Tanzania: Voluntourism: Life as a Volunteer with Give a Heart to Africa – Part II

10 min read

I was in Moshi, Tanzania (TZ) for three weeks with a program called Give a Heart to Africa (GHTA). GHTA works to empower woman through the aid of volunteers and donations by educating women and providing the tools they need to improve their lives. Here is part II of a summary of my stay as a volunteer, the school and the students.


There are three courses taught at GHTA: English conversation, English grammar and business basics.

The school is free for the students. The program is geared toward women over the age of 30, who have found themselves with few options for education and often, unfortunately, little financial solvency. However, men and younger women are also accepted, with the ratio of men-to-women being anywhere from 10/90 to 25/75. Monika, GHTA’s founder, feels it’s beneficial in the patriarchal Tanzanian society, for men to learn along with women and see just how capable, intelligent and independent women can be. Potential students are interviewed before each semester begins and ultimately 40 to 50 students are selected based on several criteria and in person interviews. Many of the students haven’t had the opportunity to attend school past seventh grade or so as secondary school isn’t free in Tanzania. To attend secondary school, there is tuition of a little over $10/year and other fees for things like watchmen, food, furniture (seriously?), possibly uniforms and other misc. fees. When you consider how little money many Tanzanian people make, it’s understandable that secondary school is often not an option for some families. God forbid you have more than one child to enroll… In exchange for their free tuition at GHTA, the students pitch in to keep the school clean on a rotational schedule.

The school has only been in existence for a little over three years. As time passes and the school’s reputation grows around town, the school evolves. The students I taught were in school for a 6-month semester. However, when the next semester begins in January 2013, that batch of students will be in school for a year. They will also most likely have the option of learning a skill as Monika hopes to implement some skills training. What skills they are taught will in part depend on the talents of incoming volunteers. If you are lucky enough to have talents or skills of some sort, you should volunteer.

English Classroom

English Classroom. I got to make a poster on the ‘four Ps’ for the business classroom’s wall!

There are three small classrooms, each with long wood tables and benches and helpful hint posters on the walls, as well as photos of some of the students, current and past. Additionally, there is a playroom for children. Twice a week local neighborhood children and the offspring of students under the age of eight, are invited to come play at the school in the afternoons. The volunteers entertain them, play games with them, teach them songs, color, paint, play soccer, etc.

The students attend two classes Monday thru Thursday. The first class is from 9-10:30 and the second from 10:30 – 12. They are divided into 4 groups: 1a, 1b, 2a & 2b. The 1s began the semester with little to no knowledge of English or business, speaking predominately Swahili. The 2s began the semester with some knowledge of English and perhaps some prior business experience or knowledge. On Fridays, there are home visits, during which students offer to welcome the volunteer teachers to their homes to see how they live. Unfortunately, as I arrived toward the end of the semester, I didn’t get to attend an official home visit. All of the students had already had their turn.

I’ve never taught before, unless you consider cross-training co-workers or training presentations I’ve given on Agile Scrum at work. I didn’t know what to expect.


English Grammar

I taught English grammar and this book was a godsend.

When I arrived at GHTA, V_, the interim house & school manager, gave me the option of teaching either English grammar or business. George was already comfortably settled as the teacher for that class. I opted out of business as I think I’ve overdosed on the topic. I majored in business in undergrad, I’ve been working in business for over a decade and I’m not in love with it. English grammar, on the other hand, is of great interest to me as I’m always seeking to improve my writing.

Ka_, one of the other volunteers from California, had been already completed her first week of teaching when I arrived. I would be taking over for her at the end of my first week in Moshi. In the meantime, I would shadow her and help out where I could.

Each class has a translator. The translators are former students. The 2s tend to need the translators for less than the 1s do. The translator for my classes was Fa_, a diminutive woman in her late 50s with a lot of spunk and internal fortitude. I liked her immediately.


The students refer to all teachers as “Teacher [first name].” That tickled me. My first day of class, Ka_ introduced me to both classes and had me answer the following questions.
1. What is your name?

2. Where are you from?

3. How old are you?

4. Who do you live with?

Numbers three and four elicited the most response in combination with each other. To number four I answered, “I live with two cats.” I was met with blank stares and puzzlement. “Teacher, you are __years old and you are not married?” I figured, oh no, I’m about to hear that I’m a cat lady. I have two cats so that I’m not leaving a pet home alone. God! Erm….anyway, nope, not married. “Do you have any children?” Nope, no kids. “Why don’t you have any kids?” “I haven’t met anyone I want to have kids with yet.” There were “oohs” from a few of the female students and Fa_ said with enthusiasm,  “Good for you!” Her husband died in the 80s and she’s been raising her five children on her own ever since. She would later tell me, as she was giving me unsolicited counseling on who to marry, “No more men for me. You don’t know if the man is going to like your children. My head is clear and I want it to stay that way.”


Just doing a little teaching.

