I’d only been volunteering for about a week in Tanzania when the teacher in my class – Michael – was attacked with a machete and seriously injured. It went straight to the top of my list of things not to tell my dad until I was safely back home.
What was I doing there?
I’d actually gone to Africa to volunteer in an orphanage. It had been pre-arranged, but on arrival it turned out they didn’t need my help, so I gave being a teaching assistant a go instead.
It was probably an even more rewarding experience. I had the chance to teach classes and increase my confidence, as well as working one-on-one with some of the less able kids. I got that wonderful sense of satisfaction when they finally grasped something they’d been struggling with for ages. I also became good friends with some of the teachers and I often felt I was probably benefiting them more than the children, by helping them improve their English and answering their questions about my life in England – a country they were unlikely to ever have the chance to visit.
Of course, it was a mixed bag. I managed to confuse the kids on more than one occasion. When I told them that the colour orange was easy to remember because the fruit of the same name is orange too, it was met with a lot of frustrated expressions. It was only later that I came to realise most of the oranges in Moshi are in fact green. My bad…
And don’t even get me started on the textbook that led me to believe that people in Tanzania use soap, water, tooth brushes, sponges, towels and, what’s that? …corn-on-the-cob (???) to wash themselves!
Arrival at the school always put a smile on my face. The infant group would be sitting in a huddle happily chanting the alphabet: ‘Capital letter A and the small letter a’. They always pronounced both the same, so the value of saying that full sentence for every single letter was lost on me.
Walking into my classroom, I never knew what to expect. In four weeks there, the same class had four different teachers. One day it would be the pastor’s wife, who intimidated me as much as she frightened the 10-year-olds. The next I’d be gossiping with Madame Mary, my Kenyan ‘twin sister’ who was exactly the same age as me – we shared a birthday while I was there! Sometimes, the teacher would be mid-lesson before the bell rang at 8 am and sometimes they would saunter in at 10. When I arrived depended on how many times I’d encountered locals on the dusty 4-mile trek to the school. I was constantly greeted with a cry of ‘Mzungu’, meaning foreigner. This would be followed by a brief attempt at conversation in Swahili. It was good practice, I guess!
It wasn’t unheard of for me to walk in and find the teacher asleep with their head on the desk at the back of the room while the kids ran riot, so at least I didn’t feel too bad if I was late.
Finding out my friend had been attacked with a machete
One particular day, it was Michael who happened to be allocated to ‘my kids’. We’d chatted a bit the week before about many personal things – his friends who’d died from malaria, and how he often crossed the border illegally into Kenya despite the harsh punishments if caught.
I saw immediately that his hand was in a massive bandage, but it was a while before I found out what had happened. He hadn’t been able to start his lesson because he needed to write exercises on the board, but couldn’t hold the chalk. I spent the next hour teaching a science class, feeling very sorry for the kids who had to learn human anatomy from my Shrek-like diagrams, and even more concerned for Michael. Perhaps he’d been caught on the Kenyan border, I thought. Would the government do something like this to him? Or was it an unprovoked attack? Should I warn the others at my hostel that it was unsafe to be wandering about on our own, even during the day?
Finally there was a break and I sat down to hear his story.
The day before, he’d been walking along a path near his village and had heard a man and his wife arguing. The man had then started to beat his wife with the flat side of a machete blade. She had retaliated by screaming obscenities at him, at which point her husband completely lost it and lashed out. Michael had jumped in to protect her, but in doing so he’d almost lost his entire hand. It was massively gashed and swollen to at least three times its normal size. He told me he’d lost a lot of blood too, and he’d had stitches without anaesthetic. He was struggling to carry out the simplest tasks and was clearly still in a lot of pain. And yet he was AT WORK!
I couldn’t help making comparisons with the UK, where people are constantly whinging about the National Health Service. At least back home, the attacker would be reprimanded and the victim would be entitled to sick pay and extended hospital care. I know someone whose hand was bitten and chewed up by an angry dog recently and they received immediate care as well as months of follow-up physiotherapy.
But that’s what I love about travel. It really puts your own life into perspective. It makes you realise how fortunate you are and it persuades you to reassess what’s important. Thank you Michael and I hope you made a full recovery.
If you’re considering volunteering abroad, I recommend you check out Hostel Hoff in Moshi, Tanzania, as a place to stay. They have a variety of projects to suit everyone.