How Volunteering In Africa Led To A Career Abroad
In May 2011, IVHQ volunteer Megan Sloter embarked on a journey to volunteer in Tanzania and shares why she now can’t go home…
I remember landing at night in Tanzania after over 24 hours of travel with relatively little anxiety. I suppose I had used it all up on the previous legs of the journey. My first thought as I stared out the window of the plane was not, “I don’t know a single person on this continent,” nor was it, “What happens if nobody shows up?” Instead, my first thought was “What will it smell like?” I think this particular collection of travel memories stems from my first real trips, when we’d go from Iowa to Florida to visit my grandparents. I always remembered a distinctly Florida smell and the excitement of the arrival that came with it. Even now, four years later, I can still remember that first smell of Tanzania as I stepped off the plane.
In fact, sitting down to write this, I’m quite amazed at just how much I can remember so acutely, even four years later. I think it is because, as a man I met in my travels there explained to me, “Africa gets in your blood.” What a funny thing to say; we hear of places staying in our hearts, or our minds, but it is true: Tanzania got in my blood. In just two months, it became a part of me, and I became a stronger, truer me through my time there.
There is something powerful to be said for arriving on a continent, or in a country, or in a city where you don’t know a single soul, and leaving two months later feeling like you have family there. Working in the slums of Arusha, I had students who came from one-room, dirt floor houses, and four and five-year-olds who would walk two miles down muddy roads to get to school. Teaching children who spoke a different language, in a room with nothing but a chalkboard, I realized that was what I wanted to do. It wasn’t enough for me to travel; I wanted to stay in a place, to live long enough there to love it even when it drove me absolutely insane.
Of course, those things that drive you crazy are the memories that stay with you the longest. Those things that drive you crazy do so because they make you uncomfortable, because they are different, because they push you outside of your comfort zone. I remember on my first day at placement, waiting with my director for a man to fill out some bank statements in the plaza for over 2 hours. When he showed up late, there was no mention of it, no anger, no complaints. It blew me away. When I asked my director what time to arrive at work, he told me, “Whenever you get here is fine.”
The concept of time was so different, I soon realized, because there was so much out of our hands. Several times, my transport broke down, ran out of gas, got stuck in mud, went on strike, etc. It was part of life. It was not unusual for someone to run into a friend or neighbor and be invited in for tea or a snack and stay for hours, even if the host was on the way out the door to somewhere else. In my culture, being late is seen as rude, as though your time is more important than the time of the person waiting. In Tanzanian culture, time is relative, much is uncontrollable, and personal relationships would never be placed second to making a timely arrival to an appointment. Since when did we allow errands, appointments, and commitments to become more important than relationships with those we love? It was a big perspective shift for me as I was able to look beyond the irritation of a cultural difference and understand the implications.
That’s just one of many examples of things I learned about myself and the culture I come from that helped me better understand and connect to those I was working with and for in Tanzania. The whole two months was such a growing experience, from realizing that if I can teach students who speak a different language with zero resources, I can teach anyone anything anywhere, to discovering beauty in the most unexpected places. I traveled as far and as much as my time and money would allow, and I think every volunteer should do the same. I was able to really explore and get to know the area and country I was in, which ultimately led me to my choice to teach abroad.
I was well on my way to becoming a teacher when I volunteered with IVHQ. I had taken all of the classes needed and was only missing my student-teaching practicum. However, I had never been in a culture so different from my own, had never traveled solo, and had never spent extensive time volunteering before my summer in Tanzania. I’d played with the idea of teaching abroad, and Tanzania was a test-run. By the time I started my senior year of college, a short month after my return from Africa, I let my parents know I’d be searching for jobs abroad in the winter. My search led me here, to El Salvador, where I’ve been for almost three years teaching fourth grade. Much like Tanzania, which has the ocean, incredible Kilimanjaro, the mountains, and the Serengeti, El Salvador has it all. We have volcanos, mountains, lakes, beaches, and forests.
I’ll be returning next year to teach 8th grade here, and then I plan to stay abroad. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that in the tiniest country in Central America, after three years, I can still find new places to go, and am constantly learning things about myself and the culture here as I do so. I’ve found new things that I will always love and eventually miss about this place, and new things that drive me crazy and challenge me.
Living in a country where poverty is so prevalent reminds me not only of how incredibly blessed I am, but also about how far we have to come as a world. Living abroad does that: it shrinks your world. When you find homes in so many places around the world, you will inevitably find new passions and new causes to fight for in the realization that we’re all more alike than we are different. As I’ve traveled more and more since my time in Tanzania, I’ve found time and time again how resilient people can be. I have met people through my time volunteering and teaching abroad who have nothing, and I’ve never seen happier, stronger, more generous people.
If I could tell people considering spending a few months abroad anything, it would be this: go. The timing will never be just right, and there will always be excuses not to. If you can work up the courage, go alone. You’ll not only find new friends and family, but you’ll find parts of yourself you never knew existed. Lastly, book your trip for as long as you can. I remember my mom suggesting I go for a month, instead of 6 weeks, in case I didn’t like it. My response, before adding another 2 weeks and clicking submit was, “But what if I do?” Give yourself the time to know a place, really know a place, by staying as long as you can, because in the end, when it is time to say goodbye, it is never long enough.