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Student Voices from Tanzania

Travis Cabbell

During last spring semester, my Freshman Writing Seminar was in the African Studies department at Cornell. I enrolled in a course taught by Professor Edmondson, and during the course I started to ponder–how do I identify myself? All of my life I have identified myself as “mixed” because I have both African and Native American ancestry. However, my family doesn’t have much knowledge of our history, leaving me knowing little about the culture of my people. When I learned about the opportunity to travel to Africa through Cornell’s African Institute for Development program, I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity. I startedto think a trip to Africa might change my perception of my African roots.


My Experience

During the summer of 2015, I represented Cornell University at the nonprofit organization, JBFC. I spent six weeks living among fellow interns and residents of the Kitongo village. The JBFC mission is to help “alleviate extreme rural poverty.” They plan to tackle this problem by: providing a safe house for girls, running a private primary and secondary school and through economic development. The girls home located at JBFC features 46 amazing young women that have been sent by the government to Chris Gates (the Founder of JBFC). The girls are funded primarily by donations provided by different foundations and private donors. The girls living on the JBFC campus inspire me due to their drive to obtain an education and their passion for giving back. The girls not only tend to their studies but also complete daily chores. The girls not only are receiving a proper education, but also learn life-long skills required to survive in Tanzania such as farming, cooking, and cleaning. 

My trip to Tanzania consisted of not only bonding with the girls that lived at JBFC, but also different daily tasks. During the daytime, I occupied different roles at the school located on the campus such as teacher, cafeteria worker and IEP tutor. When the school day finished I performed different chores around the campus such as: planting different crops, disposing of campus waste, helping to prepare meals and organizing donations that were being stored. My proudest accomplishment  was having weekly reading sessions with my reading buddy, Reka. By these weekly reading sessions I gained a greater appreciation for reading and helped Reka further her reading skills.  One activity that I completed on my trip was visiting the home of a local resident and having dinner with them. The experience allowed for me to meet a native Tanzanian  family and experience an everyday meal at their home. I enjoyed not only  spending time with the host family, but also leaving the JBFC campus to see how neighboring people live.


I initially intended to help make a difference in the lives of the JBFC girls, but instead they helped me grow as a person. I had expected to come back a changed person, however instead of changing my perspective it has only matured. My trip has made me gain a greater appreciation for for all the luxuries that I encounter on a day to day basis. I could never imagine what it feels like to be  away from home at such a young age or not be able to drink the water that comes from the sink. My trip has taught me to be thankful for the American education system. During my trip I encountered so many children that are thankful they can obtain an education and want to use their knowledge to help improve their. The drive and motivation displayed at JBFC inspires me to keep fighting for my dreams.

Carmen Fang

My name is Carmen and I am a junior in Cornell University studying Mechanical Engineering. I like the idea of straightly black and white and the thinking that if it is not right, it is wrong. So I find a lot of fun doing math and physics. Some of my other likes include( I was "forced" by the girls at JBFC to give serious thoughts about all the "favorite" questions and here are my answers) color pink, mangos and strawberries, lions and horses, and most of all, traveling. I've done various service work throughout my life but I never thought I would do something like Cornell IAD and have it be such an impact on me. During my trip at JBFC Tanzania I saw the great things this organization is doing to improve the country, more things that could be done and need continuous efforts to make the life for Tanzanian better and easier, and most importantly, the strength of life. I am counting down the days until I can go back to the white rock house that I called home for the past six weeks and reunite with all the smiley faces that I already miss so much since I came back home.

My Experience and Reflections

"Oh, it is a girl orphanage in Africa that I am going to". This is what I told my family and friends before I left for mytrip. "What? Don't get Ebola!" This is what about half of them told me after they heard my summer plan. There are two mistakes in this conversation.

First, Africa is not a huge country and continent like Australia. Africa is made up of 47 unique countries and just like we divide America into the Northeast the South the Midwest and so on, based on the geographic location, different countries in Africa celebrate their differences A LOT. As a matter of fact, because Tanzania has no obvious political enemies, there isn't much tension or any urgent issue of national security. Fun fact, there has actually been fewer Tanzanian who got Ebola than American. Ebola was rampant in West African, which is on quite the opposite end of Tanzania. Being as STUPID and SUPERFICIAL as I could be, I told people I wanted to go to Africa but I never bothered to learn much about it before my trip. I thought about finally making it to Africa as another stamp I can put on my passport. Simply because after Africa, the Antarctic would be the only continent I haven't set foot on.

