It’s been 3 years since I started this blog. When I began, I had never visited Sub-Sahara Africa. I had never even worked in a real job. This is now my 100th post and so much has happened since. I want to make sure I reflect on these experiences so that I learn from them and I pass them on.
I was supposed to come to Kenya for just 6 months. Working for The Paradigm Project, I researched energy-efficient cookstoves around East Africa. After writing about infrastructure development in the Congo for my senior thesis project, I had to put my money where my mouth was and get involved. In reality though, I saw my experience as an extended working holiday, something adventurous I could do before getting on with the rest of my life. I didn’t imagine I would get committed.
This reminds me of my parents’ approach towards Japan: for the 16 years we lived there, we were always supposedly leaving in 2 years. You could use this as an excuse to remain uninvolved (they did not), but at some point, I think they woke up and realized that this far away land had become home – leaving was harder than returning “home”. It certainly was for my siblings and I, who knew no other home. Although my African experience is far from 16 years, I see how it happens. People in the States say they can’t imagine living here, but I’ve learned that life becomes normal wherever you live.
After working for another company in Kenya that sold energy-efficient household goods such as solar lights, water filters, and cookstoves, I decided it was time to return to the US. I had no idea what awaited me, but wanted to entertain any possibility. Somehow that opportunity again came in the form of Kenya, (among coaching high school tennis and becoming a Japanese-speaking tour guide) this time starting an aquaponics pilot project in Nairobi. If you’re interested, read more about our project at The Food Source. A year after leaving “forever”, here I am again. Life in Africa is a constant concoction of loving and hating the place, yet it’s also true that somehow it gets under your skin.
Besides work, there were so many personal life experiences that I will never forget. I got into a riot in downtown Nairobi, rocks and teargas from mobs and police flying in every direction as I sat helpless in traffic. One time I had a bathroom emergency and used the toilet paper-less ladies room, only to have a crowd waiting outside by the time I finished. I got conned and robbed at least once each. I took buses from Nairobi to Johannesburg, stopping to volunteer along the way and see incredible places like Victoria Falls. I was denied entry into a particular country and subsequently interrogated thoroughly every time I returned to the United States.
I’ve done a lot over this time, and although I often wanted to leave, I’m thankful I stuck it out. I am a different person as a result. Earlier I talked about being involved vs. being committed. As Martina Navratilova says, “The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved: the ham is committed.” Likewise, changing a place like Kenya – even a little bit – takes sweat equity, blood and tears, a living sacrifice. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s challenging and it’s long. Sadly, I’m not sure I lived in Kenya long enough or worked hard enough to change anything significant. Just like short-term mission trips, this experience was probably more about me than the people I came to help. Although Kenya will probably never be my “home”, I now know what it takes to make a difference, wherever that may be. Here’s to always being committed to enact positive change through our lives. And another 100 blog posts…