Why travel to the other side of the world and volunteer? Why not? I remember vividly writing an essay for university comparing the mortality and morbidity rates of women having babies in developing countries. The statistics were truly eye opening and I decided I that I needed to see how that was possible to believe it. From then on, I always knew I would volunteer in Africa one day. That day came after five years of working fulltime as a midwife in a big tertiary hospital in Melbourne.
My name is Carly and I am a registered nurse and midwife at the Mercy Hospital in Heidelberg. At age 25, I decided it was time for me to take a break from work and volunteer overseas. Deciding you want to volunteer is the easy part. Deciding which company to go with was the hard part. I spent hours researching, reading reviews, watching online webinars and comparing my different options. I am so glad I did because I found Projects Abroad.
From the minute I send off my first email (and believe me there were plenty) through to submitting my online application, I felt supported and well informed. I was set up with a personalised web page to guide me through the pre-departure information. My questions were answered before I even had time to think about them! I had information on my workplace, my host family, the emergency contact numbers, vaccination information and I had assistance to organise my travel visas.
Before I knew it, it was time to pack and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime. An adventure greater than anything I could have ever imagined. I had some donations from a company called AirBorne Aid and I packed up a suitcase full of medical supplies and knitted beanies to hand out for babies.
Arriving in Tanzania
After 48 hours of transit and five different flights, I touched down late at night at Kilimanjaro airport in Arusha, Tanzania. Arriving in a foreign country and being unable to speak any of the native language is overwhelming. I was quickly greeted by a Projects Abroad staff member that was there to transport me to my host family about an hour away in the town.
My host family stayed up late to greet me and welcome me into their house with open arms. There was Mr. and Mrs. Kway and their two grandchildren, Angel and Glory, who were aged 3 and 6. There were also two house helpers who assisted with the care of the children, preparation of meals and running of the house. The door was literally always open so there was always a constant flow of family members and friends visiting, who were all keen to meet me and make me feel welcome. I was also introduced to another volunteer who was able to help me settle in, show me around town and introduce me to the other volunteers.
The culture shock! Everyone warned me about this but it’s not until you experience it yourself you can really appreciate what it means. I didn’t have any great expectations and went into my experience with an open mind, prepared for anything that was thrown my way. The main challenges I had were the cold bucket showers, unpredictable electricity and public transport and chaos on the roads. The culture shock I experienced ended up being exactly what I loved about my experience. I want to see how different things were and it helped me appreciate how lucky I am. Cold showers became exhilarating, eating dinner by candle was exciting and catching a ‘Dala Dala’ that was packed with people, animals and furniture became my new normal.
My Midwifery placement
I was greeted the following day by a staff member from Projects Abroad who would be my supervisor. She was able to take me to my placement and introduce me to the head of the hospital. I was again welcomed with open arms and wasted no time getting involved in the care of mothers and babies.
A typical day involved waking up around 7am and having breakfast with my host family. I would then walk to my placement, which was around 15 minutes away. When I arrived at the health centre, we would attend a daily handover. I would then be involved with restocking equipment, cleaning equipment, washing bed sheets, assisting women in labour, supervising breastfeeding, preparing women for discharge, vaccinating newborn babies and weighing and measuring them if they were returning for a healthcare check.
I will never forget any of the 30 babies I helped deliver in Africa. The women there are brave and strong and support each other to help birth their babies with no intervention. I spent a lot of my days ‘catching babies’. My gloves were always on and I was ready to share in the most special time in a woman’s life. It was such an honour to be there for so many women and see the joy on their face as I placed their baby onto their chest.
The biggest shock I got was delivering two sets of unexpected twins. I thought the nurse was joking when she told me I must feel the patients stomach after each birth to check if I could feel another baby inside. I quickly realised she wasn’t joking when I turned my back for a second and when I turned around a second baby was already on its way into the world. I think I got more of a shock than the mother that her family had just doubled in a matter of seconds.
Living and working in Tanzania
Living and volunteering in Africa was exciting, unpredictable and enriching. I quickly learnt the meaning of ‘Tanzanian Flexible Time’ when I waited over two hours at a restaurant for my meal because only one restaurant at a time was able to have power! Projects Abroad organised weekly socials and it was there that I met my extended volunteer family. I met so many like-minded volunteers and they became my rock. They helped me through the challenging days and we celebrated our good days together. We went to the local markets, tried out local dishes in the cafes, went hiking, tried some local dance classes and attended language classes. There were plenty of opportunities to travel on the weekends and this is easily organised within the country once you arrive.
Volunteering teaches you to problem solve and use the limited resources you have around you. It teaches you patience, resilience and you gain confidence as you grow as a person. The local Projects Abroad staff helped to make the experience what it was for me. The 24-hour support was reassuring and having supervisors come to the placements to check how you were going was comforting.
Start and end dates of placements were flexible and there was so much opportunity to organise weekend travel with the volunteers. I met friends for life, learnt skills for life and I have memories in my mind that will stay with me for life. I was hoping to come back and tick my African volunteering box. Instead I put it back on my ‘To do’ list. I can’t wait for my next adventure with Projects Abroad!