When I first approached the idea of joining International Volunteer Headquarters for a portion of my time abroad, I scoured their list of available placement opportunities…
Working with children. No.
Working with animals. No
As much as working with animals seemed quite romantic, I knew I wouldn’t be bottle feeding baby elephants or helping lion cubs learn to walk. More than likely, I would be shovelling shit. I knew I didn’t have the stomach for anything in the medical profession, nor did I have the patience for rambunctious children. Construction was too far out of my comfort zone… and I was confident my knee would not survive four weeks of pulling weeds.
I was running out of options and was really beginning to question my ability to volunteer in a developing country.
Did I have what it took?
Instead of being flexible, my first world was shining though.
Then I saw ‘Women’s Empowerment.’
What did that mean???
The information surrounding the position was fairly non-descriptive on the website, but from what I could gather, it was helping women gain new skills in order to become more independent in life. It sounded like something I might enjoy, so I sent in my application… and then sat down to try and identify my teachable skills.
I couldn’t come up with anything.
Not ONE single skill.
It’s a real blow to the ego when you suddenly discover you’re lacking teachable talents. No painting. No baking. No sewing. No knitting. Not even macramé.
The only ability I could come up with was turning square pieces of paper into little Japanese cranes. I wasn’t even positive I could remember all the folds and I struggled to see how this impractical skill could empower anyone.
Yes… of course I can do a couple menial things… but turning them into lesson plans is harder than one might imagine. If you remove my computer, I’m pretty useless… and that is a somber thought.
It didn’t take long before my initial application was accepted and then there I was, preparing for a January in Arusha, empowering women. I really didn’t know exactly what any of it entailed, but I was eager to find out. It wasn’t until about three days prior to my arrival in Arusha that I was sent placement information.
So, yes… Perfect Vision.
Perfect Vision is a women's empowerment group based in Arusha, Tanzania. The group was founded by an inspiring woman called Mama Happy, who lived an unimaginably difficult life, yet still dedicated herself to helping others.
HIV remains extremely prevalent and stigmatized in Tanzania, especially for women who are often abandoned by their partners, families and friends. Happy set up Perfect Vision as a way for struggling women to support each other, stop the shame, learn new skills and improve their lives. The group has roughly 10 members at a time and aims to provide the women with the necessary skills and means to live independently.
The mamas of Perfect Vision come from heartbreaking backgrounds including HIV, rape, abandonment, and levels of poverty that are impossible for most westerners to imagine.
I suddenly found myself overcome with anticipation. Although I was unquestionably nervous, I was really looking forward to this experience. I knew these women would teach me much more than I could ever possibly teach them.
Much of the reason I ending up leaving my homestay accommodation, as I mentioned previously, was because it was just a little too close for comfort. Yana and I were in the same room, at the same placement… and both here in Arusha for the same period of time. 24/7 with anyone is too much… I knew my patience and tolerance level wouldn’t mesh well with this situation.
The homestay was much, much closer to my Perfect Vision placement, but the exercise, additional social interaction and the guarantee of retaining my sanity will benefit me in the end.
Our first day was more of an introductory morning than anything educational. Only a few of the Mamas showed up, and they were between the ages of 15-18. Empowerment class came second to Christmas holidays and time spent with the family, so many of them were still away.
I was fairly surprised when I first walked in. I had envisioned a large auditorium-style setting, equipped with school desks, workshop stations and crafting tables.
Perfect Vision is a small, rented building space, located along a dusty, dirt road in the area of Sakina. There are two very small rooms and only one of them is used as their classroom. The other is an office, and approximately double the size of a regular cubicle.
In the classroom are three square plastic tables, surrounded by a number of colourful plastic armchairs squeezed in. Space is limited and it’s hard to envision what it might look like when all of the Mamas are back. On the far wall, is a long wooden ledge, holding four or five sewing machines, each within less than 2 feet of each other. The walls are decorated with empowering and inspirational quotes, as well as a variety of English words… and there is even a map of the world up near the entrance.
At the front of the class, there is a shelving unit and a portable hanger which holds many of the crafts and clothing made by the Mamas. Everything handcrafted is for sale at a reasonable price and funds go toward individual business goals or the Perfect Vision program.
It was a bit of a tough start for the first couple of days.
Everyone was completely mesmerized by Yana. Yes… she is younger… blonde, thin, tall and has an enormous, teeth-filled smile, but… ugh. Anytime anyone addressed the two of us, their focus was only on Yana. Unless I coughed, fidgeted loudly or asked a question, no one really glanced in my direction.
A couple times, I felt like blurting out, “Hey! I’m here too!”
Hello!!! Don’t ignore the chubby, old brunette!
Catapulted back to school days within mere moments, I suddenly realized I would have to rely on my incredible personality to win them over.
Lord, help me.
… so far, it’s working…. kinda…
They think I’m funny… maybe.
I don’t know.
Sometimes I can’t differentiate between laughing at me and laughing with me.
