KINGSTON, R.I. – June 24, 2015 – The children of Tanzania have taught Ben Upham what’s important in life: family, kindness and, above all, thriving with less.
Shoes are nice, but do we really need a dozen pairs? Just one piece of candy can be a delectable treat – maybe something saved in a pocket to share with a sibling.
For the last three years, the University of Rhode Island student has been volunteering at a village school in Tanzania to teach children who are poor or orphaned.
He’s among dozens of URI students who have participated in the program since Karie Lee Orendorff, of North Kingstown, a kinesiology lecturer, started it three years ago after she fell in love with the country during a visit.
The students will leave July 4 and spend 10 days helping 100 children, ages 3 to 12, at the Maasai Joy Children’s Centre in Arusha in the country’s Ekenywa Valley region.
They’ll teach math, reading, writing and physical education. Rote learning defines the Tanzanian style of teaching: lessons are written on a blackboard, and students memorize. The URI students bring a more interactive approach to the classroom.
The students, studying everything from kinesiology to anthropology, also immerse themselves in a culture very different from the one they’re used to. Tanzania is in East Africa and famous for Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, and the national park where Jane Goodall studied chimpanzee behavior.
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.
“The main goal of the program is to help students become global citizens,” says Orendorff. “I’ve been a traveler all my life and truly believe traveling makes you a better person. It opens your eyes. I also love it that we’re able to change 100 lives in one shot.”
Besides their compassion, students will also take over school supplies and athletic equipment, including soccer balls, backpacks, folders, math cards and chapter books. Students earn three academic credits.
Upham, who graduated from URI in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, is making his third trip to the country.
“In today’s world we seem to get caught up in things we think are important – money, a job, time,” he says. “You see how little the children in Tanzania have and how much love, excitement and joy they bring to life. It’s inspiring.”
He also appreciates the value placed on families. Parents are involved in all aspects of their youngsters’ lives – in and out of the classroom. “Everything is shared,” says Upham. “I thought that was really cool.”
The Tanzanian experience, he says, will make him a more compassionate teacher. Thanks to URI, he is certified to teach physical education or students with special needs.
“It’s an understatement to say this has been a life-changing experience,” he says. “It was more than that. It’s been amazing.”
Ally Tabaczynski, of Bridgewater, Mass., who went in 2014, says the trip also changed her life.
“These kids taught me so much more than I could ever teach them,” she says. “They taught me to appreciate the things that I have, and to be honored to be able to attend school because some kids over there are not so lucky. The kids also taught me that it’s the simplest things that can bring the brightest of smiles.”
Jamie Pratt, of Coventry, who went last year and will return this year, says she can’t wait to return.
“We brought a whole suitcase of tennis balls last year, and they went crazy having fun,” she says. “The smallest things brought pleasure. That attitude is something we should bring home.”
This year, the group raised $25,000 to help pay for the trip, which included grants, private donations and money from fundraisers. About $2,500 of that amount will be used to build a playground at the school. Students will also go on a two-day safari in the Serengeti where they hope to see lions, giraffes, elephants and – “if we’re really lucky,” leopards, says Orendorff.
Some students are going on another adventure early. Orendorff and three URI students in the program are leaving Rhode Island today, June 24 to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. The students will have a guide for the eight-day trek.
“We’re heading to Africa’s rooftop,” says Orendorff, who also climbed the mountain in 2010. “How many people get to do that in their lives? No one ever comes back the same.”
To follow the group, visit URI Teaching in Tanzania.
University of Rhode Island students volunteering at the Maasai Joy Children’s Centre in Arusha, Tanzania.
Karie Lee Orendorff, a lecturer in kinesiology at the University of Rhode Island.
Photos courtesy of Karie Lee Orendorff.