By Will Farr
So, you want to know what it’s like to volunteer overseas with COCO, hmm? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Just last month, I was dispatched to the Ruvuma region of southern Tanzania to conduct research into the permaculture training that COCO’s partners the Hoja Project run, and talk first-hand with farmers about their views on the environment. This meant there were interviews, water and soil tests, and project visits. Want to know more? I have written a report that you can refer to, including every single interview. If I was to include everything noteworthy that happened during my trip, I’d be publishing a book (unless people want that?). Therefore, here is a quick summary of what to expect if you volunteer with COCO in the future. Enjoy!
Tip 1: transport
With travel, the moving from A to B has become something that people want over and done with as quickly as possible, but you need to throw this idea out of the window when it comes to reaching Songea. Allow yourself a good 24 hours. Use your 12 hours in the air as an opportunity to catch up on some films. Use the 8 hour layover in Dar es-Salaam for sleeping, but find a hotel, because someone thought an open air airport, where most of the flights arrive and depart in the early hours of the morning, which happens to be prime malaria time, was a good idea. However, make sure taxi drivers don’t exploit the fact you are lacking sleep, take you somewhere “cheap”, and then, after waking up the receptionist, be charged $70 for a 4 hour stay. You’d be a fool to do this. Next morning, enjoy the 16-seater. It’s certainly an experience to watch the pilot while away the flight polishing his sunglasses. If you’re on a tight budget, and hate yourself, allow 72 hours to make it to Songea via bus from Dar es-Salaam. This may also sound obvious, but make sure that your taxi driver actually owns a vehicle. I had a stay over in Dar es Salaam on the way back to the UK. To get to the hostel, he grabbed us a couple of motorbikes, and at 2am the next morning I was ferried to the airport in someone’s tuk tuk!
It’s all worth it though. If you’ve ever travelled in Africa before, especially to anywhere touristy, you’ll have noticed that you go home with a mountain of unwanted souvenirs that people have convinced you you need. Songea meanwhile, has none of this. There are NO sellers. The town has green boulevards, and is small enough to get to know. It’s a really nice place, probably because it’s off the tourist track, so make the most of the peace.
The second part of transport is the actual getting around. The roads can’t always be called roads. Some of them will look like walking paths, or off-road mountain biking courses, but don’t worry, where any person can go, a car can go too. If you’re there at the hottest time of the year like I was, you want every breath of air you can access. Just expect some visits to the mechanic in response.
Tip 2: culture
The beauty of travelling is experiencing new cultures, and if you’ve never been to East Africa or Tanzania, then you’ll have a field day. Or even if you have been, you’ll still be left surprised at what you see half the time. If there is one word of advice that first-timers must be given, it is to be prepared for “T-I-T time” (fondly known by some as “TITTY time”). This stands for “Time In Tanzania”. I think it refers to 2 things. First of all is the Swahili clock. This is a way of telling the time that some locals use. You can remember it like this: it is always offset from the western clock by 6 hours. So 10am our time is 4am their time. I think I’ve made this more confusing than before, but nevermind. There is also the idea that T-I-T time is a more fluid and less definite version of our time keeping. Say your bus journey should take 9 hours, but it actually takes 14. The people waiting to pick you up from the station happily wait for 5 and hours. People are incredibly patient, and you must learn to be too.
Another tip: listen out for the word “mzungu”. If you are a mzungu, it will follow you everywhere. You will hear it on the wind, and it’ll be screamed at you by groups of young children. Adults don’t tend to do this funnily, but as soon as you hear mzungu mid-conversation, you know its about you, and can have the joy of interrupting with a: ‘what are you saying about me?’. I will leave it up to you to guess its meaning. I think it’s a really fun word, and a favourite phrase has to be “silly mzungu”.
If you have the chance, whether you’re religious or not, go to church. It is worth the early start. Make sure to wear your smartest clothes (preferably all white), and grab a bottle of non-branded water. In many ways it was like an exercise class in a club. The choir spend more time dancing than singing. It all builds up and up and up, becoming trance-like at times, as women dance around waving large branches and the choir all dance in one rhythmic stomping group. The priest will then pray, and the prayers can go on for 10 minutes or longer, with the priest repeating the same words over and over like a stuck record. All the backing music was provided by what can only be described as a church DJ. Don’t stay the whole time though, as you could be there for hours.
Or, go to a wedding! In rather poor taste I gatecrashed a wedding with Oswin Mahundi (COCO’s East Africa Director and all round Songea celebrity) one Saturday evening. I have never seen such a determined group of people. The wedding started rather late, but prior to that, the DJ was replaced because he was rubbish, there was a power cut, and the microphone and fairy lights couldn’t function at the same time for a period. The entrance speech for the bride’s family was repeated maybe 5 times, each failing because of the DJ’s menial skills. Everyone moved around by dancing. I had to stand up and wave when a spotlight was shined on me. Oswin and I were moved to the VIP seats, given bounteous amounts of popcorn and 5 drinks each (talking massive juice carton, coffee juice and energy drinks – I assume to maintain dancing stamina). I’ve never felt so special in my life.
