The early starts began as soon as I arrived in my placement in Didia, when I got up for mass at 6:00am. I was welcomed by hundreds of students after mass and had to quickly adjust to the greetings that were aimed at me. There are countless greetings in Kiswahili and the first minute of your conversation can be composed of greeting someone in about 5 different ways, something I had to adjust to. My first few days were spent meeting lots of students, each one greeting me with a 'Karibu Tanzania', 'feel at home', 'you are so welcome here'. If it wasn't for the kindness of the students and the Salesian community here, my first weeks would have been a lot more difficult.
When I arrived in Don Bosco Secondary School in Didia, there were two other international volunteers in the school. Having someone to show me around and help me to settle in during the first few weeks was invaluable. The ability to share experiences, whether challenging or joyful, with someone who understands your exact situation is something I really value and this took away some of my anxieties in the beginning.
Another thing which helped me to settle was being in a community. I appreciate that we can eat together and pray together everyday - this made me feel part of the community immediately after I arrived and was an important part of what I had imagined of my volunteer experience. I am grateful that I chose a Salesian organisation as I think the community spirit here is unique to the congregation.
Don Bosco Secondary School Didia
Don Bosco Didia is a secondary school in the North of Tanzania which takes students through GCSEs (O-levels) and A-levels - so the students range from about 12-20 years old. The school is compromised of around 1200 students (the majority being boarding students with the minority day scholars coming from the village). One massive difference I noticed immediately on arrival to the school is the timetable of the students here. They wake up at 4:30am to study before mass at 6:00am. They then have lessons from 8:00am til 4:00pm, games after school, rosary, supper and then study again until 10:00pm. To think that I used to complain about getting up at 7:30am for school is laughable! Never once have I heard a student complain about their early starts.
As the school is a Salesian school, the students are given time for games everyday. They play volleyball, netball, basketball, handball and even frisbee. Soon after I arrived was 'Nyrere day' a public holiday commemorating the death of Julius Nyrere, the first president of Tanzania. On this day sports teams from 11 different schools in the area came to compete in basketball and football tournaments. It was a long and very hot day in which many games were played, a lot of food was eaten and a lot of fun was had by all. It was one of the first celebrations I experienced in the community and a great way to get to know the students. I enjoyed the day - except for the sunburn that followed - and seeing our dedicated basketball team beat a very well-practised team with a good reputation was a particular highlight for me.
The majority of our basketball team here are sponsored students. Although school fees here are not high compared to other private schools in the country, many students coming from villages struggle to keep up with their school fee payments and so being sponsored is their only chance to remain here - where their chance of learning English to a high standard is much higher than in free government schools. I have even heard of students bringing a pig in exchange for their school fees when they were unable to pay.
The month after I arrived the students began exams. Each year group had exams, although only the Form 2 and Form 4 classes sat official national examinations. On speaking to the students about their exams, I was surprised by their calm approach. One student even told me, 'I'm not worried, I'm God's hands' - a mentality I wish I'd had when I was in their position! I think I was more worried than the students were when the armed officers showed up to ensure no cheating was going on. During December the students have holidays, many go home and help their families with cultivating or work before the school year starts again in January.
A Salesian community
Our Salesian community is made up of the Father Rector (in charge of everything in the community), the administrator, the Headmaster and our Salesian brothers. We also have connections to the other congregations in the area and so we often get to celebrate with priest and sisters from the next village which is always fun. In our community, we have morning and evening prayer together, as well as supper. The early mornings are a challenge but I have started to appreciate the daily routine we have here and it helped me to feel part of the community straight away.
The many celebrations we have here as a community have become some of my favourite memories of my time so far. The days are filled with music and dancing. Students prepare their 'items' - usually lip synched songs or dance groups and perform them in front of everybody. When some of the numbers go on for too long everybody claps - a sign of appreciation usually but in this case meaning that they've heard enough and the act goes off. I've promised myself I will take part in an item before I leave, I think the students would have a good laugh at my dancing and hopefully I wouldn't be clapped off stage. Within a week of my arrival two full-day celebrations had taken place so I came at the right time! It was a really good opportunity to get to know students and experience some of the culture here right away.
My role here so far
Soon after arriving, I started to attend English structure lessons led by one of the sisters from our community. Seeing how she went about teaching the lessons was helpful to me. I wasn't expecting to teach a class by myself so soon after my arrival, so when Sister asked me to take the lesson by myself after the first few days, I was very nervous - having just left school with no teaching qualifications I definitely doubted my teaching abilities. The class I was teaching was a Pre-Form 1 class, meaning that it was their first year of learning English. This added to the challenge as the students found it very difficult to understand me and I had to quickly adapt in order to express what I meant. However, after two or three lessons I felt much more comfortable and started to enjoy the freedom of teaching a class on my own. I would say that now I am getting used to the trials and tribulations of the class and can deal confidently with any problems that arise - including one day when a number of students decided to bring grasshoppers into the lesson with them! The new school year is beginning in January and I look forward to seeing how I will fit in to the teaching of the new classes that will arrive, I hope I can be a good help to them.
During lunchtime, the students enjoy playing guitar. I spend lunchtimes with them, passing on the little guitar skill I have. Seeing them playing and encouraging beginners to play, has been something I have really enjoyed so far and I would like to continue this in the new year.
One thing that has proved important to me is being on the same level as the students, spending as much time with them as possible. This has included attending mass and rosary, being with them during time for games, going to the farm on weekends, being present during study time, but mainly just talking with them, getting to know them, what their interests are and what is going on in their life. This has allowed me to connect with students and not be a distant figure but someone who is there for them throughout the day. One challenge I have faced is trying to balance my time in order to maintain enough energy to keep up with the students, whilst still spending as much time as possible with them. This has proven difficult with the busy schedule but is something I will continue to work on.
My perception of the impact I can have has changed since I arrived. I realise that I can't have a life changing impact on everyone in the school but if I try my best everyday and put all my energy into doing as much as I can to help the students, then I know I have done my best. The ability for the students to learn about another culture and speak more English is also something that is more valuable than I realised. Father Vincent told us that our presence here with the students is the most important thing and that really stuck with me and helped me to put things into perspective. The time we get to reflect during prayers has allowed me to think about my impact and evaluate each day. In this way, the spiritual side of my experience here has been beneficial to my work.
I recently read 'The Beat Goes On' a collection of memories of Sean Devereux, so I am truly inspired and ready to start the new year off in the right way.'
All the best,
Could you sponsor a student in Tanzania? Boarding and tuition for one student for a year cost £420, and school meals and tuition for one day student costs £288 a year.
A donation of:
£5 a month would pay for meals for a day scholar for a year
£10 a month would pay for meals for a boarding scholar for a year
£24 a month would pay for a year's meals and education for a day scholar
£5 a month would pay for a year's meals, accommodation and education for a boarding scholar
Anything you can afford will really help to give the wonderful young people of Tanzania a brighter future.
You can donate online by Direct Debit or as a single donation using the Charity Checkout platform here, where you can easily arrange to Gift Aid your donation if you are a UK taxpayer, or you can send a standing order or cheque (payable to SDB Trustees Ltd: Social Communications) to Fr Bob Gardner SDB at the address below.
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Bolton BL1 6PQ