Make an Impact: Volunteer Work in Tanzania

by Andrea Jayne

So many people aspire to pack their bags and jet off to a faraway country where they can really make a difference. It’s a noble goal, and actually one that is not as hard to achieve as some would think. Among the places with the greatest need for help is Africa, and one of the African countries highly recommended for international volunteers is Tanzania. But what should you expect? How do you prepare? What will you be doing? Keep reading to find out some of the most important things you need to know before volunteering in Tanzania.

Kids playing skipping rope.

Fatuma and Mamu playing on the way to lunch.

Language

The pesky language barrier is not as bad as one might think. There are definitely people in Tanzania who don’t speak English, but it is mainly the young children just learning the language who can be challenging to understand. It is important to at try to learn some Kiswahili, the language spoken by most people in Tanzania.

Whether someone is staying for a week or a year, trying to speak the language can provide so many benefits while in Tanzania. Learning Kiswahili is a sign of respect, and it will help you when you are trying to teach English to the kids. A good way to start is by learning small common words and phrases, and the rest can be picked up from the teachers and from trying to use the words in daily conversation. Even if you’re speaking in English, it can be helpful to use some Kiswahili words in a conversation. 

Most Popular Types of Volunteer Work

There are several options for volunteer work in Tanzania. One of the most popular and high-demand placements is working with impoverished children. Thousands of orphans in Arusha, one of Tanzania’s largest cities, attend underfunded schools. The students get just one meal a day, and the teachers may not even be paid. Clearly, this is an area where people who love children can really make an impact. A big plus is spending time with adorable kids all day!

Orphanages. Working with children In Tanzania extends beyond working in orphanages, however, as more orphanages continue to pop up around Tanzania (especially in the slums), this remains a very common volunteer placement. Anyone volunteering in an orphanage in Tanzania will learn right away that not all the kids are orphans; some have been abandoned, or may have families that can’t or won’t take care of them. Some suffer from illnesses, including HIV/AIDS.

These are sobering, eye-opening realities of volunteer work in Tanzania, but there are so many bright spots that you’ll never experience at home. The kids immediately take to the international volunteers, crowding around them and wanting to be held or hugged. It’s impossible not to fall in love with all of them. Even though they don’t speak fluent English, or much English at all (and this goes for the adults as well), there are ways of getting around the language barrier. You’ll learn how much English they know when they crowd around you and tug at your blonde hair, yelling “Teacha, yellow!” as they laugh maniacally.

Boys doing some hand stand

Class 2 boys doing some creative learning.

Teaching. Most volunteer work in Tanzania is with children, and will involve teaching English. It’s an important job, because most people living in a populated city like Arusha speak at least basic English. It can help open doors for the children to pursue higher education, go to college, and even help them get a higher paying job. If you can help children improve their English skills, you truly will have helped secure them a better and brighter future.

At first, a volunteer teacher in Tanzania may be a little confused about the structure of a classroom. They might be expecting children to sit in nice little desks and work quietly on handouts. In well-funded places, that might be the case. However, this is not the norm in Tanzania. In the more impoverished schools, it would not be shocking to see five or six children sitting at one desk and then a dozen more on the floor.

Students might work in notebooks for a little while, but then they will get up and start to sing and dance. This is a major way that young children are taught English in Tanzania. They sing songs in English and dance around to help them learn the language, and it’s fun! Instead of trying to change it, the best course of action is to follow along, learn the songs and then join in. Or, you can lead them — the kids will love it. Just be prepared for them to make fun of your dancing, because, as they’ll tell you, no one dances better than Tanzanian people!

How to Volunteer in Tanzania

It’s highly recommended to volunteer abroad in Tanzania through an organization that will set up your work placement and make necessary arrangements for you. It’s safer and easier than planning everything on your own, especially if you’re not familiar with the country. Potential volunteers pay a fee that typically covers pre-screened, approved housing and often meals, a pre-screened, approved volunteer placement, in-country support, and even extras, like excursions or cultural trips. 

Final Words of Wisdom

There may be some bumps and social faux pas along the way, but going to Tanzania and becoming immersed in the culture is a life-changing experience. Knowing that you truly helped deserving children to have better lives is one of the greatest rewards you will ever receive.