Today’s post comes from Toni Maraviglia founder of mPrep, an innovation on mobile phones to improve education opportunities in low resouce areas. Here she shares some reflections on her experiences from living in rural areas of Nairobi, Kenya for the past 4 years.
I often feel as if I’m an old-timer here in Nairobi. I’ve seen Kenya grow from the post-election violence aftermath of 2008 and forge into a surge in technology and infrastructure. I’ve seen super highways built, watched every person buy a mobile phone, and was here when Kenya’s very own “brother,” Barack Obama, was inaugurated. It’s amazing to see such phenomenal growth in such a short amount of time. I’ve felt privileged to see it from the Kenyan perspective… or at least, a pseudo-Kenyan perspective.
Because, I’m not Kenyan. I’m American. A young teacher who ventured through the 24 hours of travel, housed with my ideals from Teach For America, armed with malaria pills, hand sanitizer and a data-driven mentality in order to “help.” I was going to change a small community in Muhuru Bay, Kenya – an impoverished, and disease-stricken town on Lake Victoria. I was going to use my wisdom, my Western ideals, to help them. I was going to improve their educational system.
My story is all-too-familiar in this increasingly global world. Young people with a few technical skills and a great education want to help out. We want to feel as though we can have an impact, and often, in the shortest amount of time possible. Service trips are all the rage. Travelers ask: “How can I help?” “Where can I have an impact?” “How can someone leverage my skills?” It’s wonderful to see young people so willing and interested, but, we return to our ‘real lives’ at some point. It’s about breaking personal boundaries. It’s about the experience. It’s about making connections with people that are very different from you. Service work is really only temporary after all… Right?
This is where I, as a transplanted American, in Kenya indefinitely, become cynical. The fact of the matter is that most short-term, one-time service trips do not create the deep connections with a community that can truly have impact. I have seen it time and time again. When I lived in my hut, visitors would come and go, and we would never hear from them again. Around 6 months after living in a hut without water or electricity, I started to become very skeptical of visitors. They would eat all the family’s best food, needed close guidance in terms of hygiene and sanitation, and took so much energy away from ‘family time’. I found visitors exhausting and helpless.
My frustrations led me to wonder: how much can we connect if our aims and motivations are temporary? It makes me sad (and sometimes angry) to think that most visitors to Kenya never get to see the side of it that I now see.
It took a few ‘really good visitors’ to change my mind about the purpose of temporary volunteers. What was different about them? Well, for one, these visitors have made deep, long-lasting relationships continue to come back to the community through email, through facebook, through… well, every means possible. They found their niche was so deeply-seeded that the brevity of their stay or the difficulty of their visit could not break. They engaged in deep conversations with their Kenyan peers. They asked, listened and shared.
They know there is much more to these communities than poverty, disease, and corruption. There is love, there is hope, and there is a surprising normalness to everything human beings encounter.
I’ve often thought about how I began to connect with the community in which I work, how I was able to cross some of the culture gaps and let go. And to be honest, I still retreat back to dreams of American comforts of chocolate chip cookies and grilled cheese sandwiches. I don’t think I’ll ever fully assimilate to Kenyan culture, no matter how much Luo I speak or how much ugali I eat. But, I am able to fully connect with my community through commitment to education. We’re all passionate about the same cause. Finding that common ground is the secret to making this whole concept of service work actually work.
It’s not necessarily how much time you spend somewhere that matters. It’s about connecting with other human beings and committing to staying connected. I try everyday to leverage however much time, resources and spirit to my people who have not been as fortunate to be born with the necessities we forever take for granted. I’m just trying my best as an American-Kenyan to fit in. And to give what I can.