Teaching is hard work. I knew this and have long had much respect for teachers. But, I didn’t realize just how much work it is and how exhausting. Each night before the next day’s class, I’d spend a minimum of 20 minutes, but more often one hour, preparing lesson plans. What would I teach the next day? There are curriculum guides for the class and I would use those, and several other teaching aids to create lessons for the next day. Each Monday I had to give and then grade quizzes that I prepared the week before.  I reached into the recesses of my brain to recall what I learned in a psych class about test development.

Teaching itself was tiring and I only did it for half a day four times a week! Your mouth gets parched, you get tired of standing, you get chalk all over your cute clothes…I was so nervous about teaching and whether the students would respect me. I also wanted them to feel engaged. But, I had no reason to fear. These students wanted to learn. For some of them, just getting to school each day was a large feat. There are students who have to get up incredibly early to work before school; students who travel long distances on busses, foot or dala dala; and students who have children to care for – one of my students brought her baby daughter with her to class a few times. She was adorable and she ended up being fun to use in example sentences.

Often I would come up with example sentences to illustrate grammar rules. During a lesson on necessity (must, have to, have got to), Fa_ decided to chime in with a sentence of her own, “If you don’t want to get pregnant, you must take the family planning pill.” Did I mention she’s in her 50s? And lives in a patriarchal Tanzanian culture? And almost 90% of the citizens are Christian or Muslim? Yeah, she’s awesome.

I also realized that I had favorite students. They were generally the ones that spoke up more and apparently I am shallow as hell, because I found myself favoring the better looking students. Please forgive me. I think it’s an evolutionary response! I found myself working hard to go against my biases. I tried to get the quieter students to participate more (and it worked).  Teachers have it rough.


Have you ever tried to explain to someone the rules of the English language? I remember once telling an ex-boyfriend’s niece that she shouldn’t use double negatives in a sentence. “Why?” she asked. “Because, it’s confusing.” “Yeah, but sometimes you can…” “Actually, yeah, that’s true.” For instance if I were to say, “You can’t not bathe or else you will be stank.” Sigh.

The English language is full of contradictions. Try teaching a classroom of non-native English speakers about comparative and superlative adjectives. Or, let me put that another way: silly, sillier, silliest. Or: funny, funnier, funniest. Ok, so, how about the word “good”. Good, gooder, goodest. Eek, ow, no. It’s: good, better, best. But, why? ‘Cause the English language is stupid, that’s why.


Once a week the English grammar students get to have a discussion to help practice their English speaking.  My first week the topic was marriage, divorce and male – female relationships. Just a little light chat. I learned that divorce is revolutionary in Tanzania and is spreading as a method for marriage dissolution. Although, before it gets to that point, the couple may consult their friends for counseling, if that doesn’t work, their parents, and if that doesn’t work, their acquaintances, and if that doesn’t work, well, I guess y’all really don’t want to be together, so time to go to court! They were shocked when Ka_ and I told them that America’s divorce rate is 50%. I was thrown when one of the male students, Bar_, prone to loud exclamations and not shy about stating his opinions stated, “Marriage is like modern-day slavery for women!” Well then!

In that same discussion one of them women said, “My friend said if you’re husband doesn’t beat you, he doesn’t love you.” Many of the women nodded in agreement. Fa_ shook her head with disappointment. Ka_ and I sat with our mouths hanging open. Then one of the older women said, “Tit-for-tat!” I was impressed by her correct use of this expression.


During my last few days of teaching, two new volunteers arrived, Jenny and John. They are a married British couple who live in Belgium. John’s a retired engineer and Jenny is an ESL teacher for kids who decided to take a year’s leave of absence to travel the world with her retired husband. They plan to spend a few months at GHTA in Moshi. They are an adorable couple who’ve been married for 30+ years and it’s obvious from seeing how they interact with each other that they make a true effort to treat each other well and make their marriage work.

Some of my students

Jenny would be taking over teaching English grammar when I left, so she sat in on a few of the classes to get to know the students and get the hang of things. One morning I was teaching the ‘1’ students how to express preferences and gave them an example sentence: “I prefer wearing pants to dresses.” A few students looked at me with confused expressions and there were a couple of titters. I figured they just didn’t understand and asked Fa_ if I should explain more. Jenny helpfully suggested we have each student state their preference for either pants or dresses. A few students went until one student, Ester, asked me, “Teacher, what are pants?” I pointed at the pants she was wearing, “You’re wearing pants.” Another student chimed in, “Teacher, trousers are pants?” “Yep!” Conversation started up in Swahili and Fa_ said to me with amusement, “They think pants are what you wear underneath your trousers.” “Underwear?” I asked. Jenny added, “Ah, in England we say ‘pants’ for undergarments and ‘trousers’ for the clothing item.” So, all this time, the students thought I was saying that I prefer to walk around in underwear than dresses. No wonder they looked at me funny, they probably thought I was some kind of freaky American perv.

And thus the students learned one of the differences between American and British English.


The second day of class, one of the younger male students kept giving me eyes. I couldn’t tell if he was just curious about me or trying to flirt with me. After class he pulled me aside. “Teacher Keisha, can I add you on Facebook?” Ha! America or Tanzania, Facebook is insidious. He then asks, “Do you want to walk around town with me?” Alone? I think. I don’t think that’s a good idea. We don’t have rules about student-teacher fraternization, but I don’t want to be the talk of the school. Besides, he looks 17. The next week, George would confirm that this student did indeed have a crush on me.