Each morning starts with a warm up to get the blood flowing.
I think my morning roadside trek is warm up enough, but regardless, we all head out into the courtyard to stretch our bodies and do assorted dances & jumps.
Every day I walk to and from my placement. It takes me about 45 minutes each way. If my knee was better, it would probably take me half the time, but I casually saunter along. I don’t have any meetings or appointments, nothing rushing me along, so I take my time. I have to be very cognizant of my foot placement… and aware of every single rock, ditch, pot hole, mud track, puddle, piece of concrete or garbage. Any misstep could be detrimental to my mobility.
It’s almost a blessing, and I try to see this as a good thing. I’ve become so accustomed to rushing all over the place, and now I am being forced to slow down. I get more of a chance to listen to music or audio books. I get more of an opportunity to look around and really soak in my surroundings. I get more of a chance to familiarize myself with my new neighbourhood.
Life has really been dolling out the lessons for me since my arrival… and I guess it’s about time I start paying attention.
Yana is striving to be a yoga instructor… of course she is… so she takes over morning workout and I try to keep up… while not looking too foolish. Stretching has never been one of my strong suits.. and it is definitely NOT one of my teachable talents.
When it finally comes around to my turn to lead the warm-up, I have decided on The Hokey Pokey.
You put your right arm in… you take your right arm out…
Shaking yourself about to the tune of a children’s ditty is exactly the level of fitness I’m comfortable with.
After gym, we move on to Swahili class.
The intent is to introduce us to their language, as well as to provide the Mama’s an opportunity to teach. I’m the worst pupil. I’m very good at mimicking Swahili… but not so hot at remembering Swahili.
I guess it will take time.
The problem is that the words are not relatable to any familiar language I’ve encountered. The ONLY two words I can identify with are chai and saba and simba. Tea and seven and lion.
Then comes English class.. and let me tell ya, teaching this language is not as easy as one might imagine. Yes, I speak English. I speak English well, as far as I’m concerned. But…
I am NOT a teacher.
This has become evident… very quickly.
Not only do I have absolutely NO teaching experience, I also do not possess any redeemable teacher characteristics. I’m not great at explaining things, I’m not patient.. I get frustrated quickly and easily… Being here makes me wish I had invested the time in completing an ESL course. I never made it a priority, as I never thought I would eventually find myself at the front of a classroom… teaching English.
Each day, we are expected to get up in front of everyone and do an hour of English and then an additional hour of something else… business, personal, empowerment, inspirational, educational… whatever. I am desperately trying to come up with plans, but each attempt draws a blank.
What the hell am I going to do?
I have been scouring through Ted Talks and Googling things like ‘inspirational presentations,’ and ‘fun English learning games,’ along with other enriching and educational topics
My first class was an epic fail.
I decided to do a little introduction on myself… and Canada. I really thought I was prepared with a book full of speaking notes and colourful illustrations... but I was wrong. Terribly wrong. Once I'd covered Ottawa, Vancouver, snowmen, skiing, hockey and maple syrup, that was pretty much IT for their simple vocabulary.
I had stayed up all night and drawn horrendous renditions of hockey players, bears, wolves, squirrels, loons… I spoke about our colourful money, the toque, the longest highway, how we’re the second largest country… and then I was all out of ideas.
I was really reyling on some dialogue. None.
I stood there… stumped. Completely out of ideas. Completely out of talking points.
I tried to buy myself a little more time by asking if there were any questions.
Then… out of nowhere, one of the Mama’s put up her hand and whispered... “Is there trees?”
I could have kissed her.
Yes… there are trees. Canada has many trees.
For as much as I am not a teacher, I think I make up for it with my enthusiastic public speaking. I’m no inspirational speaker, BUT… I have been desperately trying to fit humour into each session and I think the Mamas like the fun.
As I said, perhaps they’re laughing at me… I don’t know.
Some of the girls are real keeners. They are eager to learn and write down every thing we say, soaking up each word. These are the Mamas that truly terrify me and make me nervous about showing up each morning with a valid and educational lesson.
Others arrive late, spend much of their time on their phone, disappear out the back occasionally, ignore lesson plans and a couple of them have not once arrived ready with their books. I could get up in front of them and recite song lyrics or parts of movies I’ve memorized, because they aren’t really paying attention anyway.
The first day I was on my own, I stood up to begin teaching at 9:30am. I yapped and yapped and yapped. I covered plurals such as tooth/teeth, man/men and child/children. I covered words with double meanings like fan, bark, lie and dough. I spoke about the importance of having positive attitude, the characteristics of positive people, and the health benefits attributed to a positive disposition. I had the girls all get up and tell me one thing they loved about themselves, as well as something they admired about one of the other Mamas. My English class and my empowerment speech was a huge hit and I managed to keep them engaged the entire time.
When I finally finished, I glanced over at my phone at was surprised to see it was 12:22pm.
I looked back at the class and announced, “That’s all I got.”
It was my metaphorical mic drop.
I was beat.