Courage abroad

By on August 24, 2013

NIU student visits Tanzania, rides Elburn Days Parade float
ELBURN—Cory Lipsett’s first trip abroad was startling in two ways: he went to Tanzania, one of the world’s poorest countries, and he went without Ragin, the guide dog he’s taken everywhere since the Elburn Lions’ Leo Club donated the dog to him three years ago.

Lipsett, a senior at Northern Illinois University and a Batavia resident, is legally blind. That didn’t stop him from spending a month in Tanzania taking a study abroad class, Experiential Learning with NGOs in Tanzania, taught by NIU professor Kurt Thurmaier.

Though the university offers study abroad experiences to many European countries, Lipsett picked Tanzania because it was a challenging destination for him to reach.

“I thought about some of the more obvious places—France, England—and then I decided, these are places I could go on my own,” Lipsett said. “I wanted to go somewhere I could possibly never go on my own. So the professor who was running the trip spoke to me, and at the time, I didn’t know where Tanzania was on a map, and that certainly fit my criteria of somewhere I had never been before.”

The country, which is located on the east coast of Africa, is perhaps best known as a destination for climbers seeking to scale Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, as well as vacationers on safari. But it’s also a place where a third of the population lives on less than $1 a day, few roads are paved, and millions live without running water or electricity.

Thurmaier has been taking students to Tanzania for several years, but Lipsett was the first visually impaired student who had gone.

“I found it very courageous that this guy, who’d never been out of the United States before and anticipated there would be significant challenges in a country like this, that he would go,” Thurmaier said. “He’s so courageous to just get on a plane and go.”

Lipsett originally planned to have Ragin, a German Shepherd trained by Leader Dogs for the Blind, accompany him, but quarantine regulations made bringing the dog difficult.

“He was without his dog for the first time in years,” said Bill Smar, publicity chairperson for the Elburn Lions. “He was there for 30 days, and the dog had to be quarantined for 30 days going there and then 30 days coming back, so he didn’t take it.”

So Lipsett decided to leave Ragin at home and navigate Tanzania on his own.

“I did not want to worry about quarantine procedures or having to get him food, and also, I talked to a visually impaired lawyer (in Tanzania), and guide dogs are not protected there. Here, the dog has rights and is permitted everywhere, but there, it’s not the same,” Lipsett said. “It was weird. Leaving the dog at my house was certainly the weirdest part, because he comes with me everywhere. I’m certainly used to having him and used to having him help me avoid, say, 3-foot-wide drainage ditches.”

Those drainage ditches proved to be one of the major obstacles that tripped Lipsett up during the trip. The day after he arrived, Lipsett fell into a drainage ditch—one of the many that line the roads to help manage flooding in a country that has a rainy season but no sewer system—and broke one of the four white canes he’d brought to help him locate potential obstacles.

“There’s 3-to-5 foot ditches along the side of every road, and there are no markings, so I fell into one. Somebody said, ‘There’s a hole coming up,’ and I didn’t understand it was a giant drainage ditch,” Lipsett said. “It’s the dry season now, so there wasn’t anything in it, but from that point on I had to be extremely careful even when walking on the sidewalk, because these huge ditches are there, and there’s no standard distance from the road, no standard depth.”

Crossing the street in a country with few crosswalks and no traffic lights was also a challenge, Lipsett said.

“You’re always on your toes when you’re walking around. There is no leisurely stroll. You just have to wait until there are less cars. There’s never no cars, just less. It was a hazard constantly,” he said. “It was stressful.”

Yet despite the challenges, Lipsett said the trip was worth it because it gave him a profound appreciation for the advantages he has received in the United States.

Cultivating that understanding in students was one of the goals of the trip, Thurmaier said.

“The main purpose for me of students going on this study abroad was to give them an opportunity to see how the bottom billion poorest people in the world live, because Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world and we work in one of the poorest districts,” Thurmaier said.

Though Thurmaier took the 10 students to see some of the major tourist attractions in the country—Dar es Salaam, the capital city; Zanzibar, an island in the Indian Ocean; and the Serengeti, the famed safari destination—the majority of the trip was spent in far humbler places.

The group spent three weeks in and around Musoma, a city of about 100,000 people on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, near the border with Kenya. There, students took Kiswahili classes; volunteered to help build a library; attended seminars on the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in development; interviewed local officials; and visited a Catholic mission, some local schools and several NGOs working in the area, including microfinance groups, advocates for AIDS patients, a group providing drinking water, and a school that taught orphaned girls trade skills like sewing.

“It’s a huge challenge to the students,” Thurmaier said. “Students come away from (the islands near Lake Victoria) having really, for the first time, having seen abject poverty. People can go to the south side of Chicago and see poverty, but they haven’t seen this level of poverty. It’s a real sobering experience, and they have a hard time working out how they can live such comfortable lives. It changes their worldview.”

