Celebration in true UAE style
On the veranda of a dilapidated palace that once belonged to an Omani princess in Zanzibar, a group of children are learning how to read, helped by a group of 10 volunteers from the UAE.
Before them is a picturesque view of lush foliage, tapering to a sandy beach touching the azure waters of the Indian Ocean.
The palace has been renovated and turned into the Creative Education Foundation, or Cef, a small charity school for orphans and disadvantaged children.
It aims to provide a nurturing environment for all children while providing them with a high standard of education.
But the palace’s stunning views cannot hide the slum with shabby, tin-roofed houses bordering it – a sad reflection of the poverty-stricken state of Zanzibar.
Tanzania is considered one of the world’s poorest countries, with more than a third of its citizens living below Tanzania’s poverty line, and well below the international poverty line.
After completing their reading session, the children and the volunteers walk to the beach and frolic in the water, looking for different kinds of shells as part of a science class.
The volunteers had decided to celebrate the 44th UAE National Day in a manner befitting the occasion and symbolic of the UAE’s generosity.
They travelled to the archipelago at their own expense to bring cheer to impoverished children.
During their four-day trip, the students from the American University of Sharjah worked with the children to improve their literacy skills.
Cef has struggled to sustain its free food programme for malnourished children, so the group also raised funds to buy chickens and two cows.
They built a coop and carried out a feasibility study on establishing renewable energy for the school.
Calling themselves ‘Spreading Grace’, they had previously focused on good deeds at home.
“For the past two years, we have been actively helping out in the community,” says Shaima Demas, one of Spreading Grace’s founding members.
“We have bought schoolbags for poor children, we distributed bags of hygiene supplies to municipality workers, visited the old people’s homes and worked with special-needs children, among other things.”
Shaima, who is studying to be a chemical engineer, says they decided to volunteer abroad to celebrate National Day in a manner that showed the country’s values.
“Not only has the UAE opened its doors to different people, but it is known for giving, sharing and actively assisting others,” she says.
“So the idea of us going to another country and giving in person has added another level of understanding to this symbolic idea.” In the West, it has become a rite of passage for university students to take time off to volunteer in less privileged countries, but the same is not true in the Arab world.
So when Spreading Grace members spoke to their parents and colleagues they were met with resistance and even derision. Fellow students would ask why they wanted to go to Africa, Mohammed Ali says. But he and other members were adamant and organised the entire trip themselves.
“We contacted Mrs Judi Palmer, founder of Cef, who was very welcoming,” says Mohammed. “She helped us with transport and accommodation at the bed and breakfast she runs.”
The group booked their flights on flydubai, the only airline that flies directly to Zanzibar, with a one-hour stopover in Dar es Salaam.
There was a last-minute hiccup when on the flight they realised one of the group had mistakenly booked the ticket only as far as Dar es Salaam.
“When we realised this, we spoke to the flydudai crew who were very helpful,” Shaima says. “The minute we landed in Dar es Salaam, the ground crew booked her on a local flight to Zanzibar and she arrived at the same time as us.”
Then they went to work at the school, trying to better the children’s reading, maths and interactive skills.
At the same time, one team member, Khalid Ibrahim, supervised the building of the chicken coop.
Khalid’s mother could not understand why her son would travel all the way to Africa to build a coop.
“She thought I was crazy.”
But the idea of helping with the food programme sounded like a great idea to him.
“These children are malnourished and eggs have good nutrients, ensuring the children will be well fed and have energy to grow and learn,” Khalid says.
“I like to build things from scratch and if I could do that to make other people’s lives better, then it just gives me a lot of joy.”
He had already prepared plans for the coop, but when he saw the location he realised he could not build what he had in mind. “The location was an overgrown forest with uneven ground, and it was kind of a challenge to clear it all up and build a structure on it within the tight timeframe of only four days,” Khalid says.
The young engineer altered his design on the spot and built a much larger coop than he had initially planned.
“One of the lessons that I learnt from this trip is that if you are motivated enough then you will find a way to deal with different challenges.”
Mohammed Ruwaizeq says: “We also did a comprehensive feasibility study on how the school could generate its own power. Hopefully we can come back in August to instal solar panels to generate enough power for Cef.”
Manal Al Mutawa, who is majoring in international relations, says the trip was a life-changing experience.
“Each day, while on our way to the school, we would pass by the vegetable market and buy fruit for the children’s snacks,” she says.
“We would buy avocados, bananas, papayas, pineapples and other fruits available in the market. I was humbled and touched by the way the children observed and appreciated everything. We touched their hearts and we will definitely try to help them more in the future.”
Judi says she was very happy to host the group, as Cef is short-staffed and always welcomed help.
“It was a wonderful time for the children,” she says. “They loved the attention from the volunteers and warmed to them.
“There was also a lot of cultural exchange and the kids learnt a lot about the UAE and the significance of the National Day.”
Spreading Grace has now been inundated with requests from other students who want to volunteer.
“We were kind of pioneers who showed others how beneficial volunteering can be,” Shaima says.
“Perhaps now we have opened the doors to others to do more meaningful activities and service and bring joy to those who are less advantaged.”
Updated: December 22, 2015 04:00 AM