Alumni Spotlight: Laurie Mackechnie

Laurie Mackechnie is from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada and works as an elementary school teacher during the school year and spends the summers travelling and volunteering. She has been on this planet for 42 years and is still figuring things out! All of her experiences come together to make her the person she is today and every time she travels to a new place she comes away with more than she could have ever given.

Laurie and her GHTA students

Why did you decide to volunteer abroad with Give a Heart to Africa?

Laurie: As long as I can remember I wanted to travel to Africa. On every “Goals, Dreams or Things I want to Do” list it was one of the few constants that never changed. Finally, I came to a point in my life where I had both the time and resources to pursue that dream.

I had always known that I was not looking for a “tourist” experience and that volunteering was my driving force. I spent months reading reviews, looking through websites and reaching out to people about volunteer opportunities and I quickly became discouraged.

The more I read, the more I wondered if there was such a thing as the right opportunity or organization. Articles about the positive and negative effects of “voluntourism” made me question my motivation, the high monetary cost of volunteering with some groups made me wonder how much of my money really made it to the people who needed it most and it felt like every time I found an organization that might look good, I would find multiple reviews from users that quickly changed my mind.

Then, one day I happened to type in some new search terms and Give a Heart to Africa (GHTA) came up. I knew nothing about Tanzania or the organization, but their website looked very promising. There were several things that struck me right away about GHTA; their structure, it was entirely run by volunteers; their goal, to empower women through education; and the fact that you had the chance to work and live within the community they served.

After looking at some reviews online and reading the article written about GHTA in Marie Claire I decided to reach out and inquire. I talked with the founder, Monika, on the phone and I knew I had found the right opportunity. As I look back now, after returning for a second time to volunteer, I can say from experience that I chose to go back because they are a grassroots organization that directly impacts the lives of Tanzanians, that the money I put towards the organization goes directly to the education and care of the students and that I feel as though I was able to make an impact.

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

Fun with the neighborhood kids

Laurie: My days were full as a volunteer, but never too full to enjoy the experience. From Monday to Thursday I would teach English in the mornings (9 a.m. until noon). In order to be ready for the lessons I would work on planning activities either in the early morning, afternoons or evenings after supper. Planning could take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour depending on what was happening in class.

On Fridays we would go to visit either 1 or 2 students in their homes. These were some of my favorite days because we got to know the students better and spend time with them in their homes.

Two afternoons a week we hosted local neighborhood children at the school. We played games, made crafts and did some crazy science experiments. During the other two afternoons I sometimes offered tutoring help to students, but otherwise those afternoons were free. There were often walks into town during the week to pick up breakfast and lunch groceries (with a stop for a coffee/cafe latte, dessert treat or a glass of wine.)

There is some great shopping in Moshi and I spent some time finding souvenirs to take home. I had batik painting lessons and visited the homes of teachers or other friends of GHTA. There is a hotel close by where we could swim in the outdoor pool; it was a nice oasis away from the everyday.

On Friday nights we often went out to one of the local bars to dance for a bit and the weekends held all kinds of possibilities! In fact, of the 9 weekends I spent in Tanzania at GHTA I think I only had one day that I didn’t have anything planned and didn’t go anywhere!

The weekends were mine to do with as I pleased and most often we planned together as volunteers what we wanted to do or see. There were trips to Zanizbar, safaris, camping, bus rides to Arusha, cultural trips to Maasai villages and general exploring of the countryside. Of course there were also the less exciting day to day things laundry by hand!

What was the best moment of the entire trip?

Laurie: One of the best moments of my trip was working with the students to create dual language books. I had this idea that they would be very simple books – an English sentence about them on one page and a Swahili sentence about them on the other page and a picture on each page. I thought this project would be a great way for the students to use their English skills in real ways.

Upon explaining and assigning the project the students left for the weekend. When they returned on Monday I was stunned. Many had returned with full page stories written in Swahili and parts or all of it written in English. They had spent the weekend either creating or retelling beautiful stories with a message and some had even started creating their book, folding pages together and sketching amazing works of art.

I was so proud of the work they had done and was blown away by the talent. The project grew bigger than the time I had to be there to teach, but the students continued working on their books after I left and finished them before their schooling ended. I loved that this project gave the students an opportunity to express themselves in a different way.

A few of the hundred other best moments on my trip....

  • The first time I walked to Moshi and made on my own without getting lost
  • Student visits – sharing food, laughter and experiences
  • Visiting Edward’s Maasai village (Edward is one of the guards at the school and a former student. He also does tours and shares his love of his country with tourists and volunteers)
  • Trying goat cooked over a fire all day and picking which part we wanted!
  • Seeing elephants, lions and all kinds of other animals outside of cages
  • Cooking chapatti and pilau and sharing in Iftar (the breaking of the fast in the evening during Ramadan
  • Watching the faces of the neighbourhood kids when we made exploding volcanoes with vinegar, baking soda and red food coloring

Do you feel like you made a significant impact on the local community? Why or why not?

The students created dual language books

Laurie : There is a story about a girl who comes across hundreds of starfish stranded on the sand. She is walking along and picking them up one at a time when a man stops to ask her why she bothers, she cannot possible save them all. She replies to his query, picking up a starfish and throwing it back in, but I can save this one.

I feel like my volunteering had an impact on the students at GHTA. Without volunteers like me, this program cannot work, as it is driven 100% by volunteers. As a volunteer I bring with me my knowledge, skills and experiences which I share with the students, teachers and other people I meet.

I feel as though it might be presumptuous of me to say I made a significant impact on the local community, but I definitely feel that through the work I did there I helped empower local women by teaching them skills they can use to improve the quality of their lives.

Tell me about one person you met.

Laurie : Fatihia – the Tanzanian English translator. Fatihia is a former student of GHTA and the current Tanzanian English teacher/translator at GHTA. Fatihia and I worked together every day. She translated from English to Swahili and helped me translate from Swahili to English.

As a Canadian teacher, my teaching style is very different from that of the traditional teaching styles of Tanzania. At first I wondered if we might clash, but Fatihia was very open to talking about why I did things differently. As she and I spent more time together I could see her grow in her own teaching practice and always felt that she cared deeply about the students.

She was always very grateful to have volunteers at GHTA and has invited me and other volunteers more than once to share meals in her home. She is a strong woman who has worked hard to make a good life for her family and I continue to stay in touch with her.