23 October 2014

Tanzania: Giving back through photography

The final part of my 76-day gad about the world took me to a new country, to Tanzania for a 10-day adventure with The Giving Lens, an organisation that uses the medium of photographic workshops to bring volunteers and much-needed funds to local NGOs at the same time as providing their participants with photographic training and a more genuine, less touristy travel experience.

Our Giving Lens team of photographers (photo: Daniel Nahabedian)

I first got to know the folks at The Giving Lens back in 2012 when the founder, Colby Brown, brought a team of photographers to Picaflor House, the NGO I was then managing in Peru. This time, I was to experience the Giving Lens philosophy from the other side, from behind the lens of my camera and, of course, I was also hoping to learn a bit more about how to actually use my new Canon 100D. Fulfilling my long-held dream of seeing wild animals roaming free on the plains of Africa was also a huge drawcard.

In contrast to my previous volunteering, teaching English in Cambodia and in Peru, this was a somewhat different experience. Though we did spend one day teaching photography, the focus was more on using our cameras to document the work of the local NGO and their partner organisations, to provide them with images they could use for their media and websites, and, through those images and our own social media outlets, to help raise awareness and fundraise so they can continue their essential work with the underprivileged people of Tanzania.

With my two students (photo: Kate Siobhan Mulligan)
Our first day began with an introduction to Art in Tanzania, the NGO we were working with and who had organised our Tanzanian adventure. We visited their offices in Moshi, met the key staff members, had a quick lesson in basic Swahili, then moved on to visit one of their partners, the Mkombozi Vocational Training Center. We were greeted warmly by their founder, Asha Mshana, and members of her team and given a tour of the compound: dorms for some kids who live in, facilities for training the girls in sewing and knitting, and a workshop in progress training local men to be soccer coaches.

We then spent several hours full of fun and laughter giving fourteen delightful teenage girls their first introduction to photography on point-and-shoot cameras our team members donated to the NGO. We had barely any common language – the girls had a little English – but miming, pointing and smiles worked just fine, and the girls loved it. After looking at the basic workings of the cameras, we took them on a scavenger hunt – ‘take a photo of something round’, ‘of something red’, etc. It was a hoot!

Checking pronunciation (photo: Trudey Peterson)
We spent the next morning visiting Korongoni Primary, a school that is supported by Art in Tanzania. The school principal explained the chilling realties of Tanzanian education to our team: government funding is insufficient, resources limited and many families can’t afford the cost of school fees, uniforms and stationery, so AIT’s support for the school is much needed. Our task there was to document the situation so we moved from class to class, meeting the delightful children and their hard-working teachers, seeing for ourselves the grim truth of special needs education in an underdeveloped country, noting the lack of supplies and equipment. The teacher in me couldn’t help but put the camera down from time to time to check spelling and pronunciation, and the children’s smiles were a joy to see.

After relocating to the little township of Karatu that afternoon, we spent some time the following morning visiting the AC Day Care and Orphanage Center. It was set up by Angela (above left), a retired teacher who decided to use her retirement money to help the local children, and what beautiful children they were. Despite their dirty, tattered clothing and snotty noses, their smiles and need for hugs touched our hearts. 

Here again, our task was to document the plight of the orphanage and the children, to try to solicit much-needed funds to support the school and to obtain sponsorship for the children. If I wasn’t already sponsoring two children elsewhere, I would certainly have taken on one or two of these. Although I took lots of photos of the kids, I also spent quite a long time with just one or two of them. It was a special time and affected me deeply.

On the last day of our Tanzania trip, we had one more stint of volunteering. In Karatu, we visited the compound of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania to meet their team and hear about the work they do supporting local people who have AIDS or are HIV positive. I am not a fan of the methods churches use in their interactions with the locals in underdeveloped countries, offering assistance in exchange for religious conversion. And while I salute the support this church is giving to local people, I was very disappointed to learn that they were making no effort to educate their congregation about the positive effects condom use would have in preventing the spread of this disease. In fact, when I asked why the disease was so prevalent in the town, they giggled - hardly a mature attitude! I found out later that Karatu is the base for the drivers and tour guides who take tourists on safari to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, so there is a high incidence of prostitution to ‘service’ their needs.

The type of house the poor of Karatu live in
From the church compound we walked to the homes of three local families who are affected by HIV. Once again the idea was to photograph the people and to document their situation, partly to provide images for fundraising and awareness, and partly to supply the families with photographs – something we take for granted but which these people almost never have. 

Personally, I thought this photography very invasive and, although they had agreed to it, potentially overwhelming for the people involved. Also, as the families live in constant fear of their disease being discovered and thereby being ostracised, I thought the presence of a group of Western photographers was potentially damaging for them - I saw neighbours watching from behind raised curtains. For these reasons I declined to take part in this volunteering, as did some of my fellow team members for their own reasons.

It was a sad end to our volunteering experience but I don’t want to end this blog on a negative note. The plight of the children of Tanzania affected me so greatly that I intend returning in the future, hopefully in 2015, to do some voluntary English teaching with Art in Tanzania. And if any of my readers feel inclined to help, here’s a link to the donations page of their website. Every little bit helps!