What the internet can’t teach you – realities of working on the ground, and the importance of learning from Tanzanian counterparts

In purely numerical terms, I reckon I’m a prime contender for qualifying as CDI’s Most Keen Volunteer 2019. As we come back to start work on the CDI and KITE projects after our mid-trip break, I’ve already been in Tanzania for over a month, and in East Africa for a good six weeks. Owing to the logistics of timing a backpacking holiday in neighbouring Kenya (as well as a touch of incompetence on my part about dates!), I arrived the day before the CDI committee, with around ten days to spare before the other volunteers landed. As the Director, Deputy Director Project Directors and Treasurer busied themselves with the necessary meetings and logistical arrangements before everything got properly underway, I found myself with quite a bit of time on my hands. This was despite my best efforts – even after pootling around the local markets, killing some time on one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen, and getting to grips with some rudimentary Swahili grammar, I was still at something of a loose end! So I decided to get stuck in to a bit of preparatory reading. The focus of the Health Project this year is on raising awareness of sexual and reproductive health among youth in Dar es Salaam, which, as the resources I found on the internet quickly made clear, is an area in which there is significant scope for awareness to be raised, myths dispelled, and services made more readily available. I learnt about how sexual and reproductive health fits into a positive, holistic understanding of health, as a universal human right, and about the specific barriers to the realisation of this right in the Tanzanian context.

And so it was that, at the first meeting of the Health Team, I came armed with a mental list of what I took to be our most urgent priorities, the most efficacious ways of tackling the issues at hand. But of course, it didn’t take long to realise that this theoretical, rights-based approach to interventions couldn’t simply be copy-and-pasted onto the context we were dealing with. From day one, my Tanzanian counterparts helped me to realise that we had to work within the realities of the Tanzanian situation, and that meant adapting some of the goals and tactics I had identified. When I suggested partnering with companies and stakeholders who would be willing to supply us with contraceptives to hand out to students, my colleagues responded with a definite no. ‘We can’t just hand out condoms in schools!’ they told me. ‘The parents would be horrified, and we’d never be invited back!’ Certainly, this has sometimes proved frustrating: how can we make the most necessary, impactful changes if we’re barred from delivering practical advice and resources in certain areas? Isn’t it precisely these taboos, this reticence towards discussion, that is what we’re trying to change? But as time goes on, the more I realise the importance of working within the framework in which we find ourselves, of taking small steps to tackle issues that are within our reach, without jumping the gun, jeopardising our work by provoking negative responses from the community. To do otherwise, to focus on the bigger picture and try to completely redraft the society we’re working in, would be utterly counterproductive. And let’s not forget, when we’re talking about sexual health, we’re dealing with areas that are pricklier than most, more likely to provoke strong feelings and sensibilities, and to challenge deep-seated beliefs. We, as volunteers from Cambridge and hence outsiders, are all relying on our Tanzanian colleagues to help us to negotiate these views with sensitivity, to navigate the realities of the cultural and social situation and deliver an impact that is both meaningful and acceptable.

Knowledge of the local context has also repeatedly been invaluable in other ways. When it comes to logistical matters, for instance, to the day-to-day practicalities of operating the project, some understanding about how things function in the country is indispensable. I personally, when faced with the conundrum of how actually to set up a workshop in schools, would have drawn a blank, scratched my head and perhaps fired off a few tentative emails, which would almost certainly have been ignored. But fortunately, the KITE volunteers in my team were much more clued up; they wasted little time in making sure we had the documents we needed, then jumping on a bus and heading off to ask the appropriate schools in person. The headteachers were more than happy to speak to us, and mostly proved very co-operative, readily inviting us to work with their students. This knowledge of how to open the necessary doors has served us well on many occasions: for example, I was amazed when I learned that our team’s publicity manager had somehow secured a spot to talk about the project live on morning television, and had connected more than hundred local youths in a WhatsApp group to start discussing the issues we’re focusing on. It’s a kind of know-how that would take me years to acquire, but that is vital in moving forward the pace of our project’s activities.

All in all, my weeks volunteering with CDI thus far have been a fascinating, and at times intense, learning process. Much of this has been about learning to view the theoretical principles and guidelines in new ways, through eyes more attuned to the intricacies and sensitivities of cultural context. As I move on to a postgraduate course in Development Studies, I hope to deepen my theoretical, academic knowledge of key issues in the field – but this more practical, pragmatic understanding of how development work unfolds is one that I will not leave behind. I now realise the value of reconciling both approaches, combining cognizance of certain contextual realities with a broader, more long-term view of the universal goals towards which we are working. And for that I will remain indebted to these experiences working in Tanzania, and to all the colleagues and friends with whom I have shared them.

By Kitty Chevallier, Health Project Volunteer 2018/19
Kitty is a fourth-year student studying Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (AMES) at Emmanuel College.

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