Expect the unexpected. Something bizarre happened practically everyday. Whether it be a man trying to sell me gemstones at breakfast, or conducting interviews in a village called Heaven, which was founded by a man known as “The Devil”, where the people drink cholera and typhoid inducing water, and have high illiteracy rates. I hope that you too can have some rather odd experiences like me, that stick with you forever. That is the culture of Tanzania. Anything can happen.
Tip 3: food
The food of Tanzania would be called healthy if the portions weren’t enormous. Your portion of rice or ugali (sort of maize or cassava porridge) will be half the size of your head. You’ll be offered dinner in a village and they’ll prepare a veritable feast for 3 of you, and then show utter disappointment at your failure to eat 5kg of rice each. But this in reality harks towards the generosity and friendliness of the people of Tanzania. You will be most welcome. Oswin, Elisha (aka Mr. Pig – another story for another time) and whoever else is there to support you, will be there for you all the way. Nothing will be too much trouble. It reassures you of the decency of the human race.
Back to food. You might have to eat some weird things. One breakfast, after having eaten a slice and a half of bread, I found some ants on my plate, only to discover a small colony of them living within the nooks and crannies of my remaining half slice. Vegetarians, be prepared for some lovely food, things like boiled bananas, beans, greens, sweet potatoes stews, chips mayai (chip omelette) and tomato sauces. The lot of the meat eater is slightly more challenging. I had to eat leather like livers, fat-veined chunks of goat and beef, and the head of a cat fish (it was enormous, like the size of a porpoise head, but surprisingly delicious – tasted like barbequed pork). I am usually vegetarian on my travels, but I forgot to share this message before reaching Tanzania. However, it’s not all like this. You’ll have some of the freshest and most ethical chicken you’ve ever eaten, free-ranging their farms and slaughtered on the day, or the most delicious barbequed goat skewers. They make rice and beans taste insane, and I’m not sure how. The fruit too! I consumed around 100 mangoes during my 4 night stay at Mbamba Bay, on the shores of Lake Nyasa. Regularity was ensured.
Tip 4: projects
COCO does some amazing work, and you could be part of it. I was touched to be able to experience the frontline of COCO’s educational endeavours. It was a pleasure to meet some of the staff running the schools, such as Kesheni Sengo at Mshangano Secondary School, or Malaika Milinga at Kids are Kings Nursery School. However, prepare to feel a little Prince Charles-esque. You spend a lot of time wandering around slowly, with your hands behind your back, being shown things you don’t quite understand. At Mshangano, I was escorted into an active exam, to be shown the papers. Much to my dismay, I couldn’t answer half the questions. Then a tour to the toilet block, and the football pitch, finishing at the well.
The projects may at times sometimes leave you feeling down, or heartbroken. The community at Kingonsera is one example. The 24 women who have received the Hoja permaculture training are either widows, HIV positive, or both. Oswin recalled how when he first met them, they were depressed, and, admitted to their lives being no more than a waiting game. When I met them, they were some of the happiest and most welcoming people I’ve ever met. Velena Mbawala said, ‘her dreams and expectations for life have changed entirely, from waiting to die, to being alive again’. Or in Heaven, the people there are drinking water that gives them cholera and typhoid, but they have no choice as it’s their only water source. Or in Mbamba Bay, the fish that are caught are in such demand that fishermen will only sell to the buying women if they sleep with him, meaning HIV and AIDs are running riot. Or when you meet a farmer like 77 year old Elias Mkopoka, who hadn’t received the Hoja permaculture training, has only one functioning hand with fingers, can only afford 2 meals a day, and has to go out and work the land because there is no one there to support him. It is cases like these that inspire you to want to make change. I have return from Tanzania with so much empowerment, and desire to make changes to the world for the good. This research trip was the most eye-opening travel I have ever undertaken, and it could be the same for you too.
Tip 5: final words
Watch out for the power cuts, and the missing wifi. And the dodgy plumbing. Darkness and showering using only the water designated for washing one’s derriere does not really make you feel any cleaner. Take loo roll if you’re not one for new experiences! Expect some candlelight dinners, and some sweaty nights when the fan stops working, depending on what time of year you go. I am aware that this is not really promoting volunteering in Tanzania, but I feel that if this doesn’t appeal, then you’re not the right person. I think this is thrilling. Life is about adventure, and life is about being out of your comfort zone. Life is about expanding one’s personal horizons, and helping formulate new ideas away from the everyday of home. Travel is about doing good. If you have read this, and felt jealous, or inspired, then I have done my job. I have returned from my trip a different person, and you will too. You will have changed someone’s life for the better, and surely that is the best thing someone can achieve in life. And you don’t have to volunteer abroad. By volunteering with COCO in the UK, you are making as important an impact as in Tanzania. You are helping raise vital funds, and spread the COCO message. Every little helps (this motto is far too empowering for a supermarket). Thank you for reading!