Controlling my inner Angelina


Magara children, Tanzania
Magara children, Tanzania

“oh, I just want to take them all home” I cry,  as I am surrounded by a dozen gorgeous smiling tanzanian children in Magara village. Until now, I can safely say that adopting a child had never crossed my mind at any time in my life, and suddenly I am coming over all Angelina Jolie and starting to think that adopting in the plural might be the way to go.

Luckily for the children they are not orphans, they all have extended families and siblings, and while they and their families might live at a fairly subsistence level, while they do not have an easy life, they give every sign of being happy, fed, and well cared for. And if some of their hand-me-down clothes are a bit dusty and worn, well, so are ours.

Some shy, some cheeky, some ‘too cool for school’, we can’t go anywhere in Magara without getting excited cries of “Jambo’ from these kids as they wave, run towards us, follow us around, and plead to have their photo taken so they can see it in the viewer on the back of the camera. This part of Tanzania doesn’t see much tourism, so seeing mzungu, ‘white people’, is still a novelty for many of them, meaning we often get to feel as if we are indeed visiting film stars, such is the reception they give us.

So as a tribute to all these energetic smiling kids, who added so much fun to our stay in the village, here is a gallery of some of their photos. And I hope they enjoy the big envelope of photo prints making its way to them by snail mail, so that they and their families can have a physical photo to keep too.

Magara – painting the town (school) cream

Volunteering in Magara, Tanzania

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 we exhale again as we pull free without having to get out and push. We close our eyes as the driver misses our turnoff and executes a three point turn on a steep hairpin blind corner with sheer dropoffs.

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 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. It means that twenty of us are here, at our own cost and having paid a premium, 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 and we are not part of any charity organisation, we are paying our own way, and we are directly donating our own labour as well as contributing extra 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 to wreck, stain and destroy 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). The third team will 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. First 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 is 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 before we paint. We also have plastic handled paint rollers which we tie onto branches to help us reach the top of the 3 to 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 as a ‘raft’ to carry the large rocks needed to help build the concrete bases. The ladder allows six people at a time to share 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.

So after 3 days of hard labour, day 4 goes very much on slow time. We are given an opportunity to share an important day with the local community, their end of school year awards ceremony. We are honoured to plant saplings each, representing that we will always now be children of the Magara soil. The students impress with traditional dances and enthrall us with their singing.

The parents 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 around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, we join the parents and dignitaries and  teachers in a big communal lunch.

I will always 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 for each nice coldish bottle of beer. Feeling the pure pleasure of 60 seconds of warm water pouring over my head in the tiny bush shower every night. Sinking in the deliciously cool water of the pool under the waterfall. Savouring 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. Embracing the satisfying tiredness of eight hours of solid physical labour each day, and seeing the results of our labour. Smiling at 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. Being thankful for our hard working crew who made basic camping way more comfortable than I ever remember it being before. Forming warm bonds with twenty wonderfully diverse people sharing a unique experience with a common purpose – to help out in a very small but very direct way, to do something practical. 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, and 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 follow the truck 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 capture its own water supply for the first time ever. That’s my definition of euphoria.

Note: I travelled on a World Expeditions Community Project Tour at my own cost