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7 Lessons I Learned in Africa

I heard this quote once, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth”. This has always really stuck with me and I really try to live by it. I have been given a lot of blessings throughout my life and I try to give back to the world in thanks for what I have received whenever I can. Tanzania is a place in need of better access to physical therapy and education for people with disabilities, so this trip was a perfect fit.

My life was definitely changed through this experience. My intention when I decided to travel to Tanzania was to share whatever knowledge I could and make some sort of lasting impact on a community or at least on one person. I cannot speak for the people I met and worked with in Tanzania, but I can only hope I changed their lives even a fraction of how much they changed mine. I hope my impact will be lasting. I guess in the end all I can say is that I did my best to balance teaching and learning, speaking and listening, and giving and accepting, throughout this journey. I left Tanzania with a full heart and hope that I made the people I encountered feel the same way.

My 7 Lessons I Learned in Africa

1. Learn the language

I think one of the greatest experiences that Edutours Africa gave us was Swahili lessons. I’m not sure if it was just our experience or if it’s the general trend throughout Tanzania that many of the people we came in contact with spoke English. This did not mean that our efforts at trying to speak Swahili were unnecessary and overlooked. Learning basic Swahili really gave us the vehicle in which to grow relationships and learn from the Tanzanian people. It blew my mind how eager many people we met were to teach us Swahili words and phrases. I have a list in my phone of random words everything from “nyota’ (star), to “mayai mawili” (2 eggs), to “Poa Kichizi Kama ndizi ndani ya friji” (I’m cool like a banana in a fridge).

2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions

We asked A LOT of questions, to everyone. About EVERYTHING; the songs on the radio, how long it takes to build a house, where do you take the car to get fixed, what time do people usually go to bed. If you can think of a question, we probably asked it. Even though some of our questions might have seemed strange, our guides happily explained everything the best they could. The laughter and information we got along the way was priceless.

 3. You know more than you think 

I think one of the greatest gifts I was given from this trip was a little more confidence in my ability to be a practicing physical therapist. As they say, there is no better of a way to test your knowledge than to teach something to another person. I found myself explaining concepts and demonstrating techniques the whole time we were in the clinic. It was nice to realize that I have actually learned a few things in Physical therapy school over the past few years.

4. Hang out with kids more

I am so grateful I was able to spend time with the kiddos. Growing up I was always babysitting or working as a camp counselor, but lately I have found myself with a lack of kids. Children are the best; they don’t care about your degree, the places you’ve worked, what clothes you’re wearing, or how much money you have. They care if you can talk to them for two hours about their favorite colors or how much they like to ride the bike. They care if you can make them laugh and make them feel safe and loved. It was a nice (and much needed) change of perspective.

5. Problem solve creatively

Fancy equipment is nice to have, but it is by no means necessary. In fact sometimes having fancy equipment is wasteful, especially when it’s more expensive to fix or there is no way to fix it. During our trip we were able to visit Mobility Care, a company that specializes in making custom wheelchairs and assistive devices for disabled adults and children. The staff at mobility care designs and builds these chairs/ADs by using local materials such as canvas, wood, and bicycle parts. In Tanzania using local materials is key to allow for low cost construction and easy repair. We tried to implement this philosophy into our Physical therapy clinic as well. We used what we had and made the most of it. We used pool noodles to fix wheel chairs, duck tape to make a permanent hop scotch board, Swahili words “mkasi” and “pencili” to teach jumping jacks. Its amazing what you can do with a little creativity.

6. Haraka haraka haraka haina Baraka

“Hurry hurry has no blessing”, essentially haste means waste. Take your time. Enjoy every moment.

7. Bring these lessons home

I have found in the past it has been such a strange challenge to experience something so meaningful and then assimilate back to “reality”. Naturally, it’s easy to feel motivated and inspired while in the thick of an experience. However, the true test comes when it’s time to bring these lessons home. Just because the physical journey is over does not mean that the journey itself has finished.

Contributor

Lauren Gruchala

My name is Lauren Gruchala, I am 27 years old and am from Buffalo, NY. I am currently a Doctor of Physical Therapy student attending Stony Brook University in Long Island. I love love love music, traveling, and the outdoors. As soon as I heard a group from Stony Brook was travelling to Tanzania, I signed up no questions asked. 

For more about Stony Brook University’s Physical Therapy group program, you can read Sarah’s story about empowering lives. View more of our Health Science Faculty-led programs.