Cultural Immersion & Community Service in East Africa

This program is no longer offered. View more programs from Operation Groundswell.

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About

Tanzania is most commonly known for Mount Kilimanjaro, idyllic beaches, and its vast wildlife reserves. It’s home to the Serengeti, Zanzibar, and Spice Island. But there is so much more just a few steps off the beaten path. The country is a cultural mosaic home to over 100 ethnic groups, creating a unique and dynamic vibe.

Meanwhile, Rwanda offers a picturesque landscape full of beauty and culture, but also a dark history. Over two decades after the tragic 1994 genocide, Rwanda is now the safest and cleanest country in Africa. Known as one of the new tech-hubs of East Africa, Kigali’s rising towers, paved streets, moderated transport system, and shopping malls are a testament to the changing times in Rwanda.

Our journey across this vast and unique region will give us deeper insight into the struggles and opportunities that abound, will unfold different perspectives and stories about everyday life, and will connect us to the real change makers pushing for and cultivating innovation.

Highlights
  • Get an inside look at the hotbed of social innovation and entrepreneurship taking place in Tanzania’s urban areas.
  • Camp under the stars in Rwanda’s famous Akagera National Park where you’ll watch extraordinary wildlife and engage with local communities in their efforts to build a more sustainable form of tourism.
  • Run entrepreneurship and leadership workshops while getting a firsthand view of a women’s microfinance organization in rural Tanzania.
  • Work alongside the Jane Goodall Institute and community leaders working in animal and environmental conservation around Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.
  • Swim in the warm waters of the Kikuletwa hot springs while engaging with ecotourism and social enterprise in Moshi, Tanzania.

Questions & Answers

Reviews

88%
based on 8 reviews
  • Impact 7.6
  • Support 7.8
  • Fun 9.1
  • Value 7.9
  • Safety 9
Showing 1 - 8 of 8
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Kaitlyn
5/10

Loved the Countries, but not OG

Traveling to Tanzania and Rwanda was amazing! I loved experiencing the different cultures and I was also able to participate in a few unique experiences with Operation Groundswell, such as a homestay. At the homestay I stayed with a Grandma and her two grandchildren in a small village on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was very interesting to see life from their perspective and help with chores around the house. I also made many Tanzanian and Rwandan friends and during my Independent Travel Time I hiked Mount Kilimanjaro. I'm thankful for the experiences that Operation Groundswell gave me; however, there were times when I was very frustrated with the program as well.

After I was registered for the program and before I left on the trip, it seemed as if the Operation Groundswell staff could care less about me. I emailed them multiple times inquiring about the program, as it was one month after they were supposed to be sending the program itinerary. They failed to reply to all of my emails and two weeks later they sent out an email stating that the program might be canceled due to lack of participants. Only then would they reply to my emails.

During the program, most of my dissatisfaction revolved around the program leaders. I am allergic to gluten and was told before the trip that they could accommodate a gluten-free diet for me. When I got to East Africa it was clear that they had not done anything to plan for this at all. In the beginning, for breakfast I only got a small portion of eggs. At the homestay, I got a couple bananas. I talked to my program leaders and told them that this was not substantial for me. They promised to buy me something else to eat for breakfast; however, it wasn't until the fourth week of a six week program, that they actually bought me some gluten-free oats to eat, and this was after I got upset with them. I felt that they continually ignored my problems and rarely checking in to see if we were doing okay. If you are Celiac or Gluten-Free DO NOT PARTICIPATE in an Operation Groundswell program!!

The leaders also lacked communication with the entire group of participants. They would leave us sitting in a bus on the side of the road, for hours sometimes, while they went off somewhere. They didn't even tell us where they were going or what they were doing until we asked them afterwards. We were left sitting in a hot bus, in a foreign country, all by ourselves with no idea when they were coming back.

Additionally, the leaders were late for most of our engagements. They would tell us to be ready for 4pm and we would all be sitting and waiting for them until around 5pm. This happened almost every day. It was absolutely ridiculous. I felt like I was wasting my time on this program.

