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Serving in Africa
Arusha Project Offers Students Opportunity to Help Fight AIDS Epidemic, Teach

By Ioana Patringenaru | November 6, 2006

Rachel Keeler wanted to learn more about Africa, its peoples and its cultures. She wanted to experience its daily way of life.

“There were a lot of things I wanted from Africa,” the political science major said. “So I wanted to give back in return.”

Keeler joined the Arusha Project, a nonprofit group that organizes service trips to Tanzania, an African nation on the Indian Ocean about twice the size of California. She and 26 other students, many of them from UCSD, spent two to seven weeks in country, working with a wide range of local organizations, including a hospital, an orphanage and an English-language school. The Arusha Project is currently enrolling volunteers for next summer’s trip. The organization receives contributions from many supporters, including all of UCSD’s six colleges, the UCSD Alumni Association, and the Cross-Cultural, Women’s and LGBT Resource centers. 

The Arusha Project was founded in 2003 and is the brain child of Nick Hutchinson and his younger sister, Jennie Hutchinson. She studies biology and epidemiology at UCSD. He is a UC Berkeley graduate. He decided to focus on HIV/AIDS because it combined two issues he deeply cares about: women’s rights and development. People are dying because women can’t demand that men use condoms or remain faithful, Nick Hutchinson said. In Tanzania, about 10 percent of the population has AIDS or is HIV positive. Women are three times more likely to be infected than men. They’re also more likely to die, he said.

The reality of the AIDS crisis in Tanzania hit home for several volunteers shortly after they arrived in Arusha, where they were lending a helping hand at a local nursing home. On their first day, a new patient came in suffering from AIDS. The following day, he died. Volunteers carried him out of the St. Lucia Nursing Home to be buried.

Rachel Keeler poses with her students
Rachel Keeler poses with her students.

Students also worked with the Tumaini Positive Test Club, founded by a former St. Lucia patient, Richard Daudi Laizer. “Tumaini” means “hope” in Swahili. Club members visit home-bound patients, organize support groups and care for more than 200 children. They also advocate for HIV testing. The organization regularly organizes soccer matches to show that HIV/AIDS patients can be fit. This year, Arusha Project volunteers played against the Tumaini team. That helped dispel the myth that AIDS can be transmitted through direct contact, Keeler said. Volunteers also built a Web site for the club, to help the organization raise funds abroad.

“Organizations likes this really have something to share with our volunteers,” Hutchinson said. “They’re advocates and role models in the community, standing up and speaking out.”

Meanwhile, Keeler taught English to about 20 students in a tiny classroom. “A brick hole with no electricity and one leaning blackboard” is how she described it in an e-mail. Her students’ age and level of ability varied widely. A handful could carry on a conversation and always contributed in class. But others were completely lost. One 15-year-old girl always answered “yes,” no matter the question. A young boy couldn’t read Swahili, let alone English. Keeler did her best to work with all of them, even suggesting that the boy get a tutor. She felt a barrier between her students and herself and was disappointed. But those at the head of the class were making progress. “That was really encouraging,” she said.

The volunteers’ living quarters deepened the feeling of isolation at night, she said. She shared with more than 30 others a dorm-style compound surrounded by an electric fence and thick walls.  But during the day, volunteers would work in the morning and attend Swahili and cultural lessons in the afternoon.  They also were free to explore Arusha and its surroundings. Tanzania is breath-taking, Keeler said. Banana trees and coffee bushes dot a tropical landscape. “If the ‘Lion King’ was a true story, it would have happened in Tanzania,” Hutchinson said.

Like many students, Keeler visited the Serengeti National Park, where she saw two black rhinos, elephants, lions, cheetahs, monkeys, hippos and many, many birds.

The whole experience left her wanting more.

 “Africa is the last frontier that no one really understands,” she said. “This trip was just an introduction.”

Related links:

Arusha Project

Tumaini Positive Test Club

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