Thank you, Zanzibar

This is Jerome’s story about his volunteering trip with African Impact to Zanzibar.

I have travelled quite extensively throughout my 20’s and have enjoyed a lot of the beauty the world has to offer. When I was given the opportunity to travel and volunteer with African Impact in one of the worlds most beautiful destinations, I realized that my previous travel experiences lacked one important factor – PURPOSE.

I would have never entertained the idea of volunteering in a foreign country, and I’ve never considered the benefits it provides if I didn’t take the leap into the world of volunteering. I’ve just turned the page into a new chapter in my life at the age of 30 and feel an intense shift of purpose and direction. My eyes have been opened to new perspectives and my days are filled with more rewarding outcomes.

I flew in to Abeid Amani Karume International Airport after catching a glimpse of the paradise I was about to set foot on. Islets glistening in the setting sun and wooden fishing boats lining the shores and harbour of Stone Town gave me a second wind after hours of traveling. I’m quite tall, so the seating arrangements in airplanes leave my knees pressed up against the seat in front of me. I couldn’t wait to stretch my legs and explore.

Getting through customs was a breeze and navigating the airport to the pickup zone was just as easy. I was greeted by a Zanzibari with a kind smile, holding up a plaque with my name in bold. We shook hands as he helped me load my luggage into the volunteer van and we set off to the volunteer house exchanging stories along the way as the sun set through the tall palm trees silhouetted against a deep purple backdrop.  

The volunteer house was perched in all its glory between a few coconut trees and the Jambiani beach front. Bob Marley was playing faintly in the background setting the tone of exactly how I wanted to spend my nights, listening to the crickets under the stars. Entering the house had the same energy, but there was definitely a sense of organization. Daily challenges and stats written on a black painted wall in colourful chalk displayed the purpose of all of this. I was greeted by the existing volunteers seated around the community dining table with a hot plate of delicious traditional Zanzibari food and chapati. Chapati is life 😊

Everyone was excited about the journey they have had so far and couldn’t wait to fill me in on what I could expect to do on the programs. One empty plate later, I moved upstairs into my dorm room which I shared with 2 other guys. The room was spacious and clean. I couldn’t ask for more.

I woke up to the chime of the breakfast bell and started my day on the most popular choice programs – the Teaching & Community Support in Zanzibar program. All the volunteers scurried to the bicycles laid out against the wall and started riding in a pack through the sandy roads towards a local kindergarten about a kilometer away. The smiles of the children warmed up the atmosphere as we prepared to teach our lessons.

(I’ve taught ESL in my years of traveling and have had my fair share of difficult children. I was relieved to see the respect and eagerness to learn from the children in Zanzibar.)

It was time for a much-needed tea and play time concluding in an initiative started by African Impact called ‘Brushy-Brushy’, teaching the importance of dental care and hygiene. The kids lined up with their own personal toothbrushes and simultaneously brushed their teeth and washed their hands. Although a small feat, it is an important one.

We jumped back on our bicycles and rode to an elementary school not too far away. We made bigger impacts here as the classes are prepared in advance and follows a curriculum developed in partnership with the school. The kids were surprisingly active in answering questions and completing tasks.

Lunch awaited us back at the volunteer house where everyone congregated and chatted about the events of the morning so far. A strong sense of unity and idea sharing was displayed. Even though I haven’t been in the country for more that 24 hours at this point, I felt a part of something. A short break session after lunch and we were off to the Jambiani Community Centre, built by African Impact, A massive outdoor sheltered learning facility, free for all to join. Zanzibaris come from all around the island to take advantage of the language lessons and community involvement. I really enjoyed this part, as I’ve always preferred teaching English to Adults. When the session came to an end, we hung around a little longer speaking to some of the students. I found out that some of them have learnt a great deal through this initiative and led them to becoming independent business owners. The impact was definitely felt here.

The sun was creeping slowly towards the horizon and we decided to head home in time for supper. Teaching takes a lot of energy, so a big meal was prepared with love as a thank you for our efforts. We went down to the beach to enjoy the end of the evening before returning back to the house for a well needed rest.

The next day I was woken up earlier than the teaching volunteers to join the Dolphin Research & Marine Conservation, Zanzibar volunteers on their daily adventures. A packed breakfast full of fresh fruit and proteins provided the much-needed energy for the experience I was about to have. We drove off to the Kizimkazi house where we were briefed on the goal for the day and handed our snorkeling and safety kits for our time out at sea.

You see, the issue is that there is money to be made by the local guides in offering these “swim with the dolphins” tours. We cannot stop that, but what we can do is educate the guides on how to be more ethical in approaching the dolphins so that we don’t lose them forever. It was quite evident that damage has already been done. Our guide told stories of how the dolphins used to swim right outside the bay, but have been forced out by the torrent of boats offering tourists a close up encounter. We travelled around the shoreline for about 40 minutes before witnessing boats blocking off the path of the dolphins and signaling tourists to jump on top of the travelling pod. The dolphins were in distress and dived for longer than they should, frantically trying to get away. It was very emotional.

We started recording our stats from a distance all while this went on for the next 30 minutes. One last dive and evasion by the dolphins left all the boats with no options but to return back to the bay.

I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. This is the reason we were there. To gather enough data to make a strong case to the community and government of Zanzibar, pressuring them to place stricter measures on ensuring the survival of the ecosystem.

We received a call from a fellow ethical boat of another sighting of dolphins. To not draw attention to the disappointed boats heading back to the bay, we cruised slowly through the crystal-clear waters until we met the dolphins even further out to sea. We kept a distance and put on our snorkeling gear before slowly immersing ourselves into the water alongside their travel path. The difference in behavior was noticeable. The dolphins were in a playful state, and I was paralyzed in awe because of what I had just experienced. 

The day was far from over, and the weather was perfect. We hopped back on to the boat and headed to a coral reef for another snorkeling opportunity. Evidence of human damage was in plain sight, but there is hope of recovery if the local community is willing to take the necessary steps and change their way of interacting with the ecosystems. I didn’t want to get out of the water. But lunch was calling so we boated up to sand bar that only emerges during low tide. We ate our lunch with the best panoramic view of Zanzibar’s waters and discussed the impact of us being there. The tide was coming in, forcing us off the sand bar on to our boats for the final journey home.

I got off the boat back in the bay with a sense of pride knowing that I played a part in striving for change. I will never forget my experience on the program, and I can’t wait to do it again.

I spent the next week joining in on the education and dolphin programs, learning something about myself along the way. I’ve made new friends and memories to last a lifetime.

Zanzibar has much more to offer too. On the weekend I decided to take a trip up to Stone Town and enjoy the many sights it has to offer. The winding narrow alleyways filled with marketspaces and curio shops had me wanting to explore the whole town on foot. Delicious coffee and Zanzibari food scent the air while I admired the Arabian and Indian styled architecture.  If I return, I’ll be sure to spend more time there.

I had the most incredibly fulfilling trip and was sad to leave. I know I will return one day, hopefully to better circumstances brought on by all the volunteers’ efforts.

Until then,
Thank you, Zanzibar.

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