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The Ota Initiative Blog

Volunteers and Cross-Cultural Learning

I hope everyone had a wonderful Independence Day weekend full of hotdogs, hamburgers, and a few safe, legal explosions. While we have been busy celebrating in America, our Ota team in Tanzania has been hard at work delivering another wonderful program to our students. I will send more updates soon, but let’s first take a look at our Group Leader Training Seminar and the wonderful contributions of our American volunteers.

As we have always done, Head Teacher Pontian conducted a week-long seminar prior to Ota’s start to introduce our youth group leaders to our syllabus, engage them in team-building and leadership exercises, and form a united team ready to teach our students. Many of our past Group Leaders are now living far from Kayanga to attend the 11th and 12thgrades, which are not available in Kayanga’s district, but four of them were able to return home for break and work with Ota once again. Pontian hired one new group leader from the local secondary school to fill our fifth Group Leader spot, and based on my conversations with both Pontian and this new group leader, I believe he is a wonderful new addition to the Ota team.

Four of Ota’s group leaders pose on the first day of our fourth school-break program. The leaders were ready to help run the program after attending a week-long leadership seminar run by Head Teacher Pontian and a group of Amizade volunteers from West Virginia University.

This session’s training seminar was quite different than past ones because we had new additions to the classroom – our American volunteers. If you remember from my last update, a group of 12 students from West Virginia University volunteered in Kayanga for three weeks through an Amizade Global Service-Learning program, and they spent part of their time helping to run Ota’s Group Leader Training Seminar. I have now talked with Pontian, two Group Leaders, and a few volunteers about the seminar, and based on their feedback I can confidently say that this new collaborative, cross-cultural Group Leader Training Seminar was a great success. While there are many ways in which our volunteers increased the quality of our seminar, and thus our overall program, I want to highlight four particularly important contributions they made:

1. Providing Native-English-Speaker Expertise: Ota’s parents have been asking us to add substantial English instruction since our very first program, but Pontian and I have always hesitated to focus too much on language acquisition as our teachers themselves are not native speakers. However, this issue was solved by the presence of our American volunteers, so we introduced an entire week of English instruction to our three week program. Unlike past training seminars, much of this year’s seminar focused on increasing our Group Leaders’ English skills and preparing them to teach a week-long English syllabus to Ota’s students. Not only will our students benefit from a week of English instruction, but our Group Leaders spent an entire week in an immersive English environment interacting with native English speakers. The two Group Leaders I talked with both told me that this was incredibly valuable for their own academic endeavors as they were able to improve their own English during the seminar. This is especially important in Tanzania where the language of instruction switches from Swahili in elementary school to English in secondary school, but most Tanzanian youths spend hardly anytime speaking with native-level English speakers.

2. Running a Creative Writing Workshop: While our Group Leaders have written stories every training seminar that we then read to our students during the program, they have often struggled with the idea of creative writing because that is not something that is taught in Tanzanian schools. This seminar our volunteers designed and delivered an intensive story writing workshop and worked with our Group Leaders one-on-one to help them really develop creative yet educational stories. Each American volunteer partnered with a Tanzanian Group Leader, and together each pair wrote a story in both English and Swahili that will be read to our students during the program. Not only will our students now have more engaging stories, but they will be able to hear those stories in both Swahili and English. Additionally, our Group Leaders reported that the writing workshop portion of the seminar contributed to their own writing skills in both English and Swahili.

3. Infusing New Games and Teaching Techniques: Pontian wrote this program’s syllabus, but he left some time slots free for new items to be added by our volunteers. Prior to participating in the Group Leader Training Seminar, our volunteers reviewed the syllabus and added new games and activities. Having volunteers contribute new activities from their own childhoods to Ota will be invaluable as the program becomes increasingly locally run because our teachers and students will be introduced to new creative teaching techniques that they otherwise would not have been exposed too. Pontian and our Group Leaders have spoken highly of two games in particular that have been adapted to be made educational – Freeze Tag and Duck, Duck, Goose.

4. Bringing a New Perspective: Every training seminar our Group Leaders engage in various discussions and activities exploring leadership: What is leadership? What are examples of good and bad leaders? Can someone be a good person but a bad leader? While our Group Leaders have different perspectives shaped by different personal histories, they all come from similar backgrounds. This year, however, our American volunteers participated in these discussions and brought new perspectives, while also being exposed to new ideas themselves. From talking with both Americans and Tanzanians involved in Ota’s program this year, I can say that both sides very much enjoyed these cross-cultural exchanges and the new friendships that were formed. Our volunteers and Group Leaders worked together during the training seminar, but they also met outside of Ota where they were able to exchange ideas and challenge each other’s opinions in a more causal setting. The increase in mutual respect and understanding that results from exchanges such as these is, in my opinion, the most important result of any volunteer or study abroad trip.

Our volunteers’ program ended right after the training seminar, so while they were unable to enter the Ota classroom itself, I know the effects of their volunteering will be felt throughout our three-week program this summer. As always, I am thankful to each and every one of you for your support, but I would like to particularly thank our American volunteers and their fearless faculty leaders. Thank you for studying with Amizade in Tanzania and using part of your time during this wonderful experience to volunteer with Ota. I only hope that the people of Kayanga and The Ota Initiative have touched your lives as deeply as you have touched theirs.

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