Kevin Curley: Hunger, malaria and rough justice in Tanzania

You will learn as much as you teach when volunteering in a developing country, writes our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

I have taken two breaks from the British voluntary sector - in 1988, I went to Tanzania in east Africa as a programme director for Voluntary Service Overseas, and I returned there for one year in 1997 with Cuso, the Canadian equivalent of VSO. This month, I'm going back to spend a week training a group of voluntary sector leaders in business planning and international bid-writing. For me, living and working in Tanzania was a life-changing experience that left me with an abiding love of the country and its people.

Tanzania challenged my values from the very beginning. Not long after I arrived, I visited a volunteer who was developing fishing cooperatives by Lake Nyasa on the Malawian border. A boy called Moyo showed me his bandaged hands. He had repeatedly stolen from stalls in the village market and, as a punishment, his father had burnt his hands with a hot poker. I sought out the Dutch doctor in the local mission hospital who had treated Moyo to find out what had happened to the father. The doctor, like me a newcomer to Tanzania, had done a tour of the police, the Catholic priest, the village elders and the district council, but nobody would act. Everybody judged that the father had acted in the boy's best interests. The priest explained to me: "If this boy continues to steal he will be punished by village people and that could mean a severe beating - possibly to death." Every day, as a foreign volunteer, you are forced to view things through a very different lens.

Most Tanzanians live with huge personal and family challenges. People expect to get malaria at least once a year. Being hungry is a common experience and mothers make children drink water at night so that they sleep with a full stomach. Sometimes it seems as though nothing works: the bus breaks down and we wait 12 hours for spare parts to arrive; we visit the primary school to find only one teacher in a classroom - the others are working on their farms to supplement inadequate salaries; and the village clinic is staffed by a nurse and a medical officer, but medicines run out by the middle of every month.

So whether you are training fundraisers or building the capacity of voluntary organisations, you will learn as much as you teach.

You will make small differences to people's lives, probably at a much slower pace than you are used to.

You will confront issues of life and death that are often hidden from view in Britain. And you will return home determined to tackle the injustices that make life so tough for the people you now know, respect and love.

These days, you can volunteer in a developing country for a few weeks or a few years. You can go with a charity such as VSO or use the web to make your own connections. Age is no barrier - many volunteers are over 55. Working in Tanzania added great richness to my life - it could do the same for you.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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