It was a few short months after I’d returned from Uganda and I was feeling somewhat deflated. The idea of building a library for St Andrew’s Primary School in Kampala had been at the forefront of my mind from the moment I’d returned, and with attempts to establish a dialogue with them – which I always knew wasn’t going to be easy – amounting to nothing, it felt like the whole enterprise was just slipping away through my fingers.
So I just thought ‘well, c’est la vie’. At least I’d had a wonderful – transformative, even – time in Uganda, and it is definitely fair to say that it changed me as a person…hopefully for the better! Not only did I love my volunteering experience but I loved Uganda too. There were unbelievably upbeat and hospitable people, inhabiting charmingly dust-blown, cattle-lined streets in atmospheric urban and rural dwellings. The beautiful countryside was one of vivid contrasts: lush green, rumpled-quilt hillsides in one place and vast expanses of arid grassland dotted with lone acacia trees in another. And then there was the wondrous wildlife: lions, elephants, baboons, antelope, crocodiles…
Therefore I wanted to get me another taste of East Africa, feeling like I’d barely scratched the surface of this beautiful part of the world. I’d gone to Uganda because it had the feel of a more under-the-radar sort of place. Now I thought, heck, let’s go for the place that’s got that huge snow-capped mountain, that exotic Indo-Arabic island and that majestic National Park that Safari day-dreamers talk about in awed, hushed tones (I’m talking about Mt Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar and the Serengeti National Park, in case you hadn’t guessed). Yes, I decided, it was time to go to Tanzania.
Now I don’t know what you all make of travel books. Some say we no longer need them in the age of digital media and travel bloggers(!). But I personally find I can’t immerse myself in researching a country on the web quite as comprehensively as I can with a book in hand. So I consulted my trusty East Africa Lonely Planet guidebook, which I’d previously taken out to Uganda. Being a keen mountaineer, Mt Kilimanjaro was definitely one of the first things on my ‘to look up’ list, and one of the first things I wanted to know was where would be a good place to base myself. Moshi, it turns out, is the place to be. And that’s when I saw this…
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s this box of text above that I and everyone connected with this project has to thank for it happening in the first place. Because without it, I would not have found out about KYGN (Kilimanjaro Young Girls in Need).
The more observant among you will have noticed that KYGN is not actually listed in the picture above. But you’ll notice that a place called Honey Badger is. Subsequently finding out about the website on the entry for Honey Badger in the book led me to KYGN, which they’d listed as one of their volunteer projects. KYGN, to give you a brief introduction, was founded in 2007 to provide a safe and stable home environment, healthcare and an education to extremely impoverished girls of one of the poorest regions of Tanzania.
I would like to emphasise that, at first, I was excited simply because I was going to be able to volunteer in East Africa again. But when I got to the KYGN website, which incidentally looks very different now to how it did then, and found the page where they were detailing their plans to build a new school? Well…I spilt my drink/fell off my chair/peed my pants (delete whichever two you think are untrue).
Because among the things they said they wanted to build, they included a library.
I had to calm myself down and compose myself for…well, probably a few days. I made myself think rationally, and calmly weighed things up. After all, I’d been here before, and look what happened. And that time I’d actually already been to the country first. So it was important to not get carried away or get my hopes up too high.
What convinced me to go for it was the fact that, firstly, they were an established charity with a professional website. What really clinched it was the fact they had an English lady (Michelle) co-running the project who was living out there, and had been since 2010. At first glance the sentence I’ve just written looks callous, insensitive and even offensive. But the simple fact is having someone on the inside who knows how the Western world works – proposals, objectives, deadlines – would be crucial in a culture that adopts more of a ‘when things happen, they happen’ approach.
I’m not saying one lifestyle is inherently better than the other. It’s more a case of: if two organisations from cultures with different philosophies work together, having someone who can speak both their languages is crucial to there being a successful working relationship.
So anyway, I rather nervously sent a speculative e-mail to Michelle to explain what I was thinking – I pick a group of kids from my school, we raise you the money you need for the library, we make necessary preparations over here, send out the money in stages for you to construct the building, then we fly out to open the library – and to see if she was interested. She replied within hours. With an emphatic, and very excited-sounding, yes. We exchanged more e-mails. She put me in touch with Mandy, who ran KYGN from the UK side of things.
Things quickly gathered speed from there. Mandy met with me at my school, where we ironed out a few necessary details. The meeting was most productive, and we both left it feeling even more excited. Taking a group of teenagers out to somewhere like Tanzania isn’t to be taken lightly either. So I did some digging and made some enquiries and found a company, Wilderness Expertise, who specialise in organising expeditions with a humanitarian angle for school groups who fit the bill. After meeting with their expeditions coordinator Georgia (who has possibly the best hair I have ever seen), we’d set things up so we’d be in a position to advertise it to the kids shortly after the summer break.
So all the pieces were in place. Now it was time to fly out to Tanzania to see the KYGN School for myself.