| May 11, 2016 |
Going on a mission trip can be incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. My heart is filled with gratitude for my immense growth as a clinician and individual during my time in Tanzania. Everyone wants to know there’s hope, and enlightening the staff and families who care for the children at Step by Step Learning Centre (SSLC) was powerful. The genuine nature of the people we worked with was a blessing, as there are certainly voluntourism disasters in the world. I did not once feel I was overstepping boundaries or unwelcome. In fact, I felt nothing but love. I left Tanzania with renewed appreciation for resources in the United States and belief in the undeniable power of physical therapy.
After the success of my first mission trip, I would like to share some advice to apply to the learning process. Preparing for a mission trip is a spiritual, emotional, and involved process. Because my heart was committed to making the most of this experience, I am bursting with wisdom to share.
Build a cultural competency backdrop.
One of the most important things our entire group learned was the importance of understanding where our patients and organizations were coming from. On our first day, we discussed disability in Tanzania in-depth. We sought to understand, then teach. This was particularly important in a group volunteering at a center for young mothers who have suffered addictions or abuse. The volunteer group aimed to provide education on safe sex, but first needed a clear context. Though they were uncomfortable conversations to have (asking questions about condom availability in stores, and cultural beliefs around sexual interactions), uncovering these truths was necessary. Without this information, the group would have blindly made recommendations that may not be applicable to their patients.
‘Nuff said, eh? Being open allows for endless possibilities.
Any little bit helps, so start simple and build on it. Let your pupils (whether it be a group of children, adults, or entire community) guide you and teach you. Let them ask you questions, and try not to give too much information all at once. Make sure it’s all being absorbed, too!
Ask questions (a lot).
Ask about the culture, mission objectives, patients, birth/medical history – anything and everything! The group we worked with was open about all aspects of SSLC and culture in Tanzania. During chai (tea) time and lunch, we discussed the traditions of various tribes. Though the staff did not have extensive birth/medical history for each of the children (it’s widely unknown regardless, as doctor/hospital visits are limited), they informed us as much as possible. We asked about specific goals and the roles of each child at home, school, and the community at large.
Use a skill set you have.
I felt like I was well equipped for this journey. With almost two years in the field of physical therapy, and experience in pediatrics, I was prepared to share my gift with the people of Tanzania. It was also advantageous to oversee the student physical therapists, as they did not yet have experience in pediatrics (yet, they were ready/willing to learn, and had a basic skill set to make them incredibly successful). I’ve read blogs and articles of individuals who have traveled on a mission trip without the necessary skills for the tasks at head. One horror story I read was a group of people aiming to build a school. Since the volunteers were not well educated in construction, locals spent every night breaking down and rebuilding the volunteer’s work. The locals did it in a way to prevent hurting the feelings of the volunteers, but once it was found out, the volunteers were crushed… I hope this doesn’t happen often!
Do research beforehand.
If there’s a site for the volunteer assignment and/or organizing group, make sure to read as much as possible. Though I did not play a role in organizing this trip, I communicated via email with the Edutours staff beforehand with questions regarding available equipment at the center, and what would be needed. We were recommended to bring rehabilitation equipment (something I would have liked to better coordinate with other practitioners). In the future, I would like to play a more integral role with the organization of the trip, as there were certainly resources and supplies I would have liked to bring (i.e. Therabands, positioning devices such as head supports/pool noodles, balancing equipment, and other toys).
My group provided written summaries of all the information we shared and took videos throughout evaluation/treatment sessions. Sharing this with SSLC allowed for a reference tool when the staff required refreshment of everything we taught and discussed.
Bring something to share.
The kids really appreciated our group bringing American chocolates, sticker books, and other donations (smaller toys). It was a wonderful bonding experience to share a piece of our culture after they had let us into their homes so graciously. The kids couldn’t get enough of the stickers, and each had about 5 on their faces… it was adorable to say the least!
Be ready to improvise.
We definitely did not have a plethora of resources to provide physical therapy interventions, but we were still overwhelmingly successful. I realized we were able to make something out NOTHING. For example, we took the cardboard covers off our lunch trays to use as visual stepping stone cues in stair training, jumping, and walking. We had ONE physioball, cardboard boxes, couch cushions, and one large blanket… and somehow this was more than enough. In the USA, we are used to needing “state of the art” equipment – all the NEW and IMPROVED gizmos and gadgets. But, what happens when you DON’T have any of that? What happens when it’s just YOU and your patient? No body weight supported treadmill system, biofeedback unit, cold laser… No therabands, weights, high/low plinth massage tables… Nothing we learned to utilize in school. I do not feel this should not change the quality of care, and I realized my knowledge and skills was enough. I didn’t need the fancy schmancy rehabilitation equipment to provide superior care. Which brings me to…
Realize YOU are enough.
