During summer 2008, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to accompany a teacher at my middle school, as well as a few classmates, on a service trip to Africa. My mother accompanied us as well, and the two of us relished the opportunity to travel and do service together.
When people go on holiday in Africa, they often travel to the most beautiful and wealthiest countries, enriched with tourist attractions and modern hotels. We, however, traveled deep into the rural villages and forests of Tanzania near Kilimanjaro, a small city called Olasiti which sits beside the larger town of Arusha, and many wildlife national parks. We did not relax much during the first two weeks of our trip, as our main mission was to teach English at a Tanzanian village school.
Each member of our group was assigned a class of approximately 25 students, a number of whom were orphans. During the regular school year, more than 100 children would have to squeeze into the same room that would now hold closer to 30. We were to teach those students of the 100 who were already most familiar with English. Our classroom had no doors, no windows, and no supplies when we arrived. We passed out notebooks and other school supplies that we each had purchased and brought from the United States. The kids were thrilled! They loved the colorful designs and patterns on the composition books and the wide selection of colors in the colored pencil boxes.
I was amazed by the gratitude our simple offerings elicited from all the students, as well as from the teachers. Although I have traveled several times to India, I have never experienced life in an Indian village, and the time I spent in Tanzania made me realize how very lucky I am. I reflected on my own hometown, Saratoga, Calif., and realized that I live in a “bubble.” Before my trip to Tanzania, I took a lot for granted—including school, clothing, and food—which not everyone around the world can take for granted.
Even though we struggled with the language barrier, we bonded and connected with our students. We were the talk of the whole village; everyone knew our names. The local children even followed us on our two-mile hike to and from school each day! When we told a story to our class during story time, like “Rikki Tikki Tembo,” the whole school would go home to share the story with their families. On one occasion, we came across children and their mothers tending to the fields while chanting “Rikki tikki tembo no sarembo chari bari ruche pip perry pembo!” Our American camp-fire songs and story books were a huge hit, and I was surprised by the impact our visit had on the whole village.
We stayed at a beautiful campsite in the wilderness, with no electricity, about two miles from the school. This was the first time that my mother and I had ever camped, and it was quite challenging at times. We visited the Olasiti Orphans Center on the way to school and gave games, jump ropes, books, and other supplies to the kids there. We taught them songs and dances, and my mother and I helped to serve meals, which consisted of one heaping mug of porridge for an entire day.
One day, we took more than 50 orphans to the Tarangini National park for a day-long safari and picnic. Most of the kids had never even seen their own national park. Our enormous truck was packed, and we sang many local songs along the way. During the journey, I learned more about the orphan center, founded by a man named Zenan Gasper and run from his own home. Though Zenan himself is poor, he provides food for nearly 100 kids. In return, the kids tend to the garden, milk the cows, and do other chores. Many attend school with the help of sponsors; after learning about the orphan center, my mother offered to sponsor one girl’s education.
I learned so much from the kids, each of whom has considerable talent. They make beautiful, intricate paintings, which are then sold for money for the shelter. After a long day of school and work, the children come home to the shelter to have their first and last meal of the day: porridge which contains wheat, flour, sunflower oils, sugar, and oats.
I have gained new awareness and appreciation for all that is in my life. For one thing, I have the privilege of enjoying a variety of foods, whenever my stomach desires it, and I never have to worry about quantity. I also am fortunate to have both my parents and my siblings in my life. I appreciate my clean sheets, my comfy bed, and the luxury of being able to focus on school without having to work to make a living at my age.
I am no different from the kids in the small, beautiful city of Olasiti in Tanzania. The need to love and to be loved is a common thread that binds us all. I have learned that simplicity and love have the power to make you truly happy. It is only by reaching out of our comfort zone that we can recognize and make a difference in this great, big world of ours.
I encourage all readers to learn more the Olasiti Orphans Center and Friends of Tanzanian Orphans (visit www.tanzanianorphans.org). Money goes so much farther in Tanzania, where a child can attend school for around $250 U.S. dollars per year. I know it may not seem like much to give, but you may be surprised by your power to transform lives. I have seen with my own eyes how very grateful these children are for even a single colored marker and book. And I will never forget.
Sanjana Shukla is 13 years old and a winner of the Saratoga Idol competition. She attends Redwood Middle School in Saratoga, Calif.