Sally Johnston considered herself a normal working mother of three children. When she retired from being a regional sales manager, she decided to volunteer in Tanzania to help make a difference in others' lives. During our interview, she explains how she saw joy despite all the difficulties of poverty, AIDS, abuse, hard work, and more. She loved the children, women, and young boys to whom she taught English. Find out why.
How did you decide to volunteer in Africa?
About two years ago, I had a chance to take a sabbatical from my twenty-six years of work as a regional sales manager. We were a working family, and my work took me on the road a lot. But my kids were now in college. I was driving home from dropping one of them off at college, and it just hit me: I can do whatever I want to do. That was huge. I'd never had the opportunity to say that. I thought about what I really wanted to do: go to Africa and work in an orphanage. So I looked into it, but it turned out that I didn't have enough time then. Instead, the following year seemed to be the right time to go.
What was your experience like?
It was a very spiritual experience for me. It wasn't the sit-there-and-collect-your- thoughts type of spiritual experience. I wasn't focusing on becoming more spiritual. I also didn't go with a specific or religious agenda. No matter how good an agenda is, I didn't want to be part of a human plan. I simply wanted to give back and to love. That really was my only responsibility. I didn't have to cook, go grocery shopping, work, make meals for the family. It was so much fun because all I had to do was love, and it was easy to love. It was such a freeing experience. I felt the most Godlike I ever have in my life. Instead of being an opaque person, I was this clear glass, and God was simply shining through me. And that was an amazing experience.
What organization did you go with, and what did you do?
I went with CCS -- Cross Cultural Solutions. Their belief is that the more you understand about the culture, the better you are as a volunteer. I did four different things. I did work at an orphanage, but only for a few Saturdays. I started out working in an elementary school teaching English to children ages 2 ½ to 7. They were so poor that they didn't have shoes that fit properly. They'd take them off for class, and we'd try to help them shove them back on so they could play on the playground. It was heartbreaking. There was a greater need to help a women's group in the village next to the city. They all had AIDS. Four days a week, I would teach them English for four hours in the morning. Twice a week, we would do a home visit to someone who wasn't feeling well. We'd take a pound of sugar as a gift, and we'd talk and visit. One day a week, there would be a group support meeting. I didn't understand most of it because the women talked in Swahili.
What was it like working with the women in the AIDS group?
I love those women. Their ages ranged from 14 to 60. They are happy; they are courageous. Just what they live through day-to-day is amazing. The worst day in my life is absolutely nothing compared to the best day they've had. Most of the women did not live with their husbands. Once they contracted AIDS from their husbands, their husbands left them because they were a symbol of shame.
These women were also beaten. On one of the home visits to a woman who had been beaten pretty badly, we got into a discussion. Someone said to me, "Well, doesn't your husband beat you?" When I said, "No, he doesn't," they were very surprised. I'm not saying such abuse happens everywhere, but in this small village with this group of women, this was the norm.
They have no money, and they work all the time. They wake up in the morning and go find wood and water. Mamma Grace, who was in charge of our home group, lived at the foothills of Kilimanjaro. Every morning, she would walk up the mountain to get firewood to start the day. Others walk miles to get water. They make breakfast, clean the hut, work in the fields, and take care of the kids. They have market days where they sell their wares. Some of the women walk twelve miles a day just to get to the market. The women are the workers in the country.
The girls who succeed at school are truly amazing because not only do they go to school and do their homework, but they also have all the normal work that the guys don't have. They value education above anything. Mama Grace emailed me a Tanzanian saying. It goes something like this: If you educate one woman in a family, you will change that family for six generations coming.
Despite all this, they're happy, or at least they have a sense of joy. It's like Jesus said, "your joy no man taketh from you" (John 16:22 KJV).
What do you think gives them a sense of joy?
I think one of the things is that they don't need material things to make them happy. They don't have material things. They are happy where they are. I think sometimes we think that we'll be happy when we get there, wherever "there" is. Not everyone is happy in Tanzania. But I am amazed at the level of joy for having so little and at the level of happiness for having to endure so much.
One 14-year-old girl was taking care of her little 2 and 4 year-old brother and sister because their parents had died. She brought them with her, and they sat there on their own, quietly, while their sister learned English. I would give them a crayon and a piece of paper, which they enjoyed. It was a rude awakening to see them so well behaved. On my way home, I flew through the Newark airport in the U.S. and saw children who were screaming and uncontrollable.
What was the fourth way you volunteered in Tanzania?
In the afternoon, I taught English at a boys' detention center. On the outside of the building, there are murals of boys being beaten. But what's interesting is that while there's a hatchet in plain sight, there's no lock on the gate. The boys work in the field. They can come and go. But no matter how horrible the detention center might be, it is better than the other option.
Most of the boys were 11 or 13, but they looked about 8 because of malnutrition. Most were there for non-violent or stupid things, but not all. One boy was in there because he ran away from home. He had lost his parents, and his grandfather didn't know what to do with him. In fact, most of these boys had lost their parents.
At the center were two Maasai girls around 15 and 16 years old who were happy, smart, intelligent, and religious. They had run away from their village because they didn't want to go along with the customs of their people: They are forced to marry at a very young age. The Maasai men have six wives. They practice female mutilation.
I had such respect for these girls. Their courage was amazing. They'd never been in a bus, a car, or a city. Then they got stuck in Moshi (the main town in the Kilimanjaro region where we were working). There isn't a girls' detention center, so the police picked them up and put them in the boys' detention center. The head of the center was a very nice man. He watched out for the girls. We were eventually able to help the girls go to a boarding school. One of the amazing things about Africa is that you can change a person's life with relatively little money.
What helped you as you saw their suffering?
Seeing God everywhere I went. It would've been so easy to be overcome by the human condition of poverty. But I saw happy, rich people. I also read my Bible every morning. I would go out in the garden, which had a beautiful view of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and there I would pray for myself and others. I would pray to know how to be the best expression of God, how to be Love expressed. Then I'd leave everything to God. I never felt unsafe there.
What do you appreciate about your time there?
I saw the Tanzanians loving and respecting mothers. My name over there is "Mamma Sarah" because my oldest daughter, Sarah, went with me. They've lost so many mothers because of AIDS that "mother" is a term of endearment and respect. We became friends with a young African who didn't have a mother, so he'd call me "Mama," and he'd call Sarah, my daughter, "Baba" for sister. They live with a concept of extended family because there's not a lot of immediate family.
I love that I know how to walk holding twelve children. They swarm you when you come. Each child holds one finger and one arm, and with that, you can walk with twelve children. The sense of love that these people express is amazing.
Are you able to do volunteer work at home that means as much to you?
When I came back from Tanzania, I got my ESL certification to teach English as a second language. I wanted to duplicate the feeling I had over there. I help in a classroom at our International Refugee Center. It's a great organization. There are twenty to forty people from eight or nine different countries all helping each other learn English. Some were in a refugee camp in Tanzania for ten years before they got placed here. These people are just happy to be here. To be in a room with that attitude is just wonderful. These people have been through so much, and yet, their joy has not been taken from them (John 16:22). To me, that has to be a sense of God.
Any last thoughts you'd like to share?
I'm no different than anybody else out there who wants to give. It doesn't take a special person to do this. When people say, "That's amazing," it's really not. Anybody can do this. It feels good to give. And you don't have to go to Africa to do