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Empowering Lives Through Physical Therapy in Tanzania | A Student’s Story

A 24 year old Doctorate of Physical Therapy student at Stony Brook University, Sarah, has never traveled outside of North America. Africa has always been a destination she dreamed of visiting but did not think that dream would become a reality. Little did she know that her passion for Physical Therapy and her dream of visiting Africa would come together and take her on a life-changing journey. She shares about her Physical Therapy service learning experience and how it impacted not only the lives of the children they worked with, but hers as well:

A physical therapist who graduated from the same program I am a part of now, Kristin, reached out to one of our professors to encourage students to embark on a journey to Tanzania and provide skills we have learned to those in need within a culture that does not have the same resources as ours. When I saw what this trip entailed, I knew I could not turn it down – I was also at a point in my life that I knew I needed to do something different, go somewhere outside of my comfort zone, give back, and gain a new outlook on the world. I really had no idea what the culture would be like and did not look much into the itinerary because I was ready for any sort of experience. I can say, hands down, this trip was better than I could have ever imagined.

Stony Brook PT students visint Shanga

Our student group split up into two teams, serving at two different organizations for the week. I was astonished by the awareness of disability present in Tanzania. I love how the work at Shanga is done by those with a disability, they clearly state that they see ability over disability. It is so inspiring to see how the employees there are able to achieve so much without allowing their impairments get in their way. This was also apparent at Step by Step Learning Centre, where I had the privilege of being involved. The teachers are so devoted to helping their students as best they can! They would each spend individual time asking us questions about what we were doing and why we were doing certain things with the students during the evaluations. At the end of each day, they went home to study what we taught them (how to write a progress note to keep track of the student’s progress, different aspects of Cerebral Palsy: what the majority of the students were diagnosed with). They each came back with questions about such specific aspects of the diagnosis: the types, how the disease can occur, the different presentations, etc.

Students empowering learners at Step by Step Learning Centre through Physical Therapy in Tanzania

Day one, we tried our best to gain as much information on the student’s past medical and social history as we could but with minimal information in their profiles on top of the language barrier present, we were unable to obtain a full picture. However, we used what we had along with the information we gathered from the initial evaluations to create treatment plans for each student to complete with the teachers throughout the school day. Each day, we worked on different interventions to address some of the impairments we found. We performed some stretching, running, hopping, drawing, crawling. We even learned how to play duck-duck-goose in Swahili. The teachers were right alongside us performing the activities with the student’s – Sister Emma was even doing push ups with Rashid and Hans!

After the 5 short days we spent at Step by Step, we saw such progress being made by each student; each one of them was so motivated to complete the different tasks we had been teaching them. We taught one boy how to weight bear through his right hand since he was not using it due to his weakness and no matter what activity we were doing, he would be on the side trying his best to place his hand on the ground in order to increase its use.

I could not have asked for better people to teach what I am so passionate about, as well as such great teachers to learn from. As I reflect on this experience, I believe I may have learned more from the teachers than I was able to teach them.

I now have a better appreciation for the value of time spent with loved ones, I am now a firm believer in “haraka haraka haina baraka” (Hurry, hurry has no blessings) and have gained a great deal of patience. The children taught me how simple it is to just BE HAPPY and laugh as much as possible. They did not seem to let any of their impairments stop them from enjoying the chance to run and play with their friends.

Stony Brook University Physical Therapy students in Tanzania

Aside from the endless inspiration I have gained from Margaret (the founder of Step by Step) and the teachers and students we worked with, I could not have enjoyed diving into the Tanzanian culture more. We were provided with Swahili lessons which was probably one of the coolest things because it made me (and I’m sure the rest of the girls) more welcomed in the culture. Everyone we spoke to in their language got so excited and were beyond willing to teach us how to say certain things.

Going on a Safari was one for the books as well. It is still hard for me to believe that we were just feet away from some of the coolest wild animals. The amount of elephants, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, hippos, and warthogs we saw was so amazing – I never thought I would learn so much about these animals. From talking with our tour guide, I learned how to determine the difference between male and female elephants and giraffes, how to differentiate greater flamingoes from lesser,  black rhinos from white, and why hippos swing their tails so much. We even saw animals I had never heard of: birds with the most beautiful feathers, rodents with the most distinct stripes, and monkeys with blue body parts. This second half of the trip taught me to not take anything for granted and to truly enjoy what nature has given us. There is no other place I have been with a more beautiful sunset or with better landscapes or with such vast ecosystems.

Get out of your bubble and go explore what this world has to offer – not only will you be touching lives of those in need, they will be leaving an unforgettable mark on your life.

Advice for all those hoping and planning on going on this trip of a lifetime in the future:

  1. Follow your heart and embark on this journey – do NOT let anything or anyone stop you.
  2. Dive head first into the culture – speak Swahili and eat the local dishes — how can you say no to beef, rice, beans, and maize?
  3. Ask as many questions that come to mind – the guides/drivers are more than happy to share their experiences and their knowledge of their home — it will make your experience that much more memorable.
  4. Take lots of pictures! They say “a picture is worth a thousand words” and after taking over 2,000 photos, I couldn’t agree more. Each photo I took represents a different part of the trip and tells its own story.
  5. Always remember: Hakuna Matata — “there are no worries” — go with the flow and soak it all in.

Thank you for sharing Sarah!

If you are interested in leading a medical or service learning program in Tanzania, get in touch so we can customize a life changing educational program for you. For inspiration you can view our Faculty-led Programs or Service Learning Projects.