A few other things that made me dissatisfied with the program were as follows:
-We were supposed to be focused on animal conservation; however, we rarely did anything with animals. We mostly planted trees, which is fine too, but I would have liked to have known this before the program so that I could have chosen a program more immersive with animals.
-Many of the volunteer opportunities were going to an office and listening to employees talk. I expected to be volunteering more hands-on and at the end of the trip I felt that I barely did anything to help animals in Eastern Africa.
-Only around 50% (I can't remember the exact percentage but it was close to 50%) of the amount that you pay on OG trips goes towards your actual travel. The other 50% goes towards salaries, alumni funds, etc. I paid about $4,000 CAD for this trip and only about $2,000 went towards my actual trip! I didn't know this until the end when our leaders showed us the cost breakdown. As an accountant, I was pretty upset with this info. I would have gotten much better value for my money if I had planned out a trip for myself.
-OG makes participants on the trip participate in "learning activities." Although the message they are trying to express is good, I felt like I was back in Kindergarten again when we had to do these. They treated us like children.
-Being 26 at the time that I participated on this trip, I was older than both of the leaders and almost all of the other participants. I felt a little bit out of place and I think that the programs are designed for younger people with little to no travel experience.

Overall, I absolutely loved East Africa and would love to return there someday. Needless to say, I will not be returning there with Operation Groundswell.

How can this program be improved?
This program can be improved if OG increases their communication both with participants before they leave on their trips and with participants on the trip. I feel that the program leaders need more training in order to better adapt to the needs of participants. OG also needs to allow participants to volunteer with more hands-on activities and change their learning activities to accommodate an audience of young adults.
Response from Operation Groundswell

Hi Kaitlyn,

I'm so sorry to hear about your negative experience on program, but am glad to know how much you enjoyed Tanzania and Rwanda. Clarity and transparency are very important to us as an organization, and it seems that we did not accomplish that during your time with us.

I would like to start by apologizing for the poor communication. I expect we were waiting to respond until we had more information on your program's status, but that's not an excuse for not replying to your emails. We absolutely want to keep participants informed of what's going on every step of the way, even if it's just to answer questions and say that we'll be in touch with more information by a certain date. We are a small team, but our goal is to respond to all emails within 48 business hours, which we certainly did not do here. I'm also sorry to hear that you were emailed about the potential program cancellation. In the case that this is a concern, we always want to try and speak with each participant on the phone so they can hear from us directly, ask questions, and know exactly what's going to happen next, and it looks like we failed to provide that space.

Regarding your on-program experience, I'm sorry to hear that your program leaders were not able to better accommodate your gluten-free diet. At Operation Groundswell, we know that there are certain food sensitivities that are more difficult to accommodate in some regions rather than others, and we would not have advised you to come on an OG program in East Africa if it were a region we felt unsure of our ability to provide you sufficient and suitable food. There is no excuse for this, only that we were unaware until now that you had gone so long without being provided sufficient meal options.

With your program leaders, I suspect that this experience plays into the lack of communication, and what ultimately felt a lack of reliability on the part of your program leaders at large. It sounds like your program leaders failed to meet your, and our, expectations for leadership, professionalism, and risk management. While there is nothing we can do to change the experience you had, your feedback will help ensure we are both hiring the right people, and equipping them with the appropriate training to ensure Operation Groundswell participants are able to have the experience abroad they signed up for.

With regards to the theme of your program - this is something we struggle with every season. Finding a way to responsibly educate around animal conservation and contribute to the work being done in the field is difficult given the many pitfalls of unethical animal tourism, as well as our organizational commitment to only participating in work we are qualified to do. That said, it's a challenge we have accepted, which means we owe it to you, and to future participants, to better meet, or set, participant expectations around this particular theme. If you have suggestions on how to do this, we'd love to hear more.

We know that OG's educational style is not for everyone. We try our best to provide a variety of activities that speak to a diverse learning style, level of education/experience, and that make learning fun. We know that this can sometimes feel childish for participants, though for others it makes the learning more approachable. It is a balance, though one that may not have been the right balance for you.

