A baby with Down syndrome might be left in a field to be eaten by hyenas and lions. Mothers who give birth to imperfect children could be ostracized by villagers and prevented from drawing water from the local well for fear of contagion.
Others, born with albinism, might be seen as enemies and murdered or dismembered by villagers, who think a body part will bring them special powers and good health.
This summer, Georgia College students will have the opportunity to dispel superstitions like these that linger in some rural areas of East Africa. Six students are going on the “Disabilities and Culture” study abroad trip July 12-27 to the diversely-beautiful but sometimes perplexing country of Tanzania. They’ll engage with children and parents there – contributing their knowledge to educational programs the country has implemented in recent decades to help families with physically- or mentally-impaired children.
“There’s some really fascinating things happening concerning disabilities there,” said Dr. Nicole DeClouette, associate professor of special education. “This is a country where, in some parts still, they tie kids up or put them in cages if they have disabilities. That practice is illegal now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it still happens deep in rural areas.”
“I always tell students that their life is going to change,” DeClouette said. “It’s emotionally difficult. There’s no way they can see the things they see and hear the things they hear and come back the same person.”
It’s a quick-paced trip that starts in the lush-green Usambara Mountain region on the border of Kenya, where students will visit Sebastian Kolowa Memorial University, and ends in the Rift Valley with a safari adventure at Tarangire Park, where students could see giraffes, elephants, panthers, warthogs, baboons, hyenas, lions and hippos. They stay at rustic lodges along the way, eating the Tanzanian diet of mostly vegetables, rice and beans.
Georgia College has 13 faculty-led study abroad programs this summer, according to Liz Havey, assistant director of Education Abroad. They all have learning objectives, homework and academic credit. But she said the Tanzania program is also packed with on-site learning opportunities. Students interact with Tanzanians every day – at schools, community centers and orphanages – seeing up close how differently one society names, views and treats disabilities, compared to the United States.
“Every single day, students are in direct contact with locals of the culture in a very meaningful way,” Havey said. “Students are working with children who have disabilities, they’re working with their parents and teachers. It makes this a really unique and rewarding experience.”
“Anytime you step outside of this country, you have the opportunity to see the world in a different way,” she said. “Just having that opportunity to step outside of what is comfortable, what you have known for your entire life, can help transform that perspective. In many students, it helps create or broaden their sense of empathy, their sense of compassion for those who are different.”
Sophomore psychology major Abigail Leedy from Peachtree City is excited to see Africa, especially the Maasai tribe, because its culture is vastly different from what she knows.
“Swahili is the main language spoken there, and we’re learning some basic phrases,” said Leedy, who wants to be a clinical social worker after college. “But I think one of the most difficult things will be accepting cultural norms that we may not agree with and trying to understand those norms from an outsider’s perspective.”
Students will bring games, educational toys and therapeutic items – purchased with a $2,500 ENGAGE grant – with them to share with Tanzanian children. This makes the program more hands-on and constructive, DeClouette said. Students will interact with children who have intellectual and physical impairments like autism, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. They’ll also see kids who have trouble learning in school, because of basic but unresolved eyesight and hearing issues.
The group can make a huge impact on the lives of Tanzanians, DeClouette said. Last year, students met with parents who never knew they could join together and fight for their children’s educational rights. During the meeting, the parents stood and faced each other, talking excitedly. By the end of the session, DeClouette said the parents had formed an organization and raised $68.
It’s life-changing transformations like these that sophomore exercise and sport sciences major Kate Verdeyen of Roswell looks forward to. She wants to be an occupational therapist and is eager to work with Tanzanian children with disabilities. Although she thinks the Swahili language might pose challenges, she said being with children has a “universal language of its own.”
“I hope to gain a better appreciation for another culture than my own and, also, I hope to come away with a better appreciation for my own life and the freedoms that we have here in the United States,” Verdeyen said.
“I also hope that, in some way, my being there will have an impact on the children,” she added. “Anytime you step out of your comfort zone, it helps you to learn more about yourself.”