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“Nothing can quite prepare you for the culture shock when arriving," Avalon primary school teacher Caroline Mulvenna sums up.

And this isn't surprising - the Irish-born Northern Beaches resident has just completed an immersive two-month stint as a volunteer teacher in Tanzania.

"Travelling through the desert into the Maasai school, just seeing the living conditions, the poverty, the health of many of the children - that sort of thing - is very confronting," she explains.

A fervent Christian and self-confessed "empath", Caroline was galvanised into acting out her humanitarian instincts after she heard an inspiring sermon in her Pittwater Parish church. Urged and encouraged by friends, family and the community, she decided to go to Africa, arranging it through Projects Abroad and raising money through My Cause, a crowdfunding website.

"I have to say thank you to all the people who supported me - from school, church, home, and from family in Ireland," she says.

That support included a donation of a full set of Dr Seuss books, which led to more book donations. These contributions have continued since she has returned home - the total currently standing at 960. Caroline is now raising funds to ship the books to Africa.

With high goals around education and learning, Caroline's first few days in Tanzania forced a series of adjustments to her expectations.

"The system is very different. Children normally work in the fields until they were around eight years old and then they are sent to school. The concept of pre-primary education is a foreign one," she tells Peninsula Living.

There is also a very casual, informal approach to attendance, with Caroline's classes varying in size each day from anywhere between 10 to 35 students, and in age from two up to eight - although it wasn't unusual for a baby to be dropped off for the day.

"The care is unlike what we would expect in Western culture," Caroline explains. "For us fin Tanzania] it was nurturing them, making sure they have food, we taught them some hygiene - how to brush their teeth and wash their hands." Some children had other incentives for attending school. "They're fed a meal and for many of them, that's their only meal for the day," she says.

Ultimately, Caroline realised that the school could also offer was social training. "It becomes about how can you assist them with the world that they live in," she states. When the community often went for more than a month without electricity or water, that agenda is no small feat.

Apart from education, Caroline's other passion is music. She teaches it in her Avalon kindergarten, sings at weddings, and performed with her parish band for World Youth Day in Poland (en route to Africa). Music was key to helping her communicate with the students.

"In the Maasai school, they were doing their Maasai dances and singing their songs in Swahili to me, and I would be singing in English," she says.

Caroline intends on going back soon. The experience has fuelled her long-term goal to open a school in a third world country.

How apt that the last line in her favourite Mr Seuss book -Oh, The Places You'll Go! - is "Your mountain is waiting."


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