Volunteer talks about Global Service Corps experience

From the Field

What volunteers are saying…

Rebecca H. Baltimore, MD

Right after graduation with a Johns Hopkins master’s degree in international health and nutrition, Rebecca H. set off for 9 weeks in Tanzania as a Global Service Corps volunteer. Following a week of skills training and cultural orientation, Rebecca teamed up with fellow volunteers and Tanzanian counterparts to lead weeklong community workshops in HIV/AIDS and small-scale sustainable agriculture projects like composting, water storage, and starting home gardens to grow nutritious food. About her volunteer-service experience, Rebecca says “I felt like I had an impact on people’s lives at the end of every day.”

What inspired you to join GSC?

I always knew I wanted to work in Africa but knew very little about it. When looking for an international service experience after my master’s degree, I was interested in Global Service Corps in particular because I loved that I could do HIV/AIDS, nutrition and sustainable agriculture together. They are so obviously connected, though the public generally doesn’t put them together.

In the spirit of service-learning, how did your volunteer service relate to what you learned in school?

There’s really just a world of difference between knowledge and skills. What we learned in school was abstract. We knew what a nutritional deficiency can do to a person, but here I see it for real. In school we learned how to fix problems in a way that is like solving word problems in your head: You determine the simple solutions, but you don’t actually execute them and see how they work. Here, I see there are no simple solutions. You can know how nutrition plays a big part in being able to live a healthy life with HIV, but you don’t know that there are no easy answers for getting some people the nutrition they need.

How responsive were community groups to learning about HIV/AIDS?

I’ve been really impressed and surprised by how open classes are to talking about not only sexual issues but the cultural things like gender roles that contribute to HIV. You can tell people have heard about HIV and AIDS before, but you just scratch the surface and see how much confusion there is, like believing you can get AIDS from sharing a toothbrush. At the end of the week the class understands how to protect themselves and teach others, and they truly are inspired and excited when they get their completion certificates.

What do you know now about “Africa” that doesn’t match the impressions you had when leaving home?

It’s not all stark and poverty. There is so much poverty, but at the same time there is so much more. Some people don’t know that Africa’s not just impoverished. I expected my host family to be living in poverty. I definitely didn’t expect them to have a lovely home, car, TV, microwave, concrete driveway, plumbing…

How was living with a host family?

My homestay was definitely a highlight of my trip.  I felt like I was fully incorporated into the family–they involved me in family meals, special events like birthdays, and even took me to a wedding. I was especially close with the housegirl, who was about my age, and my two little brothers.  They were wonderful ambassadors of Tanzanian culture!

Sometimes future volunteers are worried about living with a family. Do you have homestay advice?

We all felt nervous before moving to our homestays, but I wish I’d known we didn’t need to be. I think I’d tell them to make the most of the experience in a way that works for them. Sometimes I felt guilty if I felt like being alone in my room, but over time I realized that was silly.  I had a lot of incredible experiences, but I didn’t need to have every possible incredible experience!  Have the experience you want, not the one you think you’re “supposed” to have.

What has been something about your GSC experience that you didn’t expect?

We got to work with people in great need, but we also got to interact and work with people who are educated and live just like we do. I didn’t expect to be working so closely with the Tanzanian counterparts and get to know them so well, but they became an integral part of our experience and one of the best.

What about local food? Did you need to be careful? Have a favorite food?

All of the food is my favorite. I thought it would be bland, I’d get tired of it, but no. And yes, eating locally was fine. But I always drank bottled or boiled water. For the first week I didn’t brush my teeth with tap water or eat

tomatoes or cucumbers, but now I pretty much do it all.

What do you wish you knew before you came?

I wish I understood better about how much patience and flexibility you need here. Respect to time is so different. When told to be at training at 8, everyone else knew that meant 9. At first I was frustrated and wondered, “Why am I sitting here?” But thinking about it in a service way, when we trainers are on time, it shows we care and have respect for people. I know now there can be cultural reasons for being late. For example, it is rude here to not stop and talk with someone you run into—and you talk as long as it’s mutually desirable to talk.

Can you describe a striking moment experienced during service?

In terms of volunteering with GSC, I see what a small part my service has been in something so much bigger that GSC is doing. So many people work day in and day out to make everything run smoothly. I’m taking part in something ongoing that GSC is letting us volunteers in on. Before coming here, I thought: what I am doing, that’s what it’s all about. I hadn’t realized how much more goes into it and how as volunteers we really become part of a big GSC team.

What have you learned about yourself that surprises you?

What I am capable of…At home I hate talking to groups of people. Here I can do it for hours. Same with digging the water Hafir, I pushed myself further.  I don’t know why. Maybe at home I could just walk away, but here I couldn’t. I pushed myself.

How would you describe a “cross cultural” experience is if you had to tell someone?

That moment when you break through all the differences, and you’re just people. Sometimes it happens through laughter or through tears or a shared passion…that moment when you realize that the things that separate us are nothing compared to the things that unite us. Like at dinner at my homestay, how it is sitting around talking. It feels just like a family.

What was best about your GSC experience?

I loved teaching, every time I did it.  I felt like I was making a difference, and it was truly enjoyable for me. I feel like I had an impact on people’s lives at the end of every day and in such a short amount of time. Other than that, it was developing friendships with the Tanzanians I interacted with, especially counterparts and my host family. They were all such warm, genuine people, and very generously shared their culture with me.

If you have questions or would like to be in touch with Rebecca or other GSC Past Volunteers please email us at Tanzania@globalservicecorps.org.

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