We breath in thick red dust as we bounce over the corrugated tracks at speed, we ford rivers with no bridges, we hold our breath as the wheels almost bog down in the mud and exhale again as we pull free without having to get out and push, and we close our eyes as the driver executes a three point turn on a steep hairpin blind corner as he realises we have missed the turn-off. Its only about three hours from Arusha but as we drive into our camp site in Magara it already seems like another world. Our tents are under a canopy of tall trees, next to a waterfall cascading a couple of hundred metres down a cliff side into a natural rock pool surrounded by a sandy riverside beach. Magara is a town in the lee of the Great Rift Valley, past the southwestern end of Lake Manyara. There are no national parks, game drives, or luxury lodges here, therefore little tourism or tourism dollars to benefit the locals.
Voluntourism in Tanzania
We are here as ‘voluntourists’, one of those weird made up words that I had never heard until a few months ago. What it means is that twenty of us are here, at our own cost, to spend a few days of our holiday providing basic manual labour to help renovate and maintain the Magara secondary school. We haven’t been “sponsored” by our friends, we are not part of any charity organisation, we are paying our own way, and we will be directly donating our own labour as well as contributing cash to the purchase of building materials. We will be working alongside teachers and students plus skilled local labour. None of us are builders or carpenters, and our ages range from 14 to 68 – seventeen aussies, one kiwaussie, and two canadians. We have no idea how we will actually be useful, but we are all excited to be here and wondering how on earth we will be put to use.
Getting to work in Magara, Tanzania
Having been warned to bring our oldest clothes, likely to be wrecked, stained and destroyed over the next few days, we are a motley looking crew as we set out on our first ten minute stroll to see the school we will be working on. We split ourselves into three crews – two will be painting crews (with a subset team of trainee carpenters to make wooden tables from scratch – no ikea kitsets here), and one to lift rocks and sand bags and water pails to construct solid bases on which 5,000 litre water tanks can be installed.
It takes a couple of hours to really get started on the first day. We want to make sure we are doing the tasks that the school headmaster and the community think are the highest priorities, which are not necessarily the tasks we think need to be done. So some time is needed to negotiate, to discuss, to get consensus. The second challenge it how to carry out our tasks. Our tour company has purchased and delivered the core materials on our behalf – bags of concrete mix, tins of paint and brushes, planks of wood. But we quickly realise that the devil is in the detail. The school has no water supply, and no power (there are solar panels for the one PC but they are currently broken). There are no rags to clean off the paint brushes, no old icecream containers to turn into paint trays, none of that paraphanaelia we all have in the back of the cupboard at home. Any such items are already in daily use in the families in this community, there is no spare “junk”. We easily sacrifice a few of our t-shirts to make rags, some of which get tied to branches to make “mops” to try and brush or wash the dust off the walls we will be painting. Plastic handled paint rollers that we have supplied are also tied onto branches so that we can reach the top of the 3 and 4 metre high walls of the school rooms. We have only one square of sandpaper, which the ‘table makers’ will need, so we search for flat stones with a straightish edge to use as a tool to scour the old peeling paint off the walls and try to create a smoother surface. The school ladder, itself homemade, is pressed into duty to carry the large rocks that need to be collected to help build the concrete bases, the ladder allowing six people at a time to spread the weight of each rock. Some water is trucked in, some is carried bucket by bucket from the neighbour’s well. Improvisation becomes the name of the game.
Magara Tanzania school presentation day
The plan is to be in Magara five nights, working hard for four days. In the end we only work three days, as our visit co-incides with the end of term school presentation day. And a long day it is too, slowly, slowly, ‘on africa time’. Our initial frustration that we can’t get even more rooms painted is quickly humbled on the realisation that we are being given an opportunity to share an important day with the local community. We get to plant saplings each, representing that we will always now be children of the Magara soil. The students perform traditional dances and enthrall us with their singing. The parents of the students arrive dressed in their best and brightest finery. The head of the parent representatives cajoles and shames the attending parents into donating more money than I suspect they can afford to help the school. Local dignitaries attend and make speeches. The library which we have just painted, and for which the new tables have been made, is officially opened. And about four in the afternoon, we join the parents and dignitaries and teachers in a big communal lunch. I remember the look of confusion on the face of the lady sitting opposite me, parent to one of the students, when we realise that we are exactly the same age, and she has nine children, while I have none. She wasn’t just surprised, she was unable to visualise how that was possible. (And I probably looked as incredulous at the thought of nine!)
Memories of Magara Tanzania
So many memories will stay with me. Learning that it cost 20,000 shillings (approx USD$20) pa for a child to attend secondary school, a price most families can’t afford. Knowing that each evening I was spending 2,500 shillings a time for a nice coldish bottle of beer. The pure pleasure of about 60 seconds of warm water pouring over my head in the tiny bush shower every night. The deliciously cool water of the pool under the waterfall. The spicy bite of the pre-dinner soup the crew cooked up each night – my favourite was hot cucumber soup. Knowing that on average each class had to share two text books per subject between the whole class, as textbooks cost around 10,000 shillings each. The satisfying tiredness of eight or more hours of solid physical labour each day, and seeing the results of our labour. The happy screams of dozens of local kids who would come running from hundreds of metres away as we dragged our tired bodies home each night, their smiles lighting up as they begged to have their photo taken so they could see themselves in the screen on the back of the camera. The hard working crew who made basic camping way more comfortable than I ever remember it being before. The warmth of twenty wonderfully diverse people sharing a unique experience but with a common purpose – to help out in a very small but very direct way, to do something practical, forming a bond that will last a long time. All good cliches come about for a reason, and so it is with this one – we gained so much more than we gave.
And the icing on the cake? On the last evening, having completed our tasks, and said our goodbyes, we are back at camp showered, relaxed, cold beer in hand. A loud large truck comes revving into camp at high speed, carrying a big black plastic 5,000 litre water tank, and lengths of guttering for the library roof. With loud cheers we get to deliver them up to the school, roll the water tank onto its freshly prepared base, and know that come the next rainfall the school will start to have its own water supply for the first time ever. Thats my definition of euphoria.
Note: I travelled on a World Expeditions Community Project Tour