Tom spends all of two hours figuring out what the highlight of his Gap year will be. The answer comes quickly in the form of ‘Gaptastic Tours’ a slick looking website offering six week volunteering trips to rural East Africa for 18-25 year olds, just a snip at £4,000 (excluding flights, insurance and other expenses).
The website features blonde volunteers grinning, white toothed, into the camera with ‘African’ backdrops. To Tom ‘Africa’ seems like a pretty cool place to visit and presents a very different prospect to the South of France, where he has spent most of his school holidays. Convincing the bank of Mum and Dad to fund the trip isn’t hard as they are always harping on about ‘people less fortunate in Africa’ when Tom wastes food at home. And they are pretty happy to place their faith in Gaptastic Tours once they discover that it is fronted by a retired army colonel. Tom likes the look of the girls on the website and who knows, he’ll most likely bump into someone from the old school network.
Tom’s work experience thus far amounts to a couple of stints of waiting and bar work but fortunately Gaptastic, while mentioning ‘manual labour could be expected’, require any relevant experience. Tom opts for a programme that involves helping out at a school in Western Tanzania for five weeks, followed by a spot of R&R on the island of Zanzibar. The website reads; ‘help those who have so little by offering the gift of your time and skills.’ Tom thinks if Prince Harry has done it, how hard can it be?
The twenty hour Gulf Air flight to Dar es Salaam via Abu Dhabi is long but cheaper than the direct option. Tom hopes to be met by a hot blonde ‘Gaptastic’ representative on arrival in Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam but when all of the other airline passengers suddenly melt away, force of habit sees Tom calling his mum.
“There’s no one here mum and it’s, like, 100 degrees.”
“Christ Tom, what this call must be costing!” she exclaims before contacting the Gaptastic London Office. Cherie in London apologises profusely for the oversight, promising to send someone to the airport right away. Tom’s mum takes the Gaptastic Colonel’s personal number just in case.
A Tanzanian chap, Moses, a former employee of the British embassy, rolls up a few hours later. Moses looks blank when Tom asks if there will be any other Gaptastic volunteers joining him. Later Moses supervises as Tom’s rucksack is slung to the roof of a large bus and strapped down next to a crate of chickens. The central bus station is thronging and Tom wonders if his laptop really will be safe up on that roof. Inside the bus, he slips into a front row seat adjacent to a lady in a niqab veil who is breastfeeding her baby. Passengers pile into the vehicle seemingly without end and when the bus finally gets going, the driver, who chews and spits some kind of leaf throughout the journey, proceeds at a terrifyingly high speed. As they leave the city, it becomes apparent that only one of the bus’s headlights is working. Tom plugs himself into his headphones and pretends to sleep.
A couple of days later and Tom finds himself alone, whitewashing the long low buildings of a local school on a hot and humid morning, while scruffily dressed children watch and giggle.
“Mzungu, mzungu,’”one child repeats as she dares to pull at Tom’s shorts before running back to her friends.
Tom looks around. Boys of varying sizes and ages play with a football made from plastic and string in an open area of scrub-land. People smile a lot but they don’t speak much English. It’s the school holidays and Tom has apparently been set to task painting the Forth Bridge. If these people in Africa really do need help, he considers, why do they spend so much time snoozing under the shade of that mango tree?
When the first can of whitewash runs out, Jared, the village Gaptastic rep, explains that there is a problem in getting new supplies. Over the ensuing days Tom retires to the shade of the mango tree and gets pretty adept at bottle top drafts and a game played in the dirt with stones called Bao. The men while away hours gathered around an old transistor radio listening to English football matches.
Tom discovers that the one ‘shop’ in the village offers a surprisingly wide range of useful, if dusty, goods. Local sim cards with data bundles are available. There is a solar powered phone charging facility. Cigarettes, gum and boiled sweets are sold singly, along with sachets of washing powder and small sachets of local gin, plus as much warm Sprite, Coca Cola and Fanta as one person could ever wish for. Fortunately Jared doesn’t mind exchanging Tom’s American dollars for piles of well worn local currency.
One day, an ‘Adventure Overland’ lorry passes through the village, stopping at the shop on its way back from Zambia to Dar. Tom is transfixed as a blonde girl wearing hot pants climbs down from the truck and stretches, much to the fascination of the villagers.
“Mate, d’you think I can cadge a lift back to Dar?” Tom asks Derek, a forbidding looking tattooed overland driver dressed in a ripped a Def Leopard t-shirt who stocking up on ciggies from the shop.
“No worries mate. Hop in.” Derek says, pleasantly tipping Tom a wink, “we’ve got a few hotties on board.”
After a speedy few minutes spent gathering his things, Tom heaves himself aboard the truck, delighted at the prospect of impressing fellow travellers with his travel stories so far. Meanwhile, as the overland truck pulls away, a bemused Jared stands in the centre of the road holding up a can of white paint.
This article was commissioned by the Telegraph Expat Channel, which very sadly will not be published as the Expat Telegraph page has recently closed 🙁 #thelastexpatstereotype?
Hilariously parodying Volun-tourism in Africa: Barbie Savior.com
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Featured image credit: American Eagle Outfitters