Volunteering in Africa: Part Two

by Millie Montiel

To get a taxi back to where I was staying in Moshi, Tanzania (where all Art in Tanzania’s volunteers stayed) it was easy: you just said to the taxi driver ‘mzungu house please’, and they knew exactly where to go. That translates to ‘white person house’.

From what I saw, locals seemed to resent “mzungus” (“white people”- as we were all referred to). I am not usually one who gets nervous in new places, but walking alone once from my morning project at Chem Chem nursery (my fellow volunteers were on safari) I have never wanted so much to be invisible. Everybody stares at you, understandable perhaps as there are very few white people in Tanzania, but I usually feel uncomfortable with one person staring at me, let alone hundreds of eyes boring into me so blatantly. I have never so much longed for the anonymity of London, for people to not even want to meet my eye, let alone openly stare at me. I tried to keep my head down and avoid eye contact, the belief that doing so would will my being into invisibility, but people shout “mzungu!” as you walk by, drawing any eyes not already focused on you directly to you. I distinctly remember catching the eye of one fairly elderly woman who was balancing some fruit on her head, in that casual manner that always baffled me. I attempted a shy smile in her direction and received in return a look that seemed as if she may actually spit on me. It was mainly the older people, particularly women, who seemed most hostile. In their occupations (walking through Moshi I encountered mainly street-sellers) they are not required to learn English, they perhaps were never given such “opportunities” and so resent our interference. They don’t need us, they just want to carry on with they’re ordinary lives and not feel patronised all the time by these people who come over believing they’re doing something truly incredible for people who couldn’t manage without them.

The worst I felt was with the teenagers. As I walked past secondary schools the kids would come out and talk to me in English or Swahili and then they would laugh at me as soon as my back was turned, mocking me. It made me so angry, I would think ‘I’m just trying to be nice, stop laughing at me!’ It seems to me that the older people were in Tanzania, the more they resented my presence, and not because I am white, but because they saw me and assumed that I was there to impose my own way of life on them, because I think it is better than theirs. They have their own culture and they do not want ours. Not everyone is hostile, of course, and I do not want to create an image of Tanzania as an unfriendly country. Many people I met and spoke to were very friendly, this is just what I observed walking around and I want to explain it because I think it can be understood.

Once, on a dala dala (a sort of mini bus pretty much stacked to the brim with people until it literally overflows from the doors) that day when I was alone, I sat squashed between a man on my left and a woman on my right, with a child on her lap who had his arm in a sling. My knees were pretty much lost in a tangle with I don’t know how many other pairs and, of course, all eyes were on me. I sat and stared at my lap, waiting for the journey to be over. In my anxiety I couldn’t understand the man who was collecting money for the journey- it was 400 Tanzanian shillings (about 14p) and I had gotten my coins confused and only given him 300. I started to fumble around in my bag, trying to find the extra 100, all the while aware of the eyes fixated on me and, undoubtedly, I was bright red. When I looked up, however, a man opposite me gave me my money back and told me that it was okay as he had paid for me. He looked to be in his early twenties, not much older than me, and I regained a bit of my faith then and there: it was so obvious I could afford to pay the bus fare-he must have just seen how flustered I was and felt sorry for me. To him I was a human being and I don’t think I’ll ever forget him because of that. I immediately let out an, unfortunately high pitched, ‘asante sana’, which of course received a roar of laughter from the bus (which set me back a bit), but at least I was human to one person.

The children are totally different. Venceslaus told me they were so excited to see us because we are different, something new to break up an otherwise monotonous and tiring daily routine. Children pop up from around nearly every corner and charge at you, fighting each other to grab your hands and hug you, and screaming ‘HOWAREYOUHOWAREYOUHOWAREYOU?!’ At Chem Chem they’d grab my long hair (I quickly learnt to tie it up every day) and any jewellery I would wear (another lesson quickly learned) and stroke me, clinging to my arms constantly- to them we were something shiny and new. One girl, who was 6 years old, would take possession of my arm and rest her head on me. She had a habit of collecting rusty tin can lids, and I found her once playing with one outside. Horrified, I took the dirty thing away from her, but I always found her with more. Perhaps, if we bought anything to these children, it was a distraction from things I can’t even imagine, hardships that have never even touched me, or you, and yet are part of these children’s everyday life, and always have been. But, how long will it last for them? When they get older, won’t they just become the mocking teenagers I saw? Maybe, as they grow up, they’ll see these strangers as condescending. Maybe they’ll see our jewellery and clothes as signs of us coming to look at them as attractions, like they once did to us.