Finally, we try to be as transparent as possible with our program fees. You can find a breakdown of how our fees are allocated on our website here: https://operationgroundswell.com/programs/fee-contribution/. There are certainly cheaper ways to travel, but we aim for our programs to offer more than just a travel experience. A lot of time and resources go into developing full itineraries designed in conjunction with local partners, establishing responsible relationships with local communities and organizations, building out and responding to risk management strategies, and engaging in outreach to get new team members on board, just to mention a few. If you have any concerns about our fees, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Thank you very much for joining us on program. I hope it was ultimately a rewarding and valuable trip, despite us not living up to your, or our, expectations. This sort of feedback is extremely valuable, and we will always use it to improve our training, communication, and overall experience. If there’s anything you have questions about or that you’d like to discuss further, please don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected]

All the best,
Anna

No, I don't recommend this program
Default avatar
JP
9/10

Great month of organized travel

This trip was well organized mix of community engagement, outdoor activity and social.
Everyone on the trip was great. I think the people are the biggest variables for trips like these and i had an amazing OG group and leaders. We learnt about cultures, the language and experienced a trip of a lifetime. I liked the 10 free days in the middle. I liked the homestay we did. I liked the freedom we had. 100% recommend if you want to travel but not my first choice for people who are more focused on volunteering.

How can this program be improved?
Be cheaper and more accessible to everyone.
Yes, I recommend this program
Allie
9/10

My Tanzania Social Innovation Experience

Operation Groundswell allowed me to have a unique and educational backpacking experience that differs from any volunteering overseas program I have ever heard about. The trip itself was dedicated to culture immersion while still acknowledging the privilege we have as travelers and how we impact the places we travel. I enjoyed learning from the NGOs based in Tanzania that we visited, instead of simply attempting to make a lasting impact through a one-time charitable visit. Operation Groundswell is for travelers who are contentious of their global impact and who want to make a difference in themselves instead of blindly hoping that what they do will be the difference that saves the world. It was a truly eye opening and fun experience that I think back on every day.

Yes, I recommend this program
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Claudia
8/10

My Crazy, Unforgettable Time in East Africa

My trip to East Africa was unforgettable to say the least. Let's start at the beginning, in Nairobi, Kenya. It was a bit of a culture shock at first, as Nairobi is a chaotic, bustling city. We stayed at the YMCA. I couldn't sleep for the first week because my body was adjusting to my malaria meds. This doesn't happen to everyone, but it's really important to keep taking them if it does. While in Nairobi, we visited a very cool art collaborative called PAWA254, walked through the slums of Kibera, and got thoroughly ripped off at the souvenir shops (at least I did - I recommend bargaining hard if you want to buy anything but be respectful of course). The slums of Kibera were truly eye-opening. Be prepared to have swarms of children run after you; they're very friendly! We visited Carolina for Kibera, an organization that does amazing work to provide healthcare and other services in the slums, and helped distribute sanitary pads to schoolgirls.

Next, we took a bus ride to Kimende. I should mention that most of the bus rides on this trip were extremely long and uncomfortable, but I kind of enjoyed the discomfort as part of the experience. Just try to stay mindful and positive. In Kimende, we stayed with local families and did a few activities like planting trees and weeding. The hospitality was incredible. We stayed here for a few days before taking off to Uganda!

In Kampala, Uganda, we worked with RWEYOWA to set up an HIV testing clinic. Our job was to walk around certain neighbourhoods and distribute flyers to promote our clinic. Again, people were very friendly. It was also very hot! The ground is covered in orange dust, so I recommend wearing shoes that you can wash or don't mind getting dirty. Kampala has a great nightlife, which some of us explored, but I loved that there was no pressure at all for those who didn't feel comfortable.

Next, we went rafting on the Nile! This was SO. MUCH. FUN! Highly recommend. Some people also went bungee jumping but I chickened out.

In Gulu, Uganda, we worked with United Youth Entertainment (UYE) to produce and screen a silent film. I found this leg of the trip to be quite long and slow. This is where you really start to experience a different pace of life but be patient and try to relax. The extra free time lets you do some exploring. Gulu's nightlife is also great.

Then, everyone had ten days off to do what they wanted. Three of us decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I could go on about this part forever but let's just say this was one of the most challenging and rewarding weeks of my life. It's a little pricey but 100% worth it. We finished off our trip with some camping in Kenya before heading back to Nairobi. Overall, this experience is perfect if you're looking for adventure and not afraid of feeling a little tired or outside your comfort zone at times. Our program directors made all the difference; they were always there to listen and help us adjust. Thank you, Shamira and Julius!

