By Grant Lingel
Africa. When I try to think of the words to describe it I stumble like a drunk on ice. Thoughts race through my head too quickly to catch and spit out. My emotions run wild as I try to collect them. It’s beautiful. Well, of course, everyone knows that. It’s poor. Again, this isn’t news. It’s warm and welcoming. It’s vast and mysterious, filled with warm and happy people and cultures rich in tradition and history. People ask me, how was Africa? I have no idea where to begin, having only traveled through parts of East and Southern Africa. Africa is a gigantic chunk of earth. If you think driving on a smooth paved highway from New York to Florida takes a long time, try Nairobi to Cape Town.
My travel experiences before Africa were more ‘travel for the sake of travel’ trips and I was curious to go off, see a new part of the world, a give back while doing so. After researching numerous different volunteer opportunities, I came across a small NGO in Northern Tanzania called Path to Africa. Started by a young Irish woman named Sarah, Path to Africa was created to give travelers the opportunity to stay long-term and volunteer with a wide range of projects in the Kilimanjaro Region. After participating in one of the many expensive ‘volunteer vacation’ programs, she decided to launch Path to Africa as a way to give backpackers the opportunity to give back without having to pay thousands of dollars to do so.
Sounds pretty good huh? It gets better. Sarah opened a hostel as well – Hostel Hoff. The Hoff, as it is affectionately called, is located in Moshi, Tanzania, and geared toward long-term volunteers. Anyone can drop by for a night or two before or after their Kilimanjaro trek or safari but most people staying at The Hoff stay for a couple of weeks, a few months or even upwards of a year or more. You pay a discounted rate if you’re volunteering, and the longer you stay the lower the price drops. Here comes the best part: breakfast, dinner and laundry are included in that price. When I say breakfast and dinner I’m not talking kibble, I’m talking genius concoctions with rich flavors and the freshest ingredients. And speaking of that kitchen, if you want to make your own lunch or snack, it is open to guests at any time as well.
The volunteer opportunities offered through Path to Africa and its partner organizations range greatly and change based on what projects have available spots. A lot of the volunteers work with children. There are a variety of projects that take place in orphanages, street children centers, schools, clinics and nurseries. Volunteers at The Hoff get an authentic introduction to Tanzanian culture (and transportation) by walking, biking, hopping on the back of a pickup or taking public transport to their projects and the hours vary depending on where they’re working.
During my stay at The Hoff, I was working on a project that was run by Path to Africa. In the summer of 2009, Path to Africa broke ground and started the construction of an orphanage outside the small village of Mvuleni, about fifteen kilometers south of Moshi. Corner Stone Children Center is projected to be complete by the end of 2011 but that all depends on donations. Old guests of The Hoff do a lot of the fundraising, and while there is no obligation to do so, I can tell you from experience that you will want to continue helping with the projects long after you leave.
When I arrived in March of 2010, the walls of the children’s center were halfway finished and moving along at a nice speed. My job out on the site was to build and maintain a large organic vegetable garden for the orphanage and help gather whatever building materials the construction workers needed. The site is located smack dab in the middle of open farmland in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the glacier-tipped behemoth that soars out of the earth just a few degrees south of the equator. The farm was scorching hot. Imagine doing jumping jacks inside a sauna. Now imagine setting yourself on fire. I’d say the average day out at the farm felt like something in between those two scenarios. And all the while you’re staring up into the sky at a snow-capped mountain.
I started the garden with an Irishman named Chris. I spent a majority of my time with him and had some of the most uproarious guffaws imaginable by his side. His ability to make people laugh was unparalleled. To add to his ability to tell killer jokes with the delivery of a seasoned comedian, he’s Irish, and for whatever reason, that accent really makes a punch line pop, especially if that accent is backed by a few pints.
The average day on the farm was absolutely draining, but in the best way possible. Wake up, breakfast, pack bag, fill water, leave hostel. Then there was the daily adventure of getting there. We would walk to the other side of town, about half an hour through the busy streets of the small yet bustling town of Moshi. Motorbikes and buses would tear down the main road while men pushing carts and women selling fruit filled the shoulders and sidewalks. From there we would walk into an area of town known as Pasua and choose one of two options. We would either jump in a dalla-dalla (mini-bus) or catch a lift on the back of brick trucks. I preferred the latter. There was nothing better than starting the day standing on the back of a truck and zipping through a sugarcane plantation with the cool morning air caressing my face, all while sharing the experience with local farmers who were always surprised to see a couple of wazungus (non-Africans) on board.
We would get dropped at a junction on the plantation road and have to go by foot the rest of the way, another 15 minutes to Mvuleni and about half an hour to the farm. The dalla-dallas would usually take less time because they took us into the village of Mvuleni, but the problem was that they wouldn’t leave until full. And the word full doesn’t really do it all that much justice. It was pretty mind-blowing how many people would squeeze in, and personal space was non-existent. That, combined with the heat, became too much to bear once the novelty of new transportation wore off. So usually I was hitching lifts on the brick trucks.
Once at the farm the hard work started. Since we were a bit further from Kilimanjaro than Moshi, the rain hardly ever made it there from the mountain. So when we started digging it was like taking a hoe to a parking lot. The first couple of weeks of digging were brutal. Blisters covered our hands and the threat of being stung by a scorpion or bit by poisonous spiders and centipedes was ever-present. But did I mention we were having the time of our lives? The two of us spent our mornings digging, raking, digging, hauling, digging, sowing, digging, watering, digging and picking. By the time the afternoon sun filled the African sky, it was too hot to think, let alone do any more work on the garden. If there was money coming in from donors and the construction workers were working on the orphanage, we’d sit in the shade and practice our Swahili with the guys while we all lunched on ugali (almost like porridge made from maize flour and water) and beans.
The trip back to Moshi was mostly by dalla. By that time in the day we were far too exhausted to add any additional and unnecessary walking. Especially in the late afternoon when the sun was the hottest. And taking a truck on the way back to town, filled with bricks (the soil of the land south of Moshi has a great composition for making bricks), is way more dangerous and dusty than the empty trucks heading out in the morning. When I would finally walk through the front gate of the hostel, I’d be covered in dirt and sweat, dragging my feet as if I’d been trekking through the desert with no water for days. With the aroma of a delicious dinner in the air, guests of The Hoff would slowly return home from their projects and fill in the seats around the tables on the patio to discuss their days while waiting to chow down.
Served buffet style with vegetarian options at every meal, Hoffers eat together as a family, discussing weekend trip options, travel plans and days at work. With a very social atmosphere, The Hoff also serves as a great spot to hang at night and have some drinks. With a chill bar around the corner and other options in town, there is always something to do when it’s dark or on the weekends.
All in all, my Hoff experience was one for the ages. Not a day goes by where I don’t drift off to Tanzania, replaying my wonderful experiences on the farm and at The Hoff in my head and wishing I was still there. If you want to do something amazing with your time and take part in something truly meaningful and rewarding, check out The Hoff and start planning your trip to beautiful Northern Tanzania today!