We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
Lusine Sarkisyan is volunteering at the non-profit Zaydesa in Zanzibar.
Three plane rides and 27 hours later, I finally arrived in Zanzibar. I was greeted by my country coordinator who took me to our flat in the historic part of Stone Town. I was very excited to share the flat with four more volunteers who came to Zanzibar to teach English. My roommates took me on a neighborhood tour where we walked through narrow alleys filled with friendly faces trying to sell us local spices and souvenirs. After spending the weekend exploring the neighborhoods of Stone Town, I was ready to start work at Zaydesa.
During the first week of my stay, I had to get used to a few things: constantly trying to get access to internet, encountering a few friendly lizards, sleeping under a mosquito net, and taking cold showers … Now, after a week in Zanzibar, I can’t help but enjoy the slow pace of life and don’t actually mind living without constant access to internet. As opposed to my hectic life back home, not having access to technology gives me an opportunity to slow down, enjoy every moment, reflect on my day, spend time with my roommates, and get to know them better. People on this island find pleasure in anything and seem to lead a more enjoyable life. As I spend more time here, I am learning how to focus on people and enjoy life.
Better Late Than Never
On my way to Zanzibar, ten minutes before the scheduled take-off from the airport in Mombasa, I asked one of the airline personnel how long it would take to board the plane. She did not respond, but had a confused expression on her face. That was when I realized that time management is not a priority in Africa. As opposed to the fast-paced lifestyle in DC, most Zanzibarians have a more relaxed attitude towards deadlines and time in general. If you walk down the streets of Stone Town, you will hear two of locals’ favorite phrases: pole pole – no worries or take it easy and hakuna matata – no problem. It is very common to start a workday later than usual and end it early. By leading a slower-paced life, Zanzibarians try to free themselves from stress and focus on their relationships with friends and family. The pole pole lifestyle was the most difficult concept to get used to but I am learning how to appreciate it.
Even though Zanzibar is one of the most beautiful places on earth, its population is affected by poor education, lack of employment, training, and other economic challenges. Over 50 percent of the population is under the age of 24. The organization I have been volunteering with works closely with the Zanzibarian youth, women, and other vulnerable groups to create employment opportunities, address substance abuse and promote HIV/AIDS awareness.
I have been working with Zayedesa for about a week now. I still remain amazed at their commitment and dedication to the local population of Zanzibar. By working closely with local communities, they make a real impact on the lives of the people affected by unemployment, poverty, and health issues. Although some of the management staff has been educated in the United States and Europe, they chose to return to Zanzibar to serve their community. Working witch such passionate and dedicated people makes it easier to teach them the skills they need to support their community.
During my first day at Zayedesa, I sat down with the CEO to identify their needs and challenges. We discussed ways I could utilize my skills and knowledge. Based on the conversation, it was clear that my main priority is to increase their capacity to raise donor funds to support their mission. The CEO has identified a few USAID funding opportunities that I am currently exploring. I will also be working with the Program Manager to train her how to find and apply for US-funded grants.
Detroit and Bombay Sober Houses
On Tuesday, I attended one of Zayedesa’s outreach missions, during which we visited two sober houses (Detroit and Bombay) that provide safe living environments to people recovering from substance abuse. During the outreach missions, a team of peer educations and lab technicians provided pre- and post-test counseling and conducted free onsite HIV testing. As I was talking to the Project Manager, I learned that there is only one organization in Zanzibar that provides psycho-social support to people tested positive for HIV. This seems to be a challenge Zayedesa is trying to address through the outreach missions. During these missions, Zayedesa’s post-testing counselors ensue that people with positive results not only receive medical treatment but also connect with the organization that provides critical psycho-social support. In addition to conducting HIV testing and raising awareness, Zayedesa also provides access to anonymous toll free National AIDS Helpline.
In order to sustain the Detroit Sober House, its residents receive training and learn a variety of skills from beading to painting and sculpting. Every week, a team of trainers works with the residents to hand make jewelry and craft for sale at local markets.
Participating in the outreach missions to sober houses was truly insightful – I learned a lot about Zayedesa’s work at the community level. More importantly, I learned from listening to sober house residents share their experiences, challenges, and their appreciation of the work done by organizations like Zayedesa.