Second, it really is not a girl orphanage. The girls home is only part of JBFC's many contributions to Tanzanian local community. And it's a girls home/refuge because most of the 45 girls still have families. They are girls who were severely ignored or even abused at home so social work stepped in and made JBFC their new home. It was hard for me to understand how a child could be ignored, given no care or love, and abused at home, by people sharing the same blood they have. From the country where I was born, China, there is no limit how parents could spoil their children. Because of the one child policy, the only child in the family is like the only hope, only spotlight and only "kill time" for the parents and I only hear friends complaining how their parents put too much attention on them. I always believe family is something that can never change and something that I can always go back to. But apparently, it's not the same for the girls at JBFC. After learning this background of the girls, I determined to avoid the topics about family. But no. It was them who always, in between their "what's your favorite ..." questions, throw questions at me like "how many siblings do you have", "do you like your baba more than your mama" and "do you miss your parents". And after I gave them my answers, with no exception, they would have little stars shining in their eyes and tell me something like "I miss my parents", "I wish my brother could visit me more often", "I love JBFC but I also want to share this with my family". Once I made a compliment on the girl's dress. She jumped around and yelled "my mom got me this from town". A long term staff at JBFC gently shook her head. The dress was brand new and the girl's mom never visited her ever since she got to JBFC when she was 5. I was also confused by how all the kids were so into making people choose their favorites. What's your favorite color, animal, food. Who is your favorite movie star, singer, scientist. I was confused until one day I saw their English book. English is a subject offered in secondary school and the language used to teach in secondary school. In public primary schools students speak only Swahili and have no exposure to English. JBFC's primary school offers English in order to lay a stronger language foundation for the students. But still if a student is transferred from a public school or rise from public primary school to secondary school, chances are, the student hardly speaks any English. There is a module introducing how to ask people their hobbies and favorites to make friends and get to know someone in the English book. The students keep asking you questions because they want to get to know you and they want to talk in English but "favorite" is one of the only ways they know how to keep the conversation going.

When school started I tutored three secondary school students English during their breakfast and lunch break. It was a struggle for all of us. For most of the time they couldn’t fully understand what I said and they would pick out the words in the sentence that they did understand and started expanding on the words. Once I asked the girl "how far away is home from school". She caught "home" and she started her little speech about her mom, dad and sisters. The frustration in their eyes was obvious, they also knew they didn't get it right. But there is one thing they never failed to explain to me: their dreams. They wanted to be engineers, the rocket kind, teachers, to help kids who struggle like themselves, air attendances, to travel and see the world. Dreams are really a luxury for most of them though. Tanzania has a ridiculously strict national examination system. The government choses the career path for the students based on the test scores and if one fails the test he is not allowed to take it again and his education will be terminated. The national exams are written in English. Not only are there grammar mistakes everywhere, multiple choices with no right answer or more than one right answers are also not hard to spot. Even if one studies day and nights and finally passes the exam, there is no guarantee his are also not hard to spot. Even if one studies day and nights and finally passes the exam, there is no guarantee his family could afford to continue his education. Dream, for a lot of them, will forever be only a dream. They know better than us volunteers how brutal this reality is, but they never give up even on the slightest chance. They skip meals to practice speaking English with me. They do their homework on Children of Africa day. They start preparing the national exams two years in advance. They give all they can to those poorly written exams that determine their future.

It took me a really long time to put together this reflection. I saw things and I felt touched everyday but it's never easy for me articulate what they were exactly. What they do, what they say and what they think are like little rocks. They pile up and before you know, they become Kilimanjaro with strength that you can't possibly imagine. The strength goes back to something really cliché but most important. It is the strength of love. Most of them did not get much love earlier in their lives but they magically learned how to love. They love each other at the girls home like sisters, they love their parents no matter what since the parents gave them life. They love life. They manage to thrive under the immerse pressure from exams and school because they've got dreams they want to achieve. They have faith in the life that god has given them and they live everyday like it's the most important day in their life. This strength is what I take away from my 6 weeks in Tanzania and is what I hope, with my whole heart, that I can carry with me my whole life.