Volunteering in Tanzania - The People Who Will Change Your Life
As soon as I step onto the tarmac, beads of sweat ripple across my jet-lagged skin. Eyes itching from too many hours within pressurized cabins, I blink several times and follow the lumbering man ahead of me. With his khaki safari vest, a giant camera bag over his shoulder, and his head swiveling back and forth, it appears he hopes to spot his first zebra before he even clears customs at Kilimanjaro International Airport.
Moments later - a stamped visa in my passport and my luggage slung in the back of the Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) van - I sink into the seat and watch the landscape of rural Tanzania flash before me. Even with the passenger window rolled down, the air is heavy and thick as Masaii boys, nearly as thin as their walking sticks, wrap their trademark blue and red shawls over their shoulders and prod their cattle forward. It feels like I've stepped into a National Geographic magazine as I see a woman carrying a giant basket of bananas on her head, a group of kids shouting as they run after a worn soccer ball, and a bare foot man standing on a massive tarp tossing out rice so it will dry in the sun. After 45 minutes, we make a sharp right hand turn and leave the paved highway behind. Our vehicle heaves from side to side over potholes the size of craters until finally, we have arrived. The driver lays on the horn and the gates open.
Only hours later, it feels like I have known this place and these people forever. Although I have travelled the world and volunteered in 8 countries, there is something about CCS that feels like coming home and something about sub-Saharan Africa that gets in your blood. If you don't believe me, you'll have to ask the new friends I met at CCS Kilimanjaro. Men and women from all ages, all walks of life, and cities across North America. Friends whose stories have inspired me as they each find unique ways to start fresh in their lives.
Volunteering internationally has the power to immediately turn strangers into friends. When you're immersed in vulnerability-inducing situations like standing in front of a classroom teaching for the first time or watching a woman bathe a child in dirty water, your emotions are raw and difficult to hide. It is the people who ride home from your volunteer placement with you, who wash their dinner dishes in the plastic bins beside you, and who fall asleep in the beds next to you that become your lifeline. They give you a hug when you need it and stand beside you as the experience challenges you to grow and change.
If you're considering a program with CCS and all of the amazing volunteer and cultural experiences it provides, don't underestimate how much your fellow volunteers might change your life. As my CCS Cape Town program taught me in 2011, long after you return to the highs and lows of daily life, these fellow travelers will understand you in ways that your friends and family at home can't possible begin to know. You will plot reunion weekends or follow-up volunteer programs just so you can experience the magic of once again being in the same place at the same time.
So, go ahead. Dream big and sign up for a CCS program. The experience might open you up to a world of new friends and incredible adventures.