Wednesday, October 14, 2009


If someone said to you, “I spent two months of my summer volunteering at a school in Africa,” what would your reaction be? Speaking from experience, I guess it would be something along the lines of, “Oh wow! That’s soo amazing, it must have been so rewarding!” I did spend two months of summer in Africa helping at a school and yes, it was rewarding, but not in the way you think. There’s a huge difference in the attitude of volunteers to their work, and it’s noticeable almost immediately. There are some people who volunteer simply to boost their credentials and seem impressive for a while. There are others who really put their heart into it, they love every minute out there and they give all they can. As for me? I went to Africa simply to fill the long summer months with something more productive than facebook. I may not have gone with the intention of saving lives or changing the world, but I did go with an open mind. Had I not, I doubt my experience would have been the same…

Africa is a vast continent, consisting of 53 countries and a total population of over 1 billion people. I visited Tanzania, a country which lies on the east coast of the continent. Thanks to years of inefficient ruling, it is now one of the poorest, least developed and most aid-dependent countries in the world. Looking through the eyes of a visitor, I found this easy to believe but too many wealthy residents of Tanzania find it easy to ignore. I felt that the rich and poor divide, which is present across the world, was more noticeable in Dar Es Salaam than in any other town or country I have visited. Whilst Dodoma is the geographical capital of the country, Dar Es Salaam is its political and commercial capital. The city’s rapid expansion means that there is plenty of work, but sadly it’s a classic case of the rich getting richer whilst the poor get poorer.

Kibaha is a small village to the east of Dar Es Salaam. Here, World Islamic Propagation and Humanitarian Services (WIPAHS) has established an entire community with the intention of educating the youth whilst providing local residents with medical care and an opportunity for employment. On my first day, I was taken on a tour of the campus. As we passed the nursery and primary schools followed by secondary schools for girls and boys, I became increasingly impressed. The school buildings were large, relatively well equipped and it was clear that a lot of money, time and effort had been put into this project.

The biggest surprise for me came from the students. As I peered into one classroom, I saw the children listening attentively- no one was talking or staring out of the window. They all seemed captivated by the lesson. The moment I stepped into a primary class to be introduced, all the students stood up immediately and chanted ‘Salaam Alaykum Teacher’. (Salaam is both the Islamic way to greet someone and a general greeting in Tanzania). I had never seen such discipline before and I almost felt embarrassed at their politeness. Whilst walking down the corridor students would smile and greet me happily as though we were old friends although they had no idea who I was and I probably looked very out of place in my English clothing. In my primary school, such a visitor would only have received stares and whispers as she walked through the school.

There was also an orphanage on campus, for children aged 1-4. Although I’m not too sure what I had been expecting initially, I was surprised once more. As we approached the orphanage I could see around twenty small children playing near the entrance. As soon as they spotted us, they all cried ‘mageni!’ meaning guest in Kiswahili, and came running towards us. Each one made sure to shake my hand and greet me with ‘Salaam’ whilst the younger ones clamoured to be picked up and the older ones fought to hold my hand. As I soon learnt, this was their customary way of meeting people, and soon the sight of the young children running towards me was something I looked forward to every day. However, it simultaneously filled me with sadness because the fact was, these children were hungry for love and no other kids with a normal, loving family would run up to strangers and greet them so warmly.

When I began teaching, I noticed again how attentive the students were. All of them had a thirst for knowledge which was a stark contrast from students in England, some of whom only attend school to pass time and socialise. The scene in Kibaha was very different. Although the classes were far bigger, some with up to 43 students, the discipline was amazing. The students not only listened to and respected their teacher, but also each other. There was never any obvious bullying which made me realise once more how friendly everyone was.

The school was full boarding and for a fee equivalent to $2 dollars a day, the students were provided with education, accommodation and 3 meals a day. I was shocked to learn that the fees were so minimal but the bigger shock was that many of the students couldn’t afford it and their fees were heavily subsidised by the school. Compared to other schools in Tanzania, it was certainly one of the better equipped but it was not really comparable to the usual standard of English schools.

