Lisa from Germany volunteered as a physiotherapist in at a school for children with special needs in Tanzania. In our blog she speaks about her time abroad and shares her favourite therapy memory.
I am Lisa, 26 and a children’s physiotherapist from Germany.
This year I felt like a special holiday and wanted to experience an adventure. So it came that I, with the help of World Unite!, traveled to Moshi (Tanzania) and worked at a school for children with special needs for 4 weeks.
My volunteer placement
The World Unite! coordinators accompanied me to the BCC Office (the organization that cares for a total of 7 special schools in Moshi) on my first day. There the BCC staff decided that I should go to the school in Moshi-Pasua. This was a great decision, as everyone greeted me warmly when I arrived. Two teachers take care of 11 children aged from 2 ½ up to 11 years with different impairments.
A typical day in my volunteering organisation
The first few days I spent observing to understand the daily structures and to see how I could best integrate myself into the everyday life. Most of the children were dropped off at school by their parents between 8:00 and 9:00. First thing in the morning would be the common prayer and singing in the classroom. Each child would then recite the current date. Although only one boy was able to speak, each child was called out individually and the teacher would speak the words with child. In the end, everyone would sing a song for each child, such as “well done, well done, Jonathan! Keep it up!”. A great ritual, I found, as it focused positively on each child and made them feel welcome.
After that, some children got notebooks, where they were to try to write numbers with individual support. I used this time mostly to do physical therapy with severely physically impaired children. Next to the classroom there was a small therapy room, which was equipped with mats. I brought therapy material from Germany, such as a gym ball. 10:30 was the breakfast time for the children, where they got Uji (Porridge) to drink. A few children needed assistance and some others needed encouragement to drink their Uji. Afterwards the kids had free time to play. I used this time to perform physiotherapy or simply to spend time with the kids.
The kids got a freshly cooked meal for lunch every day at 13:00. Since many of the children come from poorer backgrounds, it is an important part of the school to provide at least one well-balanced meal a day, that would provide nutrients to counteract malnutrition. Here I also helped the children to eat their food, but also with the cleaning of faces and tables. Due to a heavy tetra paresis, a girl had considerable difficulty swallowing and thus had problems to eat at all.
Children like her would be artificially fed in Germany, but as this is hardly possible in Tanzania, the teachers take almost 1 hour for each meal to feed her a bit at least. After the children’s lunch it was the lunch time for the staff while the children busied themselves. The food was very delicious and I was always happy when we got rice with beans and spinach. The rest of the day was used for free play. I used this time for further therapy and often tried to involve several children in group activities. I would use the hammock in the classroom, play with balloons, move the rotary carousel in the schoolyard, and so on. The parents or older siblings came in the afternoon at around 16:00 to pick up the children.
The teachers interacted very loving with the children but unfortunately, there was little individual support. This is partly due to a lack of knowledge, but also lack of staff. There is a total of 11 children in the classroom – all of whom need special attention. One teacher was mostly busy with nappy changing, as 6 out of 11 children were incontinent and two kids needed assistance with going to the toilet. Of course, I have changed nappies before, but since diapers are too expensive for some families, the children are wrapped in cloths and a plastic bag. This old way of swaddling was also a new experience for me and I had to learn the right technique first.
Every other week, the occupational therapist visits for a few hours. She is the Sister in charge for over 100 BCC children in Moshi. She has great ideas for the children’s therapies and designs a therapy plan for each child, which in my opinion is well adapted to the children. However, her time is unfortunately sparse and limited to put the plans into action. The Sister also has an eye on the children’s care and provision of appropriate aids, such as customized shoes, tables and wheelchairs.
With the physically impaired children, I used classic Bobath physiotherapy to improve their motoric skills and mobility. I also showed the teachers how to support the kids by shaping the environment. Of course, I do not know if they will continue to work with these ideas.
