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Tel Aviv students come face-to-face with the Third World

Posted By Ilana Teitelbaum On January 8, 2008 @ 10:02 am In | No Comments

Israeli students visit Tanzania in an effort to improve the lives of Minjingu’s children. Photo: Itai PerryIn October, 12 students from Tel Aviv University’s Student Union traveled to Minjingu, a village in Tanzania, Africa. Armed with some 500 kilograms of medical supplies, building equipment and toys, they set about making Minjingu a happier place.

“The goal of the delegation of volunteers was to expose Israeli students to the Third World, as well as to provide support,” Yael Samuni, an MA student in management and head of the trip’s organizational committee said.

The decision to focus on Minjingu stems from the unique hardships this particular village is facing, such as an abnormally high fluoride content in the village’s water supply, which has caused a high incidence of serious bone deformities in its children. In the past, parents of the afflicted children hid them away, believing them to be cursed.

“It was hard to find these children, because they spent all their lives in huts in the dark,” Itai Perry, one of the delegation leaders, explains. Perry volunteered in Minjingu two years ago, an experience which inspired him to organize delegations of Israeli students for working visits to Tanzania.

Perry was a software engineer for five years before quitting to work as a photographer and volunteer in Africa, which he originally saw as a career opportunity. He describes his growing interest in the Third World as “a private journey.” Two years ago, during his stint as a volunteer in Africa, Perry encountered the African NGO Mongaza, which has been making an effort to find and treat the ailing children in Minjingu. It was with their help, as well as with the help of Israeli NGOs Brit Olam (the International Israeli-Jewish Volunteer Movement) and Latet (Israel Humanitarian Aid) that he pioneered the student groups.

Now, Perry strives to balance his non-profit work in Minjingu with writing a doctoral thesis on water management and ecology, as well as with his work as an environmental consultant.

Last year, a delegation of TAU students visited Minjingu laden with relief supplies, such as medicine. This year, the delegation’s goal was to accomplish much more, and to come equipped to make a substantial, lasting difference to the village.

“What we learned from last year was the students felt they didn’t leave anything meaningful behind,” comments Perry, adding that last year’s trip, being a pilot enterprise, had been something of a reconnaissance mission. “This year we were more focused. The idea was to do something that has [lasting] meaning.”

Among their accomplishments, this year’s students built and equipped the region’s first basketball and volleyball courts, as part of a project intended to raise morale in the village. Using equipment from overseas and working together with about 60 villagers, they cleared the site of the future courts of thorns and stones.

“It’s great that [the villagers] helped, because that way they feel that it’s theirs,” remarks Samuni.

Another group of students worked to renovate the village kindergarten, which Samuni describes as having been dirty and bug-ridden. Over the course of three days, the students cleaned the structure and installed new chalkboards, desks and chairs they had brought from Israel. They were also responsible for supervising the children, who were using the kindergarten at the time and followed the students around as they completed their tasks.

“For three days we did activities with the children in the yard. We painted, sang, and danced with them,” says Samuni. “They were following us the whole time, and weren’t at all afraid of us.”

Samuni describes the children as extraordinarily warm. “They hold your hand, they kiss and hug you. It’s amazing.”

Some activities focused on teaching hygiene. Using 300 toothbrushes and a model of teeth donated by Colgate, the students showed the village children how to brush their teeth properly.

But how did the Tel Aviv students communicate with the youngsters?

Through a combination of sign language, some Swahili words and bits of English and Hebrew. The volunteers also taught the children Hebrew songs. Other than that, Mongaza representatives took on the task of translating in order to facilitate the delegation’s efforts.

Perry clarifies that for him, organizing volunteer groups represents only a small part of an immense long-term goal. “We have a vision,” says Perry. “We plan to build a community and health center that will have a library, sports activities, Minjingu’s first flowing water tap, and classes for adults and children,” he said.

He also applies some of his environmental knowledge to his work in Minjingu. For example, the student delegation built solar-powered stoves for the village women as a solution to the deforestation problem caused by cutting down wood for cooking fuel.

Perry and Samuni say the purpose of the student delegations is to acquaint Israelis with the Third World, and vice versa.

“The delegation met with Tanzanian students for a two-day session and they got to know each other,” Perry explains. “They talked about human rights [issues] in Africa and in Israel.” According to Perry, the purpose of the session was to provide an opportunity to “overcome prejudices… Students got to meet the people behind the stigma,” he said.

As part of their introduction to African culture, the Israeli students visited Arusha, the United Nations court on the Rwandan genocide. “We went to a trial, had a tour and learned about the Arusha Accords and Rwandan genocide,” notes Samuni.

Perry added that the students’ trip to Arusha stimulated debate on human rights. “[Arusha] very much relates to Jewish history,” he said.

Samuni said the delegation had wanted the students to learn from their trip to Africa, in addition to teaching and helping. She emphasizes that the intent of the trip was not only to contribute to the Third World, but also to gain a different perspective into African culture.

“We didn’t come to change the world… This experience did a lot for us, too,” says Samuni. “Meeting these people, these kids, gave us so much.”

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post