Toa Nafasi: A Tanzanian Education

It started with a brochure.

Living in Washington DC, it seems silly to mail a passport off to another country’s embassy when they are all within 1 or 2 miles of my own house. In case you forgot, I had a terrible passport renewal experience in 2014. That add’s to my hesitation around mailing my most precious document.

While I was at the Tanzanian embassy to get my visa, Mr. Os was looking at the pamphlets and literature. I’d love to go on Safari again, but I have very strict criteria around this (that’s another story, however.) So those brochures were out. But, then he handed me this and said “isn’t that where you are staying?” Talk about serendipity.

Stamps on my Passport
The brochure that sent us back to school.

I got home, read the brochure more thoroughly and then read a few of Toa Nofasi’s blogs. After completely my very “scientific” research, I decided I had enough data to verify this was a “legit” organization. I fired off an email, asking if we could bring some school supplies during our trip. Honestly, I was not really sure what to expect. Boy, was I surprised.

And it followed with some emails.

In a few days I had a very warm response from the organizations founder, Sarah. She told me a bit about the project, how she got started and provided a list of potential supplies we could bring. I liked her instantly (interestingly, she grew up in DC and lived in Manhattan before moving to Tanzania. Hello, immediate connection!) and her style. It was a mixed of open, friendly but straight forward.

We ended up exchanging A LOT of emails. I think we covered life stories, climbing Kilimanjaro, an agreement to bring some shirts for her students and in exchange her Mom giving me a lit to the airport. Oh, and we also arranged a visit to the school.

Until Finally We Got Schooled

In Swahili, Toa Nafasi means “provide a chance.” This pilot program has come up with a holistic approach to provide a chance for children with learning difficulties. It’s also providing jobs for village women in the form of teacher training.

What we observed, with interest, were massive classrooms with 80 students and one teacher. Just observing from the back you could see how a child with learning difficulty would struggle. With the help of Toa Nafasi, these kids leave their classroom with a handful of other students for help with language, math and overall comprehension.

Stamps on my Passport
This is a level two classroom in Moshi, Tanzania. The teacher to student ratio is roughly 80/1.

We spent the morning playing with the students. (They loved the jump ropes we brought. The bouncing glow balls were a hit. Orgami was like “mind blown.” Until we tried to show them how to make a swan on their own. But, the thing they loved most was the iPhone. They were enthralled with taking, and looking at, pictures of themselves. We probably could have beaten Ellen DeGeneres for biggest selfie. And if that wasn’t enough, video taping the young boys dancing was an hour of entertainment. We developed a swarm of student paparazzi. Each of them wanting to look at the video or have a picture taken.)

The students were enthralled with the iPhone. We actually couldn't fit them all in this photo, though they did try.
The students were enthralled with the iPhone. We actually couldn’t fit them all in this photo, though they did try.

Following some good clean fun, we listened to Sarah talk about the project to visiting administrators. This is where things came to life for me. She spoke with conviction about how the students need skills to navigate their own village. Not to attend Harvard or Oxford.

Class Dismissed

While that’s not the “American Way” I couldn’t agree more with this approach. Helping people often means helping them in the ways they need help. Not helping them in ways we *think* they need help.

For instance, their village in Tanzania is land locked. Knowing marine life for these kids is ridiculous. Not because they shouldn’t know but because the odds of them being in a situation where this information is applicable are extremely remote. Instead, it’s about helping them with syllables, reading, numbers and simple math problems. Things that will be very relevant in their village.

I can never do this project justice and refer you to this story on Calvin, one of the students enrolled in the project. Calvin is a doll and I agree with Sarah’s assessment. He’s got some more learning to do but the individualized and small group work is making a tremendous improvement in his life. It was rewarding to see how Sarah’s outside the box thinking is helping Calvin as well as other students.

The Toa Nafasi Project is a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization. You can read more about Toa Nafasi on their blog. If you are interested in contributing or volunteering, you can reach the project at or on their website I don’t want to speak for Sarah and say that visits are routinely offered. However, if you are offered the opportunity, I highly recommend it. It will open your eyes to a variety of things: education, travel, and charitable giving to name a few.

And, for me, this is why I travel. I made a new friend in Sarah and was exposed to things I never anticipated in Tanzania.

The Magic Bus

Riding the bus in Tanzania was one of my favorite experiences. If that sounds strange, trust me, I know. It’s not as though buses are unique to Tanzania. And, living in a large urban area in the US, I am no stranger to public transportation.

I really cannot pinpoint why this experience was so much fun. Maybe it’s because at home buses confuse me. Conceptually, I know you go to the bus stop and look at the schedule for your particular line or route. But, I can never get my head around the cross-town versus up-town versus out-of-town and inevitably end up on the wrong bus. Laugh it up, I do. Perhaps my Tanzanian bus rides were so memorable because I got to conquer this strange bus phobia that I have developed since living in Manhattan.

Our guide showed up to take us to BBQ, declaring we would take the bus because “you must experience it.” So, three tourists walked down the street with our Kili guide, Israel. And we waited. To pass the time peppered Israel with questions:

How do you know when the bus will come?

How much does it cost?

How long do you wait?

What if the bus is crowded?

Why don’t you take a taxi?

