When I arrived in Tanzania, my first instinct was to pinpoint the unfamiliar. As you would expect, Tanzanian culture is incredibly different from American culture. There is no public transit system, skyscraping buildings, or flashing lights. Instead, old Toyota minibuses serve as public taxis, but with no customer-per-seat limits. One-story mud houses with roofs of crimped metal scraps line the main road. Stenciled and spray painted letters advertise Internet services, gas, alcohol, and religion. The people walk the streets with a different temperament. Their heads are held little higher, their eyes opened a little wider. But in working with the 40 students of the Umoja Empowerment Center this summer on a trip partly funded by a Juilliard Summer Grant, I grew to realize that we actually have more commonalities than differences. And if there is any way to begin to understand their culture, it is to focus on our similarities.
I traveled to Tanzania with five other Juilliard students—actors Danielle Brooks and Ryan O’Byrne, singer Chelsea Feltman, violist Hannah Ross, and dancer Rachelle Scott. Our experience began with meeting the other volunteers in our hostel. I immediately felt overwhelmed. Many of them had been there for months, and some had even sold everything they owned to volunteer indefinitely. Compassion seeped from their stories as they told us about their favorite students. And as the Umoja students greeted us on our first day, they demonstrated compassion similar to that of the volunteers we’d just met. I realized that not only does kindness transcend culture, but it’s conducive to more kindness.
We got started right away with six-hour days of arts camp. We began with an hourlong warmup that consisted of stretching, vocal exercises, group games, our Lady Gaga routine, and an elaborate version of the name game complete with personalized dance moves. The students spent the rest of the time divided into three teams—Dog, Laughing, and Awesome. Each team spent an hour in a rotation of dance, drama, and music classes. In dance we explored a lot of improvisation, including playing with the initiation of movement from different body parts. In music they listened, discussed, and created drawings representative of works by Beethoven and Shostakovich, and worked on their own vocal and viola masterpieces. In drama they played games and created skits that unveiled vulnerability and encouraged smaller scale team building.
This is the second year that Juilliard students have traveled to the center, and the Umoja students’ self-awareness grew exponentially during our residency. Their increased confidence and deepened sense of community were evident. Their extraordinary performance in our local fund-raiser also helped us to raise around $1,500 for the center (double of what we raised on this trip last year). The students went on to utilize the same tools we taught them through art in their schoolwork. Most importantly, it allowed them to stand up, alone and together, to represent themselves in a way they were proud of.
The Umoja Empowerment Center helps to shape these identities and students’ futures. The staff at the center mentors 40 students a year who have fallen through the cracks of the incredibly corrupt and unaffordable Tanzanian school system. Tuition free, the center offers courses in English, computer skills, business, vocational training, and other subjects to help get students back into school or into the workplace.
Ryan O’Byrne, a returning member of the Arusha Arts Initiative team, recalled, “When we arrived this year it was so clear to me that the work that we all did with the students last year remained a part of the center’s teaching philosophy. … The center is not only a place for empowerment and education, but also, while we are there, it becomes a breeding ground for new friendships and budding social skills.” He added, “To see them laughing and dancing with each other during lunch is just as important as any lesson plan we may provide.”
In addition to fund-raising for the trip, our team raised enough money to install Internet in the center’s computer lab. Until August, the lab only had a basic Microsoft package, Encarta software (a digital encyclopedia), and a typing program. However, the students take it upon themselves to further their education on their own time. They come to school hours early and leave hours late to do typing drills and surf the virtual encyclopedia. Umoja’s founder, Caroline Goody, told me of one student’s particular fascination with Encarta. Elias comes to Goody regularly to share his new findings. But one day he came concerned about questionable information regarding “outer space.” How was this possible—particularly in conjunction with Christianity? Was this just another Western joke, he asked, like the stories he’d read of Santa Claus and the Easter bunny? Goody assured to him the validity of both outer space and Encarta, and Elias shook his head in amused disbelief.
Another student whose dedication truly touched me was Zablon, a participant from last year who came back to visit during our residency. He floated between teams, translating lessons to students with minimal English skills and demonstrating, fearlessly, right beside us. One day at lunch Goody offered Zablon a paid position at the center. While he could use the money more than we can begin to imagine, he refused, replying, “Thank you Miss Caroline, but I am here to volunteer.” His presence alone redefined what volunteering means to me. In fact, together with all of the students we came to redefine many other words, including courage, community, and passion. And in identifying all these things that are so important to us, our differences seemed to melt away.