Are you looking for a volunteer opportunity that really allows you to get stuck in? What if you could apply your skills to helping a local community while based in the shadow of the mighty Kilimanjaro, taking time out to dance with Maasai tribes, leap from waterfalls and camp among bellowing wildebeest in the Serengeti? If this sounds just like your cup of steaming East African coffee, then book yourself a bed at Hostel Hoff in Moshi, Tanzania, where like-minded travellers from across the globe congregate to do volunteer work, share adventure stories, debate the pros and cons of vegemite and build lasting friendships.
Moshi is Swahili for ‘smoke’, pertaining to the misty cloud that shades the mountain’s glistening peaks for days at a time, clearing on occasion to stun its most recent arrivals into abeyance.
Tucked away on a wooded footpath on the outskirts of the town, Hostel Hoff was set up in 2006 by a young Irish woman with a disconcerting obsession with David Hasselhoff, star of Baywatch and creator of such catchy hit records as Hooked on a feeling (the music video really is worth a gander). Following her own volunteer experience with an agency, Sarah became attached to the country and its residents and made it her mission to set up and run a hostel that puts its guests in touch with local projects, sidestepping the extravagant costs that many volunteer organisations charge.
Rooms are 13 euros a night and the hostel will pre-arrange volunteer placements as part of a range of different projects. Individual skills are matched with the needs of the community, and projects include school teaching, orphanage assistance, community centre construction and gardening to help the community produce self-sustainable food. Children’s centres and hospitals require the assistance of trained medics, and community groups have been set up to help empower women. There is also a support group for disabled people. Projects are sourced and arranged by the hostel itself, and are updated regularly.
Dorm rooms sleep two to six people, with tents for the busy season. The price includes laundry, which is done in bulk and then piled precariously on a bookshelf in the communal lounge. A daily cooked meal is prepared by a local woman, whose grasp of foreign dishes isn’t quite perfected, but baked beans with rice and fries can go down surprisingly well after a hard day’s graft!
The outdoor seating area and DVD room are conducive to a sociable lifestyle. Take lots of deet to deter the incessant mosquitos and while away the balmy evenings playing cards, singing around a camp fire or giggling at the ridiculously inaccurate subtitles on the local pirated DVDs.
A decent-sized, and often empty, swimming pool adorns the YMCA within a five-minute walk from the hostel, and there are numerous paths for hiking if you’re training to climb Kili. Joggers should psyche themselves up for some incredibly steep inclines, but the effort is rewarded by hi5s from the school kids, who often try to keep up! The town centre is a few minutes’ walk in the opposite direction and provides all the necessary amenities, such as supermarkets, internet cafes, souvenirs and excursion booking.
Despite its establishment as one of the main bases for safari goers and Kili climbers, Moshi feels refreshingly unaffected by tourism. The locals greet you relentlessly with cries of ‘Habari’, ‘Mambo’ and ‘Mzungu’. Being singled out as a ‘Mzungu’ – or foreigner – can feel a little unnerving to begin with, but it’s almost always said in good spirits. Try retaliating with ‘Mbongo’!
Getting about in the rickety rusty minibuses, known as dalla dallas, is an adventure in itself. You could well find yourself with a wailing infant on your knee, your legs tangled under another passenger whose identity you can’t decipher due to the sheer volume of people. On the plus side, the discomfort and ridiculousness of the situation encourages the kind of camaraderie among strangers that is rarely forthcoming in the western world.
The nightlife in Moshi is excellent. There are restaurants catering to all tastes. The unusually named Golden Shower serves continental cuisine, while Deli Chez has an incredibly extensive menu, featuring popular dishes from across the globe. Glacier Bar is an outside area that broadcasts sports on a large screen, while Kool Bar is the most popular hangout for late-night dancing. It plays a mix of chart music and African R&B, and there’s nothing quite like the peculiar experience of standing opposite a Maasai tribesman, who is dressed head to toe in traditional clothing (machete included!), exchanging dance moves to Shakira! For something more hardcore, there’s La Liga – a massive venue that played host to the Miss Tanzania beauty pageant in 2010! Spice up the evening with some of the local spirit, Konyagi; its ingredients, incidentally, are suspiciously vague: ‘Fine spirit, konyagi flavor and de-ionised water’!
The hostel has a system of allocating one long-timer the role of showing newbies the ropes and it also puts you in touch with the best tour deals. You will be spoiled for choice when it comes to exploring. Take a week out to scale Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest peak at 5882 metres; spend a night camping in a Maasai village, witness a goat sacrifice and dance with the tribe’s children as the sun sets; ask the Maasai guards at the hostel to guide you to the breathtaking Marangu waterfalls; or search for colobus monkeys in a nearby forest. Although more of a trek to reach, it is also worth exploring the pristine beaches, coral reefs and spice markets of Zanzibar. And who can resist the pull of safari during the annual wildebeest migration?
The Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater are astounding landscapes in their own right, but the wildlife they support are spellbinding to witness. Bombing along dirt tracks in the wilderness, with no sign of humanity in any direction, standing on the jeep’s seat with your head through the roof and the breeze in your hair (possibly a health and safety issue, but well worth the risk) is invigorating. Tree-climbing lions, hunting cheetahs and critically endangered black rhinos are among the sights you’re likely to encounter. It may also come as a surprise that there is no barrier separating the tents in the Serengeti from its prowling lions and snorting wildebeest – an unnerving privilege!
Not only will your time at the Hoff be exciting, rewarding and memorable, the like-minded people from around the world who you are guaranteed to meet there will become life-long friends, opening doors to new opportunities to travel in future.
See photos from my trip here.