Turning inner space into outer space

July 31, 2017

How my web skills helped cultural tourism in Tanzania

The three weeks I spent in Tanzania as a volunteer web designer in the Leave for Change program were a perfect fit for me. Except for Joomla, but even that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

When I first heard about the program at Thompson Rivers University, I was working as an auxiliary, which meant I wasn’t qualified to apply. It was also soon after having been laid off my job of over 20 years at the Kamloops Daily News. The family financial picture was uncertain, to say the least.

But three years later, I was on full-time and my wife agreed that this too good an opportunity to pass up.

I went to the Uniterra website to check out Leave for Change openings and was surprised to find a couple of openings for web designers. The one in Tanzania seemed closer to what I was doing in TRU’s marketing and communications department, so I made it my first choice when applying.

A few months later I was on my way.

Looking back on it, I can’t really say why I was so nervous about going. I worried about every little detail, even though I had been assured by other volunteers that the organization would take good care of me. And in fact, they did.

I was greeted at the airport and taken to a beautiful bed-and-breakfast in Arusha, a city near Mount Kilimanjaro. In fact, I viewed this fabled peak from the airplane on the way in. It was an impressive sight.

In spite of a warm welcome, I found myself overwhelmed by the foreign-ness of the place. The closest that I have come to a similar country was Sri Lanka back in 1982. I was a lot younger then, and a lot more fearless.

I felt not so much cultural shock as cultural overload. There was just so much to take in.

Needless to say, I adapted. And what helped — as I mentioned at the beginning — was the fact that my assignment was a perfect fit. The work set out for me on the Tanzania Cultural Tourism website was a lot like the work I’ve been doing for years at TRU.

Updating. Coding. Editing. Organizing.

It all came together because it was stuff I was already used to doing. The upside to being an old pro (the downside being that you’re old) is that you have confidence that you can solve pretty much any problem that gets thrown your say.

The first problem, and the biggest, was trying to figure out Joomla. This is a content management system along the lines of WordPress. Unlike WordPress, it is poorly documented and ugly as sin.

At first I struggled to do the simplest tasks. How do you update an article? It can’t be that hard. One thing that helped immensely was a theme I found for the back end that at least cleaned up the clutter and made the interface look like something that was designed in this century.

I persevered and eventually discovered how to do all the things I needed to do. The key was creating my own documentation. I wrote down where everything was, along with step-by-step instructions on how to get stuff done.

So how was this a blessing? By teaching myself I was better able to teach others.

The bulk of the assignment entailed updating a website that hadn’t been updated in five years. A lot had changed, and a lot hadn’t been coded correctly in the first place. It was a big job.

But the other half of the assignment, which in some ways was more important, was to leave behind the knowledge I had gained. Those step-by-step instructions I created for myself forced me to break things down into manageable bits of training for three staff members of the Tanzania Tourism Board.

They had initially wanted me to work with their IT department on training. But I assured them that using a CMS to update a website was no more difficult than using Microsoft Word to update a document.

They were pleasantly surprised to learn that I was right.

The real test, of course, will be to see whether they actually do keep the site up to date now that I’m back in Canada. They have my email address, and I offered several times to give them guidance if they need it.

My fear is that the staff is quite small, and even with the best of intentions they just might not find the time to do the updates. Other things might take priority. We’ve all been there.

Regardless of the outcome, I’m satisfied with what I accomplished in 12 working days. I did as much as humanly possible for a good cause.

Cultural tourism, which I had never heard of before, is a great idea. Local groups around the country organize tours of their village or region, and apply to the Tanzania Tourism Board for support. They must meet strict guidelines.

I saw one such enterprise in a place called Tengeru. The people there were incredibly friendly. To a certain extent, it was rehearsed — how could it not be? — but I also felt a genuine warmth.

The day consisted of two main parts: a coffee tour and a canoe ride at a nearby lake. Our guide had a great personality and proved to be quite knowledgable. His English was impeccable. The fact that he had experience guiding tourists on Kilimanjaro probably didn’t hurt.

I learned where coffee comes from, and had a lot of fun doing it.

But the best part was knowing that most of the money people spend on these tours (I met three Americans and three Belgians while there) stays in the community for local initiatives such as education and health care.

The website I worked on helps promote these tours. Visitors and tour operators can refer to it and find something that suits them. Pretty much everyone who visits Tanzania comes for Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti or Zanzibar. But they often have a few days where they are at loose ends, and these cultural tours are a great way to fill the gap.

If I was even in some small way able to keep these tours thriving, I will indeed be quite happy.