Norwich students share their volunteer experiences from trip to Tanzania

Every summer, a selected group of Norwich students take part in what many of them call a life-changing volunteering experience in Tanzania, Africa.

Located in the Wise Campus Center of Norwich University, the CCE offers a wide range of volunteering programs, but there is little doubt the trip to Tanzania is one of the most sought opportunities.

“I was constantly exposed to it. It took me a while to realize the importance of such opportunity, but finally I decided to take part of the trip,” said Brandon Johnson, 20, a sophomore, architecture major from Lauderhill, Fla., who took advantage of the chance during summer of 2017.

The trip to Pommerin, Tanzania, is supported by the Northfield Rotary Club of Vermont, an organization that serves as the student-driven volunteer coordinating hub of the university. Nicole Didomenico, director of the CCE, says the goal of the organization is to find local and international volunteer opportunities that match students personal and professional pursuits.

Norwich student working with the inhabitants of Pommerin. Photo by CCE Facebook Page

“It’s important to help other people’s succeed. In this case, we are helping a whole community succeeding. Being able to make the self-sufficient will allow them to greater opportunities in their futures,” said Patrina E. Krewson, 21, a junior Chinese major, from Farmington, N.H. “This could lead them to access and/or success in education, medicine, government.”

In collaboration with the Rotaract Club at Norwich, these trips have been organized since 2014. Prior to this past summer, the CCE visited the same location in Tanzania four times, creating a long-term bond with the local community and turning the trip into a yearly tradition.

“It was without a doubt a positive experience. I often find myself thinking of things I saw, felt, heard, or even smelled in Tanzania. I have such a warm place in my heart for Pommerin, Tanzania,” said Taylor Nash, 20, a junior and international studies major, from Northfield, Vt., who took part of the trip a couple of years ago. “People there live every single day with appreciation for the lives they have been given. The trip taught me to appreciate little things I take for granted.”

The cost of the trip, which amounts to almost $3000 dollars per individual, can be covered through International Politi Scholarship from NU, or through organized fundraisers.

“As a group, I set up a GoFundMe account where many peers, family and friends donated. Moreover, every Norwich student attending the trip received a scholarship from the university,” explained Genesis Bonilla, 22, a junior physical education major with a minor in health science, from the Bronx, N.Y.

Spending three weeks in Africa means moving from the everyday privileged life of the American society, to a place where things like safe drinking water, electricity, Internet connection, and access to education are scarce and limited.

“From what I was told about Africa in general, I pictured a poor and undeveloped country, but once I got there I was really impressed to see how developed it was, despite the lack of industrialization and technology progress compared to the one we have in the States,” Johnson said.

Students work directly with the community and members of the hosting community to help build the residential and vocational training campus for orphaned youths. While during summer of 2016, students helped to build their barn; the following summer they helped building a carpentry and craft workshop, and designing a sunflower oil production and bottling facility.

The trip offers students a chance to implement what they have been studying within their majors at Norwich.

“My mornings began with chores, such as mopping, sweeping, watering the plants, and cleaning the restrooms. If it was my turn to help with cooking, I would spend the rest of the day/ afternoon preparing meals for not only the volunteers on the trip, but also the children in the orphanage and their caretakers. If I was not on kitchen duty, we all were assigned a specific job within our major, or skill of choice,” Bonilla said.

Every single day in Tanzania is based on a team effort. Students are assigned daily to a job and a station to be, including plastering walls, cleaning the floors, building swing sets, carrying lumber, and working in the kitchen.

“My favorite days were the days I got to work in the kitchen. I’d wake up at dawn and help start the fire. From there it was a constant mission to get the next meal ready,” Nash said.

Since the very first moment they step in Africa, till the very last moment when they leave, students have the chance to live according to the rules and traditions of the village Pommerin, and to look at things from a whole different perspective.

“Every few days we would all sit out in the field and wash our laundry in these plastic tubs. The women would laugh at how weak our arms were as they rung out wet shirts with no effort,” Nash added. “Obviously, water is a limited good in Tanzania. Every four days we would get to take a bucket shower. Shower days were very special to all of us.”

Along with all the hard work, students also have the chance to enjoy leisure activities such as playing cards with the local people, telling stories, listening to music, and especially, playing with the children of the village.

“The best part of the trip was interacting with the kids. Some were always so eager and excited to see new faces. Some cried and would go running into cornfields,” Bonilla said. “There was a small girl who would run up to me and grab my hand. She did this a few times on my way to and from work. I never got her name, but I will never forget her smile and her brown eyes, or her sweaty little hands that wrapped around my single finger.”

Genesis Bonilla playing with one of the kids of the village. Photo by Genesis Bonilla

The trip to Tanzania, promoted by the University, is a very successful project according to the participants’ feedback.

“Being in Tanzania is a whole different atmosphere. Without the reliance of technology, we were able to travel back in time, and enjoy the little things,” Krewson said. “Something I was able to appreciate there, was a walk to the side of a hill to watch the sunset with a group of friends and a cup of tea. We were not checking our cell phones to see who was talking to us, or what time it was, we were simply talking to each other and living the moment.”

For the students, the trip offers a full cultural and lifestyle immersion from day one, directly interacting and living shoulder-to-shoulder with the inhabitant of Pommerin.

“It is always important to expand one’s knowledge, and I strongly believe that this project did just that. Travelling to Africa was the eye-opening experience that allowed me to feel different in a positive way,” Bonilla said. “During this trip, I was able to make lifelong friends and establish communication skills that continue to improve till this day. The knowledge, skills, experience, and relationships I assembled during this project is what made the ultimate goal to build a barn fast and exhilarating.”

Students on the trip say the connections they made, and the bonds created with the local inhabitants during the time spent learning, working, and playing together, are what most affected them.

“Meeting the people there was the best part. I did not feel like a visitor, but more like I was back to the home I have never been before,” Johnson said. “I had that much of a connection with the people in that environment, it felt like I found a new family.”

When the trip comes to an end, students leave with endless memories and experiences to share with their peers once they get back home.

Johnson, like most of the students who took part to the journey, affirmed that “the worst part was leaving,” not as much the place, as the “new family”.

“The only part I did not like about the trip is that I had to come back to America. It made me more upset to leave Africa then it did to leave home,” Bonilla said.

Others noted how the trip brought profound changes in their outlook.

“I will hold on to those memories for the rest of my life,” Nash said. “This trip taught me to look at other lifestyles and understand my own biases and preconceived notions. Everything I learned in Tanzania showed me how much I enjoy learning about other cultures, and becoming immersed in the lives of others.”

For the upcoming summer, another group of 12 students, who want to make a difference, will be offered the opportunity to undertake a three-weeks trip to Tanzania during the month of August.

“As a student who is also going on the trip again this year, I am giving my peers the advice of remember to put sunscreen on your ears, because even though it may be chilly there, you still get sunburnt, and yes, your ears do to,” Krewson said. “Do not worry if you think you will not be able to communicate, because communication is not just language. And finally, enjoy every moment of it, because you will soon learn that when you leave, just a bit of your heart will always stay there.”

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