KINGSTON, R.I. – Aug 24, 2015 – Bubbles are a staple of a kid’s life in America, but in Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world, they are rare.
That all changed when University of Rhode Island students came to town.
One glorious day this summer, a remote village in the East African country hosted a Bubblefest, thanks to URI students on a 10-day trip to teach children who are poor or orphaned.
The bubbles were a hit, as well as the books (“Froggie Gets Dressed”), the markers, the pencils, the paper, the soccer balls, the singing, the dancing, the kisses and the hugs.
Charles Starkey, a senior from Long Island, is ready to go back next year.
“Africa changed my life,” he says. “It was a pretty powerful experience.”
URI kinesiology lecturer Karie Lee Orendorff, of North Kingstown, created the trip three years ago after falling in love with the country during a visit. She is a world traveler who likes going to places off-the-beaten path, and that’s certainly Tanzania.
The country is famous for Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, and the national park where Jane Goodall studied chimpanzee behavior.
Sixteen URI students, some going abroad for the first time, taught math, reading, writing and physical education at the Maasai Joy Children’s Centre in Arusha in the country’s Ekenywa Valley region.
The Maasai are an indigenous African ethnic group of semi-nomadic herdsmen. They speak Maa, part of the Nilo-Saharan language, and are taught in Swahili and English. Many of the families are poor, at least by American standards. They live in huts made from cow dung, mud and straw, and cook in holes dug in the ground.
The students left July 4, flying seven hours to Amsterdam, then another eight hours to Tanzania. For the first five days, they volunteered at the school, quickly bonding with the children, ages 3 to 12.
At first, Starkey was nervous, facing a room of unfamiliar faces. But the children were so friendly and kind, he adjusted in no time. “They loved having us there,” he says.
Besides teaching lessons, the URI students also built a playground and two classrooms – a much-needed addition since some classes were held in chicken coops with cardboard walls.
The landscape was stunning: mountains, fields of sunflowers, winding roads. People walked everywhere; cars were scarce. Starkey turned his cell phone off in Amsterdam, with no regrets.
“No pressure, no worries,” he says.
Three URI students left early with Orendorff to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, including Jessica Sexton, of Westerly, a senior who, like Starkey, is majoring in kinesiology. It was her first time climbing a mountain.
The climb to 19,341 feet took six days. At times, she didn’t think she’d make it. The altitude gave her an awful migraine, and the steep slope in certain places was terrifying.
“But I did it,” she says. “Once I got to the top, I said, ‘Wow, I did this. Now I can accomplish anything.’ ”
Sexton, Starkey and the other students also went on a two-day safari in the Serengeti where they saw lions, giraffes, elephants, zebras and cheetahs. A lion even brushed up against Starkey’s tent at night.
“I never felt like I was in danger,” he says. “It was an amazing experience.”
They took a few selfies, with lions in the background. On the final night, they ate by candlelight outside their tents, comforted by a cool breeze.
And they learned a few words in Swahili: jambo, or hello; asante, or thank you; and pole pole, or slowly slowly, which Jessica heard a lot from the guides helping her get to Africa’s rooftop.
Tanzania, the students say, will make them more compassionate physical education teachers. The trip also gave them a greater appreciation for what they have in America.
“Now I want to help people who don’t have as much,” says Starkey. “It’s a good feeling. Everyone wants to go to Europe. I want to see the kids again. I want to go back to Africa.”
University of Rhode Island student Charles Starkey volunteering at the Maasai Joy Children’s Centre in Arusha, Tanzania.
Second from left, Karie Lee Orendorff, a lecturer in kinesiology at the University of Rhode Island, and URI students Ryan Kluk, Ben Crafts Upham and Jessica Sexton atop Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Children in Tanzania play with bubbles brought over by URI students.
Photos courtesy of Karie Lee Orendorff