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Kiara Elliott – Human Rights in Tanzania

Human Rights volunteers visit a Maasai village

I went to university to study peace and conflict studies and business in a co-op programme. My first couple of work placements were very business-focused and I knew I wanted to experience work relevant to my major before I graduated. Since high school, I have been passionate about social justice, particularly issues related to development in Africa. This is why, in 2013, I used one of my work placements to complete a three month field study instead and I ended up in Arusha, Tanzania, volunteering with Projects Abroad.

From the get-go, Projects Abroad was a vital reason I chose the internship I did. They answered all my questions in person at their office in Toronto, as well as by e-mail, before I was even off the ground. I was nervous going to a place so different from anywhere I had ever been before, without my family or anyone I knew, for three months. My experience with Projects Abroad before my trip reassured me that I could do it.

My host family

After a two-week safari with my family, I was picked up by a Projects Abroad staff member in Arusha and driven to my host family, where I would spend the next two months. I lived in the neighbourhood of Rascazone, in the region of Arusha known as Sakina. The neighbourhood was nothing like my neighbourhood at home, with dirt roads, gated compounds, and a butcher shop around the corner, where I could see the meat hanging in the back. There were always a ton of people walking along the side of the road; there were women selling peanuts and roasting corn on the side of the road and street touts scouting out their tourist targets. I became an expert at navigating the busy roads and avoiding the touts who would follow you if you showed any interest.

Volunteers assist with distinuting maize in a local community

I lived with my host mom, Rickey, and her 12-year old son, Graham. I never had the chance to meet her other son, Gary, who was away at boarding school in Kenya. The compound had two houses, the main house and a volunteer house. We had Western toilets, electricity, and cable for my host mom to watch her favourite soap operas after work. We only had running water in the volunteer house, and no hot water, which meant either a cold shower or a bucket shower after boiling water with the kettle.

I was feeling a bit homesick on the first day, missing my family who I had just spent the last two weeks with, and feeling disconnected with no way to reach out to anyone I knew. My host family immediately made me feel welcome in their home. I went with Rickey to the main market to buy our food for the week. It was fun, but very chaotic and the smell of fish was a little off-putting. It was definitely different from the typical farmer's markets I go to back home - they had everything from a butcher to grains, to vegetables, and even some shops for other household goods.

Then, I had lunch with Rickey and Graham - a traditional green banana stew that was delicious (but the meat was very chewy, of course). Afterwards, Rickey invited me to come along to a baptism celebration at a friend's house. They mostly spoke in Swahili, but I enjoyed meeting them and experiencing their culture and way of life. Dinner was a buffet and even though I wasn't really hungry, I ended up with a huge plate of food. Rickey told me I didn't have to take everything, but every time I tried to decline, it somehow ended up on my plate anyway. This was my first meal I had to eat with my hands only and I had everything on my plate, from spaghetti to salad to meat!

My Human Rights placement

On my first day of volunteering, Jackie, a Projects Abroad staff member, helped me navigate the dala dala system (local buses) to get to my placement. The office was in Jana’s house, one of the co-founders of Inherit Your Rights. She had chickens in the yard that sometimes wandered into the kitchen if the door was left open. I ended up chasing them out of the kitchen almost daily.

Inherit Your Rights is a local non-governmental organisation that works with local widow groups in the surrounding villages, working on human rights issues, particularly inheritance and property law. There were two local Tanzanians, Winnefreda and Ngeeyan, who worked there as part of their legal fellowship programme to help them through law school. During my time there, we saw a lot of volunteers come and go, but there were usually between five and eight of us in the office at a time.

At the beginning of each week, we made a weekly plan, outlining what we did. We tried to stick to it, but many times, the plan changed. A couple of days of the week, I spent in the office doing research on various issues, such as FGM and gender-based violence, or preparing marketing and business materials. We also tried to visit a couple of villages each week; usually we went once a week to the village of Kioga to make greeting cards. On another day, we would visit the Legal and Human Rights Centre to answer any of our questions regarding our legal research.

Volunteers enjoying a meal in Tanzania

By the end of my time there, I had completed a marketing plan and had found a few places to sell the cards. Winne deemed me the boss of the cards and I left a document for others to continue with the work, including ways of improving the cards that they have already begun implementing. I also completed two reports on gender-based violence and FGM; they provided detailed information as well as training material for the organisation to use in the future. My final report was related to entrepreneurship; it provided the organisation with a starting point for preparing training material, as it outlined the general business environment and what materials may be of value. Ngeeyan loved it, because he learnt about budgeting that would also help him with his own finances.

My greatest memory was having the opportunity to raise money to buy maize for some villages in Simanjiro, where one of the co-founders of Inherit Your Rights is from. This area had a food shortage from lack of land available for crop use. We hosted a Projects Abroad social with food, music, and lots of laughs. It was great to see so much support from the Projects Abroad community.

The next morning, we picked up the maize and drove out to the first village. When we got there, I jumped right in, shoving the maize into buckets from the sacs. It started out calmly, but pretty soon there were swarms of people around us, shoving bags and buckets in our faces to fill. By the end, I was covered in dust and maize shavings from head to toe. That night we camped in a village way out in the bush. It was so peaceful compared to Arusha, and the stars were so bright.

In the morning, I awoke to the sounds of cows, goats, and roosters. We spent the day in the village, learning traditional dances, collecting firewood with the women, and playing with the children. When another volunteer, Linda, and I were heading back to our campfire for lunch, a woman took our hands and led us to her hut, where she invited us inside and offered us a cob of maize. I felt so welcomed and grateful for her kindness but at the same time, I wish I could have turned it down. I felt so fortunate to have been invited into her home to share this time with her. I couldn't thank them enough for their generosity.

Volunteers spend time with local staff members

In the three months I was there, I had so many opportunities to learn and grow. One of my goals for this field study was to expand my perspective, and see the world from a new lens. One of the most important lessons or ideas that I learnt was that of perspective and viewpoints. To truly understand culture, and why people might continue to practice a harmful tradition, we must understand how our knowledge, including what we consider obvious or common sense, is entirely dependent on our reference groups and our interaction with the world. I also learnt a lot about slowing down and building relationships. I’ll always remember the phrase ‘pole, pole’ (slowly, slowly).

Everything I learnt also came with many challenges, both minor and major. We ran into miscommunications, cultural misunderstandings, and annoyances. One of the hardest parts was learning about FGM and the challenges people, and women in particular, face on a daily basis. Most of the challenges were wrapped up in the most rewarding experiences, such as staying overnight in the Maasai village and learning about how they live.

My overall experience

In those three months, I was continually pushed outside of my comfort zone, which not only challenged me, but enabled me to learn so much about myself, from what I truly loved doing, to knowing that I am capable of doing more than I thought. During my time there, I passed through three stages of culture shock: loving it, not wanting to go out because it was so exhausting, and once again loving it, while also embracing and welcoming the culture. I am glad I stayed long enough to reach this point, because it is in the last stage where I truly felt changed by the experience.

Kiara Elliott

Ce témoignage est basé sur l’expérience unique d’un volontaire à un certain moment donné. Nos projets s’adaptent constamment aux besoins locaux, ils évoluent au fur et à mesure que des volontaires s’impliquent et s’adaptent aux saisons, ainsi votre expérience sur place pourra être différente de celle décrite ici. Pour en savoir plus sur cette mission, vous pouvez consulter la page de ce projet ou bien contacter l’un de nos conseillers de volontaires.

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