Researching Disability & Development in Tanzania

Rachel and a Tanzanian friend enjoy a meal in a courtyard.
In spending time with local people in Tanzania, Rachel Garaghty found countless opportunities for mutual learning and understanding.

MIUSA: Tell us more about your background in international education.

Rachel Garaghty: I have a Master’s degree in Public Policy, specializing in global policy and human rights. In college, I realized that whatever career I would eventually have, I wanted it to have an international and disability focus.

As a college student, I was encouraged by study abroad staff to travel to places where accessibility would not be challenging, such as the U.K. and Canada, but programs in these countries did not match my goals as a student of a foreign language and international affairs the way Tanzania would.

M: What kind of exchange program did you do?

RG: I traveled to Tanzania to complete independent research on disability and international development for my Master’s degree. Although it was challenging to arrange my own travel and accommodations, I had the support of a few outstanding faculty members at my graduate school and was fortunate to be hosted by the organization Comprehensive Community-Based Rehabilitation of Tanzania (CCBRT).

M: How did you fund your time abroad?

RG: I received a research grant from the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC) and the Stassen Award to support international work, study and travel for students. Both of these awards were only available to students at the university I attended.

M: How did you prepare for your travels to Tanzania?

RG: I sought the advice of people who traveled to Tanzania previously and found the perspectives of professors who lived and worked there especially helpful. I also began considering the disability-related preparations I would need to make, such as finding wheelchair accessible lodging, a personal care assistant, and accessible transportation. I contacted the Clearinghouse staff at MIUSA and travel agencies that specialized in international excursions for people with disabilities and gained their input on travel strategies for wheelchair-users.

M: Did you meet local people?

RG: I spent most of my time with Tanzanians, including many local people with disabilities and their families, which produced countless opportunities for mutual learning and understanding. For me, these opportunities to make personal connections were the most valuable. I felt a lot of gratitude to the people I met who invited me into their lives and shared their stories with me, and came to the realization that disability can be a very unifying experience.

One of my most memorable encounters was meeting with a group of students with disabilities at the University of Dar es Salaam. We shared our experiences in higher education and they explained many of the challenges they faced. I was struck by the realization that some barriers are universal.

M: What was it like living in Tanzania, and what was it like to be a visitor with a disability?

RG: While I spent most of my time doing research, one of my favorite experiences was spending a leisurely weekend in Zanzibar, an historical and beautiful island off the coast of mainland Tanzania. It was amazing. We went on a walking tour that lasted over two hours and visited historic sites, the main market, and an outdoor evening feast for Ramadan. I also discovered my inner gourmand and enjoyed trying as much local cuisine as I could!

There were fewer difficulties than I anticipated living in Dar es Salaam. Wheelchair accessibility was challenging, but I avoided many intractable barriers by bringing my manual wheelchair instead of my power chair. Though there were some challenges, I just loved being in a new and different environment in Tanzania.

I think that I was viewed as a visitor first and person with a disability second. Even though I did not experience negative cultural attitudes towards my disability (in fact, most people I met very friendly and gracious), I learned that many of the Tanzanians with disabilities I met have experienced negative attitudes in their lifetimes. Attitudes are changing, though; organizations such as CCBRT have helped to bring disability issues into the open.

M: What encouragement would you give to other people with disabilities about going abroad?

RG: One of things that really struck me during my experiences in Tanzania was the significance attributed to my presence there as a disabled woman from another country. The relationships that I built have real value and I was able to share (and receive) resources and ideas for better promoting disability rights through my interactions.

I think that there is a very great need for people with disabilities to engage in citizen diplomacy. Not only are we able to be positive representatives for the countries in which we reside, but we are also able to be positive representatives for our disability communities.

M: How has your experience affected your future plans?

RG: International travel seems much more accessible to me now; virtually all of the apprehension I had about traveling as someone with a disability evaporated, and I feel very strongly about encouraging others like me to do it. Most of the resistance I encountered came from people who saw my disability as an impossible barrier to travel in a developing country, whereas I just saw it as a challenge. Now, I know that wherever the future takes me, it will most definitely involve more stamps in my passport.