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Working at an Orphanage/Base of Mt. Kilimanjaro

Valerie Johnson, Director of Amani’s Childrens Home, first visited Tanzania in 1997 with a missions/service project. She graduated from Duke University, where she focused on African Studies, psychology, and Swahili. In 2001, she spent six months studying and volunteering in Mombasa, Kenya. She originally came to Moshi in July 2002 with a volunteer organization Visions In Action and now works in a leadership role at Amani, involved with staff-development, organizing the programmes of the home, and implementing fund-raising ideas. She lives a half-hour away from Amani with five other volunteers.

1) Tell us briefly about your volunteer experience at Amani. What do you do?
My volunteer experience at Amani was unusual in that I began volunteering at Amani just as the organization was getting started, and found myself in an integral management role very quickly. Now, I’ve been here for two years and am the acting Executive Director. My main role is publicity and fundraising – communicating the work that Amani does to the outside world so that my Tanzanian coworkers can be enabled to continue helping the Amani children with funds from donors who I find.

2) Before you worked at Amani, did you realize how deeply involved you would get?
No, no idea. But once you start establishing relationships with the children, and you get a picture of who they are and the kind of nightmare situations they’ve come from, it’s difficult to leave – you don’t want to.

3) What is the most difficult thing about working in Africa?
Being far away from friends and family. Having little trivial things, like checking email, getting money at the bank, or taking a hot shower, be difficult, time-consuming or impossible.

4) What is the easiest thing?
Being motivated, challenged, and having a sense of meaning. My life here is never boring. I am making a huge difference in the lives of many people, and cannot imagine anything more personally fulfilling or rewarding.

5) What is one word of advice you could give for someone moving to Africa to volunteer?
Take time to learn the language and hang out with locals – even (and perhaps especially!) when it’s awkward. You’ll learn more about the culture, the people, and yourself than you can imagine when you make time for people – sit down for ten minutes with your coworkers and ask them about their families, chat about local events with the guy who sells sodas, etc.

6) What type of skills are needed for volunteers
Any sort of professional skills that can be handed down. Accountants, mechanics, teachers, counsellors, doctors/nurses, anything that you can teach to locals and leave something behind is far more valuable than going and playing with kids or whatever. Though if you have enthusiasm and energy, you can find ways to make yourself useful once you arrive.

7) Do you have anything else to say?
Don’t sweat the small stuff – if something breaks or someone’s an hour late, you have to learn to take it in stride otherwise you’ll go crazy. Don’t get stuck in a rut – of never hanging out with locals, of never giving when someone asks you to help, of living in a microcosm of the expat world. If you want to feel at home, stay at home. If you want to learn and experience and grow and be challenged, you’ve got to put yourself out there.