This is my favorite pearl of wisdom. Knowledge is power, without a doubt. We saw the power of physical therapy in action through various small miracles. Before traveling on this Mission Trip, I was fearful I wouldn’t be able to provide enough and I would feel dissatisfied with the results. The smiles of the children, expanded knowledge of the staff, and gratitude from the families proved me wrong. All they needed was ME, my passion, and my knowledge.
I eventually realized my fear of failure would interfere with my presence on this mission trip. I needed to stay in the moment, and trust I would be successful. This became easier as we got to know the SSLC staff and students, but I brought my positive energy and love to every minute of every day. I was entirely present, and entirely faithful.
I did not once feel ethnocentrism. I do NOT believe western culture is superior to the culture I experienced in Tanzania. Though I was slightly saddened by the lack of early intervention and rehabilitation resources, I recognized I could not change an entire culture’s belief systems. I did not see myself as superior because of my knowledge, nor did I feel the way we do it in the USA is better. Rather, I saw everyone I interacted with as my equal because we are all one. We are different, but we are all part of the same universe and deserve equal love. I removed all bias and stayed true to this truth in order to better serve the community.
Take too many photos.
Although we eventually connected enough with the kids to take some selfies (they loved it), I did not find it appropriate to take many photos during volunteer hours, and did not even take out my Canon T3 during our days with SSLC. The few videos and photos I have are enough, as the feeling in my heart and memory of the children can never dissipate.
Share photos on social media.
As you can see, I haven’t posted many photos from my volunteer experience. Explicit permission from the organizations is rightfully required for any photo to be shared on social media. Even though we were in a different country, we were still interacting with ‘patients,’ and I feel it would be a violation of privacy to share too many photos. So, I’m sorry to disappoint if you were hoping for more images!
Reflect heavily while in the process.
When traveling to less fortunate countries, it’s easy to be affected by the striking differences between cultures and lifestyle. I tried not to be emotionally affected by the harsh reality of certain situations, as this would overshadow my mission and blur my ability to think clearly. When I learned one of the children was showing up to school with mashed bananas or rice for lunch every day and he came from city slums (where $1/day pay is not uncommon), my heart dropped. Yet, I thought no less of this boy’s potential and was faithful I would be able to change his life – no matter how subtly. As a feeler who wears my heart on my sleeve, I was able to contain most of my emotions during volunteering. It wasn’t until the last day where we met the families of the children that I could no longer contain my emotions. I stood in front of the children, parents, and teachers to speak my gratitude and appreciation for the experience. I had felt so welcomed, and was humbled by the open-hearted and open-minded staff and families. I got five words of gratitude out before I had to stop speaking, feeling a wave of emotions flooding my heart and leaping into a lump in my throat. I thought about how I was not ready to leave Tanzania, but felt in my heart that I had actually made a difference. Somehow, that felt like enough (for now).
Think it begins and ends with you.
By teaching one group of people and influencing the way they think, act, or live, a butterfly effect begins. This small group then shares with their families, friends, and colleagues, and there is a wildfire spread of knowledge. In the case of SSLC, I don’t imagine this will happen rapidly, but it will slowly seep into Tanzanian culture. By starting with a small group of people, we sparked a movement of greater change. Because of the fiery passion of this group, I know they will go on to teach all successors and the community at large. Public schools in the area have begun requesting information to adapt the classrooms for children with special needs. This is revolutionary in Tanzania, and I can’t wait to see how much it will continue to grow.
One of the most important things we learned from the Edutours Africa staff is the tendency to overpromise. We were warned not to discuss plans to return home and fundraise (even if it was our intention), or send supplies. We also were warned the foreigners sometimes attach feelings of ‘refuge’ with volunteers – believing we may save them from their country, and take them back to the United States. We also made the decision NOT to share personal email addresses with the populations we served, as this may lead to disappointments down the line. We will connect through the volunteer project operators in the future… or simply return for more service!
I have no doubt I will return to Africa to continue giving and sharing my gift. Though I am fulfilled with the results of this particular Mission Trip, there is still more to be done!