You don’t have to be a Foreigner to be a Volunteer!

By Charlotte Hill O’Neal

It’s strange to me that so many people in Arusha (or perhaps Africa in general) equate volunteerism to being a foreigner or an Mzungu! People feel that you have to be rich or at least an outsider to have the commitment to help ‘the unfortunates’ of this world that we all share!

The community spirit that was historically so evident in African society, no matter what country or tribe, is being tragically and rapidly eroded by the realities of today’s modern way of life. Everybody is under pressure these days to keep up and running…fast…on the expensive treadmill of life! And we’re not necessarily talking about keeping up on the latest fashions, fancy cars or trendy decorations in exclusive apartments. No, I am referring to what it takes to just keep ones head above the raging waters of life’s necessities… school uniforms and fees; adequate food, fuel and medicines for the family. It’s a struggle surely. One that keeps most people’s focus far from the idyllic ideal of offering free assistance to anyone in anything, other than the closest of family or friends.

"The sacrifice is unthinkable!" many will say. "Where will I ever find the time, let alone the desire", some might lament. "Let those donors handle it…they’re do gooders with pockets full of cash!" others might say with a sense of derision.

But I bear witness to just the opposite attitude to volunteerism evidenced everyday at the United African American Community Center UAACC, in Imbaseni Village. There is something of a 60’s style movement going on led by a group of creative youth, none of them rich or even ‘well off’; all of them Tanzanian or African and all of them overflowing with enthusiasm, charged with the task…no, the absolute JOY…of coming up with innovative ideas designed to share knowledge in all spheres of life.

Take for instance the cadre of UAACC volunteers who have completed the training the trainers HIV/AIDS education courses held by volunteers from GSC Global Services Corps (yes, the GSC crew are foreigners…but because of their serious dedication, you’d hardly know it!). This group of Tanzanian HIV/AIDS trainers, all barely in their 20’s, spend hours of their time not only teaching voluntarily in daily UAACC English classes but they use nearly all their ‘spare’ time organizing and teaching about HIV/AIDS in seminars and workshops that continue to reach hundreds of youth in AruMeru district! In their efforts to keep the workshops fresh and interesting, they are now taking on even more responsibilities, planning and organizing maigizo, songs and poetry illustrating the dangers of and practical solutions for avoiding HIV. Their infectious enthusiasm spills over to their English students too and they have started a writers and poets workshop, encouraging creative cultural explorations and interactions.

Or take the UAACC artists who voluntarily share their expertise with youth who have never had the opportunity to experience the thrill of artistic creativity. I’ve watched them in workshops patiently explaining techniques, working in the hot sun splattered with paint and smeared with clay, uncomplainingly teaching, sharing, and encouraging the next generation of Tanzanian artists.

And how about the computer teachers, graduates of UAACC computer classes, who even after having completed their training continue to come daily to the UAACC compound in Imbaseni, some walking long distances to get here, and who voluntarily share their knowledge with beginners, staying up late at night getting out the word about the advantageous of learning on the net.

What about the professional dancers and musicians from well-established organizations like the African Traditional Dance Group who volunteer to teach and share their expertise with youngsters in efforts to maintain the ancient music traditions of our elders. Or how about the young people from Friends of K.I.D.S. who continue to think of creative ways to lighten the tragedy of the many kids in difficult circumstances (‘street children’ to the unenlightened) in Arusha; or the youth who have committed themselves to leading groups like the Bongo Street Boys to excel in the field of socially conscious rap music and community theater; or the young people from Aang Serian who come together to think of ways and means to spread the word about the rapidly dwindling indigenous cultures of the world in an attempt to stem the tide of the growing menace of a global mono culture of blue jeans and soda pop that is diluting the world. My list could go on and on…and the list would be full of home grown Tanzanian’s…all young, gifted, committed and certainly not rich!!

It’s true that many of these volunteers do not have the awesome responsibility of being the primary breadwinners for their families…they might live still with their parents, aunts or uncles. But they are young and full of vim and vigor that could have been easily channeled in other, less community conscious and productive areas. They could have chosen to spend their spare time partying in discos or sitting under a tree getting stoned or robbing, raping and running amuck like thousands of other youth in countries around the world. But they have chosen a higher way of life, choices that we should openly encourage and commend them for each day. It’s true that the spirit of activist volunteerism is contagious. It can be just like a virus that spreads from one being rapidly on to the next. It should be considered to be the best infectious disease in the world! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all roll up our sleeves and catch the communicable syndrome of volunteerism, whether we be native Tanzanian or enlightened foreigner?

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More is coming about volunteers at UAACC...Stay tuned!!