ICS Volunteer Diary: Lessons in Tolerance

Working on such an intense project with people from a vastly different culture was always going to be a challenge. But it was also one of the things we were all excited about. A chance to learn a new language, eat new food and experience living in a new way. That is not to say it has all been plain sailing. We have had to make many adjustments along the way.


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Kelvin and Manuela working hard on the construction site


Lost in Translation
It was inevitable that working in a bilingual environment was going to cause certain communication errors. However, it came as a surprise to all of us how big an impact subtle differences would make. When told by one of our in-country volunteers that there was an ‘emergency’ we immediately panicked, and fearing the worst set out for our ‘emergency’ meeting. ‘Emergency’ it transpired meant only ‘asap’ and nothing bad had happened. We spent a while after discussing the implications of certain, more dramatic, words.



Hannah and the pupils of Mkindo primary playing games


I can’t hear you
For the UK volunteers playing music or taking phone calls out loud or in company is generally frowned upon. In Tanzania, however, silence seems to be boring. If the noise erupting from the nearest speaker doesn’t crackle, or the bass make your body vibrate, well you’re just not doing it right. It might be something to do with competing with all the other speakers and television in the vicinity that are doing the same thing. After two months though, it seems odd, in the event of a power cut, to go to sleep without the soothing sounds of phone calls, Swahili tv and rap music.



Manuela introducing the local children to bubbles


Do talk to strangers
The Swahili phrasebook stresses that you can never spend too long on greeting in East Africa. I would rephrase this and state that you will do little else but greet people in East Africa. The conversation itself can last five full minutes during which time you have established nothing but how someone is in as many ways as there are to say it. The whole conversation will most likely be accompanied by an extended handshake. Not only do the greetings go on for days but they occur between everyone you meet. Young and old. Men and women. The shopkeepers, the street hawkers. People walking, people on bicycles. While you are reading, brushing your teeth, doing your laundry, on the phone. Morning, noon and night.


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Emily and Kelvin prep our dinner



I’m late I’m Late
As English, we are renowned for punctuality. Perhaps too much so and sometimes it is good to be a little more flexible. But the mythological ‘bongo time’ we heard so much about is a real thing. It stretches ‘flexible’ to breaking point. It is not uncommon for a Tanzanian to arrive an hour late because they needed to shower. In some of our community meeting we gave the villagers a time an hour before we planned to start and still had to wait for them to turn up. It makes a nice change to not be a slave to a clock, indeed some Tanzanians wear watches that don’t actually work, but it certainly makes scheduling difficult.
It has been an array of new experiences but in the spirit of tolerance we have not only put up with them, we have embraced them. I dread to think what will happen on returning to London when we arrive everywhere late, play music out loud and, god forbid, try to greet strangers on the tube.

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