Since returning home, I've discussed my experience with many: friends and family (of course), job interviewers, and I even wrote about it in my (successful) applications for graduate programs at the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics. If used properly, this experience can be an asset to boost your CV. However, expect that some people will be critical. Voluntourism is controversial - for good reasons, in my opinion. But I've always felt that my experience with Operation Groundswell was not a classic voluntourism trip. We didn't go in and build a school where there was no need for a school. We partnered with local organizations on projects that were already underway, for which there was real demand. It's useful to emphasize this if faced with criticism. I would also keep in mind that this program is not the most effective way to help communities in East Africa. You should be clear that you are doing this for yourself as well as to have a social impact. With that in mind, I do think we helped!

How can this program be improved?
Perhaps there could have been more information ahead of time about our options on the 10 days off. I ended up climbing Kili with two others, but none of us had enough warm clothing. I also didn't have enough cash with me (and the ATMs weren't working for me), so I had to embarrassingly ask my parents to wire some money from my account.
Yes, I recommend this program
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Madelaine
9/10

This Is Africa!

Volunteering in East Africa through Operation Groundswell was an invigorating, eye-opening and life changing experience! Their collaboration with local NGO's allows you to truly integrate into the local culture and community while making a real positive impact. By working with these local NGO's you ensure that the projects you are working on are not only helpful and useful, but something that the community truly needs.

Our Program Leaders Shamira and Julius unified our group and allowed us to explore what it truly means to volunteer abroad. The operations team at the OG headquarters made sure everything was in order and were very helpful when it came to answering questions and concerns. Given the chance, I would take another trip with OG in a heartbeat.

How can this program be improved?
I wouldn't change anything about the program but I would want to see a more thorough break down of the extra expenses we might incur abroad as well as how the program fee breaks down.
Yes, I recommend this program
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Taylor
10/10

Amazing

I was nervous about traveling by myself to a different country, but the minute I stepped off the plane I felted welcomed and secure. I got to meet amazing people, both in the program and along our travels.

Some of my favourite experiences where meeting different groups in the region who were passionately working to create change. For example, the Young County Change Makers (YCCM) is composed of some hard working individuals who are really inspirational! They helped us settle in and were really nice. We were able to help them build a community library that brings books, education, and recreation to the youth living in Kisumu.

The play part of the trip was also wonderful. For example, biking through Hell's Gate National Park (think Lion King) and being so close to wild animals. Zebra ran right past me! I also got to climb "Pride Rock" and walk through the gorge.

Overall, this is an experience that is well worth your time and money. I wouldn't be able to express in full how awesome it is on this website. It is something you really need to experience to understand, and trust me, you'll love it!!

How can this program be improved?
The long bus rides aren't the funniest, but that's something you have to deal with when you are backpacking. In the end, it was always worth it. Anyway, little thing that might have bugged me is completely forgotten and only the good memories live on!
Yes, I recommend this program
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Saige
10/10

What backpacking should look like

This is an incredible program. They really attempt to help you understand and become part of East Africa. You stay in a variety of living conditions from camping, to a guest house, and many different kinds of hostels to show us the many way you can travel. They also provide you with the skills you need to get around despite cultural or language barrier and they teach you how to do it as cheaply as possible. I had never backpacked before this program and I felt comfortable traveling and staying by myself during our independent travel time. I never wanted to feel like I was a tourist looking at the sights while never actually seeing the country I was really in. This program provides you the opportunity to become a part of the culture while constantly changing you to ask yourself what your impact is and why your there.

How can this program be improved?
This program assigned us with host families whom we stayed with for a night and two days. I personally would have liked to stay an extra night or too. I do not think I was able to truly bond in that short amount of time.
Yes, I recommend this program
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Mike
10/10

OG is the best!

I can't express how truly life-changing a trip with OG is. My trip to East Africa was an incredible learning experience and was soooo much fun! Please please go! It's worth every penny in the world and as a student, I know the reality of being a poor student.

Yes, I recommend this program

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Operation Groundswell is all about backpacking with a purpose. With ethical travel at the crux of our philosophy, Operation Groundswell designs financially accessible programs that tell a story, addressing key challenges unique to each region and...