Naomi Chang is currently getting her Master in Environmental Engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. At CU, Naomi is part of the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities, and unlike most students in her program, she wholeheartedly believes in the importance of hygiene education. This is largely due to experiences from living abroad during her service in the Peace Corps from 2014 until 2016. Our common interests led Naomi to MSG for her summer practicum experience. Naomi also received a Boren Fellowship to improve her already seasoned Swahili skills by working with MSG’s staff on a daily basis.
Tanzania holds a special place in my heart. I spent two years in a rural village in central Tanzania as a math and science teacher, creating bonds with students, teachers, and other community members. So, when I was given the opportunity to come back to Tanzania and work with Maji Safi Group, I immediately jumped at the offer. As the time came closer to my arrival in Shirati, I became more and more nervous ̶ afraid that my previous experience was unique, and I wouldn’t be able to connect with the people of Shirati like I did with those in my old village. I was so wrong!
I immediately felt welcome in the Maji Safi family, with several Community Health Educators (CHEs) treating me like a daughter and others like a sister. Not only were they welcoming, they were dedicated and passionate about their work. I was able to participate in almost all the programs offered by MSG, watching firsthand as the CHEs took the time to fully explain waterborne diseases and their symptoms, how to prevent transmission, and how to filter and treat water.
At one primary school, the topic for the week was menstrual hygiene management (MHM). I was curious to see how the CHEs would approach this sensitive topic, because I know it can be an uncomfortable topic for many. To my surprise and delight, the CHEs were able to create a safe space for girls and boys to openly discuss the topic of menstruation, while injecting humor into the subject. Boys and girls were called on to respond to questions and to demonstrate how to attach sanitary pads to underwear. This education is integral to normalizing menstruation for future generations.
MSG also has a great relationship with a school for children who are speaking/hearing impaired. The CHEs have adapted their lessons to better teach these students, and some CHEs are learning sign language to further facilitate the transfer of knowledge. In a country where people with disabilities face stigma, it is great to see that MSG has provided the opportunity for community members to interact and create relationships with them.
I also remember walking to Lake Victoria and getting lost on my way back. Thankfully, a young lady was walking to the Lake and offered to take me to the main road. While we were walking, she asked if I had swum in the Lake. I responded by saying I was afraid of getting bilharzia. She smiled and then launched into the symptoms and transmission of this disease. Shocked, I asked her how she knew all of this and she replied, “Maji Safi!” To me, this was further proof of the excellent outreach and educational programs that Maji Safi Group provides. To see that a random person was able to correctly tell me the symptoms and transmission of bilharzia shocked me and points to the efficacy of Maji Safi Group.
It is impossible for me to paint the full picture of the dedication and passion of each of the CHEs at Maji Safi Group, but my experience working with them for three months was an excellent reminder of why I chose to pursue a career in international development.