Travelling to Tanzania, a developing nation, ranking 151 on the human development index out of 172, alone at 15 years old, not knowing anyone in the country was quite troubling for my family. In fact, that is an understatement. My grandmother was crying on the phone begging me not to go before I got on the plane. To this day, I still have no idea how I convinced my parents to let me go.
Global Leadership Adventures, an organization based in San Diego, spearheaded the program. Although the trip was open to girls and boys, strangely we were all girls. There were 13 of us, 10 from USA, 1 from Canada, 1 from the UK and I was the only one from Asia. We stayed at a cozy home owned by a woman named Esther Simba who has been hosting teen volunteers for almost 20 years.
Community service was at the heart of the program. We taught English to primary school children from Year 1 to Year 5. My teaching buddy Elizabeth and I were assigned to the Year 5’s. Their favorite song was “I’m a Little Teapot”, which they begged us to listen to every class! There were 50 kids in each of the two forms that we taught. Unfortunately, there were only 5 English books, meaning that the children had to share 1 between 10. Being able to go to a school where I can have a textbook of my own made me realize how lucky I am. Teaching 50 children, with a language barrier, “thank you” and “be quiet” being the only Kiswahilli words I knew at the time required me to use a more dynamic form of communication: body language. Let’s just say teaching sequencing ideas is not too easy when you look like a fool trying to act like a monkey. (Nevertheless, the most rewarding part about teaching was walking around the neighborhood during our freetime and having my students running up to me with warm smiles.
GLA also held numerous workshops, which gave us a glimpse into the vibrant Massai culture. We made Batik paintings, beaded jewelry (which made me cross eyed) and our own traditional Massai garments. A weekend safari through the Ngorongoro crater, Tarangire and the Serengeti took us to the oldest hominoid fossils, and a vast savanna that featured a most diverse population of African animals.
Our last weekend was spent climbing Mt.Kilimanjaro: the world’s highest freestanding mountain. To be honest, it was more like a 30-minute trek on the foothills but that was good enough for me! But with all the laughter and the fun, we had guest lecturers that addressed some of the local issues such as the AIDS epidemic, the Rwandan genocide and an alarming matter that shook us to our core: female genital mutilation. These are much too depressing and sensitive to talk about during this assembly especially with all the primary school children.
On the first day, our director Anabel told us that we were not going to change anyone’s life by being there. She was right. Those two weeks were merely an eye opener. Those two weeks made me realize the small things in my daily routine that I usually overlook. Watching the lights go on when I flick the switch, being able to shower without waking up at 5am to boil my own water and sleeping without a mosquito net are only a few of those things. I might not be able to mitigate the stigma associated with AIDS. I might not even be able to save a girl my age from undergoing FGM, but the experiences I had, the people I met and the lessons I learnt have changed my life. I will start small. I will start right here.
I would like to pose a challenge to the GCSE and IB students in this hall. Do that one thing you have always wanted to do but were too afraid to because of all the What if’s? Act now. Think later. Do it with an open mind, an open heart, a passion for learning, a thirst for challenge, a burning curiosity, lots of questions, a hunger for success and of course, malaria tablets!