“Jambo! Jambo!” yells a young girl, greeting us with the traditional Swahili welcome. She runs towards us, a huge smile on her face despite the fact that she is barefoot and her dress is tattered. She’s just 11 years old, but Rebecca will not only teach me to have an open mind and an open heart, but also inspire me to pursue a career in journalism.
“Opportunity isn’t a chance, it’s a choice,” said Mia Farrow during a Me to We presentation to hundreds of youth from across North America, including myself. In August 2011, I made a life-changing choice to travel on a Me to We trip to Osenetoi, a small village in Kenya’s Maasai Mara region.
Me to We, a social enterprise created through the charity Free The Children, offers youth volunteer trips to Kenya, Ghana, Nicaragua, Ecuador, India and Arizona. Activities on the trips range from building schools in underprivileged communities, to learning about issues such as the need for clean water and sanitation and the cycle of poverty. Outside the confines of the classroom, we were able to see for ourselves how important the things we take for granted, such as clean water, are for children like Rebecca.
I met Rebecca when we set out to collect water for a local village. Many women in developing countries make this journey several times a day. I was astonished at how dirty the water was, and how grueling it was to carry the jerry cans on our heads back to the village. When we arrived with the water, the people of the village were singing and dancing as if we had given them an incredible gift. Rebecca had tears in her eyes as she grabbed my hand to include me in the celebration. She was determined to do something to repay us, and although she had very little to give, she presented me with a bracelet that I still wear today as a reminder of the true sense of community I felt there.
I began the trip unsure if I would even attend university the following year, but the afternoon I spent with Rebecca and her family gave me the drive and passion I needed to make the decision to study journalism. We experienced such profound gratitude for the three jugs of water we brought to Rebecca’s family that I realized I want to ensure these people’s stories are told. I want to make sure that Canadians can understand the need to work together with developing countries, and begin to break down the stereotype that they are unable to help themselves.
Jenny Dadswell, a fellow volunteer, was also influenced by her experience in Kenya. “We think we know ourselves, but you don’t truly know yourself until you go on a trip like [that]. Everything is stripped. You are raw. You learn who you are and what you like,” says Dadswell, who learned that she is passionate about human trafficking and hostage negotiation, which led her to study criminology at Simon Fraser University.
Mallory Hilkewich, Me to We’s Kenya manager of leadership, has seen how these trips completely change the participants’ view of the world.
“I think this quote by Lilla Watson, an Indigenous Australian activist, says it best: ‘If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together,’ ” says Hilkewich, indicating that it’s important for youth to understand the difference between charity and social justice—to see that people living in poverty aren’t helpless.
Experiences like my trip to Kenya make you aware not only of the world and other cultures, but of yourself. You learn that if you’re privileged enough to do what you love, you should pursue those dreams. You also learn that your life should not centre on the things you have, but rather the people that fill your everyday life—whether they be family, friends or people that you may only know for a short time.
Volunteering abroad also gives you the opportunity to become passionate about a specific issue. In my case, this was the lack of clean water and sanitation in many developing countries. I was astonished to learn that more than 780 million people around the world, including Rebecca and her community, do not have access to safe drinking water. For my friends in Osenetoi, the water they drink every day is murky and brown. Without a reliable source of clean water, water-related diseases become a reality.
Unfortunately, a small percentage of the world’s population consumes the majority of the clean water. While in Osenetoi, I learned that if we are part of the problem, we can choose to be part of the solution. To reduce water usage, we can take staggered showers and encourage our friends and family to be accountable for their water usage. It is my hope that the lack of clean water for villages like Osenetoi ends with our generation. This is our opportunity to take action.
You can look at life as full of opportunities or challenges—it all depends on your outlook. Everyone I met in Kenya saw every day as an opportunity to appreciate their lives and the people in them. This is one of the main reasons that volunteering abroad will radically change your perspective of the world. If you choose to take the opportunity, go in with an open heart and you will gain so much more than you can give.