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Memories of Zanzibar

Shanna dressed in dira with henna painting to attend Muslim wedding.

After two months volunteering overseas, Shanna reflects on her top five experiences in Tanzania.

Somehow, two months has seemed to pass in the blink of an eye and my experience with YCI in Zanzibar has come to an end. Although short, the experience was intense, euphoric, disorienting, moving and unforgettable. I have grown personally and professionally, gotten to know some interesting and inspirational new people, and had the opportunity to explore new interests and sides of myself.

Providing an appropriate summary to express such a deep experience in words is incredibly challenging. When I started to reflect on the past two months, I realized that it was really a collection of moments that made the experience so special. To try to lump and merge these moments together into a coherent whole would be to misrepresent my experience.

Therefore, as a means of counting my many blessings and opportunities over the past two months, and closing the door on this chapter, I would like to share my top five most memorable Zanzibar experiences:

1. Swahili Exercise Class

During my homestay experience, I was invited by my homestay Mama to attend early morning fitness classes with the Mwenge Exercise Club, where the Coach led us through sprints, athletic drills, calisthenics and stretches—all accompanied by enthusiastic group singing and counting in Swahili.  

The experience of moving as a pack and raising our voices together in solidarity as the sun rose gave me goose bumps every time. In addition to staying fit and improving my Swahili, I cherished the sense of community belonging I felt (particularly after earning my own honorary Mwenge t-shirt), which can be rare for a short-term international volunteer. I was also lucky to witness another side of Zanzibari culture, where public gender roles were relaxed and men and women could interact in a more informal and collegial way.  

2. Muslim Wedding

During my time in Zanzibar, I was fortunate to be invited to attend the wedding of a colleague from one of our local partner member organizations. Half of the fun was dressing for the occasion—my homestay Mama helped to outfit me in a dira (dress and scarf) with matching makeup, and also spent many hours painting red and black henna on my hands and feet.

As part of the festivities, I had the opportunity to share a meal from communal platters with the groom’s family and friends before the wedding, to dance to a traditional wedding band with the female relatives, to wait in anticipation outside the mosque with hundreds of colourfully adorned women while vows were exchanged and greet the newlyweds as they arrived at their new matrimonial home.  

3. International Women’s Day

On March 8, the students from my “Emerging Leaders” class organized an International Women’s Day event. After teaching the students for five weeks and leading them through the process of conducting their own small-scale community health needs assessment (as the first phase of a one-year project management course), we elected one male and one female student leader from the class to coordinate the students and organize training and volunteer activities until the next phase of the course starts in May.

International Women’s Day was the first event that the student leaders and class planned independently, and the result was truly inspiring. Through female-led speeches, skits, PowerPoint presentations and poems, the students demonstrated all of the skills and confidence they had gained, and revealed their community leadership potential.

4. Sunshine, Moonlight, Starry Nights         

My time in Zanzibar was punctuated by inspiring sunrises, fiery sunsets and dazzling starry nights. From watching the sunset with friends at the Africa House Hotel after a hard day of work; to seeing day break during my morning exercise class; to soaking up the sun on the Indian Ocean coastline; to chatting about religion, politics and marriage with my homestay parents under the night sky, the sun, moon and stars served as the centerpieces of my experience.

5. Chakula

The food (chakula) in Zanzibar is delicious and fresh, drawing on the multitude of spices grown on the island. Many of my most memorable moments involved enjoying a freshly homemade cup of ginger or lemongrass tea and chapatti at my homestay before heading to work; enjoying wali na kuku (rice and chicken) with my fellow volunteers at one of a handful of our choice local restaurants; sharing a candlelit meal in the evenings with my homestay family; and, going out to one of Stone Town’s excellent restaurants with friends—from Chinese to Indian, to Zanzibari delights at Forodhani Gardens.

Other memorable moments from my Zanzibar experience are too numerous to name, but range from the incredible time I spent in the classroom teaching 22 Zanzibari youth; to the chaotic pleasure of riding a crowded dala dala; to dancing to Bongo Flava and Taarab music videos with the young girls in my homestay; to enjoying African creative talent at Swahili Fashion Week and the Sauti za Busara Music Festival in Stone Town.

Overall, the experience reminded me of the importance of some simple but immensely important life lessons that I will carry forward with me from Zanzibar. Live in the moment; have a sense of humour and focus on the positive. Be open-minded and seek opportunities to learn about different ways of living and seeing the world; express appreciation and gratitude to those who support you. Put in effort to learn the local language and immerse yourself in local culture; be open-hearted, listen more than you speak, and work to make connections with people around you.

Change does not and did not happen in two months at the community level. However, in exchange for everything that Zanzibar gave to me, I hope that I at least made a small difference by serving as a “match to a flame”—with luck, I may have equipped even one local youth with the skills, confidence or hope that they needed to begin to realize their own potential for leadership and positive change.

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Shanna Sunley

Shanna Sunley holds a Masters in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). She has diverse non-profit, government and research experience in Canada, the UK and Ghana, and has visited over 30 countries. She is currently a Youth Challenge International volunteer in Zanzibar, Tanzania.

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