August 16, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 33

Slide show Sunday on grads' Africa trip

There were no hot showers and no end to the dust at a Moshi, Tanzania orphanage where three Haines High School friends spent five weeks working beginning in June.

Elena Horner, Brook Cinocco and Jackie St. Clair made the trip a few days after graduating from high school here.

“The mops were filthy. It was like spreading dirt around,” Horner recalled this week. “All the clothes I took got ruined. Nothing ever seemed to get clean.”

St. Clair, who has a pet goat in Haines, awoke in the morning to the sound of goats being slaughtered by the butcher who lived next door. “It was kind of tough hearing goat screams in the morning,” she said. “If you woke up early, there’d be goat parts hanging from the tree.”

Cinocco said the smells of the place – including from an open garbage dump and gray water in the streets – “weren’t that good.”

But all three this week said they made bonds with the children there. “We built a connection with them. We spent every day there with them,” Cinocco said. And they picked up a little Swahili, Horner said. “The language barrier was really difficult, but it got fun after the first couple weeks, picking up words from what people were doing and trying to elaborate on what people were saying.”

The trio will give a slide show and talk about the trip 5 p.m. Sunday at the Sheldon Museum.

The young women were inspired to volunteer for the Kilimanjaro Orphanage Center after a school presentation by resident Jamie King about the time he spent working there. They raised money for their trip by hosting a local spaghetti feed and selling art note cards.

Dr. Greg Higgins, a Haines resident who works as a volunteer coordinator for the center, was their connection. Higgins also provides medical screenings to the 43 children of the orphanage and a related preschool program. He keeps a spare bedroom to house volunteers, and keeps in touch with Haines friends.

The girls arrived in Moshi a week after graduation, and were put to work right away. The orphanage houses children ages 4 to 18 and strives to provide a permanent home, as adoption is not available. The trio’s main project was to finish a library and computer room at the center, but daily chores like cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping and laundry kept them from finishing the new room until the end of their commitment.

They also spent hours with orphans jumping rope, making paper airplanes and engaging in other activities that helped them form strong connections despite the language barrier.

St. Clair said she was impressed with the spirits of the orphans, each of whom had lost at least one parent to the HIV virus. “It was amazing how normal they were. They’d laugh and play and fight like regular kids even though they don’t have parents and they’re all living together in this one complex.”

The trio also worked at the preschool that serves more than 300 young children. Split into just three classrooms with five teachers, the classes seemed chaotic. They were able to pitch in, however, and helped with the basics of sounding out the English alphabet. They taught the students songs and worked on English pronunciation with teachers.

Another rewarding experience was sorting and cleaning the first harvest of rice grown on the center’s farmland. In order to process the 50-kilogram bags of rice, workers first spread the rice onto tarps in order to sweep away stray grass, leaves and rocks. The cleaned rice is then sent to a local facility to be hulled, returning as white rice. The farm produced about 5,000 pounds, enough to supply the center a year.

They also served as assistants for Higgins as he made medical check-ups, checking for pneumonia and other ailments. Most of the youths there had ringworm and many were treated for intestinal worms.

St. Clair said highlights of the job included fresh fruit and vegetables available at Moshi’s outdoor markets, the brightly-colored clothing of Tanzanian women and rides in a “dalla-dalla,” a minivan that served as a taxi, crammed with as many as 30 riders. “They’d get so crowded you’d have to stand up. People would hand you their babies to hold, or their groceries.”

In the new computer room, the Haines girls cleaned and painted walls, built bookshelves and organized about 1,000 donated books. They shopped in town for furniture and saw the fruits of their labor almost immediately, as older children used the room to do their homework. They also taught older students to use the room’s five computers.

Since returning, the volunteers have received e-mails from the orphanage, including photos of the students.

St. Clair, who had previously traveled to Cambodia, Europe, Ecuador and Mexico, said the trip improved her confidence about making such trips. “It proved to me how doable this is. It opened up the world a little more.”

She said she’d like to return to Africa with medical training. “They really need that over there… One of the best parts of being there was spending time with people who are making such a big difference.”