This is another reason why Israel should be sainted. These are the silliest questions. If he had just met us, they probably would border on stupid. Or even offensive. But when you’ve spent six days camping (and in my case also having massive altitude sickness), you get to know people really well. He answered every single question, sometimes laughing at us, but answered them never-the-less.

Back to the bus. In Tanzania, buses are not the large motor coach style you see in the US or Europe. They are smaller, almost van like vehicles. If you are picturing a 70’s style Volkswagen bus you are on the right track. I’m sure there is a route but it’s not posted on a sign anywhere. Israel just brought us to the street and declared, “we wait here for the bus.”

Each bus has the equivalent of a ticket-taker who sticks their head out the window, scouting for passengers. Remember, there are not “official”  stops. This person has eagle eyes for people waving down the next ride. Once passengers are spotted, they jump out, open the door and collect your fare. Sometimes, if there are lots of passengers, the ticket-taker will hustle everyone on the bus and collect the money inside. You can get a sense for this entire exchange with this video.

The first bus zipped right by, it was so packed they couldn’t fit any more standing passengers. But the second bus had our number. Albeit, a number for standing room only. And yet, packed in like sardines, the Yooner and I giggled like we were in kindergarten as we zipped through Moshi toward our BBQ date.

My standing room only bus view.

If you are uber-adventurous a bus ride through Tanzania is probably up your alley. For the rest of us, I probably wouldn’t recommend it. A lot of first impressions are (e.g., staring, chakachua) are prominent on the bus. One could easily wind up in parts unknown with no way home. The exception of course is if you have an amazing guide who is willing to share this experience. It’s not a magic bus in the literal sense or in reference to the song. But, its always magical experience to do something out of your normal routine.

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Moshi, Tanzania: First Impressions

It was only 9:00 pm local time when we landed at Kilimanjaro Airport in Moshi, Tanzania. But it felt more like a year’s air travel, and our exhausted expressions had that typical cloudy-eyed confusion that says “I just landed, where am I, which way to the luggage?”

Although it was dark, I could tell Moshi was larger than I’d expected it to be. The airport’s proximity to Moshi is similar to Regan National Airport’s distance to DC. Because we were climbing Kilimanjaro, I was expecting a smaller city, like Cusco, Peru, the gateway town for those hiking the Inca Trail. More importantly, I was anticipated landing in a place easy to navigate on foot (with shops, restaurants and a few sites to visit).

Moshi is not that. It’s spread out and visitors are encouraged not to walk around after dark. The hotels are happy to call you a taxi. Our guide confirmed it’s not safe, which is about where everyone left it. We didn’t contest that guidance. My number one, golden rule for Kilimanjaro is “on, or off the mountain, always listen to your guide.”

By day, we discovered Moshi hums like any large city: people walking to work, catching buses, people generally going about their lives. One thing you’ll notice about Moshi, is that westerners really stand out. Thus, be prepared for people to stare at you. It’s a welcoming and warm curiosity, but it can be intimidating if you aren’t used to it.

As a redhead, I’d experienced being stared at once before in India. It gives one a good idea of what a hassle celebrity must be.

Moshi is welcoming, but to get the most out of visiting make friends with your guide. A distant second recommendation is to keep on the lookout for ex-pats (who speak Swahili, the language of Tanzania). It appeared that most ex-pats lived in the “Shanty Town” neighborhood. Anyone familiar with that name knows it usually describes a poor area. In this case the name’s ironic.

Moshi is friendly, but staff in grocery stores, restaurants and banks don’t always speak English. Additionally, prices can mysteriously increase at grocery stores—if you argue, it’s nicely explained that you don’t understand. Now you understand.

Taxi’s can also be a source of frustration. The hotel will arrange transportation and provide a price. But it’s important to confirm things with your driver. What is called “Chaka-Chewa,” or funny business, is part of the experience.

For example, our first cab driver argued once we reached our destination that the price quoted was dollars, and the price in local currency is higher. I will grant this can become frustrating. But it’s also important to point out that—although you don’t want to be a sucker—ultimately you’re arguing over not a lot of money. We bickered because we didn’t carry a lot of cash—and you never use a debit card.

It helps not to look at Chaka-Chewa as dishonest, as much as opportunistic. Wealthy people take taxis—people who can afford that extra couple bucks that can make a big difference for the individual. It helps keep things in perspective, and maintaining that outlook prevents premature aging.

With that, here is a Travelers Tip: Before getting in a taxi, confirm your destination, number of passengers, repeat the agreed upon price and currency. Make certain the driver agrees to this before you get depart your hotel. That said, if the bill is 9,000 Tsh (Tanzanian Shillings), be a sport and let the person keep the change. Tipping is not part of the culture, but it is very appreciated and there is a growing expectation that westerners will tip.

I’ve focused on this point more than I’d expected to, so let me sum it up as follows. Consider it not so much as “buyer beware” as a “buyer be aware” thing, and plan accordingly so that you can enjoy your time prior to climbing Kilimanjaro or heading off on a Safari.

These frustrations are by no means unique to Tanzania. Do not get overly frustrated or allow it to ruin your holiday. Instead, write it off as local customs and ways of doing things.

Author’s note: My personal travel philosophy is never to write while I’m away. I do keep notes in a journal. Observations help me to remember my impressions and experiences for your enjoyment. To me, travel is about being in the moment, not documenting it on a computer.

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