I have now been in Kenya for 10 days and it has been a super. crazy. chaotic 10 days! And I plan on telling you all about it very soon. But as I sit here on this Saturday morning, freshly showered and sitting on my new cozy couch, I have been reflecting on the importance of how we spend our time. After days spent walking miles in the hot afternoon sun, I have come home each day here absolutely exhausted (last night I accidentally dozed for a few minutes at 6:00 waiting to Skype with a friend), but I come home each day feeling so thankful and realize that my life is so much more enriched. The past few days I have spent less time on trying to rearrange my life and get settled into a new apartment and more time focusing on my social enterprise. I have had my first couple of informal meetings and am trying to develop a timeline. Although I am very passionate and excited about my future plans here and with my business back in the U.S., it has become more obvious to me how much pressure there is to succeed. As I continue to interview our potential artisan partners, I have realized how much someone’s health, well-being, and children’s future are relying on my ability to build a successful business. Some of the suppliers I have met with are already fairly stable. Sure, they are still living in the slum and making minimal income but they have consistent work and have even hired a few more members to their groups in the past year. But the women who I will primarily be working with are still struggling greatly. A few months back, I wrote a questionnaire for these women (which my colleague Fred carried out) to start our process of monitoring and evaluation and also to gain a better idea of what is most important for these women. Above pay and working conditions, nearly all women rated healthcare as the number one most important aspect of a job. As single mothers living with HIV/AIDS, the health and well-being of these women are extremely important.
And in order for these women to have steady work, they need a market connection. They have talent and skills to do beautiful work but without a market they have no income. There are plenty of NGOs out there doing business and skills training (which is great) but without someone providing jobs, then the intentions become lost. At the conclusion of the questionnaire I left a space for any comments. Virtually all women expressed their hope that this would succeed so that they might have a job. Some mentioned previous foreign visitors who promised to help but never followed through. Not a single person I have met with is looking for a handout. People want jobs. People want to support themselves and give their children a life far better than they ever had. Although this isn’t a surprise to me now, it has become all the more clear how important it is that I spend my time doing everything I can to achieve these goals of providing basic human rights. Education and jobs can eradicate poverty (and less government corruption of course).
And as I sit here thinking of how I will be spending my time here, I started to think of where it all began. The lack of education for so many children in the developing world was probably the trigger. My experiences volunteering in Kenya, Malawi, and Thailand, along with my job in South Africa, further hammered it home for me. In Malawi, working in an after-school tutoring center was so fulfilling. How can kids get help from their parents, if the parents have never been to school? Malawian schools are so overcrowded that there are multiple sessions in a day- some kids go to school in the morning for a few hours, while the next group of kids go to school in the afternoon. They are in school for such a short amount of time, and on top of that, the teachers are so overburdened, they rarely have time to help struggling students.
In Thailand, you may recall that I volunteered for an orphanage called Baan Dada. It was an amazingly well-run home and quite a contrast to the poorly managed orphanage in Kenya. I was only there for a week, as my schedule was tight, but I helped on a few administrative tasks and also started English lessons with two new children in the home. During my time there, I got to know so many happy and well-adjusted kids. A few stand out in my mind: a spunky little loud-mouthed girl who wasn’t afraid to sass any boy around, a special needs boy who was just happy to get a hug or sit on your lap, a very intelligent nine-year old who was wise beyond her years, and of course the oldest girl at the orphanage who was so sweet and disciplined. When we had downtime at the orphanage, the kids played music, took me to visit the rubber tree forest, took me to town to buy cream to give one good skin (which I later found out was whitening cream… just what I need), and showed me some of the things they know how to make, like scarves and clothing.
Another volunteer and I, along with some of the girls from the orphanage, spent an afternoon selling excess donated clothes in the local market to earn some money to support the home. It was a really fun day, and when we at first struggled to get sales, one of our older cooks (who was off for the afternoon and was just shopping in the market) started dragging young women to our booth and telling them how beautiful they would look in our dresses. It was an animated moment and one we laughed about for a while. On my last day at the home, I made my rounds saying goodbye to all of the children. The new girl to the home who I had been giving English lessons to, gave me a scarf she had recently crocheted. I cherished it. And then the oldest girl at the home who had been so sweet and helpful with her quiet manner, came up to me and opened up some bubble wrap. Inside was a porcelain bell that she wanted me to have. The daughter of the King of Thailand had come to speak at her school that year and gave her this very bell. And she wanted me to have it. I at first tried to refuse, as she has very little possessions as it is, and the fact that the King’s daughter gave it to her meant it must surely be special. But she insisted, and I took it feeling so honored to be the recipient of this bell. It is currently packed away with the rest of my belongings in a closet at my parents’ house, but every time I come across that bell, it reminds me of how important it is how we spend our time, and the impact we can have in the lives of others.
Whether it is through volunteering or supporting good deeds in this world, there are so many ways to get involved. I chose to volunteer while I traveled, since there are cheap flights if you search hard enough (I found my flight going to Thailand for just $400 from Africa). If you aren’t offered a room to stay in while you are volunteering, I suggest looking on Expedia for an affordable hotel. Even though volunteering on my Thailand holiday was an enriching experience, there are plenty of ways to spend your time locally. Serving a Saturday at the soup kitchen, helping with after-school programs in the neighborhood, or simply helping an elderly neighbor carrying her groceries inside, every day is a chance to spend your time with purpose. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what brings purpose to your life.