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Volunteer experience in Tanzania

In this article I wanted to share my experience when I was volunteering as a nutrition specialist for 3 weeks in Arusha ( Tanzania) this summer in July 2022.

I had the chance to live an authentic experience where I felt closer to the locals and gave my time & nutrition knowledge to help others through various projects: working as a dietician assistant in a hospital, volunteering in schools & daycares to give nutrition courses, giving a cooking class to women at a local foundation & much more !


By coincidence when I was browsing the American book center in Amsterdam; (I usually love spending some time in the travel or cooking books section) it is where I found this guide from Lonely Planet about the best volunteering programs in the world; I noticed that volunteerworld.com was one of the most recurring site called out for volunteering work around the world. On volunteerworld.com, there are many volunteering organisations with many programs within each country. One of them caught my attention in Tanzania, which was the program as a nutrition & dietician assistant in Arusha; and was the only program around nutrition which I could find in the countries I wanted to visit during my sabbatical.


During my 3 weeks placement, I had the pleasure to work for various projects…


Working as a dietician assistant at the hospital


Originally, I was given the task to work at least 2 days per week as a dietician assistant in the paediatric department of Mount Meru hospital.

On the first day, myself and another volunteer would start in the morning at around 9am and would be joining the doctors in a meeting room to discuss the patients' cases from the previous day. After one hour, we would start the round of all patients (children with their mothers) going to their bed one by one. All doctors & interns would stay together to assess the health conditions of the child. Some of them would have diseases related to malnourishment and I was assisting the doctor assessing the status of malnourished children as well as discussing followup nutrition plans for them.

The hospital placement felt difficult seeing all these children with diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, diabetes, or malnutrition diseases (Marasmus & Kwashiorkor)...

I learnt about malnutrition assessments/diagnosis, symptoms & treatment plans thanks to the support of the doctor. Despite the learning point of view, I didn’t feel that I was much needed and that I was at the right place since there were more skilled doctors than needed at the hospital. Therefore after 2 days working at the hospital, I decided to pursue the rest of the volunteering program in other placements: daycares, local fundations or schools instead & teach kids about the importance of nutrition which I found myself being a real added value there.

On the emotional point of you, I found it hard to see some children in such bad health conditions, also witnessing the death of a young child in his mother’s arms… seeing her crying and screaming was very dramatic; I could only imagine how terrible it must be to lose a child and I was feeling completely helpless during that moment.

Another thing I learnt at the hospital here in Tanzania, is that doctors are always waiting for the patients to pay before following up on treatments. 3 out of 5 patients can’t afford pursuing the treatment plan therefore some patients are sent home without further support.

Being aware of this reality made me feel sad and at the same time grateful for what we have back in Europe.

Volunteering at schools

I had the chance to give nutrition courses in public schools in the city but also in rural villages outside of the city to educate kids about the importance of a healthy & diverse diet.

I prepared some content around basic nutrition explaining the food pyramid with the most essential nutrition to eat on a daily basis.


Indeed, with another volunteer, we were briefed that most of the kids currently have no idea of what they shall eat and are selecting most of the time the type of food they are the most familiar with. They would select for instance the meat and will sometimes reject the vegetables or fruits which are on their plate. Also they would prefer sweets or fried cooking (chips & chicken) over healthier options without knowing the bad effects on their health.

I didn’t know what to expect before meeting them but I felt overwhelmed with love and kindness. Kids are eager to learn and happy to see foreigners. Kids at Arusha were able to speak English whereas those in rural villages were not able to speak English therefore Joseph, the coordinator from this placement, was here to translate into Swahili what I was teaching in English. After school we played various games & sports with them : netball, volleyball, cat-mouse, jumping rope and so on…


Teaching mothers about nutrition & giving cooking class at HIV/AIDS foundation


Another teaching opportunity I had was to teach basic nutrition to disadvantaged mothers & help them feed their children from 1-5 years old at the Twigga Vision foundation. It was very interesting to hear how mothers feed their children: mainly sources of carbs such as ugali & porridge with very little - almost no - protein, dairy products and sometimes only feeding them twice a day. Women were very interested and asked a lot of questions with a true interest and a smile on their face.

At another placement, at the WEHAF foundation, which is a widows encouragement & HIV/ AIDS foundation, I gave a cooking class with a nutritious & accessible healthy recipe for mothers & their kids.


For the cooking class, we decided to guide them through a healthy snack which would contain all the macronutrients (carbs, protein & healthy fat) that they need: energy balls made of oats, dates, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds & peanut butter. We were incredibly surprised & pleased to see that they loved it. I really think we brought something new & made an impact during this project.

Find below the recipe we followed (very easy & accessible, only need a blender & these following ingredients):

Dates

Peanut butter

Chia seeds or pumpkin seeds

Oats

(+ optional Cinnamon powder or Cacao powder)


Volunteering at walk in love international daycare


In another daycare which was in a rural village an hour away from Arusha by bus, I assisted the women working there with body measurements of the babies to check if they were malnourished & provided food packages to mothers who were coming with their babies. Food packages consisted of formulas with fortified milk & peanut butter - tracking every two weeks the babies growth. Some of the babies I saw were severely malnourished; it was sincerely heart moving to see them in these conditions.

Also with young children who would spend the day at the child care, I was helping the women working there to teach kids English : how to say the numbers, fruits & vegetables, colours…

Overall an emotional experience which confirmed that even if you have the feeling you are not doing much to help; just by being there, teaching them some English and showing some compassion and support meant already a lot to them.