The most upsetting thing in all of this was the realisation of just how much we in the West take everything for granted. I have been paying thousands of pounds for my education since the age of six but I don’t think I have ever paid as much attention in a single lesson as the students in Tanzania. The role reversal is almost ironic- they want to learn but can’t afford it, whilst we almost have education thrown in our faces and yet turn it down, instead wasting our money on yet another pair of shoes or a night out that will be more harmful than helpful.

I soon realised that although many of the students in Kibaha were poor and some were also orphans, they were by no means at the harsh end of the ‘quality of life’ spectrum. My eyes really opened when I visited another orphanage in Dar Es Salaam. This one housed about forty young girls and boys ranging from four to 16 years old. Tiny bedrooms which were crammed with bunk beds and mattresses, were shared by around fifteen children each. One of the youngest girls there was called Fatima and the carers informed us that she had AIDS. Although she was being treated no precautions were being or indeed could be taken to prevent cross-infection. Besides sleeping, all other activities including meals, education and games took place outside in courtyard under the heat of the African sun. They shared this courtyard with goats, chickens and their excrements. On my first visit, a shelter had been put up to provide shade but I later learnt that this had been hired especially for the visitors and had cost the orphanage 25 000 shillings (£12.50); money which could have been far better spent on the children. When I returned to the orphanage at Kibaha, it looked like heaven in comparison.

There was also a medical centre on campus which treated students from schools across the region and local residents as well. There were two doctors, one of whom slept above the clinic and worked almost 24/7, often waking up in the middle of the night to receive and look after emergency cases. As he said to me, ‘I’m the doctor, nurse, sweeper and pharmacist here,’ since the centre did not have enough funds to hire adequate staff. In fact, the doctor often paid for patients’ medication out of his own meagre salary since neither they nor the government could afford it. However, as with the orphanage, I was to see far worse.

Ocean road is a long road in Dar Es Salaam which runs parallel to the ocean. Due to the magnificent views it’s a popular place to live for the wealthy residents of Tanzania. The road is lined with huge mansions, shiny cars parked in their driveways. But drive to the end of the road and tucked away in the corner you come to the cancer unit. A private clinic, the unit is hugely dependant on donations and help from volunteers as it receives minimal funding from the government. If they run out of cooking gas before the month is over, which they often do as they have to cook for over 200 patients, the government refuses to give them more and the kitchen workers must resort to using the outdoor coal stove.

The clinic takes in far more patients than it can cope with for there is nowhere else for them to go. Several cases are beyond treatment- the patients are simply waiting to die and you can see the acceptance of this fact in their eyes. There were men, women, young and old, some with tumours as big as fists, others with cases of skin cancer far worse than any I’ve seen in England. One woman who volunteered at the unit on a weekly basis introduced me to a young boy of 16 named Ali. When he was 14, Ali was diagnosed with cancer and travelled from Mwanza, hundreds of miles away, to Dar Es Salaam for treatment. He came to the cancer unit and was fortunate enough to have arrived in time to be cured.

However, the time the travelling and treatment took meant that Ali had missed out on a year of education and since he was an orphan, the doctors at the cancer unit offered to sponsor his education in Dar Es Salaam. Ali accepted but two years later, the clinic could no longer afford his education along with medication, sanitation and food for all the patients, so Ali was withdrawn from school. His final school year would cost £200, explained the volunteer. Here was an orphan boy, who could not even complete high school due to poverty, and up the road were people carrying around handbags worth far more that what Ali needed to finish his education and have a chance of a better life.

