Grade 11 trip to Tanzania

Our Grade 11 class has recently returned from their trip to Tanzania, and one of the students, Camila, shares her experience of the trip:

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“The first step into the wall of warm Tanzanian air instantly made the 15 hours of aerial travel worth every minute. Covered in the grimy feeling you can only get from spending way too long on an airplane, 38 people made their way into passport control, the first taste of an impending cultural shock. Filling out the entry cards with each other’s help, students and teachers alike fumbled anxiously through individual assortments of important documents, itching to begin our journey to Dar Es Salaam.

Naturally, we were a little bit wary when the group was ushered into two separate buses. By that time, morale had shifted into a mix of fatigue and excitement, and all anyone was thinking about was how soon they could have a shower. An outsider looking into the bus would have witnessed a buzzing group of teenagers pack away their electronics and books, partially because they were far too exhausted to play a severely repetitive game or to skim a cryptic novel, partially because they could not help but become mesmerized by the new sights unfolding beyond their window.

Exchanging sign language with the locals, who were often as fascinated of us as we were of them, we attempted to ease our way into the culture. Some students chose to peer out at the street vendors, whilst others took selfies with passing truck drivers. Either way, the Southbank students were becoming fully immersed in a foreign culture, without hesitation. The apprehension and anxiety that had accumulated through months of planning diffused into pure excitement. We could not wait for the trip ahead.

Dar Es Salaam is best described as a hive of life. Overwhelmed by traffic and questionable drivers, even the ride to our hotel proved to be a cultural experience. The Japanese influence within the area (a result of rising foreign car imports) was a surprise to all of us. On buildings and even buses, Japanese characters stood out between the hustle of people. As Mr. Hirani later detailed to us, Tanzanian people place a lot of value in the vehicle they drive, more so than where they live. Peering curiously at the streets, everyone on the buses pointed out what they found odd or shocking, trying to share what they were seeing with the person sitting next to them. This passionate game of I Spy continued for the duration of the bus ride, and overflowed into the tentative walk that a small group of students took through the streets in the evening.

One short-lived night of sleep in Dar Es Salaam’s Best Western later, we found ourselves sitting on a bus before the sun had even risen. Finally, we were heading to Iringa. With what we had been told would be 6 hours of travel ahead of us, seemingly easily to tackle after having spent an eternity in airplanes only two days before, the group departed with high spirits. Everything we saw was new, and we absorbed it with pure delight. Once we reached the rural areas, we were able to get a true taste of Tanzanian life. Villages, secluded and sparingly inhabited, broke up the rolling hills of East Africa. A keen eye spotting giraffes and zebras alongside the road caused a temporary pause in our journey, as everyone rushed to one side of the bus and stared in wonder at the animals. At times, the bus became silent and the air heavy with sleep. When we managed to stay awake, conversations about the project we would tackle in the school became the focal point. What will we be faced with when we arrive at Iringa? The question was on everyone’s mind.

Eleven hours later (Dar Es Salaam traffic and an overheating engine held accountable for the delay), River Valley Campsite welcomed us like an old friend.  Having been prepared for the worst, we were beyond satisfied to encounter the pleasant tents and rustic setting. Whether choosing to live in a tent or small cabin, we immediately realized that our stay in the campsite would be both comfortable and contributory to the authenticity of our experience in Iringa. Our exhausting day of travel de-escalated into a delicious dinner of traditional Tanzanian dishes, and an informative talk from Amanda, the owner of the campsite. She gave us a clear image of what the people in Iringa were like, and urged us not to pity them or give handouts. Rather, she told of us of their pride as a tribe. Though underlying problems are evident within rural communities, like the high levels of HIV and crippling poverty, it was vital that we remember that poor living conditions are not synonymous of unhappiness. As we would come to discover over the next few days, there are few smiles as genuine as those that you can witness in a place like Iringa.

Fuelled with nervous energy and anticipation, we headed off in the early morning, sporting our work clothes, sunscreen, and full water bottles. Every local we passed gave us a reassuring “Mambo!” and the children from surrounding houses began to follow us at a distance. Seemingly wary of us, the young locals accompanied us to the school. Despite it being a Sunday, a substantial crowd of children formed as we began to establish our plan for the day. Watching us, and sometimes gathering the confidence to speak, the children became our partners once work began, as both a source of support, and of playful energy.

The following days passed by in a blur of hard labour and passionate motivation. Originally planning to finish only 2 classrooms, the Southbank group managed to finish a total of 4 classrooms and also repainted every blackboard in the school. One cratered floor was removed and replaced with new cement, an arduous process that only took a day and a half to complete with everyone’s unwillingness to quit early. This same room received a painting of a flat top acacia (a commonly found tree in Tanzania). Upon closer inspection, the foliage of the tree can be observed to be made up of hundreds of individual handprints. Complementary to this theme of nature, a garden was planted in the schoolyard, that will hopefully bloom and flourish in the future. The school’s staff room was repainted to provide a better working space for teachers. Another room, having previously served as ‘junk’ room, was rid of its rodents and garbage. The walls were painted over, and vibrant math-themed murals were painted to transform the unusable room into a spirited place of education. The main room that was worked on received meticulously painted diagrams of the eye and heart. Along the entirety of the room, the English alphabet was illustrated using common words and their accompanying image.

Undoubtedly, the radiant cubist elephant occupying the central wall (a result of diligent planning and organization) became the highlight of the room. The addition of fresh paint and bright colour was a metamorphosis. Previously an average, dark classroom, the new space was unrecognizable. Students of the school poured into the finished room and did little to obscure their astonishment. Whether staring at the painting of a zebra covering the inside of the door, the plethora of new English vocabulary, or the two stunningly realistic images of a man and woman, the children of the school could not tear their eyes away. Each whispered excitedly to one another, huddling in groups as the Southbank students responsible for painting the murals continued to point out hidden details on the walls. Once it came time to usher the children out and clean the floor of the room, many students refused to leave. Their refurbished classroom instilled them with a sense of pride that corresponded perfectly with their earnest gratitude for our efforts.

Working during the school week allowed for collaboration between Southbank students and the children attending the school we were renovating. Hospitality was the norm amongst the locals, as they helped fetch water from the nearby well, paint walls, and even break up the floor in the cement room. Crossing the schoolyard proved nearly impossible without a crowd of schoolchildren running up to ask for high fives and a rendition of the Macarena, a dance we had, rather unsuccessfully, attempted to teach them. A game of football went on whenever breaks were taken, sometimes consisting of what seemed like 100 kids chasing energetically after a single ball. Dancing and singing became a consistent background to the constant strenuous labor. A group of children from the school, dotted with a few Southbank kids, exchanged names and ages using basic Swahili and English. Teaching of new words using drawings and body language resulted in games of chaotic charades. Everywhere, there was laughter and bonding.

Needless to say, we left Iringa with heavy hearts and an unshakable feeling that we could have tackled even bigger projects, had we stayed more time. Everyone wanted to share their favourite exchanges and encounters with the children at the school.

“One girl never let go of my hand.”
“A group of boys remembered my name, and kept wanting to play with me.”
“Did you see the children’s faces when they saw the classroom?”

Leaving Iringa, 38 people packed away 38 completely different experiences, each one uniquely rich and inspiring. As Amanda said, we had helped guarantee a better education for the future generations that would attend that school. Collectively, we had discovered just how effective hard work and determination can be in helping those less fortunate.

Without a doubt, the people that went on the trip will go on with a newly lit fire in their hearts. A deep-rooted tenacity had been unlocked throughout our stay in Iringa. Such a beautiful experience can not leave a person unchanged.”



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