Grant, her staff, and volunteers give the children a community, a connection, an opportunity for achievement through education— and love.

A first grade classroom in Tanzania.

A first grade classroom Francine visited in Tanzania.

As part of our day with Theresa, we visited the private primary school (grade equivalent of K-7) where the majority of her children attend. While Tanzanian students have access to free primary level public schools, families are responsible for paying for uniforms, books, supplies, and testing fees.

Government primary schools often have very large classes (40-50 students) and the quality of instruction can vary widely. English is a compulsory subject in Tanzanian public primary schools, but the instructional language is in Kiswahili.

At the secondary level (which is not free), English is the instructional language. At many other private schools, students are taught in English from kindergarten on which gives them many advantages, especially on the national exams.

Three freedoms in Tanzania: Thought, Belief, and Religion.

Three freedoms in Tanzania: Thought, Belief, and Religion.

As a teacher, I felt a swell of emotion when I walked into a classroom. I had tears in my eyes as I scanned the walls and peeked into desks.

I often complain about the lack of resources, over-crowded classrooms, and the feeling of swimming against a tide of public and political criticism and negation about the work that we teachers do.

I am grateful that I had the opportunity to see the process-and power-of learning and teaching in a different cultural and social context. It certainly gave me an appreciation of the tremendous resources I have available to me. Most importantly, I left that day with a recommitment to focus on what really matters in my work: kids.

That night, as I watched Theresa’s dark green van drive away, I turned to my husband and said, “I’ll be back.”

While in Tanzania this summer, I observed English language classes and assisted in help reorganize the MAD volunteer reading program so that it provides more direction for the volunteers when they work with the children, as well as help the children further develop their English language reading, writing, and vocabulary skills.

Two weeks was not enough time and I am already planning to return to work with MAD again for 4-6 weeks next summer. However, volunteering at a school can be difficult because most Tanzanian schools have their winter break during July-August, which is, of course, an American teacher’s optimal time to travel!

A Kindergarten workbook in Tanzania.

A Kindergarten workbook in Tanzania.

People are sometimes surprised to hear that I paid a fee to volunteer for MAD (approximately $750 USD). However, this covered the cost of my food, local transportation, and provided payment to the host family for the additional expenses they incurred by taking on a guest.

It also may be tax-deductible. At the Kilimanjaro airport, I exchanged $150 for Tanzanian shilling (TZS); at the end of my two-week stay (which included purchasing a number of larger souvenirs without engaging in extended bargaining with the merchants), I had over $85 left.

My district participates in the Fund for Teachers travel grant program. The district also provides teachers the opportunity to apply for a sabbatical year (or less) where they will retain up to 50% of their salary.

For my trip to Kilimanjaro, I had applied for a travel grant, but didn’t receive funding. For this year’s visit, I used my savings, including a chunk of our tax rebate, and the trusty Visa card. While I don’t advise anyone to fall into a sinkhole of debt to travel, for me, there was no question I was going to return to Tanzania to volunteer.

For this trip, we raised nearly $1000 through two fundraisers: a backyard barbecue, and a workout session at my local gym. All the money raised went directly to pay for the children’s tuition and fresh fruits and vegetables program.

Preparing for the first annual MAD talent show!

Preparing for the first annual MAD talent show!

My husband and I don’t have children and he doesn’t have the same flexibility with his work that I do, so any extended travel back to Tanzania will be done on my own. However, he sees and hears my passion when I speak about Theresa, MAD, the children, and Tanzania and has been supportive.

When I decided to become an ESL teacher, it was always my dream to take my skills and knowledge on the road. However, because of personal and financial obligations and circumstances during my 30s, I had to postpone those plans. I had a wonderful time meeting and working with the other volunteers, but I was sometimes self-conscious of the age difference between me and the other program participants (the youngest volunteer was 16, the others in their early-mid 20s).

When we were introducing ourselves to the kids at the orphanage, one girl suggested we tell our name, where we were from, what we liked to do, and how old we were. The average life expectancy in Tanzania is approximately 52 years old; when I announced I was 41, there were more than a few double takes and stares! However, being ‘older’ also provided me a certain amount of ‘privileges,’ including being left alone by street touts who scampered after the younger volunteers.

While it might sound cliché, in Tanzania, I experienced some my highest highs and lowest lows. I consider our afternoon visit with Ms. Grant to be one of the most personally, professionally affirming and thought-provoking experiences in my life. I believe that my ‘failure’ on the mountain opened myself— and my heart— to the rich sense of possibility that exists in many areas of Tanzania and especially in the Go MAD Now organization.

Six years earlier, Ms. Grant had quit her job in California, sold all her possessions, and moved to Zambia to, in her words, “Answer what my life’s purpose was.” It is a meditation I have returned to often over the past year and a half. Ironically, just before I left for Tanzania this summer, my husband and I went to out to dinner at a local Chinese buffet.

We received two fortune cookies with our bill. Cracking open mine, I pulled out the slip of paper. It read: Over every mountain, there is a path although it may not be seen from the valley. I have loved where this path has taken me so far and look forward to where it leads it me in the future.

Francine, thank you so much for sharing your fascinating story! Readers, what comments or questions do you have for Francine?

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