An Overwhelming Feeling of Impact: Take 1

by Brandon Blache-Cohen

Amizade has decided to embark on an exciting and innovative academic quest. This year – for the first time ever – students in our Bolivia and Tanzania semester programs are taking a class together, and it’s being taught by an American living in Brazil. Truly a sign of the times, students are challenging each other about the complexities of service and development, while living, studying, and serving in vastly different parts of the world. This is part 1 of their shared blog series.

As students directly engaged in service learning with Amizade we have been encouraged to dissect our views of service and how our service both directly and indirectly affects the communities that we are living and volunteering in. Each and every student on both the Bolivia and Tanzania trips is unique and able to bring a different skill and passion to their service placements. As we begin our work within these communities, it is amazing to hear the stories that are coming from each group and each individual.

An overwhelming feeling of impact upon our own lives as service workers, both in Tanzania and in Bolivia, has come to light as we have gotten our first taste of what service means. All of the students have experienced a feeling that our placements are impacting us as students more than we as service workers could ever impact the community. A sense of guilt accompanies this within some students and others are trying to find a way to have a greater impact than our small volunteer roles that will soon be only memories. It is important for all of us as volunteers to remember that the memories that are created during our placements will not only stay with us. These memories will also reside with the people that our service affected. The community members will always remember that we took the time to travel and make as much of a difference as we could within their community. These members of the communities in both Bolivia and Tanzania will always know that someone on the other side of the globe cares about them.

Through these different voices emanating from different continents, we are trying to draw similarities and highlight differences in what service means to all of us in these contexts. Below are overviews of how we have come to view service in our communities so far and what specifically we are experiencing in Tanzania and Bolivia…

Views from Tanzania:

The area where we are serving in the Karagwe District of Tanzania is a beautiful community located among endless stretches of rolling mountains and rows of banana trees. The people here are friendly, vibrant, and strong. As we enter our service placements, I think we are all already beginning to feel a bit inadequate. There are undoubtedly issues in this community that need to be addressed, and we are working with some incredible agencies that we want to support, but it is hard to find our place in the ongoing servicethat these groups are providing to the community. We are wondering how we can jump into placements with a wide variety of organizations with an array of needs and use our limited knowledge and almost nonexistent language skills to try to make a real impact for the people here.

We have already had some experience working with MAVUNO, a community-based organization that provides a wide variety of social and economic services to rural areas of Karagwe… For the past two weeks our “Tanzanian team” has worked side by side with the community members to build a 70,000-liter water tank at the future site of the Chonyonyo girls school. Doing physical labor side by side with the locals to build this well has been an amazing opportunity that has taught us so much in just two weeks. We were all blown away by the speed, commitment, and work ethic of the Chonyonyo builders. Our “backbreaking labor” carrying rocks and cement was completely dwarfed by the skill of our Tanzanian colleagues. We enjoyed our work at Chonyonyo and are happy to have left a mark on a place that will serve both young girls of this community and future Amizade students who come to study here. But our work has also left us questioning the level of need around us and how we can provide truly productive service.

This week, we will begin our individual service placements and will be splitting up across several towns working in very different capacities to learn about community development here in Karagwe. Sara O. just started her position working at the HIV/AIDs clinic at Nyakamanga Hospital where she’ll be supporting the staff of clinic doctors and nurses in registering patients and dispensing medication. Kelsey and Lindsay will be heading back to the Chonyonyo site to start work in the tree nursery. They will be learning about local plants from MAVUNO workers and getting the nursery up and running to sell plants to the community and eventually provide a sustainable way for girls at the Chonyonyo School to learn agricultural skills. Elizabeth will be working at WOMEDA, a human rights organization that primarily focuses on legal aid for women and children. There she will be compiling an information database and working with WOMEDA staff on interviews with past and potential clients. Sarah F. will also be working with MAVUNO as part of their Needy Children Program. The project provides funding and school supplies for kids who are orphaned or whose families can’t afford school fees.

I think we all agree that service work must be a combination of helpful intention, tangible benefit, and attention to the needs of the communities in which we are working. Here in Tanzania, this is becoming clearer to us everyday. We all hope that we can contribute at least in a small way to the amazing work that is already being done here. But we have already seen that the benefits of serving may not show up where we expect them. We’ve been finding out that the relationships we establish with people here are much more important than the actual work we can accomplish and that what we are learning from Tanzania definitely outweighs anything we could bring to it.

Views from Bolivia:

It’s a sunny afternoon in Cochabamba as we walk into Fundacion Ninos con Valor. One of the Tias is busily folding a huge pile of tiny clothes. Tia means aunt in Spanish but it also describes the women who work full time at the orphanage. When we start chatting loudly the Tia shushes us. The children are still napping and she doesn’t want us to wake them up yet. Inevitably they will wake up soon. The end of nap time is marked by the first little boy who ventures downstairs. Before we know it there are 12-15 children surrounding us. They range in age from infants to a 5-year-old. A mixture of boys and girls; there are definitely more boys. These children are in the orphanage for various reasons; some come from abusive homes, some have parents with HIV/AIDS that cannot care for them, others are here because they themselves have HIV/AIDS.

The rest of the day is spent herding the group of kids from one activity to the next. First they have snack then we all go outside to play. After playtime dinner is served and following dinner there is more playtime in the park. Within all of these activities there is singing, laughing, conflict, and crying. By the time we begin to help get the kids ready for bed we look like the ones who should be going to bed. We are only part of daily life at the orphanage for a fraction of the week. In fact Fundacion Ninos con Valor is a house that never stops and consequently is always in need of an extra pair of hands.

When we arrive at CEOLI we are always greeted by one of the participants whose job is to open the gate. All of the participants at CEOLI seem to be busy with a job or task that fits their abilities. The gate keeper is always friendly to us. Maybe because Amizade volunteers are not strangers at CEOLI. The two organizations have been working together for over a decade. We walk through the large facility that provides services to over 180 children and young adults in the Cochabamba area. Our service job is in the craft room with a group of around 15-20 young adults. As we enter the craft room everyone immediately looks up from their projects. Most of them go back to what they were working on after they see us, but a few of the participants always come over to say hello. The participants in the craft room have varying levels of disabilities but all seem self sufficient within the craft room. Sometimes they even teach us new craft techniques. Usually the staff asks us to help organize something or work on a project beside of the participants. We are there to help but also to be companions.

Throughout the room participants are rolling paper that will be used later to create paper sculptures. Others are making macramé bracelets or earrings. All of these things will be sold by CEOLI to help make a little money for the craft room. When I look around the room the participant that strikes me the most is a girl in a wheelchair. She is unable to make bracelets with her hands so she uses her feet. She embodies the mission of CEOLI: to teach people with disabilities that they have the ability to do anything they want to do.

There are many differences between the group in Tanzania and the group in Bolivia: different continents, different service jobs, different native cultures and languages. However, we have managed to have produce similar reflections on our service projects. We have all noted differences between the structure of our service jobs in Tanzania and Bolivia and the service work we have done in the United States. One positive difference is that it is often easier to serve in Tanzania and Bolivia, “less red tape” as one girl put it in her journal entry. Also, we are all experiencing the flow of life on “African time” or “Bolivian time”. This can be helpful when we are running late or frustrating when we show up to your service site to find that it is closed for the day. Either way it is something that we are all getting used to as we settle into our service jobs.