While being part of AIESEC two years ago, I helped two volunteers go to Tanzania.

I was mesmerized by the courage they showed, thinking that you have to be crazy to travel so far away and try something so different. Deep inside, I longed for the same kind of experience, but was afraid to say it out loud. For a long time, I kept a picture of a Tanzanian school as my phone wallpaper, watching the blue walls, red soil and kids dressed in uniforms every single day.

This year, the stars finally aligned and I got lucky enough to be able to work on my own volunteering project in the most amazing place, accompanied by the most amazing people. I was fortunate enough that, as my AIESEC experience came to an end, the PwC scholarship allowed me to visit the country I had dreamed of.

It’s hard to understand just how difficult the first few days after arriving in Tanzania were. The constant possibility of getting sick because of the new environment made me feel unsafe. The fact that I could not simply eat everything I wanted, but instead have to rely on very simple food made me feel homesick. Drawing a lot of attention each time I left the house just because of my skin colour made me feel followed.

However, it didn’t take long for things to take a turn for the better. Being out of my comfort zone made me become more aware. Being homesick made me appreciate what I have back home. Feeling watched made me more courageous.

When it comes to our work, one thing is clear: My Little Travelling Library was a lesson not only for the kids, but for me as well, something that I will remember for a lifetime. I learned that kids are not stupid, nor lazy, but adaptable creatures with lots of energy. All they need are the right models and the right activities to help shape them into their best selves. Tanzanian children are so authentic and simple that they bring out the best in others. Saying goodbye was heart-breaking, as I could only imagine the people they will grow up to be or the things they will accomplish.

The project I was part of focused on achieving SDG number 4, Quality Education, and I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to be part of it, as I truly believe that education is the key to a better future for any nation. Once you facilitate the development of future generations, you can be sure that a country will be in good hands for the following years.

In Tanzanian public schools, classes can have up to 100 kids. Just imagine one single teacher trying to manage 100 students at a time. What is the quality of the message they receive and what percentage of the information do the children actually retain?

It’s exactly this question that pushed us to split children into smaller groups in the My Little Travelling Library project – so that we get the chance to approach each student individually and assess his/her level, making sure that every single one of them had access to the information we were delivering during our English classes. Kids in Tanzania desperately need language training in order to move on to higher forms of education, so teaching  in groups of 10 is very helpful. As I reached the end of my stay, I was proud to observe that their vocabulary improved considerably, as did their ability to answer questions, to read and pronounce sentences.

The volunteer house we stayed at definitely earned its name as the house of hospitality. I loved the sense of community present among the volunteers, as well as their will to live like a Tanzanian. Our shared adventures made me face a lot of challenges and even our more heated discussions had their purpose, as they made me realize that each person has his/her own emotional baggage. I truly appreciate every single one of the people I’ve met, because we’ve all seen each other at our best and at our worst.

Our hosts are people I will never be able to thank enough. They taught us what it really takes to be a Tanzanian. As victims of the usual stress-filled European way of life, we were constantly reminded to calm down, to relax and enjoy life. We truly learned that it’s never really about the destination, but about the journey. We shared beautiful moments, worked together and supported each other. At the end of the day, I’ll always know for sure I have a second home in Mwanza.

It often seems that leadership is used as a buzzword when it comes to exchange experiences. I thought that after 3 years of being in AIESEC, I knew everything there was to be known about it. My experience in Tanzania, however, taught me a new lesson about leadership. Because I cared about the children, I was able to sit in front of them and constantly ask for the best, for their most intense effort. The project challenged me to become better every day and to keep the small ones engaged and interested for six weeks straight. So yes, Global Volunteer did teach me an unexpected lesson: how to lead children to a better version of themselves.

Tanzania has been so different, so diverse, so challenging that it made me different, made me accept diversity and face challenges more easily. Now, at the end of my experience, the only thing I can think of is that I don’t want to lose this. The mindset, the vibe, the kindness. I’ll go back home and hope I’ll always remain the Tanzanian Irina. The new Irina. The better Irina that left behind a slightly better Tanzania.

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