My friend and I decided that after graduating from University decided to backpack through Eastern Africa and volunteer somewhere along the way in an HIV/AIDS clinic. We choose Tanzania because of its abundance of volunteer program and its apparent openness to Westerners- but our experience taught us that not all organizations are as they seem. If you are venturing off to a random country that you don’t know much about make sure you spend the time investigating any potential volunteer programs. And while its great be be organized before you go, it is sometimes better to arrange your own volunteering once you arrive and survey the scene.
We arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital city, after vacationing in Tofu, Mozambique for the week. After 2 short days in Dar es Salaam, we headed to Arusha – a city in Tanzania which is the gateway for much of the Safari tourism (i.e. Ngorongoro Crater) to begin volunteering in an HIV/AIDS clinic. Unfortunately, our organization, Student Travel and Exposure South Africa (STAESA) turned out to be fraudulent- to make an understatement. We were supposed to be staying with a host family and our host was supposed to be a former Amnesty International Director – but our host turned out to be STAESA’s Tanzanian program director and an Evangelical priest who was on an Evangelical mission in Europe. His house was located on the Accounting institute’s campus, as our host was the institute’s spiritual leader. His wife Esther and their 2 young children aged 2 and 3 were left to look after us.
Our living conditions were interesting to say the least. In short, my friend and I slept in a single bed, in a room crowded with religious artifacts and all of the family’s possessions (including pots and pans and diapers). In addition, the only words their children knew in English were ‘baby jesus loves me’ – the tunes of which we also woke up to in the morning. Funnily enough – they claimed not to be a religious organization even though all of their country directors were reverends.
Who is STAESA?
STAESA is an organization that charges volunteers a fee to volunteer. This is not uncommon for many volunteer organizations in Africa that usually funnel the money received from volunteers back into the community and organization in order to help their programs run. Unfortunately, this family saw the opportunity for volunteers as as a money making scheme. Our contract said that we would only pay upon satisfaction of the program. But from the moment we woke up after our first night we were badgered for money. Esther asked us for the equivalent of $60 for breakfast which included a boiled banana and a slice of bread and then asked us when we were going to pay our $1000 U.S. volunteer fee. We told her that once we got a chance to see the program we would pay them.
After being walked to an ATM and pressured to withdraw another $150 U.S., we were escorted to our volunteer program. We shortly found out that the volunteer program did not exist. Their “clinic/office” was an internet cafe and computer training centre and our training involved sending out e-mails home. After seeing the lack of facilities/ volunteer structure, we decided to try and find our own proper volunteer work – which we managed to secure in an incredible HIV/AIDS clinic run by an American doctor who took pity on us after hearing our story. We spent our first day at the clinic seeing patients, listening to their stories pre and post testing and receiving an excellent presentation on AIDS in Tanzania.
While we learned a ton in only a few days at the Arusha HIV/ AIDS clinic, the situation with STEASA turned from bad to worse. We decided to let our host family know that we found another volunteer program and that we appreciated their help and hospitality but no longer wanted to volunteer or live with them. As soon as we let them in on our plans, the organization began sending us and our parents threatening emails demanding money, stating that they hoped the supernatural power of G-d would save us. They threatened us saying that they had representatives looking for us in Arusha and considering there were not many white, blond hair girls, it would not have been very hard to find us in a small city. STAESA also insisted we return to our host family and apologize to them because we had shamed them in the name of god.
As soon as the threatening e-mails came pouring in, the Canadian embassy in Tanzania and the Tanzanian embassy in Canada got involved advising us to leave the country pronto. They informed us that even if the organization was a sham, the Tanzanian government would accuse us of breaching our contract and we could be put in jail. On top of everything else, when we refused to pay them (because we never ended up working for them) they threatened to block our Tanzanian visa’s and deport us back to Canada. So we had no other choice but to flee Tanzania the next morning for Nairobi, Kenya (a 6 hour bus ride away). I never in my wildest dreams imagined that Nairobi, one of the most dangerous cites in the world, would be our safe haven.
We ended up spending a few days in Nairobi relaxing before heading off to Malawi in search of a more reputable volunteer organization. We e-mailed some random organization that we had read about in Malawi. While the volunteer program no longer existed they, unknowingly to us, passed on our names to another organization in Blantyre, Malawi. When we arrived in Blantyre and checked into our hostel “Doogles”, the only hostel in town at the time, we got a knock on our door from a member of the Joshua Orphan Care Trust. She heard that we were looking to volunteer and she offered us not only free volunteering at a feeding centre and orphanage but the directors home for a month while she was away in England for vacation.
Our volunteer experience in Malawi was life changing and the people were wonderful. But most importantly, my experience volunteering taught me the important lesson that some of the best things in life are free.