This past November I experienced one of the greatest adventures of my travelling youth. Not one of the greatest distance or adrenaline-pumping thrills, but of the most intimacy in which I experienced a lifestyle so foreign from my own. I’m talking about a step out of my comfort zone and into the lives of a rural, African community as an international volunteer. The project was only 2-weeks in span but the impact was tremendous, for both the community and volunteers alike.
About a year ago, during a time of my own personal reckoning, I applied to be a team leader with an international volunteer organization. In an impulsive whirlwind I assumed responsibility for building a team of adults, selecting a grassroots project abroad and facilitating the entire experience over the course of a year.
And so the project ensued. I was relieved to have had recruited nine amazing volunteers dedicated to getting their hands dirty digging trenches for a sustainable irrigation system in Naro Moru, Kenya. After plenty of orientation meetings and pre-departure guidance, my team of rookies set out for Kenya on the 8th of November, 2013.
Our destination was a village at the base of Mount Kenya where an existing water system proved no longer sufficient for the growing population. The monetary donation from volunteers made it possible for the community to secure skilled labour and larger PVC piping to replace the old system, which tapped fresh water from the river to distribute amongst individual farms. Our job in-country was to work under the direction of the community members to achieve a newly functional system, pipe by pipe.
Each day Kenyan men and women hiked two hours to the jungle under the blazing sun and at 7,500 ft above sea level. For us volunteers, who admittedly don’t walk two hours in a week, the trek alone proved mighty difficult without the foreign heat and altitude-affected heart rates. One of my volunteers experienced faintness and fatigue so notably that she had to turn back half way accompanied by a Kenyan committee member. This of course was before I was made aware of the wild buffalo that graze the land and meet small groups of people with intense aggression.
Upon descent into the jungle miles of trenches were dug in order to expose the existing pipe. The new system was propped alongside for replacement when weather permitted, often interrupted by downpours of heavy rain from the mountain’s extreme climate changes.
I have to say the first day was the biggest shock. Things in Kenya operate much differently than North American standards. Time is not of the essence and there is little to no stress when progress is threatened. The concept of ‘hard work’ doesn’t hold impactful meaning because gruelling labour persists everyday without sight of the end, and everybody smiles.
Aside from challenging ourselves physically everyday and being put to shame by the Kenyan culture’s tenacity, we had the pleasure of sharing our personal lives with each other through photographs and stories. In Naro Moru we were treated like family from the first day we set foot in the community. We were invited into our new friends’ homes to share meals, meet their children and elderly parents, and learn how they work and what they hope to achieve. Can I say I would treat foreign strangers with the same welcome to my home in Canada? Truthfully, no. As Canadians we pride ourselves on kindness and positive spirit, but I found myself shaking my head with a knowing smile that no one I know encompasses these values more than this community.
No amount of mental preparation can ready you for the range of emotions that you will experience in an adventure like this. Some days are tough. You are far from home, far from anything that resembles your normal routine, living conditions aren’t always comfortable, and you may witness scenes that make your heart ache. These are all completely normal and important things to experience. I’d say being uncomfortable is what makes it unforgettable. The important vision I had for my team was to leave a gentle footprint behind. We did not go to change a way of life or push our influence on the community- we were their visitors, an extra pair of hands, and friends to trade stories with.
For information on the company who helped to make this trip possible, visit Developing World Connections here.
I hope my recount of this experience compels you to take a leap to do something beyond your expectations. There will be moments of self-doubt, extreme gratitude, apprehension, and love for complete strangers. Your sequence of emotions will differ from another but I can promise you all the same- you will never forget it.