Mambo from Merikani! My name is Samantha Nelson, and I studied abroad in East Africa during the fall of 2015. Coincidentally, I spent most of my time in northern Tanzania with World Learning SIT, the same program Maji Safi Group co-founders Bruce Pelz and Max Perel-Slater studied with in 2009. Believe it or not, I have also returned to Bruce’s hometown of Boulder, CO, where I plan to graduate in the spring from his alma mater, University of Colorado. Oh, and did I mention we have the same major? Let us rewind a little bit, so I can tell you how and why I started working with Maji Safi Group (MSG) in the first place.
As a double major in the natural sciences, I thought studying abroad in Tanzania would provide me with the quintessential experience and subsequent skill set I needed to develop my very own natural science study. This opportunity would manifest itself through the Independent Study Project (ISP) that serves as the pinnacle field study section of SIT’s programs. The ISP gives students an entire month to conduct independent research in an international setting. During this time, I envisioned myself romping around the rainforest, posted up on the coast of the Indian Ocean researching coral reef ecology, species conservation, or something of the like. But here comes the plot twist – I didn’t want my ISP to be yet another nicely bound packet of paper that sits on the shelves of the SIT office in Arusha with no real application other than as a reference point for other SIT students. Upon further contemplation and a little self-reflection, I realized that I wanted to use my ISP as a chance to provide a service that would directly benefit Tanzanians based on their needs and wants.
So, almost surely, you now all understand the logical sequence of events that followed and culminated with me studying the menstrual health and personal hygiene practices of girls ages 12-25, right?
Oh, not quite yet? Labda (maybe) I am still missing some important details. I told my program director, Baba Jack, how I felt, and he asked what I would be interested in studying. I responded with ‘water-related issues’, and he said, “I have the perfect guy for you.”
Once in contact with Max Perel-Slater, MSG’s co-founder and Tanzania Executive Director, we went back and forth for a couple weeks, contemplating ISP topic ideas that would amalgamate the needs of the organization with my own interests and niche experience. While doing so, Max briefly mentioned MSG’s Female Hygiene Program (FHP), and the ‘budding feminist’ within me instantly perked up. Intrigued, I asked what work I could do to help this program, and he explained how the group had been meaning to collect some data that would help the organization update and expand the FHP. “Hey, I could totally do that!” I thought, and we decided to get the ball rolling.
To do so, Max put me in contact with MSG’s dynamic and upbeat Tanzania Director of Operations, Emily Bull – who, funny story, is yet another SIT Study abroad alumnae. With the help of Ms. Bull, I developed a survey for adolescent girls and young women in the District of Shirati, a rapidly growing area on the shores of Lake Victoria. The survey targeted girls in both primary and secondary schools, in the FHP, and around the village. The purpose was to learn more about these females’ knowledge of and practices concerning personal and menstrual hygiene and to explore related social implications, such as school attendance and access to family planning resources.
The groundwork for this project was laid during a weeklong period in October where I took Max’s advice to make the 12-hour trek to Shirati to check out the site and familiarize myself with MSG employees and members of the community. During this time, I finally met Max and Emily as well as MSG’s charismatic and devoted team of Community Health Workers (CHWs), whom I would be working closely with in the coming month. I also met Bena, my extremely overqualified and wonderfully charming translator, who became my study collaborator, travel buddy, and best friend in Shirati. Bena accompanied me on all of my outings, and we worked closely with FHP teachers Linda, Mama Judith, and Lillian. The five of us went to the FHP’s triweekly meetings at local primary schools and the MSG office in Shirati.
This ‘jump-right-in approach’, as opposed to slowly reintroducing myself to the world of pre-pubescent and adolescent girls, was one of the main motivators for the incorporation of many of my survey questions. During these meetings, I was able to hear first-hand what kind of questions the girls typically asked the FHP teachers and subsequently gauge what they wanted to know. These inquires included questions such as, “What if you don’t get your period?” and “Can you really not get pregnant a week after your period ends?” Other survey questions were developed by collaborating with the FHP teachers to see what kind of queries they felt would provide them with helpful data that could be used in the future – for example, “Do you feel comfortable at home and/or at school when you menstruate?”
The highlight of my first enthusing week in Shirati was helping out with MSG’s Global Handwashing Day festival on Oct. 15th – a day relished across the globe for its ability to spread awareness about proper, yet often overlooked, basic hygienic practices. To celebrate this joyous day, MSG made appearances at village schools across Shirati. I accompanied one of the many teams of CHWs in the field that day to Obwere Primary School. Once we arrived, two hand washing stations were assembled; subsequently, a captivated audience of some 400 pupils and teachers watched Shalua, a delightful CHW, model the eight steps of hand washing. Students then had the opportunity to try the steps out for themselves, and they were encouraged to teach them to their family members at home. Following this informative morning, an after-party took place at the MSG office, complete with singing, face painting, and a dancing session that led to the infamous vumbi (dust) disco.
Needless to say, the entire experience left me stoked to be returning to Shirati a couple of weeks later.
Right now, I need to get back to working on Buffs for Maji Safi, a campus group that two other CU students and I started last month. Please tune in next week to see how my return to Shirati went.