Studying the resources available to visually impaired people in Tanzania was the focus of Lipsett’s research project, so he visited Musoma Primary School, where one teacher and one assistant teach 70 students, 28 of whom are completely blind.

“It’s the only school in the entire region for the visually impaired, so obviously, there are people throughout the region who are not getting any help whatsoever,” Lipsett said. “A big problem is lack of materials, a lack of white canes and braille paper, and unfortunately it gets worse, because there are no secondary programs for the visually impaired in the entire country. It just isn’t there. And that of course is a big issue, because if a student can’t get accommodations, there’s no way they even have a chance of succeeding.”

He also visited the Lake Victoria Disability Centre, a charity that teaches vocational skills such as woodwork, metalwork and dressmaking to Tanzanians with a wide range of disabilities, as well as life skills like sign language.

“The purpose is so that students who finish primary school and can’t go to secondary school due to a lack of accommodations can learn some skills and get a job,” Lipsett said. “If they can’t get an education, they can’t get a job, and they can’t be independent if they can’t work. They have to try something.”

Witnessing the lack of opportunity in Tanzania gave Lipsett a profound appreciation for the opportunities he has had.

“The biggest thing I took away from it is that we live good lives here in the United States,” he said. “We can drink water from the tap without a second thought; we have a light in every room. I’ve realized how valuable my education as I’ve been growing up is. That is something I certainly will not take for granted, my education, coming from an American high school and an American university. Also, just our government—we have a government we can rely on. When there’s a problem with water, electricity, a bad road, you can usually count on it being fixed. That’s not the case over there. You can read about a place, but until you’re really there, you don’t know what it’s like.”

Thurmaier said that it was also valuable for the Tanzanians they met in Musoma to meet Lipsett and see his capabilities.

The group volunteered to help an NGO construct a library in Nyegina, a village near Lake Victoria, which will eventually serve the elementary and secondary students there. Construction equipment is scarce—there are no bulldozers or cement trucks in Nyegina—so students worked to help lay part of the library’s foundation, transporting the building materials by hand. Lipsett spent his volunteer workdays shoveling wet concrete into buckets so that the mafundi, skilled Tanzanian workers who mix cement and lay bricks, could pour it into the library’s foundation.

“(Cory) really redefined for the people working with him what someone who was visually impaired could do,” Thurmaier said. “The fact that he could participate, doing a needed task as part of a team—these guys, I think they were generally awed. They were struck by his capacity, and I think hopefully they will think again when they have a fellow Tanzanian who’s impaired, ‘Maybe they can contribute.’”

Lipsett broke two of his white canes on the trip, but he gave away the other two when he saw the need. One he gave to the teacher’s assistant at the school for the blind, who was also visually impaired and needed one. The other went to a nun he met who was working with students with disabilities.

“She just said, ‘There are a couple of people who could use one,’ and I said, ‘Take this one and put it in somebody’s hands,” Lipsett said.

Though it was his last one, Lipsett said there was only a week left in the trip. He “just buddied up with the other students” and relied on them to help guide him, he said.

He’s been back in the United States for almost three weeks and said his reunion with Ragin was exciting for both of them.

“It feels really good to see him again,” Lipsett said. “One of my instructors (for using a guide dog) said, ‘A cane is an object finder, and a dog is an object avoider.’ It didn’t really occur to me what she meant until I got a dog and was away from him for a month. It wasn’t until I left him for a whole month that I realized how much he does for me. I don’t even notice what he’s avoiding because he’s doing his job.”

The trip has made Lipsett more grateful than ever for Elburn’s Leo Club, a branch of the Lions Club for children aged 12 to 18 that raised the $36,000 to purchase Ragin three years ago. Guide dogs are expensive because of the extended training they undergo, but the Leo Club has helped purchase dogs for three area residents as part of the Lions Club’s mission to assist the blind and visually impaired.

That’s why Lipsett and Ragin rode out on the Elburn Lions Club float during Friday’s Elburn Days parade, as well as volunteered to sell raffle tickets during the festival. It was his way of getting the word out about the good the Lions Club does for the visually impaired in the community, Lipsett said.

He said he encouraged people to come up to him and ask questions about the Lions Club’s charity work and about his dog during Elburn Days because it was the best way to get the message out.

“It’s better advertising if they can see the dog and talk to me,” he said. “You have these conversations: ‘Would you like to buy a raffle ticket?’ And someone asks, ‘What does it benefit?’ Well, it’s this dog right here. The biggest thing that the Lions Club provides is funding to (Leader Dogs for the Blind) who provide, not even a tool, but an assistant to the blind and visually impaired that makes it significantly easier for them to live independently.”

For more information on Tanzania Development Support and the study abroad program, including information on how to contribute to the Nyegina Library Build, visit For information on how to contribute to the Elburn Lions Club, call (630) 365-6315.