Jambo! My journey to Africa

Jambo! Greetings to you using a common Swahili salutation. Friends, I find myself in Tanzania, Africa, 11 time zones away from Alaska, where I spent my summer. For many of you, my friends and family, it might come as quite a surprise that I am in Africa, on a long term volunteer stint. And honestly, I can hardly keep up myself these days. So, here’s the story of how I wound up in East Africa.

It all starts with my brother Matt and his wife Kelly. They have been planning to move to Arusha, Tanzania, permanently, to help an organization that takes in orphaned Tanzanian babies. Kelly began doing research early on sourcing organic food for the family, which led her to find an organization called Food Water Shelter (FWS). She found that FWS sold organically grown produce in Arusha, and it just so happened that FWS also had an opening for a volunteer finance manager. Kelly passed the volunteer position along to me.

I received Kelly’s message in August while I was still working in Alaska. It had been a challenging summer for me – and before that, a difficult winter – and I was ready for some down time. Psychologically, I needed a break. But I also knew that this was too good of an opportunity to pass up. For several years, I’d wanted to do precisely this thing – putting my professional accounting experience to work volunteering internationally.  So, I submitted my application.

The volunteer lounger area and kitchen
The volunteer lounger area and kitchen

Things have moved really fast for me ever since. I’ve had to book flights and train rides and bus trips; I’ve moved some of my possessions across the country; I’ve done all kinds of research on Africa; got all my shots; researched Visa costs; spent many hours packing just what I need, in order to transport my most prized 44 pounds of earthly belongings that I need for the next 8 months. It has been an incredibly busy and challenging time.

But here I am! Tanzania, Africa! I arrived only days ago. I love the people here, they are so generous and happy, and I am deeply grateful for a culture with the term pole pole (pronounced poley poley), meaning “take it slow, take it easy.” The cab drivers at the airport reminded me of this when it was four in the morning and my ride from the airport had not arrived. =) I’m definitely in a space right now where I can use some rest, and I’ve taken pole pole as my mantra for the time being.

Kids of Arusha!
Kids of Arusha!

I am also thrilled to be working with FWS. I am the onsite finance manager, living in the Volunteer Village, along with a few other international volunteers, helping out with the Kesho Leo project. Kesho Leo is an eco-friendly children’s village. They provide a home for orphans and vulnerable women, a school for local children, and they also have several farms that establish and cultivate permaculture and grow organic foods for sale to the local community.

Mzungu is the Swahili word for “white person.” As a white person, I am definitely a minority here, but I feel very welcomed. The Tanzanian people are very warm and hospitable. Undugu is the term used to describe the spirit of helpfulness and generosity, and I have definitely felt this spirit. Children will see me, a mzungu, and yell, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” with giant grins on their faces.

One of the organization’s goals is to hand over as much of the daily operations of FWS to local people as they can. As such, there are only a handful of us mzungus. Most of the operations are carried out by local Tanzanians. There are several paid farmers, teachers, secuirty guards, as well as an oversite Manager – all local Tanzanians.

Shower facilities. =)
Shower facilities. =)

I especially appreciate the focus on sustainability. Many local farmers, I’m told, use a lot of chemicals to grow food. FWS is unique in the area in that all the food we grow is organic.

It feels good to me to be living in simple and primitive conditions, conserving resources by doing things like taking bucket baths and using compost toilets. The compost toilets are quite fascinating because by mixing in a bit of sawdust with one’s pee and poo, the waste can be converted into compost soil in only a matter of months. =)

Africa has much to teach me, I think. It is a place very different from my home, and as an American Westerner, I think this is important for me. I come hoping to learn and grow, but I also come hoping that I can give something. Hopefully, there will be reciprocal helpfulness. Undugu! A spirit of generosity.

If you would like to help me in this venture, I am raising a bit of financial support. Between airfare, vaccination shots, and Visa costs, these base expenses will easily top $3,000, and this does not include cost of living expenses. If this is the kind of organization and work that resonates with you, I would definitely appreciate any donations you could make. I’ve created a fundraising site where you can make a financial contribution:


Here is a short YouTube video made about a year ago highlighting a few of the things happening at Kesho Leo, the main project of FWS:

If the video embed fails, here is the YouTube link:

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

7 thoughts on “Jambo! My journey to Africa”

  1. Hey Jon, that’s wonderful. I’ve been to Arusha in my youth as a tourist coming from Kenya and the area is incredible. You perhaps have not yet got to go on safari, but it’s only a matter of time with Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti right next door. I love what you’re doing too, so keep on keeping us posted. Been missing your blogging for too long!


  2. Mzungu is derived from “going in circles.” Haha

    One of the few things exempt from import duty is chemical fertilizer. 😦

    Sounds like you are happy about being there. Glad to see that. Did you make it Neema yet?

    See ya soon!


  3. I’m definitely a Mzungu here…..Ha, ha…..Good news for ya. Word on the street is that by the time y’all arrive, there will be a small organic market going in the city. Cool, huh?


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