And who can blame them, really? Volunteers do patronise them- there are that certain few that create this stereotype. People who pull out their smart phones on every occasion, regardless of the fact that it will completely disrupt a lesson (of course, the kids go mental for it), and take selfies of themselves surrounded by these poor, poor children in rags. People who go up to children in the street and shout at them: ‘HELLOOOOOOOO! OH, LOOK AT YOUUUUUUUUUU!’, and pat their heads with tears in their eyes. People who think what they have done in Tanzania, in Africa, what they have bought for a school, for instance, is the most selfless, charitable act which will change people’s lives. People who boast constantly about how they have helped, talking down even to the teachers at the schools because they must know better than them because they are from The Great Western Hemisphere and “these people” in Africa are poor because they don’t know what they’re doing. I have met people like this in Moshi, these stereotypes do exist. People presume they know better because they are from a developed, Western country, they don’t realise it was all just luck: lucky to be born in Britain, unlucky to be born into poverty. People born into poverty cannot help it, we are not better than them just because, by chance, we were born into a country where we are provided for.

Once, I had a couple of the girls I taught English to in the afternoon (Nice and Ester) over to the volunteer house after a lesson. One woman, an elder woman (I won’t name names here, I have probably offended people enough without them needing to feel personally victimized), told Ester to close her eyes and open her hands and then preceded to pour dry cornflakes into them. She made it seem like she had given her a pile of gold- dry cornflakes. I had already followed the rules of common curtesy and offered the girls biscuits, which they had politely refused. Why on Earth would you be so degrading as to give a 12 year old girl, of unusual intelligence (I might add), a handful of cornflakes because she lives in Africa? People have this misconception about what poverty is, they assume that everyone in Africa has nothing to eat at all, no shelter, either. That is not the case. These girls told me often about helping to cook dinner and breakfast, they even took me to Ester’s home a couple of times. It was basic: a corrugated iron sort-of fence with some tyres outside marking a sort-of front garden, and a tin roof with holes in over the concrete house. Inside the floor was concrete too, with a wardrobe on the left-hand wall and a door to a bedroom next to it. The kitchen was opposite and contained a table and a tiny TV. Of course, as I sat down on the garden bench they had inside my thoughts turned to sinking into my big leather sofa at home, but the house was clean and homely, they offered me tea, and once even made me a cake. They were not the starving families from the posters you see plastered on the tube. Of course some people in Africa do not have enough to eat, as some people in England do not, but the wider issue of poverty is the standard of living, it is the lack of infrastructure, the lack of opportunity.

I was absolutely mortified by this woman. I once walked into one of her lessons (she taught the children at the school attached to my afternoon project) where she was teaching 7 to 10 year olds how to make sounds, I’m talking ‘ba-ba’ and ‘bo-bo’. Dear GOD, these children can talk. They can even speak two languages (the English levels at this school being pretty good), which she definitely could not, and you’re teaching them sounds that 6-8 month old babies can produce naturally. She once said that she thought the children ‘here’ were stupid and maybe that’s why everyone ended up working in agriculture.

With people like that, no wonder locals grow to resent mzungus.

As long as “mzungus” are lazy there will always be hostility to us in Africa. If we presume to go over to Africa, on the pretence of charity and aid, and yet do not bother to learn their language, or attempt to integrate into their culture, then we cannot be respected. Tell me how to discipline a child when you cannot even tell them what they did wrong in a way they would understand? And still we expect to be almost worshipped by the locals, we expect their eternal gratitude just for making our presence known. That’s pretty much all it is, just being there is meant to help in some way. And this, of course, has effected how people, at least from what I observed in Tanzania, react to Westerners. I believe antagonism arises because locals feel we are there to look down on them from our pedestals and tut and sigh. People on the streets would ask me where I taught, they immediately knew I was a volunteer, they knew I had come to their country because it is poor. They don’t feel as if they are treated as humans by white people, so why should they treat white people as their equals? An attitude adjustment is needed on both sides if there is to be any attempt to work together to do something about poverty. If people come over to Africa they should, as I will admit in this aspect I wasn’t, be prepared to speak the language, they should be ready to work. If you want a holiday, save some money and go to Centre Parcs or something, it may not look as cool but at least you’re not lying to yourself or fooling anyone else.


This is the second in Millie’s three-part series regarding voluntourism in Africa. There is a shorter summary piece about her experience available in Issue 12 of Ellipsis and you can read her first part here.

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