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Bryant High School student Hannah Patterson spent several weeks prior to the start of her junior year wielding a pickaxe and shovel, going on safari, sampling goat's blood, and avoiding poisonous trees.
While not a typical summer vacation for a 17 year old, Hannah said she loved every minute of her community service trip to Tanzania, Africa, and plans to move there after college.
Hannah had been searching online for a scholarship-funded trip to take. She expected the experiences that did not cost anything would not be elaborate. At best, she hoped for a train ride or something, she said.
But once she did some research, Hannah found that the National Geographic Society offers overseas expeditions for those who are willing to do work in the country they visit.
Her choices were China or Tanzania. Hannah said she had always felt called to and wanted to travel to Africa, so the decision was easy. She wrote a letter to the National Geographic Society. They called her in April to let her know she had been chosen for the expedition, and she was on a plane in July.
Hannah was the first person in the entire South to participate in the program.
The whole experience was "surreal," she said. From the moment her feet hit the ground in Tanzania, she felt "completely changed."
"I knew I could have something better in life."
The most striking cultural difference Hannah saw was the closeness of the people in the villages of Africa. "They all seemed like a family. They are always thinking of how they can help each other," she said.
In addition to the task of building a water pipe system, the National Geographic Expedition group was tasked with providing school supplies to some of the orphans in the community.
Throughout Africa, school is free but books are not. "Anyone will tell you the amount your education depends on how much money you have," she said.
One reason Hannah wishes to return to Tanzania is to teach English to impoverished children.
She met many during her travels. The group visited different villages every day. One of the poorest places Hannah spent time was Maji ya Chai. The name comes from the words for tea water, because the area is considered to be unclean by some nearby places because of the prevalence of leprosy.
The saddest experience during the expedition was perhaps visiting the leprosy clinic, Hannah said. Most of the people had lost limbs or their eyesight, but they still sewed kids' school uniforms. "They do it for the love of the community."
The sense of family between the Africans "is mind-blowing, Hannah said. "Kids will be walking down the street and offer you some of their food, or someone might offer you a bite.
After the trip, Hannah now feels like she is part of the family. She was especially close to a man named Jeremiah, a friend who would walk with her and teach her things about African culture.
Maggie was another friend, whom she met on safari. "She was like a mom to me when I was there," Hannah said. Maggie has invited Hannah to stay with her when she visits Tanzania again, "she said as long as I wake up and 'give her my smile.'"
Jeremiah has offered to give her an acre of his land and build her a house if she moves there.
The people in Africa are not as poverty-stricken as Hannah thought they would be.
"The stereotype is that life is so bad," she said, "but it's not what you think," aside from the practice of drinking goat's blood to utilize every part of the animal, which Hannah did not care for, and the absence of available toilets.
"A lot of times, the reason the African families did not have some modern conveniences was not due to a lack of money, but because they live simple lives. This lifestyle is appealing for Hannah.
"I like it a lot," she said. "It's my cup of tea."