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Volunteering in Tanzania

A mother, Amina Suleiman (IASE member), Marg Csapo (IASE VSP chair), IASE volunteer Meghan Gallagher and the student's brother watch as a he learns to play a bean bag game.

By Meghan Gallagher

What do you get when you quit your job, move to a different continent, leave your boyfriend, family, and friends, and use up all your savings to get there?? A fabulous opportunity to volunteer and make a difference in other people’s lives, a time for self-reflection, a chance to meet new people and travel, and numerous other positive experiences that you will remember for the rest of your life- and not to mention, fabulous pictures! Welcome to my journey from Virginia, USA, to Zanzibar, Tanzania! My name is Meghan and I have had the great pleasure of representing IASE in Stone Town, Zanzibar, at the Occupational Therapy Clinic in the Mnazi Moja Hospital. IASE members can volunteer at this site. I have been here for almost two months working on starting an early intervention and educational center for those who attend the OT clinic. I have a Master’s Degree in Special Education and have been a teacher in Virginia, United States, for four years. This opportunity has been a different, new, and exciting challenge. While I enjoyed my teaching jobs in the United States, I can’t say I miss the traffic and noise of traveling to and from work in Virginia, especially since I now get to walk to and from work along the Indian Ocean and the rooms at the hospital overlook the ocean as well! I have been blessed with this opportunity as it has been my childhood dream to teach in Africa.

The OT clinic is a department that consists of two rooms. One room is used for OT, while I have transformed the other into a classroom. This transformation has been made possible through many donations (books and school supplies) from the school (Belle View Elementary) where I taught in Virginia, many trips to different thrift stores in Virginia to buy books and toys, donations of toys and teaching supplies from KenCrest (, a donation of a new set of Brigance Early Intervention Assessments from Curriculum Associates (, and the generous donations from the IASE GIVING fund. When I first arrived here in early November, there was only a whiteboard and computer paper. I worked for many weeks on the floor with the children with just the supplies and donations I was able to bring from the US. Thanks to the IASE GIVING fund, the room now consists of a small table and chairs for the children, two spacious cabinets for supplies, containers for storage, a laptop computer, and other educational supplies. With all of the donations, especially those from the IASE GIVING fund, I now feel that I have an actual classroom that is functional and promotes a positive learning environment for the children here.

I have worked with children as young as two, to adults as old as 24. Within this wide range of ages, there are also a multitude of abilities and a variety of diagnoses. Even in the small amount of time I have been here, there have been plenty of success stories. I will share two short stories with you. The first is about an almost three year-old child named Ali. The first couple of times he came to me, he cried and did not want to attempt any “work”. In the last three weeks he has completely transformed and has worked without giving up.

He and his family are very excited about his progress, as am I! The second story is about an 18 year-old named Yussuf. The first time he came to see me, I asked if he knew how to read and he said he did not. However, he did know the alphabet and the letter sounds. With that, I had him working on three-letter short vowel words. He did a very good job and worked hard. I worked one-on-one with him for about three hours and by the end he had read a children’s story that consisted of short vowel words. Even when he came to difficult or new words, he took his time and sounded them out himself. I was so proud of him and he was happy and proud of himself. He has blossomed in the short amount of time I have worked with him and continues to improve. Even though he does not speak English (and my knowledge of Swahili is limited) he has become one of my favorite students to work with.

There are many challenges I have faced while teaching here, the main one being the language barrier, (I am slowly learning Swahili and have learned a lot of teaching vocabulary). These challenges are nothing compared to the obstacles the families go through to bring their children for services as well as the challenges they face every day caring for a child with special needs. Many parents and older siblings take multiple buses and/or walk to get to the hospital. With the expense of travel, the majority are only able to make it once a week. Many children are not able to walk and their families carry them to the hospital. Their dedication to bringing them in each week and completing “homework” and returning the following week has been a great testament to their love for their children and siblings with special needs. It is also a testament to the people in Zanzibar who work to educate and promote awareness for special education and early intervention.

The staff of women who work in the OT clinic have been very welcoming and helpful from the very beginning of my visit. I feel so fortunate to work with them. Amina is the head of the OT department and is a member of IASE. Fatma is a recent addition to the department as she had been living and working in Pemba (a nearby island) for 10 years. She and Amina studied together in OT school. Poppy is a volunteer from England and she has been in Zanzibar for two years. She works in the OT department two days a week and volunteers at another local hospital. All three ladies have been extremely helpful, especially when I need translating!

Now that the program has been started, continuity will be most important. The program needs volunteers who can continue the work, so the children do not have a break in instruction. The continual need for assessment is vital as well as documentation for each child. In the future of the program, I hope to see collaboration with the schools that would include school visits, assessments, and IEPs to monitor goals and progress. Parent involvement and parent education are equally important and need to be improved. I have enjoyed starting this program and look forward to coming back in the future to see the progress and hopefully volunteer again!

If you have any questions about the program in Zanzibar, please feel free to e-mail me at or you may find information at

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