First impressions of Tanzania
Being on a gap year I wanted to experience not only dentistry in a different setting but also immerse myself in a different culture as well. I felt volunteering with Projects Abroad was a great platform to allow me to mature, learn key skills and knowledge about dentistry but also to gain an appreciation about how important it is.
That said, I didn’t come without initially being nervous and scared. It was the first time I was travelling to a foreign country by myself and had no idea what to expect, however, as soon as I arrived my nerves disappeared as I realised I was in the safe hands of the Projects Abroad staff, my host family and fellow volunteers.
My host family were very welcoming and kind and my host house (what me and my roommates called paradise) was a beautiful spacious bungalow set up in the hills with an amazing view the city below. My roommates were very friendly and to this day are still very good friends. They were also a great help with discovering the area and getting used to the local transport (trust me you will never forget your first ride in a Tanzanian bus “DalaDala” or a Rickshaw “Bajaj”).
My Dental Placement
During my first day on my dental placement I was introduced to the dental team I would be working with, they were extremely helpful and friendly to me and made me feel part of their team. Being the first dental volunteer for the Dar program I was excited to see what I would experience and also what I could relay back to Projects Abroad for future prospective volunteers.
It was also a great opportunity to meet the medical volunteers as well and what was even more special was meeting people from different countries, learning about their different cultures as well as making some truly great lifelong friends. During my time at my placement, I was always asked by some of the volunteers there “Why did you choose to pursue dentistry?” mainly due to the majority of the volunteers doing medicine or nursing. My answer would always be I preferred it to the other healthcare professions, because I felt I would be most suited to dentistry and that it was a really fun but very important career as well. As the days went on my placement had reinforced my decision even further.
It was great to be able to assist the dental team with procedures and also learn a great deal about dentistry in general as well as see some of the uncommon and complex cases faced here in Tanzania, such as abscesses and oral cancer. I was also fortunate enough to visit a dental school in a nearby district and see some of the specialist dentistry wards, such as paediatric dentistry, oral and maxillofacial surgery and periodontics.
My placement also gave me insight into how important dentistry is and what the consequences would be if no treatment or instruments were available. Such cases included, massive abscesses invading facial cavities, no teeth left, oral cancer and many more complications. Unfortunately the dental clinics I was working in were very poorly equipped (no headpieces, poor sterilisation, no suction, non-functioning dental chairs etc.) and cramped having three dental chairs in one small room. This meant there was little the dentists there could do for patients sometimes, especially if the patient couldn’t afford treatment or the instruments/materials were not available.Sometimes a typical day would be witnessing only extractions which saddened me to think that dental department was the most neglected of the hospital and the patients suffered and lost their teeth because of it.
This got me thinking about how I could help, so I sent a pledge to my friends and family back home and raised some money toward helping re-equipping the dental department with some basic instruments. It was a great feeling helping people who really needed it and made me appreciate how lucky we are and how good dentistry is back at home. It was also great to see that many of the volunteers had done the same for the various medical departments in the hospital and seeing the changes new equipment and resources made straight away.
How I spent my free time
Life in Dar was certainly a lot more relaxed (except the hectic roads!) than it is back home in London, sometimes after work me and some of the other volunteers would go chill at the beach or the local mall and watch a movie. Every other week there was a social event which was great to meet the other volunteers from the other programs, my favourite would probably be the beach volley ball event, even though I was pretty bad at the sport!
Over the weekends the majority of us would usually laze at the beach but sometimes we did more adventurous things; my highlights being a bike tour around the hidden villages of Dar and visiting one of the secluded islands off the coast.
Projects Abroad Events
There were two other opportunities Projects Abroad organised for the volunteers, being the medical outreach and “Dirty Days” which included orphanage refurbishment. I was lucky enough to do two medical outreach placements during my time there, which involved us visiting orphanages, and conducting basic check-ups, HIV and malaria tests with the aid of some of the qualified volunteers and staff from the hospital. Luckily all the children we tested had no HIV or malaria and it was great fun entertaining and playing with them as well. The dirty days were also great messy fun, especially seeing the smile on children’s faces when they saw their newly painted rooms or freshly planted vegetable patch after a hard day of work.
The Value of Volunteering
Overall this unforgettable experience has been one the best things that has happened in my life, I would definitely recommend to anyone to volunteer in Tanzania because you will have an amazing time; the country is rich with culture and natural beauty and is an excellent place to volunteer for healthcare.
I have met some great friends, learnt a lot about Tanzanian culture and now have a very different outlook on life. Also as a pre-dental student I would definitely recommend this placement to prospective dental students as this has helped me gain admission into the university of my choice to study dentistry as well as providing me with invaluable knowledge and experience; all of which will help me develop personally and professionally in the future.