Many of the experiences I saw saddened and upset me. Some angered me- I questioned the justice of a world where money was so unevenly distributed and corruption ran through the government, crushing any chance of the situation improving. Yet amongst all the poverty, the death and destruction, there may not have been hope but there was happiness. No matter what situation the people of Tanzania were in, it was a rare moment to see them without a smile on their faces. Even if they had nothing, they were still willing to offer you whatever they could and their hospitality was unlike any other. I went to Africa to help people, but really they helped me. I went to teach, but instead I learnt. It wasn’t an experience that can be described in words but one thing I realised was that money definitely does not buy contentment and we in the West have completely forgotten what it’s like to be truly content.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Damascus in Pictures

Souq Hamidiyya

Dome in Syeda Ruqayya

Interior designs of Syeda Ruqayya

Roof-top view of Syeda Zainab

Dome of Syeda Zainab

Diversity Fee Dimashq

Damascus, the capital of Syria, lies to the south of the country and is considered to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. I have visited the city three times, but it was only during my most recent visit that I actually toured Damascus properly. I saw it through the eyes of a fascinated tourist, albeit one who apparently looked like a native, rather than the eyes of a religious pilgrim. Not knowing the language of the place you are visiting can be a great hindrance, and this time I was grateful to have my sister as a translator as I toured the streets of Sham. Not only did it help me discover more about my surroundings, but her haggling skills also prevented me from having to pay the foreigner’s price in the souqs (markets).

The most obvious places to visit in Damascus from a personal perspective are the holy shrines of Syeda Zainab and Syeda Ruqayya. When I stepped into the mosques this time, I glanced upwards and looked away as I had done on previous visits. But suddenly, I had to look again when I realised that what I have always taken for granted is in fact a work of architectural and artistic brilliance. Arabic designs cover the ceilings, each one intricately intertwined with the next. Glittering chandeliers illuminate the shrine, their light reflected and enhanced by the mosaic mirrors which border the walls. In Syeda Ruqayya, the designs are somewhat simpler, yet still have a tranquil beauty about them.

I found Damascus to be a city of paradoxes where old and new, rich and poor, and religious and secular all came together in an absurd but intriguing clash. The area around Syeda Ruqayya is generally disorderly; you step out of the mosque and immediately find yourself in Souq Hamidiyya, an open-air bazaar. Every other shop sells the same products and it is not infrequent to find one shop-owner persuading you to buy his friend’s goods. For the most part, the shop-keepers stand outside their shops talking, laughing and watching the crowds but as soon as they hear you speaking English they will welcome you into their shops with broken English, wide smiles and high prices. Just a short taxi ride away from this chaos is Bab Tuma. This is the Christian area of Damascus, and also the more uncluttered part, where you will find designer shops, high-quality goods and fixed prices.

Perhaps the biggest eye-opener on my trip was my visit to Ardh Saeeda, literally translated as Happyland. A much-diluted version of Alton Towers, Happyland is the only theme park in Damascus, and also seemed like the most popular hang-out for youths. The crowd there is so different to that of Syeda Zainab, it is difficult to believe you are still in the same city, or even country. The atmosphere is much more relaxed: women without hijab are a common sight whilst boys and girls hold hands in a ring as they dance to the latest Arabic hit singles. As for the safety of the rides, it’s enough to say that I saw my life flash before me a few times!

Bab Tuma is situated relatively close to Syeda Ruqayya, but despite their proximity, the two areas harbour completely different cultures. Whilst the Muslims in Syeda Ruqayya flock to the holy shrine daily, and the adhan is called out five times a day, the Christians in Bab Tuma visit Church on Sunday and spill onto the streets at times like Christmas and Easter, commemorating the birth and death of Christ. Also next door to the shrine of Syeda Ruqayya is the Umayyad mosque, a place of importance for Christians, Sunnis and Shias alike. That these three separate faiths can live together peacefully and co-operatively was the one thing that struck me as most weird, yet wonderful, about Damascus and should be a lesson to the rest of the world.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


I know it's not much compared to places like Canada, but it still managed to bring London to a standstill!

Saturday, January 31, 2009