BAGAMOYO, Tanzania — “I’m thinking of volunteering abroad,” I told my daughter. My granddaughter, whom I thought was plugged into her iPod in the next room, piped up: “Can I come?” Days later, three of us: Leah, 15, her sister, Kate, 17, and I were committed. But where to?
After many false starts I settled on a two-week program in Bagamoyo. An organization based there accepted minors and had a slot that fit the girls’ schedule. It satisfied my needs for safety and basic comfort, housing and feeding volunteers in a dormitory with bunk beds, hot running water, and flush toilets. Additionally, the organization set curfews, rules on sex and drugs, and suggestions on dress.
While reassured about practical issues, I worried about the cultural leap. Kate had never left the country; Leah had been to Rome, where bidets constituted cultural enlightenment. How would they handle whatever came our way?
Although more than 30,000 people live in Bagamoyo, it is compact, and on the first day we explored both the port and town center by foot.
In Swahili, Bagamoyo means “lay down your heart,” a name purportedly linked to the town’s slave trade, one of the busiest and longest-lasting in East Africa. Today the port is used by a handful of fishing boats, which, between hauls, lay in various states of disrepair on the sand. A fish market operates out of nearby shanties and about a half mile up-beach stands a gated resort among the palms.
But the life of the town lies away from the shore, along a web of hard-packed dirt roads that wander inland. Deep trenches for rainy season runoff separate the roads from the buildings, most of which have attached thatch- or tin-roofed lean-tos serving as kitchens or small retail spaces. Electricity is spotty and running water, a luxury. To look at the place objectively is to know that the town is poor.
But from the start, Kate and Leah seemed not to see the poverty. It was as if the garbage-strewn streets, the single-pot open-air cooking, the stick-and-wattle housing, and the four men guarding our compound were unremarkable.
Indeed, the girls slipped into the African way of life effortlessly. No cellphones, no texting: no problem. We washed our clothes by hand. We walked everywhere. We began to live in the moment, taking time to chat with a familiar face and greet strangers.
As enchanting as this was, our group of six volunteers, all assigned to teach English, held onto the notion that we were there to work.
The teaching felt like driving without a map. The schools were nothing like ones we knew. None had running water, electricity, or doors to muffle sounds between classrooms. Two kids squeezed at one bench and desk — or, in Kate’s case, many onto floor mats. There were no window screens, no libraries. Pencils, paper, or crayons were not provided, although volunteers could borrow supplies from our home base.
We’d been told not to give anything to our students. Only after seeing the children in the tourist-heavy Kilimanjaro area begging did we appreciate the wisdom of this advice. However, many of our kids stole what they could: bits of crayons or snippets of chalk. I could understand the desire for these tools, but couldn’t overlook the behavior. Leah and Kate reacted differently. “They’re babies,” said Leah. “They don’t know better.”
Our biggest challenge, though, was that none of us knew what to teach. Earlier volunteers had left notes, some helpful, some not. At first, it looked as if Kate and Leah had lucked out because their classrooms each had a local teacher. But the women deferred to the girls as if they were visiting professors. As Kate said, “It was almost like the teacher was a student in the class.”
With young students, the girls could start at the beginning. Kate taught her 5- to 7-year-olds “under, over, and around” using a jump rope, and “through” with a hoola hoop. Leah taught basics: drawing letters and reciting the alphabet. Their students loved them unreservedly.
My situation was harder. My 10- to 12-year-old students were at very different levels of English. I took an earlier volunteer’s advice to teach adjectives, verbs, and nouns. Only two understood. I watered down the lesson the next day, and again the next. Finally, when it was almost time to leave, I figured out which child needed what, but it was too little, too late.
Then, a small incident put my disappointment in perspective.
On Fridays our school went to the beach. Even the short walk there was a happening, as we fanned out across the narrow roads, hands linked, feet in synch. At the beach the kids played a mean game of dodge ball or waded in the water to scoop up shellfish. The outing was terrific until, on the way back, I misstepped, skinning the heel of a little girl in front of me, drawing blood. These kids don’t cry, but I knew I had hurt her.
Concerned about infection, I led the child to a nearby well. As I washed the cut, I noticed a cluster of workmen looking on with great interest. I realized then that what I taught in my mere two-week stay was not what mattered most. I was on a cultural exchange, observing, being observed, learning, and teaching in all sorts of everyday ways.
Embraced by the generous people of Bagamoyo, the three of us had merely responded in kind. There was nowhere — even the dangerous, drug-infested neighborhood where Leah worked — where we did not feel welcome, even if we weren’t truly safe.
My granddaughters felt purpose in their work and admiration for African ways of coping and living. At the well where Leah drew water for her young pupils’ porridge, she saw the camaraderie of the neighborhood women — not their hardship. Kate loved the civility of strangers greeting strangers.
When the time came to leave, none of us was ready. Leah was so sad I feared I might not coax her onto the plane. Instead of worrying how the girls would react to the cultural challenges, I should have worried that they might leave a bit of their hearts in Africa.
Susan Sabin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.