First-time volunteer Marsha Dixon, a retired benefits consultant from New Hampshire, reflects on teaching youth and meeting parents in Ipalamwa, Tanzania. In this interview with Volunteer Engagement Manager Maggie Bjorklund, Marsha describes her experience as humbling and impactful.
Could you tell us a bit about your experience volunteering in Tanzania, Marsha?
Teaching kindergarten and second grade was totally awesome. The kids were incredible, so eager to learn, all eyes and listening, and very little interruption. There were 123 kids in kindergarten with one teacher. Usually three volunteers assisted in the morning with one interpreter, Amilia. And then in the afternoon, two of us volunteers usually taught the second-grade class of 53 students. Both assignments were incredibly rewarding.
We were teaching numbers, letters, shapes, months, and the days of the week. In the classroom, you have to be ready and on your feet, changing what you’re doing to keep it interactive with the kids. I’m not a teacher by profession and mostly just used teaching techniques that were natural to me. In the second grade when we arrived, they were counting up to 20, but they had trouble pronouncing ‘thirteen’. By the time we left, we were putting random numbers on the board to test them. On one of the last days, we put the number 2012 and one student responded 212. The progress was incredible in our eyes.
“The kids were incredible, so eager to learn, all eyes and listening, and very little interruption. The students were amazingly excited and hopeful about the learning process. It was incredibly rewarding.”– Marsha Dixon, Tanzania volunteer
I also got to interact with some moms and their babies in their homes, and this was an incredible experience. You feel like you are immersing yourself in the society and everyone is open to talking with you. We talked with the heads of the school and the teachers, and they were all really receptive and appreciative of what Global Volunteers is doing. It couldn’t have been a more worthwhile two weeks of immersing into another culture, and feeling like they were touching your heart as much as you were touching theirs.
What did you learn about the Tanzanian people?
I gained so much respect for the people I met. I was told in the literature to learn some Swahili before I traveled, so when we were asked to introduce ourselves at the church on the first day, I did it in Swahili. They appreciated it and you could see this in their smiles, particularly in some older men, which was neat. I was really grateful that I had learned some of their language. My idea was to respect their culture.
What can you say about the logistics of the service program, Marsha?
The people are really respectful, number one. Instead of feeling any fear, you definitely felt love. I thought it was fabulous, and really well organized. The guest rooms themselves are extremely comfortable with netting over the bed, and the food was good. Any water that we had was bottled water. We had the clinic right there, although no one on my team needed it. I didn’t have any safety concerns. I felt very, very safe. I did go in with the expectation that I would be safe.
The amazing thing is that Global Volunteers’ beautiful surroundings are quite exceptional, to say the least. We were surrounded by people that really cared, giving us instructions. Winnie, our Team Leader, was terrific. It couldn’t have been smoother really, and I wouldn’t like anything to be different.
What relationships did you formed with local people?
I remember the little girl in the second grade that was always engaged, and a three-year-old who was a neighbor of the school and would randomly show up, and it was pretty amazing. Playing hand games with the children was so much fun. You would be at the end of the class ready to say goodbye and see the children that come up and high five you. It took a while to leave because they were so engaged.
I was very happy working with the kids, working with Amilia and Winnie, and enjoying those people. Amilia, who is an RCP Caregiver and who translated for us, was absolutely fantastic. She is pivotal to the program. She could understand when the class was not understanding and talked to them a bit in Swahili and then came back and explained it to us in English. She was just an amazing person, a real diamond as far as I’m concerned. Most of those people have grown up in the area, which was impressive. These were the kind of relationships that I was going to try to seek. It was great, absolutely great. I loved them. I think Global Volunteers is really well-staffed.
Do you have a memorable moment that you’d like to share, Marsha?
For me, that second-grade class when we were randomly putting numbers on the board was so incredible. Different kids were able to put their minds to it and say the number. Imagine! That is amazing in just a two-week period of time! I have a picture of little girl that was brilliant, and many others were the same way. I have really fond memories of this trip. I loved the kids, and the way they love — so unaffected and raw and pure and beautiful, and I met them at the same level. It was almost a spiritual experience in that regard to me.
“I loved the kids, and the way they love — so unaffected and raw and pure and beautiful, and I met them at the same level. It was almost a spiritual experience in that regard to me.”– Marsha Dixon, Tanzania volunteer
How have you described this experience to people at home?
I always tell them how humbled I am about the whole thing, and what an incredible experience it was. It is just so fulfilling to have the opportunity to do something like that and anybody that is in the capacity to be able to do something like that, I’m telling them to look into it. Especially the great work that Global Volunteers is doing.
How do you think service like this compares to other types of international travel?
You can’t even compare it. They’re like apples and oranges. I have done a ton of travel and it was time for me to put a lot more into the word ‘travel’. There is nothing similar to global travel when volunteering and immersing yourself in the culture. Particularly when you are surrounded with organizations like Global Volunteers because it’s so safe and you feel well protected. And they work in areas where they are wanted, so you feel really appreciated.
“I have done a ton of travel and it was time for me to put a lot more into the word ‘travel’.”– Marsha Dixon, Tanzania volunteer
How do you advise people that are considering volunteering in Tanzania?
It is a stretch for anyone who does it, no matter the age. And stretching is good. Then you come back with a broader perspective for a person, you understand a little bit better how different cultures live. For me, that is the most important thing that you can get out of a trip like this.
I think it takes courage to say to yourself, “I want to do this. I want to do this so badly.” And then decide, “I’m going to spend the money that I would spend on a vacation of different dimension to go and help other people.” This takes a certain type of person, who will be rewarded double-fold what they expect. It’s that impactful. To immerse yourself into another country and culture is something that I would hope a lot of people would like to do and be able to do in a safe manner.
“I think it takes courage to say to yourself, “I want to do this. I want to do this so badly. I’m going to spend the money that I would spend on a vacation of different dimension to go and help other people.””– Marsha Dixon, Tanzania volunteer
I definitely put my arms all around Global Volunteers when I encourage people to do this, because the manner that Global Volunteers has organized it kicks the fear away, and that’s important. Global Volunteers prepares everybody extremely well. So if you read all the materials, you get a good idea of what you are getting into. I would suggest to make the commitment with enough time before you go to prepare yourself with what you are going to experience. It makes it that much more impactful.
“I would definitely put my arms all around Global Volunteers when I encourage people to do this, because the manner that Global Volunteers has organized it kicks the fear away, and that’s important.”– Marsha Dixon, Tanzania volunteer
Most importantly you don’t just view the culture, you are living it. This is a huge deal. I was so endlessly impressed with the humanitarian touch that Global Volunteers is doing in Tanzania. It’s truly impactful.
Following her experience in Tanzania, Marsha became a monthly sponsor of the Reaching Children’s Potential Program. Click here to learn how to lend your support in this way.
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