The next day, a male student in his 30s told me, “Teacher, I think you are very pretty. I think we can get to know each other. I like to have a girlfriend.” “You have a wife,” I reply. “Ah, but in my culture, that is not important.” “Well, in my culture, we don’t do that. So, this is not going to happen. Thank you though!”


George, as previously mentioned, is a big country music fanatic. He taught English conversation for about three months at GHTA. One morning, during my first week there, I was laying in my mosquito-netted bottom-bunk bed, nursing my sick self, and I heard his class singing loudly in unison, with their Swahili accents: “Write this down / take a little note / to remind you in case you didn’t know / write this down / tell yourself I love you and I don’t want you to go / write this down!” George Strait has a new set of fans. It was adorable and their enthusiasm was and is admirable. Later, he taught them “I Saw the Light”, the Hank Williams version.


While I didn’t get to attend an official home visit, my class’s translator, Fa_ invited me to her house. She would cook. She and I bonded quickly during my trip. It wasn’t long before she asked me if I could help her learn to use email. The afternoon we went to an internet cafe, we discussed the state of my love life (the state is non-existent). She asked why I hadn’t gotten married yet. I fell to the ground, pounded the dirt and cried dramatically, “God wants me to be alooooooone!” Or, maybe I just said I hadn’t met anyone I wanted to marry yet and that sometimes men get scared when things get serious. She said that in Tanzania women who are single are looked upon poorly. I told her it’s not so different in the US. I’m in my _s, single and have two cats. The shitgiving doesn’t end. She was surprised. I told her that sometimes when women are single after a certain age and don’t have children, people ask them about it a lot and put pressure on them. Perhaps it’s okay to be educated and support oneself as a woman in the US, but you still better find you a man girl, and best be poppin’ out some babies soon, lest you be branded with a ‘C’ for childless. As for men and dating, Fa_ told me, “For a woman, your father is the best man. All others are just wearing trousers, pretending to be men.” She said that because women outnumber here, men act like dogs. Girl, I know, right? I wanted to bring her back home with me.


Hiking in a skirt and flip-flops

On a Sunday, Monika, Ka_, Je_, one of my students, Ab_, whom Fa_ says is “like [her] son”, and I went to Fa_’s for lunch. Fa_ lives with her 10-year old grandson. Her 20something daughter drove in from her job at a safari park to help her mom with the cooking. Ovens and stoves are expensive and many don’t have them, let alone microwaves. So, most of their cooking is done on portable gas stoves or on open fire. Fa_’s house is small, but cozy, down along a dirt road that made for a bumpy car ride.

Before lunch Fa_’s nephew and his good friend took us on an unexpected 1-hour hike behind Fa_’s house, while Fa_ and her daughter stayed behind to finish cooking. On the way to the trail we ran into Fa_’s father-in-law who lives in the house a few fields down. He helped her and her husband get their house. He’s very old, hard of hearing and often not coherent or present.

Hiking in flip-flops on rocky, dusty paths, some wide enough for only one foot, with a stream of water 30-ft below, makes for lots of thrills – if by thrills, you mean almost spills. When Ab_ asked the boys why they took us so far they said in Swahili, “We wanted to show you the waterfalls!” Cute.

From l to r: pillau (bottom), chapati, glazed peas and carrots, curried chicken, spicy eggplant

For lunch, Fa_ and her daughter made pillau, chapati (a staple of many meals), curried chicken, a glazed pea and carrot dish and spicy eggplant. To drink we were served fresh mango juice. Fa_ has a small garden behind her house where she grows mangoes, avocados (known as parachichis in Swahili, love that word), and other vegetables. Some she sells, some she eats. The food was set on mats on the center of the living room floor. We served ourselves. Fa_ and her daughter ate without utensils, while the rest of us opted to eat with. Fa_’s lucky to have her garden. She’s had goats and chickens stolen. The neighbors have too. Or the thieves have destroyed people’s gardens, taking all the fruit and vegetables they could. But, the neighbors look out for each other. It’s a real community.

(Visited 33 times, 3 visits today)
  • George Pilzer
    November 26, 2012

    Awesome! Keisha. Really fun reflecting on all these memories. Also do not sweat the guys. My dad took one look at your picture and said in his opinion you were the hottest volunteer at GHTA!!! (No wonder Daniel was so in love!) I am actually really surprised you have such a hard time finding a man although as you said, maybe men are just scared when it comes to the serious stuff. Keep on traveling and having fun.

    • thegirlnextdoorisblack
      November 26, 2012

      Aw, thanks, George, you are too sweet and your Dad is awesome. :p Thanks for the encouragement!

  • The Wanderlust Gene
    October 11, 2012

    I’m enjoying this … lots more please 🙂

    • thegirlnextdoorisblack
      October 11, 2012

      Yay, I’m glad! 🙂

What Do You Think?

%d bloggers like this: