Engineers without Borders and other NGOs initiated and support a project which helps to build needed infrastructure in eastern Africa.
Everybody has their reasons to go abroad. Seeing amazing places, meeting new people, getting to know different cultures or just improving your resume may probably be some of them.
None of those reasons applies for Benjamin Gentry, though, who is a fifth year computer engineering student at UC. Benjamin went to Africa and helped to build a schoolhouse in the Tanzanian town of Burere.
The UC chapter of Engineers without Borders (EWB-UC), the Village Life Outreach Project (VLOP), the Shirati Health Education & Development organization and the village of Burere itself supported a group of UC students, including Benjamin, to make this project a success.
Benjamin stresses that you cannot talk about the VLOP without mentioning Richard Elliott, the former director.
Elliott has made many sacrifices for this project and, tells Benjamin, has been 100% dedicated to the project since taking over as project mentor in spring 2012. Benjamin even goes so far to say that the project would not have been possible without his support.
The VLOP also is the reason Benjamin wasn’t intimidated by Tanzania, a place which probably would be very exotic for most Americans.
“The first trip I was on was with VLOP. They were experienced at traveling to the area, and the project educates all the travelers on the culture and society in Eastern Africa beforehand.”
The cultural training the VLOP offers indeed is necessary. “The amount of diversity in Tanzania is astonishing. Huge differences exist between urban and rural areas, and there are people of Christian, Muslim & indigenous beliefs. People within Tanzania sometimes speak English, sometimes Swahili and sometimes colloquial languages.”
A cultural difference, which impressed Benjamin a lot, was the locals’ hospitality. Families who seem to have almost nothing still welcome their foreign guests with a meal and appreciate their community work.
Benjamin knows, however, that his experience might not be enjoyed by everybody. “Cultural differences between the village we work in and the Western world are vast, and it takes an open mind to appreciate their way of life.”
It did not prevent him from coming back. He has been to Tanzania twice so far, and both times have made lasting impressions on him. Not only were the people he met interesting, but the local environment also was astonishing. On their way to the village they saw parts of the world-famous Serengeti and as well as the Great Rift Valley.
Within the village itself, they mostly concentrated on their work. EWB-UC students designed the whole schoolhouse after the needs of the Tanzanian community and with the help of two professional mentors, Julie Cromwell and Jason Jones.
The project started in 2009 and the actual construction started three years later, only a few months after the design was approved. The group has been on four trips to Tanzania since June 2012, helping with construction and instructing the villagers how to continue their work.
Even though a lot of planning is involved and it’s a technical project, helping and volunteering is open to anyone.
Volunteers will not only get to know a different culture. For instance, there is one experience, which influences Benjamin in his perception of daily life. “Volunteering in Tanzania definitely helps you better appreciate all of the aspects of living in the US.”