In the summer of 2013- between second and third year of Uni, I travelled to Tanzania, where I would spend a month volunteering as a physiotherapist in a school for disabled children. I had researched lots of different companies when deciding where and who I should go with, but found that most of them wanted me to pay thousands of pounds to do so! Instead, by sheer luck, a physiotherapist who had previously studied at my Uni, and worked at the centre emailed our head of physio explaining that the centre needed more volunteers, and would anyone be interested? Sign me up!
For me, this was the best case scenario, I paid for my flights which were around £500 return, and would then pay the centre for accommodation, and three delicious meals a day. This worked out as way cheaper than going with one of the other companies I had previously looked at, and this way I knew my money was going directly to the centre.
Now, as I was still a student physiotherapist at the time, I was quite limited in terms of delivering treatment, however, I learned so much about the cultural differences and new conditions I had never seen before in the UK. We would start the day by getting up early, having breakfast in the dining area next to the centre, so that we were ready for the kids arriving and school starting at 8am.
Most of the kids were not able to physically mobilise independently, so were carried by their mothers to the centre. One little boy carried his sister 2 miles to the centre each day as his mother had to look after her 4 other kids. The little boy was the eldest child, but at only 10 years old, he was missing out on going to school in order to take his little sister to the centre. When we found out about this, we started collecting and returning the little girl each day, so that her brother could go to school, however, this left the problem of what would happen when we left? Instead, a social worker who worked and lived at the centre helped out with this role, and as he was originally from Morogoro, it was a more sustainable method than us taking on this role, as we were only going to be there for a few weeks!
Our day involved getting to know the kids and their mums and aiming to progress the children’s development in reaching developmental milestones, such as turning their heads, or achieving independent sitting balance. I was quite aware that I did not want to come in as ‘the white person’ or ‘Mzungu’, so we spent a lot of time before arriving discussing what our role would be, and what skills we could bring and implement to the centre.
Equipment was quite limited, with most of the work being done on floor mats or with gym balls, but I was amazed at the therapy you could deliver with a bit of ingenuity! The sessions lasted for 4 hours a day, and then we had free time in the afternoons. On one afternoon, we visited the centres sister centre in Mvomero. It was very rural, set right out in the countryside, but everyone at the centre made us feel very welcome and I even got to try a meal of goat curry for the first time!
Other activities we took part in at the centre were going out into the community to reach those who were unable to attend for therapy. I found this to be quite difficult, as without specialist seating, I would often find the children laid on the floor on towels outside in poor positions whilst their mothers were cleaning their homes or looking after their other children. We would attempt to make supportive seating with the use of rolled up towels or supports, and educate the families on how they could continue with this.
Communication was also difficult as I could not speak swahili, and often the mothers did not speak english. I just about managed to get by with the help of one of the staff members from the centre acting as an interpreter, or coming up with interesting gestures or interpretative dance!
All in all, I found my 4 weeks in Tanzania to be extremely informative, and reaffirmed my desire to want to work overseas in future!
My top tips for anyone thinking of volunteering abroad would be:
- Research any organisations or charities which are already established abroad, and contact them directly to save having to spend thousands of pounds on paying to go through an organisation such as ‘Work the world’ who do this for you.
- Once you have decided on an organisation/charity to go through, contact them directly to ask what skills you can bring, this might be delivering teaching to staff working there on certain topics. This way you will arrive with an aim in mind!
- If you do manage to implement change or set something up, think about how it is going to be managed once you leave, is it all just going to stop once you leave?
- Find out if anyone has been to this area before, and get in contact with them for advice on what to expect.
- Fund-raise! Perhaps the organisation/charity desperately need specific equipment, that you can help raise money towards.
- Be aware of the cultural aspects of the community you go to, be respectful by wearing appropriate clothing, or research beforehand any specific cultural customs so that you don’t accidentally offend anyone!
- Enjoy yourself! Volunteering overseas will widen your eyes to so many more conditions or lifestyles than you might ever get the chance to see at home, so get stuck in and have a great time!
If you have any more questions related to this post, or the centre I volunteered at, feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.