With the girl, affected by tetra paresis, I worked particularly intensive. This 4-year-old girl sits in a wheelchair and – although she cannot speak – she has a good understanding of language and worked very hard throughout therapy. My goal was to improve her rump stability and lift her so she could improve her swallowing. Unfortunately, 4 weeks were too short to see a big progress, but I hope her mother will continue the exercises at home.
Since not all children had a severe physical disability, but still needed a lot of support, I looked at how I could support each child individually. The children were not used to having someone take care of them 1: 1, which lead to some jealousy between the kids, when I was dealing with another child. It was apparent that they enjoyed the time when it was only about them and they could learn new things. Some children, for example, managed to finish a simple plug-in puzzle from which they had previously thrown only the parts through the room. There also were various picture cards (showing an elephant, a house, hand washing, etc.) to initiate speech, which the children brought to me repeatedly so I could cite the words. Although they did not talk well or at all themselves, I realized that they knew the words. This way I also learned some new Swahili words, which was a nice side effect.
I came across unfamiliar practices as well, e.g. that there is not enough time for hyperactive children and a lack of understanding of the handling and perseverance for this. After spending some time with one of the fidgety boys and focusing on body awareness with him, I was very surprised by the positive change. Suddenly he became much calmer, could play a game and was also much better in direct contact.
My favourite therapy memory
The most beautiful therapy experience was a little girl, who was clinging to me and was watching everything I did. The previous weeks I had taught her how to wash her hands properly. Before lunch, the children wait in line to wash each other’s hands (most of them need assistance). Behind that little girl stood a girl with hemiplegia. After washing her own hands, she stopped and took both hands of the girl behind her and helped wash both her hands. Although this only seemed a small thing, it nevertheless gave me great pleasure.
On two days, I went to another school in Karanga. Karanga is just outside the city center and without a BCC employee, I would have not found my way. This school is very different from the one in Pasua. Some of the older students helped with minor tasks and support of the care of the younger ones. I was able to therapeutically help out with two severely affected children. I was surprised about the great interest, the teachers showed in my work. They acknowledged the positive effects were open to learn different exercises for the children. An 8-year-old boy in a wheelchair, who had watched my work, asked if I could practice with him. He had so much fun and the walking exercises gave him so much joy that he simply would not stop.
BCC Special Olympics
I was very lucky that the “BCC Special Olympics” took place during my stay. Once a year, all children from the 7 special needs schools come together and spend a day together. Every school performs something; there is food, dance, games, singing and laughter. Everyone had a blast.
Of course, I did not spend all my days working but also spent a lot of time with the other World Unite! participants. There were about 10 other volunteers during my time of stay. Everyone would return to the shared house in the afternoon and we would chat about the events of the day. There was a nice community feeling to cook, eat and spend time with so many people. Sometimes we would go out together for dinners. Right on my first evening we did a sunset tour, where we enjoyed the sunset on the roof of a converted party bus. I can also recommend a visit to the nightclub “Redstone”. Dancing here and watching the mad dancers around you is so much fun.
Hot Spring Tour
Another volunteer had organized a tour to the Hot springs as a surprise for children from an orphanage. Together with the 22 children, we went there in a crowded Daladala with extremely loud Tanzanian pop music blasting out of the speakers and spent a relaxing day together with swimming and playing football.
Safari, Coffee Tour, Hike in the Usambara Mountains
Weekends are the time for excursions. If you are in Tanzania, you should not miss a safari! To see the animals was extremely beautiful. I also went to the gate of Kilimanjaro, to nearby waterfalls, did a coffee tour and visited a Tanzanian cave village. Together with three other volunteers, I spent a whole weekend hiking in the Usambara mountains. We enjoyed the beautiful landscape, great views and experienced the most beautiful sunset. This tour was definitely one of my highlights. It was quite adventurous and we had so much fun.
I had a wonderful time in Moshi! I met a lot of great people and experienced a lot.
Lisa (from Germany)
You can find all information about Lisa’s placement here.