Organic farming experience


I had the pleasure to meet Jimson, a farmer at Kaizari farm who inherited from his fathers’ farm & continued to run the family business.

It was an amazing opportunity & felt honoured to meet him as I learnt a lot from him about: food production & availability as well as discussing the current agriculture challenges & opportunities.

He mentioned that the main agricultural challenge currently was that many farmers are producing too much of the same food among them; Maize production.

Maize requires a lot of nutrients from the soil & damages it.. That is why it is difficult to produce other things than maize on the same land. In the late 70’s there was a hunger due to shortage of maize, Tanzania had to import from the UK and was massively importing food and growing maize as they thought of this as the most essential food.

When you plant 10 tomato trees, only 3 will grow; instead farmers are focusing on what is easy to grow and in mass production to get more money.

One of Jimson’s missions is to educate other farmers about the importance of organic farming (without pesticides & chemicals) and networking to allow each farmer to have their own production and reduce competition.

He also wants to educate others about greenhousing so that farmers can produce all year long and have more food diversity. He wants to encourage the youth generation to start their business and create employment with new opportunities!

He was also emphasising the fact that Tanzanian agriculture offers great potential for contributing towards malnutrition reduction through a more nutrition-sensitive approach.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): food availability, dietary diversity and food safety for all would have a lasting positive impact on human resource development.

Increasing the production and consumption of nutrition-dense food such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts, fish, and livestock products would have a significant impact on reducing malnutrition.




Life as a volunteer

After a week in Arusha, I felt more and more comfortable taking public transport & walking around in the streets on my own.

In the beginning it was not easy to get used to the “Mambo”, “Jambo”, “Karibu sana” & other greetings that the locals are saying to you constantly to welcome you but also to start chatting with you to sell some tour packages or local products. Also needed to get used to being stared at, get some fingers pointed towards me and be called “mzungu” = “white people” frequently; but I learnt that it was not meant to be offensive;)

The main public transport is called dala dala which only costs 500 shillings and is driving when it gets full, so the driver can stop for some time & can take a while to reach your destination. Drivers don’t follow any rules: no bus stops, no clear destination until you ask them before boarding & you need to tell them when you want to go out.

Actually I realised that walking around non-touristic places felt much better for me as people talked to you not necessarily to sell you something but to just welcome you and be nice :)

In terms of budget, eating there was affordable (as a European); for instance, a meal at the cafeteria from the hospital would cost 2,000 shillings, which is less than 1 euro. And I discovered this amazing vegetarian restaurant Themi Living Garden (my favourite canteen there) which had a daily buffet with only fresh & tasty food, smoothies & fresh seasonal fruits that would cost 6,000 shillings which was a bit less than 3 euros.


‘Hakuna matata’ = ‘no worries’ in Swahili: no problem, no pain & slow life


In Tanzania timing doesn’t matter as much as in Europe, when you get an appointment with somebody (also from the tourism industry) they are regularly coming 30mins/1h later without any specific reasons. Also when ordering in local restaurants, no rush.

Planning & schedule don’t seem to be important, you just figure it out by yourself at the moment & you just need to be patient by nature.

At the hospital where I had my placement the first days, we spent a lot of time waiting : in 5/6h of work we had time only to hear presentations from interns, listen to the recap of previous day treatments, and do a round of 15 patients one by one for the diagnosis (and all doctors & interns stay always together so we could be 10 people around the patient's bed). Patients are therefore very ‘patient’, they don’t complain and even don’t seem to share emotions (except for young kids of course) even if they are in pain.

And I learnt from other volunteer midwives that when giving birth mothers are not sharing their pain and stay relatively calm.

When I climbed the Mount Meru before starting the volunteering work (4 days hike at 4,600m height), my guide was walking with a limp and I could feel he was struggling and was taking some breaks frequently to ease the pain: but all he was saying to me was ‘don’t worry I feel great’. This is because he wants to get the job done no matter what to be able to earn money & feed his family.

This makes me reflect on our own reaction to pain: are we overdramatising most of the time? By not reacting to pain can we somehow reduce the feeling of pain?

I strongly believe the mind has power over the body …

It seems that for them every single problem has a solution and they don’t directly react emotionnaly when there is a problem. It made me also wonder why in western countries are we more inclined to have burnouts than in East Africa where stress doesn’t seem to exist (or at least not expressed)? I found out that some studies have suggested that culture has a major impact on (parental) burnout for instance and that parents from individualistic countries seem particularly exposed and more than collectivistic countries…Interesting food for thought!

Highlights

I enjoyed this authentic experience a lot; by the variety of the projects which allowed me to learn about local culture, agriculture & diets, the warm welcome from all the placement owners, the unconditional love & innocence from the kids, the openness & careful attention given by the mothers & by the amazing meetings with other international volunteers. I am so happy I made the most out of my time in Arusha and made my experience very unique! I can only highly recommend doing some volunteering work in a different culture to support the locals but also to learn (a lot!) from others; I had no idea how much I would exchange, learn & grow from this experience.


Appendix


Some articles which I found interesting to read during my volunteering project - about malnutrition treatment plan, healthy diet principles & nutrition tips for breastfeeding:


Treatment plan WHO reference paediatric childcare book


Healthy diet principles


Diet & breastfeeding


Nutrition tips for breastfeeding




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