July is about making connection to what matters and we are psyched to a share another story on volunteerism by one of our mattertribe members, Stella. She shares with us her journey volunteering at Our Lady of Grace Home (OLGH) in Meru, Kenya.
Volunteerism has always been something I felt inclined to do since my days in high school, motivated by a compassion I felt for others. Although I’ve had opportunities to explore some aspects of community service then, I never felt satisfied by the kind of service I was giving. I went on a school service trip to Zimbabwe in high school, but the proportion of time we spent on leisure far outweighed the time we engaged with our target beneficiaries. This breed of run-of-the-mill, 2-week long school organized service trips felt like a fleeting exchange, an almost condescending approach to volunteerism, which emphasized to me the guilty difference between “first world” and “third world”. It was only in university that I realized I could be satisfied only once I knew I was making a difference that truly mattered.
What does it mean to make a difference that matters? I will explain through the story of my involvement with “Pendeza” this year in June 2015, a transformative experience for me.
During my first few weeks as a freshman in Singapore Management University (SMU), I found out about a student-led overseas community service project called SMU Pendeza. Pendeza, or ‘a cause to love’ in Swahili, sounded like the perfect project for me – its main aim was to empower and educate young Kenyan girls stuck in a poor and limiting socioeconomic context, with the hopes of helping them out of the downward spiral of poverty. What’s more, the project valued itself in aiming towards being sustainable – it was four weeks long, while most other service trip projects spanned two or two and a half weeks. This sounded like the type of volunteerism I was into. It contrasted with my high school Zimbabwe service trip, where it felt like a two-week holiday with merely two days of visiting a local high school and dumping supplies and money onto them. Maybe it was my way of making amends for my high school days, or myself sensing an opportunity to reach out in a fulfilling way. Regardless, I couldn’t wait to sign up and begin my journey as a volunteer in Kenya as a university student.
A whole year of planning, organizing, fundraising, reflecting and discussing later, and I’m on a bumpy bus ride to Our Lady of Grace Home (OLGH) in the county of Meru in Kenya. Though I was well versed on our initiatives and what we were going to execute on the ground, I wasn’t sure what to expect about the more tangible things.
Almost all the questions about the girls and the Home that we asked the organizing committee were replied with a smile and a “You’ll see when you get there”. I guess it wasn’t an experience that was easily explained in words, and in a few minutes, I understood why. When we turned round a corner and up a slope, I started to hear the shouts and screams of children. I stuck my head out of the window and couldn’t believe the sight in front of me. There was a mountain shrouded in fog in the distance, beautiful pink, yellow and white flowers in the bushes, lots of trees and almost two hundred little girls jumping up and down, waving their little arms and running after our bus excitedly in their worn-out foam sandals. I didn’t know any of the girls yet, but I already felt an overwhelming feeling of affection for the girls, the beautiful scenery, and excitement for the days to come.
As I stepped off the bus, a girl grabbed my hand decisively and handed me a flower she plucked from a bush. She had a mature face and clear, brown eyes, and wore a donated Gap jacket with a pink scarf. “My name is Emma-Liz”, she declared, and kept holding my hand as we waited for the luggage to be brought down. She was the first friend I made in the Home, and would become one of the girls I felt closest to by the end of the trip.
We spent the first few days solely interacting with the girls, acquainting ourselves to their culture, their individual stories and understanding how the Home and the school worked. As the days went by, we launched our initiatives such as Project Kuhamasisha, Vocational Training and Hole-In-The-Wall, which focused on imparting knowledge and skills on financial literacy, cooking and sewing, and computer and IT respectively. We also brought in inspirational speakers, mostly successful Kenyan women, to speak at the Home and inspire them. Day by day we spent time with the girls, sending them to school, laughing with them. Personally, I also spent much time singing to them. This gave me tremendous joy, seeing their happiness when we sang together and being able to use a skill of mine to connect to their hearts beyond language.
My experience with Pendeza taught me what it means to make a difference that matters. It is something that I can only verbalize in hindsight, after returning to this metropolis of Singapore. Very often, volunteerism unintentionally manifests into a charade of sorts, as though an exercise for the global upper-class to purge their guilt. Although the intentions may be good, this means that a lot of overseas service trips are touch-and-go with the local communities, which may actually harm the locals by emphasizing the difference in technology and lifestyle, or affecting their lives without working on how to sustain a positive impact.
Volunteerism has to be sustainable and long-term, like for example the annual project that Pendeza maintains. But above all, the individual must carefully make sure his or her will to volunteer originates from a genuine place. Not a lazy attempt to help from the perspective of a first-world person to a third-world person, but an effort to share knowledge from the perspective of one human being to another human being, in equal responsibility on this world we inhabit.