Painting Walls Of A Dining Hall - My Family Travels
My Tanzania friend.
Tanzania school group.

There is a difference between a vacation and a trip.  A vacation often involves actions such as sipping or lounging.  Trips are a little more heavy-duty–sightseeing, discovering.  Both can be highly enjoyable. In February 2011, I realized my favorite genre of travel — the service trip. 

Service trips had always seemed intriguing, yet far out of my reach.  When I moved into the American School of The Hague last fall, discussions were already in full swing about the upcoming service trip to Moshi, Tanzania.  It sounded incredible, but the chances of being selected to participate were slim.  I gave it a shot.  Five monthes, 4 fundraisers and 3 booster shots later, I was on a plane with 25 classmates to Tanzania.

Quarter Finalist 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship

I was prepared physically for the work we would be doing — we were whitewashing and painting several classrooms and a dining hall of a local elementary school.  Sunscreen, working gloves, mosquito nets and malarone had all been packed, and were getting very good use (especially the mosquito net!).  What I never saw coming was the emotional side of service.  As our bus pulled up to the school the first morning, we were surrounded by hordes of excited children, all wanting to hold our hands, to touch our hair.  A bobby pin, blonde hair, a pair of glasses; everything was amazing.  One small boy, about 5 years old approached me with a shy smile and lifted his arms up to be held.  As soon as I lifted him, his smile grew from ear to ear and he wrapped his arms around my neck.  “Rafiki,” he said, pointing at me.  I was reminded of The Lion King.  “What does rafiki mean?”  I questioned a Tanzanian teacher. She smiled.  “It means friend.”  

By the third day of sanding walls and painting windows, it was becoming difficult to keep the purpose in mind.  The work was repetitive, and the sun, scorching.  That afternoon, I recieved a reminder of who the trip was really for.  It was the hottest part of the day, and the students looked boiling in their mandatory full-length uniforms.  The kids lined up patiently across the dusty courtyard of the school, waiting for their lunch.  We too headed into a shady classroom for a lunch that we considered plain–sandwiches and a simple salad, specially prepared for us by the women at the school.  As I passed the front of the children’s lunch line, I peeked into their bowls and was shocked to see no more than half a cup of what looked like plain oatmeal in each child’s bowl.  That was all they would be having for lunch, and they would be eating it in the blistering heat, on rocks or in the dust.  Looking into the kid’s faces, I saw no hints of self-pity or gloom, only cheerfulness and friendly faces.  I could only imagine their joy at having a dining hall to eat in.  I ate my lunch quickly and gratefully, determinded to get back to work on their dining hall.

The hardest goodbyes are to children.  Five-year old Amir, my new rafiki, blew me kisses as our bus pulled away.  He waved and chased the bus with his friends, a little confused at the tears on my face.  I awkwardly tried to smile while crying, something that never really works out.  The dust from the road blew up in a cloud, and we were gone.

A successful service trip changes your perceptions.  Of the world, its people and, most of all, yourself.

Thanks for reading!  All information about the program, places I stayed…etc can be found at

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