BLSA Students Travel to Tanzania to Volunteer at Women's Center

Annual Trip Serves as an Unforgettable Cultural Experience
Law students Joe Charlet, Toccara Nelson, Nel-Sylvia Guzman and Kierstin Fowler; two of their supervisors; and law students Devyne Byrd and Lola Akere stand in front of the Women's Legal Aid Center in Tanzania, where they volunteered over the break.

Law students Joe Charlet, Toccara Nelson, Nel-Sylvia Guzman and Kierstin Fowler; two of their supervisors; and law students Devyne Byrd and Lola Akere stand in front of the Women's Legal Aid Centre in Tanzania, where they volunteered over the break.

February 16, 2017

Members of the Black Law Students Association at the University of Virginia School of Law recently reported on their 12-day winter break service trip to the East African nation of Tanzania.

The group of eight worked pro bono at the Women’s Legal Aid Centre in Dar es Salaam, the nation's largest city.

"All members have had various travel experience and come from different backgrounds before law school, but we now share this experience as a group," said BLSA vice president Nel-Sylvia Guzman.

Keisha James, BLSA's community service chair, led the trip.

BLSA participates in international volunteer work each year, although the destination and organization served may change. The following are some of the reflections students had on this year's experience:

Toccara Nelson '19: As a first-time, international traveler, I was extremely excited, yet nervous, to be traveling outside of the country. Since I had I never ventured internationally before, I did not know what to expect. I received information from our multiple preparation meetings and through UVA’s Travel Clinic, but nothing prepares you better than experience.

Kirsten Jackson '18: Our first full day in Dar es Salaam was also my 26th birthday. We spent the day exploring what would be our home for the next two weeks. We ended our evening at a local restaurant, whose food became a staple in our diet.

Devyne Byrd '19: While in Dar es Salaam, we worked with the Women’s Legal Aid Centre, a local organization that works heavily within the community. All of the WLAC employees were very friendly, calling out “kirabu,” which means "welcome," as we went office to office to introduce ourselves. On our first day, our group worked with an advocate and had a conversation on women’s empowerment. She informed us that a major way they tried to get women more financial freedom in Tanzania was through property rights. We then helped her brainstorm ways to inform women of their rights and encourage them to exercise them.

The next day we were split into groups to do different tasks. I worked on researching the procedure for applying for observer status in the African Commission of Human and People’s Rights, and filling out the application for the center. Others went to the organization's hotline or observed client meetings. All of our jobs were made more difficult by the lack of reliable internet, so we had to rely on books and other legal interns for research purposes. We were also invited to a meeting that included all of the volunteers and interns, which discussed cases and work WLAC had for the week. They also discussed problems they confronted around the office and set out guidelines for the upcoming week. Although we were not in the loop about most things discussed, it was interesting to hear their plans and observe the way their office ran their day-to-day issues.

Kierstin Fowler '17: Our last day at WLAC was fortunately not one filled with sad good-byes, but rather was colored by unity and hope for collaboration in the future. As we wrapped up our individual and group assignments, our conversations regarding American and Tanzanian law and cultural differences continued. While some days we focused heavily on American politics and laws dealing with homosexuality, divorce and property division, on our final day we put a concentrated effort into meeting in the middle of a much simpler barrier: language. Because those in Tanzania learn both English and Swahili, the individuals at WLAC took it upon themselves to help make sure that we left their country with some grasp of Swahili to take back to America. I sincerely hope that I continue to learn more Swahili in subsequent visits to Tanzania and other African countries. We wrapped up our time at WLAC by saying "kwaheri" to our supervisors, fellow interns and various clients, and went off to explore Dar es Salaam for the final time.

Lola Akere '19: While we were in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania celebrated Revolution Day. As an African native, the privilege of experiencing Zanzibar’s celebration of independence from Britain was remarkable. After independence Zanzibar merged with the old country of Tanganyika to form Tanzania. I was blessed with the opportunity to spend my day with native Tanzanians. We chose to celebrate the holiday on a nearby island. During the 30-minute boat trip, my friends told me the story of how Zanzibar gained independence from England in 1963. A month later, they elected their first president and drove out all of the foreign elites who were limiting the growth of the black Africans. Witnessing the celebration, I was able to reflect on the different ways countries celebrate liberation from England. Both Americans and Nigerians tend to resort to fireworks and big parties. In Tanzania, they celebrated revolution day by laying out on the beach, reading books and chatting with old friends. Old school friends long separated used the holiday to reunite. Strangers felt uninhibited to spark conversations. The spirit of love and fraternity was quite evident. After a few hours, people began to gather their belongings and return to the mainland. Once everyone had made it safely off the island, the crowds did not disperse. Rather, strangers turned into friends as everyone watched the sunset together. No words were said. No one needed to speak. For the Tanzanians, Revolution Day was certainly about more than just celebrating history. I got the sense that the celebration was for life. Having my western background, the East Africans helped me gain a new perspective on what it meant to be free. 

Students also used their free time to take trips to Zanzibar and the Mikumi National Park, near Morogoro.

Joe Charlet '18: Zanzibar has a whole history separate from mainland Tanzania. Approaching the Stone Town section of Zanzibar, it was impossible not to admire the unique architectural elements that force you to recognize that this area is a blend of East African, Arabic and European influences—though one of the most noticeable influences is the former rule of the Sultanate of Oman, due to Stone Town’s history as its capital on Zanzibar. We also saw that Zanzibar’s affluence seemed to mostly be contained to the coasts, which as our driver complained to me when he later took me back to Stone Town over a crumbling bridge, could be summarized as, “we love our tourists, whose visits let us live our lives, but your money never gets directed to our infrastructure.”

Lola Akere, Kierstin Fowler, Devyne Byrd, Toccara Nelson, Kirsten Jackson, Joe Charlet, Keisha James and Nel-Sylvia Guzman

On their free weekend, Lola Akere, Kierstin Fowler, Devyne Byrd, Toccara Nelson, Kirsten Jackson, Joe Charlet, Keisha James and Nel-Sylvia Guzman went on safari at Mikumi National Park.

Nel-Sylvia Guzman '18: We traveled six hours by van to Mikumi National Park, where we want on a day-and-a-half safari. Our trip to the safari showed us there was more to the eye in Tanzania, there was beauty in the locality; those who to the outside world seemed as if they had very little, were rich with experience and life and simplicity. We were able to see numerous animals, including four out of the “big five” animals, which are lions, rhinos, buffalos, giraffes and elephants. We didn’t see rhinos because Mikumi did not have any in the entire park.

Media Contact

Eric Williamson
Associate Director of Communications and Senior Writer

News Highlights